The desert looks like it should be blazing hot as we pull up to it in our tour bus. To my surprise, the wind is so chilly that quickly reach for my jacket. As we approach the ticket office, Rocky, our Mongolian tour guide, tells us that this weekend is one of the last weekends that people can tour Inner Mongolia. It gets so cold after that point that even the Mongolians retreat to the city for warmth. That certainly explains why we had to wait in line for half an hour even to get into the desert by cable car.
A tumbleweed rolls past my feet. An autumn breeze swirls my shoulder length hair, cooling it down even as the sun beats down on us all. A particularly strong breeze surrounds us, blowing sand into our eyes and mouths as if to welcome us to the desert. Sunglasses were definitely a good idea today. The temperature isn’t bad either; I’ll take mid 70’s with clear bright blue skies any day.
As we pass through a stone gate, I do a double take. I thought I was coming to see a desert, not an amusement park. I see three very large swimming pools. There are little kids in bumper floaties shaped like animals in one, no one swimming in another, and an adult on a water bicycle in the third. The huge deck around the pools holds about a hundred beach chairs. I can tan poolside in the middle of the desert in Inner Mongolia. Huh, who knew? The rest of the space underneath the colored marque is filled by about 15 restaurants and food booths. I can get knock off Burger King in the desert, or I could play sports here as well. There is a basket ball court, three beach volleyball courts, and what they are calling beach soccer, which is basically soccer goals placed in the sand around an area big enough to kick a ball around. It would be kind of cool to say that I played desert volleyball, but unfortunately they don’t have a ball we can just use. I bet you have to pay for it or bring your own.
Walking past the strange modern oasis, I see circus looking buildings in the distance. There are also dome shaped bio toilets that look like they should be in a science fiction movie. Apparently “bio toilet” means they use no water. I wonder how that works. It might be environmentally friendly but it doesn’t sound very sanitary.
No matter. We aren’t here to see the sand, the tumbleweeds, the sand castles, or the bio toilets; we are here to ride camels. Not just any camels – Asian camels. I guess I should explain that. Only camels in Asia have two humps; the camels everywhere else, including Egypt, have one hump. I’m glad for this because the two humps on our camels is helping me stay on. Riding a camel is not really like riding a horse at all. First of all, it’s a smoother ride than a horse so you don’t get saddle sores (though that could have been due to the fact that the camel ride was only like five minutes). Second of all, a camel gets up unevenly. They sit so you can get on their back and then they abruptly stand with their front legs first. This leaves you unbalanced like you are the heavy person on a see-saw. Same thing when you get off. The camel sits down front legs first. I almost got thrown over its head because I leaned forward instead of backwards. At least a face plant in the sand would have been better than face planting on the grasslands.
As we exit the so called “Disney Desert”, I can’t help thinking that it is so different than deserts are in other places. I’ve never seen so much commercialization in a natural landmark like that. In America, when you go to see a mountain or a lake or some other natural site, it is generally pretty, well, natural. Even our natural parks are less commercialized than the Xiangshawan Desert. I suppose this is just the nature of Chinese tourism. Almost all their famous sites are primarily for tourism; in recent years it has been more about the tourism than the historical or natural significance of places like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. On one hand, it makes me a bit sad that this beautiful desert has been basically turned into a theme park, but on the other hand it is a one of a kind experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything; if nothing else, it makes for a great story and for some unforgettable memories.