We are a day's hard driving WNW from Dalanzadgad, having covered 200-odd kms over dirt track or, at times, of driving straight over steppe. A grey cloud hangs over the Gurvan Saikhan: the neighboring desert has been found to hold some of the largest deposits of coal that are yet to be developed in the world. With their immediate proximity to China’s ravenous energy markets, the first small mines have already been opened around Dalanzadgad. Truck traffic to these sites is kicking up dust clouds that can reach far into the park. As coal mining expands, there are concerns about what will happen to the scarce water, which is likely to end up contaminated by the mines. Our driver talks about how the desert tracks are getting chewed up by mining-traffic. "Every random person in Dalanzadgad borrowed money, bought a truck, and rented it out to a mine," he says. "Thankfully the price of coal has retreated, otherwise this place would be one giant pothole by now."
This area was first partially protected in 1965, preserving the Yolyn-Am region, a valley often covered in ice, deep in the East Saikhan Mountains. In 1993 the new Mongolian Parliament resolved to expand its area to include the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, as well as precious paleontological sites around Nemegt, Khermen Tsav, and those along the Zulganai River. Overall, the Gurvan Saikhan park is about twice the size of Yellowstone. The sand dunes we are driving to are amongst the longest in Asia, continuing over a span of 100 miles. Despite the forbidding climate, the Gurvan Saikhan is still rich in flora and fauna. There are myriad bird species, as well as famous animals like the snow leopards, wild camels, argali, lynx, pygmy jerboa, and gazelles. The park also has maybe 600 or more types of plants, many of which only bloom after (very infrequent) rain.
The park is also home to about a thousand nomadic herding households, each possessing a few hundred head of livestock. Since the transition to a post-Soviet economic regime (c. 1993), when most livestock negdels (collectives) were disbanded and livestock were privatized, due to the incentives of private ownership livestock numbers have increased dramatically. Livestock numbers for the Omnogovi aimag and soums (an administrative unit similar to a county) located in the park reveal an ever-increasing trend. For the aimag and the park soums there have been ~13% increases annually in total livestock and sheep units since 1992 - compounded, this is an 1150% increase from then to now. Since 1992 the number of herders in those soums located partially in the park have also increased by 25%. Livestock grazing can have positive as well as negative influences on plant species, but overgrazing will no doubt result in a loss of habitat for wild ungulates, and any large declines in their population will, equally likely, cause the predator populations to collapse. A number of rare plant species - Amygdalus mongolica a desert relative of the almond, the endangered white-flowered srrub of the arid desert Potaninia mongolica whose foliage is palatable to wild camels, the blue spired Caryopteris mongolica that can carpet the desert with violet - are all utilized extensively by livestock and by herders for fuel, construction wood, or both. As we drive through the lower reaches of the park, there is very little flora-management in evidence: grazing herds of horse, sheep and goats are everywhere.
The sweet smell of saxaul (haloxylon ammodendron) - reminiscent of chewed cloves - permeates the air, like sage after rain. And the wind, everywhere.