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!

Panjin’s Red Sea

Probably the only famous part of Panjin (aside from the Panjin Crab dish, apparently) is the red seaweed that grows in late summer and fall. The seaweed in the wetland reserve begins to grow in April but turns red in the fall.

Despite what you might think, it’s totally natural and happens every year. It also covers a huge area so you can take your time as you visit. You can also check out the slightly-horrifying figurines that look like monsters turned into straw. (Let’s hope they don’t come back to life…)

To be perfectly honest, while the sights are unusual and picturesque (on sunny days) I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip just for the seaweed. Transportation out of Panjin isn’t as reliable as you’d think, and it’s not guaranteed to have the big swathes of red you might hope to see.

That being said, if you’re in the area, it makes for a pretty cool sight. It certainly put me in an autumnal mood to see fiery colors, straw monsters and all.

Fengdu Ghost Town/丰都鬼城


I probably wasn’t supposed to enjoy this as much as I did, and most Chinese tourists riding the Yangtze River told me that it was “fantasy history” and therefore useless, but enjoy it I most certainly did. Imagine, if you will, a combination of one of those state fair haunted houses from the 90’s, Willy Wonka’s factory, and the underworld. This is Fengdu Ghost Town in a nutshell.

Enter, if you dare!

The main area has lifesize depictions of Hell, complete with the giant entrance gate, the Home-Viewing Pavilion (where newly-deceased could have one last look at their mortal life), the Bridge of Helplessness, sometimes “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” (no, not the Simon and Garfunkel song — a bridge spanning a river of blood with demons writhing within), halls of judges, gnarled statues of demons gnashing their teeth, and more. I personally enjoyed the rows of ghost-statues, which included the “Lust Ghost,” the “Drunkard Ghost,” demons eating hands, with eyes all over them, and plenty of other things to give you nightmares. You can follow a tour guide as he/she walks you through Hell and the three tests for making it through: passing that bridge, going through King of Hell Lord Yama’s torture chamber, and then (perplexingly) a stone on which to stand for three minutes — though this will be all in Chinese.

Most visitors stick with this, but I kept exploring, discovering a side corridor by the Hall of Judges, in which some inspired artists had made statues depicting the various torture methods in surprising detail.

Further afield, is an addition made in the 90’s, which is where the haunted house impression comes from. Whereas the main area took you through what felt more like a historic reenactment, this one turns Hell into an amusement park, complete with a small roller coaster, Day-Glo paint along the walls, rickety dolls falling apart, and a reincarnation funhouse.

As I said, most Chinese tourists I met scoffed at this place, but if I’m being honest, it was probably one of my highlights from my trip to Chongqing. Where else can you find something so bizarre?