“You must visit Dunhuang once in your life. If you don’t you’ll regret it forever… but if you do go, you’ll regret it twice as much”.
The words of the two old Chinese ladies run through my head as I reflect on how I ended up here; in a taxi at midnight, travelling at 130 km/h through the Gobi desert.
It all started a few days earlier in Urumqi. To get a train to Dunhuang from Urumqi, you need to change trains in the small town of Shulehe, then board another train in the other direction for Dunhuang. The problem is that there are only two trains per day from Shulehe to Dunhuang, both in the early morning. This means that you need to catch an overnight train from Urumqi, arriving even earlier in the morning or stay overnight in Shulehe. The quality of hotels in small Chinese towns starts at the level of flea-pit and goes downhill from there, so that wasn’t an option.
The other option was to go to Liuyuan. Liuyuan is around 130 km from Dunhuang and on the main line from Urumqi. There is a bus from Liuyuan, and another travel blog had assured us that it ran at frequent intervals, 24 hours per day.
We were unable to get a berth on a train that arrived in Shulehe early enough to catch the train to Dunhuang, so we decided on option 2; train and bus via Liuyuan.
We arrived in Liuyuan at 10 pm and exited the station to find that the buses ran every 2 hours until 8pm. After this, the only other option was taxi. We found another traveller going to Dunhuang to share our taxi, so the fare was only ¥40 per person (about A$7) – not bad for a 130 km journey.
So here I am. At midnight on a badly maintained secondary highway in the Gobi desert, travelling at 130 km/h in a dented VW Santana. No street lighting at all, relying on taxi driver’s road knowledge to keep us out of the car-sized pot holes. Frequently travelling on the wrong side of the road to overtake trucks, then swerving back to the right to avoid another taxi travelling in the other direction.
We pass through numerous small villages, asleep at this late hour. One village has a 24 hour service station, and we pull in to fuel up. The service station attendant orders everyone out of the taxi and opens the bonnet. She attaches a small hose to in inlet next to the engine and fills the tank. Many vehicles in Gansu province (including all taxis) are powered by gas. Not LPG, but CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), a resource in which Gansu is rich. In the true Chinese style, most conversions have been done by backyard mechanics, the reason that we must all stand away from the taxi during refuelling.
We are soon back on the road, and it’s only a short distance to Dunhuang. We check into our hotel, and after the usual bureaucratic routine of checking passports and filling in registration cards, we are off to our room. In a final trial for the weary travellers our room is on the third floor and this hotel has no elevator. We climb the large spiral staircase with our heavy luggage before a nice cool shower to wash off the desert dust.