In the morning I wandered out to look for transportation to the Mogao Caves (èŽ«é«˜çªŸ). There didn’t seem to be any buses so I looked around for a taxi and was lucky enough to find a driver who was already taking another tourist out there so we shared the cost. The other guy was a student from Xi’an. He was nice, though never seemed to get over his surprise at touring the Mogao Caves with a foreigner.
The caves themselves were rewarding and disappointing at the same time. It was amazing to view so many well preserved and ancient Buddhist wall paintings in their original setting. Some of the paintings were from the 4th century AD, and had Indian and even Greek influences. As Buddhism became accepted in China the later paintings became more clearly Chinese in style. The scale of the place was huge, with around 500 separate caves. This was the problem though. Out of 500 caves the tour only included eight. The rest of the caves were kept locked and off limits. Obviously keeping the caves locked is necessary (enough has been stolen from the site already), but it was disappointing to see so little.
The doubly frustrating thing was that apparently the tours visit approximately twice as many caves during the peak tourist season. I can’t see the logic of this. You would think that when there are fewer tourists the guides would have more time to give a longer tour, and that whoever is in charge of protecting the site would be happier to let the smaller low season tour parties visit more caves than the larger high season tour parties since lower visitor numbers should equate to less damage. They do allow you to pay on a per cave basis to see more, but with hundreds of caves, prices of 150-500RMB per person per cave opened, and no guidance as to which caves are the most worth seeing, it isn’t really feasible.
Apparently a decade or so ago tourists were allowed to see much more of the site, with the entry ticket giving you access to morning and afternoon tours covering two different sets of caves, and the possibility of persuading or paying the guides to open extra caves time permitting.
Back in Dunhuang I bought a bus ticket for the next morning to Jiayuguan and went looking for lunch. I went into another small Sichuanese restaurant on the main street. The restaurant turned out to have an English menu which was nice, but then I thought again and asked to see the Chinese menu. Sure enough, the prices on the two menus were different, with everything on the English menu being roughly twice the real price. I asked what the story was and the waitress said they would serve me for the Chinese menu prices. I told the other diners that the restaurant had two menus with two prices. A shrug or two: “it’s the foreigners price”. Nobody seemed embarrassed or surprised at the dishonesty.
I walked out and tried the restaurant next door. It was the same story there. In fact every little restaurant on the main street seemed to be doing this. In one place I noticed the English menu was mistake free and asked who had helped them with it. They told me some backpacker had done it for free. So they get free translation services from some foreigner and that individual’s kindness then gets used to rip off countless other foreigners.
In the end I had to wander into a side street to find a restaurant that didn’t make gouging non-Chinese people a standard practice.
In the afternoon I wandered up to the Dunhuang Museum only to find it closed. The woman selling seeds outside seemed to think it closed every year for the winter. I can’t understand why a museum would need to close for winter but never mind.
There wasn’t much else to do in Dunhuang, though I did try some of the famous local donkey meat noodles.