Six kilometres south of Dunhuang 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 Dunhuang gained its moniker ‘Shāzhōu’ (Continent 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 Dunhuang. 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 as most people do. A wooden ladder/walkway is half buried in the sand so you can get a decent footing on the deep sand.
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, microlighting and helicopter flights. But it’s not hard to hike away to enjoy the sandy spectacle in peace. The dunes look their most photogenic either first thing in the morning or towards dusk.
Tickets are good for three days' entry. To avail of this, you must ask the security staff at the gate as you exit – facial recognition software is employed.
Camel rides are available at the dunes.
The drive down Mingshan Lu to the dunes is also astonishing as this vast mountain of sand suddenly appears from the shimmering heat at the end of the road.