16 day nomads – days 4 to 8: Gobi Desert

Day 4

We packed up and refilled the water container from the well in the settlement that was ringed by a tyre with a bucket made from a recycled tyre on the end of a rope with a ladle made of wood. As luck would have it a local man went to the well at the same time as us and showed us what the deal was. Water supplies in the desert are often communal, locals rock up with their 20L containers on all manner of transport, motorbikes, trolleys, horses etc. Toilets in towns and settlements are often communal too, people can’t have them in their homes/gers and there is no such thing as town plumbing. Men of course don’t use them unless they have to.

IMG_4548The young guy turned up in his jeep (the one that was being deconstructed the night before) with his tourists who we recognised from the day before, they had overtaken us on the way to town. It soon became obvious to us that we were travelling in convoy. Not close together and we led but our driver kept an eye out for them to check they were still behind. We stopped for a few photos and they stopped too. We waited while the young guy fiddled with something behind one of the front wheels. We exchanged pleasantries with his tourists, 2 loud Italian guys.

We set off again and the road was rough, the worst we’ve been on, mainly it was due to crossing numerous dry streams and rivers. The only respite came when we drove down a dry river bed for a while. This was serious driving and for the first time Biklar took his “Khongor Expeditions” (the tour arm of the guesthouse we’d got him through) cap off and his shirt off.

IMG_4412Hours later we stopped for lunch. The other jeep joined us. It was a nice landcruiser. There are plenty of Russian vans being hired by tourists but when it comes to jeeps people are mainly hiring the ‘luxury’ (usually Japanese) 4WDs. We’d seen only one other Russian jeep on the trip so far and other tourists take our photos as we go past! The 2 Italian guys had a great sense of humour and really good English so of course we ripped the piss out of their ‘luxury’ jeep. It was filthy for a start so we wrote on it (luckily their driver had a good sense of humour too) and it turned out that the fiddling with the wheel earlier had been the removal of a big part (not replacing, just removing!) it must have been 2 foot long and looked like some kind of drive shaft, maybe something to do with the 4WD(?) They took the piss back when we said we were off to find the girls toilet ‘good luck with that’ they said.

Hours of rough road later and we finally arrived at our destination, Khongoryn Els. Some of the largest sand dunes in Mongolia, they are up to 300m high, 12 km wide and 100km long. It had been a cloudy day thankfully, to have toasted in the jeep on those roads wouldn’t have been fun. As usual the first task was to pitch the tent. The guys pitched just down from us, we could hear them expressing concern about pitching on what was a dry pond bed, there was still some water in it just up from us and flash floods can happen here. Their driver reassured us that it only rains once a year, then helpfully added that you never know, tonight might be the night. We were staying for 2 nights but after setting up camp decided to climb to the top of the dune before dinner since it was a ‘cool’ day. It’s a massive dune so the climb was tough, at the top you enjoy the 360 degree view and can trudge across the ridge line. The way down was heaps of fun and very quick.

IMG_4467The evening was spent making dinner and joking around with the guys. Flavio took the piss out of our pasta and we invaded their camp and took the piss out of their tent, it was long but very thin, it was Flavio’s tent and their tour company was supposed to give them a 2nd one but they hadn’t so they were both sleeping in it. They said they were surprisingly okay as long as neither of them wanted to move. We chatted and took the piss out of anything we could until bedtime. They returned the favour. Just as we were about to depart Emma heard something rustling in the guys food, a torch was quickly found and we were confronted by a terrifying desert animal – a hedgehog. We poked it and prodded it and put torches and camera flashes in it’s eyes but nothing was going to deter it from eating a big block of cheese.

Day 5

We got up to a scorcher of a day. Glad that it was a non-travel day and that we had already climbed the dune, we did most of the laundry, saving one set of clothes to be done later in the day. Biklar drove down and hung out next to the jeep with us like usual. The day before we had picked up a slight grating from one of the front wheels as we had approached the camp and he’d done some bush maintenance when we’d arrived – both the front wheels were removed, stuff stripped down and then all put back on. We said goodbye to the Italians who were heading on and sorted out our camp.

IMG_4500Late morning after most people had left and the next lot of tourists had not yet arrived we went camel riding while it was nice and quiet. It was hot as hell, they are not the most comfy of beasts and they don’t smell too good (hence saving a set of clothes back from our morning’s laundry) but we enjoyed it. We got back just after midday and there being zero shade Biklar took us into the ger he was staying in. It had 6 beds round the inside and a low table with a few candles on it in the middle. Biklar lay on his bed and gestured that we could take two on the other side. We were soon all snoozing. When we did return to the tent for a late lunch there was the tiniest slither of shade. The afternoon was spent shade hugging by the jeep with Biklar. Someone arrived and set up camp in the guys’ spot then later a group arrived and camped across the way.

A breeze picked up as the afternoon wore on, and by dinner time it was a bit of a nuisance. As the sun set behind the dunes, about 8:30pm, the wind got worse, and by 9:30pm we decided it was time to hunker down as we knew we were in for a rough night. The noise from the tent being battered was wicked, we knew we didn’t have a chance of getting to sleep while it was that windy, so we tried to patiently wait. A very long hour later and it was even worse. We got up and did a check of the pegs and guy ropes. Luckily we had pitched it well and all was good. It got worse and worse. Flashes of lightening far in the distance as we had gone to bed got closer, we started to feel the impact of not having as many tent pegs as there should be as the wind started to force it’s way under the ground sheet. Still we were pretty confident the tent wouldn’t fly away. Rather than lie awake listening to the battering we passed the time by singing songs loudly and discovered our repertoire is actually really terrible.

IMG_4518Sometime after midnight we both gave up caring and dozed off. We were woken by bright vehicle headlights. Emma immediately knew it was our jeep and sure enough it parked next to us and Biklar came bursting in calling ‘Jeep Jeep! Ger!’. It was 2am. We only paused for a second, we knew he wouldn’t nanny us, after all he’s let us go to bed in a gale, and either it was really bad or he thought it was going to get worse. We passed the contents of the tent to Biklar and he went running between the tent and the jeep. He just threw stuff in everywhere. ‘Tent stay!’ he called and we knew instantly he meant that we were leaving it there. As we piled out we were surprised to discover we were in a big sandstorm. We hadn’t been able to hear the tent being pelted by sand over the noise of the wind. We got sandblasted just diving into the jeep. It gets everywhere. Forked lightening lit up the sky very close to us. The camp toilet is a good 100m away from the gers and we were on the ball enough to say ‘toilet!’ ‘yes, yes’ he replied and we detoured there in the jeep. No way once in the safety of the ger would we have been venturing out under any circumstances. It could have been a very long night.

At the ger we quickly threw everything inside and we discovered that he had it to himself that night. We didn’t mess about, we piled stuff in the corner, got the sleeping bags and pillows out and dived in. It was 2:15am, that was fast work! The storm sounded like hardly anything from inside the ger, unlike the Wellington wind that punches houses in a gale, the wind slips around a ger because of it’s shape and they are so well insulated you hear little. The ventilation flap at the top of the ger was open and it’s flapping was our best indication of the severity of the storm. It also let the flashes of lightening light the ger up. Neither of us slept for a long time as we were both listening to the storm. An hour later we heard raindrops, it was only a short shower but since we doubt the waterproofness of the tent we would have panicked and been on leak alert. We were both fast asleep before it got light.

Day 6

We awoke to a different day. It was sunny with a light cloud cover that made it really pleasant and there was just a light breeze. We unloaded the jeep properly as we breakfasted in the ger. Everything including the inside of the ger and jeep was cleaned of sand and repacked. Then we went to check on the tent. It was still standing. The other campers were looking a bit battered but they all had new’ish tents so they should have fared just fine and their drivers and guides were camped with them so their jeeps and vans were being used as windbreaks.

IMG_4572We headed off driving down another riverbed road which turned into a serious 4WD track and then flattened out into a vast expanse lined by mountains in the distance and covered in a carpet of white and pink from the chive flowers. We stopped at a small town for provisions, Biklar got lost on the way there and had to ask directions at a nomad ger, he knows very quickly when he is on the wrong road. The town was hidden behind a small rise and we didn’t see it until we were right on it. On the outskirts we stopped to fill up the water containers from a broken pipe gushing it out.

Mongolian towns usually have a bunch of shops in a row or clustered together many selling the same sort of things but subtly different so a number of them have to be visited to find everything you want, or rather to get as many of things you want as you can, usually there is a bunch of stuff you can get in bigger places that you just cant find in many of the smaller places – for example sweetcorn, baked beans, tea. There is usually no fresh food in the desert and it is only in some towns we have been able to get bread and eggs. Much of the food that isn’t Mongolian is Russian. The Italian guys had warned us off some flavoured fish in a tin, they had a tin each for lunch when we ate together and was sure it was toxic.

Shopping done and the jeep refueled we headed off again, stopping outside the town for lunch before continuing on to our destination – Bayanzag, better known as the Flaming Cliffs from it’s red rock and sands. It is globally famous for the number of dinosaur eggs found there. Being a tourist attraction there are heaps of big tourist ger camps in the area one even has a huge tortoise shaped restaurant and some have solar electricity. That night was the first time we had seen lights on at night since leaving Ulan Bataar.

IMG_4772As usual we headed to a small family camp who take overnight tourists. Biklar of course knew the people there and first we went into the family’s ger, Mongolian tea is what we were given. It is by far the most palatable ger food/drink we have had. He pitched us right next to the family’s camp and all the food and cooking equipment was placed in a ‘cooking ger’. We shared the cooking ger with the guides from 2 other jeeps that stayed there.

In the early evening Biklar drove us down to the cliffs, we can see them from camp but they’re about 4km away. He dropped us at the top of the cliffs and we could see heavy rain in the mountains in the distance. It was just cloudy where we were, we thought it was bliss as it had got scorching hot before midday and lasted most of the afternoon. We explored, Biklar got his chair out and sat admiring the view. The cliffs must be spectacular at sunset on a clear blue day. We were staying another day to explore the area better so hoped we would get to see that.

Day 7

Rain, rain, wind and rain.

A very long night. The tent held the rain out better than expected but still leaked on 2 sides and dripped from the roof. We threw everything into bags and put a sheet of plastic over the sleeping bags as much as we could. Little sleep was had.

IMG_4577About mid-morning we piled the gear into the middle of the tent, covered it in plastic and dived into the cooking ger. The ventilation flap had been left open all night so it was soaked. We ate, drank and hung out in there making seats out of cardboard which was pretty uncomfortable.

Early afternoon and it was still dark and wet, so decided a night in the ger was the best option. The moment we moved into a ger, the rain stopped. The wind picked up but we took the dry opportunity to wash and settle in, black storm clouds in the distance. One final scurry around as the thunder roared then we hunkered down in the pitch black, lighting provided by only one candle while the storm passed overhead dropping torrential rain. It finally cleared in time for a walk before dinner.

Day 8

A proper bed. Families with an extra ger or 4 for taking in travellers or overnight tourists usually have them on the simple set up of beds around the walls, usually 5 and a table in the middle. The beds are as hard as nails. The previous day 2 other jeeps, each with driver and guide and 2 tourists had stayed. They left and noone else arrived. Almost no people arrived at any of the camps that day. We had the place to ourselves.

IMG_4761Gers don’t smell too good when they’re wet due to the sheep wool felt insulation. We discovered why noone else had arrived as we left. We knew the route we had arrived by would likely have been cut off because of the dry streams we had crossed, not to mention the dry river bed that forms part of the road. But our road out while flattish we found was very soft and boggy and the risk of us getting bogged was high. A good while down the road and another vehicle finally came the other way, their driver pulled us over, we guessed to ask about the road ahead. Marie spoke to one of the tourists from it who said that they had tried to get to Bayanzag the day before and had to turn back, the desert was just a sheet of water. We’d probably been cut off without realising it.

A long morning driving, we passed some stunning scenery but it was so muddy and so hard going we didn’t ask to stop and take photos. Finally we reached Ongiin Khiid, 2 ruined monasteries once housing 1,000 monks but destroyed in 1939 during the Communist purges. 3 monks returned in 1990 and have set about rebuilding it, completing a small temple in 2004 which gives a sense of how the 28 temples of both sites combined would have looked. Afterwards we stopped for lunch under the shade of a tree before hitting the road again. Desert gradually turned to open steppe as we left the Gobi behind and headed into Central Mongolia. We got lost. We knew we were from the amount of cursing Biklar was doing, finally we found a family ger and called in. The guys were outside blow torching the head, legs and another unidentifiable bit of a goat they had killed. We wondered what we’d have to eat/drink. Fermented horse milk (still rank) and cheese from who knows what, also rank.

IMG_4711There weren’t many people or gers around in that part of the world, and at every one we saw we stopped and asked directions. Eventually the aimag (region) capital of Arvaikheer came into view, Biklar had originally told us we would be going there tomorrow, so seeing it just confirmed that we couldn’t find what we were looking for (presumably a ger camp that has moved) ‘Sleep, city?’ he said. We hadn’t considered it as an option and being keen to keep our costs down initially said ‘no, tent’ We changed our minds when it became clear he didn’t really know where to pitch us, it was getting late and we were hungry and tired.

After a bit of faffing around we found a cheap hotel. It had a bed like concrete (like most of Asia it seems) but comfy blankets, hot water that came out of the shower in the tiniest dribble imaginable, the foam toilet seat wasnt attached to the toilet, in fact the toilet wasn’t even attached to the wall, it wobbled on it’s pipe and the sink was actually held together by sellotape because it was freestanding and it was taped in what looked like an attempt to keep it attached to it’s pipe. We thought it was bliss and slept like babies.

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