Deserted paradise

Enjoy one of China''s most unusual eco resorts at Alashan Moon Lake.

Fancy getting away from it all? Well, going into the middle of the world's fourth largest desert should be the answer. The Alashan Moon Lake resort offers just such a retreat without sacrificing too many creature comforts.

The resort has been built by a Chinese entrepreneur as an eco-tourist resort. Its name derives from the fact that it surrounds an ancient lake in the middle of the Alashan desert. Apart from its beauty, the resort is designed to raise awareness about the devegetation of the Alashan which every year leads to severe sandstorms in Beijing.

You get to the resort by first flying from Beijing to Yinchuan. After this two hour flight, you will be picked up at the airport and taken on a three hour drive to the resort. A four wheel drive is used, which is quite necessary given the poor quality of the roads. En route there isn't much to see, except some small pyramid-like burial tombs, and a section of the Great Wall.

Things get more exciting as you go off-road and into the desert. Special jeeps are used for this part of the journey, which involves driving over sand-dunes. It's a fairly exhilarating white knuckle ride and not for the faint-hearted or sedentary type.

Once at the resort you are greeted by a welcoming party of local Mongolians, all in national dress. The welcome includes local songs, and guests are presented with flowers - they also insist you drink a cup of their local desert wine.

There are two options from an accommodation perspective. You can stay in the main building or rent a house. Big groups might prefer the latter option. The design of all the buildings is - in line with the eco-tourist philosophy - supposed to blend into the landscape. Low-rise sloping roofs are used, and the whole thing feels Scandinavian in its simplicity.

The accommodation is of a very high quality, and is well furnished and comfortable. But if your benchmark is an Aman resort, this is not of a comparable standard. The local people do not have the service skills that true five star resorts have. Plus, you need to travel with someone who speaks Mandarin, as English is not spoken at all.

Likewise, the resort is not festooned with Thai, Italian and other restaurants like a typical five star resorts. But more about the food later.

What are the compensations? Well, mostly the utter silence. It is possible to take camels into the desert and hear nothing. You can look at the sky at night and see a quilt of stars in an unpolluted sky. The air feels clean and refreshing.

And what can you do? You can visit local tribespeople - who still farm sheep - and sit on their kang, and through translation talk to them about their lifestyle. You can swim in the lake - whose mineral qualities are very good for the skin (indeed, the minerals have been there for thousands of years). You can do natural 'mud' spas (again, using mud taken from the lake), and this will help you further rejuvenate your skin and blood circulation. You can drive sand buggies and quad bikes.

Actually, the only object that breaks the silence is a motorized paraglider. From an eco-tourist philosophy this will be regarded by some as a contradiction, given the noise and the engine fumes. However, I must confess that being taken up and flying across the desert is a real highlight. It is reminiscent of scenes from the English Patient.

And of course, you can just contemplate the majesty of the desert from ground level too. And if you like photography it is an ideal location.

The other good thing about the resort is that it is one of the few places left where mobile phones don't work - so you can't be bothered. Indeed, the resort has been used for offsites for this very reason. It has hosted Davos-like gatherings of Chinese entrepreneurs to talk about the big issues affecting China and business.

You can, however, dial out from your room - although don't expect to always be able to get an international line.

I would advise going to the resort in a reasonably big group of six to 10 people. That way, you can also arrange a few local banquets. The head chef says his ancestors cooked for the Manchus, and the fashion in which he roasts lamb is part of this legacy. For those people that like meat, you are unlikely to taste better lamb. The produce is all local and the lamb is very succulent.

The banquets consist of local cuisines and more mainstream Chinese dishes and to add atmosphere the locals serve wine in their traditional dress and sing native songs. The wine is, of course, the local desert wine and by the end of a banquet you will have consumed a serious amount of it, and decided whether you like it or not. Toasting is compulsory and cups literally overfloweth.

As earlier mentioned, the resort is designed to raise awareness of the region's devegetation and it's not just talk. Indeed, all around the resort an effort is underway to replant the very desert vegetation that has been destroyed by poor environmental planning in the last 50 years. This new belt of vegetation is being funded by philanthropy but there is also the goal to marry the project with a sound and sustainable economic logic. The replanted crop is being used to make the afore-mentioned desert wine. The plant's extract - the root has ginseng-like qualities and is named Cistanche Deserticola in Latin - is also being made into tablets for the health conscious, and will be marketed under the name, Songjun. It is hoped that through sales of these two products (in China and beyond), the crop can become economically productive for the local community of Mongolians and thus farmed over greater and greater areas and hence rebuild the wall of vegetation necessary to block the sandstorms.

Those who visit the resort are given a small environmental briefing in the facility's conference room and the hope is that guests will then understand the issues and seek to promote the resort's goals in whatever way they can. It is for this reason that high net worth Chinese businesspeople and government officials have been the main visitors to the resort - mostly, by invitation. Few Westerners have visited the resort.

For those who are interested, four days is probably an ideal timeframe for a visit. If you would like to find out more about bookings and availability, you can email [email protected] or [email protected]

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