The city of Dunhuang, in north-west China, is situated at a point of vital strategic and logistical importance, on a crossroads of two major trade routes within the Silk Road network. Lying in an oasis at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Dunhuang was one of the first trading cities encountered by merchants arriving in China from the west. It was also an ancient site of Buddhist religious activity, and was a popular destination for pilgrims, as well as acting as a garrison town protecting the region. The remarkable Mogao Caves, a collection of nearly 500 caves in the cliffs to the south of the city, contain the largest depositary of historic documents along the Silk Roads and bear witness to the cultural, religious, social and commercial activity that took place in Dunhuang across the first millennium. The city changed hands many times over its long history, but remained a vibrant hub of exchange until the 11th century, after which its role in Silk Road trade began to decline.
The Silk Road routes from China to the west passed to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and Dunhuang lay on the junction where these two routes came together. Additionally, the city lies near the western edge of the Gobi Desert, and north of the Mingsha Sand Dunes (whose name means ‘gurgling sand’, a reference to the noise of the wind over the dunes), making Dunhuang a vital resting point for merchants and pilgrims travelling through the region from all directions. As such, Dunhuang played a key role in the passage of Silk Road trade to and from China, and over the course of the first millennium AD, was one of the most important cities to grow up on these routes. Dunhuang initially acted as a garrison town protecting the region and its trade routes, and a commandery was established there in the 2nd century BC by the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). A number of ancient passes, such as the Yü Guan or "Jade Gate" and the Yang Guan, or "Southern Gate", illustrate the strategic importance of the city and its position on what amounted to a medieval highway across the deserts.
By the early 1970s Dunhuang’s importance as a trading centre had been largely lost, since the highway and railway built across the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang had bypassed the city to the north at Anxi. However, tourism has grown since the mid-1980s. In addition to the Mogao Caves, ruins of the ancient Yumen and Yangguan passes (the westernmost gates of the Great Wall) are in the northwestern part of the city, and the Mingsha (“Gurgling Sand”) Dunes are southwest of it; all are famous tourist destinations. A huge movie set—constructed in 1987 some 16 miles (25 km) southwest of the city, near the site of the ancient town of Dunhuang—is an important film and television production site as well as a popular tourist attraction. Some small-scale processing industries serving tourists have been established. Highways connect the city to the major rail line from Lanzhou (southeast; the provincial capital) and to Ürümqi (northwest) in Xinjiang. Dunhuang also has an airport, to the east of the city, with flights to domestic cities.
In ancient times, Dunhuang was the trade center between China and its western neighbors. At that time, it was the most westerly frontier military garrison in China. With the flourishing of trade along the Silk Road, it was prompted to become the most open area in international trade in ancient Chinese history. It provided the only access westward for the Chinese Empire and eastward for western nationalities. Today, as a reminder of this historical area, we are left with the Mogao Caves, Yangguan Pass, Yumenguan Pass and many wonderful Chinese poems depicting the time.
Dunhuang Travel Guide
Dunhuang Travel Map
Dunhuang scenic spots
Mogao Grottoes | Mingsha Shan | Yueyaquan Crescent Lake | Yang Great Wall | Jiayuguan Great Wall | Dunhuang Museum | Overhanging Great Wall | Yadan National Geological Park | Yulin Caves | Yumenguan Pass | Wei-Jin Art Gallery