Gobian, adj.
/goh"bee/, n.
a desert in E Asia, mostly in Mongolia. ab. 500,000 sq. mi. (1,295,000 sq. km). Chinese, Shamo.

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also called  Gobi Desert,  
 great desert and semidesert region of Central Asia. The Gobi (from Mongolian gobi, meaning “waterless place”) stretches across huge portions of both Mongolia and China. Contrary to the perhaps romantic image long associated with what—at least to the European mind—was a remote and unexplored region, much of the Gobi is not sandy desert but bare rock. It is possible to drive over this surface by car for long distances in any direction: northward toward the Altai and Hangayn mountain ranges, eastward toward the Greater Khingan Range, or southward toward the Pei Mountains. To the west, 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) from the Gobi's eastern limits, lies the Sinkiang region, a great basin enclosed by the Plateau of Tibet to the south and the Tien Shan ranges to the north.

      The desert occupies a vast arc of land 1,000 miles long and 300 to 600 miles wide, with an estimated area of 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 square kilometres). In the present discussion, the Gobi is defined as lying between the Altai Mountains and Hangayn Mountains to the north; the western edge of the Greater Khingan Range to the east; the A-erh-chin Mountains, Pei Mountains, and Yin Mountains to the south; and the eastern Tien Shan to the west.

Physical features

      The Gobi consists of the Ka-shun, Dzungarian, and Trans-Altai Gobi in the west, the Eastern, or Mongolian, Gobi in the centre and east, and the Ala Shan Desert in the south.

      The Ka-shun Gobi is bounded by the spurs of the Tien Shan to the west and the Pei Mountains to the south and rises to elevations as high as 5,000 feet (1,524 metres). It is gently corrugated, with a complex labyrinth of wide hollows separated by flat hills and rocky crests sometimes rising more than 300 feet above the plain. The desert is stony and waterless, though salt marshes lie in the secluded depressions. The soil is grayish brown and contains gypsum. Vegetation is rare, though richer in the riverbeds, where there are individual shrubs of tamarisk, saxaulon and nitre bush (a saltwort), and annual halophytes (salt-tolerant plants).

      The Trans-Altai Gobi is situated between the eastern spurs of the Mongolian Altai and Gobi Altai mountains to the north and east, respectively, and the Pei Mountains to the south. The plain is elevated, sharp, and rugged. Alongside the plains and the isolated group of low, rounded hills is a fairly extensive mountain area that extends more than six miles out into the plain. The mountains are barren and broken up by dry ravines. The western section of the Trans-Altai Gobi is basically a plain, too, but it is interspersed with small raised areas and furrowed by dry riverbeds and, again, with extensive salt marshes. In the central portion this fragmentation increases, and mesas (flat-topped, steep-sided hills) appear along with dry gullies ending in flat depressions, occupied by takyr (clayey tracts). The Trans-Altai Gobi is parched, with annual precipitation of less than 4 inches (100 millimetres), though there is always water underground. There are virtually no wells and springs, however, and vegetation is very sparse and almost useless for livestock.

      The Dzungarian Gobi is north of the Ka-shun Gobi, between the eastern spurs of the Mongolian Altai and the eastern extremity of the Tien Shan. It resembles the Trans-Altai Gobi, and its edges are fractured by ravines, alternating with residual hills and low mountain ridges.

      The Ala Shan Desert (Alxa Plateau) is situated between the China-Mongolia border to the north, the Huang Ho (Yellow River) and Ho-lan Mountains to the east, the Ch'i-lien to the south, and the northern reaches of the Hei River to the west. It consists of a vast, nearly barren plain that rises in altitude from northwest to southeast. Large areas of the Ala Shan are sand-covered.

      The Eastern Gobi is of similar character to the western regions, with altitudes varying from 2,300 to 5,000 feet, but it receives somewhat more precipitation—up to eight inches per year—though with virtually no rivers. The underground waters are relatively abundant and only partly mineralized. They are also near the surface, feeding small lakes and springs. The vegetation, however, is sparse, consisting mainly of herb wormwood in coarse, grayish brown soil. In the moister depressions there are the usual salt marshes and grassy swamps. In the northern and eastern outlying regions, where more precipitation occurs, the landscape of the desert gradually becomes less harsh, sometimes even becoming steppelike.

      The Gobi's various chalky plains are chiefly Cenozoic in age (i.e., up to 66.4 million years old), though some of the low, isolated hills are older. The terrain contains small masses of shifting sands. In the central Gobi the remains of dinosaurs from the Mesozoic Era (245 to 66.4 million years ago) and fossils of Cenozoic mammals have been found. The desert also contains Paleolithic and Neolithic sites occupied by ancient peoples.

      The climate is acutely continental and dry: winter is severe, spring is dry and cold, and summer is warm. The annual temperature range is considerable, with average lows in January reaching -40° F (-40° C) and average highs in July climbing to 113° F (45° C); daily temperature ranges also can be quite large. The annual total precipitation varies from less than three inches in the west to more than eight inches in the northeast (the maximum falls in summer). Monsoonlike conditions exist in the eastern regions. North and northwestern winds prevail over the Gobi.

Drainage and soils
      Aridity in the Gobi depends on the relative chalkiness of the soil and has been aggravated by the strong mountain structure to the west. The lakes correspondingly have shrunk, leaving a series of terraces considerably farther from and higher than the present shorelines. Indeed, Lakes Orog and Bööntsagaan, in the easternmost Mongolian Altai, and Lake Ulaan, in the northwestern Gobi Altai, are but shadows of their former selves.

      The drainage of the desert is largely underground; surface rivers have little constant flow. Mountain streams are confined to the Gobi's fringes and even then quickly dry up as they disappear into the loose soil or the salty, enclosed depressions. Many rivers flow only in summer. On the other hand, subterranean water is widespread and of sufficient quality to allow cattle raising.

      The soil of the Gobi is chiefly grayish brown and brown carbonaceous (rich in carbon), gypseous (containing gypsum), coarse gravel, often combined with sandy salt marshes and takyr.

Plant life
      Vegetation, as mentioned above, is sparse and rare. On the plateau and on the plains beneath the mountains, small bushlike vegetation occurs: echinochloa (a type of succulent grass found in warm regions), yellowwood bean caper, winter fat (a shrub covered with densely matted hairs), Dzungarian reaumur, nitre bush, and bushlike halophytic vegetation. In the salt marshes, too, halophilous groups prevail: potash bush, Siberian nitre bush, tamarisk, and annual halophytes; in the sands grow saxaul, the sandy wormwood, and sparse perennial and annual herbs such as the Gobi kumarchik and timuriya. In semidesert tracts vegetation is richer, belonging to the herbaceous and wormwood groups: Gobi feather grass, the annual Gobi kumarchik (Agriophylum gobicum), the perennials timuriya (Timouria villosa) and snakeweed (Cleistogenes species), and cold wormwood. There are herb meadows with rhizome Mongolian onions and herb salt marshes with sparse beds of bushlike Caragana. In the Gobi Altai and other high mountains, desert-grass steppes completely cover the lower slopes, and, on the upper parts, mountain versions of the feather-grass steppes appear.

Animal life
      Animal life is varied, with such large mammals as the wild camel, the kulan (Equus hemionus), the dzheiran gazelle, and the dzeren (an antelope). Przewalski's horse, which once ranged in the western region of the desert, is probably extinct in the wild. Rodents include marmots and gophers, and there are reptiles.

The people and economy
      The population density is small—fewer than three persons per square mile (one per square kilometre)—mostly Mongols (Mongol) with Chinese in Inner Mongolia. The Chinese population has increased greatly since 1950. The main occupation of the inhabitants is nomadic cattle raising, though agriculture is predominant in regions where the Chinese are concentrated. The traditional living quarters of the Mongol nomads are felt yurts and orgers (types of tent), while the Chinese farmers live in clay homes built from crude brick.

      The province of the Gobi and its semidesert sections is mainly a livestock region, sheep and goats constituting more than half of the total herds. Next in importance are the large-horned cattle. Horses make up only a small percentage of the total and, together with the large-horned cattle, are concentrated in the lusher semidesert of the southeastern region. A fair number of the livestock consists of two-humped Bactrian camels, still used for transportation in some areas. Pasturage for cattle is available throughout the year because of underground waters. Livestock raising is nomadic, and herds move several times a year, migrating as much as 120 miles between extreme points.

      Useful mineral deposits are scant, but salt, coal, and light-metal ores are mined. Agriculture is developed only along the river valleys.

      The Gobi is intersected by railroads in the east and west. There are several highways, including those from the town of An-hsi to the town of Ha-mi across the Pei Mountains and the Ka-shun Gobi, from the town of Kalgan (northwest of Peking) to Ulaanbaatar, and from Ulaanbaatar to Dalandzadgad (some 300 miles south-southwest of Ulaanbaatar). In addition, various ancient caravan tracks crisscross the Gobi in all directions.

      Since the 1950s, population increase and the overuse of marginal lands have decreased vegetation cover and increased soil erosion, resulting in an overall expansion of the desert area of the Gobi at the expense of semiarid grasslands on the fringes. In the 1980s, industrialization in the Gobi intensified environmental pollution. A significant example is phosphate contamination of the groundwater caused by chemical fertilizer manufacture in the Hohhot (Hu-ho-hao-t'e) area, which has adversely affected local herds. Processes used to mine certain ores in large quantities, notably copper, also have increased contamination of the groundwater at other sites. High radiation levels caused by fallout have been detected in the western Gobi in the area around China's chief nuclear weapons test site near Lop Nor.

Study and exploration
      The ancient Silk Road traversed the southern part of the Ala Shan Desert and crossed the Ka-shun Gobi as it skirted north and west around the Takla Makan Desert. The Gobi region first became known to Europeans through the vivid 13th-century descriptions of Marco Polo (Polo, Marco), but it otherwise remained for them virtually unknown and untraveled.

      European interest in the region was rekindled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of geographic expeditions were launched by the Russians and British; and, though the main focus of these expeditions was the Takla Makan, most of them also went through the Gobi, where basic mapping and some study of the flora and fauna were conducted. Much of the geographic study of the Gobi since then was undertaken by Soviet investigators; the Chinese and Mongolians, however, have become increasingly active since the 1960s.

      The area of greatest cultural interest in the Gobi has been the series of Buddhist cave-temple complexes near the Chinese city of Tun-huang (Dunhuang). Dating from the 4th to the 10th century AD, these temples have been well preserved in the arid desert air, and the quality and quantity of their fresco paintings and texts has remained unmatched. Scientific study of the complexes began with the discovery in 1907 of the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas by the Hungarian-British archaeologist and geographer Aurel Stein (Stein, Sir Aurel).

Mikhail Platonovich Petrov Guy S. Alitto

Additional Reading
Information on the Gobi is available in surveys of explorations in the area: Jack Autrey Dabbs, History of the Discovery and Exploration of Chinese Turkestan (1963), a comprehensive introduction with a bibliography; and Sven Hedin, Central Asia and Tibet, trans. from Swedish, 2 vol. (1903, reissued 1969), and Across the Goby Desert (1931, reprinted 1968; originally published in Swedish, 1928). Other records of archaeological and geographic explorations in the area include Aurel Stein, Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China, 2 vol. (1912, reprinted 1987), and On Ancient Central-Asian Tracks: Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions in Innermost Asia and North-Western China (1933, reissued 1971); Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China (1940, reprinted 1988); Paul Pelliot, Les Grottes de Touen-Houang: peintures and sculptures bouddhiques des époques des Wei, des T'ang, et des Song, 6 vol. in 4 (1914–24); Peter Hopkirk, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (1980); and Basil Davidson, Turkestan Alive: New Travels in Chinese Central Asia (1957). Specific treatments of the Gobi are Mildred Cable, The Gobi Desert (1942, reprinted 1987); and Alonzo W. Pond, Climate and Weather in the Central Gobi of Mongolia (1954). An overview of the contemporary economic and social situation is presented in Terry Cannon and Alan Jenkins (ed.), The Geography of Contemporary China: The Impact of Deng Xiaoping's Decade (1990).Guy S. Alitto

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Universalium. 2010.

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