Rachel Laudan

Reading and Pondering: Food for Crossing the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

What did travelers in the Gobi Desert eat on days when they had a thirty-mile trek from one oasis to the next? Four bowls of undercooked noodles with crushed garlic in linseed oil and dried chiles.

Having coffee last week with a friend who is off to Mongolia, I was reminded of a book I loved as a child: The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable and Francesca French.  First published in 1943, my battered 1958 edition is one of the few books that I have carted around the world with me. (I wouldn’t put too much credence in the accuracy of the picture on the cover).  

Cable and the two sisters who accompanied her worked with the Inland China Mission. Don’t let that put you off.  Like so many missionaries in the field, they came to admire those they worked among and to write fine records. At first, indeed even now, I loved it for its calm introduction to a world so removed from my own. 

Central Asia was a dangerous place to be in the 1920s with war and political conflict in both Russia and China. The Gobi Desert tries the traveler even today.


Map of Gobi Desert and surrounding area in Cable. Note captions about political changes in upper left. Impossible to scan straight without breaking the back of the old paperback.

All the food in the oases had to be carried in by caravan.  Cable’s description of a thirty-mile stage between oases in summer when day time temperatures could rise to 100 F and fall to 50 F at night when one meal just before setting off had to last men and beasts for 24 hours.

“At midsummer the travel day begins three hours before sunset, when a call is given . . . The caravan bash [leader] gives the word, “Feed the animals.”  . . . A little later the rhythmic crunch of the creatures’s jaws is heard. The grain is dried field peas, coarsely crushed.* Were the mules to be fed with unmilled peas, their keen hunger would make them eat too quickly and swallow the feed whole. Uncrushed peas are good enough for easy days in the stable, but of no use to the beast on Gobi stages.

He has prepared a generous allowance–four large bowls of cooked dough-strings to each one, and the scrapings to the hungriest . . . For the next twenty minutes, to the noise of crunching mules is added the sound of sucks and swallows from the feeding men, and no word is spoken until the iron ladle has scraped the bottom of an empty pot. . .

Half way through the night . . . the caravans moving in opposite directions meet and greet each other . . . Pedestrians lay down their loads, rest aching shoulders, and drink from their water-bottles, squatting lightly on their heels . . . All these men speak but little and there is no easy chat on a desert night journey.

During the silent stages when nothing is heard but the soft grind of wheels on loose sand, sound become subtly rhythmic and the rhythms resolve themselves into music, harmonising according to the perception of the listener. . .

Caravans in the Gobi in 2016. Photo by Laika ac. cc-by-sa-2.0

With the rising sun . . . the wide-open doors of oasis inns wait to receive the tired wayfarers . . . [who] disappear into the darkness and quiet of inn cells to pass the day in sleep.”

This book has worn well. I highly recommend it if you like travel literature.


*Not only was there no grass along the route or in the oases to sustain the mules, mules and horses cannot do this kind of hard work without grain or pulses.

**In the same way, the Irish ate their potatoes somewhat undercooked.  Is this a common pattern to make food go further?

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10 thoughts on “Reading and Pondering: Food for Crossing the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

  1. Diane Wolff

    Oh Rachel, as a scholar who has written extensively about the Mongol Empire, I was going to go on that trip to Mongolia, but a deadline and a pinched nerve prevented me. You are too much, writing about the Gobi. I have written extensively about the brilliant campaign of Genghis Khan, whose three armies crossed the Gobi in the winter so that they could conquer China. I’ll bet these two women did not have sheep depots and herds of horses to travel with them. Love this. See my website for snapshots of my books, including “Princess Sorghagtani: The Woman Who Changed Global History.”

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Diane, not writing about it, just quoting a woman who knew it so well. Love your work on Mongolia.

  2. Bala


    Interesting to read. On a related note, I was reminded of a book a friend published recently, “Food on Foot: A History of Eating on Trails and in the Wild” by Demet Güzey.


  3. waltzingaustralia

    Haven’t been on a caravan, but I have traveled across the Gobi. Depending on when and where one is going, there are spots with grass and an occasional spring or deep well. So it wouldn’t all be completely without refreshment. It seems likely that the travelers would also have some dried yak or mutton and possibly some dried cheese curd to supplement the noodles, as those are the foods that get them through the winter (because living on the Gobi is not significantly easier than traveling across the Gobi). Horse milk is high in vitamin C, so it took the place of veggies and fruit in the Mongol diet, so I’d imagine they’d have a skin of that along, too, at least for the first part of the trip. But the Gobi can definitely be a daunting region to cross.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Maybe I should add the sections where the author talks about foraging a few foods in the desert in the Spring. But I think in general these were very poor people.

      1. Rachel Laudan Post author

        Always a challenge for travelers. Special food for warriors, hunters, long distance traders goes way back in history.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Fascinating Mae, thank you.Someone before long is going to do a whole book on travelers’ food and the different challenges of oceans, deserts, mountains, tropical forests, etc.

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