IntroductionAccording to the information in the small visitor's center at the entrance of the park, Marco Polo came through the area and remarked "On the way there are all sand mountains and sand valleys and no food can be found. Travelers can hear ghosts talking while riding at night." Imagining a merchant Silk Road caravan or, indeed, Marco Polo's crew making their way across the desert amidst this landscape without the benefit of motorized vehicles, bottled water and GPS does make for some interesting imaginings. The landscape is incredibly harsh and dry; the only shade offered by the landforms themselves.
LocationThe geological park is located 180km from Dunhuang city (about a 2.5-hour drive) and covers an area of approximately 400 square kilometers. There is only one road and there is nothing terribly interesting to combine with the trip to Yadan except a visit to the ancient Yumenguan (Jade Gate) of the Han Dynasty.
The park is located in the Gobi Desert and if you haven't gotten enough "feel" for the desert from your visit to the Mingsha Dunes, than a visit to Yadan will probably end any fantasies of hiring a camel and tracking the Silk Road caravans yourself.
BasicsYou'll also find the area referred to in English as "Yardangs". In Chinese, it's called the 雅丹国家地质公园 (Yadan Guojia Dizhi Gongyuan). The admission cost includes a visit to Yumenguan (Jade Gate) which you will likely visit on your way back from the park.
What is it?According the information available at the park – which is hard to decipher despite it being in English – the area was a lake millions of years ago. Later, the lake dried up and then over the millennia, with lack of precipitation and wind erosion, the landforms were created. Landforms such as these are found only in western China, the African central Sahara, and in Arizona in the US.
How to Visit the LandformsIf you want to include the Yadan Landforms on your itinerary in Gansu Province, and you're not on an organized tour, then you really need to have, at the very least, a car and driver. You could probably negotiate a taxi from Dunhuang for the day but your Dunhuang hotel will be able to organize a car for you. A guide is not totally necessary for the visit as there is little guidance to parlay aside from what you are seeing.
The drive from Dunhuang takes about 2.5 hours. The routine once you arrive is to buy your tickets and then board the tourist bus that will take your party and other visitors around the park. The bad news here is that you are prisoner to the overall schedule and you won't be able to do as you please. The general plan is to drive around the park on the single road and make brief stops to view the landforms and take photos.
We were a group of seven plus guide and driver when we visited. We negotiated that our driver drive us inside the park in our own vehicle so that we wouldn't have to transfer buses and could stop where and for how long we pleased. This worked in our favor as we wanted to hop out several times at random spots to take photos and explore. If we had been on the tourist bus, we would not have had this flexibility. I highly advise anyone visiting on their own to do the same so that you can stay as long (or as short) at time as you please.
Park FeaturesThere is a visitors' information center at the park's parking lot. Inside you can take in the relatively difficult to understand explanation of the formation of the landscape. There are also decently clean bathrooms and a place to buy water.
Visiting the Yadan Park is similar to visiting a place like Yosemite or Yellowstone National Park in the US. You drive in on a main road and stop along the to see the main attractions – in this case landforms in odd shapes that have of course been identified and named by the Chinese administration. You'll have to see the sphinx ("Lion's Body with Human Head"), the Phoenix and the Fleet (a set of formations that looks like a fleet of ships). The park is enormous and you can spend as much time as you want wandering around. You can even do a bit of exploring and climbing on some of the formations.
If you miss the facilities in the visitor's center, there are small makeshift gift shops and port-a-potties along the road inside the park.
- Clothing: Depending on the time of year, you'll want to wear the right kind of clothing as you'll be totally exposed to the elements in the park. You are really driving through the desert so check the temperatures and dress accordingly. The sun is harsh and there is no shade. I suggest sun hats and lightweight coverage if it is hot.
- Sunscreen: Be sure that you've got sunscreen on any exposed skin as the sun is very harsh.
- Shoes: Some in my group wore sandals and were uncomfortable as the sand was extremely hot. If you do only have sandals, I suggest wearing socks with them. Better are sports shoes or light hiking shoes.
- Snacks: You can buy water along the way but food is limited. If you're going to be going to and from Yadan from Dunhuang, I suggest you stock up in Dunhuang for snacks for the day.
- Transportation: As I stated above, I suggest trying to keep your own transportation through the park so that you can be your own boss.
HighlightsThe formations that your guide or the information you have say are the highlights really are. You'll see a formation that looks like a sphinx ("Lion's Body with Human Head"), a Phoenix and a Fleet (a set of formations that looks like a fleet of ships).
Our group enjoyed climbing around on some of the formations near the Phoenix – it's clear what you're allowed to climb on and what you're not by enclosures. We explored a bit and felt like we got away from the big groups. We also each had a small bottle in which to collect some Gobi Desert sand. This was the favorite souvenir we brought back to Shanghai by far.
Kid Friendly?The park will be a lot of fun for bigger children. I would say that the weather conditions could be difficult for very small children or babies. However, as long as the child is prepared with the right clothing and protection, it will be fine. Generally, you are driving through the park with brief stops at land formations so the child can even stay on the bus if the parent is worried.
Older kids will have a great time climbing around and visiting a desert. Make sure you have plenty of small bottles to collect different kinds of sand and rocks.
While you can purchase water, I'd suggest having plenty of snacks in the car as there's really nothing to stop and eat along the way or in the park.