Years ago, I took a trip to Inner Mongolia. We went to the grasslands and also took a long car ride to a spot of the Gobi Desert in the northeast section, where you could sled down a dune and ride camels.
Well, I ended up back in the Gobi, only this time at the opposite end. I went to Dunhuang, Gansu province, a beautiful oasis town that was a must-stop on the ancient Silk Road in both ancient and modern times. The desert is right smack in the middle, but the place is lush and if you go into town, you would have no idea sand dunes are looming close by.
And loom they do. As you approach them you kinda have to rub your eyes to be sure you are seeing clearly at the towering dunes in the distance. This part of the Gobi is called the Echoing Sand Mountain.
I stayed at a hostel right next to the dunes and the sand covering everything was a small price to stay for the nights of quiet and beauty. I’m a bit ashamed to say I never quite motivated myself to wake up in time to catch the sunrise, but I hung around for a few sunsets and even sweated out an afternoon there.
There is a bit of a amusement park element to the desert in Dunhuang, you can sled down a dune, ride a camel or take a short paragliding flight, but the place is so big and vast, there is space to be free and find some quiet. And if you go in the afternoon under the sweltering desert sun, you basically have the place to yourself! (Though I wouldn’t recommend it if you like your skin not burnt to a crisp.)
Hidden behind some massive dunes is the Crescent lake, a 2,000 year old lake in the middle of the desert, kept intact by the fortune of sands settling to the sides not smothering the lake (and modern efforts at refilling the lake keep it at a regular depth.) A pavilion was built to honor this lake (in the Qing or Ming Dynasty, my brief research didn’t turn up an exact date) and now tourists flock to it just to get out of the damn sun!
Travel tips: Sunrise and sunset are the best times to go for both the temperatures and photo-taking opportunities. The ticket is expensive (120 RMB) but is good for three days with one caveat: the first time you enter the gate, you must tell them you want three days and they scan your fingerprint. Then, to enter the next time you need to show your ticket and scan your fingerprint. If you just show up the second day with your ticket they won’t let you in. This isn’t explained at all in the ticket office so be aware.