Mr N, the director of Camp Elstei has been telling me about the Gobi Desert and the excursions that await within. All part of the service: both the trip and the information, each of course being a part of the other. For a desert, I learn that there is more water than you might think: usually 1.5 metres beneath ground level, or so I am told. Yes, but what if the ground is covered by mountainous dunes or equally mountainous rock, I wonder?
Knowing it’s there is not the same as knowing how to access it of course, though in some areas it’s easier than others – you can stand in it. Scan the web for images and pretty soon the liquid of life starts to make itself apparent via the greenery that sprouts through the sand or the animals reclining by the river or watering hole. There are also areas that look so barren and frankly arid that I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in the middle of them with a flat tyre or a dead engine.
A quick look at a map will of course reveal the Gobi to be so vast that its terrain encompasses the relatively pleasant, the downright fascinating and the absolutely brutal. At roughly 1000 by 600 miles, several land masses the size of England would comfortably drop into it without touching the sides.
You’d need to know what you are doing to traverse it, or to be with someone who does, that’s for sure: even if only as a representative of the railway company from whom you have bought a ticket. Yes, parts of it are quantifiable and dependable enough to support a line whose track is monitored by intermittent Ger-dwelling employees, each rushing out to stand at uniformed attention as the rolling stock flies by. All is well.
I have to concentrate whilst Mr N relates his facts and figures as I am not quite au fait with the Mongolian accent at full strength, but his English is better than my (non-existent) Mongolian, and my elementary Russian isn’t going to cut it either. So, time to knuckle-down and pay attention. “White animals” come up frequently in his explanation of the Gobi’s highlights. I hear about white sheep, goats, camels, horses, cows, gazelles, ass, bears. (The part of the desert rich in wildlife is called the Bayan-Gobi.) Did he say eagles too?
I ask about their significance. Is this a Mongolian thing, the whiteness, does it signify something spiritually? I’m on the wrong track of course. No, it’s supposed to be interesting to me (!) as a potential tourist. White, just as with anywhere else is a rarity of course, with the ass and bear listed in the “Red Book” as creatures threatened by extinction.
Surely that’s Red List, right? Well, yes and no. The Red Data Book of the Russian Federation was Russia’s contribution to what we would call the Red List. Its first incarnation, published in 1978 was based on data captured from 1961-1964 and features animals, plants and fungi in various stages of decline, or occasionally (encouragingly) recovery. Since we’re on the subject, that’s “Probably extinct, Endangered, Decreasing number, Rare, Uncertain status, Rehabilitated and rehabilitating”.
So now you know. It’s been updated several times since the late 1970’s of course and has been joined controversially by several other, regional Red books. Doesn’t the main one cover it anyway? – it is asked. Also in the most gut-punching twist: a published list of “where all the rare animals are at” makes for a great poachers guide. Oh good grief.
Oh yes, remember that Gobi water found 1.5 metres below ground level? Well, those dunes above ground level can reach 200 metres! I don’t fancy digging through that to top-up my radiator.
More good news next week.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 109) Gobi (and Steppe) wanderings #2
[Photo by aleceast]