Academics can’t quite agree how Buddhism first arrived in China from India, but one of the most plausible theories is that it came along the Silk Road, and the Mogao Grottoes near Gansu province’s Dunhuang are one of the key pieces of evidence to support this claim.
The Unesco-protected caves host one of the biggest collections of early Buddhist art in China, dating back to 366AD, but unfortunately the site has become something of a tourist trap.
However, an increasing number of cafés and hostels in Dunhuang offer camping trips out into the nearby Gobi desert, enabling you to escape the crowds in a thoroughly rewarding manner. Heading out into the middle of the desert might not seem like an ideal break, but camel treks to sites such as Crescent Lake (a half-moon-shaped body of water beside a dusty pagoda) and the nearby Mingsha Shan, or ‘Singing Sand Dunes’ (so-called because of the sound caused by winds whipping over the top of the sand), make for memorable trips.
Tours can be tailored to individual requests, with a standard journey to the lake and dunes costing around 400RMB a day and most including a camp stay overnight. Temperatures are regularly below freezing during the winter months, so best visit between April and October.
Return flights to Lanzhou start from 900 RMB with Ctrip.
From Lanzhou, it’s a 13-hour train ride to Dunhuang, costing from 244.50RMB for a hard sleeper. Rooms at the basic, but rustically charming Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse (1389 3763 029), located on the outskirts of the city, start from 100RMB a night.
Its sister establishment, Charley Johng’s Café, on Mingshan Lu, is also one of the better places to organise camel treks and camping trips – something you absolutely want to experience.