Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert, located in present-day Mongolia and northern China, with an area of about 500,000 square miles, is one of the largest deserts in the world. Shaped like a crescent and extending about 1,000 miles from east to west and 600 miles from north to south, it sits on a plateau from 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level and is mostly surrounded by steppe land and high mountains. These include the Da Hinggan Ling to the east, the Altun Shan and Nan Shan to the south, and the Altai, Hangayn Nuruu, and Yablonovy to the north. The far western region of the Gobi, from the foot of the Pamir Plateau, through the Tarim River basin to Lop Nor, the dried-up bed of an immense salt lake, is often considered separately and called the Takla Makan.

The name Gobi is Mongolian for “waterless place,” while the Chinese refer to the desert as Yintai Shamo, meaning “sand desert,” and Han-hai for “dry sea.” Only the southwestern quarter of the desert, however, is entirely without water; the remainder is covered with sparse vegetation, mostly grass, shrubs, and thorns. Most of the Gobi is covered with a shallow layer of gravel; only a small percentage consists of sand dunes.

Nomadic peoples inhabit the Gobi, their flocks surviving on what vegetation there is. Frequent high winds lead to dangerous sandstorms. Violent late-summer thunderstorms create large shallow lakes, but the only reliable sources of water for inhabitants of the plateau are wells and springs. The temperature in the Gobi varies from the extremes of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the short winter to 113 degrees in the summer.

The Mongols, who inhabited the Gobi Desert and surrounding steppe country, were a nomadic people who hunted and maintained herds of horses and sheep and lived in tents (see MONGOL EXPLORATION). They were divided into warring tribal groups until GENGHIS KHAN united them in the early 13th century. He founded his capital— Karakorum—in the northern Gobi.

The main east-west trade route, called the SILK ROAD, ran along a narrow band called the Hexi Corridor, skirting the southern edge of the Gobi Desert. But the desert itself contained several important caravan trails, carrying goods from Partizansk in Russia to Hami in China, and from Zhangjikou in China to Ulaanbaatar, a major city of Mongolia. The Gobi proved a dangerous place for Chinese traveling westward (see CHINESE EXPLORATION). HSÜANTSANG, a Chinese Buddhist monk hoping to reach India to obtain original Buddhist texts and visit holy sites, denied passage by the T’ang emperor, set out in secret, in about A.D. 629, from the western end of the Great Wall of China, and entered the Gobi. Abandoned by his guide, Hsüan-tsang wandered through the desert strewn with the bleached bones of animals. He was saved when his horse, smelling water, carried him to an oasis. From there, nomadic tribesmen escorted him out of the Gobi, and he resumed his travel to the west.

The earliest European reports of the Gobi Desert come from the travels of MARCO POLO. Polo, a native of Venice, was the son of NICCOLÒ POLO, a merchant who along with Marco’s uncle MAFFEO POLO had traveled across Asia to the court of the Great Khan in the East. In 1271, at age 17, Marco accompanied his father and uncle on their second journey to the East. After failing to find acceptable passage by sea, the Polos decided to travel overland. They traveled through Afghanistan, along the edge of the Takla Makan desert, to the city at Lop Nor on the edge of the Gobi. They joined a camel caravan crossing the desert and were met in Inner Mongolia by a representative of Kublai Khan. After 24 years in service to the kahn, the Polos returned to Venice. Marco Polo recorded his voyages, which were met with intense skepticism.

There was relatively little western travel through the Gobi Desert, and, when there was, it followed the pattern of the Polos, staying on traditional caravan trails. As a result, the desert remained mostly uncharted through the 19th century, despite visits by a number of Europeans of varying nationalities. A French Jesuit priest named Jean François Gerbillon traveled across the desert in the 1680s. The first significant exploration of the Gobi was undertaken by NIKOLAY MIKHAILOVICH PRZHEVALSKY, a Russian Cossack and career military officer. Przhevalsky volunteered in 1867 for service along the Russia-China border, writing a report about the region’s natural history and the culture of its native peoples. Afterward, he formulated a plan for exploring the interior of Mongolia and China, which was sponsored by the Russian Imperial Geographic Society. In 1870, Przhevalsky and two Russian companions obtained camels and crossed the Gobi Desert to Peking (Beijing) in China. Przhevalsky later explored the Takla Makan desert, and became the first European to visit Lop Nor since Marco Polo.

In 1872–73, Englishman NEY ELIAS traveled from China across the Gobi Desert, the Altai Mountains, SIBERIA, and the Ural Mountains into Europe; he later led a number of other exploratory expeditions to central Asia. In 1923, during one of his many expeditions to central Asia, Swede SVEN ANDERS HEDIN headed a scientific survey of the Gobi. American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews carried out a scientific expedition to the Gobi on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History that year and four others over the next years until the Chinese Civil War ended his travels in 1930. In addition to expanding geological understanding of the Gobi, he found there the first fossilized dinosaur eggs.

A highway now crosses the Gobi Desert. A railroad, the Trans-Mongolian, links the city of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, with Jining, China.

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