Badain Jaran Desert – 巴丹吉林沙漠


Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Dunes and lakes in Badain Jaran Desert

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, Nei Mongol, China

Beautiful Badain Jaran Desert


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.

Camels in Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Camels are important in the desert

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).

China Relief Map - Badain Jaran Location

Badain Jaran location

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.

Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, ChinaSinging sand dunes

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.

Badain Jaran Desert Lake, Nei Mongol, China

Lake in the desert


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.

Red Lake in Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Red Lake due to algae and brine shrimp


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.

Badain Jaran Temple, Badain Jaran Desert, Nei Mongol, China

Badain Jaran Temple

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.

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.

Also don’t miss the beautiful nature near the Ejin River or Ruo Shui:

Juyanhai Lake, north of Ejin, Nei Mongol, China

Juyanhai Lake, north of Ejin

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 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.

Zài jiàn!

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Ennedi region, Chad


Although for me it’s a pleasure to share my adventures, I understand that the blog cannot be all about me. And as I never stop on searching for nice places to go, I thought it could be nice to talk about some spots maybe you would like to know. And the first one is a somewhere that always has been on my list.

Ennedi location in Tchad

Ennedi location

Northwest of Chad there’s a place where the sand meets the rocks, some water raise up from the underground and it all meets to build unbelievable shapes. The region is famous for its natural stone arcs, its petroglyphs and the beauty of Guelta d’Archei, one of the lasts places where Nile crocodiles can be found inside the Sahara.

Most of the people from the region are Toubou people, who speak the Saharan languages Teda and Daza. Their muslim religion guarantees to be warmly welcomed.

If the region was more accessible, for sure it would be one of the most visited places on Earth. But some circumstances make it very difficult to reach. The first one is its isolation. It takes four or five days to travel from N’Djamena, the Chad capital, to Fada, the biggest town around there. And after that, it will not be easy to get to places we want to go.

The political situation can also be a handicap.  After the 2008 conflict, there are no serious problems in the region, but things can change quickly. The southern  part of the  border with Sudan, full of Refugee Camps from the Darfur war, should be avoided, as well as the Libyan border, were land mines remain. But this is not a trouble if we don’t go there. The main problem you can find going to Ennedi from N’Djamena is to be robbed on the road, that can happen sometimes, but not very often. Believe, around the world people is kind, helpful and polite,  so don’t pay much attention to those apocalyptic internet reviews.

Five arch rock, Ennedi region, Tchad

Five arch rock, Ennedi region, Tchad

The most famous thing from the Ennedi range are the natural stone arcs. They are big, photogenic and there are a lot of them. You can check on for more arches, their location and description.

Guelta Archei

Guelta d'Archei

The next thing to mention from the Ennedi is the Guelta d’Archei. Guelta is a local word for “wetland”. As in other spots around the Sahara Desert, the underground water meets a land depression and it comes to the surface, forming what we would call an oasis. The most beautiful part of the Guelta is a gorge filled with natural water where for centuries have been a place to stop for camel caravans attempting to cross the Sahara Desert.

Around the rocks of the region can also be found some petroglyphs and graveyards from the Pastoral Period (7500 – 4000 year BC) and the Dromedary (Camel) Period (0 – 1700 years AD), the first ones made when the region was a green land with rivers and animals around.

Although it can be difficult and expensive to reach, I would like to encourage you to discover the far desert sands of the Ennedi. You’ll have images, memories and experiences that hardly anyone else will have, you will find people happy to meet foreigners and ¡hey! not everyone can say they have been in the very middle of the Sahara Desert!

And to help you to decide, here it comes some photos. Have fun!

Rock in the Ennedi Desert

Rock in Ennedi

Aloba Big Arch

Grand Arche d'Aloba

Rock in Ennedi Desert

Another rock in the desert

Petroglyphs on Ennedi

On some rocks you can see old petroglyphs. Look for them!

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