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Visitor's Guide to the Mingsha Sand Dunes


Visitor's Guide to the Mingsha Sand Dunes

Large sand dunes create the backdrop for Dunhuang

© 2012 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.


The Mingsha Sand Dunes are an area outside Dunhuang that covers an enormous area. They are 40km from east to west and 20km north to south. The highest dune measures 1,750m. The dunes create a striking backdrop to the arid landscape around Dunhuang. Mingsha means singing or echoing sand. The dunes were so named for the sound the wind makes at certain times and is unexplained, although there are many theories. Our guide told us that the dunes themselves were blown in from the Taklamakan Desert - but gave not reasoning as to why the sand didn't just keep blowing. Aside from their mystery, a visit to the dunes is a must.

Visiting the Dunes:

If you are on a tour through the Dunhuang area, then it will most certainly include a half-day at the dunes. If you are planning a visit yourself, you might want to think about several visits at different parts of the day - although high noon should be avoided in spring-summer weather as the sun gets quite intense.

Our group visited the dunes for a half-day in the morning. We had the Mogao Caves already schedule for the afternoon. To do it again, I would spend more time at the dunes exploring but a half-day is certainly enough, especially if you are sensitive to sun and heat (and sand!).

How to Visit the Dunes:

All visitors enter through a main gate and pay and entry fee + a nominal feel for use of the orange lace-up shoe/leg covers that, while looking ridiculous, provide needed protection against the deep sand that will inundate your footwear if you consider not renting the covers.

After gearing up, it's up to you how to experience the dunes. You may choose to walk around but there are all kinds of transportation choices to get you around the dunes besides your feet: camels, dune buggies, jeeps, 2-man gliders among others.

Our group happily chose a camel ride for our trek over the dunes.

Preparing for the Dunes:

We visited the dunes in mid-May and began our tour around 9:45 a.m. I mention this because it already felt extremely hot at 9:45 in May, so the temperatures will only go up as the summer approaches. The sun is very intense and there is absolutely no shade once you leave the camel staging area so make sure your skin is protected.

While it was warm, we were not uncomfortable. After carefully considering what to pack for our Gansu trip, I'd recommend wearing lightweight pants, t-shirt, shoes (not sandals), hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen.

Kid Friendly?:

As with every place I visit in China, I had my kids in mind. I was wishing I had my seven-year-old along as he would have really enjoyed not only the camel ride, but also climbing around on the dunes and exploring the area.

We were told that kids of any age are welcome to visit but they would probably need to be seven or eight before they could ride a camel on their own. Smaller children sit in the saddle in front of an adult.

The heat and length of time in the sun should be a big consideration for kids. As long as they are well protected from the sun and have plenty of water to drink, they should have a great time.

Guide Comments:

I had a romantic image of what Gansu and the Gobi Desert would be like and the Mingsha Dunes illustrate the ideal of the Silk Road perfectly. It is a great first-stop on an itinerary to the area as it forcefully grounds you into the landscape and makes you consider the elements that people in the area have dealt with for thousands of years. And while the climate might take some time to become accustomed to, it is due to the dry climate that so much along the Silk Road has been preserved.

Detailed Dune Visit:

As mentioned, we began our visit at 9:30 in the morning and stayed until about 11:45 then headed back to our hotel for lunch and preparation for our visit to the Mogao Grottoes. In the two+ hours we had at the dunes, we did the following (see photos and read even more details at Camel Trekking in the Mingsha Sand Dunes:
  • Entered and donned our orange boots. This period included plenty of time for mocking each other and taking silly photos.
  • Got organized into camel packs. You'll be given a number that somehow (mysteriously) matches a camel's number. If you're more than five people, you might be broken up as they tend to want only five people per camel group. A leathered, cigarette-smoking, Dunhuang camel-hand will bark you onto your camel which may or may not agree to have you on its back. Fear not, the poor beasts are cajoled into submission but getting on and off can be tricky. (No one in our group fell off, though we did lose a camera cover, a water bottle and a hat along the way.)
  • Trekked along the dunes with our camel guide towing the lead-camel's nose-attached lead. We paused to take plenty of photos and were privy to the full breadth of camel sights, sounds and smells.
  • Trekked without camels to the tallest dune. We pre-purchased slide (yes that's right) tickets so that after our self-trek, we could be put two by two onto inner tubes to slide down a pre-formed rut in the sand.
  • Found our camels for continuation of the trek to the Crescent Moon Lake. Post slide, and a visit to perhaps the foulest restroom in all of Mainland China, we got back on our trusty camels to finish the trek to the Crescent Moon Lake - a natural oasis on the other side of the dunes. The "lake" has been helped into the shape of a crescent moon (I guess an ancient oasis isn't impressive enough by itself). There is a temple complex next to the lake and the green against the sand makes a beautiful scene.
  • Had a very brief visit to a souvenir stall where I bought empty bottles for us to fill up with Gobi Desert sand and then we hopped an electronic shuttle for the five-minute drive back to the gate.

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