Can you imagine a place where the highest stationary dunes in the world rise up to 500 m and descend to loads of lakes unaccountably dotted in the middle of the desert, as if them were little oasis here and there? Badain Jaran Desert is one of the most beautiful deserts on earth, paradise for photographers, site of singing sand dunes and a wonderful place for camel crossings.
Extremely dry, the average rain is about 40 mm/year, but despite this, at least 144 lakes spread all over the surface between dune and dune, some of them with fresh water, other ones extremely saline. These lakes give the desert its name, which in Mongol language means “Mysterious Lakes”.
And how is it possible that one of the most arid regions of the world is full of lakes? So these waters come, according to recent hydrogeologic investigations, from Qilian Mountains, situated approximately 300 km away. The water from snowmelt flows under the surface, through fractured rocks, and rises up in this amazing place. The underground water is also responsible for the dunes size. In this arid and windy region, the underwater filters up and humidify the dunes, which can resist the wind erosion.
Badain Jaran Desert (bā dān jí lín shā mò 巴丹吉林沙漠) covers an area of 50.000 sq. kilometers, spanding over the south-central part of of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Nei Mongol) and the north of Gansu. Being the third biggest desert in China, it’s located in the Alxa Plateau, about 1200 meters above the sea level.
Both the Badain Jaran Desert and the Tengger Desert (located to the east and merging with Badain Jaran due to desertification of the zone) belong to the Gobi Desert, the 3rd biggest desert in the world (5th considering Antarctic and Arctic as deserts). Badain Jaran is bounded to the north by the Gobi Desert (gē bì shā mò 戈壁沙漠) itself, characterized in this area by blackened gravel; to the east by Mount Lang, which separates the Badain Jaran Desert from the Ulan Buh Desert (wū lán bù hé shā mò 乌兰布和沙漠); to the southeast by Mount Yabraishan (yǎ bù lài shān 雅布赖山), which separates the Badain Jaran Desert from the Tengger Desert (téng gé ěr shā mò 腾格尔沙漠); to the southwest by the He Xi Corridor; and to the west by the Ruo Shui River (ruò shuǐ 弱水, Mongol for “Weak Water”, so-named because it sometimes dries up) or Ejina River (é jì nà hé 额济纳河) in Chinese, which separates the sandy Badain Jaran Desert from the rocky Taklamakan Desert (tǎ kè lā mǎ gān shā mò 塔克拉玛干沙漠).
As with other large sandy deserts, the dunes in Badain Jaran are constantly migrating, but there are also a number of them which are static and only the shallow surface is shifting. The middle and lower layers of the highest dunes has been compacted for more than 20 thousand years, causing the grains of sand to be lightly “glued”. In addition, the high moisture levels inside the dunes contribute to maintain them fixed. This rather rigid subsurface structure is what gives these dunes (technically “barchan megadunes”) their shapes, which bring to mind mountain features such as peaks, cliffs, gullies and even caves.
As in other deserts, the dunes of Badain Jarain emit a sharp loud noise. Known as “singing sand dunes”, “whistling sands” or “booming dunes”, the dunes of Badain Jaran Desert emit a surprising amount of noise, generated as the wind pulls the top layer of the sand down the dune slope. Although this phenomenon is not widely understood, it’s believed that this action creates an electrostatic charge that produces the noise, a low pitched rumble that can reach the 105 decibels. A booming sand dune manifests itself by initiating an avalanche from the leeward face of a large dune.
When you move a hand through the dry sand of a booming dune, you shear the upper layer and generate another acoustic phenomenon, the burping emission of short bursts of sound.
Booming dunes are silent in the wintertime when humidity is retained in the dune. In summer, when the larger dunes produce their music, the smaller dunes in the dune field remain silent. This indicates that structural properties of the dune are critical for the generation of the singing sand. Also, booming can only be generated at slopes over the angle of repose (30 degrees), on the leeward face of a dune; the same sand on the shallower windward side cannot generate the music.
As said, Badain Jaran Desert is decorated with about 140 scattered lakes. They are placed in low areas between the dunes, and suppose the life sustenance in the desert. Camels, goats and horses depend on them, as well as the sparse vegetation that paints a green belt around the water, making the whole sight a dreamlike oasis that will challenge your photography skills.
Due to algae , brine shrimp and mineral formations inside the lakes, some lakes get coloured at certain times of the year. Also, evaporation makes other ones turn to hypersaline waters and form a salt crust. And even get dried.
Appart of older dinosaurs’ fossils and traces of other animals such as ostriches, the firsts human rests date from the later Paleolithic. The firsts documented Tangut (táng gǔ tè 唐古特) tribes resided here during China’s earliest dynastic period, the Xia Dynasty (xià cháo 夏朝, BCE 2000-1500). Trading between China and Bactria, they contributed to the exchange of goods and knowledge between the center and the east of Eurasia, and even the present-day camel of the Badain Jaran Desert is a descendant of the Bactrian camel.
With the rise of the Silk Route, the He Xi Corridor became an important path for the northern tracks. The city of Alxa (Alashan in Mongol) became an important base, even mentioned in Marco Polo’s diaries and in some Chinese poets’ epopees. But it was frequently raided by horsemen from Mongol desert tribes and with the Mongol invasion of China Badain Jaran was one of the firsts areas to be conquered. The Black City of Khara Khoto was also an important base in the desert (see below).
Badain Jaran Temple (bā dān jí lín miào 巴丹吉林庙) is a well-preserved Tibetan-Buddhist temple in the middle of the desert. Built in 1868 at the side of a lake, its isolation let it survive untouched since now, allowing you to visit its 300 squared meters filled with Buddhist frescoes, statues, wood and brick carvings, artifacts and a modest library. A white pagoda completes this pleasant sight.
The highest dune in the desert, Bilutu Peak (bì lǔ tú fēng 必鲁图峰), which rises about 500 meters from its foot and 1609m above the sea level, is also a great place to climb just before descend to the nearby pond. Other peaks, called Badajilin peaks, of which there are numerous, rise about 200 meters above the surrounding terrain.
On the northwestern side of the desert, near the Ruo Shui River (Ejin River in Chinese), the ancient Black City, Khara Khoto in Mongolian, can also be visited. Located close to the new city of Ejin (capital of Ejin Banner), it was a Tangut city founded in 1302, becoming one of the centres of the Tangut Empire. Genghis Khan conquered the city and it succeeds to flourish under Mongol rule, even appearing in Marco Polo’s diaries with the name of Edzina. Located at the crossroad to Karakorum, Xanadu and Kumul, the city triplicated its size during Kublai Khan’s time, but it fell to the Chinese armies in 1372, during the Ming dynasty. It was abandoned and left in ruins, just as it is now, except for the paintings and valuable objects, taken to Russia by Russian explorers in the 19th century.
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Between the Khara Khoto and the newer Ejin, particular and photogenic vegetation can be found. Some call it strange forest; the wind give a ghostly shape to the dry vegetation and green and yellow leafs give the final contrast upon the blue sky. When water and dunes appear, amazing photos are assured.
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Also don’t miss the beautiful nature near the Ejin River or Ruo Shui:
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North of Ejin, you can see the the end of the alluvial plain of the Ejin River, the Juyanhai or Juyan Lake, an inland delta where you will see birds, camels bathing and a lot of water. Unfortunately, two of the three lakes at the bottom of the Juyan Lake Basin dried up recently.
Out of the desert but not too far, heading southwest, you can find the remarkable sight Jiayuguan Pass in Jiayuguan city, the first pass on the west end of the Great Wall of China, one of the biggest and most well conserved ones.
Visiting the desert
With the rise of Chinese economy and domestic tourism, the masses from Eastern China are heading to Badain Jaran in their holiday time –very little in China. Camel and 4×4 safaris are organized from the capitals, but it’s still possible to visit the place with certain independence. Basically, what you should do is getting to Alxa Youqi and contract there a local guide and a mean of transport that can arrange a tour according to your possibilities and wishes. Make sure to hire off road vehicles with best drivers and guides.
The best time to get to the desert is September and October, just after the hot summer and before the hard winter. But anytime you go, be sure to bring warm clothes for the cold nights, and sunglasses and sun protection for the intense sun. Be sure to respect local ethnical customs and traditions.
In the website holachina.com will find a more or less useful explanation about how to get there but yourself. BEWARE!, they incorrectly talk about Tengger and Badain Jaran Desert as only one. Alxa Youqi is in Barain Jaran Desert; Alxa Zuoqi in Tengger Desert, offering similar things to Barain Jaran but not as stunning as this.
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