An oasis in the desert, Dunhuang and Mogao Caves
– “No, they’re just clouds,” says our fellow passenger, a 17-year old boy speaking of the hovering, ever-present pollution over Lan Zhou (the one who also gave us an interview “Tell me a story”).
– Lanzhou, capital of Gansu and substantially poorer than other provinces, a dusty yellow city carved in the valley and mountainside.
– With that, a visibly slower pace of life than in the now distant capital?
– Hop onto another 14-hour train ride to Dunhuang.
– We arrive early morning, with no booking or clue as to where we can stay. Luckily find wifi at a pharmacy, of all places, head over to a luxurious, empty hotel overlooking the sand dunes, where we have cold and overpriced coffee, and look up the address to another hotel.
– We promptly jam the toilet’s plumbing twice in the matter of a few hours.
– Dunhuang has a touristy feel, but almost no tourists in these wintry months.
– People smiley and laid back.
– Walk around in search of a decent restaurant. End up at a tea house, and point to random items on the menu. The waitress brings us leafy tea and appetizers, dried apricots and unsalted almonds. As we get hungrier, I inquire as to the status of the food we ordered. But it’s been served already (apricots and almonds). We’ll stick to the picture menus from now on.
– Visit Crescent Moon Spring oasis the same afternoon, spending a lazy day on the contemplative sand dunes.
– Spent our second day researching our itinerary better after the ordeals getting here, and I at last managed to get some work done.
– On the third day, we head to the Mogao Caves, the main ostensible reason for our long journey West.
– Sandstorms are lurking as we cross the stretch of desert to the Caves, the road, trees and houses shrouded in red dust. Solitary gravestones percolate through the sand.
– The caves have lost much of their ancient feel because of their modern, bunkered outside appearance (primarily to thwart thieves) – the insides of the caves are still awing though, full of the serenity of Fort Knox-meets-Buddha. A giant statue of the latter sits solemnly in the darkness, towering a hundred feet in the musky air. Outside, the winds continue to spit dust onto the newly built concrete shell (a secondary reason for the new walls).
– Interview Chinese travelers and hear their stories: a young woman was broke and stranded during her travels so she borrowed 500 yuan from a stranger family – she made it home and upon her return sent the money back by mail.
– Food’s getting spicy, after the apricots mishap, we found our ‘favorite’ restaurant right by the hotel (also interviewed the manager).
– Weary about taking the train back, we board an uneventful flight to Lan Zhou at 1am, where we’re hoping for the best in order to find a means of transportations to Xi’an – and with that, we’re in for another adventure.
Next up: Sleeping in a bordello!