This day of driving, perhaps more than any other, epitomized driving in Mongolia: We drove through the desert for hours with no road, no signs, no people, no landmarks, indeed nothing of familiarity until suddenly and immediately before us lay our destination, in this case a large red-colored series of cliffs. So it seems to always happen, but we are still baffled at how the Mongolians find their way across this vast land to small landmarks merely by the positioning of the sun.
Around noon, after hours of desert nothingness, we found our ger site near Bayanzag, also known as the Flaming Cliffs. The Flaming Cliffs are an area where land has eroded revealing soft red sandstone in spire-like formations. The redness of the area was in stark contrast to the beige sandy colour we were becoming accustomed to seeing on our drive.
This place is one of the world’s most important paleological sites, it’s excavation resulting in many dinosaur bones and eggs. But that is mostly all gone from here and the bulk of the findings now reside in Washington, as paleontologist/real life influence for the character of Indiana Jones Roy Chapman Andrews brought many findings back to the American Museum of Natural History. There are other smaller collections in other places as well, including UB, though the museum there was closed due to concerns about the building being structurally unsafe.
In the evening, the group sat around to watch the sunset and enjoy a big shashlyk meal prepared by Mungu.
Day ten, the day we finally made it to the Gobi’s most famous dunes at Khongoryn Els, this was undoubtedly the best day of the entire two weeks.
It started with a drive, as all days in Mongolia, through the barren gravely Gobi.Mountains with small jagged tops soon appeared from the desert flats and the beastvan slowly climbed towards a wide mountain pass barely above us at all. Upon crossing this pass, however, we emerged out the other side on a hill offering a full view of the Khongoryn Els sand dunes from above. It was a spectacular and unexpected sight, a sea of dunes rising up in rocky and grassy terrain in a most unexpected way.
We continued down the valley until we reached our ger camp for the night, where a number of other groups were already set up. For our first encounter with the dunes, our group rode camels from the camp to the dune foothills, which themselves were quite a bit larger than any dunes we’d seen up close before. Riding a camel is quite different from riding a horse as one must mount while the animal is seated and sit between the two humps, which form something of a natural saddle and/or sterilization device. In actuality, the Mongolian horse saddle is much more gonadically damaging than the camel, but this is certainly due more to the motion than the apparatus. I’m not sure what person thought this animal likely to be a good ride, but he most likely was either a eunuch or from New Zealand.
Anyway, once you have fixed your nether regions to this testicle terrorizer, the camel stands and you are immediately aware of something you’d somehow failed to realize prior to this point – namely that camels are really fucking tall. The ground becomes far away and the idea of falling off nearly as frightening as the mashing that almost certainly awaits your testicles. And just when you’re finally thinking “Thank God that this big hairy hump is here mashing up my children-to-be, I have something to hold onto and to prevent me from falling to my death!”, you reach out and realize that only the base of the camel’s hump is actually rigid enough for support (the better to batter your balls with) but that the top bit is really quite floppy and difficult to grasp and is certainly not going to prevent you from falling.
Then the camels start moving and all your fears disappear. I’m sure horses are sure-footed but the camels are much more convincing, their huge feet never seem to give even when they run violently into each other. Yes, this happened often on our way to the dunes as the guide had the bright idea that each person should hold the reigns of the camel to the right so that none went astay. The guide then lead by waking her camel up the center of the 3.5 camel wide path leaving the other four camels to stumble along whatever space was left to the right. Each of us ended up with slightly sore shins as a result of being run into the ass bone of the camel to our side. But as for the gonads, they were quite comfortable. Angie found the riding more uncomfortable than horses, as it seemed more difficult to move with the camel as you can with a horse. Brett on the other hand was happy to not have sore bits as he was riding and found it much more enjoyable than the horses.
We reached the dunes, dismounted and went off to climb the dunes on foot. There were so many different patterns in the untouched sands from waves and ripples to hook-shaped hills and steep sandy slopes. We climbed until we had a beautiful view of the mountains in the background and sand dunes in the foreground. On the way down, Brett leaped and flew, while Angie cautiously slid. The experience was beyond our expectations. On our return to camp we were allowed to ride independently and guide our own camels, which was a much more enjoyable experience.
There were several different groups at the ger camp and so a goat feast was planned. As we returned from the dunes, a man began butchering the goat – the Mongolians apologized that it has already been slaughtered but explained that no one had wanted to carry a live goat over the mountains on the back of a small motorbike. The ease with which the man cleaned and cut the animal was impressive, a skill clearly having been practiced for years. There were specific steps and each person had specific tasks, and the only bit left for the dog was the trachea.
While the goat preparation was occurring, we went to the dunes lookout to watch sunset. It was an exhaustive climb up the tallest dune at Khongoryn Els. Brett easily made it in about 30 to 40 minutes. Angie, on the other hand, was about 15 minutes behind and not certain she was going to make it in time before the sun went down. Fortunately, we all successfully completed the steep, tough climb and had an amazing view of the dunes, the sunset colors and the surrounding landscape.
This dune was also called the Singing Sand Dune because of the sound made while moving on them, which Brett felt resembled the didgeridoo. As before Brett quickly ran, leaped and flew down the dunes, reaching the bottom before any of the rest of the group were more than halfway down. Angie, meanwhile, took care and slid slowly down. However, due to her slowness, she was able to listen to all the ‘singing’ of the dunes made as the others rushed down. It was quite a neat sound.
Upon returning to camp, the goat was served and satisfying, the meaty bits roasted over charcoal heated stones, the lungs, heart, liver and kidney booked, and the blood and intestines made into a Smith blood sausage.
The night was a bit of a restless one for both of us due to a mouse constantly running over us and digging holes next to our floor mattresses. Angie, Carlos and Kate were also all sick. As memorable as the day was, so forgettable was the night.
Continuing through the Gobi from Khongoryn Els, we headed towards the valley of Yolyn Am, also known as the ice canyon because it has ice in it all year round. Well, used to. In most recent years the ice has disappeared by July, but lucky for us the canyon is still a beautiful sight.
As the dunes before it, this rocky gorge too appeared suddenly out of the seemingly flat and endless desert before us and the beastvan was soon driving through narrow paths barely wider than the van itself, so close were the rocky cliffs on either side if the road.
Continuing along through the gorge, we reached a section for trekking only. The van dropped us, and then met us 7 km later on the other side of the gorge. We walked through the ‘Vulture’s Mouth ‘ as the valley is called, enjoying the beautiful cliff sides and rocky hills. We were surrounded by tall cliff faces and narrow passageways. Also, there were many pica running about.
That evening, we headed to a small village where we stayed in gers with a family. It was an interesting set up, as it seemed the family had three gers, one as a bedroom , one as a kitchen, and one as a living room. The five of us slept in the living room Ger.
Brett, jacopo and carlos went to a nearby pool hall, where a slightly tense moment took place during to price discussion, when one of the Mongolian men running the place misheard jacopo’s question, instead thinking he’d been called “stupid” (the one word in English he would have apparently understood). Thankfully we cleared this up quickly and we didn’t have to find out what happens when right Mongolians are upset at three less muscular foreigners.
Tsagaan Suvraga, or the ‘white cliffs’ was our next scheduled destination, a long drive through the desert for the entire day after which we arrived at a really nice Ger camp run by Mungu’s uncle and we felt we were treated with a bit of luxury -our first time to have pillows and sheets. Despite the nicer bedding, we all used our dirty sleeping bags, afraid we would get their things too stinky. We rested, had our 2nd showers of the trip, and then went to view the cliffs.
Expecting to see just white limestone, we were pleasantly surprised when the cliffs displayed a painter’s palate. We climbed down the sandy path to observe the cliffs from below in colors of red, yellow, orange, purple, grey and brown. The 30 meter limestone cliffs area is derivative of a former coral reef and the area is apparently full of marine fossils.
Early in the morning, most of the group rose to see the sunrise on the white cliffs, with the early morning sun their colors were even more impressive.
On our long drive through the desert the beastvan began to have tire issues. So with only sand and brush in sight, Dashka stopped and began his mechanic’s work. After the ball bearings were out, random hammering and such, some solution was found and a couple hours later we were driving towards Mandalgov, Mungu’s hometown.
Mungu’s family fed us lunch, a milk soup with rice and dumplings (a few goat hairs included), and we enjoyed visiting another type of Mongolian residence. This style apartment was similar to others we saw in Russia, where the configuration makes little sense spatially. It was nice to meet Mungu’s family after spending so much time with her and hearing about her family.
Our last sightseeing tour stop was at Baga Gazryn Chuluu or Rocky Mountain. We pulled up to a set of gers at the base of a beautiful rocky area where the hills were like piles of granite slabs.
The family had lost their herd of goats during the night due to the wolves, so we took it upon ourselves to help out and search for them while wandering around the landscape. The goats were safely recovered by the family; however we liked to believe we were of great help. It was a beautiful area to just walk through and explore.
In the valley of a rocky protrusion at Baga Gazryn Chuluu, almost a tiny gorge, there sat remnants of a monastery destroyed in the 1930s and a few walls where someone attempted to develop a ‘kindergarten’ for the nomadic children. Needless to say, it was not a well chosen location for a school, and was never completed. The area is a popular site for pilgrimages among the Mongolians and there are many ovoos (small piles of rocks as offerings to the gods).
Also located at Baga Gazryn Chuluu was a small cave that attracts visitors. It is believed that a lake exists under the mountain and the cave; however its importance was not all clear to us.
The granite rock formations were interesting and a pleasing experience. The group was under the impression that we would have more time to meander through Baga Gazryn Chuluu, unfortunately, that was not the case and we quickly headed back towards UB.
The city of UB is pretty undesirable and unpleasant, which is sad after seeing the other beautiful parts of the country. However, we managed to visit the Gandan Khiid (an active monastery) and the National Museum of Mongolia. Unfortunately, the Natural History Museum, which apparently houses the awesome dinosaur fossils discovered in the country, was closed indefinitely due to the poor conditions of the building.
Our accommodation in UB was at the Golden Gobi guesthouse. In terms of guesthouses, it was acceptable. The rooms, beds and facilities are decent. The place is run by a kind, energetic brother /sister team that try really hard, but have a bit more on their plate than they can handle. Patience was key when service was desired, but eventually, you would be assisted. Overall, our tour with them was good and our stay in their guesthouse was good.
Here is a link to the rest of or Mongolia photos