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Introducing The Gobi

Be prepared to have some illusions shattered. The notion of the Gobi Desert as a wasteland of uninhabited sand dunes seems to have been developed solely in the minds of a few folklorists and Hollywood scriptwriters. While it is a fairly bleak part of the world, the Gobi is also enormously diverse, with various sprinklings of ice-filled canyons, John Ford–esque rock formations, and verdant oases. By comparison, sand dunes appear in short supply – they cover just 3% of the Gobi.

As you may expect, a trip to the Gobi is no cakewalk. Between the summer heat, winter cold, sandstorms, poor infrastructure and lack of water, this is one of the harshest landscapes on the planet. One Mildred Cable, an Englishwoman who passed through in the 1920s, noted: ‘Only a fool crosses the Gobi without misgivings’.

Somehow, the Mongols have made a home of it, with scattered nomad camps still dotting the plains, ramshackle villages and the occasional ruined monastery to indicate long-disappeared settlements. A close look on the ground reveals a more ancient past as the Gobi supports a wealth of fossils, first made known to the world by American naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews, who visited in the early 20th century.

These days the lure of the Gobi extends mainly to minerals, specifically the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper deposit, one of the largest of its kind anywhere. The Gobi aimags (provinces) of Bayankhongor, Dornogov, Dundgov, Gov-Altai and Ömnögov also support small-scale goat and camel herding and, increasingly, tourism – foreign travellers come here to spot wildlife, hunt for fossils, hike the canyons or just enjoy the terrific emptiness of it all.