We panic bought two overpriced and ugly sunhats in Ulaanbaatar (UB) on the evening before leaving for the Gobi Desert. (Can you believe that hats, just like sunscreen, aren’t sold everywhere there?!) I won’t say they didn’t come in handy, but not as often as expected. Apart from the weather, the desert brought many surprises.
We knew we weren’t heading for Aladdin’s sand dunes but a dry, flat, stone desert, however, we hadn’t expected the variety of scenery we got. There were the seemingly endless plains, where the horizon could be 5 or 50 km away, difficult to tell. But we also saw an ice-filled canyon, craggy mountains, plenty of grass and flowers and yes, some dunes. Certain days were hot, well over 30 degrees, while other days we were glad to have packed our jackets. Then there was the rain. We got anything from a little, light drizzle, to a proper Belgian pour, and it was often overcast, the sky filled with clouds or covered by a grey blanket. Our driver said we were lucky.
Another (sad) surprise was the litter. Heading into an area with very low population density, I thought we were in for untouched nature, but we surprisingly often ended up following a plastic trail of bottles and bags. When there’s little vegetation, candy wrappers, old shoes and empty vodka bottles become all the more noticeable.
Eight days away
Mongolia is very big and can feel quite empty. You could fit Finland more than four times into the same land area and Belgium more than 50 times. Yet the population just recently reached 3 million. There are not a lot of clear roads and signs outside of the main routes connecting the bigger towns with UB and daily public busses serve towns, not sights, which makes it challenging to explore the country independently.
Tourism is important in UB and a lot of the guest houses double as tour operators, sending off jeeps with travellers for multi-day drips to the country’s various regions. We went to the Gobi with a French family we had met on the road to Olkhon island in Russia – the journalists Mélissa and Arnaud and their daughter Rose – our guide Kho and our driver Bayra (sorry for misspelling any names). We spent eight days in a minivan on often bumpy roads, amazed at how Bayra managed to choose the right path out of all the vague jeep tracks available. The distances in the desert really are massive and you sit in the car a lot. Good company and dampers are essential and we were lucky with both.
We weren’t far out of UB when we did our first stop for lunch at a roadside diner, where we could choose from noodles with mutton or mutton soup with noodles. The second option also included copious amounts of pure fat, Christophe noticed. It was also our first Mongolian milk experience. Mongolians eat a lot of meat, especially in winter, and dairy products, especially in summer. We were served milk tea, which essentially tastes like lukewarm, salty milk, with a hint of mutton, like you would have boiled meat in the milk before using it as a drink. I never identified any tea flavour. It was not a hit with Christophe, but I didn’t dislike it, although one cup a day is sufficient.
The second Mongolian milk must is airag (or kumiss), fermented mare’s milk. Farmers will pour the mare’s milk into a large horse-hide sack hanging on the wall of the ger (yurt) and leave it to ferment for days, stirring from time to time. The end result contains a bit of alcohol, which we were told increases with time. Airag seems very popular and we saw a lot of people carrying old water and Coca Cola bottles filled with the white liquid both in the Gobi and UB. The taste is peculiar. I’d describe it as very thick, with a hint of gingerbread and lemon, and with a vomit-like aftertaste. While grateful for the kind offer from Kho and one of the nomadic families we met, it’s the kind of drink I won’t be stocking up on myself. Christophe was the only one in the party to drink happily.
There’s also camel milk vodka, but I arrived late for that tasting so I’ll have to take the word of the French, who said it felt like way too much camel milk and far too little vodka.
We stopped at Baga Gazryn Chuluu, a rocky area with a cave where Buddhist lamas hid during Stalin’s purges through the Mongolian leader Khorloogiin Choibalsan in and around 1937. Nearby, we visited the ruins of a monastery, destroyed in the ‘30s. It had a beautiful and discreet setting in a narrow valley, among the only birch trees we saw in the desert, but the location was betrayed by locals after threats were made against their families, Kho said. As many as 30,000 people – by some estimates many more – are said to have been killed in the purges, many of them monks.
At night, we stayed with nomadic families renting spare gers to travellers, or in tourist ger camps. A ger is a yurt – a white, round, tent-like structure that you can dismantle and put on a camel when transporting it from one place to another. Lined with sheep wool, they were warm and cosy in the Gobi, but we’ve slept in some very cold ones in other areas, when a stove or a good sleeping bag really have come in handy. The first night became legendary, as it was when we met Mokott, an approximately three-year-old boy who was kind, curious, generous and completely wild and/or crazy. He’d unpack every bag he saw, but was particularly fascinated by Rose’s toy bag, he was in constant need of water, fruit and hugs, and would do fierce Mongolian war cries, almost-serious fighting and some risky climbing before crying about some splinters. The energy levels were unheard of. We revisited the family on our way back and found the boy literally tied to the bed. As soon as he was let loose to take part in some goat hoarding, he grabbed a stick to pick fight any and all of us off, despite angry cries from his dad who wanted him to concentrate on the goats. Strong contestant for funniest and most annoying kid ever.
Another long day of driving brought us to Tsagaan Suvraga, or the White Stupa, so called because its 30 m white limestone walls look like the mound-like structure that Buddhists use for meditation. I didn’t really spot the resemblance, but both the rocks and the views from them were stunningly beautiful. Almost entirely alone, we sat down to watch the sunset, and as Rose announced the start of the quiet game the evening felt quite magical, only slightly disturbed by the loud Dutch guy posing for photos some 100 m away.
The southern Gobi highlights
In the province of Ömngov, southern Gobi, you find the three key Gobi sights: Yolyn Am, Khongoryn Els and Bayanzag. We spent four days there and given that it takes a good day of driving to get from one to another, you will at least need three.
The valley of Yolyn Am and the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els are both located in the Gurvan Saikhan National Park. Before heading for Yolyn Am, we stopped at a small nature museum ruled by a crazy taxidermist – or so it seemed judging from some of the stuffed animals. We looked at some dinosaur bones and were told there was an actual (but very small) chance we might stumble over something old and valuable ourselves. During a previous outing, Kho’s group had found a dinosaur bone and covered it with stones in order to call in an expert. However, when they returned to the spot, the bone was gone, probably stolen by someone who had seen a business opportunity. There are strict rules for trade with and export of bones and fossils, but there’s clearly a market for these kind of things. The museum also had a painting of a beautiful region further afield, off the typical tourist trail. A guide and driver Kho had worked with got lost there and were never found – a stark reminder that despite the world’s growing population, our maps and navigation systems, there are still places where you can lose your way and that this is not a region to play with.
I already said the landscapes in the Gobi vary. Well, Yolyn Am is a beautiful green valley in between of high, rocky hills on which you can spot wild goats (yes we did!) and wild sheep (not that lucky). It’s frequented by a lot of tourists on foot, horse or in “yaxi” (yak taxi – a wooden cart pulled by a yak) and if you look down, you’re sure to spot pikas, which look like mice, but are more closely related to hares and rabbits. They dart from one hole in the ground to another, letting out little, sharp cries, and had us completely captivated. We walked along the river until we reached the ice and snow, that, in July, still hadn’t melted due to the lack of sunshine in the narrow gorge. There we were, in the desert, holding large chunks of ice. What do you know.
The high point for both Christophe and me were the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els. Up to 300 m high, 12 km wide and some 100 km long, according to Lonely Planet, they stood like a wall in the otherwise flat landscape. The walk uphill took our group 30 to 50 minutes, but we were helped by the earlier rain, making the sand a bit more manageable. Even so, you slid back down a bit for every step you took. The reward was the view from the top – on one side the largely empty stone desert, on the other, ridge after ridge of sand. The heat of the sun was softened by the hard wind, cooling you down while filling your eyes with sand. We looked out over the flat plateau, watching others make their way up, but as soon as we felt a break in the wind we turned to admire the dunes, before quickly snapping our heads back when the wind started up again. We must have been there for well over three hours, seeing other people come up, often completely exhausted, snap some pictures and leave again. When the crowds of Chinese and Spanish came to see the sunset, we made our way down like kids, running, jumping. The distance you can cover in one step down is very different than when you’re climbing up.
The third key sight, Bayanzag, is where the adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews (also the inspiration for the character Indiana Jones, we read) found dinosaur bones and eggs during an excavation in 1922. The name refers to the saxaul shrubs growing on some of the crags, Kho said, but they are also known as the Flaming Cliffs. We saw them at sunset and they looked like a Mongolian version of the Grand Canyon, the light of the fading sun playing on the shades of muddy colour. We didn’t get to witness this alone, as clouds of mosquitos joined us. I know, mosquitoes in the desert, we didn’t expect it and we didn’t prepare. Christophe is the usual mosquito victim, but these guys were so desperate for blood that even I would do. And it was nothing like Finnish summer mosquitoes – never mind what Christophe says – these guys were small, persistent and everywhere. Kho said it was due to the unusual amount of rain the area had seen lately and put fire to some camel dung that would keep them away from our ger. Slow-burning camel crap is amazingly effective and smells rather good, like exotic incense bought at a market in a French suburb. We might just have to try something similar at home next summer.
The last stop on our tour was the sacred Zorgol Khairkhan mountains, where Genghis Khan used to spend his winters, and a short pause at the Black Lake, where cows enjoyed the salty water. The views were as always amazing and the clouds moving fast across the sky added drama.
Kho cooked us our last lunch there: Dumplings in vegetable soup. She had been spoiling us with excellent cooking throughout the trip and must have adapted the menu to our foreign stomachs, as it featured a lot more vegetables and less meat than we had expected and heard about from other travellers. The base was usually onions, carrots, potatoes and bell pepper, mixed with rice or noodles. Once we got noodle soup with dried camel meat (I liked it, Christophe didn’t and we both spent the evening getting it out of our teeth) and twice she cooked up this wonderful bread/omelette which she called bin and which I’m infinitely sorry I forgot to ask the recipe for. On an evening next to Khongoryn Els she taught us how to fill and close dumplings, which tasted much better than they looked after our attempts. On our final night, Kho left the kitchen duties to Bayra who prepared a traditional khokhog, barbequing goat in a metal bowl together with chopped onions and hot stones. Excellent, although a tooth pick would have come in handy.
There you go, that’s our trip to the Gobi, and I left so much out. I didn’t tell you about the camel ride, many of our meetings with the locals, our gazelle and vulture sightings or what to do during hours and hours in the minivan. You’ll just have to ask when we get back to Europe and prepare for a long monologue.