The Alashan Stone Museum and Festival
Stone collectors and vendors from throughout the Gobi Desert converge on Alashan in southwestern Inner Mongolia in late September of each year for a grand stone festival. This has occurred each year for the last ten years and will certainly continue for many years to come. Our first visit was in 2005, and our second, in 2014. We returned for our third visit to Alashan in 2015 to participate in this huge event. Alashan has become the viewing stone capital in northern China. This time, the event was highlighted by the opening of a grand new stone museum located on Alashan Meng Zuo Qi Wurishi Road North. Vendor tents were set up in front of the museum for the two week-long festival.
The new museum is about 34,000 square meters in size (about 366,000 square feet) and cost approximately one billion RMB (about 160 million U.S. dollars) to construct. Without question, it is a world class museum. The interior is finished with fine marble and stone and the galleries are spacious and well lit. It was jointly constructed by the Alashan Meng Hengji (a real estate development company) and by the Alashsan Zuoqi Shen Shan Natural Grape Agate Mine. It is currently operated by the Alashan Zuoqi Viewing Stone Association, but the museum will be taken over by the city government in 2018.
As of September 2015, there were approximately 1,000 stones representing 80 different types of stones in the collection. Most of these are beautiful grape agates and other stones from the vast Gobi Desert. Many fascinating colorful chalcedony, jasper, various agates, concretions, and various fossils are found throughout the Gobi. Their hardiness is due to the presence of high amounts of silica dioxide. Some of these are shaped by strong winds laden with sand that also polishes the surface of the stone.
The opening of the festival was attended by the major and local political officials of Alashan as well as officials from Beijing and leaders of viewing stones association from province. But, the real attraction for foreign visitors were hundreds⎯ perhaps as many as 1,000⎯ vendors from all regions of the Gobi Desert that come to Alashan for this annual stone festival. Two full days are needed to visit the museum and see most of the stones offered by the vendors. It is an exciting time for stone enthusiasts and an opportunity to see and learn about the great variety of stones found in this region. There are many permanent stone shops in Alashan in addition to these transient vendors who appear during the festival.
If you plan to purchase stones at this event, bring your own packing supplies ⎯bubble wrap, tissue paper, and packing wrapping tape. Also bring an extra suitcase for the stones you purchase. Transactions are made in cash (RMB); foreign credit and debit cards are useless. It is best to spend the first day visiting as many vendor tents as possible to see which stones appeal to you. Start the negotiations at this time, but don’t appear too eager to buy. Go back the next day and continue to bargain in good faith. You can usually buy a nice stone at one-third to one-half of the initial asking price.
If you plan to mail your purchases to your home, it is better to do that in Yinchuan, the closest major city and airport. This is probably the city that you flew into before making the three-hour trip by car or bus to Alashan.