Dunhuang Travel Guide

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 8, 2021

The Gansu Province city of Dunhuang (dun means "grandness" while Huang means "prosperity") is situated near the western extremity of the southeast-northwest oriented province itself, which orientation also exactly describes the Hexi Corridor, aka the Gansu Corridor. Put slightly differently, Dunhuang lies near the western mouth of the Hexi Corridor, where Gansu Province borders Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), while the Gansu Province city of Tianshui lies at the eastern mouth of the Hexi Corridor, near the border with Shaanxi Province.

Dunhuang has a military history that parallels its Silk Road trade history; in fact, the two are inseparably intertwined, originating almost simultaneously, for the Silk Road trade could not have existed, much less have flourished, had the Great Wall fortifications undertaken first during the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty and continued by successive dynasties - especially by the Qin Dynasty's successor, the Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty - not been extended westward to protect the Hexi Corridor, which was the gateway to China from the west.

Many, if not most, of the ancient Silk Road towns along the Hexi Corridor, have names that reflect their connection to the Great Wall, such as Jiayuguan (guan means "pass") and Yu Men (Yu means "Jade", Men means "Gate") - or Yumen Pass as it is most commonly written - through Jiayuguan was constructed at a much later date, during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty. The nearby city of Jiuqaun, though its name doesn't bear immediate associations with a military installation such as a gate or a pass, has in fact just such a connection, for the city was built during the reign (BCE 140-87) of Emperor Wu of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty as a prefecture that would house the administrative functions required for the defense and upkeep of this section of the Great Wall (the name itself, Jiuqaun, has an interesting origin - see the footnote).

The Han Dynasty Great Wall in this part of the empire, known by early, albeit, post-Roman era, historians as the Han Limes (i.e., Han [Dynasty] Boundaries, or Han Defenses), consisted of a watchtower-bespeckled wall behind which were forts/ supply depots along the northern rim of the Hexi Corridor (the southern rim of the Hexi Corridor had natural defenses in the form of a high, snow-clad mountain range that provided a natural barrier to marauding bands of Xiongnu and other wannabe invaders).

The purpose of the watchtowers of the Han Limes was for observing approaching threats (a watchtower was of course always placed on the highest vantage point in the local terrain) - and note that the Gobi Desert, home to countless hordes of nomadic marauders, lay just beyond the northern rim of the Hexi Corridor - while the purpose of the forts was for housing the requisite cavalry that could ride out and counter those threats, retreating behind defensive lines were necessary in order to restock, regroup, then resume the fight. The Han Limes stretched northwestward along the northern rim of the Hexi Corridor all the way to Yumen Pass, though, according to early 20th century traces discovered by the Hungarian-born British archeologist and professor, Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), the Han Limes is said to have stretched past both Guazhou (gua means "melons", indicating that these delicious fruits were grown here even in ancient times) - i.e., present-day Anxi, about 100 kilometers east of Dunhuang - and Dunhuang itself, eventually reaching all the way to Lake Lop (Lop Nur), the large salt lake that lies on the eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, about 250 kilometers due west of Dunhuang.

Top Things to Do in Dunhuang

Dunhuang's tourist reputation stems chiefly from its Buddhist grotto art. The grotto complexes include the following three sites:

1. The Mogao Grottoes

The Mogao Grottoes near the city of Dunhuang represent the preeminent Buddhist grotto site in China, surpassing both the Yungang Grottoes site and the Longmen Grottoes site in cultural-historical significance. In addition to Buddhist art, the Mogao Grottoes include works belonging to Taoism, Confucianism, and Nestorian Christianity, as well as to Zoroastrianism. In addition, Mogao includes the so-called Scripture Cave that was hidden behind a wall until it was discovered early in the 20th century. Even though many of the original manuscripts, referred to as the Dunhuang Manuscripts, belonging to the Scripture Cave "library" were carted off by foreigners - such as the Hungarian-born British archeologist, Sir Marc Aurel Stein - many remain, while the missing originals have been duplicated (to learn more about the Mogao Grottoes, click here).

2. The Western Thousand Buddhas Caves

The Western Thousand Buddhas Caves, also a Buddhist grotto site located near Dunhuang, has been subjected to extensive restoration, since repeated flooding of the Dang River washed away the front section of many of the caves, while other caves are believed to have been washed away entirely. Since the caves and artwork of the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves appear more primitive than that of the Mogao Grottoes, experts believe that the former cave complex predates the latter, i.e., that the lessons learned in creating the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves were put to good use when the Dunhuang area's community of monks and artisan-monks decided to create the Mogao Grottoes. If this is true, then a true appreciation of the Mogao Grottoes can only be obtained by first viewing the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves.

3. The Yulin Grottoes

While the Mogao Grottoes and the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves are situated in the vicinity of the city of Dunhuang, the Yulin Grottoes are situated farther afield, namely, about 100 kilometers east and slightly south of Dunhuang, or about 75 kilometers south and slightly east of the city of Anxi. The construction of the Yulin Grottoes is believed to have begun roughly during the same broad time frame as the other two grotto complexes, namely, during the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty, one of the five states of the Northern Dynasties (386-588) Period. The Yulin Grottoes' claim to fame, as it were, is the fact that some of its grotto art stems from the Tangut period, or the period of rule of the Western Xia (CE 1038-1227) Dynasty. The Tangut take on Buddhism, if you will, is based on a mix of both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, sprinkled with elements of the ancient, pre-Buddhist, pre-Confucian, pre-Taoist animism, or the belief that all things in nature, animate or inanimate, possess a spirit.

Other noteworthy tourist attractions in the Dunhuang area beside the Mogao Grottoes, the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves, and the Yulin Grottoes are the section of the Han Dynasty Great Wall (i.e., the Han Limes) near Yumen Pass, which is made of giant blocks of dried mud and reeds that were then fitted and "glued" together with more mud and reeds (click here); the Yumen Pass site itself (click here); the ruins of Yangguan; Mount Sanwei; Wuwa Pond; Mount Mingsha ("Echoing-Sand Mountain") - so named from the sound produced by the wind as it lashes the sandy mountain (click here) - and Crescent Lake, whose main claim to fame would seem to be the speed with which it is disappearing; in 1960, the lake was considerably larger and averaged 4-5 meters in-depth, while today, the lake has shrunk considerably, while its average depth has been reduced to less than a meter.

The strange sounds produced by "Echoing-Sand Mountain" are common to many sand dunes/ mountains of sand in any desert, and have to do with the kinetic shifts of millions of surface sand particles that have become lightly "stuck together" by the action of the repeated moistening (by dew) and subsequent drying of the surface sand. These "sandslides" are unleashed by the wind when the cumulative pressure on the surface sand is sufficient to "unglue" the sand and induce a shift. Sometimes the sound produced is an odd croaking, at other times it is a sublime singing, while at still other times, as here, the sound - whether croaking, groaning, or singing - is echoed.

An Oasis Of Religious Art

Dunhuang's ancient name was Sha Zhou ("Beautiful Desert Oasis"). The beautiful desert oasis would eventually grow into a major traffic hub along the Tarim Basin's southern Silk Road route. While Dunhuang was located beyond, in a westerly direction, the eastern junction of the northern and southern Tarim Basin Silk Road routes (that distinction fell on the city of Guazhou/ Anxi, though earlier it was the city of Yumen, the latter being the gateway to the Hexi Corridor and thus to Imperial China), it was close enough to that junction to be a major crossroads of ideas, developing into one of the richest cities along the Silk Road.

We can see from the riches of its grotto art that the city of Dunhuang was a city with a number of wealthy inhabitants, but we also know from the cadastral ("public tax") and judicial records that the city had numerous wealthy families. Many caravans passed through the city in both directions, bearing chiefly goods in a westerly direction and bearing chiefly ideas in an easterly direction, though there were many exotic goods arriving in China from Central Asia, from India (coming northward from India first to Kashgar in Xinjiang via present-day Pakistan and Tajikistan, then on eastward to China proper), from Persia, from Arabia and even from Africa, the latter being mainly exotic animals.

For Silk Road traders traveling in the reverse, or eastward, direction, Dunhuang represented a safe haven, the first in a series of relatively closely linked oases (compared to the vast distances between the Tarim Basin towns and cities farther westward) that would connect the Hexi Corridor to the central plains of China, ending in the city of Xi'an - and later, ending in the city of Luoyang - since the troops that manned the outposts between Dunhuang and Yumen all had their permanent garrison in Dunhuang. The presence of a large garrison in Dunhuang, therefore, guaranteed a degree of security to the city and its environs.

The ancient city of Sha Zhou cum Dunhuang and its environs consisted of a system of defenses, some natural and others manmade, surrounding a corridor-like desert valley - stretching from Yumen in the west to a point north of Anxi in the east on the northern side and from Yangguan ("Southern Pass") in the west to a point south of Anxi on the southern side - that was bordered to the north and to the south by mountains. The Shule River, flowing through large stretches of swampland in certain parts, is situated immediately south of the east-west oriented mountain ridge to the north of the corridor-like desert valley, with Dunhuang situated just north of the east-west mountain ridge to the south of the valley. The Dang River zigzags down through the mountains on the southern side of the valley, ending just north and east of the city of Dunhuang. The mountains themselves provided some protection, while the Shule River and especially the swamps provided additional protection. The Han Limes on either side of the small valley in question took account of these special topographical features.

The city of Dunhuang, is situated on the southern side of this desert valley, is flanked by Yangguan and Western Thousand Buddhas Caves to the west, and by the Mogao Caves to the east. The Han Limes stretched along both sides of this valley, partially encircling Dunhuang on the east, and taking advantage of any topographical features that might supplement the wall, which was dotted with watchtowers and interspersed with forts, including a fort strategically located in the middle of the valley just north and east of Dunhuang. The Yulin Caves (see below), another greater-Dunhuang area grotto site and present-day tourist attraction, lies immediately south of the city of Guazhou/ Anxi, some 100 kilometers east-northeast of Dunhuang and south of the southwest-northeast oriented ridge of mountains that lies immediately south of Dunhuang but protected by another strategically situated fort located in between this ridge of mountains and the Yulin Caves.

Dunhuang was a crossroads in many senses, being not only a venue for religious study but also being a part of the ancient world of Central Asia that was fought over by competing kingdoms. In the first instance, some of the historically most famous Chinese - and China-related - monks passed through Dunhuang. The famous Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang (CE ca.602-664), passed through the city both on his trip from China to India and on his return trip to China, while another famous Chinese Buddhist monk, Fa Xian (CE 337-ca.422), had earlier passed through the city en-route to India, though Fa Xian would return via the sea, seeking shelter from a storm in a cave near Mount Lao in the present-day coastal province of Shandong, and setting foot again on Chinese soil some 30 kilometers from the present-day Shandong Province city of Qingdao. At Mount Lao, Fa Xian instructed that a temple, Shifo Temple, be built, though the famous monk was not present either when the temple was commenced or completed.

The perhaps most important early translator of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, the Indian monk, Kumarajiva, whose first Chinese port of call, as it were, as a practicing and teaching (and translating) Buddhist, was the Tarim Basin city of Kucha, later spent time in Dunhuang, before moving on to serve in a monastery in Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). As indicated above, there was a community of Nestorian Christians living and working in Dunhuang. On the secular side, merchants from as far afield as the Ferghana Valley northwest of the Tarim Basin (Soghdian merchants) lived and thrived in Dunhuang.

The Sogdians merchants were ethnic Persians from Transoxiana, the latter being the name associated with the geographical area of Central Asia lying west of the Tarim Basin and bordered to the north by the Syr Darya River and to the south by the Amu Darya River, which swath of land includes parts of present-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakstan. The Amu Darya River is known in Latin as the Oxus River (the Oxos River in Greek), while the Latin term "Transoxiana" translates to "Across the Oxus (River)" (the Oxus is one of the longest rivers in Central Asia, its headwaters being the Panj and the Vakhsh Rivers, originating in the Pamirs).

The Soghdian merchants of Transoxiana plied their Silk Road trade as far east as the Chinese city of Luoyang, though the closer one came to the western extremity of the Tarim Basin, the greater numbers of Sogdian merchants one was likely to encounter. They were especially represented in the cities that were strung along the southern rim of the Tarim Basin. They were very active between their Transoxian homelands and the easternmost terminus of the Silk Road, Luoyang, from the 3rd to the 8th centuries CE.

There was a sizeable colony of Sogdians living in Dunhuang by the 4th century CE, perhaps upwards of 1000 individuals, and by the time that the overland Silk Road route began to decline drastically, i.e., by the middle of the 8th century CE, they numbered around 1400 in Dunhuang, spread across some 300 households. This data can be gleaned from the cadastral, or public tax, records. It appears that there was a marked boost in newly arrived Sogdians from Transoxiana during the early 7th century since the public records indicate that there were suddenly numerous Sogdians living in Dunhuang with both Turkic and Soghdian names; the Turkic incursions into Transoxiana had begun just prior to this period, suggesting that many Sogdians chose to emigrate eastward, even though they had also taken Turkic names in order to appease their new Turkic masters.

Just as there were numerous Italians living in China during the later Silk Road period known as the Maritime Silk Road who facilitated trade between China and Italy (as well as between China and neighboring European countries) - Marco Polo presumably started this particular ball rolling - the Soghdian merchants are believed to have facilitated trade between China and Central Asian capitals such as Samarkand, the capital of Uzbekistan. Samarkand at the time was itself a true crossroads of mercantile culture, being a mix of Iranian, Indian, Mongolian, and Uzbek merchant cultures, and with the odd Chinaman and the odd European - and perhaps the odd Jew - added to the mix.

In fact, some historians believe that Soghdian merchants were behind the triangle of trade between China, northern India (present-day Pakistan), and Transoxiana, where Chinese silk, embroidery, and porcelain traveled to India and gold, musk, pepper, and camphor traveled from India to Transoxiana, while cloth made of cotton, hemp or flax, as well as Iranian rugs, traveled to China from Transoxiana. And of course, from the Tarim Basin, jade traveled to the capital of China, since Chinese emperors had a pronounced weakness for items made of this unique material.

The Soghdians practiced the Mazdean religion, which prizes the power of the intellect over ignorance, the supremacy of light over darkness, and though no Mazdean temple has been unearthed at Dunhuang, there are official records that refer to just such a temple at Dunhuang. The term Mazdean is derived from the god, Mazda, the bestower of intellect, or knowledge. The Mazdean religion is also related to the later belief system, Zoroastrianism, referring to the adherents of the scriptures of the Zoroastrians, whose founder, Zoroaster, lived during the 11th -10th century BCE, circa. Mogao Grotto Cave 17 contains a large number of Mazdean icons whose content bears a distinct semblance to certain pre-Islamic era murals in the Central Asian/ Transoxian city of Panjikent (also written as Panjakent), a city located in the Sughd Province of present-day Tajikistan, which city lies about 100 kilometers southwest of Samarkand, capital of present-day Uzbekistan.

With respect to Dunhuang's fate as an area that was fought over by competing kingdoms, the entire area, during the earliest Chinese dynasties, was controlled by tribes that enjoyed a vassal state relationship to their "big brother", the China of the Xia (BCE ca.2000-1500) and Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasties. These vassal states, whose rulers were for the most part also of Turkic ethnic origin - though the Tocharians were said to be Indo-European with distinctly Caucasoid features, while the Yuezhi were believed to possibly be of mixed origin, with traces of Caucasoid features, though not much about them appears in the historical record - shared China's contempt for marauding Turkic tribes who the Chinese referred to as "barbarians", and therefore the vassal states were a ready ally in the effort to check the influence of the "barbarians".

Later, China asserted its own influence in the Tarim Basin, relieving the vassal states - for whatever reasons - of their rule, replacing it with Imperial Chinese rule. But it was hard to maintain proper defenses in such a remote region, so eventually the Tibetans, during the early part of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, overran the Chinese not only in the Tarim Basin, but also in the area of the present-day Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu, though the Silk Road trade continued under Tibetan control of the Hexi Corridor. With the help of the Uyghurs, the Tang Dynasty was later able to regain most of the forfeited territory, though the Tang would yet later lose much of the territory in question first to the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei during the Western Xia (CE 1038-1227) Dynasty (aka the Tangut Empire), then to the Mongol hordes under the leadership of Genghis Khan, aka Temüjin (CE 1162-1227), and his successors.

Note that this part of China did not fall to the Jürchens of the Jürchen Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty, but to the Mongol hordes who would later unseat the Jürchens throughout China, again unifying Imperial China. The Tanguts, or "White Mongols", were intermittently allied with the "Black Mongols" of Genghis Khan, and were intermittently the subject of attacks from the latter. The Tangut/ Western Xia capital, Xingqing fu (present-day Yinchuan, Ningxia) was eventually besieged by an angry horde of Mongols under the personal leadership of Genghis Khan himself, who was outraged that the "White Mongols" had shown such resistance. Genghis Khan died in CE 1227 under mysterious circumstances during the siege of Xingqing fu (he presumably died suddenly of some kind of deadly disease, though he could as easily have died of an infection caused by a wound - or could as easily have died directly of a wound), though this was kept a secret from the city's inhabitants. When the city's - and the dynasty's - rulers later emerged from the city's walls to sue for peace, they were butchered, quite literally, and the "Black Mongols" stormed Xingqing fu, killing everything in sight, thus obliterating the Tangut Empire and a large number of "White Mongols" in the process.

However, the Mongols (i.e., the "Black Mongols") were famous for their ability to adapt to local customs, therefore they eventually made peace with their Chinese subjects in the former Chinese territories that they had conquered, becoming good Buddhists in the process. Not too surprisingly, the Mongols' strain of Buddhism was Tibetan, given that the area had been under Tibetan rule for such a long time, and one can also readily imagine that many of the resident Buddhist monks and teachers who continued to exert religious influence in the region, long after the Tibetans has lost political control of the region to the Chinese toward the end of the Tang Dynasty, were of Tibetan ethnic origin. The Mongols had in the meantime also become thoroughly sinicized, such that by the time of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mongols were ready to serve the country in the highest capacity, i.e., as the emperor of all of China. Thus Kublai Khan became the first emperor (Emperor Shizu) of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, reigning as Mongolian khan from CE 1260-1294, though his reign as the Chinese sovereign was from CE 1279-1294.

Additional Instructions

The greater Dunhuang area's grotto sites consist of well over 500 individual caves, of which five are lined with wood, and which include statues, frescoes (murals), countless Buddhist scriptures, and other historical manuscripts, as well as numerous textiles and other priceless relics. The themes of the murals range from allegories and other interpretations of Buddhist scriptures to historical events in the Buddhist calendar to legends to portraits of devotees - both devotees from Dunhuang as well as famous Bodhisattvas from India and from elsewhere throughout China - to everyday scenes of people from all walks of life, scenes depicting dancing (to the accompaniment of music), farming, fishing & hunting, acrobatics, the practice of martial arts, and other, more staid scenes depicting the outings of the nobility, the visits of distinguished foreign envoys as well as portraits of important Silk Road merchants.

The buried and forgotten grottoes of Dunhuang were a sensational find that stunned the world when they came to light early in the 20th century; they continue to stun, as any visitor to Dunhuang will attest. If placed side by side in the manner of an art exhibit, the artworks alone of Dunhuang would form a 25-kilometer-long gallery. In 1962, China's State Council placed the Dunhuang site under state protection as one of the country's premier cultural relics. This was followed by international recognition in 1987 when UNESCO listed Dunhuang as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

If an outsider could visit only one single tourist site in China, then Dunhuang, with its Great Wall remnants, its internationally acclaimed Buddhist grotto art, and its extensive repository of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Nestorian Christian, and Zoroastrian manuscripts, would be a likely first candidate.

The present-day city of Jiuquan had been established under a different name for some time when General Huo Qubing (BCE 140-117), the celebrated young commander of the Western Han army despatched to the region, led an expedition in the area against the Xiongnu, who were the nomadic Turkic tribe who controlled the area immediately north of China and whose hostile, marauding activities provided the first Chinese emperor, Emperor Qin of the Qin Dynasty - whose reign was from BCE 246-210 - with a rationale for constructing the very first segment of the Great Wall.

The Western Han Dynasty's Emperor Wu had decreed that after the successful completion of the expedition, the troops were to be feted with wine for their glorious service to the empire. Unfortunately, on the occasion, there was not enough wine to go around, therefore General Huo, seeing a small, clear spring nearby, poured his cup of wine into the spring so that all of his men could at least get a taste, however weak, of the libation (and of course, it was a mark of sacrifice on the part of the general). Thereafter the city, whose original name no one seems to have recorded, came to be called Jiu Quan, or "Wine Spring".

General Huo died at the age of only 24, presumably of a plague-like affliction caused by his having drunk water from a pond that had been poisoned with small amounts of the putrified remains of livestock, deliberately put there by the general's Xiongnu enemies. Or perhaps an older, resentful, passed-over general, envious of the lightning success of the young commander, arranged for the premature exit of the young upstart, handily blaming the tragedy on the enemy - who knows?

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