Monday, October 12, 2009
This morning was the anticipated highlight of the trip for some and the dread for others. Judy, inquired a few times—“a three hour camel ride, are you sure we should do this?”
Our group was taken to a camel den on the outskirts of the city, pre-dawn. The plan was to journey on camel back through a portion of the Gobi desert to watch the sun rise over the sand dunes on our way to the historic Mogao Buddhist cared caves, a three hour journey. In the dark, the camels looked like large lumps; actually two lumps. These camels were, Bactrian, camels with two lumps. I think they were selected so tourist could fit between the two lumps—a kind of old world air bag. We first placed Judy on her camel, secured between the two lumps so she would not run away and then Marion. Then we each mounted our camel. Not too bad, while the camels were seated on the ground. As the camel herder shouted his command to each camel, they rose to their full height, going up on one knee and one leg at a time, then the other. The pre-dawn silence was shattered with the shrieks from some in our jostled group.
Mid-October in northwestern China in the Gobi desert is cold, with the temperature being about 40 degrees. We had been informed to dress warmly. Marion seeing a fashion opportunity took out and wore here mink earmuffs.
One does not modify the camel’s sway, one just goes with it. After a few minutes, Judy exclaimed, “This is fun-so far” and even thought her camel looked cute in the dark! We learned that only male camels are used, as female camels are more ornery.
We began our three-hour journey from the camel den though an active local graveyard; perhaps not the best marketing concept, but an interesting one. Being in the desert, the gravesites were sectioned off by low sand dykes, maybe 9” high. The graves were mostly tee-pee shaped and covered with bricks. Some had seating areas next to them.
As we walked through the cemetery for perhaps 30 minutes, the darkness of the desert sky was giving way to the light of the new day. The pre-dawn light revealed a desert area without any shrubs or trees, just sand, sand dunes and far off mountains.
We were all caught-up in the majesty of the desert, the pre-dawn light show, and the ancient camel rides that many before us had taken along the Silk Road. Then all of a sudden, a western ring tone from our camel trainer’s cell phone rang and he answered his cell phone. 2009 had caught up with us again. For all we know, the lead camel may have had a GPS tucked inside his bridle.
Since the technology barrier had been broken, Robert took out his cell phone and called his dad in Texas and his nephew in Connecticut to update them on his camel ride. It is not often you can say, “I’m riding on a camel in the Gobi desert in western China and I was thinking about you.” When the morning sun shone bright, we stopped for our bathroom break. The camels, on cue, answered their call of nature. Some of the guys found refuge behind a nearby sand dune, others waited. This was also a photo opt time.
Now the sun shone brightly into our eyes and the desert air quickly warmed. We continued our journey until we reached our tour bus that had made its way to a road nearby the Mogao Caves. Disembarking our camels and saying good-bye to our camel herders, walking a little bo-legged, we boarded the bus for a 10 minutes drive to the caves.
The Mogao Caves are a series of man-made, hand-carved caves and grottoes honoring Buddha. They originated about 2,000 years ago after a vision by a traveling Buddhist. Over the centuries, over 1,000 caves and grottoes were built into the sandstone mountainside. Today, only about 400 are still intact-due to earthquakes, vandalism, and other occurrences. About 40 are secure enough for tourist to view and visit. Two of the man-made, hand-carved caves contain the second and third largest Buddha statues in the world. The caves are brilliantly carved and painted. Many have life-sized and larger than life-sized stone and wooden carved statues.
One on the secret caves was found to house thousands of ancient manuscripts, books, scrolls, and other artifacts. In fact, a machine printed scroll was found there that pre-dates the Gutenberg printing press by hundreds of years.
After this amazing visit, we journeyed back to our hotel, via bus, for a rest before our next experience.
Having had a pre-dawn adventure, we now were scheduled for our sun set adventure to the dunes at the Crescent Lake. The Crescent Lake is also nearby to the city. Its claim to fame is a small oasis lake in the middle of mountainous sand dunes. The sun light reflecting off the sand dunes is said to be spectacular but our group was not too impressed.
Robert and I made some fun by climbing to the top of a nearby sand dune and sliding down on a sand sled, high speed. I must say, I was completely out of breath, with heart pounding, when I reached the middle of the sand dune. Robert made his way to the very top.
Our last evening in Dunhuang was celebrated with a very nice meal, consisting of the local favorite-donkey and lamb. We were offered camel but we were still too fond of our early morning friends.
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