Mapping Francis Younghusband in the Gobi Desert, 1887, Part 1: Kwei-hwa-cheng to Galpin Gobi

[Go back to the Introduction]

At the end of Chapter 4 of The Heart of a Continent, it is April, 1887, and Younghusband has travelled northwest from Peking to a town called Kalgan, and then to a further town—from which caravans to the far West depart—called Kwei-hwa-cheng.

I’ll begin by pulling in one of the most useful maps for following his route, Plate 62 from the 1922 edition of the Times Atlas (John Bartholomew and Son, London). We can obtain a scan of this at David Rumsey, and although it was published fully thirty-five years later than Younghusband’s journey, it seems to have continued to reflect British place naming for China, which is often what we need to know.

Zooming in on its northeast corner, to the area between Peking and the province of Inner Mongolia, we can see that in 1922 Kalgan was still shown as a variant name for the city of Chang-kia-kow. Today, in pinyin transcription, this is written Zhangjiakou (张家口 zhāngjiākǒu), and that’s how it shows up on Google Terrain.

Kwei-hwa-cheng had not yet in 1922 been renamed to Hohhot (呼和浩特 hūhéhàotè). But Hohhot has a Wikipedia page, and here we learn that one of its former names was Guihua, which in the 19th century transcription system used by the Times Atlas and Younghusband would have been Kwei-hwa. Cheng is a Mandarin word for “city,” so we can think of Kwei-hua-cheng as Guihua City.

Its name was changed for a time from Guihua to Guisui (this would have been Kwei-sui in Younghusband’s transcription), and then eventually, in 1949, to Hohhot. Hohhot is a variant on the Mongolian name Хөх хот [Höh hot] (which Younghusband writes as Kuku-khoto ) or Blue City.

So we can see that Younghusband’s initial direction from Beijing is west-northwest, which makes sense given that his ultimate destination is Hami. In fact, we can use the Times Atlas map to frame the area Younghusband must cross, from Kwei-kwa-cheng (far lower right) to Hami (mid far left).

What happens next? As he leaves Kwei-hwa-cheng on April 26th, Younghusband records that they ascend into the In-shan mountains:

We left Kwei-hwa-cheng by the north gate of the town, and, after passing for some five miles over a well-cultivated plain, began to ascend the great buttress range on to the Mongolian plateau. This range, called the In-shan, is, as it were, a support to the highlands of Mongolia, and forms the step up on to them.

(p. 81)

Viewed through Google Terrain, Hohhot/Kwei-hwa-cheng sits on a plain with mountains quite close to the northwest.

Google Terrain has no label for these mountains just north of Hohhot, but many maps label them the Daqing Shan, or the In-chan, Inchan or Yin Shan (阴山)—shan being the Chinese world for mountain range. We can easily see it on Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) F-8C (1996: Edition 3. See the Perry-Castaneda Library) as Yin Shan. Like Hohhot, the Yin Shan have a Wikipedia page, at “Yin Mountains.”

The next landmark, a stream called the Moli-ho, and a sighting of the Sheitung-ula mountains, does not come until May 7th.

On May 7 we emerged from the undulating hilly country, and, after crossing a small stream called the Moli-ho, came on to an extensive plain bounded on the north, at a distance of five or six miles, by a barren, rugged range of hills, at the foot of which could be seen some Mongol yurts, and a conspicuous white temple; while to the south, at a distance of about twenty miles, were the Sheitung-ula Mountains (called by the Chinese, the Liang-lang-shan, or Eurh-lang-shan), which lie along the north bank of the Yellow river, and were explored in 1873 by Prjevalsky.

(p. 84)

This should be straightforward to find: the stream, the plain, the range of hills five or six miles to the north, the mountains twenty miles south.

Let’s begin with the Sheitung-ula mountains. Przhevalsky shows these on his map as being the range immediately north of and parallel to the Munni-ula, which lie just northwest of the city of Baotu [Baotou]. (Ula is the Mongolian term for a mountain or range.)

The Munni-ula show up quite obviously on Google Terrain, so if we take Przhevalsky’s map literally, we get something like this for the Sheitung-ula.

The later Times Atlas agrees, placing the “Sheiten-ula” northwest of Baotou (“Pao-tow”) and distinct from the Lang-shan.

Now it’s time to pull out the local International Map of the World (IMW) sheet, and the corresponding larger-scale Soviet topographic map. (For more details on what these map series are, see my page on Finding historical place names.) Here, between 108° E and 114° E, we are in IMW zone 49. Between latitudes 40°and 44° north, we are in IMW row K—hence we want the IMW mapsheet K-49. Perry-Castañeda Library at the University of Texas provides us with a 1952 edition from the US Army Map Service, entitled (fittingly) Kwei-Sui.

We can get an even better map from the Soviets for this area north of the Sheitung-ula, on their 1:500,000 scale mapsheet K-49-3.

Looking roughly twenty miles north of what we’ve identified as the Sheitung-ula, we find all the requisite elements. On the Soviet map there is a stream called the Мулэнхэ [Mulen-he]. ( 河 is one of the Chinese words for river, and it is frequently rendered “ho” in European mapping.)

There is a plain to the west of the Mulen-he, with hills on the north side. The Sheitung-ula are distantly to the south, and shown in this Google Earth image.

There is even a temple (although we cannot say if it is conspicuous or white) shown on the IMW sheet, west of what it calls the Mu-leng Ho and just north of the “road” (at least, it was a route in the 1950s). The temple is called the Khatun Süme. The glossary on this IMW sheet informs us that “Süme” is the Mongolian word for temple.

Younghusband’s route between where he entered the In-shan and arrived here at the Moli-ho is purely conjecture, but now we do know where he is after the first ten days.

The next landmark is a stream that Younghusband calls the Ho-lai-liu. This is on the 10th of May.

A small stream—here a few inches deep only, flowing over a wide pebbly bed—runs down from these hills. My guide called it the Ho-lai-liu, and it is probably identical with the stream which Prjevalsky crossed on the southern side of the Sheitung-ula.

(p. 85, 10-May-1887)

The Soviet K-49-3 has a town called Халют [Khalyut]—which is similar to Ho-lai-liu—about 25 miles to the west of the Moli-ho.

But on Google Terrain this town is mysteriously called “Urad Middle Banner,” as well as 乌拉特中旗 (Wūlā tè zhōng qí).

Obviously place names change over 150 years, but let’s just digress a moment and look into this.

Looking nearby we see other towns with “Banner” in their names, such as Dorbod Banner and Qahar Right Middle Banner.

In the Chinese name for Urad Middle Banner, the “Wūlā tè” part seems to be a Chinese version of the Mongolian world “Urad,” and the last two words, 中旗 zhōng qí mean “middle banner.”

This is a hint of the political structure in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. “Banners” (the word 旗 qí also means “flag”) are in effect the counties of Inner Mongolia, and they are in turn divided into sumu, which might be thought of as townships.

We can get an overview of all these names at (again, see my page on Finding historical place names). It identifies this place as having no fewer than 20 alternate names, including “Haliut.”

Flowing through this settlement, the Soviet map shows a stream called Халют-гол [Khalyut-gol]. Gol is the the Mongolian word for river. It seems a reasonable conclusion that Younghusband’s stream called Ho-lai-liu was in fact this watercourse.

Another confirming factor is that, just prior to reaching the Ho-lai-liu, Younghusband notes, “we passed close by a spur from the northern range of hills.” This too can be seen in the contour lines on the Soviet map, which shows the road coming into Haliut from the east wrapping around a spur of the hills.

Three days after the Ho-lai-liu, Younghusband notes the beginning of the Galpin Gobi, a section of desert that he seems to be dreading a bit:

On the 13th we passed through some low hills, and then descended a valley in which were some gnarled and stunted elm trees, the first trees I have seen in Mongolia. They were about thirty feet high, and evidently very old. We then passed over a sandy, barren waste, the beginning of the Galpin Gobi, the very worst part of the whole desert.

(p. 89, 13-May-1887)

Go on to Part 2: From the Galpin Gobi to the Hun-kua-ling sandhills.

2 thoughts on “Mapping Francis Younghusband in the Gobi Desert, 1887, Part 1: Kwei-hwa-cheng to Galpin Gobi

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