Sweating it out in the Mongolian sun

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

We've just spent five days out roaming about in the harsh beauty of the Mongolian Gobi. Popular impressions of the place seem to picture it as a land of dunes, but the reality is much different. In fact, we only today encountered our first dunes; everything else has been mostly scorching, flat salt plains and occasional undulating hills. The sun is intense here - hopping outside the van during mid-day stop is like stepping into a broiler room. Most Mongolians hide in their gers across the afternoon, reserving their work for the cooler hours of morning and evening. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be a lot of life out here apart from the odd domesticated camel. But as soon as you're out of the car looking around, insects and lizards constantly appear out of nowhere and even the odd jerboa or marmot pops up every now and then. But settled civilization - outside of the bleak aimag capitals and sun-bleached Soviet-era settlements - is few and far between.

Our original schedule has changed up a bit since we hit the road. Distances are vast out here, and even with the "roads" (read: dug-in 4WD tracks) being the best in the country, it takes a long time to get from one place to another. If you're pulling over 60km per hour, you're doing really well. Getting to our first destination - Baga Gazrin Chuluu, just over the border from central Töv aimag - took around seven hours alone. Moving on from there to Bayanzag would have entailed such a long trip that we were pretty much forced to re-arrange things and hit Ongiin Khiid as an overnight stop instead. Apparently for tomorrow, the drive from Ömnögov all the way to Kharkhorin in the north of Övörkhangai is so unrealistically massive that we have to split it in two and stay somewhere en route. Such is the way of Mongolian travel for any but the most masochistic.

Baga Gazrin Chuluu was a pleasant first stop for the excursion. We got to stay in a ger with a Mongolian family in the green plains set between the area's characteristic granite hills. Although we arrived somewhere around seven in the evening, we still had somewhere around three hours of daylight left to explore the place. Long, sunny days are one of Mongolia's biggest positives in the summertime. Even if there wasn't much in the way of "sights" in the area, the scenery was more than attractive enough to take in (even if the overcast conditions weren't the best for photographing it).

Mayu and I are actually being accompanied by another foreign tourist for this trip, which has the two-fold benefit of keeping costs lower for us and providing additional, interesting conversation. Our travel companion is an older Dutch woman by the name of Marian, who up until recently had been teaching in southwestern China. Her extensive traveling background and unique personal history have made her a very intriguing person to be on the road with. By some fluke as well, she managed to meet another Dutch couple on their own trip at Baga Gazrin Chuluu, who happened to be going to just about all the same places we are. This has meant we've almost had a traveling group of sorts, without the cramped transportation quarters that would normally go along with it.

Our second day in the Gobi took us into the heart of the real desert (Baga Gazrin Chuluu was merely on the edge of it). Within a couple hours of stopping to visit the swampy grounds around the ruined temple of Süm Khökh Burd, we found ourselves driving amongst dusty scrubland under a searing sun. For a lunch and fuel stop, we pulled into the drab town of Erdenedalai, interesting only for its sun-baked monastery, Gimpil Dajaalan Khiid. This picturesque temple was our first exposure to the Tibetan-Buddhist style of religious structures across the country. For a place used as a warehouse during the Communist period, it was in quite good shape; certainly it was far better than most others, the vast majority of which were razed to the ground in the 1930s. Once we finished our bland lunch (some sort of mutton goulash with white rice) and swung by the seemingly abandoned gas station for a fill-up, we got back on the road.

We pulled into the rocky environs around Ongiin Khiid just before 6pm - just short of eight hours after we first started driving. Apparently the site used to be home to one of the country's largest monastery complexes, set upon the two banks of a river. Now it's largely a ruined wasteland, with the numerous buildings of each complex (Barlim Khiid on the north bank, Khutagt Khiid on the south) reduced to foundations or fragments of walls. A couple structures have been rebuilt, but it's largely a sad and ghostly place, albeit one with an intriguing atmosphere. Many of the local "monks" were actually young kids, who had been sent there by their families to be trained in Tibetan-Buddhism. We wound up staying at a tourist ger camp for the night, after not being able to get to a good camping site (the river was flowing too strong). That allowed us a couple rather fine luxuries: hot showers and clean, modern toilets!

The trek south continued on day three, across the lower corner of Dundgov aimag and into Ömnögov: the South Gobi. Here the patchy scrubland turned into rocky plains and signs of life became far thinner; nomad gers now were a relative rarity and tended to appear on the distant horizon in twos or threes at most. The single settlement we stopped in (Mandal-Ovoo) had a distinct Mad Max quality to it, leaving one to wonder why the hell anyone would even attempt to build a town out there. We got into Bayanzag proper just before 2pm, by which time it was almost unbearable to be out in the sun. Apart from a raised bluff of red clay and saxaul trees (for which the area is named) the terrain was featureless as far as the eye can see, with only a couple tourist camps and a few family gers appearing on the horizon. Since doing anything was pretty much out of the question, we all wandered into a ger to pass the hours quietly minus all the UV rays. Given the outside temperatures (probably at least 45°C), it was surprising how cool the inside of a ger was, and the constant breeze blowing through the door and up the roof opening made it downright comfortable.

Once evening came and the sun was low enough, we were treated to a camel ride out to some neighboring cliffs. Mayu thought she was going to get hurled to the ground when hers clumsily rose up on its feet - front legs first, then the hind. Probably the most eye-opening part of riding one of the sluggish buggers is how high up you sit - it's nothing like being on a horse. It took a good twenty minutes to get to the cliffs (a trip that would likely take five by van), but the view across the vast landscape with its red cliffs and valleys was more than rewarding enough. By the time we got back on our mounts and returned to the ger camp, it was already nearing sunset. After strolling over to a neighboring tourist camp for a beer (and then taking advantage of their clean sinks and toilets), we called it a day.

The next morning we got up early enough to poke around the nearby bluff before we had to get in the van and leave. The surrounding plains' seeming emptiness of life was in dramatic contrast to what we found among the saxaul trees. Birds suddenly appeared, lizards were everywhere, and little marmots barked warnings at us upon our approach. It's impressive to see how nature can thrive in even the most hostile of places. Getting in the van soon after, we then made our way over to the most famous "Flaming Cliffs" of Bayanzag, the very ones where dinosaur bones were originally discovered. The area was definitely reminiscent of parts of Utah or Arizona in the U.S. and unquestionably gorgeous in its stark environment. Since the sun was still not too high in the sky, we had enough time to clamber about the area, although Mayu declined on wandering too far. What was perhaps most impressive was the incredible visibility - the horizon stretched for tens of kilometers and you could watch jeeps approach some 10 minutes before they'd actually arrive.

The final destination for day four was Gurvan Saikhan National Park, a mountainous area most famous for Yolyn Am, a beautiful valley featuring an ice-filled gorge in cooler months. After about six hours of straight driving under clear skies, the mountain range appeared under a thickening blanket of cloud. Once we got into the park proper and started on foot into the gorge, most of the sky had become overcast and only a few hours of daylight remained. It being August, the ice of the gorge had long since melted, so in its place was a long trickling stream set amongst the steep valley walls. A few tourists were lingering about, but most of the traffic had already come and gone, so we got the place to largely to ourselves. The remaining souvenir vendors had pretty much made their sales for the day as well, leaving us to our own devices rather than trying to interest anything. Instead we were treated to a little impromptu performance on a traditional two-stringed fiddle . . . a nice accompaniment to the impressive scenery.

Gurvan Saikhan's comparatively lush environs meant we had the prime opportunity for a night of camping. So, after taking in the gorge, we retreated to a quiet valley and set up our tent. Our guide cooked us a simple meal and we retired to our sleeping bags. Our wake-up call this morning was less than ideal though. Somewhere around 8am, I realized from the comfort of my warm cocoon that it was pouring down rain outside. Though we had fortunately stayed dry inside the tent, it was going to be interesting trying to disassemble everything and get it in the van without making it all sopping wet. First though, I had to wake up our driver in the back seat so he could unlock the doors for us! I've never torn down a tent so fast in my life. Getting out of the mountain range was a little more arduous - some of the hills just about stopped us dead in our tracks - but somehow we managed to push on. Strangely enough, almost the instant we got out of the valley and into the desert, it was suddenly bright and sunny again. After we had gotten fairly clear of the mountains and were well out in the midst of the desert wastes once more, we stopped to shake the camping gear dry in the sun.

Another six-hour day of driving today put us at the foot of Khongoryn Els, a spectacular build-up of sand dunes that stretches across some 100km in the south Gobi. We set up camp once more at one of the highest sections, which seems also to be where most other tourist groups stop. The sand piles up to some 300m at this point, offering absolutely superb views over the surrounding landscape. The immediate objective, of course, was to do the same as any other visitor does and climb up the thing. Having never walked up a sand dune before though, I didn't know exactly how much work it would be. What looks like a gradual, relatively low slope from below becomes a completely different animal in the actual ascent. The easy progress you think you'll make is considerably complicated by how much you sink with every step up. And once you finally get near the peak, the accelerating wind starts to pelt you with thousands of grains of sand . . . rather painfully in fact. The panorama at the top, however, was probably the most beautiful sight I've yet seen in Mongolia. Once Mayu and I started to take in the view, we didn't even think about the battle we just went through (nor how Marian managed to beat everyone to the top by a long-shot - and on a much steeper path to boot!).

From tomorrow we start the long journey northwards toward Kharkhorin and the green steppes of central Mongolia. According to what our guide, Mendee, has told us, it sounds like it'll be a somewhat of a slog (and not terribly eventful either). In any case, it's been a fabulous time down here in the Gobi so far, so I'm willing to sit through a day of mandatory transit. On a negative note though, it seems like my camera lens has picked up a bit of the local dust; all of my pictures since this morning are showing a glaring streak across the top. Despite me trying to aggressively clean it, the problem hasn't improved, so it looks like I'm going to have to send it to the shop when I get home. Hopefully I can resolve the picture damage with a little computer work, but it's going to be a tedious process going through every one. That's a bit of a damper on what has so far been a brilliant trip; I guess not everything always goes perfectly though.
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