Dunhuang was made a prefecture in 117 BC by Emperor Han Wudi, and was a major point of interchange between China and the outside world during the Han and Tang dynasties. Located near the historic junction of the Northern and Southern Silk Roads, it was a town of military importance. Its name is mentioned as part of the homeland of the Yuezhi or "Rouzhi" in the Shiji, but this mention has also been identified with an unrelated toponym, Dunhong. Edges of the city are threatened with being engulfed by the expansion of the Kumtag Desert, which is resulting from longstanding overgrazing of surrounding lands.
Early buddhist monks accessed Dunhuang via the ancient Northern Silk Road, the northernmost route of about 2600 kilometres in length, which connected the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an to the west over the Wushao Ling Pass to Wuwei and emerging in Kashgar. For centuries Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the west, and many pilgrims passed through the area, painting murals inside the Mogao Caves or "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas." A small number of Christian artifacts have also been found in the caves (see Jesus Sutras), testimony to the wide variety of people who made their way along the silk road. Today, the site is an important tourist attraction and the subject of an ongoing archaeological project. A large number of manuscripts and artifacts retrieved at Dunhuang have been digitized and made publicly available via the International Dunhuang Project.
Mogao Grottoes, also called Qianfodong (Caves of Thousands of Buddha Images), are situated 25 kilometers to the southeast of Dunhuang. The caves were opened on the cliffs of the eastern ridge of Mingsha Hill, extending to a length of 1,600 meters. The existing 492 caves boast more than 45,000 square meters of frescoes, 2,415 colored statues and more than 400 flying Asparas.
Mingsha Hill and Yueya (Crescent Moon) Spring
Mingsha Hill is about 5 kilometers to the south of Dunhuang City. The sands will buzz while tourists slide down a slope. Hence the name Mingsha (Buzzing Sands) Hill.
A 100-meter-long, 25-meter-wide pond in the shape of a crescent moon miraculously lies in the midst of the hills of sands, never getting buried despite the frequent sand storms in the locality.