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Desert boundaries: the once and future Gobi
Article first published online: 14 FEB 2014
© 2014 Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)
The Geographical Journal
Volume 181, Issue 1, pages 61–72, March 2015
How to Cite
Sternberg, T. (2015), Desert boundaries: the once and future Gobi. The Geographical Journal, 181: 61–72. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12071
- Issue published online: 5 FEB 2015
- Article first published online: 14 FEB 2014
- Manuscript Accepted: DEC 2013
- British Academy
- Royal Geographical Society
- Gobi desert;
When Marco Polo journeyed to the court of Kublai Khan in 1271 he traversed a great sandy desert filled with ‘extraordinary illusions’ that became known as the Gobi desert. The continued use of term Gobi, first appearing in 1706, is a rare case of Mongolian ascendancy over the Chinese. Exploration of the Gobi as a mapping term seeks to understand how the desert was conceptualised and identified as a geographical region, an economic sphere and a political presence. Historically contested between China and Russia with Mongolia as a proxy, the desert is now home to 25 million people, mineral wealth and rapid development. As attention increases and the strategic region integrates into global systems, knowledge of the perceived desert boundaries becomes germane. In our era of data and demarcation with place names used to confer prior possession we examine how the Mongolian term ‘gobi’ rather than the Chinese equivalent ‘shamo’ prevailed. China dominates the region without asserting physical control; in fact, the term ‘Gobi desert’ is not recognised in China's geographical lexicon. Does past suzerainty offer insight to the present and potential future scenarios in the desert? New contextualisation presents the Gobi as a multi-dimensional space that, rather than a past construction, portends an emergent consciousness no longer isolated and insulated from regional and global currents.