Not all the seas are made by water. There are some seas, made of sand. A lot of sand, containing trillions of grains. Endless yellowish landscape, with no trace of human presence, like on an alien planet. And a strong burning sun in a cloudless sky. This is the world of the large deserts. And one of them is Taklamakan Desert, the largest desert of dunes in Asia. Let’s make a journey to this challenging place, and to be prepared for tips on how to visit Taklamakan Desert and get the best experience of it.
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (新疆维吾尔族自治区), the largest province of China, is famous for many things- history, culture, nature, people. And some of the most significant natural features are the deserts. Every trip in Xinjiang would not be full if you don’t visit a desert there.
There are several well-developed tourist sites of deserts. Two of them are particularly famous- Kumtagh Desert (库木塔格沙漠) and Dawakum Desert (达瓦昆沙漠). You go there, pay an entrance fee and enjoy every desert-related attraction that is established there. High beautiful dunes, camels riding, ATV, jeeps, sand sliding, and beautiful photos of a classic desert landscape. But something is missing…
Both of these two deserts are very small. You can climb on the top of the high dunes and you can see the end of the desert and the green fields behind it. You can even see the neighboring cities and villages. It is too tourist-developed. Too safe.
I was looking for a real desert, large desert. A desert where you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere, like an open sea of sands, where nature is severe, serious and unforgiving. And that was Taklamakan.
Some basic facts about Taklamakan Desert
Taklamakan (塔克拉玛干沙漠) is the second largest shifting sand on the Earth. Its name means “the place of no return”, “the place where you go in, but never go out”, or “the abandoned place”. Obviously, this name speaks enough about the nature of this desert.
The giant “yellow eye”
Seen from space, it looks like a giant “yellow eye” in the middle of Asia. It is surrounded by some of the highest mountains on the Earth- Tianshan on the north, Pamir on the west and Kunlunshan on the south. On the east, it is connected by Gobi desert by dry, barren land. The only hospitable piece of land are two narrow oasis chains at its northern and southern edge, where ancient civilizations have flourished, and some of the main Silk Road routes have passed.
Its interior is so dry and hostile that no human life has been ever developed there. In fact, there are large areas inside the desert where no human have ever set foot in. The “yellow eye” is about 1000 km long and 400 km wide, and it is situated on the bottom of a large depression, called Tarim Basin.
There is a river crossing the dessert on its northern side- Tarim River (塔里木河). It is formed by several other rivers, coming from the neighboring mountain ranges Tianshan, Pamir and Kunlunshan. This river is flowing eastward to the dried Lop Nur Lake, which is now a dead wilderness. Now Tarim even can’t reach it, but gradually disappears into small lakes and marches (of which the most distant point is Taitema Lake). No connection to the ocean. No escape. Locked in a desolated depression forever.
Just like in a real sea of water, normally the waves near the coasts are smaller. But deep in the open sea, they are higher. It is the same in the Taklamakan sea of sand. The dunes near the edges of the desert are small, not so significant and attractive. But if you reach the middle interior, you can see complex dunes rising more than 200 m.
As you can guess, the conditions in Taklamakan Desert are extremely inhospitable, harsh and hostile. The desert is not the hottest one since it is located quite north and in relatively high altitude. But still in summer, it can reach 40 C. In winter it can be very cold, with the temperature dropping under -20 C. Sometimes thin snow can cover the sands, and that’s all the precipitation that it receives throughout the year. In summer, your main enemy is the thirst, sunstroke danger, combined with the difficult walking on the sands. In winter it can be the freezing cold (which is better, so winter is a better season to “attack” the desert).
But that’s not all. The weather in the desert can be windy. When the wind appears, even not too strong, it raises a thick fog of sand and dust. It can be so thick that it can darken the sun, and it can be difficult to breathe since the dust penetrates everywhere. It is especially dangerous in spring, and sometimes in summer, where strong winds called “Karaburan” (“Black Hurricane”) blow from the north. In such cases, the desert is “everywhere”, not only under your feet but also around and above you.
If you are not too far from shelters of the civilization and go walking in the desert just nearby, that’s ok. But if you are deep inside the sea of sand, exposed to these conditions for days, it can be lethal. Don’t think that climbing Everest is very difficult. Yes, it is, but crossing Taklamakan is more difficult than it!
How to visit Taklamakan Desert
I have heard all these facts about Taklamakan desert from my geography lessons in the school. And now I wanted to “touch” them in real. So, when we planned our Xinjiang itinerary, Taklamakan was a mandatory part of it.
However, it seemed difficult to arrange a trip to Taklamakan. How to visit this desert? Kumtagh and Dawakum are tourist destinations, with certain coordinates, entrance, and every other tourist facilities. But Taklamakan is different. It is too large to be a particular destination.
I searched on Wikitravel or other websites, but couldn’t find any tips on how to visit or travel in Taklamakan. So I had to arrange it myself, somehow. I looked at the road and satellite maps to identify roads approaching the desert or penetrating inside of it. So, here is what I found.
Edge points of Taklamakan
This is the first and the easiest way to visit Taklamakan Desert. There are some roads and specific spots, on the boundary between the oasis chains and the sands, which can be visited, and eventually to penetrate the desert, not too far but enough to “feel and touch” it. Let’s see where are these entry points.
From Kashgar (Kashi, 喀什), Yarkent (Shache, 莎车), and Kargilik (Yecheng, 叶城)
Kashgar, Yarkent, and Kargilik are located in a large oasis land, in the western edge of the Tarim Basin. The two oasis chains from both north and south sides of Taklamakan join there. So actually, Kashgar is not so close to the sands of the desert. The nearest sand area is Dawakum Desert, which as I mentioned, is a tourist attraction. They “lie” the tourists that Dawakum is a part of Taklamakan, but everybody who sees the satellite image in Google Earth can notice that Dawakum is separated from Taklamakan, and is actually a “sand lake” inside the oasis land.
So, if you want to touch the real Taklamakan from Kashgar, you have to go farther east. There is a green agricultural area which borders the sands of the desert, and there are two places where the roads from the oasis lands reach the sands. These places are Karsu (卡拉苏) and Makit N39 (Maigaiti, 麦盖提N39).
We traveled by car around 2 hours and a half from Kashgar, trying to reach Karsu. It is located in Kargilik (Yecheng) county and I saw how the road finishes in front of a building standing exactly at the beginning of the sands. As I researched, this place is turned into a local tourist spot, with camels, ATV and sand slide opportunities.
But we were not allowed to go there. In the last police checking point, they told us that normally this area is opened for foreigners, but just at those few days, there was a special event in Kargilik, so foreigners were restricted to enter this area. They told us to come a few days later, or just to go to another place- Makit N39.
Makit N39 (麦盖提N39）
It is an entry point to the sands of Taklamakan Desert, located north of Karsu. And it is related to a historical event. The number “N39” means “north latitude 39 degrees” because this latitude passes through this point. But there is another reason which makes this place special. In 1895 the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin tried to cross Taklamakan from this point (or at least it is supposed to be from here). His efforts were unsuccessful and some people and camels of his caravan died by thirst.
Now this place is marked by a huge N-shape arch and turned into another tourist attraction- again with camels and desert jeeps. We reached it successfully by our car- the road to there is paved, in good condition. There is no entrance fee (at least for now), but if you don’t pay for camels or jeep ride, you just don’t have anything to do there.
A jeep ride is 10 mins and costs 150 CNY per person. But we decided to not waste our time waiting on a queue for a jeep. Instead, we found another spot nearby (some 400 m back from the N-shape arch), where the sands begin only 15 m from the road. We stopped there and enjoyed walking on the dunes until sunset.
Two more spots northeast of Makit
There are two more spots in the northeast direction of Makit, which can be seen on the satellite images. Small roads (probably just dirt roads) leading to them, and one of the dirt roads penetrate much further inside the desert. It is unclear whether this road is opened, passable by jeep (obviously not passable by small car) as well as it is unclear where does it finish. You can just try it.
From Aksu (阿克苏)
Following this northeastern direction, there is no access by road to Taklamakan Desert further between Makit and Aksu. And the next “gate” to the sands of the desert is Alar- a small town south of Aksu.
Alar is a starting point for one of the two desert roads, connecting Aksu and Kuqa with Hotan. So, if you want to “touch” the edge of the desert from Aksu, this is a proper point. And since it is a desert road, you can cross the desert- read about that further.
From Kuqa (Kuche, 库车)
Again, there are not too many places where you can access the desert from Kuqa. I can see only one spot, near a village called Kumbostan (库木博斯坦). But again, it is unclear whether foreigners can be allowed to reach it. These places are remote and desolate, which makes them proper for establishing forbidden areas.
From Luntai (轮台)
Then, there is the eastern Desert Road, leading from Luntai to Niya and Qiemo. Although there can be seen another spot nearby (located south of Tarim River, then west from the Desert Road), if you want to touch the desert in this area, it is better to follow the main Desert Road.
From Korla (库尔勒)
There is an unclear spot near a village, called Karquga (喀尔曲尕), located southwest of Korla, on the southern bank of Tarim River. A dirt road leads to this place, from where you have to walk around 500 to 1000 m to reach more open “sand sea”.
Luoburen Site (罗布人)
Directly south of Korla, there is a tourist site called “Luoburen”. It is an ancient village, where you can see some artifacts and some remains. It is turned into a tourist attraction since the place features dunes, poplar trees, ponds, and Tarim River canals.
Initially, we wanted to go there, joining a travel company. But they told us that the site is located in a military area, which is forbidden for foreigners and highly limited even for Chinese. The girl in the reception of our Kashgar hostel told us that she and her friends have been there, and were told to not take any photos. Now we can see photos of this place, posted on the internet, so obviously, tourists can take photos, but it remains unclear whether foreigners are allowed to visit it.
Korla is located on the northeastern edge of Taklamakan Desert and there is a road, connecting it with Ruoqiang. This could be a third “Desert Road”, but it doesn’t completely cross the sands of the desert. The sands remain only on its western side. East of the road, there is the dry wilderness of Lop Nur, but without sand and dunes. The road passes by small lakes and ponds where Tarim River gradually disappears. There eventually you can find a place where you can stop and reach the sands, but you have to walk at least 1-2 km or even more. No spots or side along this road.
Now let’s take a look at the southern edge of Taklamakan.
From Kargilik (Yecheng, 叶城)
You can find some possible access point to Taklamakan Desert east of Kargilik, on the southern Xinjiang road G315.
Turdi Aji Agricultural Garden (吐尔地阿吉庄园)
There is a place, somewhere in the middle of the road between Kargilik and Hotan, where you can find access to the desert sand. It is Boshan, a small city with neighboring villages, built north to the edge of the desert. And there is a place, called Turdi Aji Agricultural Garden (吐尔地阿吉庄园). This place also has some history, and you can even see some old wooden houses, traditionally decorated.
From there, the sands of the desert are only less than a kilometer away. There are also some dirt roads in the area, which lead even further into the dunes. But again, it is unclear how accessible are these points, especially for foreigners.
From Hotan (和田)
Hotan is located in the oasis area, which can be crossed in a few places for access to the sands of Taklamakan.
Moyu (Karakax, 墨玉)
There is a small town, called Moyu (Karakax), northwest of Hotan. Its far agricultural suburbs in the north-northwest are gradually approaching the dunes of the desert. Depending on the car that you use, it is probably possible to reach the sands.
Munadun is a village, located northeast of Hotan. There is a small road, leading to an agricultural zone inside the sands nearby, as well as to the pure desert itself.
Further east on the road G315 is Cele Town, built in another oasis. North of it, some small roads lead to the end of the agricultural area and allow access to the sands.
Yutian is another small town on the road G315, at the banks of Keriya River (an “unsuccessful” river, which disappears into the sands of the desert without reaching the Tarim River system). And there is a village area north of the town, in the oasis land along the river. Some small roads lead to its eastern side, where the sands of the desert are very close. And there you can see some higher dunes, compared to the other Taklamakan edge points.
From Niya (Minfeng, 民丰) and Qarqan (Qiemo, 且末)
In this area, the road G315 crosses through drier lands, with smaller oases. So you can see many sections of the road, crossing very close to the sands of the desert. You can stop just on the road and walk to the dunes no more than 1-2 km.
A proper point on the road G315 can be found just 18 km south-southwest of Niya. Another proper point is located northeast of the town, after the junction with the Desert Road to Luntai.
Serik Buyang (色日克布央)
Serik Buyang is a village, northeast of Qiemo (Qarqan). This village is located in a place where the oasis meets an area of the desert with relatively higher dunes.
Finally, before the road reaches Ruoqiang (若羌), it passes in some places very close to the dunes, even through the sands, although in this area the dunes are smaller.
You can find an opportunity to touch the Taklamakan Desert in all these points. But again- for most of the points it is unclear whether they are opened, or in a forbidden zone. However, a better way for desert experience is the Desert Roads.
Two roads are crossing Taklamakan Desert. The first one connects Aksu and Kuqa on the north with Hotan on the south (this is Road G217). And the second one (which we personally chose to try) is the road starting from a small city called Luntai, between Kuqa and Korla (Road S165). In the middle of the desert, this road divides into two roads- one to Niya and one to Qiemo (S233). Traveling on these roads can give you better opportunities to explore the desert since they cross through its deep interior.
The western Desert Road- from Aksu and Kuqa to Hotan
This road is a desert extension of the “heavenly” Du Ku Highway (crossing Tianshan Mountains)- both united under the sign G217. It starts from Kuqa, crossing the north oasis lands, and at Alar joins another smaller road, making a connection with Aksu. Then it proceeds southward through the desert, reaching Hotan.
There is a drying river, flowing along the road- Hotan River, which joins several other rivers at the north edge of the desert, forming Tarim River. So there is a tiny oasis strip along the river, and the road runs on this strip. You can stop everywhere on the road and enjoy the nearby sands, but since the road is located on the eastern side of the river, you can go only eastward (some 100-200 m from the road) to reach the dunes.
The eastern Desert Road- from Luntai to Niya and Qiemo
The eastern Desert Road is more attractive. It starts from Luntai, crosses the oasis land south of the city, then a nice desert poplar woodland just north of Tarim River, now turned into a tourist attraction (but you don’t necessarily need to enter the tourist site to enjoy this woodland, you can just penetrate between the poplars further outside, there is nothing different). Then the road crosses Tarim River and quickly enters the sea of sand.
There is no oasis area along the road. It is built completely in the desert. There are 20-30 m bush strips, planted on both sides of the road, and worker’s houses at every few km (you can see the houses in the satellite image- they are with red roofs, established like stations). You can stop at some of the houses, cross the bush around the road and dive in the endless dunes outside. That’s what we did and it was actually our best Taklamakan experience.
This road reaches a place, called Tazhong (塔中), which literally means “in the middle of Ta (Taklamakan)”. It is not a natural oasis, but artificially established settlement for workers and travelers, with restaurants, gas stations and even hotels (which however don’t accept foreigners, we asked them). From Tazhong the road divides into two roads, one reaching Niya and one reaching Qiemo.
Traveling on this road is the safest way to cross Taklamakan Desert through its interior. You can do it even by bike, sleeping in a tent beside some of the workers house-stations. And you can supply your water needs in these stations, as well as your food in Tazhong, in the middle.
The deadly interior
Now it is the most challenging part. All these spots I mentioned above are not far from human established points of supply, shelter, and safety. But if you want to experience Taklamakan Desert in-depth, you have to leave these spots and penetrate in the middle of the sea of sand. There is NOTHING there- only endless dunes and merciless sun, sometimes covered by dark dusty fog during a windy day.
If you try to penetrate deep in the interior of Taklamakan Desert, it is almost 100% suicide, even if you have gear- you simply can’t take enough water with you. So the only way to cross the desert is by joining an expedition- something that is much more than just “travel”.
Currently, there were only two successful expeditions, crossing the whole length of Taklamakan of nearly 1000 km. The first one was accomplished in 1993 by Charles Blackmore and Guo Jin Wei, and the second- a large project in 2019, by Rosie Stancer and her crew. Maybe there will be more in the future, but in any case, you have to think about the interior of Taklamakan as one of the most challenging places on Earth to travel, where no “tourism” is possible, but only well-organized expeditions.
More tips about visiting Taklamakan
So, this is the picture of Taklamakan Desert, one of the worst and most dangerous deserts on the Earth. It is not a “tourist area”. It is an unforgiving and challenging place, where you can go in, but never go out, as its name means, even now, in the 21st century. Nevertheless, it is still possible to visit, touch and feel it.
Taklamakan Desert is not in a border area, not in some region with special restrictions, and in general, the whole desert is opened for foreigners. When we visited it twice- in Makit N39 and on the Desert Road south of Luntai, we didn’t need any travel permits or other requirements. I drove a car (but I have a Chinese driving license, if you don’t have, you can’t drive by yourself!) and we were only stopped at the police checking points, where we just were normally registered, as everywhere in the travel free areas of Xinjiang.
But if you join an expedition for crossing Taklamakan (if there is such an expedition at all), then you might need special travel permits, as Rosie Stancer and her crew needed, probably because it is something different than just a short visit of the area.
There are also some forbidden areas, which are not showed on the map. One of these areas is located at Luoburen tourist site, south of Korla, as I mentioned above. Foreigners are not allowed there. Probably there are more forbidden areas, which I don’t know. The two Desert Roads are opened, but some of the points at the edge of the desert may be restricted. So you’d better ask the locals before you try to reach them (if you go alone). Read more about the travel regulations in Xinjiang here.
Don’t expect public transport in Taklamakan! No buses or trains go to the points at the edge of Taklamakan. Night buses are traveling on the Desert Roads, but it doesn’t allow you to experience, even to see the desert.
So, the only transport options to visit Taklamakan are by rental car with driver, or by bicycle. For the first option, you have to go to a rental car company in the city which would be your starting point or ask the hotel that you stay, for a car with a driver. Since the edges of the desert are not so close to these cities, a trip to there would take almost a whole day or at least 5-6 hours. So you can expect something between 500 and 1000 CNY for a car, depending on the place and duration of the trip.
And the other option is by bicycle. It could be more difficult, but still possible- you have to find a rent a bike shop. They are most likely to be found near the parks of the big cities around the desert. You can bargain with them to give you a bike. Normally, you can expect something like 30 CNY per day, with a deposit of at least 500, or even 1000 CNY, depending on the duration of your bike trip. Then you can ride on the Desert Roads and sleep in a tent along the roads (we saw such bikers on the Luntai-Niya Desert Road).
The only one more tip that I would share here is about safety. Safety from the nature of Taklamakan. First- no matter whether you visit Taklamakan at its edge points or from a desert road- don’t go too far! Second- water! Don’t go there without water, especially in summer, unless you don’t leave farther than 2 km from your shelter! Third- prepare yourself for sunburn (protect your skin) and for a sand storm! The desert, the dunes, the fine sand may look harmless, but if you don’t have any experience of such an environment, you don’t know when the danger will appear.
Taklamakan is dangerous, deadly, but incredibly beautiful! Yes, that’s our world- many beautiful things are dangerous, and this desert is not different. If you are well-prepared, according to the conditions of Taklamakan Desert, your route and your time there, you can have an amazing geographical and adventurous experience!
Watch a journey on a Desert Road in Taklamakan!
Check out some travel books about Taklamakan, Silk Road and Xinjiang!