Mapping Francis Younghusband in the Gobi Desert, 1887, Part 2: Galpin Gobi to Hun-kua-ling sandhills

[Go back to Part 1: Kwei-hwa-cheng to Galpin Gobi]

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)

Three pages later Younghusband will write:

The Galpin Gobi, where I crossed it to the Hurku Hills, could be seen extending as far as the eye could reach to the N.E. Where Prjevalsky crossed it its width was eighteen miles only, and it was 3570 feet above the sea. The Mongols there told him that it extended to the east and to the west for twenty days’ march. It forms a marked depression in the great Mongolian plateau, and is a distinct dividing-line between the Altai and the In-shan mountain systems, for I will show presently that the Hurku Hills may be regarded as the prolongation of the former mountains.

(pp. 92-3)

It’s clear that the Galpin Gobi is a depression of some length, and that to figure out where Younghusband is heading we need to also locate the large-scale feature of the Altai Mountains, plus the local feature of the Hurku Hills.

One again the 1922 Times Atlas comes in handy. Here we have the Galpin Gobi showing up as the Galbyn-Gobi, and the Hurku Hills as the Khurkha Range. (I might note that KH and H seem to be freely equivalent in transliterations of Mongolian names.)

Some version of the name “Galpin Gobi” also appears on other maps, albeit in slightly different places. Bearing in mind Younghusband’s description of the Galpin Gobi as forming “a marked depression in the great Mongolian plateau,” it’s illuminating to see that although these maps don’t place their versions of the words “Galpin Gobi” in the same place, they do all place them in the same depression visible on a digital elevation model (DEM).

It’s also good to look again at the map which accompanied Przhevalsky’s book, Mongolia, in its English edition. Przhevalsky made his journey through this area in 1873, twelve years before Younghusband, and for the 1876 English translation the publisher (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington) had a new map executed. This was probably the most recent map of the area Younghusband had seen.

Przhevalskiy crossed the Galpin Gobi on a North–South line, and there on his map are the “Hurku Mts” and “Bortson Spr” (which Younghusband will shortly mention), as well as a note that here Przhevalsky crossed a Trade route from Peking to Hami, Urumchi & Ili, via Kuku Khoto & Bautu—the very trade route Younghusband is on.

So we can feel confident that this depression between the Lang Shan on the south east and the Hurka Hills to the northwest is the feature known as the Galpin Gobi.

Now, if we back out, we can see both the Galpin Gobi and the Altai Mountains, a major feature that dominates southwestern Mongolia.

As a reference for the Altai Mountains, we can go to this 1967 Soviet Atlas.

If we copy that label onto Google Terrain it would show up like this:

The Hurku Hills are, as Younghusband argues, a prolongation of the Altai mountains to the southeast. But the name Hurku only turns up, in various forms, on the extreme southeast end of this prolongation. The rest of it has other names; Younghusband is the only one who thinks of the whole thing as the Hurku Hills.

Here we can see the “Hurha Uula” (уул [uul] is the Mongolian word for a mountain) on the IMW sheet K-48, and we can see the хребет [khrebet] (mountain range) хурхэ-ула [khurkhe-ula] on the Soviet 1:500,000 scale K-48-3.

On neither map does the labelled range extend very far northwest, whereas on Younghusband’s map the “Hurka Hills” go all the way up to meet the Altai.

So, with the Galpin Gobi, Hurku Hills and Altai Mountains all located relative to one another, let’s go back to Younghusband on May 19th as he reaches the west side of the Galpin Gobi.

we pushed on for the next well, gradually ascending the range, which I now found to be the eastern extremity of the Hurku Hills, the highest part of which was 700 feet above the plain, the track crossing it at 630 feet. We can realize how deceptive the distances are here. Some days ago we first saw this range, and I thought that we should reach it at the end of that march, but we have taken four days to do so. We passed over a plateau at the top of the range for three and a half miles, and then descended very gradually to the plain again, camping at 7:10 p.m. near a well.

(p. 91)

We can visualize this by zooming in on the southernmost point of the Hurka Hills, where they meet the Galpin Gobi depression, and adding contour lines (at 20 metre intervals) to the map.

It is roughly seven contour lines, or 140m (about 450 feet), from the low point of the plain to the pass itself, which does not agree with Younghusband’s estimate of 650 feet, but on the other hand there is, in the pass, a flat area which could creditably be three and a half miles wide. The high points on either side of the pass are up to 250 metres (about 800 feet) higher, not the 70 feet Younghusband implies.

However this pass makes sense because the Bortson well is just around the corner from it.

For two marches we kept gradually ascending towards a watershed, connecting the Hurku with a similar but somewhat lower range running parallel to the road, eight or ten miles to the south. Crossing this connecting ridge, we arrived at the Bortson well in the early hours of the morning of the 22nd. (p. 92)

The Bortson well is quite easy to find on our maps, lying just on the southwest slope of the Hurku Hills: IMW K-48 has it as “Bordzon Bulag (spring)”—“bulak” being a Turki word for a spring), and the Soviet K-48-2 has it as род. Бордзонийн-Булак [rod. Bordzonijn-Bulak], where род. [rod.] is an abbreviation for родник [rodnik], meaning spring or well. The Soviet map also contains the useful note “дебит 2500 л/час” [debit 2500 l/chas] meaning “Flow 2500 litres/hour.”

Bortson well is in a shallow basin, so we can see on the DEM the watershed Younghusband describes himself as crossing: he ascends and then, just before the well, he begins descending.

On the next move (they typically begin travel around noon and end after midnight)…

we continued along the southern base of the Hurku Hills, passing over an almost level plain of an extremely desolate appearance…After this we crossed some low hills running down from the Hurku range, and arrived on the banks of a delightful small stream, about a foot wide and a few inches deep, with some patches of green grass on its margin. Here we halted for three days to buy a couple of new camels.

(p. 93)

It’s unclear where the delightful small stream is. Satellite imagery shows some surface water at a band of rock outcrops about 25 miles beyond Bortson well, which is approximately their daily travel distance.

From here there are not many good landmarks for a few days. In the course of May 28th through June 4th they encounter bad weather, lay over on the 29th, pass over “undulating country” on the 31st, and Younghusband says

to the south there appeared to be good grass-land in the depression between the Hurku Hills and a parallel range, ten or twelve miles to the south. According to a Mongol who visited us, there is some land cultivated by Mongols four miles to the south at Huru-su-tai.

(pp. 94-5)

I have not found any settlement or well that might be Huru-su-tai.

In the next few days we passed along a plain lying between the Hurku Hills and the southern parallel range, for which I could get no name. We saw a peak of the Hurku Hills, which my Mongol called Baroso-khai.

(p. 95)

Of this peak, Younghusband later writes,

the prominent mountain, for which I obtained the name Barosakhai, but which I have not the slightest doubt is identical with the mountain called by the Russian traveller Pevstof, Gourbaun-Seikyn.*

(p. 100)

and in the footnote,

* I found it very hard to get at the proper pronunciation from the Mongols. The n’s are scarcely heard, and it is possible I may not have caught them.

Younghusband seems to be saying here that he might have heard “Gourbaun-Seikyn” as “Barosakhai.” Certainly if one drops the first syllable of Gourbaun, as well as the terminal n’s, this seems plausible: “Bau-seiky” becomes “Barosakhai.”

In any case, Gourbaun-Seikyn is easily found on our maps: it’s a term presently used for the highest portion of what Younghusband is calling the Hurku Hills—the northwest end of the range. Today it is protected as Mongolia’s Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. The 1952 IMW K-48 labels this part of the mountains as “Gurban Sayhan,” and the 1972 Soviet K-48-1 has it as ГУРБАН-САЙХАН [Gurban-saikhan].

The high point of the Gurvansaikhan, at just over 2800 metres, is today called Дунд Саикни-Нуру [Dund Saikin-Nuru] and is just northeast of the settlement of Bayandalai.

On June 4th

we reached a Mongol encampment, called Tu-pu-chi. This is the most thickly populated part I have seen in the Gobi, as there were several other yurts scattered over the plain.

(p. 97)

and then

On the following day we crossed a ridge connecting the Hurku Hills with the southern range, and descended a wide valley or plain between those two ranges on the western side of the connecting ridge. Between us and the southern range was a most remarkable range of sandhills, called by my guide Hun-kua-ling. It is about forty miles in length, and is composed of bare sand, without a vestige of vegetation of any sort on it, and I computed it in places to be as much as nine hundred feet in height, rising abruptly out of a gravel plain.

(p. 97)

This forty-mile-long range of sand hills (“Hun-kua-ling“) is one of the most confident identifications we can make along Younghusband’s route. It is recognizably the Khongoryn Els, a notable feature of Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. The sandhills (i.e., dunes) are readily seen on satellite images.

This suggests that the encampment Younghusband reached in June 3rd, which he called Tu-pu-chi, is in fact at the site of the present settlement of Bayandalai.

Let’s step back now and compare what we’ve mapped so far to Younghusband’s map.

On the whole they are similar, and there are some interesting features worth mentioning on Younghusband’s map, features that suggest that Younghusband did not himself make the map that appeared in his book.

For one, his mapmaker labels the Kara Narin Ula mountain range curving along the north bank of the Hoang-Ho (Yellow River). Younghusband does not mention this range is his text, but somehow it found its way onto the map. It also shows the Shara Murin river. These features both turn up in Przhevalsky’s expedition account, Mongolia.

Another is that the map has the “Hurka Hills,” while in the text the they are always the Hurku Hills.

Younghusband’s map shows as continuous the secondary range paralleling the Hurku Hills on the south. Yet the DEM shows us that things are not quite so simple. Although Younghusband frequently notices that there are hills to his left, in reality they are not a continuous range until he gets to the basin where Tu-pu-chi/Bayandalai is located.

Continue on to Part 3: from the Hun-kua-ling sandhills to the Ya-hu oasis

2 thoughts on “Mapping Francis Younghusband in the Gobi Desert, 1887, Part 2: Galpin Gobi to Hun-kua-ling sandhills

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