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Welcome signs of spring in bloom on the Mongolian steppe.
Welcome signs of spring in bloom on the Mongolian steppe.


The Gobi region is harsh—yet it supports wildlife and an enduring nomadic lifestyle.
The Gobi region is harsh—yet it supports wildlife and an enduring nomadic lifestyle.


The shifting sands of the Gobi—one of the driest regions on Earth.
The shifting sands of the Gobi—one of the driest regions on Earth.


Only hardy species can survive in Mongolia's often extreme climate.
Only hardy species can survive in Mongolia's often extreme climate.


Horses, revered on the steppe since ancient days, remain at the heart of Mongolian culture.
Horses, revered on the steppe since ancient days, remain at the heart of Mongolian culture.
Land of Steppe and Sky

Terrain: Land of Steppe and Sky
Climate: Blue Skies or "Zud"?
Animals: Wild Mongolia


Terrain: Land of Steppe and Sky

Sandwiched between the colossal Russia and China, Mongolia is a high plateau (average elevation: 5,180 feet [1,580 meters]). The country stretches approximately 1,490 miles (2,400 kilometers) from east to west and about 780 miles (1,260 kilometers) from north to south.

In this country slightly smaller than Alaska, the famous Central Asian steppe meets the vast Siberian taiga forest, and the towering Altay Mountains rise above the dry Gobi. Natural beauty abounds.

Mountains rise in the west and north, eventually giving way to the pastoral rolling grasslands of the steppe, a vast, largely treeless tract that undulates across the eastern part of the country.

Hundreds of freshwater and saltwater lakes, numerous wetlands, and thousands of rivers and streams enliven the landscape. Most of the nation's watershed drains to no ocean but becomes part of a vast, closed Central Asian drainage basin.

To the south lies the Gobi region. Once part of an inland sea basin, the Gobi—that's Mongolian for "desert"—now features a mix of terrains, all quite arid. Gobi habitats include rugged semidesert grasslands and the arid Gobi Altay Mountains as well as the inhospitable realm of the desert proper.

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Climate: Blue Skies or "Zud"?

Mongolians sometimes call their nation Land of the Blue Sky because they enjoy over 250 sunny days a year. Yet that moniker belies an extreme climate in which temperatures range from 90°F (30°C) in the summer to minus 50°F (-45°C) in winter.

Average temperatures throughout much of the country are below freezing from November to March and around the freezing point during October and April. Averages of minus 4°F (-20°C) in January and February are not uncommon. Long, snowy, subarctic winter conditions are known to Mongolians as zud —a trying time for all.

The short spring, which can feature significant dust storms, is in May and June.

Precipitation is scarce and unpredictable, a climactic condition that helped to spawn both the steppes and the nomadic lifestyle they sustain. Much of Mongolia's rain falls from mid-July to September, and droughts can be a problem. Northern regions may expect 8 to 14 inches (20 to 35 centimeters) of rain per year, while in the south only 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) may fall. Some regions of the Gobi typically receive no rainfall at all in a given calendar year.

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Animals: Wild Mongolia

Mongolia was once home to many dinosaur species, whose well-preserved remains are often found in the dry, sandy soils of the Gobi.

The country's current biodiversity is equally impressive, due at least in part to ancient traditions of conservation. By the time of Marco Polo's visit (late 13th century), Mongolians had established restrictions on hunting animals during mating and birthing seasons as well as protecting water sources.

Such traditional awareness, and the light footprint of nonindustrial lifestyles, has contributed to the protection of largely intact Asian steppe, desert, forest, and mountain ecosystems. To maintain this balance, overgrazing and deforestation must be closely monitored.

Hundreds of thousands of gazelles roam the open steppe, as do marmots, which are prized for both flesh and fur. Freshwater lakes yield huge numbers of fish, and high-peak regions hide the elusive snow leopard.

The southern edge of one of Earth's largest remaining contiguous forests—the subarctic taiga that dominates Russia—supports wolves and numerous deer species.

In the rugged mountains and arid plains of the Altay Mountains, endangered animals such as the world's only desert-living bear, the Gobi bear, and wild Bactrian camels can still be found.

The last decade has even seen the reintroduction of the world's only truly wild horse, Przewalski's horse, whose numbers had dwindled to a precious few, all of which are living in captivity.

The Przewalski's horse project stands as one example of how the Mongolian government and international organizations are working together to protect a unique Asian natural heritage.

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Photo Gallery: Land of Steppe and Sky


Photo Credits
Wildflowers and horses by James Stanfield/NGS. All other images courtesy National Geographic Television & Film.