Most people envision unspoiled Mongolia as two ruggedly different environments: the barren Gobi Desert and vast steppes blanketed with grassland. But these two landscapes only paint a fraction of a remarkable canvas.
To start, the Gobi—one of the last great untraveled places on earth—is unlike any desert you’ve imagined. It is kept dry by the Himalayas, which prevent rain clouds from heading northeast. The Gobi is the third largest “hot” desert in the world, after the Sahara and the Arabian, and only three percent of it is actually covered by sand. The rest is a surprisingly diverse array of ecosystems: gravelly plains, exposed rock, soaring peaks, dizzying gorges, dense forest, and babbling springs. It all thrives with a miniscule amount of annual rainfall and supports a rich variety of wildlife. Little wonder that 13 million acres of the desert have been declared the Great Gobi Protected Area, and comprise Asia’s largest UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Within this massive reserve, Gurvansaikhan National Park—whose name translates into “Three Beauties” for its three mountain ranges known as East, Middle, and West Beauty—hosts some remarkable desert delights. The range is completely surrounded by desert, yet a semi-permanent ice field clings to its slopes. Elsewhere, in Eagle Valley, the stunning bearded vulture, or lammergeyer, rides warm thermals where deep gorges have been carved into the desert floor. You might imagine this raptor has been around since the age of the dinosaurs. If so, then its ancestors would have witnessed the reign of Velociraptors and Tyrannosaurids here; dinosaur egg fossils and other prehistoric remains of these beasts have been uncovered in the shadow of the Flaming Cliffs, breathtaking monolithic rock formations named for their vivid red sandstone.
Perhaps the Gobi’s most mesmerizing natural wonder are its Singing Sands. You might think it magical that these towering sand dunes would whistle like desert spirits sending a message to the living. But this is a natural phenomenon, not a ghostly one. These sands can only sing because of a unique recipe found only here and a few other places on earth: Start with specifically-sized grains of sand … make sure they contain silica … and adjust the sand’s humidity to a very precise level. Add a gust of wind, and listen to the sands sing.
All told, the Gobi is a colossal, dynamic living organism that’s been known to affect climates outside its borders. Easterly winds during Mongolia’s stormy seasons can kick up Gobi dust and carry it to China, even lingering over major cities like Beijing.
Heading west from the Gobi, tiny villages of round tented huts called gers dot the green steppes. Wild horses drink from spring-fed, pristine lakes. Perhaps a nomadic family journeys across an open plain, their yak and reindeer and provisions in tow. And perhaps they are headed to Khovsgol in the far northwest, Mongolia’s green paradise of forests, mountains, and lakes.
Just over Khovsgol’s Sayan mountain range of 10,000-footers, Russia’s great Siberian wilderness—the taiga, or subarctic coniferous forest—stretches in all directions. Sacred rivers course down alpine slopes and feed some of the purest lakes in the world, Lake Khovsgol among them, known as the “dark blue pearl.” It is the largest fresh water lake in the country, and the centerpiece of a protected national park area larger than Yellowstone.
Life is simple here … both for the locals who have learned to welcome travelers without harming their cherished way of life … and for visitors who quickly learn to slow down to a peaceful pace among forests of Siberian larch trees and magenta fireweed. This is about as remote as the Gobi, perhaps even more so, the kind of place where you can hear yourself breathe amidst the whispers of a pine-scented breeze.
Who knew Mongolia was so magnificent? Discover it for yourself during our Mongolia & the Gobi Desert trip. Click here to learn more!