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China 2018 Photo: The Badain Jaran desert, Inner Mongolia

This is the Badain Jaran desert in Inner Mongolia.

This is Part 7 of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app herePart 2: Renting a car in China here, Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province herePart 4: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia herePart 5: The Gobi and Tengger deserts here and Part 6: The cars of Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia here. After exploring the car landscape of Alashan Youqi, we are now headed deep into the sand dunes of the Badain Jaran desert, without out a doubt one of the most stunningly beautiful places I ever got the luck to visit in the entire world.

Badain Jaran Temple lake approach and satellite view of the myriads of lakes in the desert.

Mostly unknown to the rest of the world, the Badain Jaran desert is one of the natural wonders of this planet as far as I am concerned. In Chinese, the desert is called 巴丹吉林沙漠, pronounced Bādānjílín Shāmò, but it comes from a Mongolian expression meaning mysterious lakes. Indeed, the one characteristic that makes this desert unique in the world is the more than 140 lakes peppered throughout its southern part, visible on Google Map imagery (see above).

The large lakes are nested within sand dunes “valleys”.

The explanation as to why there are so many lakes in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world has long been, well, as its Mongolian name suggests, a mystery and is still debated today. The belief nowadays is that the they are fuelled by a vast underground reservoir replenished by snow melting on the northern Tibetan plateau to the south of the desert, notably the Qilian Mountain in the neighbouring Gansu province. This is where the debate resides as some Chinese scientists have suggested tapping this reservoir for drinkable water. Mike Edmunds, research director of the Oxford Centre for Water Research in the UK says the source of the numerous lakes is fossil water and there is no evidence that the water levels are being topped up by melting snow – which could indicate the lakes are ultimately doomed.

Other-worldly landscapes in the Badain Jaran desert

The contrast between the deep blue hues of the lakes, the green ring of vegetation around them and the towering dune cliffs makes for unbelievable scenery, heightened by the silence only broken by the cries of birds circling above. Magical. I try to search my memories to find a similar place in the world and I’m hard pressed to see anything, except perhaps the Nile valley in Egypt that in a handful of areas had a comparable mix of high sand dunes, water and greenery all in the same place.

The Badain Jaran sports some of the tallest sand dunes in the world.

Covering an area of 49.000 square kilometres (19.000 sq mi), the Badain Jaran desert is home to the tallest stationary dune in the world, Bilutu Peak at 500m high (1.600ft) from the base, which is taller than the Empire State Building. This is a real sand dune desert similar to the Sahara in northern Africa, with the dunes averaging a whopping 200m (660ft). There are also so-called mega dunes averaging 400m (1.300ft) and these ones are stationary and made of solidified sand underneath with only the top layer of sand shifting. The smaller dunes are constantly shifting according to wind patterns, which makes desertification a problem as the Badain Jaran desert is progressively merging with the Tengger desert to the east as we showed in the previous iteration of this 2018 Chinese exploration.

Driving through the desert

How did I get to explore the Badain Jaran desert? As it is basically hardcore sand dune driving all the way, access to the desert is strictly regimented and as a private person I can only explore these magnificent landscapes with a rented 4×4 and driver. Even though Alashan Youqi is the base for the exploration of the Badain Jaran, organising a 4×4 for the same day proved a little bit of a challenge as the region has not yet cottoned on to international tourists (for the better!). I did manage to organise one from town though, but at 2000 yuan (255€ or US$299), it seemed a tad overpriced and I had the distinct feeling of getting ripped off. I would be proved wrong, so wrong.

My driver Yung Run

At the spectacular tourist info center at the entrance of the desert 75km (50mi) north-east of Alashan Youqi, I gingerly ask whether it’s possible to take the wheel of the 4WD at some point to hone in my (poor) sand driving skills. A curt and definitive “No!” cut short all my hopes. And indeed, repeatedly climbing and descending 200m+ dunes at full speed isn’t yet part of my skillset and in hindsight I was actually glad this opportunity wasn’t allowed to me… Yung Run my driver is from Mongolian descent and does not speak English, but the tourist receptionist thought of everything: “You won’t be able to use your online translator in the desert as there is no wifi signal, so please let me know of any requests before you leave”.

Open gate to the desert!

Good idea. I have two requests: I want to see the tallest stationary sand dune in the world, the Bilutu Peak, as well as the incredible Badain Jaran Temple lost in the middle of the desert. “No problem!” And off we go. Our workhorse for the exploration is a bruised and battered Toyota Land Cruiser 80 that has seen many a dune indeed. Yung Run steadfast refuses to turn the ignition on as long as I haven’t buckled up my seatbelt and would repeat the endearing manoeuvre each time we stop for me to take snaps which is many dozen times in the next five hours.

Bitulu Peak (pics 1 and 3) and the cars of the Badain Jaran desert.

The Bitulu Peak turns out to be underwhelming: it is surrounded by dunes almost as high and therefore isn’t really giving the impression of grandeur I was expecting. Never mind, the lake directly down from it is arguably the most beautiful in the entire desert so I make the best of our break to snap every inch of landscape that is opening up before my eyes. At first I had asked the driver to stop there so I could climb the dune. But it’s shaped more like a mountain with a relatively gentle but long slope (in dry, deep sand) and the climb looks like it would take hours so no climb it is. It is there that we first encounter the contestants in a 3-rally geolocalisation amateur 4WD rally headed, like us, towards the Badain Jaran temple. Interestingly, the participating cars include only a few nameplates, such as the Toyota Land Cruiser, Prado and FJ Cruiser as well as the Beijing BJ40.

Badain Jaran Temple

One does not get to the Badain Jaran Temple, one deserves it. It is a 100km (60mi) 5-hour return trip of continuous hardcore sand dune 4WD driving to reach it, and its isolation explains why it is so well maintained: “protected” by a barrier of desert, it escaped the Mao purges that destroyed almost all Buddhist temples in the country. The full contingent of the 3-day desert rally was there complete with drones when I visited which dampened my enthusiasm a little, but I enjoyed exchanging experiences with the one couple that spoke English. All-in-all, the price I paid blind before getting there turned out to be well worth it. Apart from a couple of venues, we basically had the desert to ourselves for five hours. I do warmly recommend it, but shyly, as a massive affluence of tourists would ruin the experience…

Stay tuned for the next iteration of our China exploration to the Jiayuhuan Fort.

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