Alashan Desert Lakes and Temple, Inner Mongolia
Travel by foot, camel, and jeep through the Alashan Desert to reach a beautiful Buddhist temple deep in the dunes. Includes a night camping in the desert, plus a visit to the Western Xia Imperial Tombs.
|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 desert base camp.|
|Day Three main activities||More hiking and jeep travel to the temple in the desert, overnight in Bayanhot.|
|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.
The Temple in the Desert
Built over several decades and finished in 1739, Chengqing Temple is a Tibetan Buddhist temple, and there’s a mysterious legend that connects its construction to the Sixth Dalai Lama.
By many accounts, the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was not particularly suited to his position. The death of his predecessor was kept secret for 15 years; it took a three-year search to find the new incarnation, a two-year old son of nobility, and then the next twelve years had to be spent getting him to the point where it could be revealed that the Fifth had become the Sixth.
But it seemed like even twelve years’ training was not enough, and the young fellow turned out to be more interested in life outside the Potala Palace, going out drinking and consorting with young women, and writing what’s said to be excellent poetry based on his escapades and standard teenage angst.
Around the same time, the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was backing a Mongolian king who wanted to take over Tibet. To make that long story short, the Sixth Dalai Lama was sent to Beijing for an audience with the Kangxi Emperor, who was going to decide what to do with him.
And this is where the legend begins. One version of history has the Sixth Dalai Lama being killed in 1706, on the way to Beijing, and being replaced in Lhasa with a fake Sixth.
Another version of the story, though, has him escaping mid-route and ending up in the desert, where he got back on the Buddhist straight-and-narrow middle path. He oversaw construction of the Chengqing Temple and spread Buddhism throughout the area, eventually passing away at the temple in 1746.
On the third day of our trip, we'll end up hiking through the sand dunes to reach the temple.
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.