The Earth is full of various physical geographic zones, every one of which offers unique and amazing views, landscapes and experience of exploring it in depth. One of these zones is the sand deserts in Central Asia, of which the largest one is Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, China. However, this kind of area is one of the harshest and most unforgiving places on our planet, and depending on how deep do you want to penetrate and explore it, you need good gear. Without it, your life is at high risk- this is the desert where “you go in, but never go out”, as its name means! Let’s get more info about Taklamakan Desert, and the gear you need for trekking there.
Taklamakan Desert conditions
Taklamakan Desert is a vast territory, around 1000 km long and 400 km wide. It is located in Xinjiang, China, on the bottom of the endorheic Tarim Basin, between Tianshan Mountains in the north, Pamir in the west, Kunlunshan Mountains in the south and Gobi Desert in the east. The desert is situated between the 36th and the 40th north latitude, which is north of Sahara and the other tropical deserts. And its altitude varies between 800 and 1250 m. Obviously, with such conditions, it is not the hottest desert on the Earth but remains one of the deadliest. Here is why.
This is the second large dune desert on our planet. It means that the more inside its interior you are, the longer the time you need to escape from it. If you are not far from its edges, or its two Desert Roads which cross it from north to south, you can find shelter. But if you are in its “middle of nowhere”, your situation is very serious, and you would need gear, food, and water in enough big quantity, so it could be enough until you go out.
And since this quantity should be more than a sole explorer could bear, only well-equipped expeditions with camels can cross through the farthest points of the desert. To this day, only two expeditions did it successfully.
This is the main problem of every desert on the Earth, and of course, Taklamakan is no exception. The desert is located in the rain shadow of the Great Tibetan Plateau and Tianshan, so very little precipitation can reach it. And it happens only in winter, usually as a little snowfall, which in the best case can form a thin snow cover on the sands. Concerning the water, winter is a little better season for exploring, but on the other hand, it can be freezing.
So, obviously, you would need a proper water reservoir, which can help you to bring enough water, and at the same time to be not too heavy to bear. The farther from a water source you are, the bigger the water quantity would you need.
Walking on sand is not like walking on a firm surface. You know what is to walk on a sandy beach on the sea coast. It is not difficult, but it’s slower than on a hard path. Yes, basically, the sand of Taklamakan is not different than beach sand. But unlike beaches, the surface of the desert is not plain. It is formed in dunes. Some dunes are smaller than 1 m, but the highest dunes reach more than 200 m in height. And walking on a steep sandy slope is much harder than walking on a beach.
This makes your speed quite low, and you need something proper for your feet to help you walk a little better, as possible. Something that can also prevent sand from entering your shoes.
It is another serious problem in Taklamakan Desert (and in every sand desert on the Earth). Don’t imagine a nice breeze on the sands, which can make you feel fresh in the heat of the day! When such a “nice breeze” appears, even if it is not so strong, it starts raising the sand in the air. And it quickly turns into a dark fog, covering the sun.
And it can be made only by a “nice breeze”. Can you imagine what would be if it is a raging hurricane? Yes, it also happens, mainly in spring and sometimes in summer. It is called “Karaburan”, which means “Black Hurricane”. These storms do not just make a sand fog, they literally move and reshape the dunes of the desert! When they appear, you can’t escape. But you would desperately need something to protect you from the fierce attack of the millions of sand grains.
As in every desert with a dry climate, Taklamakan has a very high-temperature difference. In summer it usually reaches and even surpasses 40 C, while in winter it can drop below -20 C. But even within one day the amplitude is large- it can be more than 20 degrees. Ok, that’s not the biggest problem, just you have to wear more clothes at night. The problem is the extremes- the heat in the midday in summer, and the freezing cold in the winter night.
So, all these conditions together make Taklamakan Desert a really challenging place to explore. But let’s see how a Taklamakan exploration would look like.
How far and how long
Yes, it depends on how far and how long you will be in the sea of sand. In general, there are two main options for visiting Taklamakan– a few certain points at the edge of the desert, and the area on both sides of the Desert Roads, crossing it from north to south.
A short walk
A short walk in the Taklamakan Desert means that you go to a certain point at its edges, or on a Desert Road, stop there and take a walk for about 1-2 hours. It is relatively safe. You don’t go farther than 2-3 km from your starting point, and you back again. In summer, all you need is at least one big bottle of mineral water, and a hat to protect you from sunstroke.
However, bear in mind that at summer noon the sand can be very hot. Yes, you can see a clip on Youtube where someone boils an egg on the sand! Don’t forget also a possibility of a sudden wind, which can make you in the middle of a sandstorm. So, it would be good to wear shoes that can protect you from the hot sand, as well as something to protect your mouth and nose from the sand if a sandstorm appears. And, in general, avoid walking in the hottest part of the day, if possible!
A longer desert trek
What if you want to try a longer desert journey? If you are alone, or even a few people together, you still can’t go too far. But you still can make a 2-days trek with spending a night on the dunes. The main problem is- in general, you would need roughly around 1 little water per hour. But the good thing is- in the evening and on a cool morning, you would not need too much. So, about 7-8 liters could be enough for such a trek. I would recommend first to try in an easier place, where you could feel better how much water does your body needs.
In other words, for a 2-days trek, you have to prepare for a heavy backpack, bringing at least 8 kg water, along with all other necessary things like a tent, food, clothes for the night, etc. Let’s see more about the gear that you have to prepare for such a trek.
In summer, Taklamakan Desert is hot. Very hot and dry. You would like to be as less covered by clothes as possible. But that’s not the best solution. You can see how the people living in the desert for thousands of years clothe themselves. They always try to cover their bodies by as many clothes as possible. At the same time they wear loose clothes. But again- they cover their legs and arms. It protects them not only from sunburn, but also it keeps the moisture of your body longer.
The best material for desert long pants is cotton. Cotton pants, loosely covered your legs are the best option, preferably in lighter colors. Let’s see some examples:
Long sleeve shirts
Again, the best long sleeve shirts are by cotton or Gore-Tex. They are thin and loosely cover your body, so you would not feel too hot. Here are some good shirts for the desert:
Wearing a hat in the desert is mandatory. Without it the risk of sunstroke is serious. And the best hats are the wide-brimmed ones because they not only protect your head but also your neck from sunburn. Or you can wear a cap with a neck cover, it would protect you well too. Let’s see some hats here:
Clothes for cold
Taklamakan Desert, like every other desert on the Earth, has a wide temperature amplitude. Even in summer, it can be quite cool, even cold. So, you have to take at least a jacket with you, which you will wear after sunset. Fleece pullover is also good, and it has good drying features. But if you want to hike Taklamakan Desert in winter, you just have to be prepared for cold winter conditions, especially for the freezing nights. Let’s see some jackets for the cold nights:
You will walk on soft sand, which can be very hot in summer. When you step on the sand, especially on a dune slope, your feet will sink into the sand. Walking is slow and easy tiring. And the sand will always “try” to enter inside your boots. Besides, walking on sand can cause blisters much more than walking on a hard surface.
So, you would need boots, supplied with a good sand-protecting feature, if possible, by a liner between the main boot body and the tongue of the boot. At the same time, the boots should not be too heavy, because it would be tiring. On the other hand, if the boots are too light, it is easier to fall apart. Let’s see some examples of good and proper boots for desert hiking:
See more about boots for sand desert trekking here!
Socks are important too. The best socks are made of wool. Although it may sound “too hot”, actually this material can well keep your feet dry. Take a look at some socks:
See more about desert footwear here.
Mouth and nose covers
These small accessories can be very important during a sand storm. When the wind blows, the fine sand grains “want” to enter everywhere, including your mouth and nose. When I experienced a moderate sand storm there and didn’t bring a mouth cover, I could soon feel “eating” sand between my teeth, which was not so pleasant feeling. Let’s take a look at some of these:
Water reservoir (bladder)
Talking about water, needless to say, that it is a very important accessory. It is much more convenient than bringing a lot of plastic bottles. Usually, for normal hike 3L bladder is enough, but for a desert trek, you would need more additional bottles to refill the bladder. As I mentioned above, you would need 1L water per hour in the middle of a hot summer day. And if you make a 2-3 days trekking, you can imagine how much water you have to bring with you.
So let’s take a look at some 3L bladders. They can be a little heavy (remember, 1L water = 1kg) and taking space in your backpack, but it can save your life in the desert.
Sun protecting accessories
The sun in the desert is strong. So you need to protect yourself seriously from sunburn. Besides the hat and the clothes covering your body, it would be good to bring something more, like sunscreen and sunglasses. Let’s see some examples of sunglasses:
Finally, if you go on a desert trek in Taklamakan, you will need a proper tent. If it is summer, early fall or late springtime, you just need a 3-seasons tent. Obviously, in the desert waterproof is not important, but good ventilation is necessary. In Taklamakan is unlikely to rain in the night, but it may be windy (which means- sand storm). So you need a good windproof tent, which can also give you a shelter against the flying sand. And if you go there in winter, you would need a 4-seasons tent, since it can be really freezing at night. Let’s see some examples:
So, this is, in general, the most important specific things that you have to prepare for 2-3 days trekking in Taklamakan Desert. But for something longer, like crossing the desert- read next.
Crossing Taklamakan Desert
Again, this is a place, where “you go in, but never go out”! If you want more than just 1-2 days, even 3-4 days desert trek (if possible, according to your experience), the only way is to join an expedition. And this is not something that you can find easy. It is not a tour, offered by a travel company. It is a special event, organized by brave adventurous explorers.
To this day, as I already mentioned above, there have been only two expeditions, successfully crossed Taklamakan Desert. The first one was made in 1993 by Charles Blackmore and Guo Jin Wei, and the second- in 2019, by Rosie Stancer and her crew. There are a few more expeditions, but they were not successful, or they just crossed only a part of the desert.
An expedition is not just trekking. It is more than that. It involves more people, it also involves camels. An expedition means bringing all that is necessary for several weeks of trekking, even more. Yes, not crossing Taklamakan is a bit easier than before, because the members of the expeditions can resupply what they need at the Desert Roads. But again, it remains a project of high difficulty, as some say, much more difficult than climbing Mount Everest, and in the same time, greatly rewarding. However, only a short touch to this unique desert can remain in you memories for the rest of your life.
Get some Taklamakan exploring inspiration:
Check out some travel books about Taklamakan, Silk Road and Xinjiang!
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