the road from Turpan to Dunhuang
We were supposed to arrive around 8am but it's past 11 when we get in Dunhuang. So we crossed from Xinjang in Gansu however, happy to have saved a ride that, else than the spectacular enough Flaming mountains just outside Turpan, it's on a dusty road into the same bare rocky desert, dotted with scattered smoking, stinky factories. Of course, if we had had an unlimited visa for China it would not be too bad to save on the cheap bus, but with only one month would be a waste to see just grey rocks.
Put the bikes in one piece again (we had to dismantle them a bit to get in the bus) we go looking for a place to sleep. Plenty of choice here, we find a hotel for 60 yuan a double room (9€), the room has huge TV, kettle, bathroom with shower, slippers. toothbrush, soap, shampoo and telephone... not bad really. Something to eat at the restaurant across the street and into the sunset, the best time, we go to look at the famous sand dunes.
Dunhuang sand dunes
How to enter for free at the Dunhuang sand dunes:
Take the last road to the right before the official entrance gate, you will pass a nice little village where the inhabitants breed camels (now only for tourists we think) the dunes are on the left side behind some nice vineyards, but still fenced here. Keep on riding following the same direction (west) for about 6/7 km, until you'll see a sand expanse on your left, there's a little creek there. So here there's no more fence and you're free to climb the huge dunes and get lost in the desert!
Really fun getting to the top and slide like a kid, or just enjoy the sunset view if you're more a romantic type (we had done both). Finally we get some good feeling from the Gobi, a sensation that traces more the stereotype that everybody has of a desert, the dunes are gorgeous, hundreds meter high and with thin golden sand that is a pleasure under your feet.
You will not see the lake though, but the nice thing are the dunes, also the girl of our hotel who spoke some English told us that probably the lake could by dry at this time of the year.
city center, food square and night market
The site should be, according to OpenStreetMap, about 20 kilometers and instead after ten we find the ticket office and the road closed. They tell us that the ticket does not cost no more than 120 yuan (17€), from this month (June 2015) the entry fee raised to 240 yuan (34€, but with guide included), to see the caves we are obliged to visit this new building, the audiovisual center, where we have to put up with not one but two films that will spoil us the caves before we see those live. Brilliant! The problem is just that we don't have all this money. We could give up see the caves or remain here until the money of our tenant will come from "Belpaese". We decide to stay, I don't think we'll never have another chance to see this marvel.
We have to wait 3 hours to tour with English guide. The guide is a must have cause the caves are closed by gates and they have the keys, and then in this case is useful to have someone explaining something to you. There are no explanatory signs. And anyway is mandatory. We find out later that the guide was there from 9am but foreigners can have the guidance only certain times set by the Communist-issimo tourism office of the Gansu region.
However, our guide will pick up us at the entrance and we save us the cue, with us there's also an Australian dude.
We see 10/12 caves in little more than 2 hours, from different periods and with very different styles, including the famous library cave, where hundreds of precious manuscript where discovered in 1900, one of the most important archaeological find in the last century.
The frescoes are all original and perfectly preserved, the pigments where made from he most precious raw materials, blue from topaz, red from ruby, and so on. The statues, however, are sometimes original sometimes reproduced or repainted, mostly over XIX century. But the art is anyway astonishing, those caves where sponsored by the most wealthy and powerful families of the whole Chinese empire, willing for divine blessing and/or just impress contemporary and future generations.
The caves are hundreds and it's impossible to see them all, some require a separate fee to be opened, up to 500 yuan for a cave.
However when you'll be done with the guide you still can wander the sight by yourself, joining random groups to see more caves.
At the end of the trail you can visit the museum where several caves, usually closed to the public, are perfectly reconstructed. And then there many Tibetan statues and statuettes, interesting. Inside the park there is another museum and several exhibitions you can visit. We can only see that of a painter who likes to re-draw the frescoes of the caves, time is short, the center closes at 17:30.
However the ticket is available for tomorrow morning, for the bike we have to go to the nearby office of the police station that is responsible for shipping the goods on trains, the office is called CRE (China Railway Express) and is in every Chinese station, is through them that is possible to ship bicycles and every kind of odd sized items everywhere in China. With our friendly interpreter we go, even the cop lady is a mad chick but more funny, with glasses thick as the bottom of a bottle. She's new in the office, first day, and does not know very well how it works. In the end we pay only 50 yuan per bike, about 7 euro, and 18 yuan for bags, complete with a receipt, no bribes here, wow. All this legality and receipts are disorienting. We sleep at the motel in the underground station (30 yuan), even here there are a receipt. And so we save another couple hundreds of desertic kilometers through the Hexi Corridor, until Zhangye.