No fences, No Power, No Toilets... The Gobi Desert

Trip Start Jun 08, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Words will struggle to describe my travel through Mongolia, but I will do my very best to convey what has undoubtedly been one of my most memorable travel experiences to date; all basically conducted on the budget that Tasha (friend in Auckland) and I would happily consume on a Sat morning in Auckland!

The cast: An old VW van, a Mongolian driver (Aamaa), Mongolian drivers little brother, myself and 3 American guys (Tom, Ken and Jeff).

The plot: Head south from UB (Ulaan Baatar) into the Gobi desert and finish off with 2 nights in the Terelj National Park.

It took about .5hr from UB for our van to venture off sealed roads and onto 4WD tracks which were to predominate the road surface for the next 11 days. Aamaa was a complete and utter master though, at the age of 24 he navigated the entire course with little more than througha local knowledge as there weren't any sign posts to guide. In addition to that we were soon to learn that Aamaa was also an extremely competent driver, roads would often take us through narrow gorges, along river beds, through rivers, over steep terrain on the most peculiar of angles and through many kilometers of sandy/gravel (much of the terrain in this desert is naturally stoney). Having grown up on a hill country farm where off roading was a way of life I feel semi qualified to comment that this guy was good, real real good! Infact travelling through Mongolia would be the ultimate for any 4WD junkie (or Mountain Biker for that matter). Aamaa was also an expert mechanic, just when I thought that the van had died for the last time he would resuscitate it; even after spending a good 12 hours working on it when we were broken down in the middle of the Gobi for a day, the van purred for 15 hours the following day. Little did we realise at that time though, we literally were sitting in a bomb about to go off, but more on that later.

Mongolian Ger's were our mode of accommodation. These are made with a wooden frame with felt insulation and a canvas outer. They all have a little open air window at the top to allow ventilation, light and somewhere for the chimney to go. On the whole they are really lovely and comfortable, basically the entire Mongolian population live in these, even in the towns. Toilets were always long drops away from the Gers. These were traditionally filled with maggots (I was well over long drops by the end of the trip)and there wasn't any power at any of the places we stayed. I also went for the longest period of my life without a shower - 9 days, this wasn't by choice of course, but every bit of water we used basically had to be carted from afar and rationed carefully incase of breakdowns etc (which came in useful when we got stuck in the Gobi). Each night we would pull up to what would appear to be an unassuming Ger; if that Ger couldn't accommodate us we would move on and find another Ger/family. It didn't seem to matter what time we arrived, the families were always welcoming and accommodating and would always oblige with a meal. The Mongolian people are extremely poor in financial terms, but wealthy in terms of hospitality and kindness.

I have to say the food was certainly no highlight in Mongolia. Food is purely consumed for sustenance and not pleasure and there is nothing left to spare. During the 11 days we basically ate Camel Cheese (multiple the intensity of the most sour thing you can imagine by 100 and you've got Camel Cheese!), mares milk and goat meat mixed with rice. It wasn't the time or the place to be picky about offerings though; the environment was such that there was nothing else on offer. Although largely revolting I would eat all of the food given too me, fully aware that the effort required in actually obtaining the food and preparing it far exceeded my understanding of hard work.

Having never travelled to the desert before I was unsure of what to expect with regard to scenery, but Mongolia was a real treat. The Mongolian's live a nomadic lifestyle, consequently there are no fences to be seen throughout the country. Without fences there's no definition of space, something I took a day or two to grapple with. The vast spaces make you feel extremely isolated. Eagles mark there territory along with beautiful pairs of stalks. Herds of camels, yaks, goats, sheep and horses roam the countryside without restriction. As we travelled further into the Gobi only the Camels, afew horses and Goats seemed to prevail and what little pasture (basically a mix of aromatic herbs that smelt nice when we were driving over them) disappeared to nothing.

There were plenty of opportunities to do abit of camel riding, something that I really enjoyed. Most families were willing to hire you a camel for however long you wanted it so I found myself off on lots of adventures - into the sand dunes or off to find dinosaur remains (saw afew in the cliff faces). Horses are also the go in Mongolia - there must be hundreds of thousands of them - I've never seen so many anywhere! The horses are very small though, nothing really above 14 hands but they're just lovely - roans, bay, grey, appaloosa, palomino... you name it they have it! It would be nothing to divert off course to avoid 50-60 horses - mares, foals etc. One of my favourite parts of the desert was a trip to the sand dunes - 100Km long, 80m high, sweltering hot and absolutely beautiful! I hauled myself to the top of these, something I was very proud of given that I was the only one that made it.

On heading North towards Terelj we stayed at Kharkhorin, which aside from having Mongolia's oldest monestry was also holding a Nadam festival. These are abit like Mongolia's version of an A&P show, the only difference being that the people basically cruise around the festival on horse back and the main feature is wrestling! Big fat men (god only knows how much rice and goat meat they had to eat to get that fat!) parade around like bulls in a pen, wearing underware 3 sizes too small and they wrestle. The Mongolian's really get into it and Jeff, Tom and Ken found themselves challenged at pretty much every family we stayed with. If you're a guy and want to go to Mongolia, expect to wrestle! The Nadam also had a huge horse race - about 300 horses line up and took off into the pasture racing, returning about 1.5 hours later! There was also abit of 'Mongolian throat singing' going on... hmmm kind of interesting, got a CD - been there done that!

Mongolia is full of national parks, some of which are very old. In fact I think the Mongolian's would put afew western countries to shame when it comes to conservation. I guess given that the country isn't very populated helps, along with the nomadic lifestyle but when it come's to beauty Mongolia is tops. It helps to see the animals in the countryside healthy and well looked after aswell. For our last two nights we stayed in Terelj National park, not far from UB. I can say little other than it's an absolutely beautiful paradise. I hired a horse for a day and roamed the park and it was absolutely amazing - beautiful trees (there are no trees south of UB), rivers, grass lands, mountains all without the restriction of fences. I am totally envious of those that have purchased horses and ridden west/north to explore Mongolia - this country would be absolutely perfect to embark on that kind of trip. In fact I would consider doing it myself.

Our trip ended with abit of a tragedy. While we were at Terelj, Aamaa and his brother were asked to return to UB a day early to commence with another tour. We bid our farewell to the guys at Terelj, but when Aamaa turned the van on large flames immediately licked from motor, which in a VW van sits between the driver and passenger seat, they also came from beneath the van. There were 3 large gas tanks in the van (carries enough petrol to get us all the way through the Gobi) - my instinct told me to run fast... and yell, so that I did. I must have looked a total fool and nobody except the yanks would have understood me, but the danger was very real and nobody else had noticed, it all happened so fast. In looking back if it had exploded, with such a large gas hold, we would have all been killed, but by some miracle it didn't. Aamaa and his brother leapt from the van and on quick assessment they started to smother it with the help of 5-6 other mad Mongolians who were also running to help. Luckily nobody was hurt, the inside of the van was burnt out (seat etc) and the motor looked pretty hammered. Anything that could burn or melt was burnt or melted! I don't know why it didn't blow up, maybe the gas tanks were well sealed off or something, I don't know anything about mechanics or VW's, but by the wreckage that was left behind one can only be thankful. From all accounts, talking to the Guesthouse owner today (the people that run the tours), everyone at the scene and who had seen the wreckage was amazing it didn't blow... if there's such a thing as luck, we had it yesterday avo!

Next stop - Irkutsk Russia. I should be there by Friday all going to plan.
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