John DeFrancis trekked across the Gobi in 1935, mostly on foot.
The term “Gobi” requires a bit of explanation. It is a Mongolian word with the literal meaning “gravel desert.” The term “Gobi Desert” is therefore redundant, but it is now firmly established in general usage, where it is applied to an area extending seven hundred miles from north to south and twelve hundred miles from east to west. This is centered along the border running east and west between Inner and Outer Mongolia.
But this huge expanse, the central portion of which is often designated “the Great Gobi,” actually consists of stretches comprising different kinds of terrain–sandy belts, barren rocky hills, patches of grassland, and gravel-covered soil. It is only the last of these, the gravel-covered stretches, that Mongols refer to as “gobi.” Foreign travelers in the area soon learn to use the term in both the restricted sense of the Mongols and the looser sense established by popular usage.
The distinction, which is sometimes expressed in writing by capitalization versus small letters, is important if we are to make sense out of a statement like “After crossing this sandy stretch we’ll have a belt of gobi before running into more sand.” When hoofing it through the desert one can hardly fail to be impressed by the differences in terrain and by the utility of the restricted Mongol usage of the term. And after slogging through a stretch of sandy soil it is a relief for one’s legs to come to a belt of good firm gobi.
We developed a refined feeling–literally a feeling–for the differences in the ground under our feet. Sight was not a completely reliable guide. Except for differences in color, one stretch of gobi often looked much like another. But our feet felt a difference.
Some stretches of gobi consisted of a thick layer of hard-packed gravel that held up well under our weight and made walking a pleasure. Others consisted of a thin covering of gravel on a friable crust that gave way to softer earth underneath. Walking over such terrain was almost as tiring as walking on sand.
There were differences between sandy areas too. Wind-blown sand that covered the ground with drifts and dunes was so tiring to walk on that we often made long detours to avoid such areas. Sand in dry riverbeds was occasionally somewhat compacted and so provided better footing.
Zhou said that there were actually five kinds of gobi–white, black, yellow, red, and blue. These colors refer to the kinds of gravel that covered the ground. The sand, soil, and rocks in their various hues added still more color to terrain that not only varied from place to place but changed shape before our eyes, sometimes because we saw the wind literally remaking the face of the land, always because in our progression we saw things from constantly changing perspectives. We found no little pleasure, or at least fascination, in the desert kaleidoscope.