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Monasteries and deserts

Xining - Lanzhou - Xiahe - Zhongwei - Shapotou - Yinchuan

Prayer wheels at Xiahe

The northwest of China holds some of its most interesting cultural and scenic areas, but is as yet comparatively undiscovered by mass tourism. The areas of southern Gansu and Qinghai, bordering Tibet, are in many ways more Tibetan than Tibet itself. The mainly Muslim province of Ningxia is one of least visited, but one of the most interesting for those seeking the 'real China', lying on the fringes of the northwestern deserts. International flights with Emirates to Yinchuan now offer the prospect of opening up this fascinating region to travellers.

Day 1  Arrive Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. Visit the Ta'er Si, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries outside Tibet, built in the 16th century in the birthplace of the founder of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism to which both the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama belong. Also visit Xining's Great Mosque, built in the 14th century. (B, L)

Day 2  Excursion to Qinghai Lake, China's largest inland lake, some 3,200 metres above sea level on the high Qinghai plateau, and a centre for migratory birds. (B, L)

Day 3  Train to Lanzhou and transfer to hotel. Rest of the day free. (B)

Day 4  One day private sightseeing tour around Lanzhou, including the Gansu provincial museum, Baita Shan park and the Yellow River. (B, L)

Day 5  Travel by car to the Bingling Si Caves, which are impressive Buddhist statues and caves cut into the cliffs of a canyon created by the Yellow River which is now the Liujiaxia reservoir and can only be accessed by boat. Then travel onwards to overnight at Xiahe. (B, L)

Day 6  One day private sightseeing visit to the huge Labrang Monastery at Xiahe, one of the six most important Tibetan monasteries of the Yellow Hat sect and the centre of pilgrimage for numerous Tibetans. Situated 3,000 metres above sea level amid rolling green hills, summer is the best time to visit. (B, L)

Day 7 and 8  Free days for you to explore in and around Xiahe. There are numerous trails you can follow for hiking trips in the hills around the town, or you can explore a bit further afield to the Sangke grasslands used by yak-herding nomads. (B, L)

Day 9  Return by car to Lanzhou. (B)

Day 10  Transfer to railway station for train to Zhongwei (about 6 hours). (B)

Day 11  Private sightseeing visit to the Gaio Miao, a temple that appears to encompass Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity. Then onward by car to Shapotou, where the massive sand dunes of the desert meet the Yellow River. (B, L)

Day 12  Visit the Shapotou Desert Research Centre, which experiments in ways to combat desertification. Take a rafting trip on an inflated sheepskin on the Yellow River before taking a camel safari into the wilderness of the Tengger Desert. Camp overnight in the desert. (B, L, D)

Day 13  Return on the camels to Shapotou and then travel onward by car to Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia province. (B, L)

Day 14  One day private sightseeing tour of Yinchuan to include the Ningxia provincial museum and the North Pagoda. (B, L)

Day 15   Travel out into the countryside towards the Helan Shan mountains, stopping en route at the mausoleum of the Western Xia, the tombs of kings from the 11th to 13th centuries. Once in the mountains visit some of the mysterious ancient rock art found here, and the Great Wall at Sanguan Pass, one of the most important fortifications on the whole Great Wall, and very different in atmosphere from the better-known sections of wall near Beijing. (B, L)

Day 16  Transfer to airport for your onward journey (B)