Descent into Dunhuang

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We landed in desert. I’d been watching out my window for an hour, waiting for the Dunhuang oasis to emerge from the desolate, sandy landscape. As our landing gear dropped a highway came into view, flanked by wind farms, but there was nothing green anywhere.

It was 8.30pm at night, and the sun was oddly high in the sky. Beijing requires the whole country to live in its timezone putting far west China out of kilter. Even as the sun dropped over the next hour you could really feel its force. Humidity can make the air feel unbearably like soup. But there’s something similarly punitive about the directness of desert heat. Whereas the scrum beats the queue in much of China, here queues twist and stretch into single file for a chance of shade.

It took a drive along the highway before Dunhuang started to feel like an oasis. It was suddenly green and with the windows down it smelt like agriculture. Crops were dense and vibrant and workers harvested their fruits. We’ve bought watermelon and nectarines so unexpectedly juicy that one bite has sent me rifling through our first aid kit for an alcohol wipe to clean off the keyboard.

Dunhuang’s got a couple of hundred thousand people but it feels profoundly provincial. It’s like the towns at home where refurbishment of the local McDonalds makes front page news. It’s primarily an agricultural service town now, but it used to be an important way point on the silk road. It still feels Chinese. The look of the people, the sound of the language, the choices on the menus are all pretty much the same. But we’re starting to get a sense that we’re on the edge of something and that, whatever borders atlases might mark, the Chineseness is likely to fade away in the next week of travel. We’re also traveling further away from the beaten track. The one other international hostel says we’re the first westerners she’s seen in three weeks.

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