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.

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A desert lake, seen from the peak of a tall dune in the Badain Jaran Desert, Inner Mongolia
A desert lake, seen from the peak of a tall dune.

Trip overview

Day One Fly to Jiayuguan, visit Jiayuguan Fortress, overnight in Jiayuguan hotel.
Day Two Drive to Zhangye Danxia Landform for a three-hour hike, picnic lunch, overnight in Zhangye hotel.
Day Three Drive into the desert, picnic lunch, hiking and more driving through the dunes, dinner at campsite, overnight in tents.
Day Four Drive to highest sand dune, climb highest sand dune, lunch by desert lake, drive out of desert, overnight in Zhangye hotel
Day Five Visit Zhangye’s Giant Buddha Temple, drive to Jiayuguan, fly back to Beijing.


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.

The highest point of Bilutu Peak, the third-tallest sand dune in the world

Climb Bilutu Peak, the third-highest sand dune in the world.

‘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).

Some information sourced from Wikipedia
Highest dune Peak Prominence
Duna Federico, Argentina2,845m1,230m
Cerro Blanco dune, Sechura Desert, Nazca, Peru2,080m1,176m
Bilutu Peak, Badain Jaran Desert, China1,605m323m
Dune 7, Namib Desert, Namibia570m383m
Mt Tempest, Moreton Island, Queensland, Australia280m280m

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.

Hikers deep in the hills of the Zhangye Danxia Landform

Hike deep into the hills and valleys of the Zhangye Danxia Landform.

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.

The Zhangye Danxia Landform is characterized by magnificently multi-coloured sandstone hills and mountains that ripple away towards the horizon. We’ll do a nice long hike in this area on the second day of the trip, packing a picnic lunch to allow us to venture deeper into the hills.

A view of the West Gate of Jiayuguan Fortress, seen from outside the walls

The West Gate of Jiayuguan Fortress, seen from the desert outside the walls.

Jiayuguan Fortress

Jiayuguan Fortress is known as the westernmost end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, and was one of the most important fortifications of its time, guarding the western entrance of the Hexi Corridor, the main route into China from the west. 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 here on the first day of the trip.

Zhangye’s 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 temple architecture, with the Ming and Qing Dynasties represented, amongst others. We’ll visit the temple on the last day of the trip.


The temperature in deserts will usually vary greatly between the night time and daytime. In August it's dry and we expect daytime temperatures of around 20-30°C, with temperatures of around 16-20°C at night. Even though it is a sandy desert, please be prepared to dress warmly. It is not expected to rain, although rain is not impossible. At this time of year, the chance of sandstorms is low, but we still need to be prepared.

In Jiayuguan and Zhangye, the temperatures in August are usually between 30°C and 12°C, but the records from previous years note that there's the chance of the occasional very cold day or very hot day.


We will spend two nights in local 4-star hotels, and one night camping in the desert under the stars! Tents, sleeping bags, sleeping bag liners, and ground mats will be supplied by Beijing Hikers.

At the hotels, you’ll be sharing a room with another hiker. If you'd like a hotel room to yourself, it can be arranged at an extra cost of 600 RMB for the trip, if rooms are available—usually not a problem!

Further details about room shares and single supplement can be found in the documents we send you as part of the registration.

Flights and transport

We’ll be traveling by plane from Beijing to Jiayuguan and back again at the end of the trip. We’ll hire a private bus to transit between destinations. There will also be a section of the trip that will include jeep travel through the desert, perhaps a rough ride if you are prone to motion sickness.

Frequent flyers: Please let us know if you would like to use your frequent flyer miles or if you are a frequent flyer member. If you would like to organise your own flights, we can provide further details.


Simple breakfast and picnic lunches will be provided while we’re in the desert, as will dinner at camp on day two. At other times, we will take our meals in restaurants – either at the hotel, or nearby. Bring some spending money for snacks during the trip. We’ll be eating Chinese-style food. Please let us know if you have any special dietary requirements or food allergies.

Things to bring

Aside from a few changes of clothes and regular hiking gear, the following equipment and clothes will make desert hiking much more comfortable:

  • Hat with wide brim
  • Sunglasses and suncream
  • Facemask to protect from blowing sand
  • Quick-dry/wicking clothing to prevent chafing from sweat
  • Bring a day pack for carrying water and snacks while hiking, and a duffle bag or suitcase for the rest of your things. Your extra luggage can be left on the jeeps or at the hotel.

Full itinerary

  1. Day One
    10:00 – Meet up at Beijing airport (exact time TBC)
    11:20 – Take off for Jiayuguan, transferring at Lanzhou
    15:50 – Arrival at Jiayuguan
    16:30 – Drive to Jiayuguan Fortress for a tour
    19:00 – Check in at hotel
    19:30 – Dinner and free time

  2. Day Two
    07:30 – Breakfast at hotel
    08:30 – Drive to Zhangye City
    10:30 – Hiking at the Zhangye Danxia Landform
    12:30 – Picnic lunch
    13:00 – More hiking
    16:30 – Drive on to Zhangye City
    18:00 – Check in at hotel
    19:00 – Dinner time
    20:00 – Free time

  3. Day Three
    08:00 – Breakfast at hotel
    08:30 – Drive to the edge of the Badain Jaran desert
    11:00 – Start hike into desert, jeep travel after the hike
    13:30 – Picnic lunch by a small lake in the desert
    14:30 – Drive through big sand dunes to desert campsite
    16:00 – Arrival at campsite, set up tents
    17:00 – Hike in dunes near the campsite
    18:30 – Dinner at campsite
    20:30 – Bonfire, beer club
    22:00 – Bed time

  4. Day Four
    08:30 – Breakfast
    09:00 – Pack up camp, drive to Bilutu Peak
    10:30 – Start the climb
    12:30 – Reach the top
    13:30 – Back down to the bottom of Bilutu Peak, lunch at local family's house by the lake
    14:30 – Finish lunch, travel by jeep to Badain Jaran lake
    16:30 – Drive out of the desert
    17:30 – Check in hotel in Zhangye, shower and rest
    19:00 – Assemble at hotel lobby and go out for dinner
    20:00 – Finish dinner, free time

  5. Day Five
    08:30 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:00 – Visit Zhangye's Giant Buddha Temple
    10:00 – Drive to Jiayuguan
    13:30 – Lunch at Jiayuguan
    15:00 – Arrive at airport for check in
    18:30 – Fly to Beijing, via Lanzhou
    21:00 – Arrive in Beijing
    All times are approximate, and depend on our speed of movement.

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