The Badanjilin Desert is located in the south-central part of China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (aka Inner Mongolia). The somewhat smallish city of Alxa, belonging to Alxa Right Banner, which in turn belongs to Alxa League (both being administrative-political entities, with the league being roughly comparable to a prefecture while the banner is roughly comparable to a county) lies on the eastern rim of the Badanjilin Desert, which spans some 47,000 square kilometers (4,700,000 hectares, or 11,614,000 acres). Prior to 1956, Alxa Right Banner (Alxa, a Tangut* word, is alternatively written as Alashan) belonged to Gansu Province, located just south of Inner Mongolia.
A Brief History
Humanoid traces (fossil remains, stone implements, etc.) from the Paleolithic ("Old Stone Age", or from about 2.6 million years ago to about 10 thousand years ago, which latter date marks the beginning of the Neolithic ("New Stone Age")) have been unearthed here, as well as the fossil remains of prehistoric members of the ostrich family (Struthionidae) and much, much older fossils belonging to dinosaurs. The aforementioned Tangut tribes that resided here during China's earliest dynastic period, the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) Dynasty, conducted trade with the Bactrians (BCE 2200-1700) of Central Asia (corresponding to the northern part of present-day Afghanistan, the western part of Tajikistan, most of present-day Turkmenistan, and the southern part of present-day Uzbekistan). The present-day camel of the Badanjilin Desert is a descendant of the Bactrian camel.
In more recent times, the city of Alxa and the He Xi ("West River") Corridor formed part of the northern route of the ancient Silk Road. The Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty poet, Wang Wei, wrote couplets on the subject of Alxa, and even the renowned Italian traveler and explorer, Marco Polo, left his own personal "Kilroy Was Here" on Alxa in the form of mention of Alxa's merits in his travel diaries. Later, Badajilin was occupied by the Mongols, and in particular, by nomadic desert tribes such as the Tuerhute and Heshuote, who were excellent horsemen. Foreign and Chinese Archeology teams have unearthed numerous finds of stoneware pottery lying around the perimeter of the desert's many lakes, highlighting the importance of the lake as a site of early human habitation. Some of the later period pottery unearthed here had been painted.
There is, understandably, no great abundance of religious relics to be found in China's deserts, though the few that are located in the desert tend to be memorable. For example, near the neighboring Tengger Desert village of Bayan Hot (note that the Mongolian name for "Tengger Desert" is Tengelli Shamo), which village is situated just west of the Helan Mountains, lies Guangzong Temple, aka South Temple due to its location just south of Bayan Hot, one of the temples of the region visited by the 6th Dalai Lama, who gave a sermon here, and who passed away while visiting another Tengger Desert temple, the Chengqing Temple (note also that Mongolians are Lamaists, or Tibetan-Buddhist).
The Badajilin Desert has its own Tibetan-Buddhist temple, the well-preserved Badanjilin Temple, built in 1868. Since the temple lies in the heart of the desert - and, naturally, on the shores of a lake - it has remained untouched by the many wars that have marred or destroyed temples in other parts of the country. Badanjilin Temple, which measures some 300 square meters, has a modest library, several Buddhist frescoes, statues and wood carvings, as well as brick carvings and several other ancient artifacts related to the history of the temple. There is also a white pagoda standing to the west of the temple proper.
The Geography and Topography
The Badanjilin Desert (aka Badain Jaran in Tangut) is the the third-largest desert in China (the largest being the Taklamakan and the second-largest being the Gurbantunggut Desert). The Badanjilin Desert, like the Tengger Desert which lies east of the Badanjilin (and with which, alas, the Badajilin is merging, due to desertification in the area), is roughly one-half barren, sandy desert and one-half a mixture of swatches of solid bedrock, swatches of loose gravel (the latter is often referred to as gobi, hence the name of the larger desert to which the Badajilin belongs), and several smallish lakes, around which grows limited vegetation.
The Badanjilin Desert is bounded to the north by: the Gobi Desert proper, which, here, is characterized by blackened gravel, or blackened gobi; to the east by Mount Lang, which separates the Badanjilin from the Ulan Buh Desert; to the southeast by Mount Yabraishan, which separates the Badanjilin from the Tengger Desert; to the southwest by the aforementioned He Xi Corridor; and to the west by the Ruo Shui ("Weak", so-named because it sometimes dries up) River, which separates the sandy Badanjilin from the rocky Taklamakan Desert.
Both the Badanjilin and the Tengger Deserts belong to the Gobi Desert, which straddles Inner Mongolia and Mongolia proper, is mostly only semi-arid, and is the world's fourth-largest desert. Like other great sand deserts, the Badanjilin Desert has its remarkable sand dunes whose sharply defined edges bring to mind the swirls of thick icing on a cake, except that the "cake" in question would have to have been of gargantuan proportions.
Some of the sand dunes of the Badanjilin Desert are constantly shifting, as with other large deserts, but Badanjilin also has a number of sand formations that do not shift, that is, only the shallow surface is loose. Note that the sand dunes that do shift give rise to a number of strange sounds ranging from funny noises (barking, burping, croaking, or squeaking sounds) to eerie, groaning sounds to outright booming sounds (to read more about this strange phenomenon, and to listen to a couple of different such sounds (you can choose between various media players such as Real, Windows, etc.), click here).
The phenomenon that gives rise to relatively stable desert sand formations is the following. The subsurface has been compacted over the aeons at the same time as the individual grains of sand have become lightly "glued" together due to repeated moisture levels, especially in earlier times (some 20-30 thousand years ago). This rather rigid subsurface structure is what gives the sand dunes their shapes (in the Badajilin, these extremely large sand dunes are referred to as megadunes) that bring to mind mountain features such as peaks, cliffs, gullies and even caves. The most famous peak in the Badajilin is Bilutu Peak, which rises about 500 meters above the surrounding surface. The average Badajilin peak, of which there are numerous, rises about 200 meters above the surrounding terrain. The plateau on which the desert lies, the Alxa Plateau, lies at about 1200 meters above sea level. Badanjilin's peaks, its sand dunes, its lakes and its sacred springs are considered the "Four Treasures of the Badanjilin Desert". The Badanjilin Desert is also known as the "King of Sand Dunes".
The Badanjilin Desert, despite its searing heat, is home to some 40 smaller lakes that are of vital importance to the livestock (mainly camels - the ones used for safaris - goats, sheep and some horses) that are tended by the herdsmen who make the Badanjilin Desert their home. When viewed from a distance, Badanjilin's lakes appear as tiny oases surrounded by an otherwise arid desert, yet there is quite a lot vegetation, albeit sparsely spaced, that grows even on the sandy desert floor, and on which the livestock thrive.
Round about the lakes grow narrow vegetation belts, often with reeds sprouting up in the shallows and providing a temporary perch for foraging birds. Badanjilin's lakes have been called the "Jiangnan of the Desert", Jiangnan being a geographical (but not political, or administrative) term to describe one of China's most fertile old regions, the region just south of the Yangtze River in eastern China (nan means "south" and Jiang ("River") refers to the Jiang of Chang Jiang, or Yangtze River).**
Not surprisingly, the Badanjilin Desert's sandscapes are a very popular tourist attraction (don't worry, the tracks you leave in the morning will largely be erased by the evening, thanks to the action of the wind), and present something of a challenge to climbers (make that "crawlers" on the steepest sections), as it is often a case of "two steps upward and one step downward", depending on the steepness of the incline and the looseness of the surface sand. The tourist can also take part in a camel safari, or, if motorized transportation is one's preference, there are 4-WD (think: Land Rover) vehicles.
Just as the ship itself was the star of the Hollywood film, Titanic, the desert itself is the star attraction of the Badanjilin Desert. Moreover, Badanjilin Desert, together with the Tengger Desert and the now dried-up Juyan Lake Basin as well as 10 other special, contiguous scenic areas in the region, have been recognized as a unique ecosystem by UNESCO, and have, since August, 2009, been listed as UNESCO's very first Desert Geopark within the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network.
* "Tangut" is a term to describe a collection of ethnic groups, including the Tibetans, the original Han Chinese (before they began to absorb other ethnic groups) and the Miao, who lived in northwestern China in the region of present-day Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces, and also in the southwestern corner of Inner Mongolia. This group is sometimes associated with the forefathers of the present-day Qiang ethnic minority.
** This is the very fertile Yangtze River Delta area south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, which area, since ancient times, has served as the "bread basket" of China in every sense, from agricultural production to heavy industry to intellectual "output". Even though Jiangnan accounts for only about 5% of China's physical area, it accounts for a disproportionately large part of the country's GDP. The people who reside in this part of China speak a Wu dialect (from the ancient Kingdom of Wu). The most sublime variant of this dialect is supposed to be spoken in the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, while the most representative variant of the dialect is spoken in Shanghai.