Winter wonderland in China's third-largest desert

Overlanding in a country with the world’s largest population is very overwhelming. One thing that is so prominent is the amount of people, everywhere! There is rarely anywhere to go ‘off-road’ or escape the crowd. This environment provides an extreme contrast to Mongolia where we just spent the last month listening to gentle whispers of the wind and slow breathing of the mountains. After a few weeks we were in dire need of open space and readjust the imbalance of our inner peace. And it is in Badain Jaran Desert where we restored ourselves.

On the way to the desert through Qinghai plateau and Gansu
Passing the frozen Crescent Lake near Dunhuang

Badain Jaran Desert or Badan Jilin in Chinese is the third largest desert in China covering an area of 49,000 km2, which spans across the provinces of Gansu, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Unlike the Gobi Desert we experienced in Mongolia, which was much flatter, the height of the dunes in Badain Jaran Desert averages at around 200 meters, with some reaching more than 500 meters. Despite the relative flatness of the Gobi Desert, Toyotoro still managed to get stuck, so you can only imagine how much trouble we had with this one. Dotted about Badain Jaran there are over 144 spring-fed lakes, even though there is less than 40mm of rainfall per year, and one of them provides sanctuary to a Tibetan-Buddhist temple. It was built in 1868 and due to its isolated location miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution unscathed, and a goal we were determined to get to with Toyotoro.

I should mention that Badain Jaran Desert, like all places open for tourism in China, has an official administration team managing it. This means one big ass site entrance where fees occur. Officially you are meant to pay and get a guide to drive you around in their jeep, that costs a few thousand yuan per day. But we believe nature should be free and should not be monopolised like that, so we just crossed our fingers and entered. Due to the scale of the desert the ‘park’ administration team cannot create a fence to cover the whole area nor do they have enough ‘park guards’ to parole everywhere. You can enter the desert with your own vehicle at more discreet points to travel incognito style and avoid being complete muppets such as ourselves, who just strolled up to the entrance and hoped for the best.

It was not for another 15-20 minutes’ drive did the real fun starts.

After a gamble and a fluke, at the main entrance the barrier of the desert opened its gate for us. Though we were speechless at this stroke of luck we were met with a well-paved road leading to tacky man-made sand statues and building that is the hallmark of commercial tourism. It was not for another 15-20 minutes’ drive did the real fun starts.

Even though we entered Badain Jaran in early January in freezing temperatures, we were sweating from the intensity of our drive. Despite letting out a lot of air from our tyres, going down to 30%, Toyotoro’s booty is still a whopping 3t and over. This makes dune surfing that much more hair-raising but incredibly exciting. It is also the first time in China where we feel like we are actually alone, at least before we got discovered by the ‘park guards.’ But that’s another story.

At the top of one dune, all three of us look forward towards the next hill top we need to conquer. We will use the downhill momentum to thrust us up to the next dune. Henning activates low range and puts Toyotoro into 3rd gear. I grab onto the door handle and shout: “Go go go!” all the way until the tip of the bonnet points towards the sky and finally reach the top. Just as the three of us roll over the top and are facing down-hill once again, we halt to a stop. We would then get out of the car and walk to the top of the next dune to look for a trail that is best for us to cross. Nothing too tilted or too dangerous. After a route is decided we get in the car and do it all again without hesitation otherwise we would lose the momentum and pay the price. 

I grab onto the door handle and shout: “Go go go!” all the way until the tip of the bonnet points towards the sky and finally reach the top.

In hindsight we should have taken a few shots of alcohol before we embarked on this journey because driving through this terrain is not for the faint-hearted nor is there any room for indecision. At the beginning it was relatively easy-going and we were distracted by the surreal desert scenery. Then the dunes started to get higher, Toyotoro started freestyling drifting moves and we got stuck a few times. Moving at a pace of 10km/h we had to make camp after 40km, of a 50km journey, as the sun was setting.

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When we woke up in the morning the sight alone wiped away all doubts and risks we took to come here. The first snow of the year fell during the night and the whole desert was covered by a thin blanket of white powder. So serene and magical. No words can describe it. I am reminded again we humans are merely humble witnesses of the power of nature and nothing more. Sadly, we were not able to reach the Buddhist temple we set out for, but we leave Badain Jaran Desert like children who just opened their first Christmas present – wanting more.

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