The Gobi Desert (shared by Inner Mongolia in China and Mongolia) is not really a desert as much as it is a vast 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 in China, it covers approximately 1.3 million square kilometers (500,000 square miles), twice the size of Texas, and extends 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from east to west, 950 kilometers (600 miles) from north to south.

The desert basins of the Gobi are bounded by the Altai Mountains and the grasslands and steppes of Mongolia on the north: the Taklamakan Desert to the west: the Hexi Corridor and Tibetan Plateau to the southwest and the North China Plain to the southeast. The 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 is Mongolian for "the waterless place" it receives just enough rain to qualify as a semi-desert. But rainfall in some places is less than eight centimeters (three inches) a year. Sand dunes cover only about three percent of Gobi.

Desert Landscapes of the Mongolian Great Gobi was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. Much of it 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 sides settlements made of smooth mud, and goats and mongrels, and people hacking at furrows and bashing weeds, and here and there the occasional horseman."

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. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the area were once home to hundreds of monks. 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. Several important stops of the Silk Road were on the fringes of the Gobi Desert. Marco Polo described the desert in his chronicles. In the 1920s, an Englishwoman named Mildred Cable traveled through it in a horsedrawn cart and wrote about her experiences in the Gobi Desert. Today, the Gobi is known as one of world's premier dinosaur hunting sites.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

In Mongolia, the Gobi Desert lies in Khovd, Govi-Altai, Bayankhongor, Dornogovi and Umnugovi provinces The Mongolian Government established the Great Gobi Desert Strictly Protected Area in 1975 and the United Nations designated the Gobi Desert in 1991 as the fourth largest Biosphere reserve in the world.

The Great Gobi Desert Strictly Protected Area consists of 1) the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area – Part A, N42 40, E95 15, N44 40, E99 30; 2) Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area – Part B, N45 00, E91 00, N45 30, E93 00; 3) Small Gobi Strictly Protected Area – Part B N42 25, E107 30, N42 57, E109 30. These properties also make up the Desert Landscapes of the Mongolian Great Gobi, nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The proposed serial property “Desert Landscapes of the Mongolian Great Gobi” includes the “A” and “B” parts of Great Gobi and part “B” of the Small Gobi Strictly Protected Areas (SPA). The two distinct parts of the Great Gobi SPA have been on Mongolia’s TL since 1996. Jointly this territory exceeds the size of Switzerland, forming one of the largest terrestrial protected areas worldwide. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

“Part “A” of Great Gobi SPA spans an area of some 4.6 million hectares covering five soums of Bayankhongor province, and Part “B” spans an area of some 0.9 million hectares covering four soums of Khovd and Govi-Altai province. Part “B” of the Small Gobi SPA covers around 689,691 hectares in Zag Suuj and Galbyn Govi including territories of Khatanbulag soum of Dornogovi province, and Khanbogd soum of Umnugovi province at the southern boundaries.”

Landscapes of the Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert is not really a desert as much as it is a vast 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.

There is a lot of variety within the Gobi Desert, from wildlife parks and mountains to canyons with dramatic rockfaces. Once the site of an ancient inland sea, the area has dried up and then eroded over the eons, providing paleontologists with magnificent specimens of dinosaur fossils. The Mongolian say that there are 33 different Gobi from which sandy desert occupies 30 percent of the total area.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Desert Landcapes of the Mongolian Great Gobi feature an extraordinary range of intact physiographic features and land forms at a large scale. The beauty and aesthetics of the vast desert is exceptional. Biogeographically, four or five major geographic regions of the Gobi can be distinguished with remarkably distinct ecological conditions, vegetation and species assemblages according to precipitation, altitude and other factors. Besides the diverse ensemble of landforms the Gobi encompasses a series of former and current lakes of major scientific value as important archives of past climate change. The proposed property is dominated by rugged plains, low elevations but also features impressive mountain ranges along the border between Mongolia and neighboring China. The vast plains of the Gobi are dominated by an extraordinary arid environment, with dark-colored rocky outcrop deserts which attract many domestic and international scientists of various fields. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

Weather and Climate of the Gobi Desert

The climate in the Gobi Desert can be characterized as extreme with −40 °C (−40 °F) temperature in winter and 45 °C (113 °F) temperatures, with little precipitation. Not only do extremes occur on a seasonal basis, they also occur on a daily basis, with temperatures ranging as much as 35 °C (63 °F) in a single day. Overall, the Gobi can be described as a cold desert, with frosts and occasionally snow. In addition to being relatively far north, it is also relatively high in elevation: located on a plateau roughly 910–1,520 meters (2,990–4,990 ft) above sea level, which contributes to its low temperatures.

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 50 mph 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.

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. These winds are also race through industrial areas China in the spring and play a major in producing pollution-laden yellow sand and driving it into Korea and Japan.

On average the Gobi receives 194 millimeters (7.6 inches) of rain falls annually. Additional moisture reaches parts of the Gobi in winter as snow is blown by the wind from the Siberian Steppes. 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 4,000 feet.

Animals and Plants in the Gobi Desert

The desert is often imagined as a lifeless place but that is not true with Gobi as it is with many other deserts. Many camel breeders inhabit this area, which is also rich in wildlife and vegetation. 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.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Despite harsh environmental conditions the high degree of naturalness and the sheer size of the diverse desert landscape not only provides critical habitat for an impressive range of rare, endangered and endemic species but also ongoing large scale animal migrations. For many of the animal species, including several large mammals, the Gobi Desert is home to the most important remaining populations of wildlife species. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

“The oases of the Gobi are critical to wildlife and many plants. Scientists have identified over 50 oases in the Altai Inner desert, 10 oases in the Dzungarian desert and 20 oases in the Alashaa desert. Moreover, scientists have identified remarkable 410 species of plants despite the harsh environmental conditions. Just within Part “B” of the Great Gobi SPA 204 species of plant in 135 different genera have been identified. In terms of vertebrates, 49 species of mammals, 15 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 150 bird species have been recorded in the Great Gobi SPA alone. The desert ecosystems of Mongolia provide critical habitat for a number of rare and critically endangered species of flora and fauna. Notable critically endangered species include the desert poplar (Populus diversifola), Elaeagnus moorcroftii, Chesneya mongolica, desert broomrape (Cistanche deserticula), Anabasis eriopoda, Artemisia tomentella, and Spongiocarpella grubovii. To mention a few of the rare, native species, there is Amygdalus mongolica, Saussurea catharinae, and Asterotamnus mollusculus etc. with overall 20 endemic species identified.

“The vast and still largely intact desert landscape enables the continuation of ecological processes at an enormous scale. The nomadic patterns of ungulate migrations in response to the unpredictability of environmental conditions are a rare and exceptional phenomenon. The proposed components cover large and representative examples of significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution of desert ecosystems and desert species.

The Gobi harbors a range of rare, endangered, endemic and charismatic species and for some provide the last remaining natural habitats. Notably, the Great Gobi SPA encompasses globally important populations of threatened, endangered and critically endangered species such as gobi bear (ursus arctos gobiensis), wild bactrian camel (camelus ferus), Przewalski’s horse (equus ferus przewalskii), snow leopard (panthera uncia), saiga antelope (saiga tatarica tatarica), and goitered gazelle (gazella subgutturosa) along with other rare and endemic species, the Mongolian three-toed jerboa (stylodipus sungorus). Part “B” of the Small Gobi SPA encompasses globally important populations of rare species, such as mongolian wild ass or khulan (equus hemionus hemionus), argali (ovis ammon), siberian Ibex (capra sibirica) and goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa). Therefore from both the point of view of science and conservation, the importance of the Desert Landscapes of the Mongolian Great Gobi is exceptional.

Marco Polo Crosses the Gobi Desert

It was at Gobi desert that Marco Polo (1254-1324) was overcome with the vastness of desert and hardships of trying to penetrate it: He said: "This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end; and at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys."

According to the Silk Road Foundation: “Despite the dangers encountered during the Gobi crossing, Marco's account suggests that the route was safe and well established during Mongol's reign. After they left Gobi, the first major city they passed was Suchow (Dunhuang), in Tangut province, where Marco stayed for a year. Marco also noted the center of the asbestos industry in Uighuristan, with its capital Karakhoja; he added that the way to clean asbestos cloth was to throw it into a fire, and that a specimen was brought back from Cathay by the Polos and presented to the Pope. [Source: Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo ]

Nahu in north-central China had the only sources of water for miles. Shazhou (present-day Dunhuang) is where the Polos probably were exposed to large numbers of Chinese, Tnguts (relatives of Tibetans), and Buddhists for the first time. Marco Polo didn't mention the famous grottos in Dunhuang but he did describe the custom in which men sometimes let travelers sleep with their wives, a custom still reportedly practiced by minorities in area. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]

Marco Polo wrote the people were "idolaters...they have many abbeys and many monasteries which are full of idols of many kinds, to which they do great sacrifice and great honor." He also wrote of admiration for monks — their shaves heads, their fasting, their "moon" calendar and the the way they "lead life hard" — and said Buddha would have been a saint had he been a Christian.

Traveling in the Gobi

There are no roads or towns in the Gobi. It consists primarily of endless stretches of gravel and grasslands, with occasion low barren mounds. Travelers often have difficulty finding their way because there are either no tracks or too many tracks to figure out which one to take. Dinosaur hunters often navigate their way around with global positioning devices and directions from nomads.

Travelers are mostly members of organized tours and hire a vehicle with a driver. In Ulaan Baatar, a small group can rent a vehicle for or four or five day trip for $150 a day. The meals are simple dishes made with noodles and rice. Many people sleep in sleeping bags under the stars. Water is drawn from wells where camels and goats drink. Some of the places listed below are not in the Gobi but are on the way there or on the desert’s outskirts. There have been periodic, isolated outbreaks of the plague in the Gobi. Rabies is not uncommon.

Stephen Lioy of Lonely Planet wrote: “Giant sand dunes fringed by sun-scorched valleys. Primordial fossils hidden within flaming-red cliffs. The sun setting pink and purple over a Mongolian yurt. Few experiences bring together offbeat adventure and epic road-tripping quite like bouncing through Mongolia's Gobi Desert in the rear-facing seat of an off-road van, hoping against hope that the next little village has a couple of cans of petrol. Hiring a van and a driver and spending a week cruising around the Gobi is one of the highlights of an adventurer's trip to Mongolia. The region’s main natural sights are all less than 150km from one another, making an easy interchangeable loop that starts and ends in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. [Source: Stephen Lioy, Lonely Planet, October 1, 2015]

In Ulaanbaatar: “You’ll need to hire a van and driver, possibly source a group of travellers to fill it with (and share costs), and get enough supplies to keep the lot of you in good shape for the duration. You’ll need to negotiate a set route or daily distance with your driver, either agreeing on the places you want to go or just driving each day in the direction that seems most promising. Sometimes drivers will have suggestions for a route based on the weather and road conditions, or places where they know they can make camp or find a ger-stay. Stock up on food (otherwise it’s camel cheese for a week!), fill up with plenty of petrol.”

“Most travellers end up in old-school UAZ vans (utilitarian Russian vehicles originally for military uses) that are, shall we say, light on safety equipment and creature comforts. Prepare to be covered in dust, absolutely battered by a combination of rough roads and a vehicle with no handles, and often hundreds of kilometers from the nearest flushing toilet.

“Though you might occasionally wind up camping wild in a tent, the end of most days will see your driver steering towards the nearest ger (yurt) camp. These traditional nomad tents (similar to the yurts found throughout Central Asia) dot most of rural Mongolia, including the Gobi. A stop will almost certainly include a bowl of tea or airag, a slightly fermented horse milk, while a night spent in the ger can easily turn into a meaty feast...followed by tea and airag.

“Most of the meat, milk and dairy in Mongolia is from home-grown livestock raised and consumed by these same nomad families; but while the rest of the country abounds in horse, goats, and sheep (and even the occasional reindeer), the Gobi region also relies heavily on camels. That means camel meat, camel milk, and the dreaded camel cheese. The cheese, actually a hardened curd but very rarely referred to as such, is particularly unusual. Not only does it taste like sweat smells, but it's also hard enough that it takes serious commitment to finish even a single piece. Worth trying exactly once, if only for the experience.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mongolia tourism and government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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