Badain Jaran Desert and Zhangye Danxia Landform (5 days)
Two days in the Badain Jaran desert with an overnight camp, peaking with an ascent of one of the world’s tallest dunes; three days looking about nearby scenic and historical highlights including the Zhangye Danxia Landform.
Meet up in Jiayuguan, visit Jiayuguan Fortress, overnight in hotel.
Day Two main activities
Private bus to Zhangye, hiking in Danxia Landform, visit Zhangye’s Giant Buddha Temple, overnight in Zhangye.
Day Three main activities
Drive into the desert, picnic lunch, hiking and more driving through the dunes, dinner at campsite, overnight in tents.
Day Four main activities
Drive to highest sand dune, climb highest sand dune, lunch by desert lake, drive out of desert, overnight in Zhangye hotel
Day Five main activities
Drive to Jiayuguan, visit Xuanbi “Overhanging” Great Wall, trip finishes.
Desert hiking and camping
We’ll be visiting the Badain Jaran Desert, which covers parts of Gansu and Inner Mongolia. It’s the third largest desert in China, with an area of 49,000 square kilometers – quite a bit bigger than the Tengger Desert, which we’ve visited on different desert trips.
Badain Jaran is a Mongolian name for the desert, and it means “mysterious lakes”. There are more than 100 lakes in this part of desert – all spring-fed, some salt water, some fresh water.
Sometimes in this area you’ll hear what’s called the “singing sand”, a weird rumbling noise made for reasons not yet fully understood. We haven’t heard it ourselves, but we’ll be keeping our ears open.
‘Highest Sand Dune’
Bilutu Peak is the world’s tallest stationary sand dune, and the third-tallest dune in the world. In a stationary sand dune the inner layers of the dune are all compacted, sometimes to the point where sandstone has been formed. Only the top layer of sand shifts.
From top to bottom Bilutu Peak measures some 300 metres, and the altitude at the top is roughly 1,605m above sea level. Three-hundred metres doesn't sound so high, but it's a tough climb in the sand!
From the top – or from perhaps near the top! – we’ll get a view of the surrounding desert and quite a few of the mysterious lakes.
Compared to other dunes around the world, Bilitu Peak is the third-highest above sea level, and it's also in third place for its prominence (the difference in height between base and peak).
The information about Bilutu Peak on Wikipedia doesn't quite match up with what we recorded on our GPS: Wikipedia has the ‘Badain Jaran’ dunes at 2,020m above sea level, with a prominence of 500m; our GPS measured the peak at 1,605m above sea level with a prominence of 323m. We might have started our climb in a different spot to the actual base of the dune, but the altitude reading is hard to argue with.
Zhangye Danxia Landform
China boasts many different kinds of unique and beautiful landscapes, from towering limestone karst mountains to expansive grasslands that reach as far as the eye can see. Formed from red sandstone beds by combination of erosion and uplift, the Danxia Landforms are also spectacular sights. Some Danxia Landforms have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Danxia landforms are sandstone formations, known for being very dramatic and colorful. The landform near Zhangye City has colourful and magnificent cliffs in a hilly and mountainous land. Danxia refers to isolated peaks, steep pillars, ravines, mountains and hills that have formed after a long period of erosion by wind and running water. Unlike limestone karst, Danxia landforms are composed of red sandstone, which gives them their characteristic crimson colouration. Several Danxia Landforms are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites because of their profound natural and aesthetic value. The area we’re visiting boasts majestic, multi-coloured slopes that give you the sensation of walking into a painting.
By arrangement with the operators of the Zhangye Danxia Geopark we will visit a beautiful area in the middle of the landform, far away from any crowds. Regular tourist groups don’t go here because it increases their cost, and it’s not an option for solo travellers because of requirements for group size and early booking. It’s worth it, though—the area reminds us of how the landform was naturally before it was developed for mass tourism, a stunning sight.
Temples and Buddhist sites near Zhangye
The Silk Road passed through Zhangye, bringing many travelers, but nowadays many choose to head straight to Jiayuguan. While in Zhangye, we’ll visit the Giant Buddha Temple.
Giant Buddha Temple
Built in 1098 AD, and extended and renovated during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Zhangye’s Giant Buddha Temple houses the largest indoor reclining Buddha in China—nearly 35 metres from head to toe. The reclining pose signifies entry into nirvana. We’ll also see a variety of architectural styles in the temple, with the Ming and Qing Dynasties represented, amongst others.
The temple was built here after the Emperor of the time's tutor in Buddhism followed the sound of heavenly music and found buried an ancient statue of Buddha, reclining in the same nirvana pose of the Buddha we'll see in the temple.
Han Dynasty and Ming Dynasty relics near Jiayuguan
Some of the earliest Great Wall was built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), including a line of rammed earth ramparts that stretched out into the desert. It’s said that these fortifications, and the soldiers stationed on them to repel attacks from nomadic tribes and bandits, played a large role in making the Silk Road safer for travelers and increasing the volume of trade along the way.
The fortress at Jiayuguan marked the western end of the main line of Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) Great Wall, but some watch towers were built further to the west. Near a deep canyon, we’ll find ‘The First Beacon Tower’, built to give early warning, via smoke signal, of approaching attackers. We’ll also take a look at a section of the Han Dynasty wall known as the Overhanging Wall, said to have been restored using the Han Dynasty construction techniques.
Jiayuguan Fortress is known as the western-most end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, and was one of the most important fortifications of its time, guarding the western entrance to China from the Hexi Corridor. The fortress has three defense lines – a moat, an outer city wall, and an inner city wall. There are gates on the east and west side. The fortress looks spectacular, with Great Wall climbing from it to the mountains in the north and south, and multi-storey towers and halls inside the walls and moat. We’ll visit the fortress on the first day of the trip.
In ancient times, banishment was a common form of punishment. If you were banished ‘to the West’, it's out through the west gate of the Jiayuguan Fortress that you'd pass.
Getting to and from Jiayuguan
You’ll meet your guides at the Jiayuguan Airport between 4-5pm on the first day of the trip.
The itinerary will finish in Jiayuguan on the last day of the trip, and we plan to drop you off at the Jiayuguan Airport around 3pm.
Flights to and from Jiayuguan typically transfer at Lanzhou Airport.
Please do not purchase your flights until we are able to confirm the departure of the trip.
Photos and trip reports: Badain Jaran Desert and Zhangye Danxia Landform (5 days)