A wall of sand over 100 metres high swallowed a city on the fringes of the Gobi desert in northwestern China, in scenes reminiscent of a disaster film.

Dunhuang, a tourist draw with a colourful history as a Silk Road outpost, momentarily disappeared in the dust clouds as the storm hit on Sunday.

A resident surnamed Zhang told local media Jimu News that the sandstorm came abruptly and swept through the city in five or six minutes.

Dunhuang, a tourist draw with a colourful history as a Silk Road outpost, momentarily disappeared in the dust clouds Dunhuang, a tourist draw with a colourful history as a Silk Road outpost, momentarily disappeared in the dust clouds Photo: CCTV / STR

"I couldn't see the sun," he said, adding that the city in Gansu province had not experienced such a sandstorm in several years.

"At first I was enveloped in the sandstorm's yellow dust, then it turned red and finally black."

Dunhuang is home to several major tourist attractions including the Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site with ancient Buddhist carvings and striking desert landforms.

Sandstorms are common in the region each spring but rare in the summer, according to state-run news agency China News Service.