Weird things that have popped up in deserts around the world

We expect certain things from a desert. That's dirt, sometimes sand, a lot of dryness, and probably some animals that can kill us. We can even accept that there's going to be some really weird plants in the desert, but what don't we expect? This stuff.

Pioneertown, California

Be honest: have you ever wanted to live in a real-life Western film? Ever wanted to mosey on down to the saloon, order a shot of their finest sippin' whiskey, then head out to hop on your horse and go search the hills for gold? How would you feel if we told you that there's a place you can do that?

It's called Pioneertown, and it's in the Mojave Desert. It was built in 1946 by a group of men whose names you'll recognize, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The idea was to build a real Wild West town, inspired by the 1880s, one more than just the false front of a movie set. You can walk down Pioneertown's hilariously named Mane Street, but you can also walk into places like Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, and get yourself some BBQ. (No word on the sippin' whiskey.)

Some Western movies were shot there, but no one's filmed anything there in a while. There were plans to make it an actual tourist destination, too, but it would have ruined the Wild West feel to have hipsters setting up shop in a craft brewery. It's a minor curiosity now, with some shops, restaurants, and a cool factor that makes it an awesome side trip if you're out in the neighborhood of Joshua Tree anyway. A few people have even settled in and made the place home because you should always follow your dreams, and we have the same dream we've had since we were five. We want to be a cowboy when we grow up.

The lakes of Badain Jaran Desert, China

Quick, what's the last thing you'd expect to find in the desert? If you said "water," you're on the right track, but the Badain Jaran Desert in China would like to tell you that you're wrong.

The Badain Jaran Desert covers 19,300 square miles of Inner Mongolia, gets only a few inches of precipitation a year, and has some of the highest sand dunes in the world. The so-called megadunes average between 660 and 980 feet tall, with the highest reaching about 1,500 feet tall. (That's not a typo, and that's also taller than the Empire State Building.)

The field of megadunes is also home to a series of lakes that no one can explain. Scientists insist that they can't really be there, as no rivers feed them, no rainfall replenishes them, and nothing explains why they just don't evaporate in the dry climate. Stranger still, about half the hundred-odd lakes are saltwater, and the other half are freshwater.

Explanations range from a strange concentration of underground springs to something called paleowater, remnants of a different climate. What scientists really means to say is they don't know, but they do know that since 2013, some of the lakes have gotten smaller and some have disappeared, which they blame on irrigation and urbanization … and which seems to prove that mankind can ruin anything.

The singing sand dunes of Badain Jaran Desert, China

Now, about those megadunes. Not only is the desert home to some seriously tall dunes, but it has some pretty vocal sand dunes, too. They sing. Or boom. Or crash. Use whatever descriptor you like, because it's not going to change how cool this is. (Check out the video to hear how eerie it sounds. We'll wait.)

The basic science is that when different kinds of waves (from various sources, like earthquakes, tremors, and people sliding down the sand slopes) move through the dunes, the sand grains act as an amplifier. And this isn't the only desert that has singing sand dunes. We've known about it for a long time, and even Marco Polo wrote about the strange, unearthly sounds coming from the desert at night. It's loud, too—the Badain Jaran Desert dunes have been recorded shouting at 105 decibels, and that's on par with the noise level of a chainsaw or tractor. We also have a new respect for Marco Polo to sleep in a desert that's doing that all night.

Prada Marfa, Texas

You expect to see Prada stores in certain types of neighborhoods, and honestly, they're the types of neighborhoods we can't even afford to set foot in. But there's one Prada store that's totally within our price range, and it sits along a stretch of Texas's Highway 90. No equally chic stores surround it, and in fact, nothing surrounds it at all.

It was envisioned as an art installation, created by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset and approved by Miuccia Prada herself. The idea was a comment on the gentrification that's fundamentally changed so many areas, and this Prada store sits near a town with a population of about 130 people, who average a yearly income of around $45,000. That means they could save all year and buy … maybe a dozen or so Prada handbags, and if that's not a statement, we're not sure what is.

The store-that's-not-a-store was built and abandoned, and the original plan was to have the biogregradeable material it's made of slowly decay over time. Because people are jerks, it only took three days before it was vandalized, but we all knew that was going to happen, right?

Giant Hands, Uruguay and Chile

You've probably heard of the Atacama Desert. It's one of the driest, most desolate places on earth, but drive along an otherwise lonely stretch of the Pan-American Highway, and you'll see something strange—a giant stone hand.

It's called, unsurprisingly, La Mano del Desierto, or The Hand of the Desert. It was unveiled in 1992, reaches 36 feet into the desert sky, and it was commissioned from an artist named Mario Irarrazabal as a tribute to just how barren, lonely, and empty the desert is. There's another meaning behind the hand, too, and Amusing Planet says that the real intent was as a tribute to those who were tortured and victimized by Chile's military-ruled government. Just as interesting: there's a left hand to go with the right hand of the Atacama Desert, and the left one is along the beach near Punta del Este in Uruguay. That hand was unveiled in 1982, and one of its names is the eerie Monument to the Drowned. We can see that. There's yet another in Spain, but since we're talking about deserts here, we'll leave it at that.

Desert Christ Park, California

Ever wanted a picture of yourself taking part in The Last Supper? Head to Desert Christ Park and you can get one. Sitting in the desert of Yucca Valley, California, is a concrete bas-relief of The Last Supper, with a conveniently placed window that will let you look over Christ's shoulder for a picture you're guaranteed to never forget. It's a part of Desert Christ Park, and it was founded almost by accident in 1951 when a sculptor was refused permission to install a concrete Jesus on the edge of the Grand Canyon. The statue became known as "the unwanted Christ," and he ended up partnering with a local reverend to create a whole bunch of biblical scenes and statues that finally found a home in Yucca Valley.

Oddly, the original message behind the park had less to do with religion and more to do with a generic sort of peace, and it's a powerful idea. Remember, at the time, atomic war seemed like a very real possibility, and the statues were built with the idea that they could withstand a nuclear blast and would presumably still remain after the rest of the world had been turned into a Terminator 2-style wasteland. They're still there, albeit a little worse for wear. They're just missing some heads and hands, thanks to a 7.3 earthquake, and most of the figures were missing their noses anyway. That's because Martin himself knocked off the noses in protest of the reverend's plan to charge an admission fee to the park. All the noses, that is, except for the one belonging to Judas, because that's exactly how you make a statement.

Artificial glaciers, India

Life on the Tibetan Plateau has never been what anyone would call easy, but with the world's changing weather, it's being made even more difficult. For a long time, melting ice and glaciers high up in the Himalayan Mountains would water valley crops at just the right time, but changing temperatures mean water shortages when it's needed most—in the spring—and a ton of wasted water in the winter.

A local engineer came up with a brilliant solution, and that was to build a do-it-yourself glacier out of the water that ran down from the mountains. He came up with a system of diverting water into small pools that freeze in layers and layers of ice. Once the spring months come, the artificial glaciers melt, and allow the little desert towns to make the most of their most valuable resource. This isn't on any small scale, either—the biggest one has an area equivalent to a square mile of ice. The idea's so ingenious that it's being explored as something that can be developed on an even larger scale to combat the impact of global warming, which we all know totally exists.

A movie theater, Egypt

Head out into the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, wander near a town called Sharm el-Sheikh (but not too close), and you might stumble across 700 wooden seats lined up in the desert sand. It looks like all they're missing is a movie screen, and that used to be there, too.

The whole thing was the brainchild of Diynn Eadel, and it was meant to be an actual, working cinema called Seventh Art Cinema. It was supposed to open in 1997 and show Jurassic Park, and honestly, we think it's brilliant. It's like a drive-thru, but on an epic scale. Who wouldn't want to watch the latest movie under the desert sky?

Unfortunately, someone didn't want to, and no one's sure just who that party-pooper was. No movie ever played on the desert screen, and Eadel's not talking about what went wrong, either. It's rediscovered every so often in all its rusting, optimistic glory and if you ask us, the trip would be worth it just to watch the sunset. That's a movie that never disappoints.

A massive spiral, Egypt

Zoom in a bit from a satellite view of the desert plains of El Gouna, Egypt, and you'll find there's a weird spiral seemingly rising from—and etched into—the landscape. It covers more than a million square feet of desert, and as much as we'd like it to be proof of ancient aliens, it's definitely not proof of ancient aliens. It's an art installation called Desert Breath, and it's a spiral pattern made from cones of sand and holes where the sand has been removed. The original design had a lake in the center, but now, the water's gone.

In fact, the entire thing is dissolving. The cones are shrinking and the holes are being filled in, and that's exactly what the artists had in mind when they built it in 1997. It's a tribute to the ever-changing nature of the desert, an illustration of just how much is happening in a landscape that most of us think can be, well, kind of boring. The artists have a lot of lofty things to say about the project, but we're good with just saying that it's a massive reminder that nothing lasts forever.

California City, California

In 2015, California City had a population of 13,165, and that made it Number 340 on the list of the state's largest cities. In terms of physical size, though, it's the third-largest city in California … technically. So, what gives?

In 1958, Nathan Mendelsohn had a dream, and we all know that if you have a crazy idea, you might as well go big, right? He bought 82,000 acres in the California desert and called it California City. He wanted it to be the next LA, but as is often the case with dreams, things didn't work out quite like he planned. While some people took him up on his offer to buy some land and settle down there, most didn't. When Mendelsohn bought the land, he laid out a grid of roads that still exists as a sort of eerie ghost city out in the desert. They all have names, and you can follow them from street to street on your GPS, over a staggering 185 square miles. There's Cadillac Boulevard and Dodge Street, but they're nothing more than dirt roads connecting a whole bunch of nowhere.

There was a brief rush, people bought land on speculation, and some settled there precisely because it was in the middle of nowhere. By the 1970s, the whole thing had pretty much fallen apart, and 14,000 landowners were awarded settlements and refunds because the LA-sized metropolis that was promised just didn't happen. The potential is definitely still there, but for now, the desert outside the settled areas of California City looks like it was once visited by the same people who did the Nazca Lines, and that's just pretty darned cool.

The desierto florido, Chile

The Atacama Desert of Chile is beautiful all the time … in its own unique way. It's usually a stark, barren place, and it's one of the driest places on earth. Annual rainfall is less than four millimeters per year, and if you think there's not much that can survive there, you're right.

But time your visit right, and you might stumble into the desert when it's literally covered in a blanket of flowers of every color of the rainbow … and then some. It's called the desierto florido, or the desert in bloom, and it happens every five to seven years. It all has to do with El Nino. When the weather pattern is at the point in its cycle where it warms the coastal waters and dumps rain onto the desert, millions and millions of annual flowers start to bloom.

The desert might look barren, but somewhere around 1,900 different species of plants and animals are there—many of which are just waiting for the life-giving waters. It only lasts for a short time, even though there's been some seriously weird weather patterns in the last few years that made 2015's desierto florido happen in both March and September. According to what Ramon Cortes told the International Business Times when they asked him what he thought of the bloom, "For us, it was a miracle because … I had never seen what the grass looks like until now." He got more than just grass, and we hope he enjoyed Mother Nature's show.

Aerial Imaging Calibration Targets, US

If you're anything like us, you love Google Earth. There's nothing quite like exploring far-off lands without needing to eat strange foods, get strange gastrointestinal diseases, or get out of your chair. Look in the right areas—like the Arizona and California deserts—and you'll see some odd shapes. Some look like targets, and some look like barcodes, but no, we're sorry to say that our planet doesn't have its own intergalactic barcode (although we'd love to read a story based on that, you can have that idea for free).

The things that look like giant crosshairs were used in the 1960s for calibrating spy satellites. 144 were in use over China and Russia at the time, and sometimes, it turns out that the coolest answer is the real one. The targets allowed the satellites to get the equivalent of Cold War-era GPS coordinates before setting off to spy on the Reds. Most have been destroyed, but a few are still out there—like one near Casa Grande, Arizona.

The barcode-looking targets are a bit different, and those were for calibrating aerial photography equipment from the same era. What we know about them is best described as, "a little bit," but the gist is that cameras would detect the smallest line on the barcode that they could, and that would allow them to adjust their focus for flying—and photographing—at certain altitudes. As much as we like the idea of a giant, galactic housewife picking out Earth at the grocery store—you know, for boiling in that extra-special stew—we suppose the real story is pretty cool, too.