The mouth and the throat of the empire: Part 1, the mouth

At last, welcome to Gansu province! Five ways we know we have left Xinjiang:

  • There are no policemen in full-body armor.
  • Crossing the road does not require a full-body search
  • The only cameras are hanging above the highways, to keep the drivers honest (the speed limit seems to be 30 miles an hour).
  • My passport elicits interest only re: eligibility for senior discounts.
  •  SIM cards no longer represent a security threat.  I pop into China Telecom on the off-chance and the NYL obligingly fishes one out of her handbag for half price and, with a wink, that pesky registration problem is taken care of.

So Dunhuang can focus its energy on being a perfect little tourist town, a bit prissy perhaps, but with an agreeably strong food suit, especially in casseroles.

That’s more like it! The gloriously pretentious Wang Shen International Hotel, fresh flowers b.t.w, even in $25 rooms like mine.


Dunhuang’s specialties, carefully translated for our edification.




At least 5 kinds of raisins are needed to be a contender.


Writing is a la mode. ‘Burt by Enihusiam’ just about sums it up.


Go masters on every corner


‘Hallo’ they say. ‘Hallo!’ I reply. ‘How are you? Are you good?’. Whispers and a rapid consensus ‘Yes’ they tell me firmly.

Not pictured, parents bursting with pride.


But enough trivialities! Tourists are here with a serious agenda: Mogao, the ne-plus-ultra of Thousand Buddha Caves. Constructed between the 5th -14th centuries they are the source of the most extensive collection of Buddhist art in China (of course much of it has ‘migrated’ to random Western European museums in the intervening). No takers for the English language tour other than me; I still get the full two hours worth, but not as I hoped, a look round more of the caves (we visit 8 in total). It IS all very spectacular, but no photos at all (‘no photos’ is often different from ‘no cameras’ which sometimes means cell phones are OK, but not here sadly). Apparently an army of art school students is working on a complete reproduction, racing against the time when all the lead-based paint will oxidize to black. So Google images it will have to be folks.

This nine level pagoda barely houses the 36m Buddha; either the top or the bottom is original Tang dynasty construction (I forget which).


While the influence of artisans from Central Asia, India and Tibet remains strong here, we are picking up more Chinese style, non-existent further west, as we work our way toward the belly of the Empire.


Dunhuang: The mouth of the Empire and the start of the Silk Road

The two gates to the south of Dunhuang are iconic. They funneled both the northern route of the Silk Road across the Gashun Gobi desert to Turpan and then Kashgar (my route, in red) and the southern route through the wastes of the Kum Tagh (Sand mountains) via the oases of the Taklaman* desert to Kashgar (in blue). The Southern route, site of military installations and now Uighur detention camps, is currently a no-go for tourists.


*Misspelled on the map (sorry)

But they are more than 60 miles away! I appeal to the tourist office and for once in my life the satisfyingly comprehensive tour leaves tomorrow (as opposed to yesterday). For a mere 78Y (about $13) they will pick me up at 8:30am in their ramshackle bus and in 12 hours, provided the clutch holds out, will deliver me back with all boxes checked.

Our motley tour group: Not shown, the princess who is always late, being late. Everyone (except me) is preternaturally patient. Her parents, sitting at the back and apparently tasked with documenting her experiences on a minute by minute basis, seem to be enjoying the break.


Princess in a rare unphotographed moment (except surreptitiously by me). She has bought her Mulan style outfit specially for the trip, from the Internet.


To be fair we all get into the swing of it


The Dunhuang municipality takes its responsibilities seriously, never passing up the opportunity for a bit of historic re-enactment. He is re-enacting a ticket collector.


In fact collecting taxes was the gates’ main purpose. These sticks are the accounting of them. They also tell the unhappy story of some poor sod who accidentally sent the wrong beacon signal (it did not end well).


Less prosaically they furnished the absolute last contact with the Empire, before the wastelands of the west and the onslaught of those terrifying nomads.

Yangguan, the Sun Gate

‘A morning rain has settled the dust in Wei City

Willows are green again by the tavern door

Do not leave until we have drained one more glass of wine

To the west of Yangguan you will meet no more old friends’.

Wang Wei


To the west of the Sun Gate, south, towards the Sand mountains.


The camels will handle it.


Yumenguan, the Jade Gate

‘For years to guard the Jade Pass and the River of Gold

With our hands on our horse whips and on our sword hilts

We have watched the green graves change to icy snow

And the Yellow River ring the Black Mountain forever’

Liu Zhongyong


To the west of the Jade Gate, north toward the hostile Gashun Gobi, where the temperature can fluctuate 30°C in a single day.


Original industrial espionage. Silkworm eggs were embedded in the drawing; and so silk production was smuggled to the Western lands.


After more sights than even I have boxes for, thoroughly exhausted and with decreasing confidence the clutch will hold out, we turn at last towards home.

But wait! Everyone leaps out for one last photo. ‘The moon!’ they gesture exuberantly.


Moon over the Jade Gate Pass

‘A bright moon rises over the Mountains of Heaven

Lost in vast oceans of clouds

The eternal wind, across thousands upon thousands of miles,

Blows past Jade Gate Pass’

Li Bai Yje

Of course.


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