the romance of the far west, Liu Qi ventures into
the vast desert in
Ningxia where she makes friends
with a camel before heading south on other
adventures near the Silk Road.
Stretches and stretches of sand dunes extending as
far as eye can see, a train of camels trudging
against the skyline, turbaned trekkers braving the
searing heat and dust ... I was so haunted by this
vision that I realized it was time to go west.
I flipped a coin and decided on the Ningxia Hui
Autonomous Region, land of the little-explored
Western Xia State (1038-1227), exotic Chinese Muslim
culture, and of course, the desert where kingdoms
rose and fell and ruins are buried.
Yinchuan, Capital of
I stepped out of the Yinchuan airport (a
two-and-a-half-hour flight from Shanghai), I found a
somewhat cliched capital city: well-constructed
roads and modern buildings. My disappointment at the
mundane, however, was soon be replaced by pleasure
with the novelty of back streets navigated by my
The various mosques, the unique dress of the Hui
minority people, the all-pervasive small of mutton -
all reminded me that I had stepped out of my
Shanghai routines and was right in the middle of my
dream of the wild, wild west.
Ningxia is a raw landscape of stark mountains and
dusty plains sliced in two by the Yellow River. This
was clear when I traversed the Yellow River on a
sheep-skin raft. The sparse and boring industrial
landscape gave way to fascinating mountains cape
that suddenly emerged from nowhere. I passed flocks
of sheep at the foot of a severely weathered section
of the Great Wall as I traveled toward the edge of
the 42,000-square-kilometer Tengger Desert, China's
To get there, I traveled 150km from Yinchuan to
Zhongwei City near the sands.
Unlike some of the arid places I've been to, the
Tengger is classic desert: The endless waves of sand
dunes stunned me as soon as I entered the Tonghu
side of it.
This was where my desert daze began: For a whole
day, I shrieked my guts out as I was catapulted up
and down and tossed back and forth on daredevil jeep
rides on sand dunes that seemed to transform and
shift by the minute. I climbed up the sand dunes
(barefooted for a while), hung out on their highest
ridge, dug my toes into the sand and then slid back
down the slope on my bottom.
I was lucky because the sun was not a big enemy in
this season (the temperatures in May and June are
very tolerable), but I still constantly fought
persistent sandstorms that seemed to accompany my
every step and sometimes sent sand lashing painfully
against my cheeks.
This was my first "sand experience" and I was so
excited that I took off my shoes and let the feet
reach deep into the fine yellowish sands, feeling it
and touching it.
At first the desert might seem devoid of life - just
sand, sand, sand and nothing else - but here and
there were hardy green plants, withered wood and
insects that added color. I was lucky to spot an owl
that probably preyed on rodents (hidden in holes
during the day) and large beetles and desert cicadas
that run around on the dunes.
Before this transformative trip, there were two
animals I had no affection for or interest in
whatsoever - camels and horses. I told myself from
the beginning that I would not get close to a camel,
let alone sit on one.
But I soon broke my vow about avoiding nasty camels
after I saw them sitting quietly and peacefully in
the sands. As I approached, they greeted me with a
At that moment I decided I'd like to take my maiden
camel ride. My camel was cute, clean and very
obedient. I patted him and he replied with a "grin."
When the guide and I tried to ascend a particularly
tricky high dune, a strong wind gust blinded me for
a moment (my camel with double rows of extra-long
thick lashes was okay), I got nervous. The camels
were tackling the dune and I was fighting the sand
in my eyes while tightly gripping the rocking
saddle. When the blow was over, we shared a
sand-filled, slightly worried laugh about the
adventure that I won't forget for a long time.
In the process of my camel encounter, I finally
reconciled with the peculiar but admirable creature
that never complained and was so perfectly suited
for the environment so harsh on man and beast - a
true desert hovercraft and indeed, a quite endearing
I kept my vow about horses and steered clear.
Since the narrowest part of the Tengger is only a
little over 20km, it's possible to hike across the
It takes around six hours on camelback to get to the
other side of Shapotou, a highly touristy place,
from Tonghu, which is somewhat less commercial. A
walk takes eight to 10 hours. When the weather is
nice, you can appreciate the gorgeous desert sunset
and many fantastic desert landscapes.
If you're adventurous enough or want more fun, take
a detour into the desert - riding a camel across all
those rolling dunes, the desert is all yours, no
Although Tonghu resort provides accommodation,
camping outside on the sand dunes in the Tengger is
a fun alternative. It's pretty safe to camp on the
desert near the resort; there are no wild animals
and seldom a dangerous sandstorm.
This is right on the border with the Inner Mongolia
Autonomous Region, so at night, you can join guests
from everywhere inside a yurt for a typical
Mongolian dinner party. Singing, drinking, and
Mongolian barbecue are basic. Definitely ask locals
to sing Mongolian folk songs from their hometowns,
all of them are great singers.
To get a real taste of Ningxia, the awesome desert
tour is only part of the adventure. Leaving behind
the modern Yinchuan, I headed deep south to Guyuan,
which is famous for mountains, grottoes, gorges and
My first stop in Guyuan, one-hour flight from
Yinchuan, was Xumi Grottoes at the eastern foot of
Mt Xumi, 55km northwest of the city.
This is a gateway on the ancient Silk Road and part
of the magnificent Liupan Mountains. The grotto
carving began in the late Northern Wei Kingdom (AD
Twenty-two grottoes are well preserved, with a rich
collection of high-quality carvings of the Northern
Wei, the Northern Zhou (AD 557-551), the Sui (AD
581-518) and the Tang (AD 618-907) dynasties.
This area used to be a key passage on the Silk Road
between the East and the West and a thoroughfare for
exchanges between the Han Chinese and minority
The most celebrated place of interest in the
mountain is the Giant Sitting Buddha Maitreya in
Grotto No. 2. The Maitreya measures 26 meters high,
with its ears the length of two adults put together.
The Buddha with a benign look is considered a
representative masterpiece of the grotto on the
Grotto No. 5 is the biggest of its kind. Made of a
hollowed-out mound, it is called the "Haloes of Xumi"
and contains seven well-preserved Buddhist statues,
each 6 meters in height, and seven Bodhisattva
statues. These figures look mysterious and
fascinating under a few rays of light that enter the
grotto through a hold in the roof of the mound.
Due to devastation by earthquakes and windstorms in
its 1,400-year history, half of the grotto was
caved-in, but it has recently been restored.
Another an hour from the grottoes, I reached my last
but arguably the most impressive stop in the south -
Yanzhi Canyon. In Chinese, yanzhi means rouge, and
legend has it that a fairy came down from heaven one
day and washed her faced in the Huanghua River
(running through the canyon). And then rouge on her
face dyed the river red.
The canyon neighbors Mt Kongdong to the east, Mt
Liupan on the west and Old Dragon Pool on the south.
Formed in the Ordovician Period of about 800 million
years ago, it was named after the minority Yanzhi
Clan of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).
The clan evolved from the Yanzhi Tribe, and then
lived near the canyon during that period.
The river runs joyously through the steep canyon and
transforms into waterfalls in various sizes and
forms. Everywhere in the central area of the canyon,
you can see strangely shaped pines and weird rock
formations, flowers and rare vegetation.
There are several views of natural tableaux, such as
"Kwan-yin Appreciating Music" and "Taoists
Worshipping the Moon." The lower reaches of Yanzhi
Canyon connect Mt Kongdong in Gansu Province.
With mountains reflecting on the surface of the
river and clouds and mist forming wreaths in the
sky, it's quite a spectacular fairyland.
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, established in
1958, is bordered by Shaanxi Province to the east,
the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the west and
north and Gansu Province to the south. The Yellow
River runs across 12 cities and counties in the
Chinese Muslims, the Hui people, make up 33.4
percent of the total population of 6 million people
in 35 ethnic groups. In ancient times, the Tangut
kingdom of Western Xia, was locked in confrontations
with the Song, Liao and Jin dynasties for 189 years.
There are six major tourist zones: Shahu Lake, the
Western Xia Mausoleums, Jinshui River, Qingtongxia
Gorge, Shapotou Oasis and Liupan Mountains.
(Source: Shanghai Daily)
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