The Gobi Desert. The fifth largest desert in the world is not a place I ever thought I would visit in my life. But when I found out it was a mere three hours away from our location in Inner Mongolia I decided that when life hands you an opportunity, it’s best to make sand sandwiches out of it.
The Gobi Desert, for all its size and grandeur, is one of the least desert-y of the deserts. In fact, most of it isn’t sand dunes but rather rocky terrain. (Only 5% of it is dunes.) But like all deserts it gets hot in the day and freezing cold at night. When we were there it rained. It actually rained in the desert. I guess we were lucky though because the clouds kept the temperatures down, and the small drops of rain felt nice. It never got harder than a sprinkle.
Our hostel in Hohhot,Inner Mongolia had a tour to the desert, and 7 of us went to an area over 3 hours away (to one of the few sand dune areas.). After a tumultuous five-minute jeep ride from the road to the dunes (puke city) we took a short camel ride. We signed up for the camel ride before we even got to the dunes (you only go to the desert once, right?) but the whole thing was a little sad, and I don’t want to condone it. (The camel’s looked okay, it was the way they were attached that bothered me. Strings of camels, ours was 7 camels long, were attached together very closely. Like, the camel behind me was tied up so close to my camel that his head was rubbing my elbow the whole time. They had such a short lead that they couldn’t lower or raise their heads on their own, and the later ones had a lot of trouble staying up with the lead camels especially going down hills and such. I wouldn’t do it again, or recommend it.)
We also had a lot of time to run up and down the dunes as much as we wanted. Everybody stayed in a close area (you could really get turned around and lost quickly in the desert) but there was plenty of space to also feel a little isolated.
The Gobi Desert has a unique ecosystem, and we saw lots of bushes, or shrub-like things growing out of the sand. Some of them even have small, pretty violet and blue flowers on them. Elsewhere in the Gobi desert there are small kangaroo-like rodents called jerboa, golden eagles (which eat jerboa), snow leopards (which are an endangered species), and the Gobi bear (an extremely endangered species. Only 50 are estimated to be alive today. The Gobi Desert is their only natural habitat.)
We didn’t see any of those, but we saw plenty of Homo erectus, as the area was a veritable sand dune playground. You could sled down the biggest dune, take a short sand dune buggy ride or play sand volleyball. My dad went off to search for lost hats he saw on the camel trail and we were convinced we would never see him again. As for Ryan and I we just tried to get away from the sand sock wearing Chinese tourists and find a quiet dune to walk around on.
The Gobi desert might not be as flashy and well-known as the Sahara Desert, but it is making its presence known in the world. The desert is slowly expanding, and as it does, it threatens everyone, from small farmers to major cities. Beijing is a mere 150 miles from the desert, and every spring (and summer) they have major sandstorms that threaten the city and force residences inside. (In 2007 one such storm dumped 364,000 tons of sand onto the city.) But the Gobi doesn’t just stop there. There was a “super-storm” in 2001 that sent a huge cloud of sand dust not just to Beijing, but across the Pacific and eventually covered America from Alaska to Florida.
But for Beijing, the growing desert is a long-term problem. It’s a very real possibility that at some point, the desert could encroach on the city, making living there near impossible. To combat it the Chinese government is trying to build another Great Wall to keep out the hoarding Mongolian sands. This time it’s a “Great Green Wall” of thousands of trees, shrubs and green living plants in an attempt to prevent further desert growth, and to keep the city, and western China, as sand-free as possible. The project was started in 1978, and has only seen a small degree of success in recent years. Still, the country is banking on it working, and is continuing to plant, and tend, tens of thousands of trees every year.
Of course as you stand in the desert, your toes sunk deep in the sand, the wind threatening to tear your hat off (and get sand in your teeth) you don’t think about the sandstorms in Beijing, or the local farmers who are losing their pastures. In fact, the wind seems to whip all the thoughts out of your head as you stand out looking over the dunes, with no sign of life anywhere. Sometimes nature’s beauty is a thing to behold.