Although it’s only the fifth largest desert in the world, the Gobi Desert is the most expansive arid region on the Asian continent. The desert spans two countries, covering parts of northern and northwestern China and up into southern Mongolia. A rain shadow desert, Gobi suffers from having most of its rain blocked by the Himalayas. However, this doesn’t mean the region receives zero precipitation. In fact, the Gobi gets about 7 inches of rainfall each year.
Gobi is a cold desert, thanks to its northern location and height, roughly 1520 meters (5,000 feet) above sea level at the area’s highest points. As a result, sometimes frost and even snow can be seen capping Gobi’s dunes. Temperatures can fall as low as minus -40 °C (-40 °F) in the winter. Summer is no picnic either, with the heat occasionally rising to 45 °C (113 °F) in summer. The desert is also far less sandy than other deserts. Instead, the desert floor is mostly bare rock, due in most part to the high winds that whip across the plateau. Gobi may be the fifth largest desert on the planet, but the area actually contains five distinct ecological regions: The Eastern Gobi desert steppe, the Alashan Plateau semi-desert, The Gobi Lakes Valley desert steppe, the Dzungarian Basin semi-desert, and the Tian Shan range.
The Eastern Gobi desert steppe covers the easternmost region, encompassing 281,800 square kilometers. This region spans the area from the Inner Mongolian Plateau in China northward into Mongolia itself. There are many salt ponds and low-lying areas in the Eastern Gobi, as well as the Yin Mountains.
The Alashan Plateau semi-desert sits to the west-southwest of the Eastern Gobi desert steppe. Most of this plateau is made up of desert basins and low-lying mountain ranges, including the Gobi Altai range, the Helan Mountains, and the Qilian Mountains.
The Gobi Lakes Valley desert steppe lies between the Khangai Mountains and the Gobi Altai range, north of the Alashan Plateau.
The Dzungarian Basin semi-desert is situated between the Tian Shan range in the south and the Altai mountains to the north. The area extends from the southeastern corner of Mongolia into China, covering the northern part of Xinjiang province in China.
The Tian Shan range acts as a border between the Dzungarian Basin and the Taklamakan Desert to the west. The Taklamakan is deemed separate from the Gobi because of its sandy basin surrounded by high mountain ranges.
A lot of history has happened across Gobi’s dunes, too. The desert is home to the first fossilized dinosaur egg ever found, as well as many other important fossil discoveries. It was part of the great Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in history, during the 13th and 14th centuries. Gobi also contained a few important cities for traders to stop and rest while traveling the Silk Road from Europe to China. The Italian explorer Marco Polo encountered Gobi’s fabled cities on his epic 24-year journey through Asia back to Venice, which he recounted in his book “The Travels of Marco Polo.”
The Gobi Desert continues to grow, and its rapid growth is alarming its neighbors. China is hardest hit, losing valuable grassland to the expanding desert. The Chinese government has announced plans to plant the Green Wall of China, a line of new forest intended to slow the desert’s expansion.
Even thought its expansion threatens human habitation, the Gobi remains a distinctly beautiful area of the planet, with a rich history buried beneath its surface.