Nguyen Anh Tuan 

Inner Mongolia’s Badain Jaran desert is a spectacular setting filled with towering sand dunes and shimmering spring-fed lakes.

Known as the home of the world’s highest sand dunes and filled with treacherous and steep slopes, Badain Jaran Desert lies to the west of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. It may sound like an isolated and forbidding location, but a visit to this desert, the world’s fourth largest, reveals a surprising land of natural wonders and vitality.

Badain Jaran is one of the most beautiful deserts in China with more than 140 mysterious spring-fed lakes nestled in majestic sand dunes. The ecosystem surrounding the lakes is diverse, with playful waterfowl and fish that can be seen easily in the crystal-clear water. These magnificent lakes have sustained the local population of herders for generations.

 While the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region is impressive for its vastness, Badain Jaran impresses with its altitude – at over 800 meters, it has been dubbed “the desert on the highlands.” In addition, the apexes of its sand dunes are usually 200 to 400 meters above the ground; Bilutu Peak, the highest mountain in the desert, is 1,600 meters above sea level and is often called “Desert Mount Everest.”

Deep within this vast desert lies a village called Badain Jaran Gacha. The village covers an area of over 4,000 square kilometers where only 27 households and 100 inhabitants live around 40 lakes, separated from each other by a distance of 30 kilometers.

Locals here mainly herd animals and work in tourism for a living. To enter the desert, you must rent a specialized off-road vehicle and a local driver. There are two challenges for drivers in the desert. The first one is the route: the driver is a herder who knows the way around the desert even without GPS, so scenic spots can be visited. The second one is driving safety: the Badain Jaran Desert is different from other deserts, with sand dunes rising and falling continuously. As soon as an off-roader plunges down a sandy slope with an incline of over 50 degrees, it immediately surges towards the foot of the dune while violently shaking from side to side. When driving here, drivers must always pay attention to the changing terrain and weather. They also need to have their vehicles offloaded and their tires deflated to increase traction.

 The Badain Jaran Temple is a sacred place for animal herders. Legend has it that it was built by craftsmen of unique skills and it remains the only temple on a desert that has been preserved since the day it was established. The white-walled temple has been dubbed “the palace on the desert,” nestled against the sand dunes and facing quiet and elegant Miaohaizi Lake. The lake’s water contains high salt content, creating a beautiful area of white surrounding sand.

In recent years, to protect the desert ecosystem and limit livestock grazing, the majority of young people have left home for work, leaving the village with a mostly elderly population. The government supports residents by building houses and encourages people to stay during peak travel seasons, as tourism has become one of the main sources of income for herders. The ecosystem of lakes and sand dunes is the biosphere and the source of magic for life in this place. Reeds and poplar trees growing on the side of some southeastern lakes can be used for animal farming. And there remain many open-cast freshwater lakes and streams on the edge of some lake basins, facilitating the livelihood and tourism activities of the desert dwellers into the future.