By Yu Fei
The grandeur of Heaven; the suffering of Hell.
Every desert has two sides and for these reasons they are rarely visited by humans.
However, desert adventure trips are growing in popularity among thrill-seekers who want to explore the rolling sand dunes and marvel at the magnificent sunrises and sunsets that fill the vast expanse.
Walking through the “sea of death” brings home the fragility of life, the environment and our planet.
Deserts cover a total area of 1.3 million kilometers in China, or 13 percent of the country’s land area. Two of the most spectacular are the Kumtag and the Lop Nur.
The Kumtag Desert
China’s eighth largest desert, the Kumtag is east of the Lop Nur at the boundary of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Gansu Province in northwest China. Covering 22,800 square kilometers, it is bordered by Dunhuang in the east and the Tianshan Mountains in the north. Its southern rim is marked by a labyrinth of irregularly clustered hills.
Looking like a bird feather on satellite images, the Kumtag, from the Uygur for “sandy mountain”, boasts many unique wind-blown landscapes, such as the yardang landform, ventifacts, blowout pits, as well as crescent dunes, pyramidal dunes, honeycomb dunes and linear sand dunes.
It is also a habitat and migration channel of the wild Bactrian camel, the last remaining wild camel of any type and much rarer than the giant panda.
A route of the ancient Silk Road runs along the southern edge of the Kumtag Desert. It’s one of the most dangerous and mysterious sections of the Silk Road, attracting the more intrepid travelers to explore its mysteries.
Photos taken by the U.S. earth resources satellite in July 1972 showed an image in the shape of a “big ear” in the wilderness of northwest China. The ear, with vivid helix, earhole and earlobe drew world’s attention.
It was actually a dried-up salt lake, Lop Nur, located between the Taklamakan and Kumtag deserts in the southeast of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The region was once an oasis with cattle, sheep and horses grazing on grassland. According to historical documents, the lake once covered 20,000 square kilometers.
From the 2nd Century BC, the waters of the Tarim River and Lop Nur nurtured the kingdom of Loulan, an ancient civilization along the Silk Road, which skirted the lake-filled basin.
The kingdom suddenly died out in the 4th Century. Only the ruins in the desert survive today. Archaeologists are still trying to understand the cause of its demise. One explanation is that the environment changed as a result of deforestation. The rivers changed channels and the lake level receded.
The lake still covered 3,000 square kilometers in 1942, and 660 square kilometers in 1962. It completely dried up in the 1970s due to construction of dams on the Tarim River, which starved the lake system of water.
Many unexplained incidents have happened in Lop Nur.
In 1949, a plane took off from Chongqing for Urumqi, but disappeared somewhere close to Turpan. It was found in the east of Lop Nur in 1958 with all passengers dead. No explanation exists for why the aircraft diverted from its northwest course to the south.
In June 1980, Chinese scientist Peng Jiamu, leading a scientific expedition to Lop Nur, disappeared after leaving a note at the camp saying he was going to look for water. His body was never found.
Such mysteries are numerous.
In the 20th Century, the Lop Nur region became a focus of scientific exploration. Scholars from home and abroad have closely studied the abrupt changes in the basin’s environment.
Lop Nur has also been used as a nuclear testing ground, and since the discovery of potash in the mid-1990s, it has been the site of a large-scale mining operation.