The city of Shapotou is located on the southeastern rim of the Tengger Desert, where the latter borders up to the Yellow River, in Zhongwei County, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (aka Ningxia). The city of Shapotou also lies about 150 kilometers south of Ningxia's capital city, Yinchuan. It is a fiercely beautiful area, known for its many shifting sand dunes; if it had not been checked, the Tengger Desert might well have engulfed the entire area, obliterating the Baotou-Lanzhou Railroad. Thanks to the efforts of the government, however, the spread of the desert has halted. In fact, the government, via a number of ingenious, cutting-edge measures, is slowly beginning to regain territory previously lost to the Tengger Desert.
The Tengger Desert is famous for a quality that has been known to desert-farers since time immemorial: the "siren song" of the sand dunes. The noise produced by shifting sand dunes can vary from a deep boom to a high-pitched "tweet", it can roll like thunder (in his travel journals, Marco Polo likened it to the pounding of war drums) or it can produce a single, short-lived clap. Whatever the noise, it can be an eerie, unsettling experience, making the desert seem like a haunted expanse from which there is no escape.
The natives of the Tengger Desert have a name for the "siren song" of the sand dunes: "Shaop Mingzhong". Shaop Mingzhong is described as a reverberating noise that is sometimes like the tolling of a bell and sometimes like a vigorous roll of drums, namely, very large, very resonant drums. A French physicist, Stephane Douady, has set up laboratory experiments with loose sand poured through, among other materials, a plexiglass cylinder, the sound then amplified, which replicates the "siren song" of the sand dunes. According to Douady, the range of sounds produced varies with the materials used to provide the base friction, but it also despends on temperature, the velocity of the sliding sand, etc. It is the first scientific attempt to determine the conditions which produce the eerie – and sometimes maddening – sounds of shifting sand dunes.
As to efforts to reverse the desertification of the area, the Chinese government has established the Shapotou Desert Experimental Research Station on the banks of the Yellow River, where the Yellow River meets the Tengger Desert. Using techniques developed at the research station, the planting of relevant types of plants and the use of so-called mocrobial mats (a microbial mat is a multi-layered sheet of micro-organisms, mainly bacteria and Archaea, or single-celled microorganisms) has resulted in the reclamation of large areas previously lost to the Tengger Desert. Areas stabilized in the late 1950s now maintain certain fruit crops, including grapes.
No one wishes to see the desert disappear, however, even if it were possible to see it off; part of the beauty and charm of Shapotou stems from the views of the nearby Tengger Desert and Yellow River. A camel safari across the Tengger Desert's seemingly endless sand dunes has become a tourism fixture at Shapotou, as has a drift-boat ride down the Yellow River in a locally-fashioned raft of sheepskin. And lastly, a visit to the Tengger Desert's sand dune landscape would be unthinkable without the chance to experience Shaop Mingzhong.