A few days in Zhangye张掖, the friendly and attractive city in western Gansu province, is best way to get to know this remote area of China. Zhangye is only a three to four hour bus ride away from the Inner Mongolian town of Alashan Youqi, the gateway to the Badan Jarain Desert. And, as the friendly ticket lady at Youqi’s bus station had assured Adam two days ago, there are no problems getting tickets. So we swap the tickets for the 15.00 bus which the Badain Jaran travel agency had erroneously bought us, and hop on the 8.30 one instead.
The bus starts out half-empty, but doesn’t stay that way for long. This is still peasant country, where local people prefer to line up by the road side with their sacks and bundles, waiting for the bus to pick them up, rather than make their way to the bus station. The main difference with 20 years ago is that most of the transactions, involving pick- ups and drop- offs, are arranged on mobile phones these days.
The other thing that takes us back into time is the speed of the ride; or rather, the lack of it. In fact, we have seldom come across a driver less in a hurry. Though we normally want our buses to go slowly and carefully, ever fearful of accidents, even we think that this guy could speed up a bit.
(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.