A holiday in Asia often brings tropical islands and buzzing cities to mind, but magnificent deserts remain some of the region’s best kept secrets.
Here are seven deserts in Asia where you can ride on a camel’s back, stay at a traditional yurt, visit charming oasis towns along the historical Silk Road:
1. Gobi Desert – Mongolia
Best time to visit: June to August
Gobi Desert, the largest desert in Asia, promises stunning sand dunes, dinosaur fossils, warm hospitality from nomad families and friendly Bactrian camels.
Spanning across 1,295,000 square kilometres, the desert lies in the dry region of the Tibetian Plateau, extending from northern China to Mongolia and passing through several trading cities along the historical Silk Road including Turpan, Hami and Dunhuang.
When in the Gobi Desert, stay with one of the local families in a ger (traditional Mongolian yurt) to experience some of the age-old customs of the nomadic people.
Tatler tip: Try to align your visit with the Nadaam celebration, which happens every year on July 11. The whole country gets into the festive spirit with sports competitions, that range from Mongolian archery and horse racing to wrestling.
2. Karakum Desert – Turkmenistan
Best time to visit: March to June, October to December
Covering around 70 per cent of Turkmenistan, the Karakum Desert is a vast, sun-scorched expanse of sand dunes in Central Asia, with a sparse population that consists mainly of Turkmen.
At the heart of the desert lies the Darvaza gas crater, also known as the “Door to Hell”—one of the most captivating and unusual sights of Turkmenistan. Initially set on fire by Soviet scientists to prevent the spread of poisonous methane gas in 1971, the crater has been burning non-stop ever since for almost 50 years—and geologists have no clue how much longer it will burn for.
Tatler tip: The fire crater at night is truly a sight to behold, where the blazing inferno can only be compared to the gates of hell. Tours are available to arrange camping near the site, offering warm and comfortable camping gear inside a traditional yurt to prepare you for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
3. Kyzylkum Desert – Central Asia
Best time to visit: March to May, September to October
Named after its red sands in Turkic languages, Kyzylkum Desert is the 15th largest desert in the world, divided between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
A visit to Kyzylkum desert will unveil a land of hidden treasures, where you can spend the day trekking the red sand on your very own Silk Road camel, do bird watching at the Aydar Lake, visit the holy spring in the town of Nurata and spend the night star gazing from a yurt camp.
Tatler tip: When in Nurata, don’t forget to shop for suzanis, a type of embroidered and decorative tribal textile exclusively produced in Central Asia.
4. Taklamakan Desert – China
Best time to visit: April to September
As the largest desert in China and the second-largest shifting-sand desert in the world, Taklamakan Desert fittingly named “place of no return” in Uyghur language is one of the most inhospitable and unpredictable terrains in the world.
But don’t let that discourage you from braving the desert, which can be done safely with a trusted tour company that will pick you up from Kashgar, one of the oasis towns on the ancient Silk Road, cross the arid expanse by camel and stop at the town of Yarkant for a traditional Uyghur lunch.
Tatler tip: At the edge of the Taklamakan Desert lies one of China’s most famous desert sites, the ancient city of Dunhuang. Worth visiting for its echoing-sand mountain and crescent lake, it’s an oasis surrounded by sand dunes that never dries up due to the unique geographic land form that surrounds it.
5. Thar – India
Best time to visit: October to March
Divided between India and Pakistan, Thar Desert is the most widely populated desert in the world. As such, it boasts a spectacular and colourful desert culture among its tribes and villages from folk music and tribal dance to traditional dresses and jewellery.
With 60 percent of the desert in the state of Rajasthan, Thar Desert, also known as The Great Indian Desert, offers a stunning landscape for camel trekking, jeep safari, dinner under the stars and excursions to the towns of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, which are among some of the most fascinating places on the subcontinent.
Tatler tip: Visit the Pushkar Camel Fair, a colourful, riveting festival held every November near the holy town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, a rare opportunity to witness a traditional mela through religious rituals around the sacred Pushkar Lake, camel parades and bustling livestock trades.
6. Tottori – Japan
Best time to visit: Any time of the year
Just a short flight or bullet train ride from Tokyo, the coastal prefecture of Tottori is home to Japan’s largest sand dunes, spanning approximately 16 kilometres along the coast of the Sea of Japan.
There are many ways to experience the Tottori Sand Dunes, from camel and horse-drawn carriage rides to paragliding and sandboarding, while the best views over the dunes can be enjoyed from the observation deck of the Sakyu Center.
Tatler tip: For food lovers, the local delicacies of Tottori including red queen snow crab, beef bone ramen, Tottori wagyu beef and nashi pear soft serve are not to be missed.
7. Taean – South Korea
Best time to visit: April and May
Located on Sinduri Beach in Taean, a county three hours from Seoul by road, Sinduri Coastal Sand Dune is the only sand dune in Korea, formed approximately 15,000 years ago after the ice age.
While it may not give the grandeur of massive sand dunes, the Sinduri Coastal Sand Dune is connected to Mallipo Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in the country as well as hiking opportunities along the coast via the Taeanhaean National Park.
Tatler tip: Every April, Taean holds the World Tulip Festival for a month, offering excellent photo opportunities of millions of colourful tulips in full bloom among traditional folk activities and light shows.