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Dunhuang
Avg.Score:
 
4.0
Dining:
 
3.9
Entertainment:
 
3.9
Hotels:
 
4.4
Scenery:
 
4.0
Shopping:
 
4.1
Transportation:
 
4.0

This desert town near the old Silk Road rewards visitors with an astonishing archeological treasure carved out of bedrock and cliffs: the Mogao Caves. The caves' Buddhist paintings and artifacts are stunning and Dunhuang (Dūnhuáng, 敦煌) itself is worth a stay for its relaxed oasis atmosphere. Historically the last Chinese outpost on the Silk Road, Dunhuang has a long history of taking care of weary travelers.

Gansu guide | Dunhuang attractions
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History

Dunhuang sits at the edge of the Gobi Desert at the juncture of the western provinces of Gansu and Qinghai and the Xinjiang autonomous region. Historically, the town prospered as a fertile agricultural oasis (it's especially famous for its melons and grapes) and as the country's westernmost military garrison during the Han (202 BC-220 AD) and Tang (618-907 AD) dynasties. Founded by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty in 111 BC, Dunhuang served as a base for soldiers watching over Silk Road caravans. For centuries, Dunhuang was the last familiar stop for Chinese traders heading west, sometimes even going as far as the Roman Empire.

Dunhuang was a surprisingly cosmopolitan place. Persian merchants rubbed elbows with rough-and-tumble Mongolian horse traders and itinerant Tibetan and Indian Buddhist monks espoused various Buddhist teachings. In its heyday, Dunhuang became wealthy as gold, silver, fine glass, fragrances, spices, exotic animals, and fruit passed through. The combination of wealth and Buddhism led to the slow and dedicated creation of the Mogao Caves. Work began during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-581 BC), peaked during the Tang, then continued until its eventual abandonment during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.

By time the Tang fell in 907 AD, trade along the Silk Road had diminished and Dunhuang began to slip into isolation until the late nineteenth century when Central Asia's strategic importance spurred international political intrigue. Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan played their parts in the "Great Game," and Dunhuang had its role, too. In 1906, Aurel Stein, a Hungarian in the service of the British, learned that a Chinese monk, Wang Yuanlu, was excavating and restoring a complex of long-lost caves full of amazing treasures. In no time, Stein purchased a stack of priceless Buddhist manuscripts and Tang paintings and was off to peddle them to the British Museum. Not long after, the Frenchman Paul Piellot did the same for the Louvre. Today, despite Chinese attempts to recover these treasures, they remain in Europe. Intervening years, however, have led to further discoveries and the caves themselves remain as testaments to Dunhuang's glory days.

Climate

Located in arid Gansu Province, Dunhuang experiences lots of sunshine, little rainfall and four distinct seasons. Winter brings freezing temperatures, averaging -2°C (29°F), while summer days peak around 32°C (90°F) on average. Throughout the year, winds whip up occasional sand storms. Always carry sunglasses, a hat, extra water and handkerchiefs, just in case. The best time to visit Dunhuang and the Silk Road region is from May through October when the weather warms.

Gansu guide | Dunhuang attractions
Dunhuang flights | Dunhuang hotels | Dunhuang on the China Travel Blog