16 day nomads – days 1 to 3: Gobi Desert

Day 1

Fully loaded we were glad the weather was good and it wasn’t a far walk to the guesthouse where we were meeting our jeep and driver. We’d called in the day before and asked if we could extend the trip to 15 days as 14 would give us 4 days back in UB before our flight which is just too long, there isn’t enough to see there and its not an exciting place to just hang out. It was no problem and we asked about the possibility of maybe making it 16 days, again no problem we just had to tell the driver as he’d have a scheduled break after so wouldn’t be heading straight out with someone else.

IMG_4180Rush hour in UB is a daunting driving experience. We went past 2 accidents and our (usually placid) driver did a lot of cursing at other drivers but it didn’t take long to reach the outskirts of the city where we stopped to go the supermarket, buy gas for the stove, plus oil and brake fluid for the jeep. Shopping done we stopped once more to fill up with fuel and we were off.

The road out of UB to a small town we passed through was sealed. we didn’t realise at the time but this was the last patch of sealed road we were going to see for a long time. Biklar our driver speaks only a little English but we had known this was going to be the case, most important to us was that we had an experienced driver and on initial impressions we was, although he seemed to have a real aversion to puddles and since it had rained a lot in UB the day before there were plenty on the road. He does have some words of English such as ‘jeep’, ‘tent’, ‘lunch’, ‘water’, and various items of food like ‘bread’, and of course the all important ‘toilet’, not that this is a problem in Mongolia (as long as you don’t have any privacy hang ups) but being able to explain what you are doing wandering off to the middle of nowhere is always useful.

IMG_4255After the town we left the seal and civilisation behind and went ploughing off down a dirt road as we headed to the Gobi Desert. We were soon in a vast expanse of open steppe with only the occasional ger and herd of horses, goats and sheep dotting the landscape. The jeep has comfy seats but the roads are rough so we were soon wondering if we would survive the trip with all our vertebrae in tact, particularly on the bumps where our bums left the seat. We don’t talk much while we drive, though Biklar talks to himself quite a bit, mainly because of the language barrier but partly because he needs to concentrate. We don’t talk much to each other because its bumpy.

After a couple of hours Biklar said ‘lunch?’ we said yes and he just swung of the road and drove across the landscape until he found a spot he liked. Out of the back came a picnic blanket for us and a camping chair for him and a wet tent that got laid out to dry. Our first activity together and we knew we would get on with him just fine. We ate then relaxed while he unpacked the back of the jeep and put the shopping into boxes. We though he was a bit OCD about the packing of the jeep. Every time we went over a bump on that first day if anything rattled or moved he knew and it would be repacked at the next stop.

IMG_4133That afternoon we passed a saltwater lake with a beautiful reflection of the nearby hills, a small owl out in broad daylight and some large cranes. Biklar is good about stopping for photos, although we don’t ask too much as the travelling is so slow we’d never get anywhere if we kept asking to stop. When he really likes a piece of the landscape he asks us ‘photo?’ and of course we say yes. We passed a ger and Biklar suddenly said ‘nomads’ and made a gesture for look and we readily agreed and then we swung off the road. He shouted to them to hold the dogs, the usual Mongolian greeting, because Mongolian dogs are big and aggressive. He told us to get out only once someone was sat on the dog (literally). Once inside we momentarily regretted our haste in agreeing to the stop when bowls of white milk started to be poured. We knew what it was before he told us, fermented horse milk. We also knew we had to drink some or offend. It was rank. We said it was ‘different’ and took a few sips to hide how vile it was. We kept trying to pass the bowls on but the family kept pushing them back to us. In the end we passed them to Biklar with a look of you got us into this. He drank the lot. We suspected we had only stopped because he was thirsty and wanted a drink.

IMG_4316We carried on to our destination for the day, Baga Gazarin Chuluu, a granite rock formation in the middle of the dusty plains just inside the northern Gobi. We explored, Biklar repacked the jeep. It was early evening and we carried on for a while until we hit a ger camp ‘tent?’ Biklar asked with an accompanying hand signal. We swung up past the camp to some rocks a few minutes behind. There we pitched the tent and got everything out for cooking and made dinner. On pitching the tent we discovered it’s poles had been repaired with tape and glue many times, there wasn’t enough pegs for every loop and half the pegs were big nails (actually they’re better than pegs anyway as they dont bend against the hard ground) and we had strong evidence from the lunchtime airing that it wasn’t overly waterproof. This was home for the next couple of weeks.

Just as the sun dropped the wind picked up. Biklar had left us to have dinner and as the wind got stronger we heard the jeep. He’d come to check on us. He put big rocks on the guy ropes, we put rocks everywhere else we could. We took the chance to load everything we didn’t need back into the jeep. A good move as the tent slightly collapsed at the back from the pressure of the wind and not long after going to bed we saw flashes then heavy drops of rain started. Knowing we probably aren’t waterproof we panicked and packed as much as we could into plastic bags, but it turned out to be brief and the wind dropped so much we could hear noise from the ger camp. In the end we slept surprisingly well.

Day 2

You’d expect the Gobi to be endless hours of the same scenery but actually it changes a lot. It might not change for an hour or so but it does change. For the first time we travelled across true flat expanses. We stopped at one point and it was flat all around as far as the eye could see. Occasionally we’d spot the dust clouds of another vehicle in the distance. The desert is quite green and in places has a light dusting of white flowers which our driver showed us are some type of hardy chive, he loves them and we have a jar of them in our cooking kit. In greener parts there is often a light green carpet which is some kind of mint. It smells great to drive over and makes great air freshener for the tent.

IMG_4275Biklar has a pair of binoculars, we thought he might be into bird watching. Then we discovered what they were really for. People don’t stick to one track on the flat expanses and the binoculars came out several times as he worked out which was the right track. We did several cross country stints changing tracks when he changed his mind. Eventually we found a small town. We filled up the water container and got fuel. Gobi towns generally have a few concrete buildings in the middle then are surrounded by gers, but unlike out in the country each ger or group of gers has a big wooden fence on 3 sides, presumably to mark their area. We have no idea where the wooden planks come from.

We left the town behind for more flat expanse. After many hours we could see the hills in the distance eventually get closer and Biklar got quite excited. This was Tsagaan Suvraga, 30m high white limestone cliffs and today’s destination. They were stunning and the view from the top spectacular. The photos just don’t capture it, we hung out and explored for a while then headed for an hour or so down the road until we found a ger camp. All of the camps round here take tourists in (for payment of course) and have extra gers pitched for that purpose. This one had camels and we were the first tourists to arrive for the day and we did so bang on milking time. We watched the milking for a while then Biklar took us into the family’s ger. Camel milk is better than the horse stuff, it’s a bit like unsweetened natural yoghurt, but it’s still not nice and camel cheese is absolutely rank.

Afterwards Biklar said ‘tent?’ and off we went to pitch our tent out in the expanse but not too far away from camp. It was sunny, a nice temperature and not windy. A perfect evening with a nice sunset and a million stars.

Day 3

We are staring to get into a routine now. Biklar leaves us for the night at about 7pm. Regardless of what time we set up camp for the night, he stays with us until then, usually cleaning the jeep and sorting our his own kit for the night. Before he goes we ask what time in the morning as it varies depending on how much driving there is to do that day. He often rocks up earlier than he says, he’ll check we are ok, aka the tent is still up and we haven’t been savaged by animals in the night, then he’ll have his morning wash and sort himself out, come and help us pack down and he loads the jeep. We understand now why it gets packed so well, it’s to ensure everything stays in place on the road, some of the bumps we go over are big.

IMG_4390We drove a short way, an hour maybe 2, and we reached a small town (‘mini city’ as Biklar calls them). We stopped and had a walk around. Meanwhile Biklar found someone he knew (he knows people everywhere) and a big jovial Mongolian guy gave us a handful of sweets and blew kisses as we left. We headed on to the ‘big city’ of Dalanzagad. On the way in the middle of the desert we broke the fan belt. Biklar noticed quickly, swore and pulled off. Out came a spare.

In Dalanzagad we had our first of of our 3 scheduled internet stops , then we hit the shops, not that there was much of interest but we needed a few supplies. Without Biklar shopping would have been tough, just telling what is a shop and what isn’t would be hard. He’s very intuitive and good at guessing what it is we are looking for and will often go into a shop and ask where we can buy such and such.

IMG_4348We had a late lunch just outside the town and realised that we hadn’t seen a tree for a few days. In fact we can’t remember seeing one in Mongolia. Other than around the gers in towns as fences. Electric cables are so rare that when we do see them we know we are getting close to a big town, the pylons are usually big concrete posts with a wooded (tree trunk looking pole) tied on well above the ground.

We pressed on to Yoln Am in the Gurvan Saikhan National Park. It’s known for it’s dramatic rocky cliffs and narrow heavily shaded canyons that allow ice to survive well into the summer. Biklar dropped us off in the carpark. For the first time we’d found plenty of other tourists. We had a very pleasant walk to the ‘Vulture’s Mouth’ the start of the main narrow canyon. We ventured down quite a way following the stream and did indeed find a small piece of ice. We saw a big group of Ibex on the way to the car park which we think is quite rare as Biklar was all excited. We, however, loved the marmots on our canyon walk, they were everywhere often running round with clumps of grass in their mouths. They were so close we could have picked them up (we didn’t as we weren’t sure if they would bite or what diseases they have).

IMG_4396Camp that night was a short drive away (short by Mongolian travel times) in a big wide valley with mountains on both sides, slightly raised from the landscape we had been travelling all day. Looking back it looked like the sea. There was a small settlement in a gully of mainly wooden houses, they looked like shacks, they were as basic as you get with a couple of gers nearby. Dotted around not far away were a number of ‘tourist’ ger camps. Biklar decided to put us within the fence of the settlement so we pitched up the corner. We didn’t ask why, what you don’t know can’t keep you awake at night.

Biklar of course knew the people there and sat chatting and drinking the night away. Another jeep rocked up as Emma was doing the ‘what time do we need to be ready in the morning?’ and was assisted by the young guy that spoke English. There was some tinkling with some jeep or other as we fell asleep.

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