The Badain Jaran Desert (Chinese: ; pinyin: dānlín Shā) is a desert in China which spans the provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. It covers an area of 49,000 square kilometres (19,000 sq mi). By size it is the third largest desert in China.

This desert is home to some of the tallest stationary dunes on Earth, with some reaching a height of more than 500 meters (1,600 ft), although most average at around 200 meters (660 ft). Its tallest dune is also measured, from base to peak, as the world's third tallest dune and highest stationary dune in the world.

The desert also features over 100 spring-fed lakes that lie between the dunes, some of which are fresh water while others are extremely saline. These lakes give the desert its name which is Mongolian for "mysterious lakes". It is also crossed by one river, the Ruo Shui ("weak water"), which has formed an alluvial plain in the desert.[1]


Measuring over 49,000 square kilometres (19,000 sq mi), the Badain Jaran Desert covers a significant part of the south-central part of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as well as the North part of Gansu province. Located in the Alxa Plateau at about 1200 meters above sea level it is listed as a subsection to the Gobi Desert. It is bound to the north by the Gobi and to the East by Mount Lang which separates it from the Ulan Buh Desert (Pinyin: wū lán bù hé shā mò Chinese: 乌兰布和沙漠)

Although most of the dunes in the desert are not stationary, the larger ones usually ranging above 200 meters (660 ft) are static. With these dunes only the shallow surface of the sand is constantly shifting. The middle and lower layers of the highest dunes have been compacted for more than 20,000 years causing the sand particles to harden resulting in solid layers of sand and sandstone. High moisture levels inside the dunes also contribute to maintain their fixed state. This rigid structure also allows peaks, cliffs, gullies and even caves to form as a result of water erosion and desertification.

The Badain Jaran Desert, like the Tengger Desert which lies to the east (and with which the Badain Jaran Desert is currently merging due to extensive desertification) is about one-half barren, sandy desert and one-half a mixture of solid bedrock and loose gravel. Several small lakes and oases scatter the desert around which limited vegetation is able to grow.[2]


The Badain Jaran Desert is well known for its numerous scattered and colorful lakes. Containing more than 140 lakes they are mainly found in the southern region in the desert. These lakes can easily be found in the larger valleys between large dunes. They are believed to provide the life sustenance in the desert supporting camels, goats and horses which are herded by nomads that travel through the desert. Most lakes also support a green ring of vegetation that populate the close vicinity around the lakes.

Throughout the desert some lakes change color due to large populations of algae, Brine shrimp and mineral formations at different times in year. Evaporation can also allow others to turn into a hypersaline lake forming a salt crust around the rim of the lake.[3]

Although their true sources are still debated it is believed that they are being maintained by underground water streams. Most arid deserts in China are surrounded by mountains that provide water sources, and this is the case with the Badain Jaran Desert. Runoff from the mountains is then collected through gravel deposits and this allows them to run through the desert, providing water sources for the scattered oases.

Within the desert there can be two main types of lakes found regarding their morphometry. The largely elongated shallow lakes mainly appear in the megadune area in the southeastern margin of the desert. Their depth often reaches less than 2 meters (6 ft 7 in) and only measure about .2 square kilometres (0.077 sq mi). The oval-shaped, deep lakes can also be found in the compound transverse megadune area. Their maximum depth reaches around 15 meters (49 ft) and attain a maximum size of around 1.5 square kilometres (0.58 sq mi). The lake water can be extremely saline. The shallow lakes in the southeastern region of the desert tend to have low salt concentration, averaging at less than 20 grams per litre (0.00072 lb/cu in). Other lakes can show higher salt concentrations going up to more than 330 grams per litre (0.012 lb/cu in).[4]

Singing Dunes

The Badain Jaran megadunes is one of the few places where a phenomenon known as the "singing sand dunes", "whistling sands" or "booming dunes". This rare occasion emits a sharp, loud noise that can be maintained for more than a minute. Although it is not widely understood it is believed that it is caused by an electrostatic charge that is generated as wind pulls the top layers of sand down a dune slope. This will produce a low pitched rumble that can reach over 105 decibels. The singing dunes will manifest itself by initiating an avalanche of sand down the leeward face of a large dune. This phenomenon however, does require very specific circumstances in order to generate the sound. They are silent throughout winter when the humidity is being retained in the sand. In the summer however, the booming can be generated but only on a slope of at least 30 degrees or more, on the leeward face of a dune, and the same sand on the shallow, windward side cannot generate any noise. This phenomenon is only shared by around 35 other beaches and deserts around the world.

Under the same circumstances, it is also possible to generate another acoustic phenomenon. By moving a hand gently through the dry sand of a "booming sand dune", this will shear the upper layer of sand off the slope and generate a burping sound emission (pulse-like, short bursts of sound).[5]


The Badain Jaran Desert is made up of hundreds of dunes ranging from small to large. Most of the megadunes in the desert average about 400 meters (1,300 ft) from the base while the rest average around 200 meters (660 ft). Out of all the megadunes, the Bilutu Peak ("bì lǔ tú fēng") is the most famous. It towers at 500 meters (1,600 ft) from the base and is the tallest dune in Asia (third tallest in the world). Unlike most of the smaller dunes the Bilutu Peak is stationary which makes it the world's tallest stationary dune.

While the larger megadunes are stationary (with only the top layer of sand shifting), the smaller dunes are constantly shifting according to wind patterns. This makes desertification a problem in surrounding areas as the desert is constantly expanding.[2]


For tourists willing to go more out of their way, the Badain Jaran Desert is definitely a popular tourist attraction. Based upon weather patterns, temperature and sight-seeing possibilities the best time to visit is between June and October. Since the Badain Jaran Desert falls under temperate arid and extremely arid climatic zones, it is important to be prepared when traveling through the dunes. The average annual rainfall is only between 50-60mm and is mainly centered between June to August, however the evaporation of precipitation is between 40-80 times than that of rainfall. Besides the fact that it is much colder, winter and spring have very strong winds coming mainly from the northwest getting to more than 60 days long. These winds can even get up to wind force 8. Due to these aspects of the desert climate, the popular tourist time is based upon when the climate is most comfortable. Appropriate foot wear should be worn due to the fact that sand temperatures can exceed 80 °C.[6]

Average Temperature in Badain Jaran
Description Average Temperature
Annual Mean 8 °C (46 °F)
Absolute Low −30 °C (−22 °F)
Absolute High 41 °C (106 °F)

Tourist attractions

Badain Jaran Temple

The Badain Jaran Temple in September alongside its lake

The Badain Jaran Temple (bā dān jí lín miào 巴丹吉林庙)is a well-preserved Tibetan-Buddhist temple located in the middle of the desert. It was built in 1868 at the side of a lake. Its isolation allowed it to survive untouched and safe from the Cultural Revolution. The fine state of preservation allows visitors to explore the temples attractions including statues, wood carvings, artifacts and a small white pagoda.

The temple is only accessible by land. Visitors normally reach it by renting a sand jeep at the tourist centers located along the S317 highway. Visitors can also chose to hire a driver for a daily fee. The vehicles available for tourists are 4X4 military jeeps with reinforced frames and deflated tires. These jeeps are able to drive through the desert, ascend and descend sand dunes. They remain operational for many hours. These trips by land include several stops at lakes, scenic spots and the Bilutu Peak.[3]

Bilutu Peak

View from Bilutu Peak

The Bilutu is also a location which is commonly accessed using the sand jeeps. It is the world's highest stationary dune rising over 500 meters and peaks at 1609 meters above sea level. The surrounding dunes only reach about 200 meters. Although the biggest, it is one of several large stationary dunes within the Badain Jaran Desert. Upon reaching the top there will be a clear view of the surrounding dunes as well as several colorful lakes.[3]

Khara Khoto

Also known as the ancient black city, it is located in the northwestern side of the desert near the Ruo Shui River and is located fairly close to the new city of Ejin. The ancient city was a Tangut city founded in 1032 which became the center of the Tangut empire. When Genghis Khan conquered the city it flourished again under Mongol rule. However, the city fell to Chinese armies in 1372 during the Ming dynasty and was left abandoned and in ruins. It has been untouched since. Although not accessible using the same jeeps, it is possible to find transport in the city of Ejin.[3]

Rock Painting of the Yinshan Mountains

One of thousands of rock paintings found in the Yinshan Mountains

As early as the 5th century, rock paintings in the Yinshan Mountains were discovered by Li Daoyuan, a geologist of the North Wei Dynasty. However, it was not until 1976 when China officially started a survey of the rock paintings and from then on a large numbers of experts, scholars and tourists have visited the site. These rock paintings reflect the beliefs, aesthetic standards, world outlook and nomadic life of the Yinshan Mountain area. Since the survey over 10,000 paintings have been discovered in the area. Themes of the rock paintings are in general about hunting activities of the nomadic nationalities. Many of which depict animals including goats, sheep, argali, antelopes, elks, oxen, dogs, wild boars, rabbits, wolves, tigers and many more. Many also include scenes of hunters, weapons and methods of hunting

The rock paintings of the Yinshan Mountains were mostly drawn using two main methods, carving and painting. Most of the carvings were believed to have been chiseled with stones to dig small spots on the rocks. The chiseling was often done unevenly in depth and density. The rock paintings were drawn using a mixture of lime, animal and vegetable oils and then painted on using either the hands or brushes.

The rock carvings and paintings can be divided into four main time period. The first period was created by clan tribes during the Paleolithic Age to Mid-Bronze Age. The rock paintings of the second period were drawn from the spring and autumn Period to the western and eastern Han dynasties. The third period dates back to the Middle Ages which can be further divided into two other groups, one being painted by the Turks from the Northern Dynasty and the second being painted by the Tang Dynasty. The paintings during this period mainly depict domestic animals. Rock paintings of the fourth and final age group are works of the Mongolians after the Yuan dynasty. These consist of both chiseled and painted carvings.[7]

Jiabiangou Labor Camp

The infamous Jiabiangou Labor Camp was located on the edge of the desert and 27 kilometers from Jiuquan, Gansu. Between 1957 and 1961, the camp was used for "re-education through labor" to imprison intellectuals and former government officials that were declared to be "rightist" in the Anti-Rightist Movement of the Communist Party. Out of 3,000 prisoners, 2,500 died between 1957 and 1960, during the height of the Great Chinese Famine. The remains of the camp and the unmarked graveyards were poorly maintained and is heavily guarded by the Communist Chinese government. Relatives of the dead are only permitted during the times of Qingming. In November 2013, a memorial dedicated to the dead was quickly destroyed by local government. Many graves and human remains were also removed since then to prevent people from visiting.[8]


  1. ^ "Badain Jaran Desert". Apple Travel. Retrieved May 7, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "Badain Jaran Desert". ForeignCN.com. Retrieved May 7, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Badain Jaran Desert – 巴丹吉林沙漠". 210countries. Retrieved May 8, 2013. 
  4. ^ van Vliet, Wilbert. "The Mysterious Lakes in Badain Jaran Desert located in China and Mongolia". The Water Network. Retrieved May 8, 2013. 
  5. ^ "Booming Dunes of Badain Jaran Desert". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved May 8, 2013. 
  6. ^ "Badain Jaran desert". Tripadvisor. Retrieved May 8, 2013. 
  7. ^ "The Rock Paintings of Yinshan Mountains". china.org.cn. Retrieved May 11, 2013. 
  8. ^ 艾晓明:夹边沟遗址遭破坏令人痛心

Further reading