Global Mark : 14.61 Top Ten : No10
Ratings by criteria :
Ratings by backpackers :
What to do : In the morning, try to visit the caves in relative comfort / At lunch, check out the exhibition Center, next to the caves / In the evening, cycle to the dunes / Climb to the top of the dunes and from there : sit down until your breath is back, do paragliding (30Y), slide down on sand sleds (10Y), walk around, wait patiently for the sunset / Ride camels up and down the dunes (50Y)
What you may not like : The limited cheap doubles / The visit organization at the caves & high costs / Seeing only 7 to 10 caves / The entrance fee at the dunes / The recent (2001) entrance fees increase : Y50 to 80 for the caves, Y20 to 50 for the dunes ! This is getting ridiculous...
How long ? One full day minimum for the two major sights. Another one for the minor ones and to relax...
Also worth checking :
Where to eat ? The night's market is the place to go for local food with ambiance. Among other things, you can try a local burger for 2.5Y. If you do not go there to eat, go there to drink (Muslim tea or alcohol) as the place also serve as outdoor bar with its relaxing sun chairs around small tables. Be cautious however : things sometimes get weird late at night when the locals are a little bit too drunk...
Internet ? China Telecom was preparing its internet service at the time of writing. Hopefully, it will cost the usual 10Y an hour.
- Magao Caves : (4), Y80 min., Exp, Minibus (30mn, 5Y)
The basic entrance fee gives you the right to follow a group of 25-30 Chinese tourists for 1h30 in about 10 caves. For 20Y more, you will do the same but in English (or other foreign language) and with other foreigners (a private guide cost Y200). For 5Y more, your ticket will also get you access to the very nice Exhibition Center (it cost 10Y separately) For Y2, your bag and camera will be taken care of while you tour the site (no choice). If you are with a group, a torch might not be necessary but otherwise, it is the only way to check the details out (if you do not have one, you can rent one for 3Y)
The guides have the keys to the caves and will choose an itinerary between the 30 "normal" caves, depending on their mood. This means that, if you do not care about overlong cultural explanations, you can see much more caves by jumping from one group to another. If you are lucky and discreet, you might also sneak with a Japanese group and see some of the "special" caves (60 caves are classified as such and cost an additional 60 to 240Y per cave and per person, the highest fee being for Cave 465 which contains sexually explicit Tantric art).
A few caves have open doors (Cave 96 for example with its massive 34.5m tall Buddha) but most are locked.
The tours are basically conducted in the morning (between 8:30 and 10) and in the afternoon starting at 2pm, with a 2 hours lunch between. The ticket is valid for one day only. If you crave about the caves, you could make a tour in the morning (the best time), see the Exhibition Center at lunch and go back inside in the afternoon to try to spot more.
Quite a few peoples are disappointed by the caves (a few more are also annoyed by the guide system), in particular those who experienced Datong in Shanxi Province. The caves here are different : they cover a much bigger time period but are not so much about sculptures and carving than fresco (the total murals of the 492 caves covers 45,000sq meters), even so some statues are impressive enough.
Except for those with a lot of desert experiences, the biggest sand dunes of China are definitively worth the evening. Especially if you avoid paying the Y50 entrance fee : just after the bus parking, at the beginning of the shops alley, take the small path on the right between 2 shops, walk 100m or so, turn left at the intersection and walk between the fields toward the dunes. Once in the sand, head to the right, keeping the barrier in sight on your left. At the level of the crescent lake, the barrier disappear which means you do not even have to "illegally" go over it... You just visited the dunes via a different (and nicer) way !
You can go to the dunes by bus (a lot during summer but a few only at other times, usually leaving from hotels at around 17:30. Check at Youhao) for Y3, take a taxi (Y15), or motor pedicab (Y10). If you want to stay up to the sunset, buses might not be available by the time you reach the parking (they usually return at 20:30). Cycling there is therefore a good option.
s Tips : Mark W., Australia/UK (Dec 02)
If you have to spend the night there to catch an early train, you can check Liutie Fandian (557 2102), on the right when you exit the station : Dorm 15 or 25 in 4 or 3 beds' rooms / Dbl with bath 80 / OK toilets / Common shower / HW 24 hrs in dbl, 21 to 23 in common shower. Alternatively, you can sleep on the second floor of the train station for the same reasonable rates...
Notes : To Jiayuguan, sleeper at 21:30 (also buses from small station) / To Lanzhou : sleeper at 10:30,15 & 17 ; buses at 9, 15 & 17 from small station / To Goldmud, the CITS's scam has now disappeared.
Trains << Click there / Although renamed "Dunhuang", the railway station is still at Liuyuan
If like me you take the 4pm bus to Liuyuan, it would be a good idea to reserve your seat in advance and arrive at the station some time before departure : this way you will be able to fight for your right in this crowded bus.
Once at the station, I had no problem buying an hard sleeper ticket as two sleeper trains were scheduled within a few minutes : No205 at 20:30 and No367 at 20:56. The first one (arr. 6:40) cost alternatively 124 or 146 (for the air cond train) but the second one (arr. 7:10) was much cheaper at 96Y. I took it and was right as it was nearly empty.
After a good night sleep and a 5mn walk to the bus station in Daheyan (go straight and turn right at the first intersection, buses on the left around 300m away), I waited 45mn for the hourly bus to Turpan, 49km and 1 hour away on a bad (and desolate) road.
See also trip from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang...