Dunhuang is a small, Gansu Province city, the perfect place to settle down for a few nights of history and adventure. Dunhuang served as a literal oasis along the Silk Road and is home to the famous Mogao Caves, a shrine of Buddhist art over 2,000 years old.
Dunhuang's proximity to the Gobi Desert is what drew my attention as I planned our trip to Gansu Province. The name Gobi is from the Mongolian word meaning "waterless place". The desert is approximately 1,000 miles long and between 300 and 600 miles wide. There are many remote parts of China and Mongolia from which travelers may embark on a Gobi adventure, but Dunhuang was close to Crescent Moon Lake and I was curious. A lake in the desert?
Since we are a large group, I call ahead to make sure that they are be able to accommodate the 64 people with the camel rides I had promised. The person answers, "64 people, no problem." Even in April, considered off season, they have about 300 camels. 300 camels!
The public entrance to the desert beckons with stalls and stalls of vendors, hocking souvenirs, sunglasses, bandanas and cowboy hats, a colorful, lively forefront to the sand dunes. The enormity of the dunes is highlighted by the bright sun reflecting off the sand. It feels other-worldly. As I walk the pathway toward the main building, I understand how wandering the desert could cause insanity. It seems never-ending.
I imagine we will ride in a large circle near the entrance, like little kids on pony rides, but a little more elaborate because of the backdrop. The camels are laying down, waiting for their riders. Before we sit on our camels, we are warned by the guides to lean back and hold tight as they stand up. Their back legs straighten first. The incline is not steep enough to slide off, but it's pretty close. There is an awkward dance as the camels straighten out and we adjust to our new transport.
This is not a pony ride. We head off into the desert, dune after dune, in caravans of six per group, each led by a guide. I feel like I am in a movie, heading off in search of hidden treasure. The students are ecstatic with this experience, most of them will never encounter another person in their lives who has ridden a camel this far into the desert. We ride for over an hour, and after a pit-stop to toboggan down the dunes, we end our journey at Crescent Moon Lake oasis.
Crescent Moon Lake seems unnatural. It must be a movie set. However, the lake is natural, spring-fed and 2,000 years old. As the name suggests, it has a crescent moon shape. The natural water table feeds the lake, but the pace at which the lake is spring-fed is not fast enough to equal the pace of evaporation. Because of evaporation and desertification, the lake had been shrinking until the local government began to refill it.
As the camel ride ends and we head east on an overnight train, I am struck by the fortune I have to travel in such a vast and varied country.
Whether you imagine yourself as Peter O'Toole or "Lawrence of Arabia" or Harrison Ford in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", find yourself on a camel, in the desert, in western China...something very few people in the world will ever experience. Join us on a Chow Fun Tours adventure.