Despite the lack of lamb!! the overnight train trip from Xian was pretty uneventful. This time we took the ‘hard sleeper’ a train carriage full of 3 layered bunk beds, 6 to a compartment (no doors) so it was noisier than other overnighters so sleep was hard to catch and to make it worse we were the first compartment right beside the door where the smokers were standing... so many people in China smoke, ugh!
The change in landscape overnight was dramatic, night fell over lush farmlands and forested hills, dawn rose over sand, gravel and wind farms.
After 22 long hours the train pulled into Dunhuang in the early morning. After a short bus ride into town and some confusion on the exact location of the hotel (as it is starting to be a common theme that the location on booking.com map is not exactly correct!)... we checked into the, very well located, Xing Xin business hotel, we had taken the 24hour room option not the hourly rate!
Dunhuang’s incredibly long history as a trading town where diverse cultures intertwined could not be better highlighted than at the Mogao Grottoes where we headed in the afternoon. Situated in the Gobi desert the first caves were dug out in AD 366 as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. It reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) with 492 caves, 18 monasteries and more than 1400 monks and nuns. It is considered to be one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world.
At 7.00am the following morning we joined a small van of local tourists to visit Yadan National Park, Jade Gate Pass and Hechang Cheng. The commentary was in Chinese however the driver came to me and typed into translate that I was welcome to ask him anything! The tour guide herself had a little English and didn’t prattle on much so was bearable! They were both very helpful despite the language barrier.
I must admit that this “Great Wall’ was not the one of my imagination but was pretty impressive especially when you learn that this, and the ruins of Hecheng Cheng wall a little down the road, were part of the original wall erected by Emperor Wudi around 121 BCE.
We continued our long drive deeper into the Gobi Desert and our final destination, Yadan National GeoPark, a surreal and weirdly eroded landscape whose geomorphic formations looked more like a scene out of Star Wars with massive lines of fighter ships. Yeah, a strange description I know... but just these massive mounds of earth protruding from the ground looked more like space craft. The ground was strangely covered in a black gravel, as if someone had spread it around the monoliths for effect, then you notice that the entire desert landscape is covered in this gravel.
We finally arrived back at 7.00pm and headed to the night markets to find some dinner. We sat at an outdoor table munched on a few lamb kebabs, downed a few cold beers and watched the throngs of visitors being harassed by the local vendors, desperate for customers.
We prepared ourselves well and brought along a bottle of red wine for the evening. It was actually ok for the price. We opened our wine and shared it with our companions, whilst our guide cooked up a lovely campsite meal.... instant noodle bowls with some added extra veggies! (This is a staple meal in China and perfect for camping). He also provided bread rolls and fruit.
The temperature was dropping and it was great to put on the jacket and feel cold again. We sat back and admired the vast sky of bright stars!!! I even saw a shooting star. Perfect finish to a great day.
The tents were very basic and we were sleeping on an extra sleeping bag, so I had a few problems as my hips don’t take to hard surfaces. We had some heavy winds during the night and it was not the most pleasant of sleeps. Early the next morning, I poked my head out to find that there were only 2 camels and the guide’s tent was gone. The other tent was still up but no one inside. Quite a disconcerting feeling, being left alone in the desert! I had heard a conversation the night before that the French couple had to go back early in order for them to take another tour, but I thought that meant all of us leaving early. I hoped the guide intended to come back for us. His camels are pretty valuable to him, so I was sure he would.
About an hour and half later, after we got up and started to pack up our tents, we saw the guide riding his camel with the other camels in tow back to our camp.
After a simple breakfast of 3 in 1 coffee, left over bread rolls and fruit, the three of us mounted our camels and trekked back to our starting point.
A long, hot shower was a welcome relief when we got back to our hotel. We checked out at midday and headed to the train station for our next destination... Jiayuguan.