Dunhuang Pissweak World

This is one of the many stories about China that I didn’t have room for in my book…

Jack and I hired a taxi to take us out to some lesser-known Buddhist caves in the desert outside Dunhuang. A caretaker showed us a few caves and pointed out the faded seventh-century murals on the walls, which we duly admired. There were no other visitors, and we wandered around, enjoying a rare moment of quiet, past the caretaker’s hut and chickens, along a pebbly stream in a gorge behind the caves.

Then we drove back to Dunhuang, through desert that looked like this, in every direction.

Gobi desert

So you can imagine our surprise when we saw this.

Dunhuang Fort

The Lonely Planet didn’t mention a fort outside Dunhuang, but this looked exactly like an ancient mudbrick fort, with crenellated walls and huge carved camels out the front. We couldn’t imagine what it could be. The driver indicated that we should go and have a look.

On the way through the front gate we paid an entrance fee, and I tapped one of the stone camels, which turned out to be made of fibreglass. A good gust of wind could have blown it out into the desert. Brighter people than us might have worked out at that stage where they were, but we were still mystified. Were we in some kind of olden-days theme park, a kind of Dunhuang Pissweak World?

Inside were mudbrick houses, some with flimsy-looking upper stories. We peeked into a few rooms, one of which had some pictures on the wall. The pictures showed people with film cameras, and actors in costumes. And we finally twigged that we were in a film set. That would explain the rickety props; we liked the plastic skull hanging from a plywood gallows.

Film set near Dunhuang

We were most excited when we saw that one of the photos on the wall featured a version of our all-time favourite TV character, Monkey, known as Sun Wu Kong in China.

Monkey film

So here’s a message for my friend Bec Chau, commissioning editor for Lonely Planet’s China guide: this place should be in the next edition!

Leave a Reply