What (and Where) Is the Gobi Desert?

The Gobi Desert is the largest desert in Asia and is home for many unique animals. “Gobi” is a Mongolian word that means “waterless place.” Unlike most deserts, the Gobi Desert isn’t just one cohesive region. It contains several different climates and landscapes throughout the vast area. It’s also known for having some of the harshest weather conditions and drastic temperature swings in the world. Here’s everything you need to know about the Gobi Desert.

Where Is the Gobi Desert?

Caravan of travelers on camels move through sweeping sand dunes of the Gobi desert
Credit: Teetat/ Shutterstock

The Gobi Desert is located in central Asia in both Mongolia and China. It’s the fifth-largest desert in the world and spans roughly 500,000 square miles. Mountains surround the desert on all sides. To the north are the Altai and Hangayn mountains, in the south you’ll find the Bei Mountains and Yellow River Valley, to the west are the Himalayas, and in the east you'll find the Da Hinggan range.

Landscape

Solitary tree growing out of the barren rocks in the Gobi desert under scattered clouds
Credit: Lukasz Kurbiel/ Shutterstock

While most people think of deserts as nothing but sand dunes, that’s only a small fraction of the landscape that makes up the Gobi Desert. Yes, there are some spectacular dunes and you can find camels wandering around in the desert, but that’s only about 5% of the total area. Most of the Gobi Desert is rocky and barren. The desert can be divided into five different regions:

  • Eastern Gobi Desert Steppe – the easternmost region of the Gobi. The steppe is a flat plain lacking larger vegetation like trees and shrubs.
  • Alashan Plateau – the largest region of the Gobi Desert located in the south and southwest parts of the desert. This region is filled with rocky, mountainous terrain. In the southernmost parts, you’ll find the iconic sand dunes that can reach heights of 1,000 feet.
  • Gobi Lakes Valley – located just north of the Alashan Plateau. This region contains several salt marshes and lakes. During the dry season, the lakes and the rivers that feed them frequently run dry.
  • Junggar Basin – found to the west of the Alashan Plateau, this area is similar to the Gobi Lakes Valley. It’s located between higher mountainous areas and can be filled with lakes and wetlands fed from snowmelt in the mountains.
  • Tian Shan Range – located in the westernmost parts of the Gobi. This region features some of the most rugged and isolated mountains in the area. Heights can reach up to 25,000 feet.

Climate

Aerial view of Gobi landscape showing dry, barren rocks and red sands
Credit: LunaseeStudios/ Shutterstock

The definition of a desert is a place that receives minimal precipitation throughout the year. Since there are so many different landscapes in the Gobi Desert, rainfall levels can vary depending on the location. The western parts of the desert receive the least amount of precipitation with less than two inches annually. The northeast gets a bit more and can reach eight inches of rain per year. Much of the water found in the desert is a result of snowmelt coming off the surrounding mountains and not from precipitation.

For most people, deserts are associated with heat, but that’s not always the case. The Gobi Desert is actually a cold desert that experiences some of the most extreme temperature shifts on the planet. Lows in the winter can reach -40 degrees Fahrenheit, while summer temperatures can frequently climb to 122 degrees. In addition to the massive seasonal swings, it’s not uncommon for the temperature to shift a full 60 degrees in a 24-hour period. Even with the extreme highs in the summer, the average temperature in the Gobi Desert is only 37 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire year.

Wildlife

Several large bactrian camels pace around Gobi desert landscape under cloudy skies
Credit: Jakub Czajkowski/ Shutterstock

Just because it has some of the harshest landscapes and climates in the world doesn’t mean that the Gobi Desert is a barren wasteland. Many unique animals call this region home and have adapted to living in such extreme conditions.

  • Bactrian Camels – Unlike their famous, one-humped African relatives, Bactrian camels have two humps for storing water. They’re especially built for surviving in such harsh conditions. Today, the species is critically endangered with only about 1,400 remaining in the wild. They can be found only in the Gobi Desert.
  • Golden Eagles – Living mostly in the mountainous areas of the desert, Golden Eagles are one of the largest birds of prey in the world with wingspans that can reach over six feet. They feed mostly on small rodents but are happy to eat just about anything they can catch.
  • Gobi Ibex – These wild goats like living in the high-altitude areas of the desert where they walk around effortlessly on the steep cliffs. They’re smaller than most other ibexes around the world because of the lack of vegetation for food.
  • Snow Leopard – As one of the rarest animals on earth, there are only about 500 wild snow leopards left in the wild, or so it’s believed. Snow leopards are notoriously hard to find due to their incredible camouflage and careful movements. They’re the top predators of the desert.

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