Covering 338,000 square kilometers of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Taklimakan Desert is the world’s second-largest sand desert. It is part of the larger Tarim Basin, one of the largest places on earth where rivers flow into the ground or dry up rather than flowing on to the sea. It is also one of the most distant places from the ocean on earth. Since the 1980s it has been exploited for oil.

The Taklimakan Desert, the world’s second-largest sand desert, is located in the southern part of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. The desert covers 338,000 square kilometers (nearly the size of Greece) and is one of the farthest places on earth from the sea. At its lowest point the desert is 154 meters below sea level.

About 85 percent of the desert consists of shifting sand dunes, averaging 100–150 meters in height, whereas dunes in the western parts average only 5–25 meters in height. The desert has a temperate climate and low precipitation of less than 50 millimeters annually. The Taklimakan Desert constitutes the central part of the Tarim Basin, which in the western part rises to 1,560 meters above sea level. The basin is partly surrounded by mountains that rise more than 6,000 meters above sea level. In the north the desert borders on the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains) range, and in the west and the south it borders on the Kunlun and Altun Mountains. Glacial streams from the mountains run far into the desert, where they disappear into the sands or evaporate. Poplar and tamarisk trees grow along the riverbeds.

The Silk Roads—a network of trade routes that connected Asia with the Mediterranean area—traversed the Taklimakan desert in two routes: a northern route, which ran along the northern edge of the desert, and a southern route along the southern edge. A few oasis towns exist along the Hotan River, which also is the main route across the desert from south to north. Since the 1980s large oil fields have been exploited, and in the 1990s more than 500 kilometers of roads were constructed for the oil industry.

There are small populations of the critically endangered wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) found in the Taklimakan. There are an estimated 600 individuals surviving in China in three separate pockets (the largest of which is the Taklimakan) and 350 in Mongolia. The rare Asian wild ass (Equus hemionus) also is to be found.

Further Reading

Blackmore, C. (1996). The worst desert on Earth: Crossing the Taklamakan. London: John Murray.

Chinese Academy of Sciences. (1993). Wondrous Taklimakan: Integrated scientific investigation of the Taklimakan Desert. Beijing: Lubrecht & Cramer and Science Press.

Zhu Zhenda, & Jäkel, D. (1991). Reports on the 1986 Sino-German Kunlun Shan Taklimakan expedition. Berlin: Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin.

Zoological Society of London: Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE). (2009). Bactrian camel (camelus bactrianus). Retrieved February 23, 2009 from

Source: Nielsen, Bent. (2009). Taklimakan Desert. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2178–2179. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

View of the Taklimakan Desert. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Taklimakan Desert (T?kèl?m?g?n Sh?mò ???????)|T?kèl?m?g?n Sh?mò ??????? (Taklimakan Desert)

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