Gobi Desert: Land of the Unexpected


Here, in a desolate stretch of the Gobi Desert, not far from Mongolia's largest sand dunes, a herder named Gombaatar tunes in to Oprah Winfrey.

The crackly American image and television chatter means nothing to the herder, his wife, and three children inside their yurt. But they smile with pride over a visitor's surprise at this modern Western intrusion into the timelessness of the vast Gobi.

Last year, Gombaatar got hooked up to satellite television, beamed from Hong Kong, through a Mongolian-Japanese electronics company known as Malchin. The family was one of 100 pilot participants in the Gobi provided with a wind generator, dish, and TV. In exchange, Gombaatar sold 125 pounds of cashmere, fine goat's wool worth just over $1,000.

"We get seven channels from Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Mongolia," he boasts. "The children are very curious. There are lots of things to see during the daytime, although it's hard to understand because it's in English and Chinese. At night, there's only the Mongolian channel."

During our week of travel through the Gobi by jeep, we encountered several surprises like this, including when our driver, Tumenbayar, put on a tape of Louis Armstrong as we pulled away from the Gombaatars' tent.

The great divide

This desert expanse spanning southern Mongolia and northwestern China is characterized by the unexpected. Historically, the Gobi was the great divide between East and West for caravans plodding along major trade routes. Its cruel vastness has given it a reputation of death and desperation.

Yet, for the modern traveler equipped with a jeep, the desert holds much in store. Here among the endless stretches of scrub, one finds greenery and native wildlife, the world of the nomadic herder, and a region rich with paleontological treasures.

The name Gobi is widely used by many in the region to refer to any of the unrelenting deserts stretching across Mongolia and western China. Both Mongols and Chinese claim the origins of the word, which means stony ground.

Most of the Gobi is not a sea of sand dunes, but scrub that is known as the tsol or sandy gobi. Oftentimes, the only breaks in the endless horizon are a water hole or a cluster of the scrubby gobi tree.

The desert's other side is the rich greenness after summer rains, called gov or green gobi. This summer, the best rains in 20 years had brought a new burst of life. Birds are everywhere. Herds of wild antelope flee over the rolling hills as we come upon them by surprise. Marmots, mice, and other rodents scatter before us.

Wild goats keep watch as we wind through mountain passes. We stop to talk to a herder.

"We've had more rain this year than any year I can remember. We prayed for rain, but then after three days we said enough," says the herder named Shoovdar, as she stands atop a 50-foot sand dune and surveys the horizon with a Russian eyeglass for her herd of camels.

"The rain takes the camels away. They follow the rain and the wind. After the rain we have to bring them back before they go too far away," she says.

The trip is as much a discovery for my guide as for me. Baastyn Batbold is the first to admit he doesn't know his own country. Son of a former Communist official, Mr. Batbold spent six years in the Russian seaport of Odessa studying nuclear engineering.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, he returned home to find Mongolia in economic chaos. He opted out of working in Ulan Bator's creaking and unsafe Soviet-built thermal power plants. Instead, he's trying to make his way as a journalist and guide.

"Who would have ever thought this was the Gobi," says Batbold, as he scans the grassy expanse to the horizon and hums along to a tune on the jeep tape player.

"This is a song about the motherland. She is singing, 'Why did it take so long for me to know you as my mother?' "

Life of the nomadic herder

For the herders and camel breeders of the Gobi, life remains rough and nomadic. Yet, the people, known for their felt tents that they call gers, say life is better since communism collapsed in 1990 and they were freed from their collectives.

They not only have the freedom to raise their own herds of camels, yaks, sheep, and cows, but they can sell their wool in China to the south. The Gobi divides the northern Mongols from their southern kinfolk in China. Yet neither the desert nor political boundaries can keep these two peoples apart.

Four times a year, they are allowed to cross over into China for two weeks of trading. "We sell the wool in China because it is more profitable," says Monhtuya, who tends 20 camels and 50 sheep and goats. Forced to move four times a year because of the region's dryness, the woman says she and her husband can dismantle their gear and be on the move in one hour.

Dinosaur fossils

The Gobi is also home to some of the world's major dinosaur fossils. In the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews, an American adventurer, first discovered dinosaur eggs at Ulaan Usu in the desert. The find confirmed that dinosaurs really laid eggs and opened up new avenues of exploration at the remote Mongolian site that Andrews christened "Flaming Red Cliffs."

Today, jeeps and vans of tourists retrace Andrew's steps to the deep red gully, although egg-hunting by the public is officially illegal. Yet, at this site and other rich repositories of dinosaur remains in the Gobi, teams of Mongolian, American, Russian and, for the first time this year, Chinese researchers continue to dig out the past.

Rinchen Barsbold, director of the Geological Institute at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, says Mongolia, along with the United States, has produced the major paleontological finds of this century. In his Ulan Bator office, he opens a plastic case to reveal a broken, fist-sized egg containing the embryonic skeleton of an oviraptor. The fossil was discovered in the Gobi by an American-led expedition, which was allowed after Mongolia's communist system fell in 1990.

Since then, the pace of exploration has picked up. "Mongolia is still very rich with dinosaur fossils," says Dr. Barsbold. "From the standpoint of museums, you could say that the big skeletons are important. But from the standpoint of research, now the smaller ones are more significant."

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