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.

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Dunes in the Alashan Desert
Dunes in the desert.

The Alashan Desert

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.

Note: This trip has quite a bit in common with our Tengger Desert Lakes trip.

Trip overview

Day One
Travel to Bayanhaote via Yinchuan
Visit to the Desert Geological Park Museum and the Stone Market
Stay at 5-star hotel in Bayanhaote
Day Two
Hiking and travel by camel and jeep between desert lakes and oases
Camp in tents overnight
Day Three
Hiking and jeep travel to the temple in the desert
Back to the hotel in Bayanhaote
Day Four
Brief look at Han Dynasty Great Wall
Visit the Western Xia Imperial Tombs
Fly from Yinchuan to Beijing

The Temple in the Desert

Chengqing Temple

Chengqing Temple.

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.

A tiny settlement by a lake in the Tengger Desert

A tiny settlement by a lake, deep in the Tengger Desert.

Desert 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 Moon Lake, Yellow Grass Lake, and Toudao Lake, where we will set up camp.

One of the mausolem’ of the Western Xia Imperial Tombs

One of the pyramid-shaped tombs of the Western Xia. Click for a larger photo »

Western Xia Imperial Tombs

The Western Xia Dynasty (1036–1227 AD) was 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.

The story of the Western Xia 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.


The temperature in deserts will usually vary greatly between the night time and daytime. In September it's dry and we expect daytime temperatures of around 10-20°C, with temperatures as low as 4°C at night. Please be prepared to dress warmly. It is not expected to rain, although rain is not impossible. At this time of year, the chance of sandstorms is low, but we still need to be prepared.

Hikers relax at a campsite in the desert

More photos of the campsite

  1. Looking down from the dunes

Hikers relax at the campsite in the desert. Click for a larger photo »


We will spend two nights in the local 5-star hotel, and one night camping in the desert under the stars! Tents, sleeping bags, sleeping bag liners, and ground mats will be supplied by Beijing Hikers, and we'll provide one tent per person.

You’ll be sharing a room at the hotel with another hiker. If you'd like a hotel room to yourself, it can be arranged at an extra cost of 500 RMB for the two nights in the hotel, if a room is available—usually not a problem!

Further details about room shares and single supplement can be found in the documents we send you as part of the registration.

Flights and transport

We’ll be traveling by plane from Beijing to Yinchuan and back again at the end of the trip. We’ll hire a private bus to transit between destinations. There will also be a section of the trip that will include jeep travel through the desert, perhaps a rough ride if you are prone to motion sickness.

Frequent flyers: Please let us know if you would like to use your frequent flyer miles or if you are a frequent flyer member. If you would like to organise your own flights, we can provide further details.


Simple breakfast and picnic lunches will be provided on two days in the desert, as will dinner at camp on day two. At other times, we will take our meals at hotels or restaurants in Bayanhaote, or in Yinchuan. Bring some spending money for snacks during the trip. We’ll be eating Chinese-style food. Please let us know if you have any special dietary requirements or food allergies.

More photos

Hikers and a campfire in the Tengger Desert

Relaxing by a bonfire at a desert campsite.

Things to bring

Aside from a few changes of clothes and regular hiking gear, the following equipment and clothes will make desert hiking much more comfortable:

  • Hat with wide brim
  • Sunglasses and suncream
  • Facemask to protect from blowing sand
  • Quick-dry/wicking clothing to prevent chafing from sweat
  • Day pack for carrying water and snacks while hiking. Other luggage can be left on the jeeps or at the hotel.

Included with this trip

  • Return flight tickets
  • Transport by private bus
  • Jeep support in desert (transport luggage, some driving)
  • Entrance tickets
  • 5-star hotel (two to a room), tents for one night of desert camping
  • Meals as described
  • Water
  • Local tour guides

Full itinerary

  1. Day 1
    08:00 – Meet at Beijing Capital Airport for flight to Yinchuan
    10:20 – Take off
    12:20 – Arrive at Yinchuan Airport, lunch in Yinchuan
    14:00 – Drive to Bayanhaote
    16:00 – Check in to the hotel
    16:30 – Visit the Bayanhaote Museum
    17:30 – Free time after the museum visit, Stone Market visit optional
    18:30 – Dinner at local restaurant

  2. Day 2
    08:00 – Breakfast at the hotel, drive to the desert
    10:00 – Arrive at the edge of the desert
    10:30 – Hike/drive through desert, one hour camel ride to Yellow Grass Lake
    13:00 – Meet jeeps at Yellow Grass Lake, drive on through dunes to Toudao Lake
    14:30 – Picnic lunch at Toudao Lake
    15:30 – Hike through dunes
    17:30 – Set up camp at by a desert lake
    18:30 – Climb up dunes for sunset
    19:30 – Simple dinner and free time, bonfire after dinner

  3. Day 3
    05:00 – Wake up for sunrise (optional)
    08:00 – Breakfast at campsite
    10:00 – Arrive on foot at Chengqing Temple after driving and hiking through the desert
    11:30 – Drive through the desert
    13:30 – Lunch near the edge of the desert
    14:30 – Drive out of the desert
    16:30 – Check in the hotel in Bayanhaote and wash up
    18:30 – Dinner at the hotel, free time

  4. Day 4
    08:30 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:00 – Check out of hotel, drive back to Yinchuan
    10:30 – Take a quick look Ming Dynasty and Han Dynasty Great Wall
    11:00 – Visit Western Xia Imperial Tombs
    13:30 – Have lunch in Yinchuan
    14:30 – Visit a mosque in Yinchuan
    16:30 – Arrive at the airport and check in
    18:20 – Fly back to Beijing
    20:10 – Arrive at the Beijing Capital Airport
    All times are approximate, and depend on our speed of movement

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