The mini-city of ZHONGWEI (中卫, zhōngwèi) lies right alongside one of the Yellow River’s most curious stretches – just west of town, the waterway can be seen roaring past an expanse of sand dunes, providing a rare opportunity to see a river of such size in desert terrain. The river essentially moulded the Zhongwei of today – historically, the old walled city was said to have had no north gate – simply because there was nothing more to the north of here. It remains in a potentially awkward location, between the fickle Yellow River to the south and the sandy Tenger Desert to the north, but today Zhongwei is surrounded by a rich belt of irrigated fields, and the desert is kept at bay through reforestation projects. The river outside the town, at Shapotou, is a splendid sight and should definitely be visited if you are in the area.
SHAPOTOU (沙坡头; shāpōtóu), 16km west of Zhongwei, is a tourist resort of sorts by the banks of the Yellow River. Most people come on a day-trip, but you can easily spend an enjoyable night or two here at the nearby Shapo Shanzhuang. The main pleasure of the place is in the contrast between the leafy, shady banks of the river itself, and the harsh desert that lies just beyond. The main focus is a tourist resort, a charming yet slightly Disneyfied place, with cafés and outdoor restaurants. Among the activities on offer are ferry rides, ziplines over the river, sand-skiing and camel rides. There’s very little shade in the complex, so bring a hat and sunscreen if it’s sunny. Additionally, the Shapotou Desert Research Institute has been based here for forty years, working on ways to conquer the sands. Travelling either by bus or train between Zhongwei and Shapotou, you’ll see some of the fruits of their labour in the chequerboard grid of straw thatch implanted to hold the sands in place and provide irrigation.