China has several large deserts and numerous sand dunes, but when the average Chinese person wants to play in the sand, they go to Dunhuang. Located in northwestern Gansu province in western China, Dunhuang was a major stop at a crossroads of the ancient Silk Road. These days getting there from most major Chinese cities is relatively easy and simply requires a day or two of being cooped up in a train or bus.
Upon arriving in Dunhuang, I left the city immediately. The sand dunes are located a few kilometers outside the city and the best (i.e. the cheapest and most atmospheric) accommodation options are right in front of the dunes. From there it is a short walk to the entrance to China’s only sand dune themed amusement park. Most people will head there in the late afternoon or early evening and I see no reason to do otherwise. Not only is the sunset over the dunes spectacular, but both the sands and the air will be slightly cooler
Now, I realize that Dunhuang has no actual theme park, but the government has managed to give this otherwise extremely remote area the look and feel of an urban park. They’ve fenced off a large section of the desert, which is something you will see nowhere else on earth and they’ve brought in hundreds of camels as well as ethnic minority dancers and performers. This being China, the ethnic performers are mostly Han Chinese in costume, but no one seems to care. I certainly didn’t, as they could have paid me enormous sums of money, threatened me at gunpoint and held my family hostage and I still would have refused to watch a bunch of costumed idiots prancing around on stage while producing some of the most annoying sounds known to man on “traditional” instruments, all for a salary of under $1 an hour.
I did, however, check out the actual sand dunes. Or, more accurately, I stood at the gate for ten seconds and watched hundreds of Chinese tourists lining up for camel rides, archery and sand sledding and just generally playing around on the dunes like little children but all in that very special way Chinese tourists have that makes any one from any other country want to immediately take the next bus out of town until they realize that said bus is filled with more Chinese tourists, so they stand there trying to decide between two torturous options until their head explodes on the spot.
Faced with a large dune crawling with annoying tourists and a US$20 price tag, I knew I had to find another option. I know $20 might not seem like much, but in China it is. Now, I do appreciate that China does not have dual pricing for foreigners like some countries I won’t name other than to say that one good example rhymes with Failand and another with Findia (the Faj Mahal for example charges 20 Rupees for Indians, oops I mean Findians, and 750 for foreigners which is a markup of only 3650%).
Instead, China charges the most for attractions that appeal to domestic tourists and foreigners really don’t factor into the equation at all (see my post on Jiuzhaigou for perhaps the most well-known example). I have often found attractions that are very popular with foreign tourists, but since the Chinese themselves have no interest, they are very reasonably priced and many times even free. Unfortunately, the sand dunes at Dunhuang are very popular with Chinese tourists.
I mentioned that the authorities have fenced off the desert and are charging admission, but I figured the fence had to end somewhere. I mean, the Gobi desert is quite large and there is no way they could possibly enclose and guard all of it. I was right, but they did grab an impressively large chunk.
The fence continued for about a kilometer to the west and probably the same in the other direction, but the warning signs and guards continued for another two kilometers. In order to escape their line of sight, I ended up walking over five kilometers west of the “theme park” before I was able to cut south into the dunes. But once I did, I was all alone.
The scenery was spectacular and I was the only person in sight. I climbed the highest dune and got to the top an hour before sunset. “Climb” is probably the wrong word, since you slide back down 80% of each step forward making it the most frustrating form of movement I’ve ever encountered. It also requires incredible amounts of stamina, especially considering the heat, and as someone with the stamina of a sumo wrestler who never took up sumo—or just any average American—I reached the top and promptly died.
Somehow, I eventually came back to life and took a bunch of pictures that all ended up looking the same (not much variety in a desert, it turns out) and enjoyed a spectacular sunset that was unfortunately impossible to photograph. At least that’s the excuse I’m going with to explain the two thousand crappy pictures I ended up with. Then I got to run headfirst down the dunes, which alone made the whole trip worthwhile.
Unfortunately, that was followed by a long walk back to my hostel in the dark through several farming communities with no artificial lights whatsoever but one vicious, snarling attack dog per house. They were probably all toy poodles, but in the dark they sounded like genetically mutated doberman/pit bull hybrids. I made record time. Olympic runners take note—that is how you should be training for 2016.
Dunhuang is probably too far out of the way for most tourists to China, but if you have free time and are looking for something different or if you just happen to be in the neighborhood, it’s definitely worth checking out. There are a few other things to do in the area, including some Buddhist caves which are actually the most famous sight and the reason most people visit, but none of those interested me the least bit.
If you do make it to the dunes, I highly recommend avoiding the fenced off “theme park” and heading off on your own. Not only do you avoid enriching the Chinese government, but you avoid the hordes of Chinese tourists and if you’ve spent any time at all anywhere in China, you know how priceless that can be.