We’ve arrived in Dunhuang, the gateway to the Gobi Desert, and it feels like a fusion of America’s Wild West and China put together. Two thousand years ago Dunhuang was the border town between nomadic tribes and a recently unified China. Now it is a small, yet bustling town with history and night markets.

Our group in front of Mogao Grottoes. We are trying our best compassionate Buddha impression- palm faced out, relaxed face (and laughing about it!).

Our group in front of Mogao Grottoes. We are trying our best compassionate Buddha impression- palm faced out, relaxed face (and laughing about it!).

We explored one of the must-see historical sites today, the Mogao Grottoes! A testament to the artistic ingenuity of mankind, Mogao exhibits over 1,000 caves, small and large, with well preserved Buddhist frescoes. The students’ favorite part was seeing the six-story tall sitting Buddha and the lying Buddha with his surrounding disciples.

Walking toward the Big Buddha Temple, one of the tallest carved Buddhas in China.

Walking toward the Big Buddha Temple, one of the tallest carved Buddhas in China.

Then, we spent a day riding camels through the megadunes just outside the city. Dunhuang is undergoing desertification, and the sand dunes of Dunhuang, dubbed the Mingsha (Singing Sand) Mountain — named for the sound of wind as it blows over the dunes — are slowly encroaching on the city.

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Photo by student Serena D.

Photo by student Serena D.

We spent the next evening hiking out to a remote area of the dunes and setting up camp. Despite a sandstorm the previous day and rain in the morning, we pushed on and experienced wonderful weather as we camped in the eerie silence of the dunes, under a vast swath of stars.

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Our camp, amidst the dunes.

Our camp, amidst the dunes.

The next day as we got off the plane in Beijing, we headed to Great Leap, an American food establishment and ruminated over our burgers the strange and surreal reality that twelve hours earlier we were at the edge of the Gobi watching the sun come up over the dunes…