A quick lunch before we took off into the desert. It was kind of a sad lunch, considering we only had 2 dishes for us and had to share them with everyone else who weren’t vegetarian. 😦 All there was to eat were some flat rice noodles in chili oil and soy sauce, topped with egg; stewed eggplant with fresh red chilis; red bean sesame cake; “金银馒头” [jing ying man tou] or gold and silver steamed buns. The “金” or “gold” buns are my favorite–golden, fried, and to die for when dipped in sweetened condensed milk. Unfortunately, they disappeared in seconds with 10 people scrambling to get their share.
Lunch ended at about 12:30pm. “鳴沙山月牙泉” was the last stop of the day. “鳴沙山” [ming sha shan] translates into “echoing sand mountain”. Rumors say that when wind kicks up in the desert, the sand “sings”: in different keys, too, depending on how hard the wind is blowing and in what part of the desert you’re in! Mingsha Shan is a vast expanse of sand dunes, with some dunes reaching heights of over 250 feet. It was about a 1-2 hour drive from Dunhuang. Gorgeous and worth the trip. We were all made to put on the most obnoxiously neon orange booties, to keep sand out of our shoes, before heading out into the desert. The tour guides had been nagging all of us since day 1 to also remember to cover our cameras in plastic–the sand at Mingsha is so fine that cameras have been known to break when it wriggles its way in through the gaps in the camera shells. Luckily for us, there was no wind that day.
The itinerary wrote we’d have the chance to ride camels across the sand dunes. Sounds cool. When it finally came time to saddle myself on the camel, I started having second thoughts. All the camels look underfed, overworked, and kinda/sorta/really abused. Their nostrils were pierced with thick pieces of wood that connected the 4-camel train. It was really disheartening, and I felt really guilty. But I had already sat down, the camels were moving, and the people working the camels were yelling at all of us tourists to do what they were saying. My camel was particularly jumpy; it wouldn’t stop falling out of line with the other camels and would occasionally surge forward and bump the camel in front. The camel behind mine was really sweet, though. It’d inch up from behind and nuzzle me, asking to be petted. Squee~. All of us were told to not take pictures while riding the camels, because the dunes were so uneven and we could potentially drop our cameras. No one listened. Traveling in beautiful desolation and not take pictures would be a crime.
Riding the camels were the only way you could get to the sandboarding station. But before surfing, we had to climb this ridiculously high sand dune, which I’m guessing is at least about 6-8 stories high. There was over 100 steps. There were steps built into the side of the dune, but it was so steep. Once we got to the top, I kind of regretted it. The only way down was a shaky, splintered piece of wood to sled on.
My crippling fear of heights wasn’t helping; after about 15 minutes of pulling my hair out, I sucked it up, got on the board, and sailed downwards. I didn’t push off with enough force, so I only made it down 3/4 of the mountain, and was forced to pull myself down the rest of the slope, some 25 feet, using only arm power. Oof.
When everyone was done with the sandboarding, “滑沙” [hua sha], we all rode the camels back to their station. The ride back was several times more terrifying than the ride to the sandboarding station since it’s always scarier coming down than going up. The return route was a steeper incline, so the wood strung through the camels’ nostrils pulled on them harder, causing them more pain. My already restless camel became even more uncontrollable–ramming continuously into the camel in front, sometimes to the point where the both of them could have possibly led all of us to topple over the edge of the dunes. Barreling down sand dunes with a camel on top of me was the last thing I wanted. Even less so, since it was my 20th birthday. No amount of stroking or smooth-talking calmed the camel. After a taxing 10-15 minutes, we were back on level ground. Whew.
Everyone gathered to walk towards “月牙泉” [yue ya chuan], or Crescent Moon Lake. Crescent Moon Lake started out as a natural oasis in the Mingsha desert with an average depth of 4-5 meters, but due to climate change and desertification, the size of the lake has shrunk dramatically and the depth is now recorded to be less than a meter. Now the local government has started to fill the lake to restore its depth. Crescent Moon Lake is one of those places best viewed aerially. Not only was it difficult to see the lake because the sun was face-to-face with us at 5:30pm, but it was also hard to see the crescent shape, for which the lake is named, from level ground. I found it rather silly of the tour guides to give us only 10 minutes to snap pictures of the lake from the furthest place possible; there was no time to walk to the lake shore, or explore the little pagoda on the tiny green isle.
By the time we were back on the tour bus, it was almost 7pm. Six hours had passed since our meager lunch. I was battling some gnarly hunger pains. The hour-long ride to our hotel meant eating at almost 9pm. When the food finally came, I was so nauseous that I couldn’t eat what I needed. I felt like I was suffocating: nothing felt like it was getting past my esophagus. Apparently I now had a fever.
Happy birthday to me! No birthday is more memorable than the one where you’re starving to death and end up throwing up what little food is left in you into the sink of your hotel room. And one where you’re faint, dizzy, sweating from fever, and end up passing out on the bed until the next morning. C’est la vie.