The Taklamakan Desert

The Taklimakan Desert of Xinjiang at sunset.
zhouyousifang / Getty Images

In the Uigur language, Taklamakan may mean 'you can get into it but can never get out,' according to Travel Guide China. We can't verify whether or not the translation is accurate, but the label fits such a large, dry, dangerous place for humans and most animals.

Large lakes, including Lop Nor and Kara Koschun, have dried up, so over the millennia, the area of the desert has increased. The Taklamakan Desert is an inhospitable approximately 1000x500 km (193,051 sq. mi.) oval.

It is far from any ocean, and so hot, dry, and cold, by turns, with shifting sand dunes covering 85% of the surface, propelled by northerly winds, and sandstorms.

Alternate Spellings: Taklimakan and Teklimakan

Lack of Rainfall

Wang Yue and Dong Guangrun of the Desert Research Institute in Lanzhou, China, say that in the Taklamakan Desert the average annual rainfall is less than 40 mm (1.57 inches). It is about 10 mm—that's just over a third of an inch—in the center and 100 mm at the bases of the mountains, according to Terrestrial Ecoregions—Taklimakan desert.

Bordering Countries

While it is in China, and bordered by various mountain ranges (Kunlun, Pamir, and Tian Shan), there are other countries around it: Tibet, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India.

Ancient Inhabitants

People would have lived there comfortably 4000 years ago. Mummies were found in the region, perfectly preserved by the arid conditions, are presumed to be Indo-European-speaking Caucasians.

Science, in a 2009 article, reports:

"In the northeastern edge of the desert, archaeologists from 2002 until 2005 excavated an extraordinary cemetery called Xiaohe, which has been radiocarbon-dated to as early as 2000 B.C.E.... A vast oval sand hill covering 25 hectares, the site is a forest of 140 standing poles marking the graves of long-lost society and environment. The poles, wood coffins, and carved wooden statues with pronounced noses come from the poplar forests of a far cooler and wetter climate."

Silk Road Trade Routes

One of the world's largest deserts, the Taklamakan, is located in the northwest region of modern China, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. There are oases located on two routes around the desert that served as important trading spots on the Silk Road. Along the north, the route went by the Tien Shan Mountains and along the south, the Kunlun Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau. Economist André Gunder Frank, who traveled along the northern route with UNESCO, says the southern route was most used in ancient times. It joined up with the northern route at Kashgar to head into India/Pakistan, Samarkand, and Bactria.


  • "Archaeology in China: Bridging East and West," by Andrew Lawler; Science 21 August 2009: Vol. 325 no. 5943 pp. 940-943.
  • "News and Short Contributions," by Derrold W. Holcomb; Journal of Field Archaeology.
  • On the Silk Road: An 'Academic' Travelogue Andre Gunder Frank Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 25, No. 46 (Nov. 17, 1990), pp. 2536-2539.
  • "Sand Sea History of the Taklimakan for the Past 30,000 Years." by Wang Yue and Dong Guangrun Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography Vol. 76, No. 3 (1994), pp. 131-141.
  • "Ancient Inner Asian Nomads: Their Economic Basis and Its Significance in Chinese History," by Nicola Di Cosmo; The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 53, No. 4 (Nov. 1994), pp. 1092-1126.
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Gill, N.S. "The Taklamakan Desert." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). The Taklamakan Desert. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Taklamakan Desert." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).