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Why Beijingers love to hike China’s remote Tengger Desert

On the southern edge of China’s Gobi Desert, a group of young professionals from the capital are on a three-day trek through the dunes of the Tengger

Hikers trek through the Tengger Desert, Inner Mongolia. Photo: Simina Mistreanu

BEIJING (South China Morning Post) - Days before we board our flight from Beijing to Yinchuan, in China’s northern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Province, we were scrambling to put together our equipment and supplies for three days of hiking in the Tengger Desert. We’re a group of 10 young professionals, Chinese and foreigners, living in the capital. Our group leader, Wu Chengpeng, is the only one who has taken the trip before – twice.

He warns us that the hike will be long and exhausting and will require stamina. The desert is no mountain when it comes to hiking. It will get hot during the day and freezing at night. We need specific equipment and supplies. We mustn’t stray from the group. It’s so easy to get lost.

From Yinchuan we ride a bus for about three hours, crossing into Inner Mongolia. As the craggy mountains turn into a field of bushes and then into sand dunes, a massive, strange gateway appears in the distance.

China wants to create a trade and infrastructure network across Eurasia, and as part of that, it is building roads through the desert, as well as random, eerie edifices. The driver tells us the road we are on is only a year old. Another, larger road is under construction a few kilometres away.

SUVs and dune buggies start popping up around us. This is desert country. We pull over, and ‘Shifu’, the driver we’ve hired to transport our luggage and supplies across the desert, helps us move stuff into his SUV. We wrap the sand covers around our ankles, apply sunscreen and start our trek through the desert.

Shifu is a driver and tour guide in the Tengger Desert. Photo: Simina Mistreanu

Unsurprisingly, it’s hot, and it feels like we’re walking through sand – because we are. There are also mosquitoes. After some walking, we see our first, picture-perfect sand dune. We clamber up to the top, and then glide down. We take pictures. It’s magical. We do it again at the next dune, and then again, with a bit less enthusiasm. We’re starting to get tired.

When Wu signals our first break, it feels like we have been hiking forever. But it’s only been five kilometres. We have 40km and 2½ days to go.

Shifu drives his white Isuzu a couple of kilometres ahead and waits for us to catch up before starting out again. We’re never too far out of his sight. But toward the evening, as we reach an area with bushes and small trees, we decide we want to hike for a while without Shifu. Wu tells him we’ll meet him “at the last tree in the desert” and points to something in the distance. We’re off.

Tengger Desert lies on the southern edge of the Gobi Desert. The two deserts, like many in the world, are expanding. China has tens of thousands of “ecological migrants” whom the government has relocated due to desertification caused by climate change and human activities.

Those still staying make a living from raising sheep, cows and camels, and – increasingly – from tourism.

A goat belonging to a family who lives near an oasis in the Tengger Desert. Photo: Simina Mistreanu

As Chinese people have more disposable income, they spend more on travel, including adventure trips. People compare routes to little-known destinations through apps such as MotionX. And deserts are becoming increasingly popular among hikers.

Of course, visitors can experience the dunes by booking rides on SUVs, dune buggies or camels. But hikers who still want a sense of safety – and someone to carry their tents, water and peers who get injured or too tired to walk – can hire a driver.

After Shifu leaves us, we get a second wind from the thought of camping soon, and trudge through the bushes. Because of the vegetation and the approaching sunset, there are more mosquitoes. We reach the tree Wu had pointed to, but Shifu is not there. Our provisions, water and tents are with him.

We have no idea where we’re going, but we keep walking, passing the 10km mark we had set for the day. Some of us start complaining about being tired and hungry.

Someone finally sees a tiny white vehicle on the dunes in the distance. We head there. It is Shifu, near what he thought was “the last tree in the desert.” We quietly set up camp, cook our noodles and go to bed. No one is in the mood to light a fire and tell stories.

Dave Brackett, a hiker from Beijing, attempts to protect his tent against the wind in the Tengger Desert. Photo: Simina Mistreanu

The next morning, we wake up feeling fairly enthusiastic, though we find it hard to believe we have another full day of desert hiking ahead. The mood lightens as we decide to take longer breaks and crack open the first of five watermelons we bought in Yinchuan.

Soon, the dunes get taller and more handsome. A slight sandstorm starts. It feels like we’re climbing mountains, only there’s sand everywhere. The hiking and the scenery become repetitive and exhausting. Our minds are occupied with putting one foot in front of the other. Time, temperature and required effort become inconsequential. We are meditating under duress.

After a few hours, we reach an area adjoining two lakes. We head toward one of them – a beautiful oasis with grass, a herd of goats and a few rows of trees. A family lives in a house by the lake.

Yinan Cai from Beijing, and Shifu in the Tengger Desert. Photo: Simina Mistreanu

They, like Shifu, raise livestock and show tourists around for extra money. For driving our stuff around the desert, Shifu makes about 1,200 yuan (HK$1,380) per day. His 26-year-old son also drives around tourists sometimes.

Most people travel to the Tengger Desert on public holidays. During the May Day holiday, Shifu tells us, he had requests from six hiking groups. He couldn’t handle all of them, so he passed some over to friends. Outside holiday season, it can be quiet for weeks at a time.

We rest under the trees at the edge of the pasture. In the shade, we become reinvigorated and talkative, as if our brains are revelling in the more familiar landscape. We crack open another watermelon, which piques the goats’ interest. One brave goat approaches and finishes it off. We gather some brushwood for the fire.

After we decide on a campsite, we take our shoes off. The sand has cooled and feels refreshing. We climb a dune and watch the sunset. We start a fire and sit around it telling stories.

We wake up at sunrise. After a few kilometres, we reach a road that is under construction. This road leads us to where our bus driver awaits to take us back to Yinchuan.

We gleefully take off our sand covers. We’re so done with the desert. When we do reach the main road, however, we realise we have 4G coverage again and are returning to the modern world.

Tengger Desert lies on the southern edge of the Gobi Desert. Photo: Simina Mistreanu

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