The seemingly endless Gobi desert is a daunting, perilous place full of vast expanses of nothing but sand, wind, and the infernal, blazing heat of the relentless sun. If you were to walk out amongst its empty expanses you might be inclined to think that nothing else exists here. However, you might also suddenly see ahead in the distance what appears to be some sort of huge, Medieval castle jutting up out of the barren wasteland. Certainly an out of place and bizarre sight, you may be inclined to draw closer to this enigma, and you may even write it off as a mere mirage, but this is no mirage. As you approach, what you at first took to be a castle is in fact a weird collection of earthen mounds, ravines, and huge stones that have been twisted and blasted by the wind into shapes reminiscent of castles, animals, and perhaps even monstrous demons with fanged maws. As you make your way among this surreal landscape, you may then hear ghostly voices, singing, perhaps even moaning or wailing, coming from some unseen source in the surrounding desert. You have found the Devil’s City of the Gobi.
Within the Chinese Gobi Desert lies the Yadan National Geological Park, on the northwest of Dunhuang, Gansu, 185 km (115 mi) away from the city of Dunhuang. Stretching for 25 kilometers north to south and 2 kilometers east to west, sprawling over a total area of 50 km2 (12,355 acres). The park is known for its collections of unique natural formations found nowhere else. The bizarre, twisted and surreal landscape found here is the result of what is referred to as Yadan landforms, a term derived from the Uyghur language and meaning “steep hill.” The Yadan landforms are formed by millions of years of constant wind erosion, the forces of numerous floods, storms, and rains, and the dry climate all working to carve exposed boulders and ravines into various unusual shapes.
During the cretaceous period, around 100 million years ago, this place was not a desert at all, but rather an enormous freshwater lake. This lake over time receded to expose sedimentary rocks, boulders, and ravines, which were then transformed by the forces of nature into the stunning array of natural sculptures scattered throughout the area today. The Yadan landforms in their current state are thought to have been formed over a period of between 300,000-700,000 years and the Yadan National Geological Park holds the largest number of such unique formations in the world.
The numerous boulders and earthen mounds of various topographies, some up to 20 meters in height, have been sculpted by the elements into artistic shapes that seem as if they have been crafted by human hands, and that have been variously described as resembling castles, stairs, pavilions, temples, pagodas, walls, palaces, vehicles such as buses and boats, human faces, animals, and strange, terrifying creatures. The overall effect is that of a magnificent museum of buildings and sculptures that have mysteriously been situated in the middle of the desert, yet have been completely manufactured by unstoppable, awesome natural forces.
Amid all of these amazing landforms is the infamous Dunhuang Devil Town, also called “Demon City,” “Ghost City,” and Moguicheng, which means “The City of the Devil,” an area with a particularly high concentration of Yadan landforms that give the eerie appearance of an actual abandoned town with buildings, roads, squares, and walls that have the illusion of having been carefully placed intentionally by mysterious hands. Among the rock formations are those that are said to look like fanged demons coiled and ready to pounce, and frightening beasts looming over the landscape like sentries overlooking their domain. Numerous multicolored stones peppered throughout the landscape and embedded within the rolling hills surrounding the area add to the surreal, mystical effect.
The most bizarre aspect of the Demon City are the inexplicable mysterious sounds said to emanate from it and the surrounding area. The sounds come in many variations. It is said that during the day, one can hear what sounds like guitar strings being plucked, the tingling of bells, and human voices whispering, shouting, and even singing. Even creepier, there are times when these sounds pervading the air take on the quality of moaning, screaming, quarreling, or of babies crying. At night and when the frequent strong winds that lash the region come to send sand and gravel whipping through the air, the mystery sounds transform into a frightening cacophony that is described as reminiscent of lions roaring, wolves howling, elephants trumpeting, and pigs being slaughtered.
The sources of these strange sounds are not clear, and most of the time they are said to seem to come from all directions at once, as if materializing from the air itself. Locals believe they are the voices of ghosts, spirits, or demons. Although it is more likely that the sounds are some as yet misunderstood effect of the wind on the various unusual Yadan landforms, it is still a mystery as to what causes this weird phenomenon, and research into the acoustics of the area has been inconclusive. The area also exhibits an unusual level of magnetism, although it is not clear whether this has any connection with the unusual auditory phenomena reported here.
The Yadan Geological Park and its Devil’s City are open to tourists, many of which come in the hopes of experiencing the strange phenomenon for themselves. The park can be reached by a 2 hour bus ride from the city Dunhuang on a bus operated by various tour companies located there. Whatever the cause for the mystery noises is, this wind blasted, sun-scorched region is certainly a place full of natural beauty and inscrutable mystery. It is an ancient place that instills a deep sense of awe and appreciation for the powerful forces that have shaped our planet, and is well worth a visit for anyone who has a curiosity about the natural mysteries of the world around us.