I knew that I probably wouldn’t find any dinosaur eggs – that the best and perhaps sole specimens had been carted away on camelback almost a century ago. But that certainly didn’t stop my search. Striding onto the red soil of Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – one of the greatest dinosaur fossil sites the world has ever seen – my eyes flashed across the sandstone in the fading daylight, hoping to catch a hint of white or grey among the shifting sands. Experiencing the same thrill of discovery encountered by American naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews and his hardy compatriots in 1923 was a long shot, to say the least. But here in the birthplace of paleoembryology – the study of unhatched dinosaur fossils – under the same wide open sky that inspired Genghis Khan to conquer the world, I felt anything was possible.
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I was in Mongolia’s South Gobi Desert, a land where camels roam free and nomads still follow ancient paths across the horizon in search of greener pastures. Part of Asia’s largest desert, the South Gobi was once an inland sea where life flourished some 80 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous Period. Many experts speculate that it was also a site of mass extinction, where avalanche-like sand-slides both swept dinosaurs away and preserved their remains. In most other parts of the globe, the sites would’ve been roped off, the public kept far from such priceless pieces and places. But here, some of the world’s most fascinating prehistoric wonders were at my fingertips – sometimes literally.
My base of operations was the renowned Three Camel Lodge, a collection of gers (traditional Mongolian yurts, constructed out of latticed wood, felt and canvas) situated on a small plateau overlooking a vast sweep of sand and sky. Every morning, I launched into the desert accompanied by guide Ankhmaa Baatartsogt, racing across the sand in a Land Rover, a rooster tail of dust trailing behind us.
One of our first stops was Havtsgait, an isolated area that’s home to a number of Bronze Age petroglyphs. Following a narrow, rocky, 22km path up a series of switchbacks in the rugged Gobi Gurvan Saikhan mountain range (in Mongolian, Gobi Gurvan Saikhan translates as the Three Beauties of the Gobi), we arrived at a big, flat rock that served as a sort of cross-section display of Bronze Age life. Before me, petroglyphs dating back as far as 5,000 years depicted horses pulling carts and riders sitting high on galloping steeds. In some cases, riders’ arms were held taut in the heat of a hunt, while rams and camels grazed nearby. As one of the highest spots in the Gobi, the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan has provided hunters an excellent vantage point for millennia, and as such some 40 petroglyphs dot the area of Havtsgait.
I had seen somewhat similar petroglyphs before in Canada, but always at a distance, the figures cloistered behind ropes or even glass. I knelt at the base of the rock and traced the figures with my fingers, while Baatartsogt pointed out their most salient features. “These were the things that were important to their lives. It’s not so different today,” she said, referring to the fact that many modern-day Mongolians continue to live simply, tending to herds of goats and sheep and following nomadic routes that have remained largely unchanged since ancient times.
Not far from the range, just inside the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, a small museum showcases a much earlier period of Gobi history. From the outside, the rather grandly named Natural History Museum didn’t look like much – just a low-slung square building, a little worse for the wear of the constant winds that blow down from the Three Beauties. But inside, alongside stuffed Bactrian camels and terrifying bearded vultures whose beaks and eyes were frozen by some taxidermist into fearsome masks of predation, there were excellent paleontological samples. Among them were 80-million year-old rib, leg and back bones from a Tarbosaurus – a close, fearsome relative of the Tyrannosaurus – found as recently as 2008, as well as large, round dinosaur eggs from a Protoceratops. The samples sat under a thin sheet of glass, allowing me the chance to enjoy them at close range, taking a very unhurried pace as I examined each prehistoric crack and line