The startling discovery I made on a dinosaur hunt in Mongolia


Harriet Compston battles intense desert heat, vast distances and lots of Mongolian pop music in her quest to find a fossil in the land of the Tarbosaurus
Harriet Compston battles intense desert warmth, huge distances and plenty of Mongolian pop music in her quest to discover a fossil within the land of the Tarbosaurus

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“This is 60km from nowhere,” my information, Byumba, proudly introduced. I squinted into the daylight throughout the burning crimson jumble of gargantuan shapes unfolding into the gap. We had lastly made it to Khermen Tsav, deep (significantly deep) inside Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

One of many world’s largest graveyards of dinosaur fossils, practically 20 completely different species have been found on this huge canyon, together with the Tarbosaurus (a detailed cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex), Gallimimus and Mononykus (which each made an look in Jurassic Park). Nevertheless, this behemoth’s distant, unforgiving nature has left it virtually unexplored. Shrouded in thriller, it hides a bounty of prehistoric treasures.

Dinosaur fossils are Mongolia’s fundamental boast: scientists have found 76 dinosaur genera within the foreboding terrain of the Gobi. Certainly, earlier this 12 months, a superbly preserved full dinosaur skeleton of a brand new species was unearthed right here – a raptor-like order generally known as Gobiraptor minutus.

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Khermen Tsav, deep (significantly deep) inside Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

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Caravans of sleepy double-humped Bactrian camels eyed us disdainfully, herds of fine-limbed horses grazed peacefully and flocks of cashmere goats mingled with a whole lot of sheep whereas black-tailed gazelles leapt within the distance.

Amongst them, nomadic herders wrapped in deels (the standard folded tunic) stored their livelihood in test. Their gers, spherical tents manufactured from felt, had been dotted like white specks among the many arid land. Quite terribly, Mongolians have lived like this for millennia.

Earlier than evening fell, we drew up at Tsagaan Suvarga. As soon as an historical sea mattress, these towering white sand cliffs are wealthy in marine fossils and are streaked with a kaleidoscope of pastel shades because of wind erosion. The large escarpment was exhilaratingly empty and it felt reasonably incongruous choosing up clam shells and easy seaside pebbles with no sea in sight.

That evening, we stayed with a nomadic couple. “Sain baina uu,” (“hello, how are you?”) I chirped earlier than being ushered into their ger. I recalled Byumba’s ger etiquette lesson: all the time transfer “sunwise” in a clockwise course and all the time again out when leaving. We had been greeted with suutei tsai – Mongolian tea, made up of water, milk, tea leaves and salt.

Difficult on the first sip, it was barely redeemed by the accompanying rusk-like boortsog, a deep-fried dough. Recent produce is restricted within the Gobi so it was tinned and dried meals any more.

A standard ger tent

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Shigher was tsuivan (noodles with canned mutton), half of which was gristle, which Mongolians imagine boosts power ranges. I had the luxurious of my very own personal ger, with the standard, ornately painted orange assist poles. There was no electrical energy, no operating water and solely a wooden range within the centre to maintain me heat.

On the primary morning, a stream of chilly air from the ger’s open prime woke me up. The Gobi is among the world’s coldest deserts, plunging to -23C (-9.4F) in winter. After a breakfast of the earlier evening’s noodles, we received again into The Beast. Kicking up swathes of mud, we drove for a bone-joltingly bumpy 4 hours earlier than halting atop the well-known “Flaming Cliffs”.

Often called Bayanzag, this fiery crimson creation was our first probability to search out dinosaur fossils. It was right here, in 1922, that the American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews (who was the inspiration for Indiana Jones) found the primary nest of dinosaur eggs.

This discovery served as a turning level in paleontological historical past, establishing that dinosaurs laid eggs. Over a interval of two years, Chapman Andrews went on to unearth the stays of greater than 100 dinosaurs within the Gobi.

Half a century later, in 1971, a fossil of a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor, locked in everlasting mortal fight, was found. Byumba and I wove our manner by the boulders and thorny branches of the saxaul bushes, one of many few crops that may survive these extremes. We stored our eyes peeled for the merest trace of a dinosaur fossil. However to no avail.

Roy Chapman Andrews’ expeditions to Mongolia led to nice discoveries

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The following day discovered us heading deeper into the desert. We drove throughout the snow-strewn mountains of the spectacular Yolyn Am, “the vulture’s mouth”, previous shaggy yaks. The climate was misleading; one second, torrid solar, the following, bitterly chilly. So chilly that within the 20th century, through the interval of management from Moscow, the Soviets used this place as a butchery and walk-in freezer for meat. Aspect-stepping the sheets of blue-veined ice that had begun to soften, we slid ourselves alongside the rocky outcrop, looking out for an ibex or snow leopard.

4 crimson-robed monks on horseback meandered previous, coming back from a ceremony round an ovoo – a sacred stone heap – within the gorge. As we handed growing herds of camels, Khongoryn Els (the “singing dunes”) loomed forward, a wash of yellow sand portray the panorama.

That night, we stayed with a household of camel herders who moved each two or three months, elevating and collapsing their gers to observe their herds. Uuree handled us to buuz (mutton dumplings) whereas her brother secured the camels for the evening.

As the day’s warmth ebbed, Byumba and I climbed the dunes; 1,000ft excessive and formed like breaking waves. It was an epic trek: two steps ahead, one step again, however the view from the highest at sundown was spectacular because the low solar solid lengthy shadows in opposition to the burning colors.

As we moonwalked down, the dunes did certainly sing, like a deep drone from an organ.

Setting out the following day, the panorama desiccated and the vegetation thinned. After eight hours and plenty of Mongolian pop music (a cacophony of throat singing and morin khuur, a two-stringed instrument), we arrived at our camp. By now, the menagerie of farming animals had regularly disappeared; solely the twisted saxaul bushes defiantly held on for all times within the undulating nothingness.

The spectacular Yolyn Am, ‘the vulture’s mouth’

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The proprietor was a eager prepare dinner, startling us by producing a rooster drumstick versus tinned mutton. Russian chocolate adopted. Russia does “very good candy”, Byumba reassured me. No gers had been constructed but, so I slept in a storage-type unit.

Breakfast introduced bantan – boiling water, droplets of flour and mutton – in 40C (104F) warmth. Khermen Tsav was 37 miles (60km) away and as we travelled, the gravel was silky gentle sand, which Bilge tackled like a soldier hurtling into battle. Twice, our wheels received caught and we needed to construct a “road” (as Byumba put it) by piling lifeless branches and stones for grip.

Paying homage to an historical ruined metropolis, Khermen Tsav is a mesmerising canyon. Named by Chapman Andrews as “the end of the world”, I felt humbled to have reached some of the hidden but biggest pure wonders on the planet – and we had it fully to ourselves.

We descended, The Beast virtually vertical, lurching backward and forward. Desert eagles swooped and lizards darted. Then, to my amazement, we noticed a pocket of poplar bushes with emerald inexperienced leaves – a startling shot of life.

Byumba and I looked for dinosaur fossils, analyzing the rocky lunar formations. Fossils have a special texture and color from plain rock. All of a sudden, I spied a big block of what at first look seemed like petrified wooden. Byumba and I bent down for a better inspection. It was bone marrow, crystallised and purple. I couldn’t fairly imagine it.

Fossils of a Velociraptor (left, a rendition) locked in fight with a Protoceratops (proper) had been found within the Gobi in 1971

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We brushed away extra sand, utilizing our fingers like toothbrushes. A rib. One other rib. And one other. A tail bone. We found three extra units of stays (ribs, vertebrae, some indeterminate fragments), though my bone marrow nonetheless stole the present. I jabbed it with my tongue, which is able to keep on with a fossil, due to the porous nature of the bone and its “sticky minerals”, not like a stone. They had been certainly fossils.

It’s extremely unlawful to take fossils out of Mongolia so we left them of their resting place, maybe to be found once more, maybe not.

As we made our 620-mile journey again throughout the desert, the journey hadn’t fairly completed. Battling a mud storm, we stopped on the ruined Ongi Monastery, as soon as residence to 28 Buddhist temples and 4 universities. Now, it lies in piles of rubble after 200 Buddhist monks had been massacred through the purges of the 1930s.

Subsequent we stopped on the Sum Khokh Burd temple, a ruined 10th-century palace on an island that’s wealthy in birdlife, with a shocking bevy of regal white swans.

Three days later, we arrived in Ulaanbaatar and our journey was over. It was an unnerving distinction. The Gobi appeared like a dream and our dinosaur fossils like a mirage.

Easy methods to do it

Wild Frontiers (zero20 8741 7390; gives a 13-day “Mongolia: Land of the Great Khan” tour from £2,585 per particular person together with lodging with all meals, guided excursions and transfers. Excludes worldwide flights.

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