The desert playground of Shāpōtóu, 17km west of Zhōngwèi, 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 Shāpōtóu Desert Research Centre, which was founded in 1956 to battle the ever-worsening problem of desertification in China’s northwest.
These days, though, Shāpōtóu is more of an amusement park. The main office is more of a massive service centre, with a post office and a large number of shops. You can zipline (¥80) on a wire across the Yellow River, go sand-sledding (¥30), camel riding (¥60 to ¥100) or bungee jumping (¥160).
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 Shāpōtóu you can roar upstream on a speedboat and return on a traditional raft. Prices range from ¥80 to ¥240, depending on how far you go. You can also combine the boat/raft ride with a camel ride (¥110). If you want to flee the crowds for the sands, off-road buggies (¥300 to ¥1500) are available for rent, taking up to three passengers. Tourist buses wheel visitors around (¥10 to ¥15) 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 Zhōngwèi and Shāpōtóu from 7.30am to 6.30pm. You can also pick it up on Changcheng Xijie about 200m past the Gāo Temple on the opposite side of the road. Taxis cost ¥30 each way.