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For the thirsty Silk Road traveller it must have been an extraordinary sight. Small, sparkling like diamonds but more valuable than any gem stone to the parched Silk Road traveller. The Yueyaquan Crescent Lake (月牙泉) is a true oasis, sitting beneath towering sand dunes and now adjacent to a traditional decorative Chinese tiered pagoda.
Few images are more distilled and concentrated, so as to capture the essence of the history, the isolation and arid harshness of the Silk Road than the Crescent Lake in Dunhuang.
And, oh boy, does the Chinese tourism authority know it. For what is a relatively small, if disproportionately enchanting, sight to see, the tourism infrastructure knows few boundaries. The only boundary is, in fact, the large fence surrounding the wider site and a few roped-off segments of the stand dunes.
An entrance ticket is required from the ample ticket hall. You can also pick up some bright orange gaiters that envelop your shoes all the way up to your knees, just in case – heaven forfend – that any sand might get in. A little green golf cart shuttle bus can run you round an offending sand dune, that elongates the walk. Or, take a camel caravan. Or an off road safari to the peak of the towering sand dunes. One can experience anything except a solitudinous trek through the dunes to ‘discover’ the Crescent Lake for yourself.
This is organised fun on a mass scale that is lapped up in equal measure by its mostly local audience. My folly in travelling along the Silk Road during the Chinese school Summer holidays has featured in most of my instalments and I shall not disappoint here.
I would wager that a visit on a week day during term-time and on any day with a clear sky, would be the ideal. My hazy, humid Summer school holiday visit, coinciding with a rare and unseasonable rain shower was the diametric opposite.
The camera never lies and the solitude and isolation of the Crescent Lake that I had wanted to capture was impossible; impossible for it is so very far from being from being isolated now. A veritable Las Vegas strip of hotels, some of them historically styled and themed, runs from the town centre almost to the park gates.
Blushes for me, as I stayed in one such hotel, the vast and Imperial looking Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel. More shame me, as I actually quite enjoyed it. The hotel is sprawling but persuasively Chinese Silk Road themed. I very much enjoyed taking dinner under the stars, outside on the roof terrace, after watching the hazy sun set across the dunes and traditional tiles roofs of the hotel.
Back in the grounds of the Crescent Lake, I walked up the steep dunes for a better view. Helpfully, ladders have been anchored into the steep soft sand slopes and allow better purchase. The etiquette of stepping aside off the ladder to allow the quicker climbers through was largely followed.
Of course, there were those who had hired a luminous spherical plastic toboggan, large enough for one adventurous posterior only, and slid at pace back down the sand slope (in the designated, “fun zone,” of course). Once near the top, I planted my less adrenaline filled posterior into the sand and quietly watched the people, now as small as ants below me, potter around the Crescent Lake and the sands dunes.
In that rare moment of peace, it was possible to absorb the beauty of the Crescent Lake and come to appreciate the brute physicality required to traverse the Silk Road. Soon enough, the distant splutter of quad engines grew, as they ascended the sand dune behind me and I was transported back into the present.
You can purchase your tickets for 110 CNY at the ticket office. Solitude not included.
The author travelled at his own expense on a trip arranged by Lesley Lee of Xinjiang China International Travel Agency, whom he is able to highly recommend.