Green Desert

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Where I stayed
Homestay Ger

Flag of Mongolia  , Middle Govĭ,
Sunday, July 15, 2012

Now that DH had ticked off her bucket list item of watching Mongolian beefcakes in speedo's wrestling with each other it was time to address a couple of things I wanted to do. I'm a little further along the maturation cycle than DH so  I wasn't looking for Mongolian women wrestling in speedo's (so it was indeed fortunate that it wasn't part of the Naadaam festival??) but I did want to venture into the legendary Gobi Desert and spend a night in a traditional Mongolian abode, the Ger. Add in a sighting of a two humped camel, and a couple of other desert inhabitants and I'd be as giddy as DH at wrestling ringside.

The Gobi desert, one of the world's great deserts, covers much of the southern part of Mongolia. Unlike the Sahara there are very few sand dunes in the Gobi; rather you'll find large barren expenses of gravel plains and rocky outcrops. It makes the desert easy to drive on but supports only minimal pasture land which continues to push the nomadic herders northward. Some estimates suggest that roughly one million acres of grassland in China are being devoured by the Gobi each year but this desertification knows no boundaries- not only is Asia's largest desert expanding from north to south across China, it's creeping south to north as well, farther into Mongolia. There are claims that Mongolia is attempting to establish the same sort of 'green wall' that China is planting but we didn't see much evidence of this.
Our journey into the desert started along some bone rattling Mongolian roads which quickly disappeared and our driver then spent most of his time barreling across open fields, occasionally sticking some sort of deformed GPS device out the window presumably intended to gauge just how lost we were. We did get to experience the vast wide open spaces and incredibly isolated existence of Mongolian nomads- some of these Ger's seemed to have their own time zones with nothing but horses, goats, and sheep for company. And speaking of sheep, our first stop was at a ramshackle outhouse of sorts that proved to be a cleverly disguised restaurant that served only two meals- both of them mutton delights. We selected the mutton soup which was surprisingly tasty but the only vegetable daring to invade this mutton extravaganza was a potato.

We also stopped to see some of the most isolated shrines in the world (although they all got a surprising number of visits from just about anyone passing by- travelers are required to walk around it three times (clockwise) and place a rock on it), and a number of former and current monasteries. Along the way we saw quite a few critters and birds (the constant circling of vultures was a little disconcerting), and stumbled across numerous two humped camels.

Just as it was starting to get dark our driver and guide found us a local family that was willing to rent us a Ger for the night. This created something of a dilemma for us as it was apparent that the family was squeezing into one Ger to make room for us in the other but the money we were paying would also be very welcome.  And just to complete the circle of discomfort, it was also quickly apparent that mattresses or any soft bedding was not part of an authentic Ger- anyone who has ever slept on wooden plank (or bed of nails) will know our joy. For dinner our guide cooked us up a healthy stack of mutton pancakes- who knew that pancakes and mutton would ever be a culinary mix- and who knew that you could start to tire of mutton after just two meals.

And does Commie Chic accurately describe the interior of Ger's? Old communist uniforms complete with medals hung around the inside along with portraits of red heroes. Maybe dreaming of past glories help you fall asleep on a slab of wood- it's always done wonders for DH. A Ger is a herder's most important possession. Lattice work forms the wall, and supports the long roof poles, which come together at the central ring. The door always points to the south to avoid the nasty and cold Arctic winds coming from the north. Layers of felt are draped over the frame, and covered with white cotton- a simple stove heats the Ger in winter. And just because they live in a Ger, doesn't mean that herders don't have any modern conveniences. Some have a windmill generator, and even a satellite dish to beam TV directly into their Ger in the middle of the Gobi desert- DH was hoping to get caught up on Coronation Street while we were in the Gobi but apparently it's not quite the hit show in Mongolia that it is in Canada.

And for company the herders can always count on their goats but too many of these desert critters may be the destruction of the 'green' Gobi and lead to a rapid expansion of the desert. Earlier generations were not interested in keeping goats because goats ravaged pastureland by eating even the roots which prevented plant regeneration. The cashmere of the Mongol breeds are valued highly but herders can only take 300-1200 gram cashmere from one goat so they need large herds. Mongolia is now first in the world in terms of goats per person and 5th in total number of goats. Goats are killing the Gobi for the future so DH now has us boycotting cashmere but since cashmere is not a big part of a backpackers wardrobe I'm not sure it will be noticed.
Our last night in the Gobi was in the literal middle of nowhere in a tent and although rocky ground was infinitely more comfortable than the Ger torture rack, DH kept herself awake worrying about an unprovoked Yak stampede. Either that or the fear of yet another in an unbroken string of mutton and potato meals that awaited us in the morning kept her from a good snooze.
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