Mongolian life and society have traditionally revolved around dealing with animals and Mongolia’s often harsh environment. In many places in northern Mongolia forests cover only the northern sides of the mountains. The Soviet Union made extensive maps of Mongolia but never shared many of them with the Mongolians.

Strategically situated between Siberian Russia and northern China, Mongolia is a land-locked, bowl-shaped country that covers an area of 1,564,116 square kilometers (603,905 square miles), which is roughly twice the size of Texas, or three times the size of France or four times the size of California or the size of Western Europe.

The 17th largest country in the world, Mongolia stretches for about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) from east to west and 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from north to south at its widest point. Mongolia is sometimes called Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is a province of China. Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia together occupy more than 2,600,000 square kilometerss (a million square miles). In the old days Mongolia also embraced large chunks of what is now Siberia,

Mongolia sits on a large plateau. Its capital Ulaan Baatar is situated at an elevation of 1,350 meter.The average elevation of the entire country is 1,580 meters. Almost 80 percent of Mongolia is covered by grassland, an ideal environment for raising sheep, goats, cattle, Bactrian camels and horses. Most of these grasslands in turn sit on basin in the Siberian Steppe, a 1,600-meter-high, grassy plateau punctuated by rivers and salt lakes and rimmed by hills, snowcapped mountains and highlands.

Mongolia is located in the eastern section of the great Eurasian steppes, which stretch from Hungary to Mongolia. Steppes are arid grasslands spread over flat landscapes or rolling hills. Comprised of patches of rich grass interspersed with patches of poor grass and desert, they are brown and dusty most of the year and become increasingly arid as one travels south. After summer rains they can become richly green and sprout wild flowers. In the winter they are often covered by hard, icy, crusty snow.

Less than one percent of Mongolia can be farmed. Wheat and other grains are raised on steppes converted to agriculture areas. Other crops are raised in irrigated areas along rivers and in mountain valleys. Much of the land in Mongolia is empty grasslands, with no trees, nomadic families and the flocks of livestock here and there, and huge hawks and kites perched on the grass.

Geographical Data for Mongolia

Area of Mongolia: total:1,564,116 square kilometers; land: 1,553,556 square kilometers; water: 10,560 square kilometers; country comparison to the world: 19. Area - comparative: slightly smaller than Alaska; more than twice the size of Texas. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Land boundaries: total: 8,082 kilometers. Mongolia borders two countries: China 4,630 kilometers, Russia 3,452 kilometers. Coastline: 0 km (landlocked); Maritime claims:none (landlocked). =

Terrain: vast semidesert and desert plains, grassy steppe, mountains in west and southwest; Gobi Desert in south-central. Elevation extremes: lowest point: Hoh Nuur 560 meters; highest point: Nayramadlin Orgil (Huyten Orgil) 4,374 meters. Natural resources: oil, coal, copper, molybdenum, tungsten, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, fluorspar, gold, silver, iron. =

Land use: agricultural land: 73 percent; arable land 0.4 percent; permanent crops 0 percent; permanent pasture 72.6 percent; forest: 7 percent; other: 20 percent (2011 est.). Irrigated land: 843 square kilometers (2003) Total renewable water resources: 34.8 cubic kilometers (2011) Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 0.55 cubic kilometers a year (13 percent/43 percent/44 percent); per capita: 196.8 cubic meters a year. (2009).

Topography of Mongolia

Topography: Mountains and rolling plateaus; vast semidesert and desert plains, 90 percent pasture or desert wasteland, less than 1 percent arable, 8 to 10 percent forested; mountains in north, west and southwest; Gobi, a vast desert in southeast; Selenge river system in north. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The terrain is one of mountains and rolling plateaus, with a high degree of relief. Overall, the land slopes from the high Altai Mountains of the west and the north to plains and depressions in the east and the south. Hutyen Orgil (sometimes called Nayramadlin Orgil--Mount Friendship) in extreme western Mongolia, where the Mongolian, the Soviet, and the Chinese borders meet, is the highest point (4,374 meters). The lowest is 560 meters, an otherwise undistinguished spot in the eastern Mongolian plain. The country has an average elevation of 1,580 meters. The landscape includes one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes (Hovsgol Nuur), many salt lakes, marshes, sand dunes, rolling grasslands, alpine forests, and permanent montane glaciers. Northern and western Mongolia are seismically active zones, with frequent earthquakes and many hot springs and extinct volcanoes. *

Generally as one travels from south to north, Mongolia get greener and has more vegetation. The Gobi desert—a vast, arid grassland not a true desert—occupies the southern third of the country and measures 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from east to west and 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) north to south. Only the southern part shared with China is dry enough qualify as a true desert. Most is of it is semi-desert. Trees and forest are found mostly in the mountains and along rivers and in the northern areas of Mongolia. A belt of birch and evergreen forests, known as the Taiga, occupies the region along the Siberian border and covers about 10 percent of the country.

Mountains of Mongolia

Mongolia has three major mountain ranges. The highest is the Altai Mountains, which stretch across the western and the southwestern regions of the country on a northwest-to-southeast axis. The Hangayn Nuruu, mountains also trending northwest to southeast, occupy much of central and north-central Mongolia. These are older, lower, and more eroded mountains, with many forests and alpine pastures. The Hentiyn Nuruu, mountains near the Soviet border to the northeast of Ulaanbaatar, are lower still. Much of eastern Mongolia is occupied by a plain, and the lowest area is a southwest-to-northeast trending depression that reaches from the Gobi region in the south to the eastern frontier. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The Altai region is a mountainous area in western Mongolia near where China, Russian Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia all come together. This region features deep valleys, forests and peaks over 12,000 feet high and vast wilderness areas with many wolves and other wild animals. The are forests here mainly on their northern and western slopes. The northeast is party covered by the Great Khingan Mountains. Other mountain ranges include the Tannu-Ola, Sayan, Khentei, Selenga, and Orkhan. The highest mountain is 4,653 meters above sea level.

Lakes and Rivers of Mongolia

The Mongolia plateau is the source of many great Asian and Russian rivers, including the Amur and the Ob. In Mongolia, rivers are most plentiful in the mountainous northwest. Major rivers include the Tuul, which flow through Ulaan Baatar, and Seleng River, the largest river in Mongolia, which flows through the Erdenet area and into Lake Baikal in Siberia. Other rivers are scattered across the country. Few are navigable sections except in whitewater rafts or canoes. For travelers crossing Mongolia, rivers are among the main obstacles that need to be passed. There are large numbers of freshwater and saltwater lakes. The Mongolia word for river is “gul.” The word for lake is “nur.”

The rivers drain in three directions: north to the Arctic Ocean, east to the Pacific, or south to the deserts and the depressions of Inner Asia. Rivers are most extensively developed in the north, and the country's major river system is that of the Selenge-Moron, which drains into Lake Baykal. Some minor tributaries of Siberia's Yenisey River also rise in the mountains of northwestern Mongolia. Rivers in northeastern Mongolia drain into the Pacific through the Argun and Amur (Heilong Jiang) rivers, while the few streams of southern and southwestern Mongolia do not reach the sea but run into salt lakes or deserts. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]


The famous steppe of Central Asia is 3000-mile-long, flat or gently rolling grassland, averaging 500 miles in width. It is mostly treeless except for areas along riverbanks. It's name is derived from stepi, "meaning plain. The vast sea of grass of the steppe is perfect riders on horseback. The Steppe gave birth the Scythians, Turks, Mongols, Tartars, and Huns. One of the richest grazing areas, the Altai Mountain region between Russia and western Mongolia, not coincidentally is where many of the great horseman cultures originally hail from. Beginning in the second century B.C., Silk Road trading caravans's started traversing the Steppe.

The Central Asian steppe stretches from Mongolia and the Great Wall of China in the east to Hungary and the Danube River in the west. It is bounded by the taiga forest of Russia to the north and by desert and mountains to the south. It is located at about same latitude as the American plains and embraces a dozen countries, including Russia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and several other former Soviet Republics.

Describing the steppes, Polish Nobel laureate Henry Sienkiewicz wrote in With Fire and Sword, "The steppes are wholly desolate and unpeopled yet filled living menace. Silent and still yet seething with hidden violence, peaceful in their immensity yet infinitely dangerous, these boundless spaces were a masterless, untamed country created foe ruthless men who acknowledge no one as their overlord."

Grassland soil and plants store large amounts of carbon dioxide. When they are burned they release large amounts of carbon dioxide onto the atmosphere and contribute to global warming,

The poor yellow steppe soil is much less fertile than rich black earth found in southern Russia and Ukraine. When the topsoil is stripped of vegetation it becomes dusty and is easily blown away in the wind.

Steppe Plants and Grasses

Steppes are covered mostly by sparse grass or grasses and shrubs such as saxual. Trees are often stunted. Large trunks, branches and leaves require a lot of water to maintain. When the steppes meet the foot foothills, you can find wild poppies, even wild opium poppies.

The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, embracing some 10,000 different species worldwide. Contrary to what you might think, grasses are fairly complex plants. What you see are only their leaves.

Grass flowers are often not recognizable as such. Because grasses rely on the breeze to distribute pollen (there is a usually lots of wind on the steppe) and they don't need colorful flowers to attract pollinators such as birds and bees. Grass flowers have scales instead of pedals and grow in clusters on special tall stems that lift them high enough to be carried by the wind.

Grasses need lots of sunlight. They do not grow well in forests or other shady areas. Tall feather grass grows well in the well-watered parts of the steppe. Shorter grass grows better in the dry steppe where there is less rainfall. Chiy, a grass with cane-like reeds, is used by nomads to make decorative screens in the yurts

Grasses can tolerate lack of rain, intense sunlight, strong winds, shredding from lawnmowers, the cleats of Athletes and the hooves of grazing animals. They can survive fires: only their leaves burn; the root stocks are rarely damaged.

The ability of grass to endure such harsh conditions lies in the structures of its leaves, The leaves of other plants spring from buds and have a developed a network of veins that carry sap and expand into the leaf. If a leaf is damaged a plant can seal its veins with sap but do little else. Grass leaves on the other hand don't have a network of veins, rather they have unbranched veins that grow straight, and can tolerate being cut, broken or damaged, and keep growing.

Altai Region

The Altai Region is a mountainous area in central Asia where Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China all come together. Situated between the Gobi Desert and the Siberian Plain, it is regarded as the homeland of the of the Mongolians, Turks, Koreans, Hungarians and Parzyrks (famous well-preserved 4,000-year-old Parzyrk mummies have been found here). Ural-Altaic languages are named after the region. Ancient petroglyphs found in the area are believed to have been made the ancestors of the Altai.

The Altai (also spelled Altay) region is one of the wildest and most interesting parts of Mongolia. It is varied region with forest, steppes, wild river, lakes, deserts, snow capped mountain and abundant wildlife. On windward sides of the mountains are some of the wettest places in Mongolia, with glaciers, streams and numerous lakes. On the leeward side are some the driest areas. The most important rivers are the Biya, Katun, Bukhtarma, Kondoma, Ursul, Charysh, Kan, Sema, and Mayma. In lowland areas where the soils are accommodating there is some farmland. Otherwise most of the landscape comprised of steppes and meadows, some of which are used for grazing animals.

Natural vegetation in the Altai region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga. Among the animals are hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobac, East European woodchucks, lynx, polecat, snow leopard, wolves, bears, Argali sheep, Siberian ibex, mountains goats and deer. Bird species include pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, Altai snowcock, owls, snipe and jay, In the streams and rivers are trout, grayling and the herring-like sig.

Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert is not really a desert as much as it is a vast, changeless grassland with big thorny bushes, waist-high grasses, stretches of sand, gravel plains, sand dunes, red-rock cliffs, buttes, gullies, rocky canyons, and few trees and settlements. It has some 1000-foot dunes, but mostly it is a rocky, wind-scoured, gravel steppe. Occupying the southern third of Outer Mongolia and the northwestern third of Inner Mongolia, it covers roughly 1,300,000 square kilometers (500,000 square miles), twice the size of Texas, and extends 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from east to west and 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from north to south.

Gobi is the least populated region outside the polar caps. It would be the world's second largest desert after the Sahara and the northernmost desert in the world, if it were a true desert. Even though its name means "the waterless place" in Mongolian it receives just enough rain to qualify as a semi-desert. Rainfall is often less than eight centimeters (three inches) a year. Sand dunes cover only about three percent of Gobi.

The Mongol word Gobi can mean desert, depression, salt marsh, or steppe, but which usually refers to a category of arid rangeland with insufficient vegetation to support marmots but with enough to support camels. Mongols distinguish gobi from desert proper, although the distinction is not always apparent to outsiders unfamiliar with the Mongolian landscape. Gobi rangelands are fragile and are easily destroyed by overgrazing, which results in expansion of the true desert, a stony waste where not even Bactrian camels can survive. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Much of the Gobi is like what New Mexico or Arizona would be like if they were cold. Travel writer Paul Theroux, described it as "a bare dusty landscape, with low, stunted-looking trees, and square sided settlements made of smooth mud, and goats and mongrels, and people hacking at furrows and bashing weeds, and here and there the occasional horseman."

The Gobi is sometimes referred to as “Earth's Greatest Barrier." In the old days, caravans with 200 camels took as long as nine months to cross it. Marco Polo described the Gobi in his chronicles. In the 1920s, an Englishwoman named Mildred Cable traveled through it in a horse'drawn cart and wrote about her experiences.Today, the Gobi is known as one of world's premier dinosaur hunting sites.

Weather and Wildlife of the Gobi Desert

Some regions of the Gobi receive no precipitation at all in most years. The Gobi's aridness is caused by the rainblocking effects of the Altai mountains to the west and Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas some distance away to the south. The Gobi itself lies on a plateau. The average elevation is around 1,400 meters (4,000 feet).

Gobi summers are very hot, with huge extremes between night and day. A typical summer day begins with temperatures around 40 degrees F at sunrise. By 3:00pm it is 100 degrees F. The hottest time of the day is around 5:00pm when the 110 degrees F heat is often accompanied by 40 to 50mph gale winds. During the harsh winters, Siberian winds can send the temperature plummeting to -40 degrees F and the landscape is often covered with a thin layer of crusty snow.

In winter, powerful gusts of bai mao feng -- literally "white hairy wind" -- can blind drivers and knock their cars off roads. On summer evenings, locals says, hot air seems to rise up from the ground.

Winds howl most of the year and are particularly intense in the spring, when the Gobi is ravaged by periodic fierce sand storms. The great sandstorms in the Gobi are caused by turbulence caused by the collision of massive fronts of cold Siberian wind and hot winds coming up from Southeast Asia. If caught in a particularly nasty wind one should take shelter in a vehicle or ger. Backpacker tents often fly into the sky.

Nomads with gers, goats, Bactrian camels, sheep and horses inhabit many areas of Gobi. Chinese farmers tried to raise wheat and barley on the Gobi in Inner Mongolia but their efforts produced more erosion than food. Gobi wildlife includes wild asses, dzeran (Mongolian black and white tail gazelles), argali (wild sheep), snow leopard, steppe fox, Gobi desert bear, desert ibex, cranes, wild camels, eagles, hawks, and buzzards. There are thousands of gopherlike marmots and black tailed gazelles.

GPS and Traveling Through the Gobi

Scientists doing research in the Gobi desert and empty steppes of Mongolia often navigate by using the Global Positioning System (GPS), a navigation system that enables people to find their location anywhere on earth with the help of a groups of satellites.

GPS was set up the U.S. Defense department for the navigation of ships, planes and land vehicles, for the targeting of missiles and for the maneuvering of troops. In the early 2000s, GPS receivers, sold under the brand name Magellan for around $3,500, were a combination microwave receiver and computer. They were about the size of large paperback book.

Each GPS satellite circles the globe twice daily at a fixed orbit of 12,500 miles above the earth's surface and transmit a continuous radio signal that gives it precise orbital location. By receiving the transmissions of three or more satellites the computer in the GPS receiver uses triangulation to figure its location on earth to within a 100 feet or so. The display on the receivers shows longitude, latitude, elevation and distance and direction to your destination.

While traveling through the Gobi using GPS with a group of fossil hunters, John Noble Wilford of the New York Times wrote: "The instrument informs you precisely of the miles and the direction of your destination, but still you are lost...Two or three times a day we would come up on one of those dome-shaped left tents the herders like in, smoke curling out a vent in the tops and camels and horses tied up nearby...[Our guide] and the herder would exchange words on elemental subjects like the weather, water, flocks and family."

"Often as not, the herder would invite us to stay a while and sip warm tea and camel's milk. he and the children would admire our trucks and gadgets; they might have questioned our sanity if we had told them that these gadgets could tell us precisely where we were lost. In time, we went on our way following directions getting us a few more miles to the west, safely around a an impassible gully and onto some fairly clear tracks. One herder's mental map of the terrain, though, seemed reliable for no more than 10 or 15 miles. Then [our guide] had to visit another herder's ger.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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