Tengger Desert Lakes, Inner Mongolia (4 days)
A four-day trip that includes a night in tents deep in the Tengger desert, with side trips to the Western Xia Imperial Tombs, Guangzong Temple, and some of the Ming Dynasty-era Great Wall in the area.
This trip is also scheduled as a join-in group tour on the following date
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|Day One main activities||Meet up in Yinchuan and travel to Bayanhot, visit the Bayanhot Desert Geological Park Museum and take a walkabout including a visit to a Tibetan temple, overnight in Bayanhot.|
|Day Two main activities||Drive to the desert, hiking and travel by jeep and camel between desert lakes and oases, overnight in tents at a campsite near a small settlement used seasonally by nomadic farmers.|
|Day Three main activities||More hiking and jeep travel in the desert, visit Guangzong Temple on the way back to Yinchuan, overnight in Yinchuan.|
|Day Four main activities||Visit Sanguankou Great Wall, visit Western Xia Imperial Tombs, trip finishes at the Yinchuan Airport.|
Tengger Desert and Alashan Plateau
This breathtaking region attracts visitors with its unique desert landscape, vibrant cultural diversity, and rich history. Alashan is located in the westernmost part of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, bordered in the north by Mongolia, in the south and west by Gansu province. This area encompasses several different deserts, including the Badanjilin, the Ulan Buh, and the Tengger. Hundreds of saltwater and freshwater lakes can be found in these deserts, including a few which we will be visiting.
Historical evidence of human presence in Alashan dates back as far as 6,000 years ago, when the Mandela Mountain Rock Paintings were carved. 28 ethnic groups including Han, Mongolian and Hui people inhabit this 270,000-square-kilometer (104,247 square miles) land. Reputed as the ‘hometown of the camel’, Alashan is abundant in two-humped camels and the down producing goat. The former were very important as pack animals along the Silk Road.
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.
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 visit or pass by Nuoritu Lake, Yellow Grass Lake, Mosquito Lake, and Temotu Lake.
Tibetan Buddhist Temples
During the trip we’ll visit two of the Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in the area.
The ‘big three’ monasteries in the Alashan area are Guangzong Temple, Yanfu Temple, and Fuyin Temple. The big three monasteries are also included in the area’s ‘Eight Great Temples’.
On the first day of the trip we’ll visit Yanfu Temple. Yanfu Temple dates back to 1731, and is a temple of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s located in the middle of Bayanhot, and we’ll visit for a look about the halls and shrines. The temple contains some Qing Dynasty-era relics that survived the Cultural Revolution including a 2m tall bronze incense burner and a large bell.
On the third day of the trip we’ll visit Guangzong Temple. This temple is in an extremely picturesque setting, nestled in the foothills on the west side of the Helanshan Mountains between Yinchuan and Bayanhot. It has been sacked and burned a few times, and much of what we’ll see was restored in 1981.
Tibetan Buddhist temples in the Mongolian desert?
The story of the temples around here contains a touch of mystery involving the Sixth Dalai Lama—also known as the ‘playboy’ Dalai Lama.
The official biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama ends with him disappearing in 1706 – presumed kidnapped and dead – somewhere in Qinghai Province, as he was being escorted to Beijing for an audience with the Emperor.
But there’s also a secret biography of the Sixth Dalai Lama that says he escaped from his escort, spent ten years travelling about as a wandering monk, and then settled in Alashan where he lived as a Buddhist teacher until his death in 1746. The secret biography was written by a Mongolian Buddhist monk, who claimed the Sixth Dalai Lama was his teacher.
In Guangzong Temple you’ll spot a statue of the Sixth Dalai Lama. The monks here claim that he’s the founder of their temple, and that his remains were enshrined here, too—until the Red Guards exhumed and burned them during the Cultural Revolution. True or false? We’ll leave that question to the scholars.
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 a quick hike to see Ming Dynasty-era Great Wall in the mountains between Yinchuan and Bayanhot—a rough stretch that is now mostly just the rammed-earth insides of the original wall.