[On a catch-up from Mongolia! First part of the adventure in Outer Mongolia is here.]
The inside of a Russian jeep – especially one kitted out by Mongolia Expeditions for a trip such as the one we took – looks deceptively plush. The ceiling is padded in white (p)leather, the windows installed with tasseled (!) curtains and the two benches of seats have plenty of legroom. It even has a sunroof! Only after spending extended periods of time in the above jeep does one realise the disadvantages. The padded ceiling is to prevent head injuries as you jolt along rough jeep tracks; the curtains are frequently drawn so as to keep the desert sun from heating the car; and the sunroof permanently ajar to aid air circulation.
We spent a lot of time in our little Russian kombi-style jeep bouncing through the Gobi desert. The time passed most pleasantly. Sometimes we read; we chattered and nattered; occasionally (for some – others seemed permanently comatose) we snoozed. By far the greatest amount of time was spent marveling at the skilled driving and navigation of our Tseren.
The Mongol guides did possess a Garmin GPS. Stof was most excited when he was asked to be on standby to assist with the operation of the GPS. He needn’t have gotten worked up. Those Mongols seem to have an in-built GPS. The tracks crisscross over Mongolia completely unposted. Any lesser species would be floundered within an hour of tackling the Gobi. By taking in their direction of travel, the change in landscape and a few scattered landmarks (a distant mountain perhaps), the Mongols give true meaning to the term “natural navigators”. Occasionally we would stop at some isolated ger homestead. Ostensibly this was to ask for directions, but we were convinced that the Mongols merely wanted to have a chat with the distant nomads. We were impressed.
The transition from verdant grassland (with occasional mountain forest) to desert was unexpectedly sudden. We wound and ground our way up a remote mountain pass (where we came across a large group of Mongol tourists celebrating leaving the desert behind) and stopped off in a dusty provincial town. A half hour more on the road and we were no longer spying the ubiquitous Mongolian horse herds through the window. On a “comfort break” we noticed that the grass grew in clumps through a rocky ground. And those animals in the distance really were camels. We had arrived in the Gobi.
Our first night in the Gobi was in the luxury of a ger camp: hot(ish) showers and actual beds! The sky at dusk was mottled with dramatic greys and mauves Stof and I strode out towards a distant koppie from whence we could see better the intermittent thunderstorms over the horizon. The air was thick with the smell of rain falling on dry earth.
The next day was spent gradually adjusting our eyes to the desert palette while Tseren covered miles of Gobi landscape. It was our longest day on the road, so when we finally pulled into the bare black-rocked mountains, we spilt out of the car and up the slopes in every direction. We set up camp next to a small well where we were visited by curious camels and nomads. At first it had appeared that we were alone in the rocky valley, but after scattering up different mountains we all reported at least one small ger and goat flock in the various surrounding valleys. At night, it was finally warm enough to use our extra blanket as an extra under-padding – much needed as we no longer had the luxury of grass under our (slow-deflating) thermorests.
The next morning was an early start. Before leaving for the trek further south, we had an interesting tussle. There would be no water ahead for a few days, so we needed to fill the jerry cans at the well. The camels, perhaps smarter than the humans, were ready for us. Before filling our jerries we had to pump the well with enough water to satiate their thirst. Despite knowing that we had hours ahead to fill with desert mileage, our team of Mongols was more than happy to give the camels their fill. It showed an interesting side of desert symbiosis.*
On our track over the dusty plains we somehow managed to find the one other vehicle south bound. We were used to the playful driving between our jeep and the kitchen vehicle, but there was an element of “Fast & Furious” to the truck we tried to overtake. What had originally appeared as a puff of dust in the distance transpired to be an unladen 16-wheeler. We concurred it must have been headed towards the mines. Either the driver was bored or he staunchly hated the idea of eating dirt, but he was having no little grey Russian 4×4 kombi over-taking him. After several aborted attempts, Tseren spotted an unusual curve in the road. He accelerated and left the track. We held our breaths… and we had him! A great cheer erupted. The diminishing truck was photographed and we pushed on. It took some time before Lance** was able to accomplish the same trick in the kitchen car.
By lunch time we had reached the sandy part of the desert. The drivers looked worried: while driving on sand was a touch easier in the morning cool, by midday the sand was soft and easy to sink into. The value of the central diff was proved a few times over. The most impressive driving we saw happened after our visit to the oasis.
We were supposed to have lunch next to the oasis, but timing was a little out. Nevertheless, the experience was an impressive one. The lush pop-green of the trees made the presence of water visible from far. From close, the water appeared more as a muddy stream. From very close – i.e. after we had climbed out of the car to dip our toes in the water – it was as if we were walking in muddy sinking sand. It was delightfully cool. We got decidedly filthy. The five of us felt like pre-schoolers larking in the mud. Just was we found a puddle of water where we managed to passably clean the mud from our limbs, then we would sink into a concealed mud-pit. When the horseflies*** turned us into prey and drove us back to the car, the Mongols looked startled: didn’t we realise how little water there was ahead? We picked some nearby branches and slapped the mud off our legs and feet – happily resigning ourselves to be a bit dirty for the coming days.
The lesson we had learnt from the oasis was that there was a bit of an underground stream flowing in that area… and it was spectacularly easy to sink into it. Thus, when it became apparent that our destination lay on the other side of the underground river, we were alarmed. Lance and Tseren were nonplussed. They drove up and down the mudslick looking for the right opportunity. Suddenly, Tseren gunned it (with us inside). We closed our eyes and hoped for the best. With a couple of twists of the wheel, a well-timed push on the accelerator and a wing-and-a-prayer we were though.
Our destination was Khermen Tsev. The description of the red canyon in the suggested itinerary mailed to us by Batbayar had been irresistible - despite the warning that the canyon was very remote. Or perhaps the very idea of visiting a spectacular corner of the Gobi that few other people will see was the attraction. We were not disappointed with the canyon when we finally arrived – after ostensibly making a three day journey to get there. There were gasps and whoops. The red desert sand has eroded over centuries to create a canyon with vivid sculptures that rise from the desert floor. For the next two days we explored and enjoyed the wonders of the canyon. We found only one sign of other humans: resting under a tree in the small canyon oasis we found a geocache from an expedition that had been in search of the legendary Mongolia death worm.**** Thankfully, neither us, nor them had a sighting.
Mythical monsters aside, the Khermen Tsev is awesomely ancient. It is the site of numerous paleontologic discoveries of dinosaur remains. We found no evidence of the digs, but it was easy to imagine prehistoric beasts roaming the canyon and surrounds. Sunrise and sunset were particularly amazing. Our cameras barely rested – with the sun low in the sky, the cliffs glowed ochre. It inspired the kind of rush of emotions that would lead one to strip down and dance naked atop a pinnacle. Of course, we did.
After a well-used full day in the canyon it was time to see a different side of the Gobi. We awoke early and climbed into our trusty Russian rides in search of a desert of a different kind: giant sand dunes.
We broke the two-day journey to the dunes by camping near a salt pan. Brad, Stof and I tried (and finished) a bottle of the local vodka: Chinggis Gold. We were alternatively raucous, maudlin and silly. The Mays and the Mongols were bemused. Moving on to those sand dunes…
Despite being told that they would, we didn’t really believe that the giant dunes of the Gobi actually “sing”. As much as to test the singing theory as to prove to Jack that we could get all the way to the top, we set off early one morning to summit the biggest of the dunes. Even in the early hours, it was hot-hot and the steep 200m dune was challenging to mount. At the sun hit the sand, it became viscose so that each step produced a cascade of sand down the slope. Tough going if you are in front, even nastier if you are srsly unfit and struggling at the rear (me). As we reached the cusp of the dune the falling sand began a deep hum. The sound grew until it produced a loud melodious drone: the sand dune was indeed singing. To the dune’s own sound track we reached the summit and drank in the marvelous view.
It was in the late afternoon shadow of the sand dune that we “enjoyed” another quintessential desert experience. I am not sure whether riding a Dromedary (single-humped camel) is at all bearable, but perching between the two humps of Bactrian is a singularly uncomfortable experience. We were grateful for the photo-opportunity, grateful that it only lasted for an hour, and even more grateful that we had spent five days mounted on a horse instead of a camel!
And then our penultimate day was upon us. The last day was to be used up on getting back to Ulaanbataar so we could catch an early morning train to Beijing the next day. The second last day, our last day in the Gobi, needed to count. And Mongolia delivered a hidden gorge, some memorable taxidermy***** and a dust storm!
Tucked around the corner from our final camp site (over-looking a vast plain – spectacular), was a gate to a national park. A trundle down the road in the vehicle revealed the entrance to a gorge (and a lot of very enthusiastic Mongol tourists). Once we pushed past the hordes, we realised the reason for their excitement: we had entered a narrow gorge straight off of a Tolkien page. Dramatic cliffs towered above us. Even in the mid-June desert heat, the river that had forged the cliffs was frozen – meters thick in places. A truly magical place.
That evening we prepared to settle down for a leisurely sundowner and snack to reminisce on the trip after pitching our tents for the last time. Stof and I opted to pop our two-man up a little down the slope. After watching us at labour, Bradawl and the Mays decided to lay their heads higher up – closer to the kitchen tent. We (SnS) watched bemused as the wind made the job of pitching the other tent increasingly tricky. Initially we congratulated ourselves on choosing a spot that was slightly more sheltered until we looked over to where the view had been. An enormous dusky cloud had rolled in and was fast approaching. One shout over to the Mongols sitting in the kitchen tent confirmed that we were about to be engulfed in a notorious Gobi sand storm.
Camp erupted into a flurry. We (tourists) ran around dumping rocks onto the edges of our tents, clearing up the general detritus of our things draped around the camp, and donning the sand goggles Brad had lugged all the way from CT in case of such an eventuality. The Mongols set about making sure that the kitchen tent was secure before parking the two cars in a protective shield on the windward side of the tent. As the storm hit, we tucked ourselves away and nattered excitedly: it felt like we were truly seeing every side the Gobi had to show. After about an hour, the wind died down (or moved on), but we had been left with memories to fill tomes.
*And an interesting side of Mongolian nature. There were many times when we were impressed by the easy way in which the Mongols fitted into their environment: both using and caring for it in equal measure. Recently, we’ve read a fascinating novel set in Chinese (Inner) Mongolia which focuses on how the Mongols have easily placed themselves within a greater environment. It also says a lot about Chinese nature. Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong – awesome book.
** Embarrassingly, we could never remember the name of the second driver. We kind of gave up getting our heads around his rather complex Tibetan-Mongol name once Jenna pointed out his uncanny likeness to our friend Lance. Not only do [driver] and Lance share a physical likeness and a goofy-sweet disposition, but both are profoundly fond of baring their bellies. We could never pluck up the courage to ask [driver] to roll his tummy like our Lance, but the likeness was sufficient for us to call the second driver after his Cape Town counter-part.
*** Who knows what those horseflies usually feed on, but they were might pleased to lunch on our blood.
**** Here is the wiki link for the Mongolian death worm. Justincase you’re curious.
***** I would say that the wild cats represented in the museum at the gate to the gorge should perhaps not be on display, but that would be depriving people like us of one of the funniest sights in Mongolia. Amateur taxidermy is an unexpected treat.