The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Sand Singing


So I had this idea, despite all evidence from the trip to the contrary, that the dunes in Dunhuang were going to be peaceful. You know, sitting one a sand dune looking across at the vast emptiness contemplating the mysteries of the Silk Road.  What stories have these sands witnessed?

For me travel is all about imagination.  You go somewhere new and every time it is an opportunity to think about that history of a place, the possibilities of a place, the backstories of the people you meet, and to put yourself in another’s shoes.  Sometimes it takes a bit more imagination than others to see a places past.

To start with there was a traffic jam.  Dunhuang is not a large city and with the masses of tourists that were visiting because of Golden Week the streets quickly clogged up.  We ended up walking the last couple of kilometers and I think that that saved us a lot of time.

Once we went through the gates there was still about a kilometer of shops to walk by.  There was a large space dedicated to bright orange shoe guards.  They were like huge socks with weighted soles that go over your shoes and tie up at the knees. This to prevent your shoes from getting dirty or sand in them. 

You could take a 12 person golf cart to the oasis in the middle of the Dunes.  Crescent Lake.  It was natural up until the 1990’s when the Chinese government noticed it drying up and build underwater pumps to maintain it.  You can also just hike up the dunes.  Hiking up sand mountains looks deceptively easy.  I always forget until I am doing it again how sink in sank up to your ankles slows you down.  Every step brings you about an inch and a half higher.  From afar the procession of people walking up the dune reminded me a bit of ants.  It is easier to walk where someone has just been so the line looks pretty single fine.

There was an endless line of camels marching by.  They weren’t walking up the dunes but more around them.  I don’t actually think this line ever stops.  I am fairly certain the camels walk to the lake in the middle of the dunes drop off their passenger, pick up another,  lather, rinse, and repeat all day.

Adding to the ambiance every two and a half minutes we were buzzed by a helicopter as it landed to pick up another load of tourists.  I wonder what you see if you shell out the money for that ride? 

All the tourists are concentrated in one small section of the dunes.  Is that purposeful?  I didn’t get to the edge of the crowd but I couldn’t see any fences.  It makes me feel a little better.  Not all the dunes are as tamed at these.

These are also called the Singing Sand Mountains.  You can hear it when you walk on the sand and when the wind blows through the sand.  The sound has to do with the shape and the size of the sand, the humidity, and what it is made of.

And yet for all of the commercialism and attempts to make the dunes into a theme park their grandeur was undiminished. There is something majestic about them.  When the wind is blowing right they might be singing right to you.

A Night at the Theater among the Dunhuang Sand Dunes

Dunhuang hotel on the dunes

Looking at my ticket wouldn’t communicate the scope.  What I can read: “Dunhuang Festival: the largest desert-subject live performance in the world.  Flying hand in hand, carry me back to Dunhuang.”  There is no hint of what was to come.

How do I describe “shows” in China?  If you have ever been to one you know that there is no such thing as chill when it comes to stage craft.  As per usual when I am at one of these shows I spent the evening asking myself, “What the actual hell is going on?”   There were supposed to be English subtitles but after the first minute or so of the show there were none.  I am not sure if having them would have helped.

Photo: MaryJo Rawleigh- she has the good camera and the patience to get the shot!

Photo: MaryJo Rawleigh- she has the good camera and the patience to get the shot!

Theater in China

Going to theatrical events in China is a bit different than what you might be used to.  First you have to wrestle your way through the crowd.  This show was sold out so the users were ruthless in getting people to their assigned seats.  Unfortunately, for me that mean an incredible tall Chinese man was sitting in front of me.  The show was outside and we had been given plastic rain ponchos when we presented out tickets despite the fact that there was no sign at all of rain.  Even stranger was the fact that about half the audience put theirs on, hoods up.  It wasn’t super warm so all I can think of is they were trying to get warm. 



What is going on?

What I pieced together:  I think that this was the story of how the singing dunes started singing.  There is a beautiful princess who is being married off to some guy but really wants the lowly trader who saved her in the desert.  Interspersed with all kinds of insanity. One section was, I swear, a romanization of a woman washing a man’s feet. 50 lavishly costumed women were sitting at the feet of 50 costumed men washing their feet in perfect stylized unison.  Then there were the men who were throwing fireworks.  They had there shovels and then they sort of whipped them at the ground and boom, fireworks.  But from the ground.  It was insane.  And now, I imagine safe. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people involved.  There were live camels, horses, a lantern show, several battles, and constantly thwarted true love.

Turn it up to eleven!



But wait! There’s more!  The stands frickin’ rotated. Not little stands.  Huge stands hold probably a thousand people rotated every ten minutes or so to point us at another section of the show.  We ended up turned completely around and inside a building where there were 50 or so aerial silk artists lowered from the ceiling to go their thing.

All the while there was singing happening in Chinese (I assume advancing the story but I can’t be sure) and occasionally bad overdubbed lines of dialogue.  The finally had a lazer show and the optical illusion of sand storms carrying our intrepid couple up to heaven (I presume.)

It was spectacular and I think I want to go again…