The city was founded by Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty in 111 BC at the crossroads of two trading routes on the Silk Road, and the name 'Dunhuang', meaning to 'to flourish and prosper,' gives some indication of the town's prominence in ancient China. It is much less important today.
Buddhism reached China via the Silk Road and this is one of the more important Buddhist sites on that route. The Tangut or Western Xia ruled a substantial kingdom in the area, with its capital at Yinchuan, for centuries until the Mongol conquest in the 1200s. They were the main sponsors of Buddhist construction at Dunhuang.
Dunhuang Airport (DNH IATA) is 13km east of town center. Flights are available to Beijing, Lanzhou, Urumqi, and Xi'an. Please note there is no taxi stand at this airport. If you can get your hotel to pick you up, please do so. There can be shuttle busses which arrive when planes come, but these can be full, resulting in a long wait (1 hour) for a vehicle if you're not prepared.
Dunhuang Train Station (敦煌火车站; Dūnhuáng Huǒchēzhàn) is about 12km outside the town to the northeast. There is also a ticket agent in town, across the street from Dunhuang Hotel, which sells tickets for most trains. Note that Dunhuang is on a branch line, and many more trains are accessible from the Liuyuan station, a 1-2 hour drive away. In particular, trains heading west to Xinjiang do not pass through Dunhuang directly.
Some active departures from Dunhuang:
- Jiayuguan - #K592, departing at 09:32, arriving at 14:11
- Lanzhou - #K9668, dep. 18:58, arr. 09:18
- Xi'an - #K592, dep. 09:32, arr. 09:22
- Zhangye - #K9668, dep. 18:58, arr. 02:10
Some active departures from Liuyuan:
Dunhuang has two bus stations diagonally across from each other. Most frequent buses leave from the main bus station and not the long distance bus station.
- Mogao Caves (莫高窟) (25km from town, most people visit on pre-arranged tour or arrive by taxi, CITS has daily tours leaving at 8:30AM from front of the Feitian hotel, city buses to the caves are next to the Silk Road Hotel and cost ¥8). English tours at 9AM, 12AM and 2PM daily. A UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with exquisite Buddhist art and manuscripts. Although the city had an early connection with Buddhism due to the passage of monks traveling the Silk Road, it was not until a monk had a vision of a thousand Buddhas above the desert at Dunhuang in 4th century that the famous caves were excavated and filled with the manuscripts and treasures. Nearby is the White Horse Pagoda, built by a monk from India in honor of his horse, which died in the process of bringing the monk to China. It is not possible to tour the caves on your own and all visitors are assigned to different guides (included in the ticket price). The tour takes about two hours and about 15 caves will be visited; all the rest are closed. The tours are different from group to group with every group visiting the main caves. You can arrange to visit closed caves; it will cost you ¥200 per person per cave. Note that It can be handy to bring your own flashlight (torch). The pass costs ¥160, and ¥180 (¥100 off season) for English tour, ¥80 for students..
- Sand Dunes (沙丘) (Next to Crescent Lake, take bus 3). Worth a trip. If you're not interested in seeing the lake from up close and just want to walk among the dunes just follow the fence to the right from Charlie Jongh's Dune Guesthouse. After a couple of minutes you will find an open gate and a path leading up to the dunes. From the top of the one on the left, you can see the lake. Entrance fee for the dunes and lake park is ¥120 (¥60 low season); an additional ¥100 per person for a camel ride (as of June 2012)..
- The famous Mingshashan—Yueyaquan National Park with Mingsha (Humming Sand) Hill and Crescent Moon Spring are found south of Dunhuang while to the north there is Jade Gate Pass (Yumen Guan) and Sun Pass (Yangguandao), last Han outposts on the Great Wall of China.
- Huyang Forest (胡杨林) (20km from town, take the bus to the railway station and ask the driver to go to Huyang Lin. (¥3)). It consist of a small forest of rare poplares (Populus Divesifolia). Some are more than 600 years old. Can give an opportunity for a walk far from town. The entrance fee is ¥30.
- White Horse Pagoda (白马塔) (3 km west from town center.). The construction of this 12 meters stuppa has been ordered by Kunarajiva, a Buddhist translator, in 384. The entrance fee is ¥15.
- Piper bounce statue (反弹琵琶雕像). Rebound Pipa statue is the symbol of Dunhuang, is located in the urban circle Flower Island Center, bar, and an even Highway South Road intersection in this. The statue through about 5 meters high, very graceful indeed, plump body, dance a benevolent and kind countenance, focus on the right leg, left leg lift back toward the front, Pipa behind the palm faces on the rebound.
- 1 Yadan Land-forms National Park (雅丹国家地质公园) (180km from town, usually visited on pre-arranged tours or by taxi.), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. 06:00-22:00, last ticket sales 19:00, last entry 19:30. The Land-forms are an area in the Gobi Desert where wind erosion has left striking rock formations 10-20 meters high. The area contains named formations resembling fleets of ships, The Sphinx, as well as camels, birds, and many others. The land-forms are an interesting contrast to the sand dunes at Dunhuang in terms of the terrain of the Gobi Desert. Tours of the area will likely also include stops at an ancient section of the Great Wall, a Han Dynasty fortress, and a small set of caves similar to Mogao. If you take any bus in Dunhuang, the conductor will likely be selling daytrips to see the Geopark and 4-6 other sights, for 100-120 RMB (bus only). ¥50 entrance fee plus ¥70 for the park shuttle bus.
- Summer of Dunhuang Variety Show. June–October. Performances of singing and dancing in the Silk Road traditions.
- Camel Trek, arranged by Charlie Johng's Cafe, Mingshan Road (Across the road and 50m north from the long-distance bus station), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Typically leave around 4-5PM. Get to know the desert firsthand on a 2 to 7 day camel trek across spectacular sand dunes. A typical trek goes for 3 days and includes a visit to the Mogao Cave. Alternately, just camp out in the desert for a night to experience the Gobi Desert's night sky, sunset and sunrise. If you don't have much time you can have a one day tour with staying in the desert and riding to the Mogao Cave in the morning (400 RMB p.P.). Bargain hard, but going rate is between ¥250-500 per day.
- Night market (Downtown). Good dried fruits and nuts (walnuts, dates, raisins, apricots, small tomatoes...). Many souvenirs. Note that some people sell wood stamps, pretending It's made from the rare Huyang tree, but It's not. Huyang Tree is too soft to be carved.
There's a normal-priced supermarket opposite the long-distance bus station (beside Feitian Binguan) to stock up on water, snacks and other groceries.
- Charlie Johng's cafe, Mingshan Road (Opposite the long-distance bus station and 50m north). Reasonably priced western meals available. Very helpful staff. ¥25 for English breakfast set.
- Shirley's cafe, Mingshan Road (opposite Charlie Johng's cafe). It's a bit pricy and the portions are pretty small.
- Night market skewers stalls (downtown night market). Lamb, potato, mushroom, bread... skewers; yogurt.
- Yunnan Cross Bridge Mixian, 7 Baiwei Jie (in the night market area, between the covered market and street with all the skewers.). Until 12AM. Own by a lively small lady, eager to introduce you to her home cuisine. Tasty rice noodles with authentic sauces. Chinese speaker handy. ¥20/Person.
- [dead link] Lovina Pizza, No. 1, Level 3, B Building, Business Walking Street (敦煌市商业步行街B座三楼1号） (close to the local government office, above the kaierliang supermarket), ☎ . 10:30AM to 11PM. A nice quiet pizza restaurant (only one in town) with good easy to read menu with English and pictures. Free wireless internet and decent relatively cheap coffee. They also do deliveries if you can speak Chinese. ¥15 - 65 per pizza.
- Oasis, Pedestrian Street (Southern end of the Pedestrian street, just a few blocks west of the Mosque), ☎ . opens at 2PM. Run by an Oklahoman, this cafe has good coffee, milkshakes, and a small menu with pizza and hamburgers. The wifi is fast.
- Feitian Hotel Dunhuang, 22 Mingshan Road, ☎ , fax: .
- Charlie Johng's Dune Guesthouse (敦煌月泉山庄), 甘肃省敦煌市月牙泉鸣沙山沙生植物园 (Transfer available from Charlie Johng's cafe; see Eat. Otherwise take bus #3 (¥1) to last stop and walk 400m to the right (look for signs).), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. The hole place is a bit rundown (except for the nice cottages), but if you like to get out in the nature and want to stay near the dunes, then it is a really nice place. The restaurant is okay but you are better of eating in town. WiFi available. Staff speak only basic English but is helpful. laundry 10 yuan per load. dorm 35 yuan, double 120 yuan, cottage 100 yuan.
- Charlie Johng's Hostel (In the night market area, next to the mosque.), ☎ , , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dorm ¥50, double/twin ¥120.
- Only Chinese name (direct opposite of Charlie Johng's cafe. Look for a sign with the number 444). ok twin room with hot shower & ethernet internet 100 yuan.
- Five Rings Hotel, 20 Ming Shan Road., ☎ , fax: . Double/twin ¥100.
- Zephyr International Youth Hostel, Yueya Spring Scenic Spot (Located right next to Dune Guesthouse, but entry is opposite, so you need to circle it. Also lots of signposts leading from the main road.), ☎ , fax: . Big place made out of many small cabins/huts, like a tiny village, filled with trees, swings and hammocks. Nice, relaxed atmosphere. Hot showers, free internet/wifi, and at least one English speaking staff member. Dorm bed (before HI discount) ¥25, Cabins from ¥100.
- Grand Sun Hotel Dunhuang, 5 North Shazhou Road, ☎ , fax: .
- Dunhuang Hotel (敦煌宾馆; Dūnhuáng Bīnguǎn), 14 Yangguan East Road, ☎ , fax: .
- Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel, Dunyue Road (4km south of town, 10 minutes by car south of town, the dunes are 20 minutes walk away or accessible by bus 3, taxis are easily available at the hotel), ☎ . Nice and clean hotel. Chinese/western restaurant. Roof-top cafe with beautiful views on the dunes, breakfast served here too. English speaking staff. Baby cot available. Doubles ¥680.
One leg of the trip is often closed due to washouts in the river canyon or landslides in the mountains, and is closed to most traffic in the winter. Be sure to ask, before you leave Dunhuang, whether the road between Shimiankuang and Charklik (Ruoqiang) is open.
Regular buses run daily each morning from Dunhuang, Gansu Province, 731 km to Huatugou (花土沟), a small oil drilling town in northwest Qinghai Province, and daily each morning the other direction. This road, a paved highway the entire way, crosses the Altun Mountains over Dangjin Pass (当金山口, 3680 m, 39º19'14"N, 94º16'11"E) at the provincial border between Qinghai and Gansu which runs along the crest of the Altun Mountains. One source says that the road rises from 1,000 m to the 3,680 m pass in just 20 km. This road is subject to delays or closure in winter due to icy conditions.
The bus station in Dunhuang will not sell you a ticket to Huatugou unless you have an ATP. You cannot get this permit in Dunhuang because its in Gansu province. so you have to go to the PSB in golmud, and from there to take the bus to Huatugou.
Twice daily minibuses run the 65 km in 1.5-2 hours for ¥15 between Huatugou and Shimiankuang (石绵矿 literally: asbestos mine), a tiny worker hamlet north of a large surface-level asbestos mine. It's better to stay overnight in Huatugou than in the very basic lodging at the asbestos mine. Ask the Huatugou taxi driver for the Petroleum Guesthouse -- 石油 shí yóu 宾馆 bīn guǎn. There's also very basic lodging across from the Huatugou bus station -- ask the bus driver to point you in the right direction.
Some maps do not show Huatugou (38°08'60"N, 90°52'00"E, 2,859 m) and instead show Youshashan, about 5-10 km southwest. If neither town is shown, Huatugou is just northeast of Gaz Hure Hu lake. Some maps do not show Shimiankuang (38°15'00"N, 90°52'00"E, 3,200 m) and instead show the small oil refinery village of Mangnai Zhen, about 10 km southeast. If neither town is shown, Shimiankuang is right where Highway 315 crosses the provincial border. Older maps show Shimiankuang and Mangnai Zhen in Xinjiang Province, but the area was moved administratively some years ago into Qinghai Province.
The 241 km road from Shimiankuang, at the border of Qinghai and Xinjiang, to Charklik (Ruoqiang), Xinjiang, is a rough road, over a 4,000 m pass and through a narrow river valley as well as across the desert. This is the rough leg mentioned above. The road is now paved all the way. A minibus leaves from Shimiankuangs "bus station" to Charklik at 11AM, costs ¥80.
The minibus leaves from in front of the bus station in Charklik (Ruoqiang) at 08:00 Beijing time (06:00 unofficial local time) and arrives in Shimiankuang about 6 hours later, and generally in time to catch the afternoon minibus from Shimiankuang to Huatugou. The 9AM minibus from Huatugou meets the minibus leaving from Shimiankuang about 11AM.
From Charklik (Ruoqiang) to Cherchen (Qiemo), the bus leaves at 10:00, takes 5 hours to cover the 351 km and costs 58Y. In the other direction, a daily bus leaves Cherchen (Qiemo) for Charklik (Ruoqiang) at 10AM.
There as buses to Delingha, but be careful, the city is not open to tourists.
Dunhuang is a major tourist destination. Expect to be ripped off if you don't have your wits about you. Bargain hard and remember what you originally bargained for as the bill you receive at the end of the meal may not reflect the negotiated price.