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Six kilometres south of Dūnhuáng at Singing Sands Dune, the desert meets the oasis in most spectacular fashion. From the sheer scale of the dunes, it’s easy to see how Dūnhuáng gained its moniker ‘Shāzhōu’ (Town of Sand). The view across the undulating desert and green poplar trees below is awesome.
You can bike to the dunes in 20 minutes from the centre of Dūnhuáng. Bus 3 (¥2) shuttles between Shazhou Lu and Mingshan Lu and the dunes from 7.30am to 9pm. A taxi costs ¥20 one way.
The climb to the top of the dunes – the highest peak swells to 1715m – is sweaty work, but worth it. Rent a pair of bright-orange shoe protectors (防沙靴; fángshāxuē; ¥15) or just shake your shoes out later.
At the base of the colossal dunes is a famous pond, Crescent Moon Lake (月牙泉; Yuèyáquán). The dunes are a no-holds-barred tourist playpen, with dune buggies, ‘dune surfing’ (sand sledding), paragliding and even microlighting. But it’s not hard to hike away to enjoy the sandy spectacle in peace.
Tickets are good for three days' entry. To avail of this, you must ask the security staff at the gate as you exit – they will take your fingerprint so only you can use the ticket again.
Hostels in Dūnhuáng offer overnight camel treks to the dunes from ¥400 per person. There are also five- to eight-day expeditions out to the Jade Gate Pass, Liǔyuán and even as far as Lop Nor in the deserts of Xīnjiāng.