New publication: Desert boundaries: the once and future Gobi

Sternberg, T. (2014), Desert boundaries: the once and future Gobi. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12071


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.