Dunhuang has some of the best sites on this trip so far, if nothing else, just because they are extremely unique. But first and formost, this is also the most expensive city we've hit yet, the main site (the Mogao Grottoes) costing more for the entrance fee than the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in Beijing, combined. This tiny city on the edge of the Gobi Desert is more expensive than Beijing! I don't understand it! And from what we've heard about the cities to come, it's not getting any cheaper.
Our first night in town mom and I rented bikes, not such shaky ones this time, but mine was hot pink with white polka dots. Excellent. We rode them 6km outside of town to the Gobi Desert! Here I got really irritated when they charged me 120kuai to get into the desert, then tried to nickel and dime us for everything else inside. For goodness sakes, it's not like they did anything to spruce the place up or anything. They don't have anything to maintain, it's a DESERT. It's SAND. But whatever. I LOVED the place, mom and I rode camels for like an hour climbing with them up the dunes, the wind whipping sand against my bare legs and into every orifice. It was really excellent, climbing around on the sands and checking out the crescent moon spring and pagoda. We saw a lovely sunset over the sands as well.
Mom and I were cracking up at all the Chinese tourists there who, first, couldn't bear the idea of getting sand in their shoes and so had strapped on bright orange shin covering devices which made them visible a mile away. Then the standard procedure of picture taking. First the girls would just sit on the sand and get their picture taken, then they started laying down, then more seductively, going so far as to pick up a handful of sand and let it fall through their fingers as they snapped shot after shot. Oh man, mom and I were rolling our eyes so hard!
Next, The Mogao Grottoes. Aside from the easy 1000 other Chinese tourists around, they are absolutely incredible! There is a reason you can't enter alone and they close down if it rains too long. These cave frescoes and sculptures are 1300 years old or more and they are in great condition for being so. Therefore, no pictures, no touching, no nothing. The entrance fee left mom and I gasping, but the second I walked into the first cave and looked up at the giant and well preserved Buddha sitting stately above me, it was worth it. The colors on most of the frescoes were still relatively bright, the exception being that the reds had oxidized into blacks, giving some of the apsaras (Buddhist angels) and Boddisatvas a pretty dark and austere look, but I liked it that way. We were both quite impressed that anything was still standing or even just there after more than one thousand years open to both the elements and human beings. Sadly, no pictures allowed.
At those grottoes we did manage to hook up with an English tour where we were among a group of Frenchmen, Spaniards, Swiss, Canadians and British people. Later we had lunch with the two tall, handsome, Swiss helicopter pilots and the British brother and sister. All three of the guys had just come from the West. And I mean, really come from the west, the Swiss guys had come from Moscow through Kazahkstan and Turkmenistan, and the British guy had started in Damascus and was following the Silk Road which winds from the East Mediterranean through Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. It was hillarious watching the two groups compare notes on the 'stans' where they had been virtually the only tourists there and had been to all the same places. What a trip.
This morning mom and I checked out some other grottoes a bit away from the city and were, quite contrarily, the only two people there. It was quite nice, quite a change. We also went to Old Town Dunhuang which is like a little "Old West" city in the states. If you've been to Winthrop you know what I mean. It was so funny! We kind of felt like we had been plopped back down in eastern Washington, especially when I spied a little covered wagon in a corner. :)
Next stop: Turpan (aka The Oven) Excellent.