The Gobi Desert of China, a Rather Empty Part of a Rather Full Country
Well, it’s that time of year again. Tomorrow I’ll board a train in Beijing and head perhaps 700 km west to Linhe, Inner Mongolia. From there I’ll drive, or rather be driven, north into the Gobi desert to spend the next couple of weeks searching for dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates as part of a field crew of thirty-odd eager scientific prospectors.
I visited the same part of the Gobi last August, so I have an idea of what to expect. The landscape is dry and rocky, with patches of sand here and there, but there are no extensive dunescapes. There are isolated houses inhabited by local pastoralists, but as far as I know the nearest actual town is a good hour’s drive from our field area. This may not seem terribly remote by Canadian standards, but in comparison to eastern China the emptiness of the Gobi is striking.
Geographic comparisons between Canada and China are actually quite apt, since the two countries are very close in geographic area. According to Wikipedia, Canada occupies 9.98 million km2 whereas mainland China occupies around 9.6 million. However, travelling through China always reminds me of how densely crowded their 9.6 million km2 really are. Canada’s population is nearly 34 million, amounting to 3.2 hardy Canucks per km2. China has a comparable number of people just in Shanxi Province, actually one of the less populous ones. The national figure is 1.3 billion, plus change – and the “change”, remember, is on the order of Canada’s entire population.
The difference in population leads to differences in attitude. I’m used to thinking of the relatively small number of Canadians as a limitation that constrains our economic and military power, and by extension our place in the world’s affairs. However, a couple of different Chinese friends have told me how lucky Canada is to have so many resources for so few people. Perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side of the Pacific.
As in Canada, China’s people are rather unevenly distributed. The south, east and centre are densely crowded, but the population thins out considerably along the northern fringe and in the great western expanses of Tibet and Xinjiang. The Gobi is far enough northwest to seem remote from the madding crowds of Beijing, and I’m sure I’ll feel refreshed when I return to the blog around the end of June.