Provinces in China's northwest, including Ningxia, are often described as "China's Wild West", conjuring up images of rugged, long-haired horsemen riding through an expansive and unpredictable desert. However, most visitors passing through Yinchuan will find a pleasant, sparsely populated city (compared to the likes of Beijing or Shanghai) with clean air, wide-open roads and an inherently Muslim flair. Sure, Yinchuan is flat and dry, but besides the karst, open plains surrounding the city, there's no sandy desert in sight. However, such a desert, complete with sweeping sand dunes and herds of camels, does exist, 160 kilometres southeast of Yinchuan, outside the city of Zhongwei in a place called Shapotou – a picturesque spot where the calm waters of the yellow river slice through the golden sand dunes of the Tengger Desert.
The tourist potential of this location obviously hasn't gone unnoticed, and today Shapotou has become a very popular destination for those seeking adrenaline kicks through various rides including cross-desert quad bikes (ATVs) and high-speed jeep rides over bumpy sand dunes. Of course, there are plenty of well-trained camels here too waiting to carry tourists through the desert's fine sands.
I visited Shapotou in September, just before the National Day travel mayhem began, a wise choice I soon discovered. I had been forewarned that the place was essentially just an amusement park amid sand dunes, but the inner traveller inside me, tried to cling on to the hope that I would find myself in an isolated desert; just me and a seemingly infinite range of sand dunes as far as the eye could see. However, as with most scenic spots in China, I was naïve to expect an unexploited, scenic spot devoid of humans. But, travelling to Shapotou during the low-season before the country was readying itself for National Day's mass exodus to tourists spots, meant that I only had to share the resort with a mere 20 or 30 other domestic tourists that day. I did quickly learn however, that this desert trip wouldn't come cheap. After paying the entrance fee of 90 RMB, the next cost came almost immediately when I had to fork out another 80 RMB for the speedboat to get to the actual desert and a subsequent 20 RMB for the cable car up the giant sand dune.
A scenic spot or an amusement park?
Quad bikes take you on an exhilarating ride across sand dunes
I wouldn't call Shapotou an amusement park, but it definitely is a resort geared towards making money. The entrance only includes access to the resort. Once in, each ride (camels, quad bikes, bungee-jumping, sand-boarding etc.) costs extra. The best chance of finding a moment of tranquillity is either on camel-back (5-30 RMB for short-distance trek) through the sand dunes, or trudging through the sands independently, wearing the special sand boots which one must rent.
Arguably, the most thrilling (and terrifying) attraction is a ride on an open-roof truck that charges across sand dunes at high speed, making sharp, unpredictable turns and bouncing over various sized dunes. Thrill-seekers are strapped into normal, seat belts and must grab onto a railing in front of each seat. Throughout the 5 minute ride, besides being acutely aware that the truck could easily flip over at any moment, the other scarey aspect is the fact the driver spends just as much time looking over his shoulders making sure none of his passengers have fallen out, as he does looking at the trail ahead of him. This ride cost about 150 RMB, but may vary according to the season. Other adrenaline-inducing attractions include rides on quad bikes; visitors must accelerate or push the breaks themselves, while an instructor latches on to the side of the quad bike, giving instructions (in Chinese only) and steering it. High-speed is encouraged and the safety of this ride is highly questionable (40 RMB).
An expensive, but fun day trip
Sheep skin rafts take you to the exit at the end of the day
A couple of hours is enough to take full advantage of the rides available and to absorb the striking scenery. The best way to leave the resort is to take one of the sand slides down a very steep sand dune. It looks much scarier than it is, and after riding quad bikes and high-speed jeeps, the comparatively slow slide down feels a bit anti-climactic. Once down, visitors board a raft made of inflated sheepskins. The slow drift back on the Yellow River's tranquil waters is a calming finish to an eventful day. All in all, Shapotou offered great rides that I would have never had the chance to experience elsewhere. However, if you're on a tight, traveller's budget, the accrued cost of all the best rides can leave quite a sting at the end of the day (be prepared to spend about 500 RMB if you really want make the most of what's on offer). Therefore, if you're just hoping to enjoy the natural beauty of a vast, golden desert, try to find a driver to take you to an unexploited part of the Tengger (and back) or head to the Gobi Desert instead.
Shapotou 沙坡头 View In Map
Add: Shapotou Tourist Area, Zhongwei, Ningxia
Tel: 0955 7681 481
Entrance fee: 90 RMB for adults, 50 RMB for students, children and elders during peak season (April 1-Nov 30); 65 RMB for adults, 35 RMB for students, children and elders during the low season (Dec 1 – March 31)
Getting there (from Yinchuan): Trains depart from Yinchuan Railway Station several times per day. Journey time varies from 2.5 hours to 7 hours depending on the train, and hard seat tickets cost as little as 13 RMB one-way. I recommend taking the K43 high-speed train, which departs at 07:19 and arrives at Zhongwei at 09:36 (times subject to change). From Zhongwei, hire a local driver to take you to Shapotou and back. Accommodations are also available at Shaptou for those wishing to stay overnight (see website above for details).
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Keywords: Shapotou Ningxia Yinchuan getaways Tengger desert ningxia Shapotou Zhongwei desert getaway Ningxia
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