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Welcome to Dunhuang

Coal Plant

We had, in the planning of this adventure, expected Dunhaung to be a mere whistle-stop on an obscure Chinese train-line. In fact, we suspected it was something like Tatueen (the desert planet from which Luke Skywalker appears in the original first star wars movie). Dunhaung appeared in only the most recent Chinese train documentation, and was not even listed in our overseas rail schedule. But in our assumption, we were, however, sourly mistaken. The Dunhaung train station towered outside our train car in gleaming blocks of sandstone and glass. It did, however, seem to take architectural queues primarily from star wars.  So we were correct on some level… We would not have been surprised to find Jaba the hut holding court inside, or if a storm trooper were to walk around the corner.

One can, in china, only buy a ticket if one is located in a provence that is either the destination or the origination of the train. We had –and I must here thank once again our dear Benjamin Li, and the ruthlessly beautiful Ms. Goa Jie– been able to buy all our tickets ahead of time through channels in the ever-growing AsiaWheeling Rapid Support Network. We, however, lacked a contact in Gansu provence, and as such we forced to buy tickets upon our arrival.

We walked around the monolithic structure, which proved to be indeed located amidst Tatueen-esque desert, with mountainous sand dunes looming in the distance. The interior of the station proved appropriately to be something like a raided tomb. With many counters, all dark and empty, light coming in only from windows high above us, giving an underground tomblike feel, and a peculiar infestation of little green beetles. We struggled for some time, and in the end walked away with a couple of middle bunk seats, not next to each other, on tomorrow’s train to Xi’an.

Outside the train station, the packed sand parking-lot held a crowd of taxi drivers shouting at those exiting the train. A police officer stood on the edge of the stone landing which separated Jaba the hut’s palace from Tauteen. From time to time, a cabby would edge too close to the platform and the policeman would send him or her away with some harsh words and a brandishing of his nightstick. In china it is illegal for non-licenced (and therefor non-metered) cabs to operate, or for cabbies to actively soliciting fairs. This rule seemed somewhat bent here, as we discovered all the cabs to be empty, their drivers ebbing at the shores of Jaba’s palace. And no where could we find a normal taxi.

So we relented to a woman who had been hounding us. An unknowing viewer, or perhaps she herself, may have thought now that she was our tour-guide for the rest of the trip. For, overwhelmed with joy and enthusiasm at our acceptance of the offer for a ride, she began to positively scream with excitement and produced from her purse a great blue umbrella, and popped it open with a flourish. The flourish was only slightly diminished by the fact that the umbrella opened awkwardly into a mangled inverse of the usual shape.

She lead us, walking under her most bizzare blue umbrella, to her cab. The driver was finishing a cigaret and she climbed in with him. Were we in Russia, I would have bailed the moment we entered a situation where we did not outnumber our cab drivers. But China is a different place. We felt safe. The entire ride, she tried hard to sell us on a tour of the caves, which were of Buddhist significance and one of the main tourist attractions of Dunhuang. We also found that, only the day after we were to leave Dunhaung, the Olympic torch was going to be relayed through the streets. It was quickly becoming obvious that Dunhuang was not the Tatueen that we had imagined. When we had reached the town center, we tried to get them to stop the cab, and initially, they seemed to keep going, saying, “oh just around this corner.” But after we started raising our voices and sweating a little. They stopped.

We paid the woman and began to look for a hotel. Dunhaung was most certainly a tourist trap. There was plenty of money here and plenty of visitors adding theirs to the local pot. But, it did not feel like a real city. Everything was manicured and formed for maximum esthetic and commercial utilization. It was something like a ski-village crossed with a desert hub. Take Vale, add a hefty pinch of Moab, salt liberally with chinese 5 spice, and bake it in some of the driest hottest air you’ve ever breathed; and you’ve about got it.


We poked our head into a few hotels, all the while fending off tour guides and a barrage of “hello!”s. Eventually, tired of carrying our packs around we simply checked in to a centrally located not too expensive place. We tried spitting business cards and bargaining on the price, but we were only able to diminish it from 140 RMB per night to 130. Whatever. We were tired, hungry, and Scott in particular was dragging hard. In fact Scott had been trailing behind me significantly on our march through the city. We walked into our room, which had a slightly funky smell. We stuck our head into the bathroom and caught a terribly nasty and decidedly fecal whiff. Rather than complain, we threw our bags down. Slammed the door of the bathroom, and set out into the city.

We ate some crispy steamed-then-clay-oven-baked dumplings at a little stand in the market, and then, much refueled, started the search for bicycles. The search stretched on and on, as we walked through the heat, visiting place after place, asking at hotels and bike shops. Everywhere we saw people riding, and the city’s wide, shaded bike likes called to us, but no one would rent us a bike. At one particularly nice hotel, the clerk offered us her own bike. We walked out to give it a test ride, but found it prohibitively small. While scott rode it in circles in the parking lot, bumping his knees against the handlebars, a security guard appeared riding s similarly tiny bike. This too was unridabley miniature. So we thanked them and as the guard rode off, somewhat reminiscently of the shriners in Grinnell Iowa parades, we kept moving asking pedestrian after pedestrian, employing the Indian method.

Asking where is the nearest moisture farm

It was three hours and 2 more failed bikes (a couple too small and a couple too busted) later that we stumbled upon a place which finally had a promisingly large selection of 5 or 6 reasonably sized bikes, some of which looked downright savage. We were slightly disheartened to find almost all of them to be unridable. But there were two, mine with its rear drum brake somehow permanently engaged, and Scott’s, with an unsettling wobble in the motion of the pedals, which we deemed to be, in these dire straights, serviceable.

Scott Wheeling Hard

Then we were off. It felt good, after all that walking. Let me assure you, dear reader. As we rode, the boiling heat of the day was replaced with the [albeit anhydrous] breeze of wheeling. And with new energy, we set off, away from the tourist center and into the cuts of Dunhaung.

Lumber Yard

The surrounding villages were beautiful. We were passed from time to time by large vans blaring music, but for the most part the traffic was light and two wheeled. Again and again we crossed muddy irrigation channels, and small farming plots hedged the road to either side. The air, however, continued to be so dry that it seemed we could not drink water fast enough. My front basket was soon overflowing with empty half-liter water bottles, so full in fact that they bounced free, tumbling emptily down the road, I hit a pothole, or when the chain skipped a beat.


Farms thinned into a patch of desert and then we emerged into a second urban section, this one was decidedly not a tourist trap. As we pulled onto the main drag, we were greeted by a giant sign, proclaiming this the commercial central district. A cluster of old men, playing cards and yelling at us in chinese, intersperses their cried with “hello”s here and there. We have, over out time in china come to understand these as a kind of insult. So we rode on. Soon we were in a new looking housing development with a giant fountain and a monstrous sculpture in the center. As we rode by, the fountain began to erupt in a short music and water show.

Dunhuang Water Sculpture

On our way back to Dunhaung, we took the truck rout. And to either side of us, tire and repair shops extended as far as the eye can see. Dunhuang is obviously the only service station for some time on the highways through the gobe desert. As we rode, Scott began to slow down and complain of his stomach. Remembering the rankness of our bathroom back at the hotel, we decided to visit the nicest hotel in Dunhaung, and see if we couldn’t finagle their facilities.

Life on Tatooine

It was a brand new, towering, starwars-esque palace, on the banks of a giant irrigation canal filled with bright green water. We toiled in the heat trying to lock our rusted and deteriorated cycles in a brand new corner of the brand new parking lot. We noticed we were attracting the attention of the 4 or 5 guards who patrolled the front parking/drop-off area of the hotel. Finally victorious, we strode confidently into the main lobby, and they gave us no greif. We were immediately approached by a man who’s name-tag said “Patrick.” He was a Han fellow who spoke reasonable english. I took bishop, and presented him with my business card. “Global Bicycle Adventure Company…” he read “Su Shoa Mu [my Chinese name] physics researcher and exploredr..” He seemed (quite justifiably) puzzled. I struggled to look important. I asked if we could see the restaurant. “We have two,” he said, “one Western and one chinese.”

“I’d like to see both.” After taking the tour of the western restaurant and scrutinizing the menu there, I asked the fellow, “Is there, by any chance, a restroom that my compatriot here could use?” I motioned to Scott, who had been following along, and was turning greener and paler by the moment. He looked at me quizzically and I leaned in close to his face “Cu-Suo!” (bathroom, in a terrible accent) He made a grimace as if to say, who the hell are these bizarre foreigners?

I toured the upstairs, Chinese restaurant (and for any of you looking to eat at one of the two restaurants in the nicest hotel in Dunhuang, this is my recommendation). And we were just beginning to talk about visiting the roof, so as to take in the view, when we returned to the lobby where Scott was waiting, looking much recovered.

Excellent! I thanked him warmly, and we were once again wheeling. We then struck out towards the dune mountains and some of Dunhaung’s more renound tourist sites. The road on which we wheeled, was lined with substantial metal barriers, emblazoned with olympic propaganda. It was this road down which the olympic torch was to be run.

Woody Wheeling Towards Dunes

And I must admit, it was quite a road, wide and newly paved, with generous bike lanes on either side. Unfortunately, the metal barrier had been placed between the bike lane and the road, so that anyone wishing to access the bike lane was forced to throw their bike over this fencing, or ride for what was sometimes as much as a mile, until they found a break in it. But find one we did, and soon we were happily wheeling down the brand new, flat, shaded, and quite generous path towards the looming dunes.

Dunes and Road

As with all the “must hit” tourist spots in chinese cities, a wall had been erected so that one could barely even see the attraction from the road. Also, entrance fees had tripled as of late. So rather than pay 20 dollars a person to see a spring (and, I must admit, a raging palace) in the desert, we simply rode by. It was about then that Scott’s stomach took a turn for the worst. It was our suspicion that the culprit was the Uighur snack mix we had been so happily eating the night before.

Also, the bikes were starting to show us a more beastly side, groaning and clicking with increasing vehemence. Scott’s had developed a no longer cooperative relation with his rear end, so we took them back. We were both exhausted, and to be honest, though I was not sweating and paling in the way Scott was, I was tired and felt a little schfach too.

Scott’s condition diminished further. At dinner, he pecked at his food, and clutched his stomach in pain. We decided to take a taxi the four blocks back to the hotel. Scott, safely in bed, I went out to stock up on water bottles. We hunkered down for the night, hoping an evening of sleeping and rehydrating might find us the next morning much recovered. Scott snoozed, I worked on correspondence, read, and tried not to fret about Scott’s condition. Meanwhile, Scott adopted the optimistic and joking attitude of a brave man in nasty weather.

The desert sun blazed on into the night, and we slept.


  1. Thomas | April 12th, 2011 | 6:44 am

    Really apreciate your posts man

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