Ghosts of the Gobi

Be wary, Traveler, for the folks you meet out yonder are no folk at all…

Legend has it that ghouls and goblins, evil spirits, and demons roam the many deserts of Earth–none more haunted than the great Gobi. Nought but sand and sky and the bones of far-gone travelers fill its vast expanse of torment. For sure, some parts of it are found to harbor springs and lakes, water drinkable but only to prolong the agony and misery of a ceaseless desert wandering. From its widest stretch east to west it can take a year to cross the Gobi by foot.

Gobi Desert Expanse

As it oft happened, travelers traversing its saltpeter rock surface and sandy dunes would hear sounds of human chatter beckoning them forth into the oblivion of their haunt. Apparitions of lifelike figures like single humans or caravans of camel merchants would appear either in near approach or on the horizon like an army marching forth with banners and flags waving galore. The sounds of music and drums would play upon the maddened minds of these weary wanderers. All this was done in the name of evil for such travelers would be drawn astray from their path or, if already lost, from any hope of being found, as these ghosts and phantoms offered no helping hand but a rather a lure into their ghastly abyss.

               Many cultures since antiquity have held the belief that deserts serve as the abode of evil spirits. This belief owed to the fact that deserts provide nothing good in the form of direct benefit to human beings—no water, shade, or food. Harsh and barren and inhospitable, deserts most readily offer people death and suffering. And the ever-changing terrain of wind-swept sand dunes causes once familiar paths to be blown away, leaving even the most experienced navigators lost in an endlessly shape-shifting sea of sand. Being a place so dangerous with such a transmutable landscape, deserts have long been associated with mysterious evils. Where else would be a more fitting home for demons, ghost and goblins, spirits that are otherwise barren in soul and threatening in nature?

               But, like many superstitions, there is a natural phenomenon underlying these ghostly phantasm. In the case of the Gobi, gusts of wind and shifting sands generate loud noises. When the hollows of less-densely packed pockets of sand collapse within the pyramidal piles of sand dunes, loud pounding sounds like the bang and echo of massive drums bellow out into the desert. So do tons of sand sliding down sandhills and across the ground’s rockface create the sound of whooshing whispers and haunting howls; and grizzling grains scratching against each other in the dry desert air sound like the crackling groans of the dying and the cryptic voices of spirits. The effects of these shifting sands have been empirically studied over time. And, so, it is no wonder why the Chinese called the Gobi Desert “流沙 – Liúshā” meaning “Quicksand,” or “Flowing Sands.”

               As for the sight of human phantoms and ghosts, an easy answer would suggest that they are but hallucinations produced by the tired, isolated mind of a stranded wanderer who has fallen passed the brink of starvation and thirst deprivation. But, I conjecture that because the Goblin–excuse me, the Gobi Desert’s floor in many a place is rockslab: light winds flowing low near the ground’s surface may whip up light festoons of sand some feet high, the visible light of which is distorted by heatwaves–as like in a mirage or the more dramatic twinkle of stars in hot climates–to generate the illusion of an animated, hazy body. And so one may perceive a wispy cloud of sand twirling in the air as a dancing ghost. The whispering winds and hushing sands may sound like a welcome beckoning to a lost soul desperate for salvation. Whatever the cause, whether spiritual or natural, must one explanation preclude the possibility of the other?

By George Francis Lyon (1795-1832) - Lyon (1821):A Narrative of Travels in North Africa in the years 1818, 1819, and 1820, accompanied by Geographical Notices of Soudan and of the Course of the Niger., Public Domain,

               So, beware of goblins and ghouls, but sandstorms and heatwaves may be more deadly. For there were also, beyond these desert haunts, hot, pernicious winds like sirocco winds, which were hurricanes of flaming sand. Contact with these windy sandstorms, called samum or simoom, would mean certain death. In Ancient Arabic, Samum is a demon of fire, a character much like Satan of fiery hell, and a personification of this fatal natural phenomenon.

By Jean-François Portaels -, Public Domain,

               The camel apparently taught man to survive these lethal storms. They served as bellwethers. Just before these burning winds would fly in, the camels, nervous with premonition, would shriek and run off to a spot and burrow their head into the ground. Men learned to do the same and cover their nose and mouth lest they wished to die.

               And such were the conditions of the Gobi Desert, a place where many men sought passed by choosing long roundabout routes to avoid their ends.

               Marco Polo, however, had to cross it himself at one point, but he took a shorter route around its southern edge, which took only a month to traverse with a caravan of fellows. They packed a month’s worth of food and supplies, for there is no life upon which to subsist in that barren land. They started at the city of Lop (modern: Lop County, Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China), crossed through the Desert of Lop (modern: Gobi Desert), and arrived at the city of Sachiu (modern: Dunhuang, Gansu Province, Western China, China). The spot was an oasis and still is today.

Source: Polo, Marco, Henry Yule, and Henri Cordier. The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition : Including the Unabridged Third Edition (1903) of Henry Yule’s Annotated Translation, As Revised By Henri Cordier, Together With Cordier’s Later Volume of Notes and Addenda (1920). New York: Dover Publications, 1993.

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