The Badain Jaran Desert (Mongolian) or Badan Jilin Shamo 巴丹吉林沙漠 (Chinese) is dessert a landscape copied and pasted straight from the ancient tales of Chinese mythology. Humongous sand dunes, herds of wild Bactrian camels, shimmering lakes and a gold roof temples dot this spectacular and mysterious land.
The new bus station looks a lot like an airport terminal and there isn’t much in it yet. The bus, however, does leave on time (7.20 am) and that’s the main thing. It fills up completely, of course, and our seats are quite far to the back, but overall it’s ok.
We start off on the brand-new motorway we had been on yesterday – and it’s still empty – but soon we turn onto an older road. All around us there is an ugly, greyish desert and lots of empty space.
The only exotic element is provided by the camels of which we now see whole herds, on both sides of the road.
Can there be too many Camels?
In fact, there are so many that even their exoticness wears off eventually. Toilet stops are few and far between and usually on the primitive side: often there is no toilet, just a bush, dip or hollow to hide behind or in, which is preferable because it’s cleaner.
Yinchuan to Bayan Khot via Guangzong Si is one of those out of the way routes that you will never forget. All along the journey you will be accompanied by remnants of the Great Wall, lonely watchtowers, camels and an unknown Mongolian Monastery; not to mention the amazing landscape.
Our driver has agreed to take us all the way to Bayan Khot via Guangzong Si (once one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia) for 300 Yuan; or at least that’s what we think … We have managed to get up reasonably early and are making good progress.
The Wild Wall in Ningxia
The first highlight of the day is when we suddenly catch sight of the ruins of the Great Wall! This is the real thing: unrestored, without tickets, souvenir stalls, or people. It is just standing there, defiant, majestic, having weathered so many centuries.
Of course, there’s not much left of it, it’s been reduced to a crumbling pinkish pile of earth, riddled with holes. But we don’t mind, we’re just thrilled to be there.
(Badain Jaran Desert is the Mongolian name / Badan Jilin Shamo is the Chinese name)
The World’s Highest Sand Dunes
Getting to the magnificent Badain Jaran Desert, home to the world’s highest sand dunes, is far more straightforward than it appears on the map and in the guide books and can be done independently, with a bit of effort and determination. The desert can be approached from two directions: either from Ningxia’s capital Yinchuan via the Inner Mongolian town of Bayan Khot (also known as Alashan Zuoqi 阿拉善左旗), or from the Gansu town of Zhangye.
The base for visiting the desert is Alashan Youqi (阿拉善右旗), which is connected by a daily bus from Bayan Khot, or by two daily buses from Zhangye.
Below is the basic information you need to do the trip. In a few weeks we will be putting up a longer article about our experience there, illustrated with more photos.
Getting there from Yinchuan
There are regular buses from Yinchuan’s main bus station to Bayan Khot, which should take around 2 hours. However, we decided to hire a taxi (400 Yuan) because that allowed us to stop at the ruins of the Great Wall at Sanguankou (三关口) and to make a side-trip to the Mongolian monastery complex of Guanzongsi (广宗寺). If you left really early, with a hired car you could also include a visit to Moon Lake, a desert playground for wealthy Chinese.