10 Exciting Things to Do in Dunhuang, China in 2023

Dunhuang is a desert outpost in China’s far western Gansu Province and was an important trading post on the ancient Silk Road. There are lots of great things to do in Dunhuang from adventures in the desert to exploring SIlk Road ruins, ancient temples and more.

The ancient settlement of Dunhuang was an important stop for caravans travelling the silk routes, as well as those travelling from Lhasa in Tibet to Mongolia.

The city is home to some unique tourist sites including the UNESCO-listed Mogao Caves (similar to the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang). The city is perched on the edge of the Gobi Desert and is a great place to explore the “singing sand dunes” and beautiful Cescent Moon Lake.

Boring stuff: I have visited each of the places I recommend and give you my honest opinion, warts and all. All photos are my own unless otherwise stated and may not be reproduced without permission. Affiliate links may earn a commission at no extra cost to you.

Check out my other articles about China tourist attractions:

Top 10 Things To Do in Dunhuang

1. Marvel at the Mogao Caves

Mogao Caves, China
Mogao Caves, China

Home to over 1,000 years of Buddhist Art, the UNESCO Mogao Caves at Dunhuang contain a series of statues of the Buddha carved into the rock. The caves afre one of three such sites in China which also includes the Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang and the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province.

There are regular buses from Dunhuang rail station and city centre to the caves. A taxi will cost around ¥50 ($4.60) from anywhere in the city. The Mogao Caves are one of the most impressive cultural landmarks in China and one of the top things to do in Dunhuang.

See Mogao Caves location on Gogle maps.

Opening hours: 08:00-18:00, Mon-Sun
Ticket price: ¥258.00 ($40.00)
Time needed to visit: Two to three hours

2. Visit Crescent Moon Lake

Crescent Lake Dunhuang
Crescent Lake Dunhuang

The Crescent Lake, which is considered a natural wonder of the Gobi Desert, is an oasis located 6km south of Dunhuang in China’s western Gansu Province. This Chinese landmark is something of an enigma as it has existed for thousands of years and was considered a special place during the Han Dynasty (202BC to 220AD).

Because the lake is dwarfed by the surrounding sand dunes, it’s a wonder it hasn’t filled up and been covered over many times, but due to a natural depression, the winds blow the sand across the nearby singing sand dunes and away from the spring.

Take bus No 3 from Dunhuang City to Yuyaquan Bus Stop (Visitors Centre). A taxi from anywhere in the city should cost around ¥30 ($4.60).

Opening hours: 05:00-20:30, Mon-Sun
Ticket price: ¥110.00 ($17.00)
Time needed to visit: Half a day

Tickets include Cescent Moon Lake, Mingyue Pavilion and the Singing Sand Dunes and are valid for three days.

3. Explore Mingyue Pavilion

Crescent Lake, Dunhuang Silk Road
Mingyue Pavilion and Crescent Lake, Dunhuang Silk Road

Mingyue Pavilion is a large temple and paviolion complex next to Crescent Lake and well worth exploring. The sand dunes back right up to the pavilion and it looks as though it will be swallowed up by the desert at any moment.

Mingyue in its present form dates to the Han Dynasty (202BC to 220AD). There is a small gift shop and kiosks selling drinks and snacks as well as public toilets. You can climb the pagoda tower for stunning views of the lake and surrounding desert.

Opening hours: 05:00-20:30, Mon-Sun
Ticket price: ¥110.00 ($17.00)
Time needed to visit: One to two hours

Entrance to the Mingyue Pavilion is included within the entrance ticket to the scenic area and is open frmo 5:00am to 8:30pm.

4. Visit Echoing Sand Mountain (Mingsha Shan)

Camels in the Desert
Camels in the Desert

Another natural phenomenon at Dunhuang is the singing sand dunes or echoing sand moutnain. As the wind rushes over the sand, a gentle music-like sound can be heard.

Legend dictates that during the height of a large battle, the wind blew sand over the amassed warriors. The soldiers fought beneath the sand thus producing Echoing Sand Mountain!

There is another theory that the static produced by wind changing direction over the sand makes the dunes echo, but I know which version I prefer to believe! Either way, a hike up to the top of the dune provides wonderful views across the desert and down to Crescent Lake.

To get to Crescent Lake and Minsha Shan from downtown Dunhuang, take bus number 3 or jump in a taxi which should cost no more than ¥20.

Opening hours: 05:00 to 20:30
Ticket price: ¥110.00 ($17.00)
Time needed to visit: One to two days

Tickets include Cescent Moon Lake and the Singing Sand Dunes and are valid for three days.

5. Take a Helicopter Ride Over the Desert

For thrill seekers, taking a helicopter ride out over the desert is one of the best things to do in Dunhuang.

6. See the White Horse Pagoda (Beima Pagoda)

Originally built during the 4th century, White Horse Pagoda was a shrine to the white horse of Buddhist scholar Kumarajiva. This is one of the top Dunhuang tourist attractions and is worth a visit for the history, architecture and peaceful courtyard.

The pagoda, which reaches 12 metres(39 feet) high was rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty 91644 to 1911). The pagoda is set within tranquil gardens and is a very peaceful places with few visitors.

The pagoda is easily reachable from the city on foot. You can also take bus No 1 to Dange Lijing. A taxi from anywhere in the city should cost around ¥15 ($2.30)

Opening hours: 08:00am-6:00pm, Mon-Sun
Ticket price: ¥15 ($2.30)
Time needed to visit: Under one hour

7. Visit Shazhou Night Market

Market, Dunhuang
Market, Dunhuang Silk Road

Shazhou night market on East Yangguan Road is a great place to try local speciality food. As Gansu is not far from Xinjiang, the food here is similar to Central Asian cuisine. One of the most famous dishes from the region is yellow noodles with donkey meat.

Lamb and mutton are also popular, however vegetarians need not break out in a cold sweat as plenty of vegetable and noodle dishes are meat-free.

The night market is also a great place to browse and pick up authentic handicrafts, including locally made carpets, pottery and paintings.

8. Visit Dunhuang Museum

Dunhuang Museum houses an impressive collection of relics unearthed from the Mogao Caves and other excavation sites nearby. This is one of the best free things to do in Dunhuang and a must visit for those wanting to know more about the areas interesting history and association with the SIlk Road.

Opening hours: 9:00am-6:00pm, Tue-Su
Ticket price: free
Time needed to visit: One to two hours

Address: Mingshan Road

How to get to Dunhuang Museum

Take bus 3 to Bowuguan Stop (Dunhuang Museum)

9. Visit the Ancient Fortress

10. Go Stargazing in the Desert

One of the highlights of my trip to Dunhuang was going into the desert at night to see the incredible skies. With very little light polution in this empty expanse of far western China it’s the perfect place for stargazing and night photography.

Getting to the city from Dunhuang International Airport

The airport is just 15km from central Dunhuang and 13km from the Magoa Caves. A taxi should cost around ¥40 ($6.20) to either.

There is an airport shuttle bus that goes to the Dunhe Hotel in central Dunhuang between 08:00 and 20:00. Ticket price is ¥10 ($1.60) and takes 20 minutes.

Getting around Dunhuang

Dunhuang is a very small city and it’s easy to get around on foot. There are buses to all the main tourist sites. Taxis are ubiquitous and make a cheap and easy way to get around.

Best Time to Visit Dunhuang

Dunhuang has a desert climate with long, hot summers and cold winters. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit to avoid the highest temperatres.

Camels at Dunhuang Silk Road
Camels at Dunhuang Silk Road

Entrance to Dunhuang Silk Road Scenic Area

Tips for travelling in the desert

It goes without saying that deserts can be hot places, so sunscreen and plenty of water are a must. You can buy water, hats and sunscreen at the entrance to the scenic area.

It would also be wise to buy a face mask, especially if you suffer from asthma or other respiratory illnesses. I came down with flu-like symptoms after two days in the desert thanks to the amount of dust I inhaled.

Avoid visiting the desert during the middle of the day and instead opt for cooler early mornings or evenings. The sunrise and sunsets across the dunes are fantastic!

Keep all electronic equipment sealed in plastic bags if possible. You can buy special protective coverings for cameras at the entrance to the park.

Where to stay in Dunhuang

There are many hotels and a couple of hostels in Dunhuang town and closer to the scenic area. Check Booking.com to view available rooms.

How to get to Dunhuang Silk Road

Singing Sand Dunes
Singing Sand Dunes at Dunhuang Silk Road

The closest major Chinese city to Dunhuang is Urumqi, but don’t let that fool you because Urumqi is one of the most remote places on the planet and geographically as far as it’s possible to get from any coastline.

However with China’s excellent rail and domestic flight services, it doesn’t have to take weeks/months by camel to reach Dunhuang these days.

Dunhuang Silk Road by Air

Although Dunhuang Airport doesn’t currently service any international routes, there are flights to and from most major Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghia, Xi’an, Chengdu and Urumqi.

Routes are operated by Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and a few smaller carriers. Visit the Trip.com website for great deals on domestic flights in China.

A flight from Beijing will take 3.5 hours and cost ¥2,440 (€325/$365) which is a little expensive, so consider taking a train if time allows which costs 10% of a flight.

Dunhuang Silk Road by Train

There is one train per day leaving Beijing at 20:45 and arriving two days later at 09:06 (Seat: ¥273.50 Hard Sleeper ¥496.50 Soft Sleeper ¥767.50).

However, it would make more sense to stop somewhere along the way to break the journey up. Xi’an or Luoyang would make a good option.

There is one train a day from Xi’an to Dunhuang leaving at 10:27 and arriving the next morning at 08:38. Seat: ¥206 Hard Sleeper ¥377 Soft Sleeper ¥582.

Read how to buy Train Tickets in China for more information.

West to East: If you are coming from Urumqi (or Kazakhstan) you can take a fast train to Jiayuguan. The journey time is 6.5 hours and there are 4 fast trains per day between 08:43 and 11:06. A second-class seat costs ¥336 and first class is ¥538.

If you miss the morning fast trains, there are also 20 slow trains so you can opt for a bed on one of these if you want to save on overnight accommodation (¥272.50 for hard & ¥458.50 for soft). Journey time varies between 11 and 14 hours depending on the train you get.

From Jiayuguan it is another 4.5 hours to Dunhuang. A hard seat costs ¥53.50, hard sleeper is ¥115 and soft sleeper is ¥175.50.

Once you have travelled this far West in China, you are very close to the beautiful but troubled Xinjiang region. There is not much to see in Urumqi but it’s a useful jumping-off point for discovering Kazakhstan. Nearby Turpan has more to offer such as the Bezeklik Caves.

Need a VPN for China? Check out which will be the best for you: Best VPN in China.

Check out some of my other China articles

15 Amazing Landscapes in China

Places to Visit in China

Badaling Great Wall

Things to do in Beijing

Looking for more things to do in China? Check out this list of amazing China landmarks.

Dunhuang, Gobi Desert, China

About the author:

Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has traveled to over 60 countries, lived in Armenia, China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.

Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of the world by train, bus and boat. He has been interviewed multiple times by the BBC and recently featured in the documentary Scariest Places in the World. See the About page for more info.

Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲

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