Monday, July 6, 2009

On the road: Dunhuang by air

I’ve been to Dunhuang before, but it was eleven years ago. At that
time, there were very few (expensive) flights, and at any rate the
national airline, CAAC, had not yet really left behind its old
reputation for flying rejected Aeroflot planes on domestic routes -
hence, “China Airlines Always Crashes.” In 1998, the best way of
getting to Dunhuang was by rail, and even then, the railhead was at
Liuyuan, two hours’ drive away across the open desert. It was worth
doing at the time, since the train follows the old Silk Road more or
less exactly from Xi’an west to at least Dunhuang. To watch the
landscape change as the Hexi corridor narrowed toward the ancient
border stations of Jiayuguan and beyond was something worth seeing.
But it was nearly a three-day journey from Beijing, which while
considerably faster than the traditional camel caravan, was still a
long haul.

These days reaching Dunhuang is much easier. Not only has a branch
rail line been extended to Dunhuang itself and a shiny new train
station built just outside town, but the airport has been expanded
significantly (to which project we are also grateful for the discovery
of a new set of Wei-Jin mural-painted tombs) and there are two or
three flights a day from Beijing. The flights are still a bit
expensive (or more accurately, they’re not subject to the kinds of
discounts you can get on more popular flights between major cities),
but then I can now afford a few things I couldn’t in 1998, so I
decided to take the three-hour flight. This was mostly a time
consideration; since I plan to come back to Beijing overland, stopping
at a number of places on the way, I didn’t want to spend three days on
the road at the beginning of the trip.

Dunhuang is actually more or less due west from Beijing, at a distance
of something under 2000 km. The plane can make the flight fairly
directly, unlike the train lines which have to travel nearly seven
hundred km south from Beijing, then follow the Yellow River valley
westward, through the famous Tongguan Pass to Xi’an, and thence
northwest again to Dunhuang. I would guess that the train trip is
well over 3000 km. But from the plane, it is very easy to see why the
train doesn’t travel due west. First there are the two major north-
south mountain chains that frame the province of Shanxi, due west of
Beijing. These soon give way to the dry grasslands of Inner Mongolia,
where visible settlements are even fewer and farther between than
those of water-starved, impoverished northern Shanxi. I saw what
could only have been the northern loop of the Yellow River, enclosing
the Ordos plain, where nomadic peoples and the settled peoples of the
Central Plains have been coming into contact since at least the Han
dynasty. I was surprised to see that the major settlements
(including, as I later found out, the city of Baotou) are on the
outside of the river’s loop (i.e. on its north bank), but it’s easy to
see why - there are several large marshy lakes and the land is
relatively green. I had been under the impression that the Ordos was
a fertile grassland, but its northernmost regions, from the air,
appear to be open gobi.

The Ordos is only halfway to Dunhuang. Westward from the river we
flew over hundreds and hundreds of miles of unrelieved desert, with
only the wavelike patterns of sand dunes visible from above. It was a
startling landscape, stretching to the horizon in an uninterrupted
sheet of pale yellow. At first I thought it was eye fatigue that made
the horizon begin to blend into the sky above it, so that blue slowly
gave way to an undifferentiated sand color. Eventually, noticing that
it was possible to catch occasional glimpses of ground here and there,
I realized that we were flying over a massive sandstorm; and as the
landing announcement went out over the PA, I realized that we were
going to land in one.

The air inside a sandstorm, you will not be surprised to find, is
turbulent, and the landing was extremely rough. The pilots must have
been flying entirely on instruments, as the only thing visible outside
the windows was a roiling yellow haze. When the ground came into
view, it was considerably closer than I had expected, but also oddly
familiar; the airport is of course located just outside the oasis,
where Dunhuang’s residents have buried their dead for at least two
millennia, and the gravelly surface of the ground is marked for miles
around with tomb mounds ancient and modern. To land at Dunhuang, you
fly in over the houses of the dead, in the broad corridor between the
oasis and the Sanwei mountains. It is not the route taken by most of
Dunhuang’s visitors over the centuries, but it follows a similar
route, and the first sign of human habitation is the same: clusters of
man-made tumuli rising above the barren ground, with the dusty
greenery of the oasis in the middle distance.

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