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The Ming-sha Dunes
The "Hill of Sounding Sand" described in the Tun Huang Lu is in fact a very extensive line of dunes which rise above the river leading to Dunhuang from the west and extend back to the flat gravel highlands which separate the valley (at some distance) from the Richthofen Range of the Nan-Shan. The prominence of the dunes is such that at one time their name was attached to Dunhuang itself. The "singing" of the sand as it is blown by the wind or as one slides down it is real, although not anywhere near as loud as popular perception might have it.
Today the dunes are one of the tourist attractions of the area, designated as a park, with guards who will apprehend visitors who try to sneak out on them at night to enjoy the desert by moonlight. One can hire a camel for a ride across the dunes. Here is a view to the West from high on the dunes, with a portion of the Dunhuang oasis off to the left. It seems as though the Tun Huang Lu's author is describing a route that may have skirted the lower part of the dunes before heading south above the valley floor on "stony desert" to get to the Mogao Caves. Perhaps the extent of the dunes is greater today than it was in his time.
The dunes now extend to above the cliff where the Mogao Caves are located and present one of the major problems for the conservation of the caves. Various experiments are underway to stabilize the sand and prevent it from sifting down over the cave facade and eroding everything it touches when driven by a good wind.
© 1999 Daniel C. Waugh