Car Culture

Digging Mongolia: Hunting for fossils with Infiniti and new paleontological tech

With Infiniti steeds and the latest 3D mapping tech, we set out to find dinosaur bones in the vast Gobi Desert.

Infiniti

The mind doesn't function quite so well when you've been awake for 24 hours. Studies suggest this lack of sleep has effects similar to that of a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent -- legally drunk, by most standards. Your hand-eye coordination and short-term memory aren't what they used to be. Your judgment is skewed. A tired body deploying every endorphin it can source -- you aren't sure whether to laugh, cry or just collapse.

There's a lot from the first 24 hours of my trip to Mongolia that I don't exactly remember. I know I had some of the best Indian cuisine of my life, but I really only recall the accompanying frosty mugs of Chinggis beer. I remember lying awake in bed for a few hours in Ulaanbaatar, the country's capital, but the hotel's name escapes me. I took a lot of notes. I talked to a lot of people. Yet the only phrase I clearly recall is, "The flight's been delayed until two o'clock in the morning."

Despite this sleep-deprived fog, I will never, ever forget watching the sunrise after landing in Dalanzadgad, a tiny, remote town on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Blasting across the dark expanse in an Infiniti QX80 SUV, the first rays of dawn broke over the horizon and illuminated a landscape more vast than any I'd seen before. Stopping to take it all in, the soft desert breeze was the most refreshing thing I'd felt since leaving home. All I could do was stand there, frozen, mouth agape. The sheer silence of this desolate landscape was absolutely deafening. And suddenly, I wasn't so tired anymore.

Retracing an expedition

No, I didn't come all this way just to watch a sunrise, even if the glory of that dawn alone made the whole trip worthwhile.

In June 2018, luxury carmaker Infiniti sponsored a fossil hunt through the Gobi Desert in collaboration with the Hong Kong chapter of The Explorers Club -- a group self-described as "an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore" -- as well as the Institute of Paleontology and Geology of Mongolian Academy of Sciences (IPG). The goal was to retrace the route pioneered by renowned archeologist and explorer Roy Chapman Andrews nearly a century ago, when motorized vehicles were brought to the Gobi for the first time, and fossilized dinosaur eggs were initially discovered.

The expedition employed new technologies like drone-powered multispectral and thermal cameras in order to improve paleontological methodology. Dr. Scott Nowicki, a scientist from research firm Quantum Spatial, led the technological team during The Explorers Club's hunt. He's incredibly qualified for the position, too -- Nowicki has worked with a little organization called NASA on several of its Mars explorations.

Drones: As great for capturing rad shots in Roadshow videos as they are for 3D mapping the Gobi Desert.

Infiniti

Nowicki's team used drones to to collect data over hundreds of miles of the Gobi Desert. "We then compared that to satellite data," he explained, "correlating the observations made on the surface with geological properties that we had not yet visited." In the end, new three-dimensional maps were created, and Nowicki says these will be paramount in the exploration of Gobi dig sites for years to come.

Needless to say, the June event was a huge success. Over a period of 20 days, the 35-member team discovered over 250 new fossil locations with hundreds of bones, many belonging to mammals not previously known to have existed in the Gobi. Plus, the team possibly uncovered three new dinosaur species. Their findings will be validated with the team back at the IPG home base in Ulaanbaatar, and will provide the basis of explorations over the coming years.

Infiniti provided a fleet of crossovers and SUVs for the journey, including the new 2019 QX50, as well as its QX60 and QX80. Interestingly, Infiniti doesn't have a dealership network in Mongolia, so its vehicles are almost as scarce as dinosaur bones 'round these parts.

Of course, my experience wouldn't be quite as involved. Sure, I'd be roaming the desert looking for fossils of my own, with a group of legit scientists along for good measure. But really, let's call this a re-retracing. The dig sites visited in June, I'd just be visiting again. But hopefully, there'd be new treasures to find.

Because Infiniti doesn't have a dealer network in Mongolia, you're more likely to find a dinosaur bone than a QX60 in the Gobi Desert.

Infiniti

Where we're going, we don't need roads

A number of two-track trails make up various routes across the Gobi; this is a place largely devoid of roads. "Just point the car where you have to go," was one local's advice, noting that the only real way to find your way around is to study your position relative to the sun and the mountains, and then just kind of wing it.

After a short rest at the Three Camel Lodge, our group's home base some 40 miles from the airport in Dalanzadgad, the caravan of Infinitis set off toward desert dig sites. The terrain was initially easy to manage -- packed dirt and gravel with the occasional giant rock impeding the path. It's the sort of stuff any crossover or SUV could handle without issue. That said, it's probably rougher ground than most Infiniti QX models sold Stateside will ever see in their lifetime.

The big QX80 was absolutely in its element. The V8-powered brute shares many of its bones with the Nissan Patrol, a body-on-frame SUV sold in several global markets, with honest-to-goodness four-wheel drive, complete with high- and low-range transfer cases. Bounding over hills and splashing through puddles, the QX80 seemed to flatten the Earth beneath it, all the while keeping passengers cool and collected. How many other explorers have crossed the Gobi in air conditioning while seated on leather thrones?

Slingin' mud with the seat coolers on. That's what the QX80 does best.

Infiniti

It's easy to harp on the QX80 for feeling too old-school and trucky for on-road duty, especially when compared to more modern full-size luxury SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade, Land Rover Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz GLS. But for storming the desert at high speed, that old, rugged charm made the QX80 easy to appreciate. Few vehicles -- and certainly no other Infiniti -- would've been as good.

The smaller QX50 received a complete redesign for 2019. And while it's arguably the least-SUV-like of the bunch, it plowed across the desert landscape with respectable poise. It almost felt eager to get its tires dirty -- plentiful power from Infiniti's new VC-Turbo 2.0-liter engine was delivered to all four wheels with immediacy, and the lower center of gravity and shorter wheelbase meant the QX50 could more easily dart around hard-to-see obstacles.

On the long stretches of dusty road between Three Camel Lodge and our various archeological dig sites, the QX50 definitely proved to be the most fun. While the QX80 made quick work of ruts and terrain undulations, the QX50 would eagerly slide around turns, a cloud of Gobi dust in its wake.

The turbocharged QX50 is easily the most fun-to-drive of Infiniti's crossover and SUV lineup.

Infiniti

As for the QX60, well, bless her heart. Don't get me wrong, the Nissan Pathfinder-based QX60 has a welcome place in the three-row luxury crossover space -- it's a worthy competitor to vehicles like the Acura MDX, Buick Enclave or Lexus RX. But this is a vehicle designed exclusively for pavement duty, or perhaps inclement weather, or maybe occasionally scaling a curb while entering a Starbucks parking lot. As comfortable and quiet as it was during my run through the Gobi, its bouncy rear suspension and vague steering always left me wishing I'd picked one of the other SUVs.

Nevertheless, every one of the Infinitis handled the terrain with aplomb. Not a tire was punctured, and even occasionally steep climbs were handled with ease. Plus, let's face it: long stints behind the wheel over rough terrain can be daunting -- constantly jostling, tons of noise from the road surface, not to mention errant stones flung up at various body panels. In those situations, I'll admit, I liked having heated seats, quiet cabins and premium sound systems to make the experience a bit more manageable. I'm no desert princess who demands luxury, but being able to get cozy while doing 65 miles per hour over rough terrain is a pretty clutch way to live.

When the going gets tough, you definitely want the QX80.

Infiniti

Dem bones

Badamkhatan Zorigt is the division head of vertebrate paleontology at the Mongolian IPG, and the tour guide through the Gobi as I look for small bone fragments, millions upon millions of years old. Zorigt studied at Montana State University before moving back to his native Mongolia to work with the Academy of Sciences, and has spent his entire adult life dedicated to this work.

Among his credentials, Zorigt was mentored by the scientist who consulted with Steven Spielberg during the filming of Jurassic Park, and joked about how many of the dinosaurs featured in that movie aren't from the Jurassic period at all. Zorigt also spoke of a recent incident where Mongolian police called on him as an expert scientist, inspecting evidence during a raid of a suspected fossil poacher's home. Indeed, bone poaching is a big problem in Mongolia. Zorigt says if you're found guilty of possessing fossils, you can serve up to 10 years in prison.

Those tiny bones likely belonged to a young velociraptor, millions upon millions of years ago.

Infiniti

Seek and ye shall find

As dusk began to fall, while walking along the base of the absolutely gorgeous Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Ömnögovi Province, a fellow amateur explorer spotted what appeared to be a collection of fossils barely protruding from the sand. These things aren't super easy to find; you're not looking for massive Tyrannosaurus Rex-size bones just sticking out of the Earth. And because the fossils have been weathered and eroded over time, they blend in with other rocks all too easily. I can't tell you how many interesting-looking specimens were no more than red herrings.

But this time, we had something. A set of bones scattered among rocks were believed to belong to juvenile velociraptor twins -- finally, dinosaurs! The fragments were closely inspected, the sediment carefully brushed away by Zorigt and his team. The sample was documented and tagged with GPS coordinates, so professionals can come back and properly excavate the bones later (no, you can't just dig 'em up). But before we move on in search of more fossils, Zorigt covers the remains with sand and some brush, to hide them from plain sight. This is an excellent find for the Mongolian scientists, but one that's very attractive to those lousy poachers, as well.

Prominent fossils are measured and GPS-tagged, but then hidden from plain sight to avoid being poached prior to excavation. 

Infiniti

Earlier that day, Zorigt led us to a hillside to show off one of the group's more interesting finds, a half-exposed skull of a Protoceratops -- a smaller relative of the well-known Triceratops -- with intact jaw bones and small, distinct teeth. A find like this is hugely important for paleontologists, not just because of its well-preserved state and size, but because it's probable that the rest of the dinosaur's remains are nearby.

In the end, the expedition wasn't quite as scientifically fruitful as the last fossil hunt in June. But even the smallest of findings brought a spark to Zorigt's eyes. And I can't blame him.

I'll admit, there is an indescribable, wildly existential sensation to holding a bone in your hand that belonged to a creature that roamed the earth some 80 million years ago. Life itself is short, but history always remains. Not everything gets washed away to the sands of time.

A picture cannot properly convey the vast majesty of the Gobi Desert, but here's one anyway.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Postface

Recalling my time in Mongolia, the thing that has most vividly stuck with me was the connection I felt to the surroundings, the cars, the people and the experience. I partially equate that to the lack of cellular and internet connectivity, and the overarching disconnect from the outside world. With no signal to share photos and no texts to be received, you're left with uninterrupted, in-the-moment bliss.

New technology will help scientists better explore the unknown in search of links to our past. And technology will help automakers like Infiniti create cars that'll get those scientists there with greater power, improved efficiency and all the onboard amenities anyone could want.

But staring into the great wide open, perched on a rocky hill on a warm Mongolian morning, I couldn't have cared less about trying to capture the moment. I was so incredibly tired, but I've never felt so awake.


Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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