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Mongolia's Gobi Desert: Land of the Flaming Cliffs, Dinosaurs and Dino Eggs

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John likes to travel and considers himself a "Life-Long-Learner." He spent a month in Mongolia studying its history and culture.

Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert with superimposed image of an Ovirapotor Dinosaur on a Clutch of Eggs

Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert with superimposed image of an Ovirapotor Dinosaur on a Clutch of Eggs

I woke up early that morning, my mind eagerly anticipating our excursion to the famous Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia. As I lay in my bed inside one of the gers in our Mongolian camp deep within the Gobi, I thought with gratitude of the many Mongolian memories my wife and I were making during our month-long visit with our son and his family who lived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Ger Camp Deep within the Gobi Desert

Ger Camp Deep within the Gobi Desert

Before this trip, I know very little about the Gobi Desert, Flaming Cliffs, and Dinosaurs. Now I wanted to learn all I can. I wanted to know more about the Gobi, its formation, its history, the birds and beasts who lived there, the Mongolian people who make it an important part of their life, and the remarkable explorer who led the expedition that for the first time ever discovered dinosaur eggs.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

The Fascination of the Gobi Desert

World-famous naturalist, explorer, and adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews led several seminal expeditions into the Gobi during the early 1920s, during a time of unsettled political struggles in the region. Mongolia was still under the Chinese thumb, and Andrews was among the first outsiders to be allowed to explore the Gobi. In his amazing autobiographical work, Andrews describes his route northward from Peking (now Beijing):

Mongolia, a land of mystery, of paradox and promise!

The hills swept away in the far-flung graceful lines of a panorama so endless that we seemed to reach the very summit of the earth.

Never could there be a more satisfying entrance to a new country."

— Roy Chapman Andrews

Andrews's grand entrance to this strange world was a route from Peking to Kalgan (now Zhangjiakou) and crossed through the Great Wall of China toward Outer Mongolia and then to Mongolia itself.

Andrews traveled hundreds of miles with a caravan of camels laden with supplies and gasoline and motor cars. We today would travel in a Toyota Land Cruiser a distance of only about an hour from our ger camp deep in the Gobi to the Flaming Cliffs.

driving through the Gobi Desert

driving through the Gobi Desert

The scenery along our route was like another world. Endless vistas of flat and sometimes slightly rolling landscapes framed by a hazy line of mountains along the horizon.

I was fascinated by the occasional birds and herds of horses and camels we saw. This part of the Gobi was not the piled-up mountains of sands prevalent in the Sahara, but a treeless, sand-and-stone plain covered with short, brownish-green, grassy vegetation.

Panoramic View of the Flaming Cliffs

Panoramic View of the Flaming Cliffs

The Gobi Desert—The Waterless Place

The Gobi Desert covers 500,000 square miles, making it the fifth- or sixth-largest desert in the world. It is one of the harshest environments on the planet, with extreme temperature changes. One can think of the Gobi consisting of over two dozen distinct environments. Much of the ground is covered by rocks, not sand.

One of the main causes of a desert is a lack of rainfall. Mountains around parts of the Gobi cause clouds to release rainfall in the mountains, and leaving the Gobi in a vast "rain shadow." In Mongolian, "Gobi" means "waterless place."

Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert

Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert

The Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert

It was late in the afternoon when our Land Cruiser arrived near the Flaming Cliffs. The ground was reddish sandstone. The red glow of the evening sun intensified the red in the landscape around us. For me the best description of what we saw was written by John Man in his book, Gobi: Tracking the Desert:

We drew up on a platform at the edge of cliffs. I had in mind that the drop would be a sharp one. But these rocks were not hard enough to preserve sheer falls and sharp edges. Opposite, the sandstone jutted up in proper cliffs, but in many spots, the edge simply fell away into an angled descent made by rain-washed windblown detritus. Below a peninsula of sandstone reaching across the valley floor fell away at its tip into a rubble which merged with the alluvium, washed smooth by the storm. A mile to the south, the ochre turned to green where the saxauls grew.

The cliffs are made up of wonders -- the variety of fallen rock, and the interplay of ochres, reds, and grey, and the shadowed and secretive clefts.

Like a fairy city, it is ever-changing.

In the flat light of midday, the strange forms shrink and lose their shape, but when the sun is low the Flaming Cliffs assume a deeper red, and a wild mysterious beauty lies with the purple shadows in every canyon."

— Roy Chapman Andrews

The Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert

The Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert

Roy Chapman Andrews: A Real-Life Indiana Jones

In his classic film directed by Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark, George Lucas projects the real-life flamboyant naturalist, explorer, and adventurer, Roy Chapman Andrews, upon the character of Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford.

It was just about 100 years ago that Andrews first explored the Gobi Desert. At this very spot, the Flaming Cliffs, he and his team made the first-ever discovery of real dinosaur eggs, and the first discovery of the dinosaur who produced the eggs, and the first to prove that dinosaurs laid eggs. He was the first to call this place The Flaming Cliffs, a name that continues to this day.

Since my trip, I have read several books about Andrews, his expeditions, and the Flaming Cliffs. In my mind's eye I can see him riding his strong, smart, and faithful Mongolian horse, "Kublai Khan," racing across the Gobi, standing up the saddle, the wind blowing in his face, rifle in hand, chasing a prized animal specimen for the Asia Collection at the American Natural History Museum.

In his riveting autobiography, Andrews writes about his encounters with bandits, discovering gruesome battlefield scenes with the remains of soldiers killed in the raging struggles that were happening at that time.

Andrews made multiple expeditions into the Gobi during the early 1920s until 1930 when all further American expeditions were closed due to political upheavals in China and Mongolia. It was not until 60 years later—after Mongolia declared its independence and broke away from communism in the early 1990s—that expeditions that included explorers from the American Museum of Natural History were able to resume in the Gobi with an expedition led by AMNH's Michael Palocek, the narrator of the below video.

Fossil Hunting in the Gobi Desert Nearly 100 Years Ago with Roy Chapman Andrews, Narrated by Michael Novacek

Michael Novacek: Co-Leader of American-Mongolian Expeditions in the 1990s

Mongolian Paleontologists

During the 60 years when the Americans were not allowed in the Gobi, it was Mongolian scientists who—with partners from Russia, Sweden, Poland, and other countries—continued Gobi expeditions, collected fossils, and made major discoveries.

Mongolian scientists are credited with important contributions crucial to our understanding of the life and evolution of dinosaurs in the Gobi. Here are just a few:

  • Dr. Rinchen Barsbold is a leading authority on the therapods of the Gobi. He pioneered the idea of "ornithization" of therapods—or the evolution of feathered dinosaurs into the birds we see around us today.
  • Paleontologist Dr. Bolortsetseg Minjin is credited with numerous dinosaur discoveries in the Gobi and helping Mongolians to learn about the dinosaurs in their country. She was a leader in establishing the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, founded in 2007. She is the daughter of the late Mongolian paleontologist Minjin Chuluun.
  • Dr. Demberelyin Dashzeveg, world-famous Mongolian paleontologist (and guide for the 1990 expedition by Dr. Michael Novacek described in his book highlighted above), knows the Gobi extremely well and played a major role in the expedition described by Novacek.
greyscale drawing of Oviraptor sitting on a clutch of eggs

greyscale drawing of Oviraptor sitting on a clutch of eggs

Who Was the Famous Dinosaur Found at the Flaming Cliffs?

The famous find by Andrews's expedition at the Flaming Cliffs was a clutch of real dinosaur eggs. This clutch of eggs was found beneath the bones of a dinosaur. Who was this creature? What kind of dinosaur was it? How old was it? How did it die? So many questions were raised by this find that paleontologists would be seeking answers for years afterward.

The answer is that the bones were given the name "Oviraptor," which literally means egg thief. The thought was that this creature was caught in the act of stealing eggs. Later discoveries found the same type of eggs with real embryos still within. New interpretations revealed that the creature was not stealing the eggs, but actually brooding them. But the name stuck, so Oviraptor it is.

Who was the creature? The adult Oviraptor was a relatively small, feathered dinosaur just over 5 feet long, weighing 73–88 pounds, with a well-developed, toothless beak. It had a crested head, arms that ended in three clawed fingers, and legs with four toes. It lived during the late Cretaceous period, about 71–75 million years ago.

The creature was most likely killed while brooding its eggs during a violent sandstorm that rapidly covered the entire collage. The bones and eggs were well preserved by the arid environment of the Gobi.

Dinosaurs, Museum of Natural History, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Dinosaurs, Museum of Natural History, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Dinosaurs Are Recognized as Part of Mongolia's Heritage

Sedimentary formations and conditions in the Gobi desert make Mongolia one of the most productive areas in the world for finding well-preserved fossils. Along with paleontologists in the rest of the world, Mongolians have made major discoveries in the Gobi. But the fossils discovered in Mongolia belong to Mongolia!

Major progress has been made in preventing fossil theft and illegal export and repatriating illegal fossils found in other countries.

Dinosaurs now play an important role as part of Mongolian heritage. Educational and outreach programs bring dinosaur knowledge to communities all across Mongolia. Dinosaurs are featured as part of Mongolia's tourism appeal.

The Institute for the Study of Dinosaurs was established. New museum projects included the reuse of the former Lenin Museum as a Dinosaur Museum. A major new Dinosaur Museum is proposed in the area of The Flaming Cliffs. The Museum of Natural History in Mongolia features dinosaur exhibitions.

One cannot go shopping in Hunnu Mall in Ulaanbaatar without being made aware of dinosaurs. At the time of our visit, a giant creature was featured in the center court and there was a large dinosaur museum accessible from the court.

Dinosaur in Hunnu Mall Center Court, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Dinosaur in Hunnu Mall Center Court, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Readings and References

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