Exploring the Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert covers parts of southern and eastern Mongolia. The desert basins of the Gobi are bound by the Altai Mountains in the west, and the grasslands and steppes of Mongolia in the north. The terrain of the Gobi is varied and includes sand dunes, gravel plains, scrublands, dry prairie, salt marshes, salt flats, willow breaks and mountains. Vegetation is sparse, but the soil of the Gobi is very rich.
The climate of the Gobi is more arid than other areas of Mongolia. The winters are bitterly cold, but summers are extremely hot. Rainfall averages only a little over 7 inches per year. Despite the harsh conditions, the Gobi Desert is home to many animals, including white and black-tailed gazelles, marbled polecats, Bactrian camels, Mongolian wild asses, brown bears, gray wolves and snow leopards. Several large nature reserves have been established in the Gobi, including the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, as well as the Great Gobi A and Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Areas.
Gurvansaikhan National Park
The Gurvan Saikhan National Park lies on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and was established in 1993 to conserve and protect the ecosystems of the Gobi region. It covers five million acres and extends 400 km (250 miles) east to west and 80 km (50 miles) north to south. The Park has beautiful gorges, mountains, spectacular sand dunes, and a variety of artifacts including dinosaur fossils. Many of the valleys, ridges and mountains of the Gurvansaikhan National Park are part of the eastern end of the Altai Mountain Range, which is located in western Mongolia and extends from northwestern Mongolia in a southern direction for 1200 km (750 miles).
The Park was named for the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains, which means “Three Beauty Mountains” and consists of three ridges – Western Beauty, Middle Beauty and Eastern Beauty. According to the folk legend, there was once a rich man with three beautiful daughters who were intent upon marrying three poor herdsmen. The girls’ father forbade them to marry the men of their choice, and in their terrible sadness, they ran away into the desert, where they remain to this day as the three ridges called The Three Beauties. Besides these three ridges, the National Park also includes a series of ranges stretching further south and across its entire length called Zoolon, Sevrei and Nemegt.
Eagle Valley (Yoliin am)
Eagle Valley, in the eastern Gurvan Saikhan Range (Eastern Beauty) is located 65 km west of the town, Dalanzadgad, in the South Gobi Province. This is the only place where you can see ice in the Gobi Desert, which is normally one of the hottest regions in Mongolia. It’s cooler here than other parts of the Gobi because its elevation is about 2800 meters (9200 feet) above sea level. It used to have thick ice in all sections of the valley throughout the year until the 1980’s but now, ice remains frozen only in some sections of the valley because of global warming.
Over the winter months, the river water builds up a thick layer of ice, and it thaws slowly. In winter, ice builds up to 10 meters high, this is marked in yellow on the wall of the gorge. The cliffs of the gorge rise so steeply that they block the sunlight from the river below so that parts of it remain frozen throughout the year. After a heavy rain, waterfalls run from the gorge, making the valley more spectacular. In most years, ice melts by the middle of July. This magnificent valley has a 40km long (25 miles) canyon, and streams run through this valley. The valley is wide at the entrance, but gets narrower as you go in further. Eagle Valley is a home to rodents like pikas and many birds of prey including eagles, vultures and buzzards. While walking through Eagle Valley to get to the ice, you will spot picas running, chasing one another and dragging grass into their burrows for winter consumption. It is good exercise to walk through this valley to enjoy the beautiful scenery, hear the whistles of picas and see the running streams. It takes about two hours to walk through Eagle Valley to see the ice and come back to the car, but after seeing the ice and exploring the surroundings, you will be glad you did.
At the gate on the main road to Eagle Valley, there is a small museum with collections of stuffed animals, minerals, dinosaur eggs and bones found in Eagle Valley, which date back 75,000-100,000 years ago.
The Dungenee Valley is also known as Dugany Am. This spectacular gorge is usually impassable and blocked with ice until July and, even then, the muddy road conditions may not permit access to the gorge. It is very narrow and some cars may be too wide, but the road leads to some amazing views and to the remains of a former Buddhist temple.
Khongor Sand Dunes (Khongoriin els)
“Khongor” sand dunes are 180 km (112 miles) away from the provincial town of Dalanzadgad, the South Gobi Province. These are the largest sand dunes in Mongolia, and known as the “Singing Dunes. “When wind blows over sand dunes, it produces unique sounds like an airplane engine landing or taking off. The sand dunes are over 100 km (62 miles) long, 6-12 km (4-7miles) wide and up to 400 meters (1300 feet) high. The dunes shifting sands are unpredictable. In order to climb to the top, you will have to make a little bit of an effort because it’s a bit challenging. Once you climb up to the top of the dunes, you will be so impressed by the beautiful view, which comprises blue sky, vast steppes, a river and herds of animals. The dunes are lower on the east side, but higher on its west side. If you get to the high sections of the dunes in the northwestern corner, you will have a chance to hear the sounds of the “singing dunes. “Another chance to hear the “singing dunes” is from the top. If you slide off the dunes by kicking your legs and pushing your two arms forward, it can be heard. On the other side of the sand dunes, you can see two mountains, one of which is “Sevrei” mountain where snow leopards live.
The dunes are bordered by lush green vegetation supported by a small river, Khongoriin Gol, which is fed by underground water sources from the surrounding mountains. Herding families graze their animals and horses along the Khongor River and oasis.
The Moltsog Sand Dune (Moltsog Els)
The Moltsog Sand Dune is a suitable place for those who don’t have enough time to visit Khongor or the “Singing Dunes.” The Moltsog sand dunes are 25 kilometers (15 miles) northeast of Bayanzag. The dunes are surrounded by saxaul trees and provide a pleasant alternative to the Khongor sand dunes.
Another interesting site in the Gobi is the Tugrugiin Shiree where fossils of the Fighting Dinosaurs, one of the most famous fossil finds in the world, were discovered. These fossils are on display at the Museum of Natural History in Ulaanbaatar. The two Fighting Dinosaurs included the fierce Velociraptor that was apparently buried alive while attacking a plant-eating, shield-headed Protoceratops.
Gegeetiin Am is a narrow gorge located in the Baruun Saikhan (Western Beauty) Mountains, and is a very popular birding site in Mongolia, known for its Lammergeyer Vultures, Himalayan Vultures, Bearded Vultures, Golden Eagles and many other smaller birds. The road is long, but it is spectacular with high cliff faces and a stream running between them.
The Mongolians know the Flaming Cliffs as “Bayanzag,” which means “many saxual trees.” The red sandstone cliffs and canyons of Bayanzag are located about 100 km (62 miles) northwest of the town of Dalanzadgad in the South Gobi Province.
Dinosaur Fossils of the Gobi
The Mongolian Gobi was first explored by an American explorer and naturalist, Roy Chapman Andrew, in an expedition in the 1920’s. Their aim in this expedition was to find the ancestry of humankind. However, they were unsuccessful in finding human origins, but along the way they discovered the first nests of dinosaur eggs ever found and dinosaur fossils in the Mongolian Gobi. Roy Chapmen Andrews found one of the richest bone yards in the world. To the Mongolians he was a “Dragon Hunter,” but to the rest of the world he was a fossil explorer who unearthed the mysteries of the Gobi Desert. He returned with a spectacular collection of fossils and stunning photos images.
After Roy Chapmen Andrew’s Expedition, joint Mongolian, Polish and Russian expeditions did excavations in the Mongolian Gobi and found a number of new species of dinosaurs including early mammals, dinosaur eggs, and prehistoric stone implements which were estimated to be 70,000-100,000 years old. However, in the late 1920’s the Communists seized power in Mongolia, and the open door to the West was shut. For the next 65 years, the fabulous fossil fields of the Gobi were forbidden territory but explorations later resumed.
Saxaul Shrubs (Haloxylon ammodendron)
The Mongolian name for saxaul is “zag.” The saxaul is a large shrub or small tree belonging to the cactus family that is frequently found in the Gobi and other parts of Mongolia. It grows slowly in the sand of the Gobi up to an average of about 3 meters. The plant appears nearly leafless, as the leaves are actually very small scales. The saxaul shrub blooms from March to April and produces over 100,000 seeds, so it can grow in large numbers with the right conditions in the desert. The saxaul is very drought-resistant, so it is well-adapted to the Gobi Desert and can survive its harsh climate, but it is dependent on underground water sources. The succulent branches of the saxaul are able to easily absorb and store water reserves behind the spongy bark, and they have vitamins and minerals that are good for camels, sheep and goats to eat. When the branches are burned for fuel, they produce heat equal to medium-quality coal, but because it was frequently used as firewood, there was a decline of saxaul shrubs.
Nowadays, most of the locals stopped using it for fuel since they realized the saxaul shrub is a very important plant for the ecosystem of the Gobi and prevents sand movement and erosion from the wind and helps slow desertification.
The Khavtsgait Petroglyphs from the Bronze Age (4000-3000 BC) are beautifully carved on many rocks on the top of a sacred mountain. It is easy to find the rock paintings there because they are spread on rocks all around. The area is very rocky and can be slippery to climb, but by carefully following a path up the mountain, you can reach the top to see these beautiful rock paintings.
The petroglyphs were carved and painted with motifs consisting of animals, hunting scenes and weapons. They depict various animals related to everyday life of ancient people including deer, bears, wolves and hunters, and wolves with livestock. Other paintings depict more domestic scenes of yaks pulling carts, the wheels and horses flattened sideways like hieroglyphs, and herders on horseback. The engravings vary in size, ranging from two-centimeters to the real life size of horses.
The Zulganai Oasis is small area in the Gobi that is formed from the Zulganai River, which originates from the nearby Mountain of Altan. It is an area that is very rich with succulent grasses, streams and lakes and is a perfect haven to attract wildlife and rare migratory birds. The Zulganai Oasis provides a stark contrast to the surrounding dry landscape of sand and shrubs.
Hermen Tsav is a spectacular canyon located about 400 km (250 miles) from the city of Dalanzadgad in the South Gobi Province. The canyon has a beautiful, large oasis about 6 km (3.7 miles) wide and 15 km (9 miles) long. The high cliffs (30 meters/100 feet) in the canyon were formed naturally from an inland sea bottom over 200 million years ago and contain fossilized remains of dinosaurs, turtles and crocodiles. Hermen Tsav is known for its stark beauty, but also for the full dinosaur skeleton found here in the past. Even now, one can sometimes see dinosaur bones and fossilized eggs on the ground.