Into the Gobi Desert

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I wake up in the middle of the night to a howling wind and then waves of much needed rain in the Gobi Desert.   I am in the most remote place I have ever visited in the world:  the Khongor Sand Dunes which stretch for 135 kilometers at the base of a part of the Altai mountains.  

Our last two days in the desert have been an unexpected adventure with a glimpse into a nomadic way of life quickly disappearing as more and more traditional herders move into the city.  Sara told us that the clash with the modern world is also creating a serious problem with marriages:  children of the desert need to attend a school far away, staying either in a dormitory or with friends or family.   For young kids, this means the mothers go with them and after living with modern conveniences of life the mothers sometimes decide not to return home.

The desert itself is a very wide and long empty plain of hard packed dirt and small stones, appearing completely flat and empty.   But, as we quickly discovered, the empty space is pocked with small gulleys from running water and occasional uneven rises with a few oases with water allowing small scrubby bushes to grow.   This is very off-road adventure travel.  There are no paved roads.  We were briefly on a tarmac road near the airport which we were told continues for 200 kilometers and is still under construction.  But to get anywhere, you just head straight across the desert, finding some already used path, or start a new one.  Consequently the countryside is criss-crossed with wheel tracks and everyone uses a heavy-duty 4-wheel drive vehicle.   We are reminded of a vast Wyoming plain but without as much grass.  There are some small scrubby plants and grasses that have somehow survived but little else.

Our fairly new Toyota Landcruisers (we have 2 cars for the 4 of us plus our guide) and our 2 drivers are excellent.  They have to be to survive driving hours on these roads, making constant decisions which track to take, sometimes going up 45 degree angle rises with no visual clues as to what is on the other side of the top.  There are gulleys which you cross with significant jarring and even the most straight and smooth path is a series of continual rough bumps.  None of us were quite prepared for this level of adventure and the time it takes to get anywhere.

We flew on a small prop plane from UB into the small town of Dalanzadgad in the Gobi desert.  From there it was an hour drive to our camp and into our very beautiful traditional round ger, like a yurt, except ours had attached to it a magnificent bathroom.   And really wonderful food.

On our 3  days we traveled, sometimes up to 4 hours, to reach our current destination. Our first site included hiking to a well-known gorge which prior to global warming had ice all summer at its most narrow part, crossing  a stream over stepping stones many times along with a number of other tourists. 

Varya, Pat and Jack at the end of the gorge once holding ice
Amy at the entrance to the gorge

Our very long ride to another camp near the sand dunes was rough indeed, making one stop along the way where nomads were herding their flocks.   The sand dunes extend for 135 kilometers, created by wind  across the desert and here is where we had a short camel ride and then climbed a more accessible sand dune. 

The four explorers on came
At the food of a small dune

We visited an oasis where a bubbling spring from underneath the sands feeds small plants and creates a green break from the brown earth.  The sun broke through and created a halo of light over everything.

And on our last full day we visit the Flaming Cliffs which are a red bluff area, similar to Utah, where an extraordinary collection of dinosaur bones and eggs were first found in the 1920’s by an expedition from the New York American Museum of Natural History.

Varya and Pat at the Flaming Cliffs

Mongolia was not independent from its Soviet leaders and able to begin to create a tourist trade until the 1990’s.  So slowly every interesting location was put on the tourist route in the Gobi Desert although some seem hardly spectacular enough to merit the arduous travel to get there. The gorge and the dunes would fit in this category.  The flaming red cliffs, however, were very impressive, had well positioned but poorly maintained walkways around the area and were well worth the visit.   But the real star and attraction for this part of the world is the phenomenal vistas of sky and earth, always changing and beautiful.  We were fortunate to be here during a period of large clouds and light rain so that the various shades of grey in the sky broken by blue and pierced by sharp rays of the sun was deeply memorable.

An outhouse stop, one of many along our route.
The wind had blown the door off so it was open on the other side.

The other remarkable vision here is the animals we passed as we criss-crossed parts of the flat desert.   From a distance and then closer, are herds of beautiful horses many with foals, large flocks of sheep and goats with their babies in all the black and white varieties, some cows, and then the surprising sight of camels sitting and walking in small groups separated from the other animals.

We find goats lying in the middle of the “road” and frighten dozens of horses into a canter as we pass through too close to them, and even drive around a group of sleeping camels.  The nomads use some dogs but mainly their motorcycles to move their flocks along and gather them for milking.

Near the dunes, we stayed overnight in small log cabins rooms which leaked in Jack’s room during the nightime rain but were otherwise fine with good food in a large communal dining room.  The rain on the metal roof woke me up although outside we could see little signs of precipitation as it immediately soaked into the parched earth.

Our camp with our log cabins in the background near the dune

On our last day we visited a nomad family, a man and wife who have been packing up their get and belongings four time a year as they move to their set seasonal locations to allow them to maintain their herd of 5-star animals of this plain:  cows, horses, sheep, goats and camels.

At our Nomad visit, we are offered to taste fermented mares milk, goat milk, dried goat curd snacks, goat alcohol, and goat butter eaten on top of a sugar cube.   I was never happier to be a vegan and politely declined the offerings.  Amy discretely asked to have one of the sucking candies on the table to relieve the taste in her mouth.  Our gifts to the couple were a big hit, especially a New York cap which we found in a local Mongolian small town market Pat and I visited . 

Tasting local foods: fermented mare’s milk, goat milk curds, and goat butter
Our friend in his new New York cap
Inside a moveable nomad’s home
The small town store in the middle of the Gobi desert

The most physically challenging adventure was climbing up a high gravel and rock strewn path to the site of some ancient Petroglyphs carved into stone from 3,000-8,000 BC. We hiked up in a slight drizzle over slippery rocks from the cars parked below in this photo.

Looking down from the petroglyphs
Pat by some of the petroglyphs

Visiting this part of the world took more stamina than we expected — and we were fortunate to have near perfect temperature: imagine what it would be like to live here in high summer heat. This was a very worthwhile glimpse into an old culture trying to survive in a changing world.