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GOBI by John Man


Tracking the Desert

by John Man

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-300-07609-6
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A spare, polished profile of the Gobi, Mongolia’s southern sweep of desert, long closed to most non-Mongolians, from journalist Man. In this welcome account of the high eastern-Asian vastness, Man spans the breadth of the desert from the remote southwest, where snow leopards ghost through the Altai Mountains, to the rocky archipelagos of the east, where roads are only a suggestion: “Turn left at the dead camel.” Wildlife crowds Man’s imagination, if not exactly the sere landscape, as he pursues vestigial populations of the near-mythic wild bactrian camels, the wild horses that made the Mongolian cavalry such a military presence in 13th-century Asia, the desert bear (whose numbers have been reduced to about 30), the returning wolf, and the wonder-working snow leopard, brought low between a rock (the value of the leopards” pelts) and a hard place (their timeless, prosaic conflict with sheepherders). Prehistoric wildlife also commands much of Man’s attention, as Mongolia is one of the world’s great fossil sites, and Roy Chapman Andrews, who discovered dinosaur eggs at the country’s Flaming Cliffs in the 1920’s, one of Man’s heroes. Man’s writing has the unadorned lines of Shaker furniture, only occasionally extravagant, as when overwhelmed by the Gobi’s ecclesiastical light, the purpling shadowplay, the rainbows that serve as living proof it is raining up there in the sky though it is so hot the drops evaporate before touching earth. He does justice, without becoming predictable, to the variety a traveler experiences in Mongolia: There is still such a thing as twilight, that faint aurora in the night’s western sky long banished from any locale where darkness has been sullied, and there is also the bane of modern economic dislocation in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dismemberment. A dangerous book. It makes the Gobi—the land and those that move upon it’so seductive that readers may forget it is a place that treats the incautious without mercy. (7 color and 12 b&w photos)