Riding Camels and Climbing Sand Dunes in the Gobi Desert

The night before we all left for Xinjiang, Margo and I wandered around a night market a few blocks from campus. We admired extremely ridiculous clothes that were too small for us, as well as hair bows, sparkly purses and platform shoes. Eventually we came upon two tank tops that looked like they could fit us. They were white, and the back was slashed with a lace underlay underneath. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, one said “YES PLEASE” and the other said “Most charming in near here”. We decided that they would be a great investment, and they were on sale anyway, so we bought them.

The next morning, bright and early, Margo and I arrive downstairs wearing: white keds, grey spandex shorts, matching earrings, aviators and our awesome tank tops. Daniele was the only one who noticed we were matching. Yay for oblivious man-boys. This matching got even better when we were given our red Alliance hats, which were very cheap and too big for our heads. Let’s just say we got a lot of looks at the train station. Finally, we were able to board the train- with my handy dandy Rick Steves backpack, my little teal Jansport backpack and my plastic bag of snacks (ramen for lunch and dinner!!!) we boarded the train for our 23 hour ride. We were able to get a soft sleeper, which was nice, and Margo, Clayton, Gabe and I shared a room. Gabe was extremely paranoid that people would sneak in and steal our things (if Margo and I went to fill up our ramen and the boys were sleeping) so he hid all of his valuables under his pillow. He also locked the door every time we were all in the room. In order to appease him, I took his valuables and put them in the little luggage compartment above our beds. Overall it was a pretty painless train ride, and soon enough, we were in Dunhuang!

You know you’re jealous.

Dunhuang is a small Desert Oasis city in Gansu, a providence bordering Xinjiang. Dunhuang is completely surrounded by the Gobi Desert, which is different than most deserts. The Gobi desert is basically very flat, hard sand with little stones. Our guide, Cathleen (with a C) picked us up at the train station, and the six of us loaded into a small van to head to our hotel. We all joked about how hard it would be to choose our roommates, and headed upstairs to our rooms. Our floor looked down into a courtyard below that was almost too meticulously organized. It consisted of life-size bonsai trees, book shelves and tables, but everything was displayed a little bit too perfectly. Our room was very nice though! About twice the size of our hotel room in Xi’an.

After a quick break and lunch on our own, the group of us headed off to see the Dunhuang caves. These caves are somewhat like Dazu, in that they are Buddhist rock carvings, but some date much older than Dazu and others are much newer. Each cave is completely different from the next and because the Duhuang caves are only caves and not carvings along a rock wall, the color has been preserved much better. There are hundreds of caves, but only a few are open at a time to better preserve them. It was really interesting to see these caves compared one after another because we had learned about the spread of Buddhism along the silk road in our anthropology class, so it was a great experience to view the Buddhist art of each time period side-by-side, as well as the growing Chinese cultural influence in Chinese Buddhism as the statues get newer and newer. One interesting element was that oxidization has died some of the flesh color paint brown over time, so celestial beings and Buddhas that used to be light-skinned now have brown skin.

The caves forced us to have an English-speaking Chinese tour guide, so us along with a few other waiguos followed her around. However, after each cave Daniele would step in and point out important things we needed to know for our class. This pissed off the guide a little bit, who I think felt a little upstaged, especially when western tourists started asking Daniele questions and not the guide. Overall the Dunhuang caves were very beautiful and a great experience. If I had to pick a winner though, I think I would pick Dazu just because everything is all out in the open to see, rather than individual caves that are all locked. They are both really great though, and different enough that you can see both without it getting repetitive.

Daniele is too cool for us

Embarrassing moment of the day: while heading to the caves from the bus, I was walking on concrete steps covered in a layer of sand. I was distracted looking at some vendors and somehow slipped on the sandy stairs because my shoes have zero traction. It was one of those moments where you see yourself going down in slow motion, but your legs are so tied up there’s nothing you can do. Well, I slipped and landed right on the side of my thigh. It was pretty scratched up, bleeding and started bruising right away but no one seemed to really realize how bad it was, or the fact that I could barely walk, until they saw the bruise a few hours later, which was bigger than a grapefruit.


After the caves we went to have dinner in the center of town, and explore the night market. We all shared a giant hot bowl of lamb, peppers and onions which was amazing, but not enough food for all of us, so we tried to order something else to keep us going. We asked if they had any vegetables and the restaurant staff basically laughed in our face. No. They did not have vegetables. I forgot we were in the land of lamb and bread. After dinner the boys went to go find chuar, while Margo and I wandered the night market. I really wanted to buy a jade bracelet, but I was afraid it would be fake.. or worse, I would never know if it was real or fake like “Marc Fakeobs” the purse I bought in Beijing, or the “100% silk” robe I bought in Xi’an. I’ll never know. I settled on an obviously fake jade ring, haggling with the owners over a one kuai difference just for fun, eventually telling them that if they didn’t give it to me for the price I wanted I would “lose face”, causing them to laugh so hard they agreed. I win.

At the night market Margo and I observed many vendors carving wood pictures of flying Apsaras, a female flying Buddhist deity that is extremely popular in Dunhuang. Even the statue in the center square is of an Apsara paying a guitar-esque instrument behind her back. I assumed I wouldn’t be able to afford any of the beautiful wooden carving pictures, but we asked the price just for fun and the woman’s starting price was surprisingly affordable! We bartered her down a bit and got two.

Carving Absaras

After wandering around for a bit, Margo and I were craving the plum juice you can get around most of central China. We eventually found a place serving it and took a seat at the outdoor patio. We had fun people watching and resting until a place around the corner started playing music… not just any music…. It was China’s favorite: Justin Beiber. After blasting Beiber’s famous “Baby, baby, baby ooooooh”, they started playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song. What? We got up to leave as Pirates of the Caribbean was ending and they threw on the same Justin Beiber song… again. We decided to have fun with it though, and danced our way through the outdoor restaurant crowd, as Chinese people were doubled over laughing at us. “Baby, baby, baby ooooohh”. Yes, I am always a spectacle wherever I go.

The next morning we woke up bright and early for breakfast… not as early as our guide Cathleen wanted however. Cathleen kept insisting that we start riding camels at 8am sharp, which, in Xinjiang time is about 5am. Joe informed us that most Chinese tours are on a very strict, very early schedule. Breakfast is always at 7am, lunch is always at noon and dinner is always at 6. Cathleen wasn’t used to our loose schedule, and panicked that we would bake alive in the desert. It’s a desert and it’s going to be hot anyway. We ate breakfast, extremely late by Cathleen’s standards, and made our way to the desert.

The Gobi desert is characteristically flat with small stones, however, there is a large dune near Dunhuang (get it… DUNE-huang… except that’s obviously not what the name means in Chinese but whatever), and that is where we chose to go camel riding. Apparently in past years the group has gone to the popular camel riding spot, but there were always hordes of Chinese tourists. It wasn’t until this last spring semester that Alliance discovered this little-known camel spot. We drove into the countryside of Dunhuang, right to the edge of the oasis, to a farm with a line of camels waiting for us. I was given the most beautiful (or should I say handsome) camel in the bunch, a tall, light tan one. We asked the leader what their names were and he told us they didn’t have names. We thought that was a little sad so Margo and I decided to give our camels names. Her camel was Dylan and mine was Phillip. We rode our camels in a caravan through the deserted Gobi desert. It was the second time in my life that I had ridden a camel, the first was when my family went to Egypt, but that was a one hump camel. These camels are two hump camels, and the humps were definitely different than I expected! They’re weirdly small and flop over to one side. Phillip’s humps were especially floppy and didn’t stand up at all. Riding the camel was fun, but definitely a lot more jerky than a horse.


After a good hour or so we made it to our destination: sand dune paradise. Apparently they move a few inches away from Dunhuang every year… I guess that’s better than the other way around. We parked our camels, dismounted and began to climb the largest dune. Gabe and Clayton immediately ran up the dune as fast as possible, and then had to rest for a good 20 minutes because they were too tired to go on. Margo and I took the slower rout. I made the mistake of trying to go up an area that was too steep and got stuck. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t go up or sideways and kept sliding back down! I basically had to take running jumps to get to an area that was flat enough to continue up. By that point I was completely exhausted and not even 1/5 of the way up. Climbing a sand dune is hard because the sand is so slippery you slide right back down. We eventually developed a system that involves climbing on all fours and digging your feet in diagonally until you feel a spot where the sand is somewhat solid. It took us FOREVER to make it to the top of the ridge, and I almost gave up because I was dying of dehydration. Also, climbing in strappy sandals was a little difficult, but I was glad I didn’t wear tennis shoes because they had buckets of sand in theirs by the end.

FINALLY, I made it to the top of the ridge where Clayton and I took a rest. I looked over and saw Margo and Gabe walking along the ridge to get to a higher point. Really? I forced myself up so I could follow them. Clayton could go no further, complaining of some sort of lactic acid problem or something, and made his way back down. Eventually we all made it to the top, where we ran into Joe, who had taken a different way up. We had a little relaxation and photo op and then made our way back down. Getting down is definitely the fun part. I ran down along the solid ridge, looking something like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Finally when we reached the edge we sat down in the sand and slid down like a slide! Margo has a pretty good video of me that I’ll attempt to get from her and post on this blog. Gabe barrel rolled down the hill resulting in him getting sand EVERYWHERE including in his ears.

It was definitely as hard as it looks.

After a good hour and a half of sand dune climbing, we continued away on our camels. It was a really great morning and not too hot! I applied generous amounts of sunscreen and wore a thin sweater the entire time so I didn’t get burnt at all (which is new for me). We headed back to our oasis, ate lunch and then all met up for a bike ride to the local pagoda with Cathleen. All of our bikes were pretty much broken, and hard to ride, but that’s expected in China. I think Cathleen was definitely trying to kill us, because she was weaving in and out of traffic, not looking at who was behind her or if we were keeping up. We asked her multiple times if we could ride on the side of the road reserved for bicycles and motorcycles and she dipped in for a good block, and then went out on the road again. Thanks Cathleen. At one point a bus pulled out in front of us, leaving Clayton, Gabe and I stuck behind it. I managed to get around it but Gabe and Clayton were completely stuck behind a red light. I raced ahead to tell Cathleen and Margo to stop and Cathleen was almost confused why we could have possibly fallen behind. Really, Cathleen? At least we weren’t all on tandem bikes (cough Lijiang cough).

Eventually we all made it to the pagoda. A Buddhist scholar traveled to India and back to bring back original Buddhist texts. When he finally made it back to Dunhuang he had a dream in which his horse told him that his quest was finished: he had helped the scholar bring back the texts and now his work was done. When the scholar awoke his horse was dead, and he built a pagoda to commemorate the horse that brought him to India and back. We took a few photos at the pagoda and then headed back. Cathleen told us that she would be ditching us halfway back to go home, but not to tell Joe because she could get in trouble. Okay? Well our ride back was definitely a lot less stressful- we all stayed together and rode in the bike lane. It was actually fun, biking around Dunhuang not feeling like I was going to die.


We had a few hours before we had to be at the train station so we grabbed dinner near the night market. We decided to sample a famous local Dunhuang cuisine: donkey noodles. They were actually pretty good, but definitely more of a “noodles with donkey flavored sauce”. At first, I thought the chunks of tofu were donkey and I was a little afraid, but it turned out to be decent, and we washed it down with apricot juice, which was extremely good. In the evening, we met up to take the van to the train station that heads west, which was about two hours away. This was two hours along an extremely bumpy highway to a neighboring town. At one point we were stopped on the highway because a road crew felt the need to fix the ENTIRE road, not just one lane- No, we’re just going to shut the highway down for a good half hour, no big deal.

We made it to the train station a little late, but it was okay because the train was delayed a good hour. The waiting room was packed, but at least I managed to have a seat. It was extremely loud and everyone in the place was staring at us, especially since Margo and I were sitting by ourselves. I spent the good hour falling asleep in the extremely bright, dirty, loud waiting room. Eventually we were allowed to board the train. We had not gotten a soft sleeper this time, and were thrust into the hard sleeper section with a giant crowd, forced to find our seats… I mean beds, in complete darkness. It was loud and crowded with people fumbling around in the dark to try and find their beds, lifting their luggage up onto the storage racks. So much for my pleasant experience with hard sleepers on the way to Chongqing! This train was packed, AND my bed had already been slept in which was gross. But you know what was even grosser than my used bed? Me! Still caked in sweat and sand from our camel riding, sand dune hiking, bicycle outing of the day. At least the sand was a nice exfoliate for the night.

I woke up ridiculously early, aka 6am, to Chinese people eating spicy noodles, drinking green tea and chatting extremely loudly. Awesome. No respect for the other 50 people trying to sleep in this car. I gave one a guy a dirty look, but I don’t think he got the message. I smushed my face into my used pillow, trying not to imagine that a sweaty 40 year old Chinese man had done the same 5 minutes before I boarded, and attempted to fall back asleep. By 8am it was impossible not to be awake because everyone was up and about. I grabbed Binnie, my pink, mini hot water bottle with a bunny that says “Happy summer love Binni” and filled her up with some instant coffee. Eventually we started talking with two woman who were in our compartment. They both worked at a grade school, one as an English teacher and the other as some sort of events coordinator. They were from Hangzhou, the beautiful lake city near Shanghai, and were on vacation. We talked for a long while in Chinese, mainly with me translating for Margo and Clayton. Gabe was in the compartment next door talking with a girl who was on a three day train ride home from college. THREE DAYS. She was a little stir crazy and it showed.

Eventually our train arrived, two hours late, to Urumqi, Xinjiang. I was excited, exhausted, disgusting and ready to see this middle eastern China I had heard so much about.

Train friends!



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

3 comments on “Riding Camels and Climbing Sand Dunes in the Gobi Desert

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