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Mongolia: The land before time

Mongolia is famous today because of a certain warlord. But the vast Asian expanse is the epicentre of the planet’s history that begun millions of years before Genghis Khan was even a possibility

You cannot speak highly enough of the importance of natural history for the country and the region.

The planes are so vast here, you can imagine yourself on another planet. Lonesome vagabonds stroll towards the edge of nowhere. Wild horses graze on the abundant greenery in solitary or in random groupings of threes and fours. And the Altai Mountains frame this deep and endless vista with a sense of an unspoken, melancholic drama.

Though it might not seem like much is happening across this most serene of desert-scapes, just beneath the surface of the Gobi desert there is much to be excited about. And we are here to unearth that excitement and dig up history.

The tranquillity of the Gobi today stands in stark contrast to its former lives. This was once home to some of the fiercest creatures to have roamed the planet: no, not Genghis Khan and his marauding hoards of horse-backed warriors who conquered and pillaged just about every spare acre they ever set their eyes on. But dinosaurs — Stegosaurus, velociraptor and the tarbosaurus (the slightly smaller cousin of Hollywood’s favourite short-armed dino, the T-Rex) — they all roamed here, free and natural and wild. And they can still be found here today. Albeit in a slightly altered form.

You cannot speak highly enough of the importance of natural history for the country and the region.

The Gobi is of central importance to understanding the natural history of the planet. Over a quarter of the 700 discovered and identified dinosaur species have been found here in Mongolia. More are being discovered still today.

And that, as we trek through the 1.2 million-square-kilometre, weather-beaten desert, is our mission: to discover more dinosaur bones.

We are not alone, mind. This is the 21st century, after all. This is not 1918, and we are not following Roy Chapman Andrews on foot with just bindles and pith helmets to protect us from the sun. But we are following Andrews in another way. Andrews is the man whose paleontological forays into the Gobi between 1918 and 1923 lead to the discovery of the first fossilised dinosaur eggs. He’s a big deal in dino excavation circles. And 100 years later, we’re following him in Infiniti’s QX fleet on a dinosaur fossil search though the Gobi with the world famous Explorer’s Club and the Institute of Palaeontology and Geology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. The so-called QXploration drive (named after Infiniti’s latest rebranded vehicles that hold the QX prefix on their models), takes palaeontology into a new era.

Using drone and satellite imaging technology, the quest was in Infiniti’s high-tech QX80, QX60 and QX50 vehicles to geo-tag, track and locate potentially high-yield areas across the Gobi’s expanse. The 20-day exploration was an immense success. 

The 35-member team of palaeontologists, explorers and dinosaur enthusiasts disinterred more than 250 new fossil locations, bones of dinosaurs previously thought to have not existed in Mongolia, and most spectacularly, there’s the possibility of a discovery of an altogether new species of dinosaur, pending validation by Mongolia’s Institute of Palaeontology in Ulaanbaatar.

“The first site we explored was the same location Roy Chapman Andrews surveyed in 1922, in the Oosh Mountain region in the Omnogovi territory of the Gobi Desert,” says Dr Tsogtbaatar Khishigjav, director of the IPG, and palaeontology leader of the expedition. 

“The expedition team found several important fossils in every region of the Gobi, including bones of the Theropod dinosaur from the Cretaceous era 70 to 80 million years ago. For the first time ever, we discovered a primitive horned dinosaur in Bugyn Tsav — this is very rare, never seen before here. We will now analyse the initial findings in our lab.”

But that was then. And this is now. And we’re determined to find something ourselves, to add a bone or two to the collection that is shaping the historical landscape of the Gobi. It doesn’t take long. 

“Hey! I think we’ve found something,” comes a call from a pair of previously disinterested wanders, as they now kick and scuff at the dusty earth beneath their feet. A few of us exchange wry glances, but we put our cynicism on hold and head over to the “discovery site”.

Chinzorig Tsotbaatar, one of the lead palaeontologists from the Mongolian Institute, who is with us on our leg of the QXploration escapade, quickly finds his way over to the spot. He’s excited. Our cynicism gives way to intrigue. Chinzo, as he’s nicknamed, quickly gets to his knees, takes out a brush, some spearheaded sticks and a small curved knife. He busily gets to work, scratching, scraping and brushing away. Our intrigue soon gives way to astonishment as he slowly but surely uncovers a large, flat bone. 

“This is a big one,” he says, beaming. 

Cue awkward innuendo laughter from those less mature of the group huddled around the excavation point. “Looks like a dorsal rib bone to me, likely from a protoceratops,” he says. 

“You can tell which species of dinosaur it is just from looking at it like this?” I ask. “Yes,” he responds confidently. “Protoceratops are commonly found here,” he says, before pointing out that there could well be more bones from the same dinosaur right beneath our feet as we stand around watching him disinter what is likely to be a 70 million-year-old creature’s skeleton from the Cretaceous Period.

“By the way,” another guide adds, “stealing dinosaur bones is very much illegal, so don’t get any ideas before you start thinking of a present to take home for the wife or family!”

Very much illegal is an understatement. In 2012 a man from Florida was arrested for smuggling dinosaur bones from the Gobi Desert back to the US. The smuggled bones were valued at more than $1 million. The 38-year-old dino thief, believed to have smuggled hundreds more bones back, was sentenced to 35 years in jail. And more recently, a Mongolian man was discovered to have an entire velociraptor skeleton in the back of his car, which he claimed “was there when he bought the car”. He was sentenced to 10 years jail time. This is explained to us as Chinzo excavates. Any thoughts that anyone may have had of taking a bone, or piece of a bone, home quickly dissipate with the dust that billows up from Chinzo’s brush.

Once the bone is fully uncovered, photos are taken and the location is geotagged and logged. It’s then covered over to protect it from poachers who scour the terrain to take bones and flog them on the black market. Chinzo and the team will return to the spot at a later date to fully excavate the bones. 

Later, when we’ve returned to our accommodation — the wonderfully traditional Three Camel Lodge, with its smattering of domed huts and the Thirtsy Camel Bar, littered with dinosaur bones and travel logs — I catch up with Chinzo.

“You cannot speak highly enough of the importance of natural history for the country and the region. It is part of our heritage, our culture and what we offer the world today, as much as the legends of Ghengis Khan,” he says.

“Discovering all the dinosaurs that lived here, and are preserved beneath the soil, is one of the most important things we can do, and a way for us to understand the planet. 

“If we discover new species, we can look at how they lived, in what conditions and apply that to today’s planet and the climate. We can learn, find out what lessons we need to take about things like climate change, for example. Whole species died out before, so we need to see what we can do to stop that from happening again. And the answer to that could be inside these bones that we find.”

This entire venture was made possible by Infiniti’s sponsorship of the exploration drives. It also gave the manufacturer a perfect opportunity to test the mettle of its SUV fleet. From the biggest of the lot — the QX80 — right down to the more traditional city car and SUV-crossover, the QX50. 

The treacherous terrain of the Gobi would engulf and laugh vehicles with lesser off-road clout and acumen off the road. The hidden dangers are many. Here, where cars careen and slide across the ever-present washboard and come a cropper to the Haloxylon shrubs that can make a mockery of the hardiest of grills and tyres, the Infiniti fleet stands up to the challenge with a bravado and reassurance that makes even the most nerve-wracking stretches feel comfortable, if not a pleasure to traverse. And this is a point worth emphasising for anyone looking to join the Gobi exploration club (which we cannot encourage enough, so marvellous is this bucket-list destination). Make sure you’ve got transport and guides that can handle the landscape. 

“It’s been a remarkable success, to know that we’ve been instrumental in the discovery of a part of history previously unknown in the region,” says Trevor Hale, an Infiniti executive based in Hong Kong, and the main driver in bringing the QXploration drives to the Gobi.

“It’s a dream scenario — tracking down dinosaur bones in the footsteps of Roy Chapman Andrews, Mr Indiana
Jones himself, in this modern era with all this incredible technology at our disposal, it’s been awesome,” he says from beneath his very Raiders of the Lost Ark wax brown fedora.

A dream scenario might be the most-accurate description of the Gobi experience. Which of us doesn’t want to channel his inner explorer, cover vast swathes of desert, uncover history and tick off a bucket-list destination in the land before time, all at the same time?

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