Fascinating Sights in China’s Desert Oasis, Dunhuang

This itinerary comes from our Dunhuang Discovery: Desertscapes and Grottoes program. What we love about this trip is that you’ll get to explore the Mogul Grottoes with a resident scholar, have private desert dinners, and visit the Yulin Grottoes. While some of our trips have suggested dates and Fascinating Sights in China, this trip is suitable year-round, which means you won’t have to wait too long to take your students to this beautiful oasis! Keep reading on to discover the deserts, forts, cave temples, and markets that await you on your school trip.

Why visit Dunhuang?

Dunhuang (敦煌, dūn huáng) has long been a refuge for Silk Road travelers. Despite its remoteness, the area gives off a sanctuary-like atmosphere with clean streets, lively markets, cafes, and souvenir shops. From the breathtaking views of the Gobi Desert to the bustling city streets, there is something for everyone. Students will be able to explore ancient Buddhist temples and art galleries, learn about Chinese culture and history, and enjoy the delicious local cuisine. Plus, you’ll get to see the areas of the Silk Road that is rich with cultural significance and history with your very own eyes. With so much to see and do in Dunhuang, it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience that students will remember for years to come!

Why visit Dunhuang?

Our Resident Scholar: Dr. Neil Schmid

Your school trip to Dunhuang will be led by Dr. Neil Schmid, a scholar-in-residence at the Dunhuang Academy. He lives very close to the Mogao Caves and is currently compiling Dunhuang’s findings into “The Comprehensive Guide to Scholarly Resources for Dunhuang Studies.” Neil hopes to inspire creativity through his arts-related background. With an expert who lives in the place you’re going, you can be sure you’ll be led with enthusiasm and learn some little-known details!

WildChina’s Dunhuang school trip itinerary

The day after your arrival, our WildChina expert will take you to view the sunrise in Mingsha Sand Dunes, which stands at a towering one thousand feet tall. Fun fact: when the wind blows in these dunes, they create a whistling sound as though trying to tell passersby an ancient secret, which is why these dunes are also called the “Singing Sands Mountain.”

Crescent Moon Lake and the Taklamakan Desert

Crescent Moon Lake and the Taklamakan Desert

After watching the sunrise, we’ll travel to the enchanting Crescent Moon Lake (月牙泉, yuè yá quán), a rare spot of water in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert (塔克拉马汉沙漠, tâ kè lā mâ hàn shā mò). As the name suggests, the body of water is shaped like a crescent moon. The lake is even lined by some greenery, creating a stark contrast against the smooth, beige sand dunes. The fact that it never overflows or gets covered by sand makes it a natural phenomenon. It is said that Li Bai (李白, lî bái), the famous Tang Dynasty poet used to come here to write about the serene waters and starry night sky.

Crescent Moon Lake and the Taklamakan Desert

The Mogao Grottoes

When lunchtime rolls around, your WildChina guide will take you to the city’s most famous food street and introduce you to some unusual local delicacies. One of the destinations you’ll wander to on your school trip to Dunhuang is the Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟, mò gāo kū), which have nearly 500 caves inside its complex. This site was first founded by Buddhists in 366 CE since Dunhuang was a great center of Buddhism during the time. In one of the cave temples, there is a massive collection of roughly 60,000 paper manuscripts, printed documents, and other fragments dating back to the 5th century.

Most manuscripts were sold to foreigners, but the cave walls still house rich, historical paintings, which you’ll see on your school trip. The most notable manuscript from the Mogao Grottoes is the Diamond Sutra, produced in the year 868. The caves were opened to the public after 1949. Just as the merchants of the Silk Road used to do, you’ll have an alfresco dinner and a bonfire in your very own private sand dune spot!

Yadan National Geological Park, Yumen Pass, and the Han Great Wall

Yadan National Geological Park, Yumen Pass, and the Han Great Wall

Yadan National Geological Park (雅丹国家地质公园, yâ dān guó jiā dì zhí gōng yuán) will have you wondering whether you’re standing on land or atop the clouds, especially during golden hour. The park is filled with strangely shaped rocks similar to those of lenticular clouds. The richly amber-hued rocks are a result of land erosions and millennia of wind. It’s like mother nature’s sculpture park.

Yumen (玉门, yù mén), meaning Jade Gate, was named after the jade that once passed through these gates. During the Western Han Dynasty, Yumen Pass was one of the gateways that led to the Western Regions. It played a vital role in transportation, cultural, and economic exchanges between China and the rest of the world.

Yadan National Geological Park, Yumen Pass, and the Han Great Wall

During your school trip to Dunhuang, you’ll also visit a section that used to be part of the Great Wall. It was once the longest section, although it looks nothing like what you’d envision when you think of the Great Wall today. The name Han Great Wall (汉长城, hàn cháng chéng) simply indicates that this Great Wall was built during the Han Dynasty, and it once spanned over 6,214 miles. Most of it was built around 121 BCE to defend against Xiongnu, a Mongol Empire. As an order to local people from the Han Dynasty rulers, they were told to use any material at hand, so you’ll find that most of the wall was built with Gobi sand.

Shazhou Night Market & Yulin Grottoes

Onto what some may find the most fascinating part of your school trip to Dunhuang, the Shazhou Night Market (沙洲夜市, shā zhōu yè shì)! The Shazhou Night Market is the largest night market in Gansu, frequented by locals and tourists alike. The street is bustling and lively at night, equipped with rows of local treasures, whether that be food or handmade crafts. While you browse the stalls, you’ll find that the night market is divided into sections of antiques, jewelry, tea, local products, agricultural products, and snacks. You may even get to see and hear some amateur Chinese opera while you’re at it.

Situated in the east of Dunhuang is the Yulin Grottoes (榆林窟, yú lín kū), which hold 42 Buddhist caves. Some say the frescoes in the Yulin Grottoes are better preserved than the art in the Mogao Grottoes. The caves of the Yulin Grottoes were painted over a 1,500-year period, from the Northern Wei to the Qing Dynasty. Be sure to listen closely to your guide as you walk through the caves and imagine what it was like for the people who lived thousands of years ago.

A parting word from WildChina

We could not share a trip to Dunhuang without discussing animal cruelty toward camels. In Dunhuang, subjecting camels to exploitative entertainment is still an unfortunately common practice. Bactrian camels are now listed as Critically Endangered with only about 1,000 of them left, making them the 8th most endangered large mammal on the planet. As an agency that values sustainable and responsible travel, we will not be partaking in camel riding in our trips.

Great Gobi has a Strictly Protected Area for wild camels (camelus ferus), but humans have still found ways to illegally trespass the area to mine gold. Camels are increasingly at risk of hunting and other human activities, and organizations such as the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF) have been advocating for more protected areas in China.

Wild Bactrians and its domesticated counterparts have more significant differences than you might think, which is why it is crucial that they are kept apart. However, both natural factors and human pressures have forced wild Bactrians and domesticated Bactrians to live closer together, putting them at risk of interbreeding. If you would like to have this information as part of a learning objective on your school trip, our academic managers can arrange it for you. As more protection areas and/or conservation centers are set up in the future, we would gladly include it in our school trip programs, just as we have done in the past with sea turtle, panda, and bee conservations.

From the natural wonder of Crescent Moon Lake to the unique rocks at Yadan National Geological Park, to Gansu’s most famous night market, there sure is a lot to see in Dunhuang. We want to bring you the best experience we can given your wants and needs. If you’re thinking about taking your students on a trip to Dunhuang, simply reach out to us via phone or email or send us an inquiry. We’d be happy to discuss details with you from travel dates to budgets to accommodations.

Our CEO, Mei Zhang, chronicled her experience traveling from the US to China during the pandemic, so we can share our firsthand experience with you should you have any questions! Also, feel free to check out our frequently updated Travel Advisory page. As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Word count: 1,536

Sources: Fascinating Sights in China’s Desert Oasis, Dunhuang

Proceed Booking