Dispatches from Abroad: At the End of the (Silk) Road

It took me a while, but on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, it finally occurred to me, when we reached Dunhuang with its massive sand dunes and crescent-moon lake presided over by a reconstructed temple, that all of the cities we’d stopped at on our nine-day circuit from Xining to Wulan to Dulan to Ge’ermu to Dunhuang to Shangye and back to Xining tonight were oases in an otherwise parched desert. These ancient springs and watering-holes had been obvious points of layover for camel trains, traders, monks, and charlatans, and now are thriving cities living on depleted groundwater and glacial meltwater-fed rivers.

Crescent-moon lake at the Mingshashan dunes in Dunhuang. The lake, once amply supplied by groundwater, now needs to be pump-filled from alternative water supplies.

But I get ahead of myself. When we left Ge’ermu on Thursday morning, we proceeded across a part of the Gobi Desert to Dunhuang. En route, we detoured to the salt mine at the Qarhan Salt Lake (long evaporated). Its 5-m deep salt deposits that spread over seemingly endless distances (it’s the 2nd largest salt lake/deposit in China, dwarfing the Chaka lake we stopped at between Xining and Wulan last week) are continuously mined to supply “Himalayan” salt to China and throughout the world. Eryuan and Li bagged at least 20 kg each from the spoil piles. And even the roads here are made of salt (click on any of these images to start a slide show of larger ones).

Leaving the salt mine, we proceeded deeper into the desert. Here’s a photo of the polygonal sand tiles from the “rest stop” that inspired yesterday’s poem about the Silk Road. This is not an area that used to be wet and has now dried up. This part of the desert gets less than 5 cm of rain a year, and has been like that for millennia.


We were heading north towards Dunhuang, about a 500-km drive that we expected to take about 5 hours on the highway. But we were delayed by an accident that blocked the road for a couple of hours while the crane cleared the debris, occasional herds of sheep, and three police checkpoints at and beyond the crossing from Qinghai Province into Gansu Province. And once we got to Dunhuang, we found the city center (where our hotel was, too) cordoned off for the Mid-Autumn festivities and the upcoming cultural expo.

Waiting for a wreck to be cleared on a hairpin curve (click on the image for a larger version).

We slurped noodles while we waited for the cordons to clear, quickly checked in, and rushed off to the Mingshashan dunes before the ticket window closed at 19:30 (but once in, we could stay all night). Besides the aforementioned crescent-moon lake, one can ride a camel up the dunes, hike, toboggan, take a helicopter or parasail ride … truly an oasis theme park! (click on any image to see larger ones in a slide show)

But most people (literally, thousands) were just waiting atop the dune for the sun to set and the lights to come on.


The next day, we scarfed down an early breakfast and high-tailed it to the Mogao Grottoes, as we had entry tickets for 08:15. This UNESCO World Heritage site is not to be missed. A set of more than 700 caves carved into the rocks at Dunhuang from the early 300s to the late 1300s by Buddhist monks are filled with frescoes, statues, mosaics, and ceramics that are remarkably well preserved. Ongoing research and restoration continues to reveal new wonders (click images to enlarge).

After a great morning at the Grottoes, we drove another 600 km to Shangye, a nondescript farming city of 600,000 people. But the hotel was comfortable, the noodles edible, and it was a welcome oasis before the last spectacular 400-km stretch through the Qilian Mountains to Xining (click to enlarge).

And in Xining, a fabulous meal. Although one could argue that after 8 days of noodles in broth, anything else would be fabulous, this dinner featured some really delectable novelties. Sauteed walnut flowers with carrots, beef leg-tendons with chili peppers and garlic, mo-er with greens, fried sardines, and an absolutely outstanding sweet millet congee (porridge) with peaches, pineapple, and goji berries (click on any image to start the foodie slide-fest).

Up tomorrow: my best photos from the Tibetan Plateau …

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