GOBI DESERT SIGHTS IN INNER MONGOLIA AND GANSU IN CHINA

GOBI DESERT SIGHTS IN INNER MONGOLIA

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Alashan Plateau (southwestern portion of Gobi Desert) is a remote region in the Gobi Desert with stunning scenery that is virtually impossible to get to. It contains 1200-foot-high sand dunes, among the largest in the world, interspersed with valleys with spring-fed blue lakes and multicolored salt lakes and yardangs (snake-like rock ridges created by scouring sand-laden winds). For the Chinese government it was an ideal place to set up a missile testing range and desert research institute.

Khara Khoto (700 kilometers west of Baotou, Ejin Banner of Alxa League in western Inner Mongolia near Juyan Lake Basin) was a thriving Mongol city, until, according to legend, the Black River was diverted by the Chinese. It is now home to a fortress surrounded by dunes. The 12-foot-thick walls are still standing. They form a 450-meter-wide square. but mostly all that remains of the buildings are foundations.

Heiching (35 kilometers southeast of Dalaihubu Town, Ejina Banner in Alxa League, 650 kilometers west of Baotou) in Inner Mongolia is the largest and best-preserved Silk Road archeological site in China. It is known for its 10-meter-high city walls and a pagoda that dates to the Xixiady nasty of 1038-1227. Deterioration of the nearby Juyan oasis has create shifting sand dunes that are in danger of swallowing up the site.

Singing Sand Gorge

Xiangshawan (50 kilometers south of Baotou) is a 45 degree slope of sand in the Kubuqi Desert whose name translates to "Whistling Dune Bay" but the site is called "Singing Sands Gorge", "Noisy Sand Bay", "Sounding Sands", "Singing Sand Ravine", "Resounding Sand Bay", "Resonant Sand Bay", and "Resonant Sand Gorge" — all English references to the "humming", "buzzing", or "roaring" sound created by sliding on the sand. On a sunny day, which is often, when a person slides down the slope with his or her hands stirring up the sand it makes a noise like a plane flying overhead. Three miles away from here is a dense forest with yurt-hotels.

Xiangshawan is located in the Gobi Desert and is very touristy. There are resort hotels in an otherwise barren landscape. Among the activities that one can try are sand sledding, camel rides, tightrope walking, dune buggy and ATV rides, sandsurfing, sandbiking, desert volleyball and soccer and ziplines. There are swings and a playground for children. At the Guolao Theater you can watch juggling performances. There is a market and snack street and a camel caravan that leads to the Yuesha Island area.

On her visit there Elizabeth Chang wrote in the Washington Post: Resonant Sand Gorge “is a kind of desert theme park; think of golden dunes with an overlay of the tackiest aspects of Disney....The adults gazed out the windows at the impressively smooth highways and the remarkably unscenic scenery. The only interesting site we passed was the famed Yellow River, as muddy as its name would indicate. [Source: Elizabeth Chang, Washington Post, January 16, 2014]

“The Resonant Sand Gorge is named for a “singing” sound that the sand allegedly makes, which you can most readily hear when sledding down the dunes, one of the activities that our hosts strangely didn’t sign us up for (but we did get to ride the rather sad-looking camels). It was cluttered with odd accessories, including but not limited to a huge plastic “I (heart) U” tucked into the landscape; dune buggies done up like Viking ships; a theater; a train; and a hotel that looked as if it belonged in outer space. As the girls played volleyball on a beach court, before repairing to the pools, I climbed to the summit of a dune, concentrated on looking away from the people and the beach umbrellas and soothed myself with the sweeping expanse of sand and sky.”

Badain Jaran Desert: Towers of Sand and Lakes

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Gobi dust storm
Badain Jaran Desert (western Inner Mongolia. Gansu and Ningxia) is China's third largest desert. Covering 47000 square kilometers (18150 square miles), it is home of some of the largest sand dunes in the world, up to 500 meters high. The tallest dune, measured, from base to peak, is the world's third tallest dune and highest stationary dune in the world. The desert is very, with rainfall of only averaging 40 millimeters a year. [Coordinates: N39 35 24-40 16 12 E101 01 59-102 53 48]

Badain Jaran is home to over 100 spring-fed lakes that lie between the dunes. Some of them are fresh water while others are extremely saline. These lakes give the desert its name which is Mongolian for "mysterious lakes". These lakes are little studied. Some have very high pH levels and are home to extremely interesting animal communities. The lakes are unique and have rarely been seen. Some lakes are vermillion red from salt-eating bacteria.

The people that live here live just like the Mongols of old. They rely on camels and horses for transportation and sheep and goats for meat and wool. Many are practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. The few monasteries that remain have only a handful of monks. Nearly all the people that remain here are old, The young people have moved away. [Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, January 2002]

In 2004, scientist reported that the sand dunes contain large amounts of moisture. The moisture is often just 20 centimeters below the surface and acts as cohesive agent for the sand and explains how the dunes could get to be so big in an area that is so windy and dry and where the evaporation rate is five times the rainfall amount. The source of the water is snow melt from Mt. Qilian, which lies 800 kilometers away,

Badain Jaran Desert was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Badain Jaran Desert is located in the Alashan Plateau in the hyper-arid and temperate desert region of northwestern China. It is China’s second largest desert. The nominated property of Badain Jaran Desert — Towers of Sand and Lakes concentrates in the central desert area, including unique desert aeolian features of the most concentrated distribution area of mega-dunes and inter-dunal lake basins, constituting irreplaceable natural heritage values. The nominated property contains world’s tallest stationary sand dune Bilutu with an altitude of 1611 meters and a relative height of about 450 meters (Andrew Goudie et al, 2011), so called “Everest of Desert”. The nominated property has as many as 144 lake basins, covering a total area of more than 2300 hectares, among which 74 are permanent lakes with water all year around, and 12 are clear fresh-water lakes fed by underground springs with high water quality. This is a unique collection of varied inter-dunal lake basins of great beauty and mystery. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

Badain Jaran Desert “has an area of 872,830 hectares, and its buffer zone has an area of 486,642 hectares.” Its natural geographical attributes include “the concentrated distribution of mega-dunes with a relative height of more than 200 meters, and the inter-dunal lake basins... The sparse cultural relics-ancient forts (fortifications) and temples, more recent Mongolian yurts and gentle herds of sheep, elegant camels striding proud across the sands add further harmony and grace to the beautiful landscape and provide context and scale to judge the grandeur of the natural monuments.”

Badain Jaran Desert “is under good protection and management. It is already recognised as a national geopark and global geopark under UNESCO, and enjoys the protection status as autonomous region-level nature reserves in China. It is a wide wilderness with no towns, no paved roads, no agriculture and only a few families of Mongolian herdsmen with some camels, goats, donkeys and sheep herds. The distribution of these herdsmen is limited and their activities well controlled to not threaten the outstanding universal values of the property.”

Badain Jaran Desert “has outstanding aesthetic values in terms of its landscape diversity, the dense distribution of mega-dunes, the uniqueness of its lakes, presence of groundwater and diverse vegetation, as well as the temperate climate of the northern desert. It is a three-dimensional desert full of life and distinctiveness. The property also exhibits the best examples of aeolian landforms and continuous geomorphological evolution, which are of great significance in scientific studies and designing desert combatting methodologies. In all, the nominated property is a desert with the most unique landscapes and features, little human disturbance, and the best representative desert in the Asian temperate arid regions, unlike any other desert to be found elsewhere on earth.

Geology and Climate of the Badain Jaran Desert

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Badain Jaran Desert “is a spectacular and beautiful desert landscape. Its unique aesthetic features include diverse sand dune forms, unique mega-dunes with huge height differences, the world's tallest stationary sand dune, more than 100 inter-dunal lake basins, rich desert flora and fauna, and the continuous geomorphological evolution processes, which all together make the property an outstanding three-dimensional desert with highly aesthetic values, full of stunning and mysterious appearance and forms. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“Due to its geographical location and geological background, the nominated property is deeply influenced by climate change and the continuing tectonic uplift of the Tibetan Plateau. Its desert forming process continues to the present time so that the site and its relics constitute an amazingly well documented study of ongoing climate change and desert forming processes. As one of the primary sources of wind-blown dust storms in Northern China, Badain Jaran has had a profound influence on the nature and fertility of the Loess Plateau, North China, Korean Peninsula, Japan and as far as Hawaii. The size and integrity of the site is important in understanding its ongoing evolution. The nominated property and buffer zone have embodied the diversity of the whole desert exhibiting the full range of different desert stages and types including aeolian eroded rocky hills, open stony gobi, transition zones, sandy barchands, sand dunes of many types (pyramids, barchanoid ridge dunes, mega-dunes, star dunes), oases, inter-dunal lake basins and continuing sand spread areas.”

Badain Jaran Desert “is a temperate desert, and compared with tropical deserts in the world, it has a relatively cool climate, but high evaporation results in its hyper aridity. Since the Quaternary period, the ancient water system of Ruoshui River has provided abundant sand materials for the development of sand dunes and desert. The development of sand dunes is mainly affected by two prevailing wind systems — the west wind and the northwest wind. Through a long time-span of geological processes and under the action of aridity, wind and transportation, the nominated property has developed a large area of desert, gobi and denudation landforms, demonstrating a variety of outstanding aeolian features and micro-features. Especially its development scale of mega-dunes is rarely seen all over the world. The densely developed lakes recorded the changes of the paleoenvironment in the area, which makes the property an important place to study the desert ecological environment and evolution. The nominated property has rich fauna and flora, and its vegetation has a positive corresponding relationship with sand dune morphology.”

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Badain Jaran Desert “records and reflects the regional tectonic evolution, climate change, geomorphological evolution and even hydrogeological changes. It is an ideal place for the study of the ongoing evolutionary processes of desert geomorphology in the temperate extreme arid desert region. Its geomorphological characteristics show that the nominated property belongs to a typical and evolving desert landscape. The property is an evolving desert with beautiful and diverse examples of aeolian desert landforms that exhibit a full sequence of development relative to different sand sources and times. From small crescent dunes to relatively complex crescent dune chains, and finally to tall, complex and stable sand mountains, showing so clearly the continuous historical process of desert formation and evolution. This is a globally representative area for studying desert development and aeolian landforms. In addition, the corresponding relationship between sand dunes and lake development is also one of the scientific research hotspots, and is of great significance for studying the formation, development and environmental evolution of the temperate desert in the hinterland of northwest China and even the Eurasia.”

Badain Jaran Desert“can claim the best record of ongoing geological evolution, providing important evidence for the study of environmental changes in arid areas. The formation and evolution of Badain Jaran Desert are deeply influenced by global climate fluctuation and continuing tectonic uplift of the Tibetan Plateau. Compared with other major deserts in the world, it is younger, more dynamic and better documented. Through comprehensive studies of the records of desert evolution, the sand dune forms, dating of the sand dune strata, the bedding structure of the ancient dunes and the regional wind conditions, through the Palaeolithic petroglyphs, through the historical records and through the modern research, we can explore the wind direction changes of monsoon circulation and natural environment evolution of this arid area before and after the last glacial period. At present, the desertification process and the growth of sand dunes in the nominated property are continuing. It is an ideal place for studying the geological events of the Tibetan Plateau and global climate change and is a natural laboratory for earth science research.”

Sand Dunes and Desert Features at Badain Jaran Desert

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Unique features of Badain Jaran Desert “include a large area of densely distributed mega-dunes, the tallest stationary sand dunes in the world, and a unique collection of inter-dunal lake basins. Mega-dunes in the property form an undulating landscape, among which the tallest sand dune has a relative height up to 450 meters (Andrew Goudie et al, 2011). [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

Badain Jaran Desert“contains the world's densest collection of mega-dunes including the Bilutu Peak-the world’s tallest stationary sand dune with a relative height up to 450 meters (Andrew Goudie et al, 2011). The combined landscape of mega-dunes and inter-dunal lake basins is unique. The property includes many types of dunes, such as barchans, barchanoid chains, pyramidal dunes, and also spectacular weathering features like tafonis, alveoles and varnishes. Here, we can observe the sensual curves, zen-like ripples, humming sound of the singing sands, and other various other outstanding features of aeolian landforms.

Badain Jaran Desert “covers the continuous distribution area of mega-dunes, as well as other types of sand dunes, inter-dunal lake basins, depressions, mountains, etc. The vast area is large enough to protect the complete elements that embody the outstanding universal values of the nominated property, and safeguard and maintain the continuing evolutionary processes of desert landscape formation and aeolian features. The nominated property and buffer zone are mainly delimitated in accordance with geographic units and distributions such as sand dunes and lakes, referring to existing protected area boundaries.

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Badain Jaran Desert Wildlife and Ecosystems

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “For a sandy desert and sand sea, Badain Jaran is surprisingly moist so that plant life is quite abundant, probably more species than any other desert in the world. Animal life is also quite rich though mostly nocturnal. The lakes are mostly saline and mysteriously coloured, providing a favourable habitat for thriving worms, molluscs, crustacea and some fish which support a moderately rich desert fauna of birds and other creatures, and all this together further add to the charm of the desert. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The nominated property is a living desert, and its natural beauty and wonder are added to by the charm of living plants and creatures. The pink flowering Tamarix, precious medicinal Cistanche, juicy Euphorbiaceae, and salt-tolerant Haloxylon can be seen widely whilst lizards and scorpions hide in their shelter. Tall Bactrian camels pace elegantly across the sand, waterbirds feed by the lake, crying raptors circle in the sky, while sand sea stands silent. When night falls, stars shine brightly, and a variety of shyer desert animals begin to be busy searching for food.

“Most area of the nominated property is in an uninhabited natural desert state. With less than 1 person in per 10 square kilometers, the impacts of human activities are very limited, therefore, it maintains a high level of integrity. There are only a few Mongolian herders living a traditional grazing life, and coexisting harmoniously with natural eco-environment, and actively participating in protection under education and promotion by government and traditional cultures. The ecosystem of the nominated property is complete without any poaching activity.

“The nominated property includes 2 autonomous region-level nature reserves. These will be upgraded so that the entire nominated property enjoys national nature reserve status. It is also protected as a UNESCO global geopark and a national geopark and protected by various national, autonomous region-level, and league-level laws and regulations.

Dunhuang

Dunhuang (on the Lanzhou-Urumqi train line, 750 kilometers northwest of Lanzhou and 750 kilometers southeast of Urumqi) is an oasis town of about 190,000 people and jumping off point for Mogao Caves. One of the premier Silk Road sites, it boasts a new airport, several four-star hotels a number of small hotels and guest houses.

In the Silk Road era Dunhuang was known as Shazhou — City of Sands. Today, it is one western China’s most cosmopolitan centers, as visitors come from all over the world to check out Mogao Caves. About 300,000 visitors, nearly all of them arriving in the hot summer, visit the town every year. Dunhuang means "Blazing Beacon."

Dunhuang is situated in a oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan ("Singing-Sand Mountain"). It’s remote location in northwestern Gansu Province, far from any major city, belies how bustling it must have been when it was filled with Silk Road merchants, suppliers, and entrepreneurs. . The Chinese government make of point of criticizing late 19th century Western "archeologists," who explored Dunhuang and other Silk Road towns and made up off with some of the best art and sculptures, which are now displayed in foreign museums.

According to the International Dunhuang Project: “Dunhuang has a history of over two thousand years. Lying on the Dang River, which flows south and disappears into the Gobi desert, the town was established as a Chinese military garrison in the 2nd century B.C.. Defensive walls with watchtowers were built to its north. On the junction where the main Silk Road split into northern and southern branches around the Taklamakan desert to its west, Dunhuang grew and prospered. In the 4th century an itinerant monk excavated a meditation cave in a cliff face south-east of the town. Others followed and by the 8th century there were over a thousand cave temples. One cave was used as a library and filled with manuscripts and paintings. It was sealed and hidden in about AD 1000 and its discovery in 1900 revealed an unrivalled source for knowledge of the official and religious life in this ancient Silk Road town." [Source: International Dunhuang Project: Silk Road Exhibition idp.bl.uk]

Tourist Office: Dunhuang Tourism Bureau, 13 East Yangguang Rd, 736200 Dunhuang, Gansu, China, Tel. (0)-94-732-2236, fax: (0)-94-732-2234 Websites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Hotel Website: Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Dunhuang is accessible by air and bus and lies on the main east-west train line between Beijing and Urumqi. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

Dunhuang and the Silk Road

Dunhuang was a stop on the Silk Road and was visited by Marco Polo (See Above). It is situated at strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route between China, Central Asia and Europe as well as the main road between India, Lhasa, Mongolia and Southern Siberia.It sits at the controlling entrance to the narrow Hexi Corridor, which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an (Xi'an) and Luoyang. The ruins of a huge Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) watchtower made of rammed earth seen today. Dunhuang is one illustration of the town’s economic — and military — importance.

The Silk Road started in Chang'an (Xian), about 1,700 kilometers from Duhuang and made its way to Europe via the Black Sea, Constantinople and the Mediterranean coast. In Dunhuang they could get fresh camels, food and guards for the journey around the dangerous Taklamakan Desert. Before departing Dunhuang some would pray to the Mogao Caves for a safe journey, if they came back alive they would thank the gods at the grottoes and perhaps donate money from some cave paintings. To cross the desert and frontiers they formed caravans for protection against brigands and bandits. The next stop on the way to Central Asia was, Kashi (Kashgar), over 2,000 kilometers to the west. At Kashi most would trade and return.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Whether taking the longer northern route or the more arduous southern passage, travelers converged on Dunhuang. Caravans came loaded with exotic goods redolent of distant lands. Their most important commodities, however, were ideas---artistic and religious. It's no wonder that the Mogao painters, illustrating the greatest of all Silk Road imports, infused their murals with an array of foreign elements, from pigments to metaphysics. Emerging from the wind-sculptured dunes some 12 miles southeast of Dunhuang is an arc of cliffs that drop more than a hundred feet to a riverbed lined with poplar trees. By the mid-seventh century, the mile-long rock face was honeycombed with hundreds of grottoes. It was here that pilgrims came to pray for safe passage across the dreaded Taklamakan Desert. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

Sights in Dunhuang

Crescent Moon Lake (five kilometers southwest of Dunhuang) is an oasis body of water, not doubt a sight for sore eyes for Silk Road travelers, nomads and merchant. There is a small resort here. Activities includes camel and 4x4 rides.

Mingsha Mountain and Crescent Spring marks the beginning of the vast sand dune area of Dunhuang, The mingsha mountains extend for 40 kilometers from east to west and 20 kilometers fron north to south. The dunes are famous for the echoing sound produced by wind blowing the sand. Crescent Springs is a moon-shaped pond sided by sand dunes. One can organize a camel ride through the dunes from here.

Singing Sand Mountain gets its name from the pleasant sound the wind makes when it blows over the sand. Composed of sandstone ridges and sand dunes trapped by the ridges, Singing Sand Mountain extends 25 miles east to west and 12 miles north to south.

"Singing Sand Dunes" sand storms are said to create almost melodic sounds as millions of minute particles of sand bounce and rub against one another. You're unlikely to hear them, as tours don't head for the dunes during sand storms! There are impressive views of the dines and the surrounding Taklamakan Desert. Hiking on the dunes takes a lot of effort. Adventure seekers can indulge in parasailing, tobogganing and sandboarding.

Yumenguan (75 kilometers west of Dunhuang) is near a Han dynasty-era Silk Road gatehouse and near some impressive yardangs ( a streamlined protuberance carved from bedrock or any consolidated or semiconsolidated material by the dual action of wind abrasion by dust and sand, and deflation which is the removal of loose material by wind turbulence..

Dunhuang Yardangs

Dunhuang Yardangs (180 kilometers southwest of Dunhuang) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Yardangs are snake-like rock ridges created by scouring sand-laden winds. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The nomination property presents the most majestic Yardang landscape in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone, including ridge-shaped Yardang landforms like a large fleet of ships in a vast sea, castle-shaped Yardang landforms of various shape combinations and isolated hill relic Yardang landforms with strange shapes and excellent aesthetic values, that contribute to the spectacular beauty of the desolate Gobi desert. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO, Coordinates:N40 23-40 34 E92 55-93 13]

“The Yardangs in Dunhuang Yardang Geo-park with 251 square kilometers in area, are chartered with concentrated distribution and complex formation. They are composed by fluvio lacustrine silty clay with thin silt interlayer of middle-late pleistocene and alternately sculpted by wind and flood in a long time. Meanwhile, the Yardangs here has the best ornamental value than any other places, where all the respective Yardangs, including the ridge-shaped ones in adolescent period, the castle-shaped ones in adult stage, and isolated hill relics ones in late mature and old period can be visited. There are continuously distributed Yardangs that like grand fleets navigating over the ocean, and delicately sculptured Yardangs in peculiar shapes like sphinx, peacock and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was in this place that the term “Yardang” was nominated by Sven Hedin.”

“The nominated property possesses the most majestic Yardang landscape cluster in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone of the world. The ridge-shaped Yardangs are magnificent. Hundreds of ridge-shaped Yardang, each could be several kilometers long, stretch over several tens of kilometers, giving the impression of a large fleet group in a vast sea. The representation landscape “fleets” demonstrates the magnificent beauty of Gobi deserts.

“The castle-shaped Yardangs have various shapes and colors. Strata where sandstone and mudstone distribute in a staggered pattern form castles of various shapes, such as cubic hills, round hills, and temples shape, by the action of water and wind erosion. They are well-proportioned with ups and downs, preferably showing the desolation beauty of Gobi deserts. Isolated hill relics Yardangs have peculiar shapes. The most typical ones are towers, columns, beacon tower shapes and mushroom shapes, and animal shapes such as eagle, horse, monkey and turtle, as well as human-like figures such as warriors, old men, children and spirits. The representative Yardangs are "Sphinx", "Peacock" and "the Leaning Tower of Pisa", demonstrating the unique beauty of Gobi deserts.

Yardangs

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The internationally recognized geomorphic term “Yardang” was originated from Uygur language which means small hill with steep escarpments, and proposed by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin as a formal technical expression when he was exploring the Lop Nor region of Northwest China in the early 20th century. It represents the ridge-like, castle-like, or hill-like erosional landform with considerable scale in extremely arid region, or some basins in arid region, where the non-completely consolidated sediments were sculptured by the wind and flood. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

China owns the largest distribution of Yardangs with about 20,000 square kilometers in total area. The most representative Yardangs on earth are particularly concentrated in basins in Xinjiang and west of Gansu Province, as well as in the Qaidam Basin in Qinhai Province. These basins are located in the hinterland of the Eurasian continent under an extremely arid temperate continental climate.

The Basin at the middle and lower reaches of the Shule River and Lop Nor locates in the extremely arid triangle region of the Euroasian continent, one of the most arid regions in the world. The annual precipitation is lower than 50 millimeters. Climate here is with abundant wind and frequent sand/dust storm. The lithology of Yardang stratum are mudstone with fluvio lacustrine facies, siltstone, evaporate of neogene, middle-late pleistocene and the holocene with light brown, gray, white, khaki, and grey-green intercalary strata in some area. It includes Bulongji Yardang and Qiaowan Yardang in Guazhou County, Beihu Yardang and Dunhuang Yardang Geo-park in Dunhuang City, Loulan Yardang, Longcheng Yardang and Bailongdui Yardang in north and northeast Lop Nur basin.

Yardang National Geopark

Yardang National Geopark (180 kilometers southwest of Dunhuang) is one of the best and most accessible places to see yardangs. Anna Sherman wrote in the New York Times: ““DO YOU BELIEVE the voices are real?” My Chinese guide and I were standing in the Yardang National Geopark, on the border between Gansu Province and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s extreme northwest. Enormous yardangs — curving sandstone and mudstone strata carved by winds — towered over us. Others floated on the far horizon. “You mean the singing sands?” I asked. On my map, an asterisk marked this strange feature of the Kumtag Desert, three miles from Dunhuang. If you throw yourself down the dunes in that place, the air resonates — sometimes like the lowest note on a cello; sometimes like a crack of thunder. “Not the singing sands,” the guide said. “I mean voices. Like ghosts. Do people in the West think they exist?” [Source: Anna Sherman, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

“The Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzang wrote in his A.D. 646 book “The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions” that in this desert region, travelers often heard singing and shouting, shrieking and crying. Disoriented, they would wander, get lost and die of thirst. More than 650 years later, the 13th-century Italian merchant Marco Polo described the same phenomenon; sometimes the voices would even call a traveler by name. “If you’re thirsty enough, and exhausted, and afraid, I guess you might hear things,” my guide murmured. He was looking away from me, into the maze of eroded landforms. We were tiny as pixels on an Imax screen.

“The Kumtag is a little desert (9,000 square miles) between the Taklamakan Desert (130,000 square miles) and the great Gobi (500,000 square miles), which covers much of northern China and southern Mongolia. The Chinese have named the giant yardangs here: the Sphinx, the Golden Lion Greeting Guests, the Western Sea Fleet. But the Uighurs, the minority ethnic group who populate this region, know the geopark simply as the Old City, because its sandstone promontories resemble the ruins common throughout China’s western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang: ancient walls, beacon towers and gateways created not by wind but by conscripted soldiers. “The desert rolled away in every direction, gunmetal grains mixed with golden ones. The day was almost windless. Around the sands and huge yardangs, the air was silent.”

Morphology, Camels and Geology of the Dunhuang Yardangs

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Dunhuang Yardangs “has various types of Yardangs that representing all the developing processes from the surface weathering, embryonic states, and mature states to disappearance. Furthermore, the nominated property is an outstanding example of wind-erosion, and complex wind and water erosion geomorphic processes in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone, reflecting the central Eurasia drying processes. It also contains important information for studying of the Tibetan Plateau uplift and central Eurasia drying processes.. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO]

“The nominated property has Yardangs with the most concentrated distribution, the largest scale and types, and the best preservation in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone in terms of geomorphic morphology Various types of Yardangs can be found in the nominated property, such as the Mesa, Sawback, etc. at an early development stage, as well as ridge-like shapes, whale back shapes and castle shapes, etc. at the peak stage, and isolated hill relics, pagoda forest shapes, cone-like shapes, etc. at the late stage, including the complete geomorphic types of Yardangs in the whole development process. Furthermore, the nominated property includes the three most representative shapes: ridges, castles, and isolated hill relics. All the landform features and diversities are unique in the world. Dunhuang Yardangs developed typical and magnificent geomorphic types acted mainly from wind erosion in the quaternary strata of lacustrine facies, and it is also the typical area with the most concentrated, the largest scaled and the best preserved Yardang landform.

The nominated property is an outstanding example of the environmental changes as well as the geologic and geomorphic processes in the arid and extremely arid desert regions in the temperate zone

“In the nominated property, the major external forces are weathering, wind erosion, flood, gravity collapse, etc. In particular, weathering and flood are active in the early stages, wind erosion is active in the middle stage and gravity collapse occurs in the late stage. The nominated property also presents the complete developing process of Yardang formation from surface weathering in the initial phase, the Yardang rudiment at the early stage, the massive landforms at maturity to disappearance at the end. The property presents the geologic processes of various geographical units, in different stratigraphic sequences, different development periods, and different types under various exogenic forces. It is an outstanding example of the on-going geologic and geomorphic process of Yardang’s generation and destruction, and is the ideal type of Yardang in the world from which the name of the landform was taken. Furthermore, Yardangs are mainly composed of fluvio lacustrine sandstone and mud stone formed in the Quaternary. The stratigraphic sequences constituting Yardang landforms recorded the ancient natural geological section under climate change, and contain important information for studying the Tibetan Plateau uplift and central Eurasia drying processes.

“The nominated property is an important habitat for world endangered wild bactrian camel (Camelus ferus Przewalski). Wild bactrian camel (Camelus ferus Przewalski) is more endangered than wild giant panda on the earth. Its world population is only about 730-880, 420-470 in China. The artiodactyla wild animals only live at Annanba in Aksai County north of Altun Mountains, Xihu in Dunhuang of Gansu province, Lop nur in Xinjiang province, and Inner Mongolia. The nominated property is an important hideout of wild bactrian camels, and the World Conservation Union has treated them as endangered species listed in the red book, and the convention on international trade has listed them as one of the first-class endangered species of the world. Wild bactrian camels have many special physiological functions that no other animals have. They are hungry, thirsty, heat-cold and aeolian sand resisting, and they are the only rare animals in the world which can drink salt water and eat salt plant for survival. They are intensively-distributed in this nominated property, and criss-cross Yardang landforms can provide hiding places for them.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020


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