Mapping Francis Younghusband in the Gobi Desert, 1887, Part 3: Hun-kua-ling sandhills to Ya-hu oasis

[Go back to Part 2: From the Galpin Gobi to the Hun-kua-ling sandhills.]

From here to the Ya-hu oasis (which Younghusband reaches on June 23rd) the route is obscure, and we find old maps less useful. We have to rely more upon comparing his route description with images of the landscape. Let’s work backwards from Ya-hu, which he describes quite precisely.

The name of this oasis is Ya-hu. It is about five miles in extent from west to east, and rather more from north to south. Some twelve miles to the west is a remarkable hill, called by the guide Ho-ya-shan. It rises very abruptly out of the plain to a height of about two thousand feet, and is a perfectly solid mass of rock of a light colour.

(p. 111)

Satellite imagery reveals an area of outcropping surface water of about the right dimensions some 300 miles to the northwest of the Hun-kua-ling sandhills. Geonames.org identifies a populated place there called Dzahuy, for which Ya-hu is a reasonable misunderstanding, and Google Terrain has a community about 10 km away called Zakhui, more or less where the Soviet map L-47-3 places a settlement labelled Бригада Дзахуйн [Brigada Dzakhuyn]. There is a distinctive peak to the west, which geonames calls Hatan Hayrhan, the Soviets labelled as Хатин-Хайрхан [Khatin-Khayrkhan] and Google Terrain calls Eej Khairkhan.

You can see Ho-ya-shan, rising “abruptly out of the plain,” quite well in Google Earth.

We can feel confident about the location of the Ya-hu oasis, but how does Younghusband get here over the next fifteen days? Looking at the DEM, the route appears straightforward.

However, there are a few indications that he might not have taken this shortest, lowest route. One is that, about a third of the way along, Younghusband describes himself as going “west-by-south,” which the shortest, lowest route route doesn’t really do. Another is that the Soviet topographic maps don’t show tracks or trails (which they are usually quite thorough about) along the route of travel in the eastern half this corridor. Finally, Younghusband’s own map, in this section, shows him continuing northwest after the Hun-kua-ling, and passing north of a range of mountains as he visits “Man-chin-tol” and “Liang-ko-ba,” before returning to the big valley that leads to Ya-hu.

I would propose the following route, suggested by Younghusband’s map, but also supported by landscape features he describes along the way.

Let’s start on the day he leaves the end of the Hun-kua-ling, probably on June 8th.

After passing the end of the sand-range, we entered a country different from any we had yet gone through. In origin it was probably a plain of sand, but the wind’s action has broken it up into sandhills and depressions, making up a scene which, for its extreme wildness and desolation, surpasses anything I have ever seen.

(p. 98)

There is just such terrain off the west end of the sand dunes, as shown in a Google Earth view looking back southeast at the Hun-kua-ling.

On the travel day of June 9th…

an hour later reached the dry bed of a river flowing south, one hundred feet below the camp, and the lowest point I have yet reached in the Gobi (probably two thousand eight hundred feet).

(p. 102)

No place in the local area is actually this low (853 metres) but there is a distinctive dry riverbed running south at an elevation of 1045 metres with low hills before and after it. (see below in Google Earth looking northwest.)

Two days later they come to a large encampment…

on the 11th we reached a large Mongol encampment named Man-chin-tol, in a plain at the foot of the first spurs of the Altai Mountains… Water was plentiful, being found in small pools all over the plain. It had, however, a brackish taste, and there was soda efflorescence on the margin of the pools.

(p. 103)

It is hard to say which hills Younghusband would have meant by the “first spurs” of the Altai, and there is nothing like “Man-chin-tol” on any map I have found. However, the oasis of Hatansuudal (called Khatansuudal / Хатансуудал on Google Terrain) is in roughly the right place, provides surface water and is in a plain abutting some spurs of the Altai. The same can be said of the wet area about ten miles southeast of it. Here are both sites, looking west in Google Earth.

Incidentally, Google Translate tells us that tal (тал) is the Mongolian word for valley.

On June 13th (two more days later) Younghusband gives some specific observations on distances to landmarks, as well as his direction of travel…

To the north, at a distance of twenty-five miles, are the Altai Mountains, rising to about nine thousand feet above the sea. …We started at 3.45, and passed over a gravel plain in a west-by-south direction. This plain is bounded on the south by a range at a distance of about eight miles. The range runs in a general easterly by westerly direction, and is about six hundred feet high on the average.

(pp. 105-6)

These distances (25 miles north, 8 miles south) are generally true along the entire trek going west-southwest from Hatansuudal, if we assume that by “the Altai Mountains” he here means the mass of Tergun Bogd, which at 3900 metres (almost 13,000 feet) is the highest peak in the Altai Mountains; and by the range that “runs in a general easterly by westerly direction” he means the distinctive, dark-coloured ridge which rises to 2086 metres (= 6800 feet) south of his presumed route.

At the end of the day on the 14th …

We camped at 11.35 at Liang-ko-ba, a collection of four Mongol yurts on the plain, round a patch of green.

(p. 107)

I cannot find a specific place called Liang-ko-ba, so we must assume he is continuing west, paralleling the main chain of the Altai

On the 15th…

We started at 4:40, and still passed over gravelly plain, keeping along the edge of a low range of hills parallel to the road on the right.

(p. 107)

A low range of hills does occur roughly where we would expect Younghusband to be at this point, although to be fair there are many such low ranges of hills in the area.

Finally, on the morning of the 16th Younghusband climbs a hill and gives us measurements of features he sees, with specific bearings to them.

In the morning I climbed a hill and had a fine view of the country round for about eighty miles in every direction. The main range of the Altai Mountains is not at all of a uniform height, but, on the contrary, consists of distinct high ridges connected by lower hills. To the eastward I could see the snow-capped ridge which forms the butt end of the Altai Mountains. It is about twenty-five miles in length, and north-west of it is a second ridge, which also had some slight snow on it. In the space between the two ridges—fifty or sixty miles—is a succession of lower hills, rising about one thousand feet above the plain. The two ridges rise abrupt and clear from the surrounding hills. Between my route and the Altai Mountains is a succession of low, narrow ridges with intervening plains running in a southeasterly direction. … To the south the same succession of ridges and plains extends. The ridges are from three hundred to five hundred feet in height, and five or six miles apart.

(pp. 107-8)

We should be able to figure out where Younghusband was standing, and there are two locations that fit the description.

The “butt end of the Altai Mountains,” with the “second ridge” to its northwest, can only be Tergun Bogd (which is indeed 25 miles long) and Bayan Tsagan Nuru. The two are indeed separated by fifty miles, and connected by a “succession of lower hills.” If we take Younghusband’s bearing of “to the eastward” literally, then he needs to be at the point above labelled “Best viewpoint suggested by bearings,” a place where Tergun Bodg is truly east of him. To have come this far north, however, he would have travelled much closer to Tergun Bogd than the 25 miles he reported on the 13th. The other point, (“Best viewpoint suggested by route so far”) seems like a reasonable alternative.

His other observation, that between him and the Altai Mountains are a “succession of low, narrow ridges with intervening plains running in a southeasterly direction” suggests this second location as well.

During travel that day…

… we followed down the gravelly bed of a stream which appeared occasionally in a small trickle above the surface, and the margin of which was covered thickly with the soda efflorescence which seems invariably to mark the presence of water in the Gobi.

(p. 108)

And then…

On the 17th we emerged from the hills again, on to another great plain running between two parallel ranges of bare hills.

(p. 108)

There are many possible candidates for the “gravelly bed of a stream,” but there is one major one that could bring the party out into the large plain to the south.

From here the travel to Ya-hu is straight northwest along this plain.

They lose a day of travel due to mud, and on June 20th Younghusband notes the heights of the ranges on either side.

We started the next morning, and for a few days continued along the plain between the two parallel ranges, that to the north rising some one thousand five hundred feet [450 metres], and the one to the south about eight hundred feet [250 metres] above the plain.

(p. 109)

The area where I place Younghusband agrees with this observation in that the southern range is lower than the northern, but it does not agree with his estimates of height, the northern range actually being closer to 800 metres above the plain and the southern 400 metres.

Comparing this with Younghusband’s estimate of the elevation of Tergun Bogd a few days earlier, it seems fair to observe that he is consistently underestimating the height of features. This is hardly surprising for a 24-year-old in an unfamiliar environment; and indeed approaching the Hurku Hills, he wrote, “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.”

On the 23rd they arrive at the Ya-hu oasis, as quoted at the top of this page.

Go on to Part 4: from the Ya-hu oasis to Hami.

Published by Morgan Hite

Cartographer, writer, former wilderness instructor.

3 thoughts on “Mapping Francis Younghusband in the Gobi Desert, 1887, Part 3: Hun-kua-ling sandhills to Ya-hu oasis

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