Inner Mongolia: Surfing on Singing Sands

By Sharon Lim

Surfing the sand in Xiang Sha Wan Desert, Inner Mongolia. photos by Sharon Lim.
Surfing the sand in Xiang Sha Wan Desert, Inner Mongolia. photos by Sharon Lim

We had the option of “stay on the safe side” and go for the normal summer travel in China where most people focus on the palaces, Great Wall, temples and tombs of the string of dynasties.

However, my hubby and I decided to break out of the mold and go somewhere different. So it was decided that we take our family, three kids aged 8, 9 and 11, on an adventure to the Resonant Sand Gorge Desert also know as Xiang Sha Wan Desert!

From Beijing, we took an hour’s flight to Baotou, in Inner Mongolia in northern China. With kids we decided to hire a private car that picked us up from the airport and drove some 20 miles to the Resonant Sand Gorge Desert.

For adult travellers, Xiang Sha Wan Desert is easily reached from Baotou. Buses and taxis can be caught to the gorge from Baotou and are reasonably inexpensive. Along the way, we passed through a landscape of green fields, crops and rocky mountains. We crossed the famous Yellow River and arrived at the desert border.

 The Resonant Sand Desert, Inner Mongolia
The Resonant Sand Desert, Inner Mongolia

Before our eyes could switch channels, the desert was right in the midst of the green! It was said that one of the legendary eight immortals (Ba Xian), Zhang Guo Lao, had a speck of sand on his sandal. When he dusted it off his foot, the sand landed on earth in voluminous quantity covering the green.

The Kubuqi Desert is 50 kilometers to the south of Baotou (Inner Mongolia), extending over 200 miles east to west in Inner Mongolia province. It is ranked the seventh largest desert in China. The Resonant Sand Gorge lies in the middle of the Kubuqi Desert and is situated at the north-edge.

The desert is renowned for its singing sand dune which stretches some 200 meters wide and has a gradient of 45 degrees rising to approximately 110 meters high.

We were told that one could hear the sound of croaking frogs when surfing down the sand hill or as loud as an engine roar when a team of three or more makes the plunge. The Resonant Sand Gorge got its name from the echo of the sand but try taking some sand out of the desert and it loses its magic – the creation of the sound remains a mystery

Buckling up in a jeep for a ride through the resonant sand desert.
Buckling up in a jeep for a ride through the resonant sand desert.

We took the desert cable car up the sand hill – keep your feet on the metal bar, it locks the bar over your waist – the kaleidoscopic rock mountain at one side of the valley and the slope sand dune on the opposite was gorgeous. For adventure seekers, one could buy just the entrance ticket and cross the steep gorge on foot.

Adventure For Young And Old

On our way up the slope, we were expecting a vast barren land of sand, some cacti and probably a few camels would be the main attraction. To our surprise, we were in a BIG theme park!

The sight of desert jeeps, camels, playground, desert cruisers, a golf range and many more whetted all our palates as we reminisced about our Bintan Club Med vacation we had just two summers back. The children were thrilled to the core. Like wild birds out of their cage after two long hours in captivity, their bodies were ready to work up a storm!

Daddy practised on the golf range, his chipping and full swing, while the kids went for the playground swings, rope climbing and, why not play volleyball in the desert for a change?

Amazing parasailing was a good vehicle to catch a bird’s eye view of the desert. You will feel an overwhelming sense of smallness as you soar up the sky gazing down at the vast beauty of the golden desert surrounded by lush green oasis – what an astounding gift that nature has to offer!

We hopped into two jeeps and pretended to be Indiana Jones in the “Daredevils of the Desert” giving chase or be chased by the jeep in front or behind us over arduous stretches of desert. The ride was breathtaking!

Resting Spot

A young camel rider in the desert in Mongolia.
A young camel rider in the desert in Mongolia.

As the heat and dry yet cool wind of the desert continued to rise by mid-day, we saluted the vendors that provided visitors with good food and icy drinks under shades. We relaxed by the poolside and were entertained by performers. This place has everything, not forgetting a souvenir shop and a supermarket that sells swimwear too!

Nearby stood an air-conditioned ‘5-D’ movie huge bunk! Hummm… wonder if we are the stars in the movie! We decided to give that a skip. If you want to stay overnight, there is Xiang Sha Wan Desert hotel, I hear that they have campfire and cultural dances in the evenings too. Nothing short for the modern traveller

More Attractions

More appetite for pulse racing adventure? Try the acrobatics on a tight rope or free rolling in a zorbing ball! My family choose to go for something less stressful for the heart — the camelback tour, one of the most intriguing attractions.

A cable car takes riders to the top of the hill to ride down on sledges.
A cable car takes riders to the top of the hill to ride down on sledges.

Having height phobia brought butterflies in my stomach when the camel stood up, I was lifted some two meters above ground level. Surprising, the pace was slow and pleasant, unlike a horse galloping. Hurray, I have overcome my fear by two meters higher!

One of the desert’s attractions, which many visitors may overlook, are the yurts of the Mongolian dwellers. The yurts are circular tents made of wood and felt from sheeps wool. The shape makes the yurt able to resist winds from any direction; the collapsible structure enables it to be relocated easily. It is amazing how the Mongolians manage during the harsh winters.

The yurt belonged to an emaciated looking old man who had been overly baked under the scotching sun and evaporated to the bones. Using sign language, we expressed our interest to look inside his yurt.

We had to bow our heads to enter (maximum two people), due to the low height of the door. When we lifted our heads, there was Genghis Khan’s portrait before us – we had just shown our respect with our entry. Inside there was only enough room for a wooden queen-size bed with varying colors of reds and gold fabric over it.

Another sight not to be missed were the magnificent sand sculptures. We were captivated by the lifelike creatures and details of animals, pagoda and palace…what a moment to stimulate your imagination!

Heading to our last adventure, the sand sledging, which is located just outside the tourist trap, we met an elderly lady collecting sand in her empty water bottle. The kids were curious. “Are you going to make a sand bottle for decoration?” and “If you are taking sand out of the desert, they will be homesick and will not produce any “gribit” sound”.

Yurts next to the railroad tracks at the desert resort.
Yurts next to the railroad tracks at the desert resort.

The lady, squatting on the ground, looked up with squinted eyes from the blazing sun and replied, “No, little friends, I am going to use it for my oil painting. The sand is like silk and it is perfect to paint the desert with it.” What an awesome idea! I took time to grab some for myself too.

Our family favorite was the sand sliding, the grand finale of the day. We paid RMB20 each. Unlike snow sledging, our hands were spread out beside the toboggans on the sand as navigator and to keep one from losing balance and falling off the sledge along the slope.

Racing down the 45-degree slope, the ‘hand-brakes’ cutting through the soft sand did not seem to make an impact on the speed. The sensation was awesome minus the after effect of the ache on both arms. It was a pity we missed the acclaimed “sound”. We were told that it takes 30 days of very dry weather to feast our ears. It had drizzled the day before, just not our luck.

The Resonant Gorge Desert was truly an experience in which many people may never have the chance to experience, ‘Kit Kat’ for multigenerational family travelers (not suitable for people in wheelchairs), have a whale of a time while soaking in the beauty of the desert, an amazingly wondrous gift! The desert of Xiang Sha Wan is calling!

Going to the Desert

Xiang Sha Wan Desert is easily reached from Baotou in Inner Mongolia in northern China. Buses and taxis can be caught to the gorge from Baotou and are reasonably inexpensive. Tour groups are also easily organized from Baotou. Getting to Baotou is easy, with a large airport servicing flights to all major cities in the region. From Beijing to Baotou is around an hour’s flight.

Opening Hours: 9am to 5pm
Taxi at Baotou to and from Xiang Sha Wan: less than RMB200
Package for Entrance + All Desert Rides: RMB260

Entrance Cost: RMB80
Entrance + Cable Cost: RMB120
Desert Galoshes (fabric): RMB10
Desert Jeep Rides: RMB120
Camel Rides: RMB140
Hotel Rates: RMB360/Standard room
Food and drinks are concentrated at the heart of the desert peak.

VISA: A visa is required by visitors to enter Mainland China, except Hong Kong. Make sure to obtain your visas prior to arrival.

Best time to visit the desert is in summer and autumn, temperature is around 25 C to 40 C in the daytime, please bring sunblock, sunglasses, sun cap and scarf. At night, the temperature will drop around 10 C to 15 C. Sandstorms are rare in the Desert.

Sharon LimSharon Lim is a freelance writer and mom who lives in Singapore.

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