Lakes in the Desert/沙漠里的湖

(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.






哦,还有一个小点:吉普赛车很好玩,但是要胆子大点才能坐。如果你很想把《阿拉丁》与《Mario Kart》结合起来,那你就过来玩吧!

Hannah’s Top 5 Chinese Provinces/中国排名的前五省


When you’ve been to as many provinces as me, it’s hard to list Top 5 or Top 10 Places, since there are just too many to choose from. Do you list cities? Attractions? Local food specialties?

For me, it’s none of the above. I’m going to share with you my Top 5 Favorite Provinces.

5.  Xinjiang
Because Xinjiang is just so different from other places I’ve seen in China, it’s automatically special. The language is different (and not everyone even speaks Mandarin!), and there’s a huge range of natural scenery. You’ve got mountains, a huge desert, ancient rock fortresses, and even lavender fields way up north. What did it for me, though, was Kashgar. I could hear the call to prayer every day from the rooftop of my hostel, and got to spend afternoons strolling through the International Bazaar. Though not easy to get to, definitely a personal favorite.

4.  Sichuan
Sichuan should be on everyone’s Top 5 list. Like Xinjiang, it also has a huge range of scenery. It’s home to many Tibetan nomads, and mountainous, western Sichuan is actually a great place to go if you want to experience Tibetan culture, but can’t get to Tibet Autonomous Region. The capital Chengdu is one of my favorite cities (and this comes from someone who generally doesn’t like big cities). You can see baby pandas here, and as any Chinese person will tell you: eat lots and lots of delicious snacks (if you don’t mind your lips going numb from the spices).

3.  Gansu
This might seem like an odd choice for some. But, with its important place along the Silk Road, and bizarre scenery, it has a special place in my heart. In Gansu, you can find rainbow-colored mountains. You can go mountain trekking. You can see (and hopefully interact with) Tibetan nomadic culture. You can go to the end of the Great Wall and look out into what ancient Chinese believed was the beginning of nowhere. Then, once you venture into Nowhere, you can go to the Dunhuang grottoes and play around in sand dunes like it’s a normal thing.

2.  Yunnan
Many would consider this a top choice, and I can’t blame them. Yunnan is like Pandora’s Box: once you’ve opened its doors, there’s no closing them: You rarely go there just once. Whether it’s the chill, artsy town of Dali, the staggering heights of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, rippled rice terrace fields, the stone forest outside of Kunming, or even the tropical Xishuangbanna, you’ll defintely fall in love with something. I guess the only reason this isn’t in my #1 spot is just because transportation can be iffy at times just because of the mountains, and some spots can get quite touristy during peak seasons. But, it’s still the rare kind of place where just about anywhere you go, it’ll be almost postcard beautiful.

1.  Inner Mongolia
Are you sensing a theme? Indeed, I love big swathes of nature, and Inner Mongolia is exactly that. Inner Mongolia still maintains a sense of wildness, while also being fairly accessible for travelers. (I say “fairly” because it’s friggin’ huge, almost spanning half the width of China). Not only that, but it’s not yet being overrun by tourists outside of public holidays. If you go out east by the Russian border, you’ll be met with sprawling grasslands. In the west, the Gobi Desert (and the Badain Jaran Desert, where there are LAKES IN THE DESERT!) I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased, since I did my epic hitchhiking trip and desert jeep-riding here. I’ve also been told that Inner Mongolia’s climate is most similar to my home-state, Minnesota. All the same, of all places I’ve been in China, Inner Mongolia has left me with the deepest impression.

That’s all for now! What about you? What are your favorite places? Let me know in the comments below. And if you have questions/want travel advice, don’t hesitate to ask!