The Great Gobi - and beyond!

Trip Start Dec 28, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Friday, April 21, 2006

My departure from Beijing marks the beginning of my Trans-Mongolian train odyssey! (NB common misconception re the term Trans-Siberian, which refers to the leg solely via Russia ie Moscow↔Vlad).

Beijing-UB trains depart Tues/Wed, but tickets (IF avail) for the latter can only be bought on the said Tues prior, thereby one having already missed the Tues option for the week *shrugs* Chinese logic.

The train is chokkas with foreigners, it's a real social event. I'm pleased to befriend our eloquent penta-lingual (!!) Mongolian Dean Cain-doppelganger coupé roomie, who gives us sightseeing tips, a language lesson and an offer to play tour guide - yay!

I visit the National History Museum, where I learn about Mongolia's tumultuous past re Chinggis Khan; and nomadic culture and traditions - each of Mongolia's many minority groups has its own distinctive colourful attire, on display.

Ulaanbaatar (UB) translates as "Red Hero" in the local tongue, which has been described by a renowned travel writer Tim Severin, as sounding "like 2 cats coughing and spitting at each other" - quite clicky and growly. The script is based on Cyrillic so I find that I can read/write - it's my ongoing travel MO to formulate questions on paper, a strategy which has a success rate 90%, compared to verbal enquiries 25%: is my accent that bad? =) In any case English is widely understood in the city. I find UB has a fairly western (esp Russian) feel, an intriguing fusion modern attitudes / lifestyles and ancient culture. After a tiring month in China, I'm lovin' the laid back vibe and friendliness of Mongolia.

I highly recommend taking in a traditional live show; which includes orchestral performances, lively dancing, contortionists and humming style singing, which is a unique buzzing vibration sound apparently emanating from deep in the throat.

A day on-tour of the town with my gracious local host turns into a night on the town, and some editing of the story later (oh alright, I actually can't quite recall) I'm having flashbacks of shaking my inebriated thang, shortly followed by driving the porcelain bus, at the most exclusive club in UB (I'm talking frequented by local tv celebs etc no less) Classy work Lauren! *shakes head at self* =)

The next day (ie a mere few hours later) heralds the departure of our 2 week trek tour into vastness of outback Mongolia. Much to the amusement of my fellow travellers (3 Swedes - well 1 is a Radish *private joke*, Aussie contingent, an Irishman and a cool dude driver guide) I'm fragile as we traverse the great Gobi Desert in an old-skool Russian van. The going is rough and bumpy, and long days (3-10hrs) in the car. Once I sober up I'm sure I'll enjoy the offroad 4x4 adventure action - across streams, over rocks, across sand dunes = kewl! Bilious sandstorm waves blast across the vast nothingness. Peeing in the sideways wind is a matter of finding just the right angle (never mind privacy - there's not a tree in sight!).

The Gobi is surprisingly populated. Herds of wild and owned horses, sheep, goats and yaks abound. As do settlements of nomadic local people, with whom we lodge in gers (circular felt building) for the duration of our trip. These people have amazingly found a way to eke out a living in these arid barren conditions.

First highlight is Ice Valley, which is a frozen river threading through a rocky valley. Next stop is the Sand Dunes region, which is the classic cliché desert silhouette - simply awesome. It seems natural that we should take a camel ride there (beware of sand ticks!). Trekking up a dune is a hilarious exhausting feet sinking into the sand affair.

I'm amazed at the diversity of the Mongolian landscape. Over the 3400 odd-km that we traverse we see from flat expanses of gritty sand to rocky mountains, snow capped peaks, and even surprising grassy plains.

One memorable day, while wandering (semi-lost) back from the local communal shower block (a shower is a sporadic luxury in the desert) in a rural town, we return waves from a passing car and find ourselves hauled into a car full of raucous tipsy locals. Quite an amusing adventure ride home, as the driver kept turning around to talk to us instead of minding the road. Hitch-hiking is a legitimate mode of transport here in the outback. Indeed, our van picked up passengers and stopped to assist broken down fellow travellers along the way of our tour. Thankfully our guide is quite the mechanic, as we have several technical difficulties along the way.

Days 8-9: Staying at White Lake, our encampment is nestled beside a steep mountain range, which we proceed to hike up to spectacular panoramic views. We arrive in time for en masse birthing of lambs - incessant bleating resonates through the valley. Sadly several newborns die in the cold overnight. There is a nearby extinct (I hope!) volcano which gives the region characteristic porous rock formations.

Day 11 is a stopover at a town named "MORON" (no joke!); then it's off to Khovskol Lake in the north near the Russian border. We hire horses for a day and thanks to my recent practice (see Songpan entry) I find my riding style more loose and natural - not that that prevented my booty from chafing mind you. Total exhilaration as we break into extended gallops on an open plain - yeehaw!

I'm having way too much fun in this country to leave... Loved every minute!
But I'm inexorably onward bound for my 2nd entry to Russia
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