Dunhuang Discovery: Desertscapes and Grottoes

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7 Days
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter
About this Journey

A fertile oasis at the edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert, Dunhuang has been a haven for weary travelers along the Silk Road for millennia. 

It was near this desert outpost that the storied trade route’s southern and northern branches converged, bringing together a melting pot of traders, pilgrims, and monks from across central and southern Asia. Today, the area is backdropped by otherworldly desertscapes and dotted with forts, cave temples, towers, and bustling markets – a desert sanctuary reminiscent of a bygone time.

What we love
  • Exploring the Mogao Grottoes with a resident scholar.
  • Embarking on a camel ride to a private desert dinner.
  • Visiting the lesser known Yulin Grottoes.
Our WildChina Expert: Neil Schmid

Neil Schmid is one of the world’s leading experts on Buddhism’s visual culture with research centering on Dunhuang, a northwestern Chinese medieval archaeological site. He studied Chinese and East Asian Studies extensively at Georgetown University, Waseda University in Tokyo, and L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris before earning his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

With a background in research, written publications, and international development, Neil Schmid has immersed himself in all-things Dunhuang and hopes to inspire creativity through his arts-related work. Now, Neil lives and works within minutes of the famous Mogao Caves and is excitedly taking on another project: becoming the first to compile Dunhuang’s findings into “The Comprehensive Guide to Scholarly Resources for Dunhuang Studies”.

Where you're going

Day 1Arrive in Dunhuang

Airport Pick Up

Upon arriving at Dunhuang airport, your local WildChina guide will meet you in the arrival hall with your private vehicle on standby, ready to start your adventure.

First Stop: Dunhuang

A fertile oasis at the edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert, Dunhuang has been a haven for weary travelers along the Silk Road for millennia. It was near this desert outpost that the storied trade route’s southern and northern branches converged, bringing together a melting pot of traders, pilgrims, and monks from across central and southern Asia. Today, the area is backdropped by otherworldly desertscapes and dotted with forts, cave temples, towers, and bustling markets – a desert sanctuary reminiscent of a bygone time.

Day 2Dunhuang

Sunrise at the Mingsha Sand Dunes

Rise early and catch a picture-perfect sunrise from the thousand-foot/300-meter high Mingsha Sand Dunes. Marco Polo dubbed them the “rumbling sands”, for the sounds they make when the wind blows, ranging from a B to a C sharp in pitch. This will be followed by a camel ride to Crescent Moon Lake, a dainty oasis of green amid the enormous and notoriously inhospitable Taklamakan Desert.

Mingsha Sand Dunes and Crescent Moon Lake

The unique whistling sound that sings through the desert when the wind blows, gave “Singing Sand Mountain” its name. At its northern foot lies Crescent Moon Lake, considered one of China’s most interesting geographical features. The lake is a natural wonder, never accumulating sand from the desert, or overflowing from too much rain and is striking against its sandy surroundings.

We’ll arrange you to take a camel ride at the sand dunes.

Street Food Lunch

Enjoy a local lunch on the city’s most famous food street. If you’re feeling adventurous, be sure to let your WildChina guide know. They’ll help you to order a few of the region’s more unusual delicacies.

Expert-led Mogao Grottoes Tour

Dug out of the western cliffs of the Mingsha Mountains, this complex of 492 grottoes surrounded by harsh desert represents the pinnacle of Chinese Buddhist art. Created over the course of 1,000 years starting in the fourth century, the grottoes were used for meditation, worship and to store paintings, frescoes, and sculptures. It also housed innumerable manuscripts, most notably the Diamond Sutra, which was produced in the year 868, making it the earliest dated and printed book yet found.

With the expert guidance from Dr. Neil Schmid, Scholar-in-Residence at the Dunhuang Academy, dive deep into the amazing treasures of this magnificent site.

Desert Dinner and Bonfire

Round out your day in Dunhuang like the Silk Road merchants of old – with an alfresco dinner and bonfire in the desert. Work up an appetite as you set out by camel for your own private eatery amid the sand dunes, where your spread of Gansu favorites awaits. Upon your arrival, hop off your trusty steed and indulge in an array of local specialties before relaxing in front of the warming fire.

Day 3Dunhuang

Yadan National Geological Park

Make your way to Yadan National Geological Park, an ancient lakebed peppered with a slew of surreal land formations. As water levels receded and the unrelenting wind took over, sediment was eroded into the whimsical shapes you can see today, and the famous film director Zhang Yimou capitalized on the whimsical qualities of this remote region in his movie Hero. However, these eroded land formations continue to be eroded to this day, and in time the myriad of sculptures will reduced to dust by the wind, like golems returning to the earth.

Yumen Pass

Yumen, which means “Jade Gate,” was given its name due to the gleaming tide of jade that once passed through it, which for centuries served as a major trade post filled with traveling merchants, military generals and exotic emissaries. In its heyday, gems and silk flowed westwards while music, art and religion streamed into central China. The pass was gradually abandoned over the centuries as smoother trade routes were discovered.

The Ruins of the Han Great Wall

Today, we’ll visit what was once part of the longest section of the Great Wall in history – and it looks nothing like its counterpart in the capital. The Great Wall of the Han Dynasty once spanned over 6,214 miles (10,000 kilometers) across vast and diverse landscapes in northern and western China. Mostly built around 121 BC – in order to defend against the Xiongnu, the Mongol Empire of the time – the Wall was created by local people under the orders of the Han Dynasty rulers. They were told to use whatever they could to create a wall that protected the kingdom. Here, close to the Yumen Pass and the endless Gobi Desert, explore the ruins of a wall built mostly with Gobi sand and hear stories of the people who defended it.

Shazhou Night Market

Shazhou Night Market is the largest outdoor market in Dunhuang and is unofficially divided into separate specialty areas such as handicrafts, antiques, tea and local products. The road in front of the market is lined with over 100 stalls, selling handicrafts and other cultural items like crystal, jade, Dunhuang silk carpets and “glow in the dark” stone cups. For some entertainment, you can also watch amauteurs performing opera street shows.

Day 4Depart Dunhuang

Yulin Grottoes

Tucked away 60 miles (100 km) east of Dunhuang are the Yulin Grottoes, a series of forty-two Buddhist caves filled with frescoes, paintings and multi-hued sculptures. Chiseled into both cliff-sides bordering the Yulin River, the caves were once referred to as the “Ten Thousand Buddha Gorge,” and the images of Buddha, bodhisattvas, mythical beasts and religious insignia embody over a millennium of spiritual transformation.

Transfer to Airport

Your WildChina guide and private chauffeur will escort you to the airport and help you check in to your departure flight.

Silk Road Dunhuang

4 star

Situated in a pleasant corner of town, the Picturesque 4-star Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel’s atmosphere and local service make the ancient trade route’s history come alive.


Recommended seasons





What’s Included

  • All overland transfers with private chauffeur and in-transport refreshments
  • All admission fees and activity expenses, as noted in the itinerary
  • All meals as noted in the itinerary with complimentary drinking water
  • Ground transportation, including airport transfers
  • Services of an English-speaking WildChina guide
  • Private chauffeur service to and from airport at start and end of your trip

What’s Excluded

  • International and domestic flights, domestic trains, plus relevant taxes
  • Chinese tourist visa, which is required for most foreign passport holders
  • Travel and medical insurance
  • Meals, apart from those included in the itinerary, and alcohol
  • Expenses of a personal nature
  • Excursions and activities not included in the itinerary
  • Discretionary gratuities for guides and drivers

Domestic Air & Train Travel

The land costs above do not include domestic flights and trains.

Why WildChina

We’re on the ground with you

Our team of advisors will design every detail of the trip with you through close consultation, then orchestrate your entire journey while on the ground. We’re in the same time zone as you, so we can fulfill requests and handle issues without a hitch. With over 40 staff in Beijing and an expansive network of operational partners across the country, we have the manpower to ensure your journey is safe, reliable and comfortable from beginning to end.

Your trip, your way

Flexibility is our highest-ranking compliment. We pull off journeys for pioneers with a 6-hour layover to Hollywood’s elite, and everywhere in between. Our team regularly pulls off unprecedented logistical feats; nearly any time frame or budget is within our realm. No matter how you wish to experience China, we are here to bring that dream to life.

We embody passion

WildChina guides are carefully handpicked for their knowledge and charisma, then meticulously trained to maintain our exceptional service standards. They are expert storytellers and passionate natives of the regions where they guide, having the perfect combination of local insights and service know-how to bring you seamless once-in-a- lifetime moments all across China.

The little things, the big picture

Supporting inspired local economies allows you to experience the soul of the destination, while also protecting and cultivating China’s artisanal culture. From watching artisans hand make shoes in Yunnan, to picking organic vegetables for dinner on a local farm in Fujian, our tours are designed to showcase and protect China’s heritage, both natural and human.