Badain Jaran Desert—Towers of Sand and Lakes

Date of Submission: 30/01/2019
Criteria: (vii)(viii)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
National Commission of the People's Republic of China for UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China
Coordinates: N39 35 24 - 40 16 12 E101 01 59 -102 53 48
Ref.: 6379

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

The sole responsibility for the content of each Tentative List lies with the State Party concerned. The publication of the Tentative Lists does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the World Heritage Committee or of the World Heritage Centre or of the Secretariat of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Badain Jaran Desert is located in the Alashan Plateau in the hyper-arid and temperate desert region of northwestern China. It is China’s second largest desert. The nominated property of Badain Jaran Desert—Towers of Sand and Lakes concentrates in the central desert area, including unique desert aeolian features of the most concentrated distribution area of mega-dunes and inter-dunal lake basins, constituting irreplaceable natural heritage values. The nominated property contains world’s tallest stationary sand dune Bilutu with an altitude of 1611 metres and a relative height of about 450 metres (Andrew Goudie et al, 2011), so called “Everest of Desert”. The nominated property has as many as 144 lake basins, covering a total area of more than 2300 ha, among which 74 are permanent lakes with water all year around, and 12 are clear fresh-water lakes fed by underground springs with high water quality. This is a unique collection of varied inter-dunal lake basins of great beauty and mystery.

The nominated property of Badain Jaran Desert—Towers of Sand and Lakes has an area of 872,830 ha, and its buffer zone has an area of 486,642 ha. The boundary delimitation is based on the outstanding universal values of the nominated property and its natural geographical attributes, including the concentrated distribution of mega-dunes with a relative height of more than 200 metres, and the inter-dunal lake basins. It also refers to the natural geographical boundaries of the dunes and the boundaries of the autonomous region-level nature reserves. The buffer zone is a peripheral area that has protective and buffering effects on the nominated property. It serves as a foil and assists in the exhibition of landscapes and outstanding universal values of the nominated property. The boundaries of buffer zone are also delimitated in consideration of the continuity, topography of natural components and human activities.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Unique features of the nominated property include a large area of densely distributed mega-dunes, the tallest stationary sand dunes in the world, and a unique collection of inter-dunal lake basins. Mega-dunes in the property form an undulating landscape, among which the tallest sand dune has a relative height up to 450 metres (Andrew Goudie et al, 2011). For a sandy desert and sand sea, Badain Jaran is surprisingly moist so that plant life is quite abundant, probably more species than any other desert in the world. Animal life is also quite rich though mostly nocturnal. The lakes are mostly saline and mysteriously coloured, providing a favourable habitat for thriving worms, molluscs, crustacea and some fish which support a moderately rich desert fauna of birds and other creatures, and all this together further add to the charm of the desert.

Due to its geographical location and geological background, the nominated property is deeply influenced by climate change and the continuing tectonic uplift of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Its desert forming process continues to the present time so that the site and its relics constitute an amazingly well documented study of ongoing climate change and desert forming processes. As one of the primary sources of wind-blown dust storms in Northern China, Badain Jaran has had a profound influence on the nature and fertility of the Loess Plateau, North China, Korean Peninsula, Japan and as far as Hawaii. The size and integrity of the site is important in understanding its ongoing evolution. The nominated property and buffer zone have embodied the diversity of the whole desert exhibiting the full range of different desert stages and types including aeolian eroded rocky hills, open stony gobi, transition zones, sandy barchands, sand dunes of many types (pyramids, barchanoid ridge dunes, mega-dunes, star dunes), oases, inter-dunal lake basins and continuing sand spread areas.

The nominated property is under good protection and management. It is already recognised as a national geopark and global geopark under UNESCO, and enjoys the protection status as autonomous region-level nature reserves in China. It is a wide wilderness with no towns, no paved roads, no agriculture and only a few families of Mongolian herdsmen with some camels, goats, donkeys and sheep herds. The distribution of these herdsmen is limited and their activities well controlled to not threaten the outstanding universal values of the property.

In conclusion, the nominated property has outstanding aesthetic values in terms of its landscape diversity, the dense distribution of mega-dunes, the uniqueness of its lakes, presence of groundwater and diverse vegetation, as well as the temperate climate of the northern desert. It is a three-dimensional desert full of life and distinctiveness. The property also exhibits the best examples of aeolian landforms and continuous geomorphological evolution, which are of great significance in scientific studies and designing desert combatting methodologies. In all, the nominated property is a desert with the most unique landscapes and features, little human disturbance, and the best representative desert in the Asian temperate arid regions, unlike any other desert to be found elsewhere on earth.

Criterion (vii): The nominated property is a spectacular and beautiful desert landscape. Its unique aesthetic features include diverse sand dune forms, unique mega-dunes with huge height differences, the world's tallest stationary sand dune, more than 100 inter-dunal lake basins, rich desert flora and fauna, and the continuous geomorphological evolution processes, which all together make the property an outstanding three-dimensional desert with highly aesthetic values, full of stunning and mysterious appearance and forms.

The nominated property contains the world's densest collection of mega-dunes including the Bilutu Peak - the world’s tallest stationary sand dune with a relative height up to 450 metres (Andrew Goudie et al, 2011). The combined landscape of mega-dunes and inter-dunal lake basins is unique. The property includes many types of dunes, such as barchans, barchanoid chains, pyramidal dunes, and also spectacular weathering features like tafonis, alveoles and varnishes. Here, we can observe the sensual curves, zen-like ripples, humming sound of the singing sands, and other various other outstanding features of aeolian landforms.

The nominated property is a living desert, and its natural beauty and wonder are added to by the charm of living plants and creatures. The pink flowering Tamarix, precious medicinal Cistanche, juicy Euphorbiaceae, and salt-tolerant Haloxylon can be seen widely whilst lizards and scorpions hide in their shelter. Tall Bactrian camels pace elegantly across the sand, waterbirds feed by the lake, crying raptors circle in the sky, while sand sea stands silent. When night falls, stars shine brightly, and a variety of shyer desert animals begin to be busy searching for food.

The sparse cultural relics - ancient forts (fortifications) and temples, more recent Mongolian yurts and gentle herds of sheep, elegant camels striding proud across the sands add further harmony and grace to the beautiful landscape and provide context and scale to judge the grandeur of the natural monuments.

Criterion (viii): The nominated property is a temperate desert, and compared with tropical deserts in the world, it has a relatively cool climate, but high evaporation results in its hyper aridity. Since the Quaternary period, the ancient water system of Ruoshui River has provided abundant sand materials for the development of sand dunes and desert. The development of sand dunes is mainly affected by two prevailing wind systems — the west wind and the northwest wind. Through a long time-span of geological processes and under the action of aridity, wind and transportation, the nominated property has developed a large area of desert, gobi and denudation landforms, demonstrating a variety of outstanding aeolian features and micro-features. Especially its development scale of mega-dunes is rarely seen all over the world. The densely developed lakes recorded the changes of the paleoenvironment in the area, which makes the property an important place to study the desert ecological environment and evolution. The nominated property has rich fauna and flora, and its vegetation has a positive corresponding relationship with sand dune morphology.

The nominated property records and reflects the regional tectonic evolution, climate change, geomorphological evolution and even hydrogeological changes. It is an ideal place for the study of the ongoing evolutionary processes of desert geomorphology in the temperate extreme arid desert region. Its geomorphological characteristics show that the nominated property belongs to a typical and evolving desert landscape. The property is an evolving desert with beautiful and diverse examples of aeolian desert landforms that exhibit a full sequence of development relative to different sand sources and times. From small crescent dunes to relatively complex crescent dune chains, and finally to tall, complex and stable sand mountains, showing so clearly the continuous historical process of desert formation and evolution. This is a globally representative area for studying desert development and aeolian landforms. In addition, the corresponding relationship between sand dunes and lake development is also one of the scientific research hotspots, and is of great significance for studying the formation, development and environmental evolution of the temperate desert in the hinterland of northwest China and even the Eurasia.

The nominated property can claim the best record of ongoing geological evolution, providing important evidence for the study of environmental changes in arid areas. The formation and evolution of Badain Jaran Desert are deeply influenced by global climate fluctuation and continuing tectonic uplift of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Compared with other major deserts in the world, it is younger, more dynamic and better documented. Through comprehensive studies of the records of desert evolution, the sand dune forms, dating of the sand dune strata, the bedding structure of the ancient dunes and the regional wind conditions, through the Palaeolithic petroglyphs, through the historical records and through the modern research, we can explore the wind direction changes of monsoon circulation and natural environment evolution of this arid area before and after the last glacial period. At present, the desertification process and the growth of sand dunes in the nominated property are continuing. It is an ideal place for studying the geological events of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and global climate change and is a natural laboratory for earth science research.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The nominated property covers the continuous distribution area of mega-dunes, as well as other types of sand dunes, inter-dunal lake basins, depressions, mountains, etc. The vast area is large enough to protect the complete elements that embody the outstanding universal values of the nominated property, and safeguard and maintain the continuing evolutionary processes of desert landscape formation and aeolian features. The nominated property and buffer zone are mainly delimitated in accordance with geographic units and distributions such as sand dunes and lakes, referring to existing protected area boundaries.

Most area of the nominated property is in an uninhabited natural desert state. With less than 1 person in per 10 square kilometres, the impacts of human activities are very limited, therefore, it maintains a high level of integrity. There are only a few Mongolian herders living a traditional grazing life, and coexisting harmoniously with natural eco-environment, and actively participating in protection under education and promotion by government and traditional cultures. The ecosystem of the nominated property is complete without any poaching activity.

The nominated property includes 2 autonomous region-level nature reserves. These will be upgraded so that the entire nominated property enjoys national nature reserve status. It is also protected as a UNESCO global geopark and a national geopark and protected by various national, autonomous region-level, and league-level laws and regulations. The nominated property has a well-established management authority and mechanism for the coordination between the community, social organizations, and research institutions, and there is good staffing and financial guarantee. Under the strict protection of the Regulations on Nature Reserve, Regulations of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on Environmental Protection and other national and local laws and regulations, it has maintained the natural and pristine desert landscapes and geomorphological features. Through effective management measures, the water level of the interdunal lakes in the nominated property is now quite stable, and satellite images show that the lake area has barely changed since 1960.

The State Party undertakes to continue to strictly protect the nominated property and buffer zone, ensuring the integrity of all the natural values and elements. Specific measures include:
  1. strengthen the monitoring and scientific research on natural values and elements such as sand dunes, lakes and vegetation, and implement adaptive management.
  2. establish and improve the monitoring system and database for the nominated property, and carry out targeted prevention and control measures.
  3. coordinate the indigenous people in the nominated property and buffer zone into the team for protection, co-management, monitoring and public education.
  4. strengthen community participation, conduct community training, and promote social and public attention and participation in heritage protection.
  5. balance the relationship between heritage protection and local social and economic sustainable development, develop sustainable eco-tourism, strictly control the scale and behavior of tourists to ensure that the impact of tourism on the natural heritage values is minimized.

Comparison with other similar properties

In World Desert Landscape Heritage (IUCN, 2011), professor Goudie and other experts has undertaken a comprehensive global review of potential deserts with suitability of inclusion in the World Heritage List. Their report recommends 9 sites which are considered, following considerable discussion and review of the available literature, to represent a selection of the most significant desert landscapes and geomorphological sites that are currently not included on the World Heritage List or on Tentative Lists by the State Parties. Badain Jaran is included as one of those 9 sites. “This interior desert of China is a National Geopark and has been the subject of intense study in recent years, including by Chinese, Japanese, German and United Kingdom scientists. In addition to being aesthetically very impressive, it contains the world’s tallest dunes (up to 450 m) in a great variety of forms, including star dunes. Within the dune, there are many intriguing inter-dunal lake basins. The area also possesses spectacular weathering features like tafonis and alveoles (Wu et al. 2006)”.

In line with the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, the nominated property for World Natural Heritage should be compared with the properties on the World Heritage List or not that meet the same criteria. According to the desert classification system in the World Heritage Desert Landscape (IUCN, 2011), the nominated property belongs to the sand sea and desert lake basin in the classification of shield desert. Following an exhaustive search on the UNESCO/IUCN data base, 12 comparable objects (see Table 1) for comparative analysis with the nominated property are determined among the properties that has been included in the World Heritage List, arid deserts included in the Tentative List of World Natural Heritage, and other large deserts in the Asian arid area.

Deserts in the World Heritage List:

  • Air and Tenere Natural Reserves (Niger)
  • El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve (Mexico)
  • Namib Sand Sea (Namibia)
  • Lut Desert (Iran)
  • Lakes of Ounianga (Chad)

Deserts in the Tentative List of World Heritage:

  • Great DesertLandscapes (Egypt)
  • Great Gobi Desert (Mongolia)
  • Taklimakan Desert (China)

Other deserts in Asian arid regions:

  • Rub Al Khal Desert (Arabian peninsula)
  • Karakum Desert (Turkmenistan)
  • Tengger Desert (China)
  • Gurbantunggut Desert (China)

Namib Sand Sea (Namibia)
The ancient coastal Namib Desert of southern Africa has an extended period of detailed desert research. The modern Sand Sea is underlain by a fossil desert of Tertiary age, represented by the lithified Tsondab Sandstone. In addition to this important example of desert evolutionary history, the Namib also exemplifies the impact of sea floor spreading since the Cretaceous, with the emplacement of many sub-volcanic complexes and the development of an upwarped marginal escarpment. It also contains the full range of dune types, excellent examples of the ways in which river courses can be blocked by dunes (as at Sossus Vlei), great spreads of calcretes and tufas, and many examples of granite weathering and inselberg and pediment formation (Lancaster 1989). This site is currently noted on the Tentative List in relation to both natural and cultural values.
  • Both are outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history including significant geomorphic or physiographic features
  • Sand dunes in Namibia are 150-200 metres tall, and dunes with a height of 300 - 400 metres are known from the Sossus Vlei area of the Namib Sand Sea. Differently, sand dunes exceeding 400 metres height as have been identified in the nominated property and appear to be the tallest dunes reported on Earth
  • Namib Sand Sea is a tropical desert with landscape of volcanoes and dunes, differently the nominated property has a combination landscape of mega-dunes and interdunal lakes with outstanding universal values
The Lut Desert (Iran)
This desert contains some of the largest and best developed yardangs found anywhere on Earth. These features, locally termed kaluts, form parallel ridges and depressions over an area of 120 x 50 km. Some of the ridges exceed 60 m in height, and run parallel, with superbly developed aeolian streamlining, parallel to the formative shamal winds. They are located near Bam (which is currently inscribed on the World Heritage List, and the List of World Heritage in Danger), and occur in association with some impressive barchan dunes (Gabriel 1938).
  • Both are outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history including significant geomorphic or physiographic features
  • The Lut Desert mainly exhibits Yardang landform and cannot develop mega-dunes. Differently, the tallest mega-dune of the nominated property is undoubtedly the tallest sand dune in Asia, one of the five tallest sand dunes in the world, and the tallest stationary sand dune in the world
  • The Lut Desert is a Yardang/hot desert/shield dessert, Differently, the nominated property is a temperate and mountain-and-basin desert has a combination landscape of mega-dunes and interdunal lakes
In addition to the above examples, the State Party also made the comparison with the rest of the 12 Objects, according to our comparisons, the nominated property exhibits the densest distribution area of mega-dunes in the world. Its majestic and undulating scenery of massive, towering sand dunes provides stunning visual effects of a three-dimensional desert. Vastness of scenery, bright light, clear and varied natural sand dune curves, mega-dune and lake landscapes, variety of aeolian landforms, rich desert biota, and landscape changes related to seasons, time and weather, etc. add to the highly aesthetic value. In terms of geological background, dynamics, provenance recharge system and exemplary desert landforms, the nominated property exhibits many typical mountain basin desert characteristics, and outstanding landform features and process characteristics of five different types of desert landscapes. It is a perfect place to conduct scientific research, to help better explain the history of the regional evolution of the earth and the formation of aeolian landforms.

The large-scale distribution of mega-dunes, the world's tallest stationary sand dune, and the unique mega-dune-lake combination landscapes in the nominated property of Badain Jaran Desert are not represented in the World Heritage List. And the complete, continuous, and evolving desert geomorphological features and process are also outstanding among the other deserts of the same type on the World Heritage List and Tentative List. Therefore, the nominated property can clearly claim to have outstanding universal aesthetic value and the historical values of earth evolution that are unmatched or quite different from sites in other regions. The nominated property is the best example to fill the gap of the arid and semi-arid desert landscapes in the World Heritage List.