An oasis city, surrounded on all sides by golden desert, Dunhuang is close to the Mogao Caves, renowned for their unique Buddhist cave paintings. The sheer scale of the Dunhuang caves is the first, and longest-lingering impression.
There are more than 400 carved into the hillside, each decorated with gloriously colorful murals showing Buddha and his acolytes. The largest and highest cave has a gigantic 20-meter-high (65-foot) gold statue of the Lord Buddha.
A full-time team of Chinese restorers, researchers and guides who operate from a purpose-built modern facility, scrupulously maintains the Dunhuang caves, known officially as the Mogao Grottoes.
Dunhuang's very inaccessibility, as an oasis town far from anywhere, helped the cave paintings survive more or less intact to this century. Originally, merchants setting out on the Silk Road were behind the tradition, the theory being that a commissioned painting or manuscript would bring luck and protection on the long road ahead.
As the Silk Road declined in importance, so did the sponsorship of the caves, leading them to fall into disrepair and decay. A few generations of sandblasting from the desert made them virtually invisible to the passing eye.
Only this century did overseas archaeologists come poking around, their well-researched questions eventually yielding the location of the Mogao Grottoes and the rich pickings that lay within. Many of the paintings and scrolls were taken away, and are now kept in storerooms, away from public view, in museums in Europe and the United States.
In Dunhuang itself, the proximity of the desert allows visitors to climb the impressive sand dunes, marvel at the beautiful desert-edge Crescent Moon Lake, or take a camel ride.
One special treat for visitors is a camel trek to witness the sun setting over the Gobi ¡ª or a breakfast camel-ride to see the sun rising over the endless dunes.
Millennia-old Buddhist images adorn the Mogao Caves.
Traditional yurt set up within sight of your room.
The early morning sun welcomes the workhorses of the Gobi.