Today's settlement in China's remote, northwestern Gansu Province belies the once-bustling hub of Silk Road merchants, suppliers, and entrepreneurs who once populated this desert oasis. Plundered by some unsavory, late 19th century "archeologists," Dunhuang and other Silk Road towns lost a good deal of their riches - now displayed on museum shelves throughout the world.
Much as today's Egyptian archeologists and curators rightfully curse the foreign "archeologists" (and the corrupted local officials) who permitted a wholesale removal of national treasures, controversy remains in China as how best to arrange a return of those treasures. Outsiders may cite China's past rollercoaster record on antiquity preservation, but it's ironic that Chinese citizens often need to travel to London, Paris or New York to view some of their nation's finest Silk Road artistry!
Not all was lost to the west, however. In fact, a good deal remains, saved not by the Chinese, removed not by Westerners, but hidden by nature. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when maritime shipping displaced the overland Silk Road routes, entire desert towns were abandoned. Over the years, shifting sands covered them, hiding their riches from even the most enterprising excavators.
Dunhuang's major sights and attractions include:
Mogao Caves: Over a period of about 700 years, from the 4th to the 11th century AD, Buddhist monks - often supported by rich patrons - excavated and executed astonishing works of art in caves outside of Dunhuang. The arrival of Islam in the 12th century ended the cave creations and their virtual abandonment (and the soon-to-follow economic downturn of Silk Road communities) actually helped secure their preservation. "Discovered" in 1907, the caves are Dunhuang's top attraction!
Yueya Quan: Literally, "Crescent Moon Lake," this oasis sits just a few miles outside of town. Countless Silk Road travelers, nomads, merchants and now, tourists - have quenched their thirsts here!
"Singing Sand Dunes": The sand storms are said to create almost melodic sounds as millions of minute particles bounce and rub. You're unlikely to hear them, as tours don't head for the dunes during sand storms! But you'll cherish the views of the surrounding Taklamakan Desert. For the energetic, parasailing, tobogganing - and now - "sandboarding," are fun activities available here. (letstravelchina.com)