Unique Experience in Sha Po Tou Desert of Yinchuan, Ningxia

2010-08-02China travel Guide

The scenic desert area of Sha Po Tou lies around ninety minutes south-west of the small Islamic city of Yinchuan, Ningxia Province. It is an area seldom visited by foreign tourists, but boasts some most amazing scenery and eerie desert landscapes.  The desert of China always reminds me of the Silk Road in ancient China.

The best way to get to Sha Po Tou is either through an organised tour group or by heading to Yinchuan South Long-distance bus station and catch a bus to zhongwei (中卫). Most buses to zhongwei carry on through to Sha Po Tou, it takes in total around an hour and a half and the bus will stop at Zhongwei for twenty minutes or so. Tickets can also be purchased at the Zhongwei bus station at a discounted rate, tickets cost ¥60 (US$10).

The closer you get to Sha Po Tou, the more you'll notice how increasingly desolate and empty the landscape becomes. Magnificent folding mountains provides one of the most incredible backdrops I have ever seen, the southern part of Ningxia is rich in coal and large alluvial mines can be seen as the bus hurtles down the Beijing-Tibet expressway towards Sha Po Tou. The scenic are itself is often used as a setting for Chinese movies with the recent Chinese block-buster Ciling (刺陵) being filmed there, when you first see the desert park you can understand why; perfectly groomed rich yellow sand dunes, sparse clumps of cacti growing out for the endless carpet of desert that stretches well beyond the horizon.

Upon getting off the bus the first thing that you'll notice is that it is extremely hot, and apparently is always extremely hot; sunscreen, wide-brim hats, scarfs, jeans, sunglasses, covered-in shoes and collar-shirts are all musts, unless you want to go home redder than the Chinese flag. If you didn't buy your tickets in Zhongwei then you must buy them in Sha Po Tou, there are several ticket options that include access to different attractions, it is best to buy the cheapest most basic ticket and then buy tickets to subsequent attractions individually once inside.

Upon entering the scenic area, you'll be immediately be confronted by China's most grand and most famous river-the Yellow River, rafting tours are run on the river depending on the time of year and the speed of the current, these rafts are crafted from dried sheep skin which is stitched together and inflated to create buoyant floats that support the wooden raft, this represents a traditional way that ancient Chinese used to cross to explore the river, despite looking somewhat unsafe and cramped they are extremely fun, but be warned, riding these boats on a hot day leads to inevitable sun-burn!

The highlight of Sha Po Tou is climbing the massive dune that provides amazing views over the Yellow River and the surrounding mountains, there are three ways to tackle the ascent; by foot, chairlift or by camel, I chose to head up by camel, savouring what was a truly unique experience. To ride a camel up the dune is ¥30 (US$10) and downhill is ¥20, well worth it. The camels are lead in trains of around five, directed by a local herder, at no point do you feel that the camel you are riding is at any risk of straying off the path or falling over, having said that the camel I was on felt like it was on death's door and really struggled to reach the summit. Walking up the dune is in reality to exhausting and draining except for the super-fit. The top of the dune is where you can enjoy the most amazing views, looking at over the Yellow River and the amazing mountain panorama that surrounds; it is an experience difficult to forget. The sand is incredibly hot so take care!

Beyond the dune is the desert playground which includes a plethora of somewhat novel attractions which have the feeling of being somewhat shoehorned into desert environment, these include: desert-racing cars, a sand-flume, a sand hovercraft that floats over the sand and of course more camels. These activities combines could easily soak up a whole day, prices vary across the attraction, in total a day in Sha Po Tou including food costs around ¥500 (US$90), however if you did it on a budget like me, then expect to get away ¥150, making in an economical day out.

--- By Brett Hartley-Wilson (VisitOurChina)