Due to a series of cascading dominoes, we decided to turn a poor situation into an opportunity. After having done an ultra-marathon, Pat’s knee was feeling really sore. With the increased consequences of Gobi "Desert" crossings ahead of us and plenty of wiggle room during our visa stay, we decided to take it slow. Rather than simply hanging out in Yumen we took the train a short way down the southern Chinese silk road route to Dunhuang.
While there we were able to see some iconic silk road sites. Dunhuang is a beautiful tourist city, sitting right on the edge of some massive sand dunes which you can see even from the bridges in the center of town. The first site we got to see was the Buddhist Temple at the Crescent Moon Lake. The lake sits in the middle of towering dunes, it is remarkable to take in as the reeds and 100-year-old willows are swallowed by the sands around them. The other iconic site was the Mogao Grottoes. Carved into the walls of a cliff by travelers of the silk road seeking good fortune on the journey ahead, it was by far the most spectacular grottoes I have ever seen. Having long been forgotten the grottoes reclaimed their fame when silk road archaeology first got underway. Unfortunately for Mogao, this means that many of the treasured murals have been taken to America, Russia, or Japan. Many of the archaeologists also purchase ancient manuscripts from the caretaker of the grottoes, who then used the money to begin to restore them. I was in awe the entire time I was there as I finally witnessed the place I had read so much about. To hear about this time period I recommend reading "Foreigner Devils on the Silk Road".
Another site we were able to see was the White Horse Pagoda. This spot is hardly a tourist attraction as it sits on a pot hole riddled gravel road in a village outside Dunhuang. This was the place where the Monk Kumarajiva’s horse died after having taken him to India and back to translate manuscripts and spread Buddhism. The story goes that after stopping at this place to teach about Buddhism Kumarajiva had a vision in his sleep. In it his horse came to him and confessed that he was actually the dragon of the western sea. The dragon had joined Kumarajiva to see him safely through the hardships of the journey. Now that they had arrived at Dunhuang the harshest parts were over and Kumarajiva no longer would need his protection, and so the dragon would leave. Distraught over the thought of bearing the journey ahead without his reliable travel companion, the monk asked what he would do without the dragon. It told him a short distance away was a crescent lake where he would find a new horse to carry him on his way. The monk awoke that morning to the news that his horse had died. In memory of his travel companion, he constructed this white horse pagoda where his horse had died. Standing there, reading of this ancient silk road traveler, was a moving experience as I placed myself in his shoes. It is amazing how much of a difference the purpose behind the pagoda makes when seeing such an indistinguishable and nearly forgotten site.
The Spring Festival-- Chinese New Year-- was also happening while we were in Dunhuang. This is a golden week celebration which is about two weeks long. Throughout this time fireworks are very common in any place and at any time culminating on the night of Chinese New Year. On New Year's Eve, everything shut down early and many places stayed closed for days after. This is a time for family in China, it is also the largest annual human migration as people throughout the country return home to their families. Throughout the week we saw street performances, parades, and carnival games going on in the middle of town. Even with few places open the streets were still packed with people out and about. We were lucky enough to experience some of the family celebration time when a taxi driver-- we met in Jiayuguan and shared contacts-- invited us over to his home. Although it was a little awkward at first when we arrived and sat down on the couch, as the evening went on the questions began to fly back and forth. We ate family hot pot with them with the best hot pot dipping sauce I have ever had. Afterwards, the kids took us out on the town where we ended up at the arcade drawing a crowd as we all played games together.
Another coincidental event that happened that week was when we met two Chinese Kazakhs on their own expedition. While Pat and I wandered Dunhuang looking for an internet cafe that would be willing to overlook the fact that we are foreigners, we saw two guys pass by on longboards wearing full backpacks. Doing a double-take, I immediately decided we ought to talk to them. Luckily one of them decided to stop after seeing us as well. We walked over and asked what they were doing. Turns out not only do they speak English but they were traveling nearly an identical route as they longboarded from Chengdu to Urumqi. Later that evening, we all went to dinner together and hung out for the rest of the night. It was a lot of fun to hang out with them. Part of it was that we started with such a level of mutual understanding of what life is like for each other. After all, we are on a journey along the same route. Ultimately, the most impactful part of our time in Dunhuang was the people we got to interact with. We keep coming back to this idea over and over; it is the people we meet that make this trip what it is, not walking along a rural highway. Hopefully, we will get to meet up with them again along this journey.
Distance: 0 km
Total Distance: 1706 km
End: Dunhuang - Hotel
Written by Timb