Building the ‘new, old’ or the ‘old, new’ in China. These photos were taken in Bayan Hot /Alashan Zuoqi in Inner Mongolia. The authorities were building a new, old city entirely from scratch, city walls and all.
A few days in Zhangye张掖, the friendly and attractive city in western Gansu province, is best way to get to know this remote area of China. Zhangye is only a three to four hour bus ride away from the Inner Mongolian town of Alashan Youqi, the gateway to the Badan Jarain Desert. And, as the friendly ticket lady at Youqi’s bus station had assured Adam two days ago, there are no problems getting tickets. So we swap the tickets for the 15.00 bus which the Badain Jaran travel agency had erroneously bought us, and hop on the 8.30 one instead.
The bus starts out half-empty, but doesn’t stay that way for long. This is still peasant country, where local people prefer to line up by the road side with their sacks and bundles, waiting for the bus to pick them up, rather than make their way to the bus station. The main difference with 20 years ago is that most of the transactions, involving pick- ups and drop- offs, are arranged on mobile phones these days.
The other thing that takes us back into time is the speed of the ride; or rather, the lack of it. In fact, we have seldom come across a driver less in a hurry. Though we normally want our buses to go slowly and carefully, ever fearful of accidents, even we think that this guy could speed up a bit.
Our train from Ulan Bator arrived at midnight, much later than expected due to problems changing the bogeys at the Mongolian / Chinese border. We stumbled onto the concourse of Hohhot station and made our way into the city, only to find that none of our preferred hotels had any rooms. Our two Singaporean fellow travellers from the train (an IT specialist and an engineer) who had tagged along with us found to their dismay that there was nowhere to change money, nobody accepted dollars, and their credit cards didn’t work in the ATM’s. In other words, China is not quite on a par with Singapore (or even Mongolia) yet.
Eventually, some friendly locals pointed us towards a rather seedy street near the train station where we managed to find a cheap room in an equally seedy hotel. Our room came with a fag- stained carpet, an electric poker table and various phone calls from ladies offering their massage services (anmo xiaojie). We had to lend our Singaporean friends the money for their room and went almost straight to bed, feeling quite despondent. Fortunately, at least the breakfast the next morning was decent.
The Badain Jaran Desert (Mongolian) or Badan Jilin Shamo 巴丹吉林沙漠 (Chinese) is dessert a landscape copied and pasted straight from the ancient tales of Chinese mythology. Humongous sand dunes, herds of wild Bactrian camels, shimmering lakes and a gold roof temples dot this spectacular and mysterious land.
The new bus station looks a lot like an airport terminal and there isn’t much in it yet. The bus, however, does leave on time (7.20 am) and that’s the main thing. It fills up completely, of course, and our seats are quite far to the back, but overall it’s ok.
We start off on the brand-new motorway we had been on yesterday – and it’s still empty – but soon we turn onto an older road. All around us there is an ugly, greyish desert and lots of empty space.
The only exotic element is provided by the camels of which we now see whole herds, on both sides of the road.
Can there be too many Camels?
In fact, there are so many that even their exoticness wears off eventually. Toilet stops are few and far between and usually on the primitive side: often there is no toilet, just a bush, dip or hollow to hide behind or in, which is preferable because it’s cleaner.
Yinchuan to Bayan Khot via Guangzong Si is one of those out of the way routes that you will never forget. All along the journey you will be accompanied by remnants of the Great Wall, lonely watchtowers, camels and an unknown Mongolian Monastery; not to mention the amazing landscape.
Our driver has agreed to take us all the way to Bayan Khot via Guangzong Si (once one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia) for 300 Yuan; or at least that’s what we think … We have managed to get up reasonably early and are making good progress.
The Wild Wall in Ningxia
The first highlight of the day is when we suddenly catch sight of the ruins of the Great Wall! This is the real thing: unrestored, without tickets, souvenir stalls, or people. It is just standing there, defiant, majestic, having weathered so many centuries.
Of course, there’s not much left of it, it’s been reduced to a crumbling pinkish pile of earth, riddled with holes. But we don’t mind, we’re just thrilled to be there.
Over the next few months we’ll be putting up articles about the places we visited in China this summer.
The trip began in Hohhot (呼和浩特), in Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治区), where we had arrived on the train from Ulaan Baatar (乌兰巴托) in Mongolia.
After exploring the city’s eye-catching Wuta pagoda 五塔寺 and Da Zhao 大召 and Xilitu Zhao 席力图大召temples, an overnight train took us to Zhongwei (中卫), in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Province (宁夏回自治区), where we visited the Desert Research Center at Shapotou ( 沙坡头) on the banks of the Yellow River (黄河) and also the Sikou Scenic Area(寺口风景区).
From Zhongwei (中卫), a quick bus ride led north to Yinchuan (银川), from where we explored the amazing sights that surround Ningxia’s capital.
(Badain Jaran Desert is the Mongolian name / Badan Jilin Shamo is the Chinese name)
The World’s Highest Sand Dunes
Getting to the magnificent Badain Jaran Desert, home to the world’s highest sand dunes, is far more straightforward than it appears on the map and in the guide books and can be done independently, with a bit of effort and determination. The desert can be approached from two directions: either from Ningxia’s capital Yinchuan via the Inner Mongolian town of Bayan Khot (also known as Alashan Zuoqi 阿拉善左旗), or from the Gansu town of Zhangye.
The base for visiting the desert is Alashan Youqi (阿拉善右旗), which is connected by a daily bus from Bayan Khot, or by two daily buses from Zhangye.
Below is the basic information you need to do the trip. In a few weeks we will be putting up a longer article about our experience there, illustrated with more photos.
Getting there from Yinchuan
There are regular buses from Yinchuan’s main bus station to Bayan Khot, which should take around 2 hours. However, we decided to hire a taxi (400 Yuan) because that allowed us to stop at the ruins of the Great Wall at Sanguankou (三关口) and to make a side-trip to the Mongolian monastery complex of Guanzongsi (广宗寺). If you left really early, with a hired car you could also include a visit to Moon Lake, a desert playground for wealthy Chinese.