by Derrik Flahive ’13
We started off the day with a 4 hour long bus ride from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang. We enjoyed a great sunrise over the snowcapped peaks of the Qilian mountains. The mountains faded out of view as the stark and sandy loess soil of the Gobi desert dominated the landscape for the rest of the bus ride. This area is deserted and not suitable for farming. Northwest China contains 30% of China’s total land area but only 4% of China’s population lives here in this immense and bare snow dusted prairie tundra. The bleak landscape is lightly covered with camel grass that has the same brownish yellow color and spurs as Canadian thistle. We drove through dust storms that wisped across the road, making it difficult to see more than 100 yards in any direction. Our driver really struggled with the wind as our bus swerved left and right. It is obvious this place has a lot of dust storms because the paint on what seems to be previously white houses has been chipped and blown off.
Wind farm after wind farm dotted the countryside of this uninhabited place. Witnessing China’s attempt to create reusable energy reminded me of seeing row after row of corn supplying both livestock and ethanol in the States. These wind farms were enormous – certainly the largest I have ever seen.
We reached Dunhuang to check into our hotel and ate lunch at a local restaurant that specializes in local food. Traditionally, Dunhuang is a city where people load up on food, gear, and camels (or “desert ponies” as Brad calls them) for their long trek across the desert. I felt this come across as we passed through very busy Chinese street market on our way to and from lunch. For sale at this market were cow and pig heads, hearts, stomachs, and other fresh goodies accompanying more typical tea and fruit. This market also had an extensive selection of seafood. Lunch for us consisted of the special local food of the day, which was cold donkey meat served with bone marrow jelly (our guide, Eagle, advised that this is “especially good for girls”). Our guide Ali served us light green Ooling tea in shot glasses, which helped ease into food that Erik described as something “he has definitely never tasted before, but once you accept that, its actually pretty good”. The atmosphere of this mom and pop joint was great as it had only five tables and was heated by a coal-powered stove centered in the middle of dining room. This stove heated a pot of noodle water that accompanied the meal. This stuff is mad starchy, but tolerable.
The main attraction of the day was definitely the camel ride on the sand dunes near Dunhuang. This place looks almost exactly like something out of Aladdin. We paid 80 yuan to ride to Crescent Moon Spring. After we finished, Chih (who had rejoined our group after a short hiatus) said that the decision to take the camels ride was “the best 80 Yuan I’ve ever spent in China.” I have to agree with Chi on this one, and it feels great to have him back with us till the end as he adds an experienced dynamic to the trip.
This was no ordinary dune camel ride. We rode up a long ridge and dismounted at the base of one of the steepest dunes. It was peacefully quiet, a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the urban cities we have spent so much time in this trip. There was a great view of the area at the top, so we chilled at the top and sat on the snow covered ridge until we went numb and then returned to the caravan of camels for the next leg of the journey. How did we get down this dune to the camels? Some ran down, some rode sleds, some cartwheeled and tomahawked, and others face planted down the dune. We remounted our trusty desert beasts and continued on to the spring.
The camels had a bolt placed through their nose, which obviously aggravated the camel, for when they were pulled around by their noses they would make noises I have only heard from Star Wars or dinosaurs. Who would have thought that those movies derived their monster sounds from camels? Honestly, I felt a little guilty about the camels and I felt like taking them home with me, especially after hearing that one camel costs only 10,000 Yuan (cheaper than Professor Brown’s dog, he said over dinner).
Regardless, we rode them to the spring. This is where the stars can be seen to reflect off the water and “take a bath,” Eagle said. This is also the place where Rick took the biggest tumble I have ever seen while racing JJ down the hill to the spring. He was going as fast as possible and caught a toe in the sand and face planted so hard that his back arched in a way that looked like a crescent moon itself. He shook it off quite nicely, but I wish I caught it on camera because it was the most epic face plant of the trip. Well-done, Rick!
As we remounted our camels for the final stretch of our dune adventure, Petya lost focus and missed the departure of her caravan of camels. She resorted to stealing the guide’s camel. The guide was stunned and didn’t know what to say, so he just let it happen Petya rode the guide’s lead camel and the guide walked the caravan back to the stable instead of riding his camel.