Crossing the Southeast Gobi to China, Mongolia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Mongolia  , East Gobi Aymag,
Monday, July 2, 2007

Crossing the eastern part of the Gobi between Dalanzadgad, the capital of Omnogov (South Gobi) Province and Zemin Uud at the Chinese border was perhaps the hardest, most trying four days of our trip.  We stopped for food, water, and petrol in dusty, ramshackle Dalanzadgad for the crossing, unsure of what to inspect since even our guide Tamir had never been been through the area.  Dalanzadgad had a small market, a post office that was actually open enabling me to mail the postcards I found 10 days earlier, and a small telecom building with two competer terminals and about 50 people in line waiting to use the Internet.  I give up - e-mail will have to wait until I get to China.  Even the meat selection was so limited in the poorly stocked market that two cook groups decided to cook vegetarian meals or rely on canned tuna from stock while Heinz and his cook group decided to buy the best meat cuts they could find for their dinner - horse ribs and flank.

Perhaps because of the searing daytime heat, the last few days in Mongolia seemed to be the hardest, even though "the light at the end of the tunnel" was in sight, at least figuratively if not literally.  Only a few more nights and there'd be real hotels with real beds to sleep in China.  Meanwhile, three full days of driving on sandy desert tracks that don't even show up on detailed topographical map lay ahead.  It seemed Tamir and Charlie were stopping at every ger in sight to ask for directions, often receiving multiple or conflicting responses, for there are not only no paved roads in Mongolia but also no signs pointing the way in the country.  We limit use of the water we are carrying to the necessities of cooking and drinking should we break down and get stranded somewhere in the desert for a while.  There's certainly now water for luxuries like bathing or washing clothes.  We stop at every dusty settlement with a well to top off the water tank, but here even the water tastes like the dust.  The Gods seem to be with us here, though, and we manage to get stuck in the sand only once in the three days.

There's far less livestock in the Gobi than elsewhere in Mongolia and most of it is camels.  The widely scattered wildlife consists of raptors like kites, eagles, and Lammergeyers and gazelles and majestic wild asses called Khangai that run so swiftly from the truck we only get glimpses of them in the distance.  The desert tracks are even more deserted than elsewhere in Mongolia, except for one short stretch with a constant stream of trucks carrying coal from a mine towards a Chinese border crossing.

On our third night out from Dalazadgad we stopped early and camped less than 30 miles from the Chinese border, all excited to get out last night of camping behind us.  It had been 35 nights since we stayed in a hotel, 27 of which were bush camps and the remainder ger stays.  Charlie and Ben picked a site on a ridge with a magnificent view over the desert and all quickly put up there tents.  I learned my lesson from the last time, though, and waited to put my tent up because the weather looked threatening.  Sure enough, about an hour later a sandstorm blew through, the downdrafts of a severe thunderstorm that was dry at the surface level because the precipitation all evaporated in the dry desert air before reaching the ground. Again tents got blown down, cooking food brought into the truck, and people chasing down  loose items blown away in the wind.  We ate dinner in the truck as the storm raged on outside. Tonka forms multiple functions as well as being a vehicle equipped to travel across distances with everything needed for survival, she's also a mess hall, a disco, a game room, a bar, and a library/reading room.  This being the last night of camping, people were in party mode and over the course of the night devoured most of a case of vodka and a lot of beer too while dancing on the truck to music blaring over Tonka's audio system.  The party moved outside as the sandstorm abated during the night, and the dancing was supplemented by drunk overlanders climbing up on Tonka's roof and sliding down her awning.

Our group has been together in the truck for almost five weeks since Almaty with only a few brief interactions with members of the outside world, most of which in Mongolia were with people with whom we were unable to communicate.  I can't help but wonder if any of us will be able to function once we return to civil society, or are we all too far gone by now from our months in the bubble that is Tonka during which we've all reverted to a feral state?  Is there any hope for us now that we've all turned into a bunch of savages?

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