The desert playground of Shapotou, 17km west of Zhongwei, lies on the fringes of the Tengger Desert at the dramatic convergence of sand dunes, the Yellow River and lush farmlands. It’s based around the Shapotou Desert Research Centre, which was founded in 1956 to battle the ever-worsening problem of desertification in China’s northwest.

These days, though, Shapotou is more of an amusement park. The main office is a massive service centre, with a post office and a large number of shops. You can zipline (¥100) on a wire across the Yellow River, go sand-sledding (¥50), camel riding (¥80 to ¥120) and bungee jumping (¥180).

It’s also a good place to raft the churning Yellow River. The traditional mode of transport on the river for centuries was the yángpí fázi (leather raft), made from sheep or cattle skins soaked in oil and brine and then inflated. From Shapotou you can roar upstream on a speedboat and return on a traditional raft. Prices range from ¥100 to ¥260, depending on how far you go.

The ticket office sells an assortment of tickets covering various combinations of activities. Once you enter, staff will approach you to explain and sell you packages.

If you want to flee the crowds for the sands, off-road buggies (¥300 to ¥1500) taking up to three passengers are available for hire. Tourist buses wheel visitors around (¥10 to ¥20) from point to point.

Shāpō Shānzhuāng is a basic but comfortable hotel near the dunes. Meals are available.

Bus 2 (¥5, 45 minutes) from the bus station (客运总站, kèyùn zǒngzhàn) runs between Zhongwei and Shapotou from 7.30am to 6.30pm. You can also pick it up on Changcheng Xijie about 200m past the Gao Temple on the opposite side of the road. Taxis cost ¥30 each way.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Ningxia attractions

1. Gao Temple Park

2.81 MILES

Gao Temple is located inside a nicely landscaped park with a willow-fringed pond, a dainty bridge and handsome pagodas. It's colourfully illuminated at…

2. Gao Temple

2.84 MILES

This is one of China's most extraordinary temples. The three faiths of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism are revered here; it has an unusual roofline…

3. Zhongwei Drum Tower

2.86 MILES

At the bullseye of things, this Ming-era drum tower once announced important events and times and now serves as a landmark that divides Gulou Jie into its…