Jovy and the four of us continued our journey northward and cut through the narrow strip of Gansu Province to reach the western part of Inner Mongolia. We drove about 200 kilometres and saw familiar road signs of Zhangye (張掖) and nearby places in Gansu along the way before reaching the border of Inner Mongolia.
We stopped midway in a small village to have sandwiches that I prepared in the morning. And of course some tea as well. Kin and I usually have bread and lots of fruit when we drive long distance. After our recent van improvement, we can even make our own bread while driving. Kin has fastened the breadmaker at the back of the van with elastic straps. So all it takes is adding water, the pre-mix (which I prepared specially for road trip) and yeast. Then three and a half hours later, the whole van is filled with wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread!
Lavender loves travelling in the van as it means non-stop snack and play time. Jovy became her favourite person and she sometimes stood on her shoulder and chirped happily. Daisy as usual stayed away from Lavender and her racket. She preferred sitting under the seat or snugged in her own cat backpack.
After crossing the border, we drove another 90 kilometres and arrived in Alxa Right Banner (阿拉善右旗). I found a nice small hotel that opened only earlier this year to stay in the next few days.
By now, I have perfected the most effective way to get good accommodation deals. First, I compare prices on ctrip (攜程) and Tujia (途家) apps and to check availability. (the latter mainly targets apartments). Then call the hotel I have selected to double check as sometimes they offer even better price directly. This time, the phone call saved us RMB16 and we got a pretty nice deal of RMB110 per night. If it’s more expensive, I would just book online. The more one makes reservations on these apps, the further discounts one enjoys. I always earmark at least two hotels in case the first choice only accepts Mainland Chinese tourists.
Many hotels claim that pets are not allowed. But it is worth asking them since we have not encountered any issues so far with all the hotels that said no pets in their policy. In some cases, they may ask for extra deposit.
Alxa Right Banner (阿拉善右旗) is one of the three subdivisions of the Alxa League (阿拉善盟) that covers the most western part of Inner Mongolia. Its name is misleading, as it is actually located on the left half of the Alxa League. The term “Banner” (旗) refers to an administrative division and is used all over Inner Mongolia.
Alxa Right Banner is located in the southern tip the Gobi called the Alxa Plateau. My preconception of Gobi is the typical romantic picture of endless sand dunes and blowing sand. The word “Gobi” is Mongolian, which means waterless place and it stretches from western and northern China to Mongolia and Xinjiang. And there are so much more than sand dunes. It has many salt marshes which the locals call “little sea” (海子) and parts of the area are covered with various shrubs and salt tolerant bushes.
The first day, we explored the small town and took it easy to get used to the extreme dry heat. The clear blue sky meant that the sunlight was scorchingly intense and we had to hide in the shade as much as possible. This is why the street was deserted after lunch as most people took siesta and all shops were closed until at least 4pm. Human activities resumed in late afternoon and temperature dropped swiftly down to 20 degrees and below after late sunset.
The next morning, we drove to China’s third largest desert, Badain Jaran Desert (巴丹吉林沙漠). Despite the scarce annual rainfall of less than 40mm, it has over 140 lakes – some are saline and some fresh water. We did not see any tourists or vehicles as we entered the tourist entrance. When we walked into the tourist information hall, it was ominously quiet and dim – imagine the opening scene of a zombie movie where the protagonist stumbled into an eerily deserted town hall. Hesitantly we approached the information desk and only then we noticed there was actually someone sitting behind the counter. I presented the QR code of the ticket purchased on-line earlier (usually cheaper to buy on-line) and then we drove through the gate into the designated desert area.
We drove 16 kilometres on paved path to the first tourist spot and had to park here as it was all sand beyond this point. We walked to a giant sand sculpture of Ghenghis Khan. Not far from it was the Badan Lake (巴丹湖) – a tiny lake with reeds circling around it. We followed some camels to the lake and to watch them drinking from it.
The Badan Lake itself was nothing special. We actually had to move our van further away to avoid mayfly attack near the lake. But the tall sand dunes adjacent to the lake were incredible. We watched the wind picking up from time to time and blew against the mighty dunes while being mesmerized by the symphony of hissing and swishing sounds – which is how “singing sand” (鳴沙) originated.
After lunch, we took a short hike to the nearby sand dunes. Kin took the lead and ventured some off route uphill as usual while Jovy told me to go ahead and she would catch up after she filmed something. I looked behind all the time to make sure that Jovy was in sight and also to orient myself by checking the direction of the lake. Just when I finally caught up with Kin, I lost sight of Jovy. So we walked back down to look for her.
A few minutes later, we reached the official path. I noticed some footsteps and suggested we follow it. Kin rebuked (typical of him) and asked why would she go on her own without seeing us. I answered instantly that from the few days we were with her, he should realize that Jovy is super optimistic and always follows the rules (we were surprised to see her waiting for the lights to turn green before crossing a road with absolutely no traffic. And yes, we jaywalk all the time!) Naturally she would follow the official route and thought that she would eventually see us.
Soon we saw a guy in full hiking gear walking down from opposite direction. We asked if he had seen a young woman with glasses and he said yes. So we went that way and minutes later saw another hiker and asked again. He confirmed and we continued. Minutes later we saw Jovy standing at the top of the dune and we waved at her. When I asked her what happened, her answer was exactly what I deduced!
However, the real excitement came much later. We decided to have afternoon tea break after the hike, so we had earl grey tea and cookies near the Badan Lake (yes, our van does have everything we need). We had to wash up afterwards and Kin said that he would drive nearer to the toilet. It was only 30 metres away but what a huge mistake it turned out to be! Of course our van got stuck in the sand as soon as he started driving.
I was exasperated as I insisted on walking to the toilet in the first place. But there was no point complaining. I have learned to be pragmatic after spending 20 years with my beloved other half. Just get on with the solution is my motto. So we got on all fours and started digging, flattening the sand, laying bricks and adding water to harden the ground. The funniest part is that we had abundant supply of water in the middle of the desert since we were right next to the toilet. Jovy was overly excited and energetic – the beauty of her wildly optimistic and enthusiastic nature.
In the end, the toilet cleaning lady saved us. She first suggested that we should depressurize our tyres. But we had no idea how much pressure we should release, so we did not go for this option (now we know how to do it). Then she lent us a spade and it was a huge help. We eventually got ourselves out of the sticky situation after an hour of hard digging. It probably would have taken much longer without Jovy’s dedicated help! So thank you my dear friend!
Jovy’s time with us finally came to an end, as she had to fly to Xi’an to meet with her friend. What an action-packed ten days we had together! She left early the next morning while we continued to head eastward to Alxa Left Banner, which is actually the far right of Alxa League.