(Hannah originally published a version of this article on Atlas Obscura here)
This is not a mirage, it’s an example of a spring-fed lake in the Badain Jaran Desert. Do you understand why it’s there? Neither have many others who have visited them over the years.
Nestled in-between “Megadunes” (aka some of the largest sand dunes in the world) near Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia, is probably one of the strangest sights you’ll find: almost 100 lakes plopped right in the middle of a desert! It’s one of nature’s greatest contradictions: sheep graze and birds swoop toward the salty water while it reflects the yellow-brown dunes all around.
Many researchers agree that the lake water probably came from concentrated groundwater beneath the sand. They say that this can form springs, which then become deeper lakes. Despite the groundwater, however, most of the lakes have a pretty high salinity level. Meaning: roughly 50% of the lakes in the Badain Jaran Desert are salt lakes.
Other researchers say it’s because of precipitation and snow melting in certain areas. You know what I say? We need more research! Luckily, this is being done to figure out where the water comes from, and why in some areas it’s disappearing.
Whatever the reason, you can still go and have a good time. To get there, go from Zhangye (张掖) in Gansu Province (on the Lanzhou-Xinjiang railway line), then get a bus to Alxa Youqi (阿拉善右旗). A driver can take you to the desert entrance, but to fully experience the desert, you’ll need a guide. A jeep for two days, one night is around 2,000 RMB, and can hold up to 4 people. Bargain liberally.
Oh, and small tip: the jeep is very much worth it. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you like the idea of mixing Aladdin with Mario Kart, then this is the place for you.