Abstract Recovery in soil properties and processes after sand burial in the Tengger Desert, northern China, was documented at five different-aged revegetated sites (1956, 1964, 1973, 1982, and 1991) and at a reference site with native vegetation, which had never been damaged by sand burial and was enclosed for grazing. The proportions of silt and clay, depth of topsoil and biological soil crusts, and concentrations of soil organic C, K, total N and total P increased with years since revegetation. Most characteristics of topsoil (0–5 cm) characteristics had recovered to 60% of those measured at the reference site by 50 years after sand-binding vegetation had been established. Exceptions were electrical conductivity and contents of sand, silt, CaCO 3 and organic C, which recovered to 20–40% of the values at the reference site. The difference in annual recovery rates of soil properties between the two most recently revegetated sites (0–14 years) was greater than the difference between the two oldest revegetated sites (43–50 years). Best-fit asymptote models showed that the estimated times for the soil properties in the 50-year-old site to reach the same levels as in the reference site (i.e. an undisturbed, native steppified desert ecosystem) would be between 23 and 245 years, but for some properties even maximum recovery after > 50 years still fell significantly short of the level at the reference site. These results suggest that soil recovery is a slow process in an extremely arid desert environment, and therefore the conservation of soil habitat is a crucial issue for land managers.