Gobi desert escape

The night before my Gobi adventure was a sleepless one.  I think I didn’t sleep just in case I’d fall asleep and wake up to find myself somewhere else.

Day 1 and I remember seeing our Russian Minivan UAZ 452 for the first time, a clapped out old rattletrap that would take us around the Gobi and Central
Mongolia for a grueling 12 days of rough and tumble.  She averaged 300km in 9 hours of driving a day for us on roads that don’t exist.  She never complained, never broke down and suffered the 1 misfortune of a flat tire.  A remarkable lady of the desert.   I also had the pleasure of meeting her cousin on a my next trip through the Altai mountains.

Back to the team.  I organised my tour with Edelweiss Guesthouse.  Most guesthouses manage to rustle up  some tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils and food for an extra tot.  I managed to find Magali (a swiss miss) and Andrea (a pole with a vodka fetish) to join me.  The guesthouse arranged for Nara to be our guide and old faithful Pooje to be our driver.  There we were, 5 complete strangers thrown together off to brave the Gobi.  iLike.

After a ram-scramble out of UB, getting lost on several occasions we eventually drove out of the claustrophobic city and into the beautiful scenic countryside that epitomizes Mongolia.  A breath of fresh and much needed country crisp air
 engulfed me as I embraced the freedom of travel.  We saw our first BACTRIAN CAMELS amid the arid semi desert steppe, nothing new for Nara and Pooje but a cause for “STOP THE CAR” from us three!  I’d taught a lesson  on these creatures, but never thought I’d see them 2 humps and all.  Too precious, and I also was lucky enough to see some white camels, a rare treat.  I also saw my first real nomads in their ger in the middle of nowhere.  Later I’d learn Pooje would drop in at each ger en route to greet the local nomads we came across and get directions.  This was not a simple meet and greet, get some tea and share some snuff ceremony.  It was an almost mandatory ritual to inquire about directions to ensure our survival and this is not an exaggerated statement.  Without roads,  maps, signposts, let alone a GPS the only directions we’d get would be from veering off and stopping and asking at gers or from the off chance of meeting nomadic motorists who’d point us on.  Getting lost in the Gobi is not fun, as we’d later find out.

We stopped for lunch at an oasis, a sanctuary of water and trees in an otherwise deadland.  Yes oases are all they are cracked up to be and more.  In the stiflingheat, they appear out of nowhere on the horizon whilst your eyes try to decipher the heat mirages from the real thing.  Only the trained eye can distinguish these gems from the forgery.  Nara kept on pointing and I kept on squinting to try see.

We carried on through the monotonous flat terrain until we saw a dramatic and welcome change in the geography.  We were met by the caves and canyons of  the beautiful Ikh Gazryn Chuluu.  It looked like a movie set, a painting, something constructed by CG effects in Hollywood.  Snapped out of a mesmerizing trance, the views of this rugged rockland were spectacular.   Seeing the full moon rise over our little tents, keep guard over us by night and set late the next morning was a sure sign that this trip I wanted so badly was meant to be.  There’s something so magical about starting a voyage with the full moon.

The next morning, we climbed up to an Ovoo on a windy peak, a fabulous way to start the day by thanking the spirits that be.  An Ovoo is a thoughtfully constructed mound of stones carefully adorned with ribbons.  They are made on religious space with spiritual importance.  Just up my ally!

Its customary to pick up a stone and place it onto the ovoo whilst circling it 3 times (in a clockwise direction).  It’s a time to reflect, pay gratitude to the spirits and ancestors and bring luck.  The spirit world is ever present in these great lands.  It lives in the sands, rocks and landscape extending through the music, khoomei, the gers, folklore and shamans of Mongolia.  I was here to join in the harmonic tune of nature and work on my hiimori.

The Shaman

The moutains turn green, the larches rustle,

Will the rivers flowing to Baikal be silent?

In the mists of legend, in the voice of the wind

In the song of the moon I sought my answer…

From “Riding Windhorses” by Sarangeral

Stupefied.  Our next escapade took us further south to Ulaan Suvraga (Red Stupa) an eerie, lunar like, rugged and exposed landscape which was once the seabed.  And onto

Tsagaan Suvraga (White Stupa) which is 20km east, eroded and awash with white limestone.   We camped under a glorious star studded sky that night, after a subliminal sunset.  

We got lost as some stage.  I have a feeling it was round about here in our travels, though I could be completely mistaken and wouldn’t know any better in all honesty.  Circles, goodness we drove around in circles completely oblivious until we started to recognize certain features for the nth time.  It was a scary couple of hours spent in a tizz.  Later I found out that we had to deviate from the road (what road?) and that the landscape had been altered by a flash flood of sorts that made it impossible to drive through thus a course adjustment had to be made.  Compared with other “getting lost in Mongolia” stories I’d heard, ours wasn’t half bad.

We headed further south to Dalanzadgad, after a few days camping in nomansland, old Dalanzadgad resembled a node civilization in the desert.  It had an airport for a start (where rich tourists can fly to straight from UB) a hotel or two and a handful of restaurants.  In all honesty it’s a drab place, built to support the copper and coal mining in the area.  An in-flight magazine I read, had a rather glossy display of the mining potential and possible financial benefits, as you can imagine the Chinese among other foreign companies can’t wait to get in there.

Bugger the mining potential, we were there to discover the paleontological treasures of the region.  Speaking of paleontologists, I met some in the middle of the Gobi camped just outside of a ramshackle gemors of a village.

They were Russian, I knew that by sussing out the gorgeous creature that emerged from someone’s ger dressed in camo pants and army boots, shirtless and carrying a CRATEFUL of Chinggis Khan vodka on his bare shoulder.  The prof. of the group with icementling blue eyes and who spoke the Queen’s English informed us they’d driven down from Moscow to spend the summer and autumn months in the desert looking for dinosaur remains and fossils.  Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.  I shoulda stayed to volunteer…

Alas, onto the southern most point of our trip Yolyn Am (vulture’s mouth) a valley in the middle of the Gobi desert which hosts an abundant array of wildlife.  It also promised ice canyons with meter-thick ice.  There is a blessed little nature museum at the foot of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan Natioanl Park which hosts some spectacular stuffed animals (including a snow leopard) that’d make any taxidermist proud.  More importantly it has some gorgeous dinosaur eggs, bones and petrified wood on display.  After that I felt a rainbow coming on, and blow me down there she appeared for a brief display.  How utterly delightful.  We camped just outside the park in the hills surrounding the valley, shadowed by mountain vistas, ice canyons and sand dunes.  


The next day we walked up the gorge following the river’s path in search of the elusive snow leopard.. I mean ice filled gorge.  Sadly, as it was summer there was no ice.  Nara went on to mention that locals were concerned about the ice melting, back in the day apparently it didn’t ever melt even in the summer months.

It was a beautiful walk and what a treat to see and hear the water of a river again.  There were fine horses on display in the surrounding pastors and the odd souvenir vendor.  We charged on to the dramatic route through Dugany Am, a frightfully narrow gorge that our van barely cleared. We had a long journey to Khongoryn Els that day, a solid 10 or so hours of driving on backbreaking roads that left us all exhausted.  Hitting dongas at top speeds that almost sent us into orbit was all worth it once I saw my sand dunes.  The stretch from Bayandalai to Khongoryn Els is the most perfect breathtaking scenery imaginable and will forever remain etched in my memory.  The dunes, aka Duut Mankhan (singing dunes) go on kilometers in length and stretch on into forever.  Grassland meets rock in a smashing display of windswept dune delight.  We had to stop several times en route to take it all in.  That place, where my heart yearned for and will do forever more is so sacred to me.

We had a glorious 2 days to discover the area, dunes and all.  I clambered about the dunes in such delight.  They are 12 kilometers wide, and go up to 300m in height apparently.  The views from top uncover the most gorgeous desert landscape framed by beautiful mountains.  I thought of Le Petit Prince, Caravans and The Alchemist.  

I rode my first bactrian camel, and I must say I’ve grown rather fond of them.  We most definitely bonded as we loped along the dunes in an awkward manner.  I forget her name? Oh well, the stay with our first family run ger was all too surreal.  Gers are cosy 🙂  Nothing is quite as majestic as this trip to the Gobi



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