The Frozen Cliffs

Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs director Thea Boodhoo is documenting our latest mission to plan a museum at the Flaming Cliffs. (You can help us cover some of the costs.)

The Flaming Cliffs are the first place dinosaur fossils were discovered in Mongolia, during a 1922 expedition of American scientists and local translators and guides. It was Roy Chapman Andrews, the expedition leader, who named them the Flaming Cliffs and later wrote about them, revisiting several times, and capturing the imagination of the public.

“Roy Chapman Andrews and Merin with camel at Flaming Cliffs, Mongolia, 1925.” From the AMNH Digital Special Collections.

For the people who live there, the area has always been known as Bayanzag. It has become one of Mongolia’s top tourist destinations and sort of holy pilgrimage for dinosaur enthusiasts. It is protected by the local government and surrounded by tourists camps. Two dirt roads approach the cliffs, and in the summer you can find vendors at the top, selling felt camel toys, silver bowls, and jewelry. There is no museum, no visitors center, no marked trails, no signs, and nothing telling tourists there’s a town nearby called Bulgan.

We left Bulgan for the Flaming Cliffs shortly after sunrise in a three-car caravan, Munkhsaikhan and her husband in the lead. They had every hill and wash memorized, and expertly led us through the snow-covered landscape without a hitch.

Something tells me we wouldn’t have made it on our own.

It’s rare to see snow in the Gobi, and much rarer to see this much of it. So before we get to the Flaming Cliffs, it’s only fair of me to share a few more photos of the journey.

And then the Flaming Cliffs were finally in sight.

After travelling across an ocean to Ulaanbaatar, an entire day on the road just to get to the Gobi, the many days in Dalanzadgad spent waiting for the snow to stop, and even the night before in Bulgan wondering if we’d make it to the Flaming Cliffs at all, it felt like we’d achieved something monumental just getting there.

The whole team, with Sugarkhuu behind the camera.

We explored what we could. It’s impossible to get an accurate feel of the scale of this place from photos, which is one reason our architect Walt needed to be here in person to scout possible locations for the museum. At the edge of the cliffs, we did what exploring we could safely, thinking about trails and informational signs, before stepping back to the flat plain, where a museum would make the most sense.

Now thinking about the museum in earnest, we went through our many considerations. Erosion is a huge one – extreme temperature differences throughout the year mean cracks in the rock grow quickly. Sparse vegetation leaves sandstone exposed to wind, a constant battering presence in the Gobi, and rain, which happens rarely here, but when it does it’s a force to be reckoned with. Flash floods have caught expeditions by surprise, nearly wiping out entire campsites. The sandstone itself is so soft you can rub it off a fossil with your forefinger. In short, all the things that make Bayanzag such an excellent place to find dinosaurs also make it an exceptionally challenging place to build a dinosaur museum.

Another question we must ask ourselves is how much attention we want the museum to draw to itself. The opportunity to create an iconic masterpiece of architecture, like so many urban museums, is tempting, but we all agreed early on that the real masterpiece at Bayanzag has already been created by nature. The design of the building should minimize its presence, and let the sandstone and the sky speak for themselves.

As we move forward with legal details and budgeting, we’ll share more about which locations we’re considering and what the museum might look like on the inside and out. There are many ways you can help, from volunteering to fundraising to donating and simply spreading the word by sharing our project with your friends and colleagues. If you’ve enjoyed the photos from this post, I’ve added a couple as wall art to our shop.

Needless to say, we all made it home safe and sound and caught our planes on time. Thank you for following along with our March adventure through the highs and lows. We’re thrilled to have made it despite everything and in a lot of ways, glad we experienced the journey under the most difficult circumstances possible. We learned so much about the challenges of life out here and in our down time while we were snowed in, we made plans we’re excited about for helping the people of the Gobi in every way we can as we move forward.

Now the real work starts.

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