Silk Road Angel Tours

Dunhuang of China.

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The Badain Jaran Desert (Chinesepinyin:dānlín Shā) is a desert in China which spans the provinces of GansuNingxia 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.


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.


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 lakeforming a salt crust around the rim of the lake. 

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)