My husband Alex and daughter Isla visited the city of Dunhuang, in China, a couple of years ago and brought back some great photographs. This post is mainly Alex’ thoughts on one aspect of that visit.
Apart from the world-famous Buddhist cave art at Mogao, tourists visit Dunhuang to see the fantastic landscape, particularly the great “megadunes” situated at Mingsha Shan just outside the city. Mingsha Shan means Singing-sand Mountain (or Echoing-sand Mountain) and is probably a reference to the whispering sound of the wind blowing the sand over the dunes.
Situated at the south-west corner of the Gobi desert in Gansu Province, Dunhuang was an oasis at an important point on the ancient Silk Road, just before the route split in two to pass north or south of the Taklimakan desert. Today Dunhuang is visited by tens of thousands of (mainly Chinese) tourists each year.
Megadunes are found in a number of places around the world but those at Dunhuang are among the most accessible. These huge mounds (near Dunhuang they are said to rise to around 1500 metres), are made where there is very fine sand in combination with predictable winds from a number of different directions. It seems unimaginable that such a fine, free-flowing material could naturally pile up so high but the dunes are very persistent, only creeping slowly one way or another with fluctuations in wind patterns.
Climbing the big dunes is very hard work because legs sink deep into the fine sand at every step and every climber quickly learns to follow the ridge-lines as they offer the best footing and gentlest slopes. Each step in the fine material sets off an avalanche, or perhaps something more like a waterfall of flowing sand that often continues for several seconds until each grain finds a new stable position.
A key attraction at Mingsha Shan is the Crescent Moon Lake and its accompanying Leiyin Temple. Despite being surrounded by towering dunes, the spring-fed lake has remained uncovered for at least two thousand years. The temple was once one of around forty Buddhist structures around the lake but these did not survive the Cultural Revolution. The current temple was rebuilt in the 1990s. Sadly, the spring that has fed the little lake for thousands of years has been threatened by ground-water extraction for the modern city and the level has fallen drastically in recent years, so much so that the government has now stepped in to replenish the lake’s water level.
Although the lake may be threatened, the great dunes at least seem immune to man’s actions. However many tourists trample over these structures, sending sand tumbling downwards, the wind just away works quietly at its job of piling it all back up again.