Approximately half the Badain Jaran Desert in the north-western Alashan Plain of northern China is a sand sea. The remainder is gravel or bedrock. The north-western border of the desert is a playa. The desert has been imaged by both Landsat and the Shuttle Imaging Radar (SIR-A). Landsat analysis indicates there are two dune patterns in the sand sea, north-east oriented crescentic dunes along the northern and western borders, and complex star dunes in the central and eastern desert. Although the orientation and morphology of the dunes are easily visible on Landsat, they cannot be determined with the radar image obtained from the aspect angle used during the SIR-A mission. An abrupt change in wavelength of the dune pattern near the Badain Jaran Playa is mappable on Landsat, but not seen on the radar image. The playa appears to be considerably larger on radar than on the Landsat, and we may be seeing subsurface penetration of dry surficial sands with the radar. Archaeological evidence suggests the playa was the location of prehistoric and historic human activity. SIR-A data indicate the playa was formerly a considerably larger inland lake.