Nestled deep within the barren expanse of the Gobi Desert, Juyan Lake was once a focal oasis along the ancient Silk Road. It is located within the fertile Ejin Banner of Inner Mongolia, not far from the border with Mongolia proper. In ancient times, its strategic importance meant that, from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) onwards, it was guarded by a military frontier town named Juyan. Its significance was twofold: its bountiful waters could provide sustenance for the nearby garrisons along the Great Wall; and having control of it meant the northern nomads could not prosper from it. If the lake had been left undefended, it would have provided an ideal route through which to invade China from the north. The lake was held in such high esteem that it was even visited by the Italian explorer Marco Polo during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)!
Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, all good things are doomed to come to an end. Due to environmental changes, the western section of the lake dried up in 1961, and the eastern section followed suit in 1992. This caused a major crisis in the region and the government was forced to take action to protect the oasis. Their tireless work meant that the eastern section eventually reappeared in 2005, although it is now more of a wetland than a lake. Nowadays it is known as the Juyan Lake Basin and covers an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq. mi). Surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides, this fertile valley represents a verdant paradise hidden away in the hostile desert.