Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shapotou in Ningxia: A River, Sand Dunes, and more

I was lucky enough to spend most of my time yesterday in a tourist mode at Shapotou--an area where the Tengger Desert meets the Yellow River. It is a side of China I have not seen before, so I will take this opportunity for a light post about my experiences there.

The first thing I did was take a non-thrilling motorboat ride from the main entrance. I then faced a decision about how to ascend a steep hill of sand. For an additional fee one could take an escalator:

escalator at Shapotou in Ningxia

three young women working at the escalator at Shapotou in Ningxia
Plenty of staff at the escalator

Despite the friendly staff waiting to greet people, it seemed like a boring choice. So, I decided to attempt the climb by foot. After discovering that my brilliant idea to wear sandals was not so brilliant as the sand was rather hot, I settled on another method for ascending the hill:

chair lift at Shapotou in Ningxia

At the top, one could take in a view of the Yellow River:

Yellow River at Shapotou in Ningxia

From there, I exited the southern portion of the park, walked under a railroad, and then entered the northern section of the park where a variety of activities were available, some for free:

buried in the sand at Shapotou in Ningxia

Some not free:

dune buggy at Shapotou in Ningxia

Although activities such as dune buggy or camel riding did not surprise me, others seemed more questionable and had few if any people interested. For example, there was a small flat area where one could ride a Segway:

Woman riding a Segway on the sand at Shapotou in Ningxia, China

But maybe more peculiar was the idea that people would travel to a desert full of sand dunes for a fake grass slide:

fake grass slide at Shapotou in Ningxia

At least like the escalator, there were friendly people around:

Three young men working at Shapotou in Ningxia

I passed on all of these activities as my primary desire was explore the sand dunes on foot. I left the main park area and headed north deeper into the desert. After a while I felt that I had achieved my goal--immersed amongst sand dunes and no signs of humankind:

sand dunes in desert at Shapotou in Ningxia

But elsewhere I once again saw signs of civilization. Whether it was road signs:

road signs in desert at Shapotou in Ningxia

Or one of the large vehicles taking people out for rides:

large vehicle in the dessert at Shapotou in Ningxia

Eventually, the time came for me to leave the sand dunes. My footprints in some areas had already been erased by the wind, but some mountains provided a simple reference point. Given my previous research interests in human (and insect) navigation, I tried to return by the same winding path. It proved to be an enjoyable challenge.

footprints in the desert at Shapotou in Ningxia>
An easier section to follow--footprints of me heading out and later returning.

After I made it out of the dunes I walked back to the Yellow River:

path at Shapotou in Ningxia

But before the river, the sand hill awaited. The choice for how to descend was easy, and I went down on a sand sled:

sand slide at Shapotou in Ningxia>

Admittedly, I was skeptical since everyone I watched went down at a rather slow place. But by making as little use of the brakes as possible I quickly discovered that the sled could indeed reach a "fun" speed. However, difficulty controlling the sled at higher speeds combined with sand flying into my eyes led to a glorious crash. Fortunately, the sand proved to be an excellent cushion and I escaped entirely unharmed (but rather sandy). I definitely got my money's worth there.

After reaching the bottom of the hill, it was a quick walk to the Yellow River. Instead of a motorboat, this time I took a raft:

sheep skin raft on the Yellow River at Shapotou in Ningxia

As we went downstream I pondered the suspicious-looking floats for the raft. I asked if they were inflated pig skins and was told they were not. They were of course inflated sheep skins.

carry sheep skin raft at Shapotou in Ningxia
Sheep are much easier to carry when they are just inflated skins.

Shapotou certainly provided a unique experience for me. If I ever find myself in this region again I would like to take one of the overnight tours available to deeper regions of the Tengger desert, especially if there are opportunities for independent wanderings. But it was definitely a good day on the sand dunes.