The Badain Jaran Desert (Chinese: 巴丹吉林沙漠) is a desert in Alxa youqi ( in inner mongolia). which spans the provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. It covers an area of 49,000 sq. kilometers (19,000 sq. miles). By size it is the third largest desert in China.
WE CLIMBED ONTO the flat roof of the house to survey our options. The nearest peak soared straight up from the depression, its towering slipface oriented towards the southeast. On the other side of the basin, which was perhaps a kilometre across, two further mountains of sand rose up to scrape the sky.
We were deep in the heart of the Badain Jaran, a region of sand dunes covering nearly 50,000 square kilometres at the heart of the otherwise sandless Gobi Desert. But these weren’t just any old sand dunes – they were the largest on the planet, some reaching heights in excess of 400 metres.
Indeed, physical geographers like to refer to them as ‘megadunes’. I’d wanted to climb one since first entering the dunefield a week or so before. My companion, Bruno Baumann, an Austrian writer and adventurer, was more than up for the challenge, but couldn’t decide which of the three monsters before us was the tallest; they were all huge.
The Badain Jaran is one of the lesser known great ‘sand seas’. Adventurous tourists make sorties into the vast sandscapes of Egypt, Namibia and Oman, but this corner of Chinese Inner Mongolia is rarely visited by outsiders, thanks in part to the fact that the Chinese military likes to use it as a testing ground for missiles.
Bruno and I had walked for three days to reach this spot, an adobe compound that housed our host, Lao Gao, and his family. Lao Gao had arrived as a little boy with his parents in 1957 from the province of Gansu far off to the south. I never received a totally satisfactory explanation as to why the family had settled here in the middle of nowhere.
Their nearest neighbours, a few Buddhist monks at an isolated monastery, were a day’s walk away. Lao Gao’s presence in this world of sand was, like that of the monks, only possible because of the groundwater reserves that lie just below the surface of the Badain Jaran. In many places, this groundwater feeds shallow lakes that punctuate depressions between the towering dunes. It’s the lakes, more than 140 of them, that have given the desert its name. Badain is a Mongolian word that means ‘mysterious’ or ‘from the heaven’, and jaran means ‘lake’.
High evaporation rates tend to make the lakes brackish and shallow. The one in Lao Gao’s basin had disappeared entirely, leaving a thin salt crust. But sweet water from his well allowed him to thrive. Several times each day, he or his daughter would fill two metal buckets and carry them back to the mud-brick house on each end of a pole balanced across their shoulders. The fresh water also allowed Lao Gao to cultivate all manner of crops in the sandy soil.
He gave me a tour of his impressive set-up. On a sizable patch of land, he cultivated neat plots of cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, onions and aubergines. He even had an apple tree. Produce grown in the hot summers kept the family going through the hard winters, when temperatures plummet far below zero for months on end. Piles of vegetables were kept in a subterranean storehouse, the hole in the ground protected by an old padded quilt and some slabs of rock.
Lao Gao’s self-sufficiency in crops was complemented by camels and goats, which grazed the patches of vegetation scattered across the depression, as well as the occasional shrub and clump of wispy grass that clung to the dunes’ lower parts.
The only reason Lao Gao had for climbing the dunes was to look for his camels. He found the idea of ascending one to the very top quite baffling. He’d smiled and shaken his head when we told him our plan. “I don’t have to climb to the top to get a good view,” he said.
We eventually plumped for the nearest dune. The two farthest might be easier to ascend, we thought, given that the slopes up to their crests were more gentle from our starting point, but the fact that climbing the nearest dune would mean going more or less straight up the slipface gave us an added impetus.
Lao Gao wished us well. He’d become accustomed to the curious whims of Europeans since his first encounter with Bruno some years before. For Bruno, our trip was a return to the scene of an earlier expedition, a solo trek across this sand desert that had nearly ended in disaster. Having run out of water deep inside the arid wilderness, he had struggled to the top of a dune crest to be met by an extraordinary sight. In front of him, nestled in a depression, was a house. Bruno had just made it to the dwelling. To put it simply, Lao Gao had saved his life.
On this occasion, Bruno had brought a pair of binoculars as a small gift for his saviour. Lao Gao was getting on in years and found it increasingly difficult to spot his camels at round-up time. The binoculars would help. It was just a token of his gratitude, Bruno said, but how else do you thank someone for saving your life?