The silent sand: To Inner Mongolia's Kubuqi Desert

Written by Sep 22, 2007 20:14
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The unexpected

When saying Inner Mongolia, everybody (and especially people who like romanticizing) thinks of the green, hilly grasslands that are populated by skillful horse riders who live in tent villages. So did I when I went there. It never occurred to me that Inner Mongolia is also a province of deserts. And not the rocky kind of desert like the ones in the United States, or the kind of deserts that mainly consists of brownish stretches of soil likes the ones in Russia. No, Inner Mongolia's deserts or of the kind we all know from the tales from the Arabian Nights; with yellow sand, high dunes and even camels going around in caravans. So far, this has been the most unexpected and surprising landscape I have encountered in China, adding yet another few highlights to China's already gigantic vista variety.

As I later learned, Inner Mongolia has several large deserts, many of which extend into the neighboring Qing Hai and Xin Jiang provinces as well as into the bordering state of Mongolia. The largest one is the Badain Jaran Desert, but from Inner Mongolia's two biggest cities Hohhot (Huhehaote) and Baotou, the Kubuqi Desert (库布其) is the one that is most easily accessible to us tourists. And for those of you who (like the Chinese themselves) love ranking lists: I found out that Kubuqi is 7th biggest desert in China and it ranks 3rd in Inner Mongolia itself.

My two day trip to Kubuqi Desert was something my local friends had planned for me, rather then a trip I thought of myself. They had told me they would be taking me to see a desert, but after a somewhat disappointing encounter with the overly commercialized grasslands of Xilamuren, I really didn't expect a lot. I was wrong.

We went from Hohhot city with the car of my friends and that way the trip to the edge of the desert took us about 4 hours. Kubuqi desert is actually closer to Baotou (包头) or the smaller city of Erdos (鄂尔多斯市) and you can get there from both cities within a hour and halve by taxi. Of course numerous travel agencies in all of these cities organize day and multi-day trips, although I'm not sure which option (taxi or travel agency) is the cheaper one.
Having conventional geography in mind, from the car I was looking for signs in the landscape that suggested we were approaching a desert of massive proportions. But to my surprise the scenery remained green, cultivated and lush, while road signs clearly stated we were rapidly nearing our destination. We were even crossing the famous Yellow River, just kilometers before arriving at the desert's flanks. Not the expected gradual changes in the landscape; only farmlands and trees and then all of sudden a mountain of sand rising above the crop fields. The abruptness of this is quite astounding, just as if one of the Gods had an extra bucket of sand left when he created our planet, and decided to carelessly empty it right there amongst the green fields.

We left the express way and drove onto a smaller road leading into the desert. Kubuqi extends for about 400 kilometers along the Yellow River, but only few places are accessible to tourists. The most famous one is the Resonant Sand Gorge or Xiang Sha Wan (响沙湾) which is a canyon, with colorful rock formations at the one side and a steep and enormous sand dune of about 110 meters at the other.
We drove to the big parking area near this gorge and I was really taken aback by the sight here. The sea of pristine sand hills in the distance -at the other side of the canyon- stretches as far as the eye can see. And since it was a clear day; that was very far indeed. Using binoculars I could even make out caravans of camels walking over the ridges of the dunes and even some ancient and peculiar looking desert dwellings! Wow! Forget Egypt, go and see this!

The expected

The Resonant Sand Gorge is a very popular destination in this region of Inner Mongolia, which in China always means there is both an unbelievably big assortment of tourist facilities as well as a similarly unbelievable big assortment of entrance tickets. The cheapest option to enter the gorge and adjoining sand dunes is by buying a 60RMB entrance ticket and crossing the steep canyon walls on foot. This is what we did, but it is really quite dangerous. There is no stairs, just some kind of rickety old rope ladder which is certainly unsuitable for small children and the elderly. Of course there is another option; you can cross the valley using the cable way which costs an additional 40RMB. On a hot August day, this is a 40RMB that is well spent, because after a rope ladder descent along the rocks, the next challenge of climbing the 110 meter sand dune in the burning sun is one you can do without.
I expected a magnificent view of the desert scenery, once over the top of that sand wall, but in fact (and I could've guessed that!) there was nothing short of desert theme park. There are jeeps, karts, sand ski's, sand sleds, ball games and so on. There's even a modern desert hotel building, a supermarket and large souvenir hall. So much for a serene nature's wonderland....
The two most interesting things to do are the jeep trail, which takes you on a wild ride over some of the steep sandbanks and secondly, the camelback tour to an ancient desert village. Both will cost you around Y60 to Y80. Although I always feel that a whole range of tourist facilities like this are rather unfavorable to the natural experience, some of them are quite useful. It was a sunny August day when we visited the desert and the scorching heat was really beyond imagination. It doesn't matter how many bottles of water you carry with you; it's never enough when the warm wind that blows over the barren dunes dehydrates you like a giant hairdryer. Bless the drink vendors!

The Resonant Sand Gorge carries this odd name, because it is said that the echo of the sand that moves in wind creates a Shhhh-sound that reverberates through the gorge. And because of the structure of the rocky left side of the gorge and the changes in the wind, that sound can become very melodious with tones similar to that of a pan flute. Just as all the other visitors there, I was very keen on hearing the song of the sand (as the signs poetically call it) and we all listened very carefully at various places in and around the gorge. Maybe the wind wasn't right, maybe the buzz of the many tourists to loud, or maybe it's just one more of those fantastic Chinese folk tales; but the sand was as quiet as a mouse.

It was getting late and after having spent quite some time in the gorge and at the dunes, we decided to get back to the car park. Instead of descending the sand cliff on foot or taking the cable cars, you can take the 110m long sand slide to go down [see picture]. I paid 15RMB and raced down the dune on a sand sled. Real good fun and much more exciting then your typical rollercoaster!
Although most visitors were making there way back by now, you can extend your visit to Kubuqi desert, because on many nights there is a big (dinner) show about a traditional Kubuqi wedding with songs, acrobatics and many other performances. After that you can of course choose to spend the night in the desert hotel, although most people not traveling back the same day choose to spend the night in one of the many hotels in Erdos city.

The silent sand

When we arrived at the parking space again, the sun was now low at the horizon. I walked to the edge of the parking area and once more I stared in awe at this magnificent and seemingly endless landscape of sand in front of me [see picture]. Slowly the sun disappeared behind the dunes all the way in the distance. The parking place was almost deserted by now and a comfortable stillness fell over the area. Maybe this time, the sand will sing, I thought. So for the last time I tried to listen carefully, but it was in vain again. At least for me, the sand remained silent.

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