|Day One main activities
|Fly to Yinchuan, 3-hour hike to see Great Wall near the Helan Mountains, overnight in Yinchuan
|Day Two main activities
|Drive to the desert; hiking and jeep travel between desert lakes and oases, overnight in tents at first desert campsite.
|Day Three main activities
|Hiking and jeep travel between desert lakes and oases, overnight in tents at second desert campsite.
|Day Four main activities
|Start the drive out of the desert, stopping by the desert base camp for a hot meal, drive back to Yinchuan, overnight in Yinchuan.
|Day Five main activities
|Visits to the Western Xia Imperial Tombs and the Hongshan Fort, fly back to Beijing.
The Tengger Desert
The name of the Tengger Desert comes from the Mongolian word for “sky.” The Tengger is classic sand desert: endless waves of sand dunes broken only by the occasional rocky crag. Located in the south-eastern part of Alashan, with an area of about 30,000 square kilometers, this desert is the fourth largest of its kind in China.
Deep into the dunes
Many of the dunes found in the Tengger Desert are crescent-shaped, formed by winds that mostly blow in the same direction. Because of this, the Tengger is China’s fastest moving desert, frequently threatening to bury railway lines as its dunes shift across the land. We’ll get deep into the desert, where it’s sand dunes in every direction, as far as the eye can see—quite a sensation!
Lakes and Oases
Somewhat surprisingly, more than 500 fresh- and salt-water lakes and oases can be found in the Alashan Desert. On this trip we will hike and ride in jeeps between lakes, setting up camp by two of them and seeing many more from the tops of the dunes. We expect to be far away from cities and towns, and the lack of light pollution should give great views of the night sky.
Western Xia Imperial Tombs
The story of the Western Xia (1036–1227 AD) Dynasty is interesting—a fierce beginning, consolidation of an empire, then a gradual decay due to scheming and corruption, and then an extended finale featuring 20 years of attacks by the Mongolian army, during which it’s said Genghis Khan received a mortal wound. The site of the tombs features an excellent exhibit that uses life-size models and murals to tell the entire story.
In the end, they were completely extinguished by the Mongolian army of Genghis Khan and his sons, leaving only the pyramid-shaped tombs of the early kings.
The near-total destruction of their capital and records means that little is known about the Tangut nomads who founded the Western Xia Dynasty.
Much of what is known is based on records of the neighbouring Liao (907-1125 AD) and Song (960–1279 AD) Dynasties, as well as the results of excavation of the tombs.
The capital of the Western Xia was sited very close to Yinchuan, and the tombs are around 40km west of the city, on the way to the desert. To date, nine king’s mausoleums and 250 smaller associated tombs have been discovered, and one of the main tombs has been opened to visits.
Ming Dynasty fortifications
Yinchuan, and the Tengger Desert, are located at the eastern end of the Hexi Corridor, a narrow strip of land between the Gobi and the Qilian Mountains that was a main part of the Northern Silk Road.
Travellers along the Silk Road couldn’t really go through the desert (too dry), and the Qilian Mountains (and the Qinghai Plateau behind) were also not the best option for travel. But snowmelt from the mountains fed rivers that flowed down to the flatter land between the mountains and desert, supporting towns and oasis outposts, allowing travellers and traders to rest and resupply on their way through.
Fortifications through the Hexi Corridor protected the travellers and enabled trade along the Silk Road, and we’ll see the remains of some of those fortifications on two side trips.
On the first day of the trip we’ll do a hike near the mountains west of Yinchuan to see Ming Dynasty-era Great Wall—a rough stretch that is now mostly just the rammed-earth insides of the original wall there.
On the last day we’ll take a trip to explore the Hongshan Fort, a huge walled barracks built in 1521 that includes tunnels to hide soldiers, a large barbican to ‘catch the enemy like turtles’, and the tiny Ningxia Great Wall history museum.