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The Dunhuang Movie Set in northwestern China is a time capsule in several ways. It’s a recreation of what a walled village might have looked like during China’s Song Dynasty (960 to1279 B.C.), but its not all ancient history. It’s also notable for being a movie set created more than three decades ago that was just never demolished. In fact, it’s still in use to this day.
The set was originally created in 1987 for the historical film Dunhuang. Since then, it’s been used in over 20 other Chinese films and television shows, including The Romance of Chinese Gods and Dragon Inn. The city of Dunhuang gives production companies a pretty sweet deal. As long as the movie features the city itself, they can shoot there for free.
And tourists? They can just walk right in for $6.
The three-acre movie set just 15 miles southwest of the city feels like a town that fell through time and landed in the middle of the desert. My first sight was the tall village walls, laid siege by an enemy that was no longer there. Swords, shields, ladders, and even siege engines were just laying around, as if the invading army had simply vanished. The only other person besides my group in this deserted scene was a man offering horse rides for a couple yuan.
The intimidating front gates were open, leading into a courtyard market that had also long since been abandoned. Walking down the main street, I passed by stalls filled with fake food, shrines with plastic statues of Buddha, and even empty brothels and taverns. Because everything was made from fake material — and had also not been touched in months — it felt like I had missed the Song Dynasty by a few years rather than a few centuries.
What made this set even more surreal was how drastically it would change when walking around a corner. The front gates and the central market lined up just fine. But one right turn led me to the entrance of a Buddhist temple that felt more at home on top of a mountain than in the middle of town.
Past the fake temple entrance was an open wood hut in the middle of a field of fake snow. A map of ancient China was laid out in the center with miniatures denoting the movements of foreign troops. Torches lined each wooden pillar, waiting to be lit. This set, in particular, was beautifully crafted. As I looked at the scene around me, I could easily envision a general having a dramatic moment here as he pondered the future of his land.
Instead of a general, however, I was greeted by an angry Chinese director. As it turned out, the reason this particular set was so well preserved was because it was currently in use. I didn’t catch all of what he said, but I certainly understood the tone. I said my apologies in what little Mandarin I knew and quickly rushed off.
While it was easy to get lost in the different times the Dunhuang Movie Set portrayed, it was also easy to forget that it was a movie set that was sometimes still active. I later found a building in the center of "town" that looked like an old restaurant on the outside but was actually a large dressing room. There were racks of historical costumes that lined the walls, with clothing for peasants and priests and even emperors. I tried not to think about the last time any of these costumes had ever been washed, considering there was no way the production outside was using all of them. By the layers of dust that had accumulated on some, I imagined many had been here since that first film in the '80s.
In this same building, there was an armory’s worth of fake weapons just laying against the wall. Swords, hammers, staffs, and even fake sets of armor lay inside. It was an incredible temptation to not pick up two of the fake swords and have a duel with one of the members in my group right then and there.
Every set was unique within the walls of this village. It was at once so authentic and so fake, ripped out of time and yet so entirely part of the present.
It’s hard to imagine a place like this existing anywhere else in the world. There is the Harry Potter museum outside London, where supervised fans can walk through the sets used in the iconic franchise. There’s also the Hobbiton movie set in New Zealand, where tours lead people through the hobbit’s Shire. But even then, there are people preserving the place and guards to keep you from touching the props.
In Dunhuang, there’s nothing stopping you from walking into another world. Well, nothing except the angry director currently shooting there.