The Gobi Desert

gobi desert

The Gobi Desert is the largest desert region in Asia and the fifth largest desert in the world. This huge expanse spans over parts of northern and northwestern China and heads deep into southern Mongolia. To the north, it is bordered by the Altai Mountains and the Mongolian grasslands, while to the west it is separated from the Takla Makan Desert only by the snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains. The Hexi Corridor and Tibetan Plateau rest at its southwest and the North China Plain is to the southeast. Bordered by rugged cliffs, snowy mountains, and lush grasslands, the rich diversity of scenery that can be found throughout the desert is truly breath-taking.

It covers an estimated area of 1,300,000 square kilometres (500,000 sq. mi), making it larger than the countries of Germany and France combined! Though romanticised depictions of this colossal desert portray it as a massive expanse of golden sand, it’s mainly made up of bare rock. This means that, in a scene worthy of the film Mad Max, visitors can easily traverse large sections of the Gobi from the comfort of their jeep.

It can be separated roughly into several regions: the Gaxun Gobi, Junggar Gobi, and Trans-Altai Gobi in the west; the Eastern or Mongolian Gobi in the centre and east; and the Alxa Plateau or Ala Shan Desert in the south. The landscapes of these areas vary wildly from barren desert steppe to inhabitable semi-desert.

Since it rests at a high altitude far to the north, the temperature fluctuations between seasons and even throughout the day can be incredibly vast. Temperatures can soar to scorching heights of up to 45 °C (113 °F) in July but then plummet to icy depths of −40 °C (−40 °F) in January. The northeast enjoys a decent level of rainfall, which allows sparse vegetation to grow, but some of the more arid areas can go without rain for up to three years! The strong north and northwesterly winds whip up sand and snowstorms throughout autumn, winter, and spring so, in short, don’t buy a holiday home in the Gobi Desert!

SV-AS3  ImageDataIn the more hospitable semi-deserts, several large mammals such as wild camels, dzheiran gazelles, and Przewalski’s horses roam freely. There is even a subspecies of brown bear known as the Gobi bear, which is the only desert dwelling bear in the world, although it is estimated only approximately 50 remain in the wild.

With such an unforgiving climate, it’s unsurprising that the population density of the region is low. The vast majority of people living in and around the Gobi desert are of the Mongol ethnic minority, although there are now also large constituencies of Han people. Nomadic pastoral farming is the main occupation, with herders raising cashmere goats, sheep, large-horned cattle and Bactrian camels, as well as a small handful of horses.

These nomads migrate several times throughout the year and can travel upwards of 190 kilometres (120 mi) between grazing sites. To put that into perspective, if you were travelling about 95 km/h (60 mph) by car it would take you about 2 hours to get from one grazing site to another, so imagine how long it would take driving a herd of animals on foot!

Historically, it was part of the great Mongol Empire throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, and the southern part of the Alxa Plateau formed one of the major routes along the Silk Road. This gave rise to the magnificent Mogao Caves, which stand as a testament to the many travellers that passed through the Gobi in ancient times. This collection of Buddhist temples dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries can be found near Dunhuang City in Gansu province and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Gobi desertThe Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park in southern Mongolia rests in the north of the Gobi and is home to several rare species of animal, including the Gobi camel and the snow leopard. A huge stretch of sand dunes known as the Khongoryn Els extend across 100 kilometres (62 mi) of the park and are up to 300 metres (980 ft.) in height. It’s also home to the famous mountain valley known as Yolyn Am, which is so deep that the ice at its base never thaws, even during the scorching hot summer!

Explore the Gobi Desert on our tour: Explore the Silk Road in China

The Mogao Caves

In the extreme northwest of Gansu province lie the cliffs of Mogao, forming the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha and rising over the Dachuan River just 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) southeast of Dunhuang. The 492 caves dotted across the cliff-face were each hand-carved and were used to store some of the greatest Buddhist art in history, including over 2,000 painted sculptures, thousands of murals, and all manner of beautiful relics.

This colossal achievement began sometime during the 4th century and ended roughly in the 14th century. Unsurprisingly it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and now remains one of the most popular attractions in Gansu. After all, when you’ve put one thousand years-worth of effort into something, you’d expect it to at least get noticed!

The cave complex is separated into two sections: the northern caves, which functioned as living quarters, meditation chambers, and burial sites for the monks, and are artistically quite plain; and the southern ones, which were used for pilgrimage and are far more decorative. Like the good cups and saucers, the best paintings and sculptures were wheeled out only for visitors!

The history behind these caves begins, rather unexpectedly, with failure! During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), an envoy named Zhang Qian was sent on an expedition to the ancient country of Bactria, but this venture proved unsuccessful. In a panic, the Han court built long sections of garrisoned walls along the northern frontier and, as a result, the city of Dunhuang was established as a military post in 117 BC. Rulers vied for control over this stretch of land since it contained the Hexi Corridor, which was an integral part of the ancient Silk Road and thus an invaluable asset at the time. Just imagine owning shares in Microsoft, and you’re on the right track!

mogao caves 02Frequent conflicts meant that Dunhuang would regularly be cut off from the imperial court for long periods at a time, and this enabled the city to become far more cosmopolitan. Merchants, scholars, and monks from across Asia would settle in the city, propagating anything from Buddhism and Nestorianism to Persian rugs and Egyptian cotton! Separated from the state as it was, this meant that the building of the Mogao Caves could begin in 366 AD, even though the imperial court didn’t acknowledge Buddhism as a religion until 444.

According to an ancient book known as the Fokan Ji by Li Junxiu, a monk named Le Zun started carving out the caves after he had a vision of one thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light. This is why the Mogao Caves are occasionally referred to as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. As more monks travelled to join Le Zun, the site swiftly flourished, although it initially served only as a place of meditation for monks and didn’t become a place of worship for the public until the Sui Dynasty (581-618). It reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when evidence suggests there were well over 1,000 caves. So it seems Le Zun’s vision was right, give or take a few caves!

Each cave was elaborately painted and served a purpose, whether it be to aid meditation, provide a visual representation of enlightenment, or simply to serve as a teaching tool for those who were unaware of Buddhist scripture. Yet interestingly not all of the caves are religious, as several of them depict secular themes such as pivotal moments in Central Asian history.

The complex boasts a great variety of painting styles, with the earlier caves showing more of a Western influence and those built during the Tang Dynasty onwards incorporating an amalgamation of Chinese and Central Asian styles known as the Dunhuang style. Some of the most decorated caves have paintings all over the walls and ceilings. It’s hard enough just painting a single room one colour, so imagine trying to cover it with beautiful murals!

In terms of the sculptures, the most famous are two giant statues of Maitreya Buddha[1], one towering in at nearly 36 metres (118 ft.) and the other a respectable 27 metres (88.5 ft.). The former was constructed in 695 and has had to be repaired multiple times, meaning only the head retains its original appearance. The latter was completed in 741 and is in far better condition, with only the right hand having been replaced.

mogao caves 03Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, the site gradually declined and construction of new caves had ceased entirely by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). As Islam slowly conquered much of Central Asia and the Silk Road was superseded by sea-routes, the popularity of Dunhuang and Buddhism plummeted. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the city was steadily abandoned and the Mogao Caves were all but forgotten. The 20th century saw renewed interest in the site, where it became popular once again as a place of worship.

By this time, many of the caves had been blocked by sand and a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan-lu set about uncovering them. In 1900 he made perhaps one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century; a walled-up cave containing 45,000 manuscripts! This vast ancient library housed 1,100 bundles of scrolls and over 15,000 paper books, ranging in topic from Buddhist scriptures to historical records. Unfortunately Wang opted to sell numbers of these manuscripts to foreign archaeologists such as Aurel Stein and his reputation suffered greatly as he was condemned for the loss of these artefacts.

The cave originally functioned as a memorial for a resident monk named Hongbian and served as his personal retreat during his lifetime. The documents in the cave range in date from 406 to 1002 and were found alongside other Buddhist paraphernalia such as figurines, textiles, and banners. It appears to have been sealed sometime during the 11th century, although historians are not exactly sure why. Some believe it was simply a repository for preserving documents, while others suggest that it was closed up to protect the contents from an incoming invasion. Perhaps, even in death, Hongbian was just a little tired of people constantly walking in and out of his private hideaway!

While the majority of manuscripts are in Chinese, several are in various other languages including Tibetan, Uyghur, Sanskrit, and even Hebrew. The grandest discovery came in the form of the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to 868 AD and is the earliest printed book in existence. The insight these works have given into the history of Central Asia is invaluable and the illustrious heritage of the site echoes throughout its many caves.

[1] Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.

Mogao Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

Gansu Province


With the Yellow River winding its way to the south and the Qinghai-Tibetan, Mongolian, and Loess plateaus dominating the north, the geography of Gansu province is one of the most complex in China and has resulted in an unpredictable climate. Generally speaking, the south is subtropical while the north is arid and temperate. Sharp temperature fluctuations between summer and winter can range from −7 °C (19 °F) in January to 27 °C (81 °F) in July. Yet the surrounding mountains, broad plateaus, winding rivers, and sudden temperature changes only add to the province’s charm. After all, who doesn’t love a snow day or a sunny afternoon; even if they are in the same week!

A huge Neolithic site called Dadiwan was recently excavated in the eastern part of the province and indicates that the area has been inhabited since approximately 6000 BC. However, the most historically prestigious part of the province, known as the Hexi Corridor, rests just 190 kilometres (120 mi) northwest of the provincial capital of Lanzhou. As early as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the Chinese imperials used this passageway to connect China with the far west.

By the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), this flat stretch of land was one of the main routes along the Silk Road and became a centre for cultural exchange between China and Central Asia. Caravans richly laden with teas, silks, porcelain, and all manner of luxury items crossed this vast plain heading to markets as far away as Rome! The city of Dunhuang was perhaps the most significant stop on this road, as it was the last oasis city where travellers could rest before embarking on the dangerous journey around the Taklamakan Desert. They wouldn’t stop again until finally reaching Kashgar in Xinjiang, so praying for a safe journey was particularly important to them.

This perhaps explains why so many temples and grottoes can be found in and around Dunhuang. It seems the local merchants thought the more temples there were, the safer they would be! These religious sites contain stunning murals that have taught historians much about the lifestyle and culture of the ancient people that once lived there. The province was finally given the name “Gansu” during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), as it was comprised of two pre-existing districts known as Ganzhou and Suzhou.

Nowadays the Han Chinese represent the ethnic majority, although there are large constituencies of Hui, Mongol, Salar, Uyghur, and Tibetan people. The southwest corner in particular is largely dominated by Tibetan settlements. That being said, the resident Mongol and Tibetan populations have largely abandoned their nomadic way of life in favour of sedentary villages. When it gets as cold as −7 °C (19 °F) in the winter, you can certainly see the appeal of a solid, warm house over a tent!

In terms of religion, the Hui, Salar, and Uyghur people follow Islam, while the Tibetan and Mongol ethnic groups tend to adhere to Tibetan Buddhism. This means that mosques, lamaseries, and temples can be found littered throughout the province. So it doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, or just plain curious; Gansu has somewhere for you!

The province has enjoyed great fame in recent years for its spectacular tourist attractions, which combine historical insight with artistic beauty. Among these, the Mogao Caves just outside of Dunhuang are perhaps the most celebrated. They are a Buddhist temple complex that is home to some of the most spectacular religious paintings in the country, most of which date back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). They were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as early as 1987 and house a vast library, within which many invaluable Buddhist texts have been found.

Bingling Temple is a similar such complex and is located in a canyon along the Yellow River. Phenomenally it dates all the way back to 420 AD and contains dozens of well-preserved carvings, sculptures, and frescoes, the most notable of which is a 27-metre-tall (88.5 ft.) statue of Buddha carved out of the rock.

The Labrang Monastery is one of the most prominent Buddhist monasteries to be found outside of Tibet and is located in the southern county of Xiahe. It was originally built in 1710 and houses over 60,000 religious and literary works. Another spectacular relic of China’s ancient past is the Jiayuguan Pass, which dates back to the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is one of the largest and most intact passes along the Great Wall. With all of these amazing historical sites to visit, you’ll welcome the opportunity to be stuck in the past!

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