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China’s Unknown Gobi
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China’s Unknown Gobi

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By Donovan Webster Photographs by George Steinmetz

Spring-fed lakes, thousand-foot-high sand dunes, and the ghosts of an ancient walled city lie at the heart of the remote Alashan Plateau.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

We trudge down the dune, surprising the lady who lives in the valley. Her name, Lao Ji tells us, is Diudiu, and she’s 72. She was born to a semi-nomadic Mongolian family near here. She never had children, and her husband died in 1974, leaving her as the last of her family.

With the same hospitality we’ll find across the entire Badain Jaran, Diudiu sets up for visitors. She goes inside her house and fills a tea-kettle with water from a small cistern, then walks outside to a mirrored solar collector the size of a TV satellite dish. At the dish’s center, where the rays of the sun will be focused, Diudiu snaps the kettle into an iron fitting, then she pivots the dish to face the afternoon sun. In seconds the kettle is smoking. Within three minutes, the water is boiling furiously. “I sold hair from my camels and sheep to buy this on the outside,” she says, turning the mirrored face of the dish from the sun to retrieve the kettle. “It keeps me from having fire going all day.”

Diudiu invites me inside her house. A wide earthen platform for sleeping and sitting occupies the back wall. The other walls are lined with wooden pantries and lockers; the boxes hold bags of rice and dried meat, a few potatoes and wild onions in baskets, and some extra clothes. In a corner a stack of folded blankets waits for winter. There’s a small hole in the roof for the chimney of Diudiu’s potbellied Mongolian stove, which is now outdoors for summer cooking. She sprinkles dried tea into the kettle’s hot water, then pulls out drinking bowls and a bowl of rock sugar. “Come and drink,” she says, motioning for me to sit.


Though winter can get cold, as cold as minus 30° Fahrenheit, she is prepared and experienced against it. Outside the house there’s a sheep and goat pen whose four-foot-tall walls are made of camel dung wetted and pressed into bricks. In winter these bricks, which burn hot, warm her house and provide cooking Ūre. She also eats four or five sheep each winter, deep-freezing what she doesn’t need by hanging the butchered carcass in a shady spot outdoors.


“See? I have everything,” she says. “I don’t understand the outside world. I know only eating, drinking, tending animals. This is what my parents did. Their parents. The young people today, once they leave the Badain Jaran, they never return. I don’t blame them. The old life of herding is coming to an end. Work in cities is the future. But for me, I will live in this place until I die.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The Buddhism practiced in the region of the Alashan Plateau is largely Tibetan Buddhism or a close variant of it. Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there are varying levels of monastic initiation requiring different sorts of vows. A man studying to be a monk may choose minimal initiation or he may decide to pursue higher vows. One of the higher vows is that of celibacy. While the celibate lifestyle is generally thought to be more spiritual and is more revered, many monks, such as the one featured in this article, choose not to be celibate.

—Elizabeth Connell

Principal Deserts of the World
This site offers brief descriptions of all the major deserts of the world.

Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada
Learn about the effects of wind on desert landscapes and how it helps to shape yardangs—the long ridges that characterize the northwestern part of the Alashan. This site also discusses the different types of deserts around the world.

Find all sorts of information about paragliding, the “flying machine” used by photographer George Steinmetz to take aerial photographs. This site provides information on paragliding competitions, equipment, employment opportunities, and even paragliding vacations.


Hedin, Sven. Across the Gobi Desert. E. P. Dutton & Company, 1932.


Delano, Marfé Ferguson. Desert, National Geographic Books, 1999.

Webster, Donovan. “Dinosaurs of the Gobi: Unearthing a Fossil Trove,” National Geographic (July 1996), 70-89.

Douglas, William O. “Journey to Outer Mongolia,” National Geographic (March 1962), 289-345.

Shor, Franc and Shor, Jean. “The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas,” National Geographic (March 1951), 383-415.

Andrews, Roy Chapman. “Explorations in the Gobi Desert,” National Geographic (June 1933), 653-716.

Le Munyon, Ethan C. “The Lama’s Motor-Car: A Trip Across the Gobi Desert by Motor-Car,” National Geographic (May 1913), 641-670.


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