Facts on the Taklamakan Desert

Written by suzanne jordan
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The Taklamakan Desert is one of largest shifting sand deserts in the world. It is intensely dry and located farther from an ocean than any other desert. Hemmed between China's Kunlun and Tian Shan Mountains, this Chinese desert sprawls across an area of 100,000 square miles (270,000 square kilometres) and 85 per cent of the total area consists of mobile sand dunes. The Taklamakan Desert has no permanent population, and few travellers brave crossing it due to its inhospitable terrain. This infamous expanse is often referred to as the "desert of death" or the "place of no return."

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Sand Dunes

The Taklamakan Desert is distinguished by its constantly moving sand dunes. Its vast sea of gold sand is whipped into crescent-shaped sand dunes, some of which soar to 800 to 1,650 feet tall when winds reach hurricane force. Camels are the only animals able to tackle these monstrous dunes -- the way their feet splay outwards stops them from sinking into the sand. Scientists have yet to determine what causes the sand in some parts of the desert to sink.

Wildlife and Vegetation

The Taklamakan Desert supports small populations of animals like wild Bactrian camels, Asian wild asses, wolves, foxes, gazelles and wild boars. Camels, in particular, can tolerate the dryness of the desert area, and they are able to seal their slit-like nostrils closed, keeping out sand and dust.

The Taklamakan Desert is almost devoid of vegetation. Tamarisk, nitre bushes and reeds are the only types of greenery found in the depressions between the dunes; however, plant life is much richer along the edges of the desert area.

Mysteries and Legends

Locals recount tales that ancient cities filled with treasure lie lost and buried beneath the unknown depths of the Taklamakan Desert. In the late 1980s, an archaeological dig unearthed mummies in this remote region, some dating back to over 4,000 years. The mummies found show the wide range of peoples who have passed through the Chinese region; many exhibit Caucasoid features, and many were wearing European twill fabrics.

The interest in these mummies exists largely because of their extraordinarily well-preserved state. One of the most famous mummies unearthed from the Taklamakan Desert is that of "Cherchen Man." He had reddish brown hair, a long nose, full lips and a ginger beard.

The trails that border the Taklamakan Desert once formed parts of the Silk Road, the trading routes of the past that are still being used in the early 21st century.

Climate and Weather Conditions

The Taklamakan Desert has markedly extreme climate conditions; it is the driest and the warmest desert in China, yet extreme lows are recorded in wintertime. Record low temperatures of -25.7 degrees Fahrenheit were experienced during February 2008, when the desert was covered in its entirety with a thin layer of snow exceeding 1.5 inches in depth.

The region in which the desert is located is completely cut off from the effects of the Asian monsoon, and Arctic storms are blocked by the encircling mountains. Because of the Taklamakan's severe lack of water, visitors are dissuaded by scientists from trying to cross this seemingly boundless desert. Most explorers venture only in winter, with teams of camels carrying ice blocks.

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