Gansu Province, 383km (237 miles) W of Jiayu Guan, 524km (325 miles) NE of Golmud
Dunhuang's name (blazing beacon) derives from its function as a Han Chinese garrison town, but the Tang name of Sha Zhou (sand district) describes it better, hemmed in by sand dunes and bleak, pebbly desert. The middle and southern Silk Routes set off from Dunhuang, passing through the remote garrison town of Loulan (abandoned when Lop Nor Lake "wandered off" in the 4th c.) and through the Lop Desert.
A large number of the early residents of Dunhuang were not Han, and the town came under the sway of the Tibetans, the Uighurs, and the Xi Xia, only really becoming a Han town after the colonization of the western regions was initiated during the Qing dynasty. The town is dependent on tourism, and despite efforts to develop other sites, it is the peerless Mogao cave-temple complex that makes Dunhuang the essential stop on the Silk Routes.