Desert Explorers in the Gobi Desert
by Nancy Maclean
This year, Desert Explorers returned to the Gobi Desert, as Ron Ross and I travelled there with Overseas Adventure Travel to add one more Desert visit to our “bucket list.”
As we flew from Mongolia’s capital, Ulaan Baataar to Dalanzadgad (DZ) in the Gobi Desert in our little Hunnu Air propjet, the landscape looked like we were flying over the Arizona or Nevada desert. It is a desolate area with no roads and no signs of civilized life for a long time; it gives you a feeling of just how big this desert area is. As we got closer to our destination, I began to see pockets of water…what looks like muddy lakes. And as we start the descent, we see some greenery in the valleys, potentially some creeks or ground water for plants to survive on.
We collect our luggage and exit the tiny airport where our nice four-wheel-drive vans are waiting for our group. We are all excited to see what kind of adventure awaits us here. Down on the ground, the place looks like the foothills of Wheeler peak in Nevada: fairly high mountains with broad flat valleys. DZ is a town of 15,000 inhabitants with traditional ger tent districts. Many families have a small brick home and a traditional ger tent right next to it.
Shortly, we are out of town and turn off on a bouncy two-track dirt road. In our thoughts are 40 miles of this to our camp!!! Soon we stop at a guest ger camp for lunch. It is a nice lodge with beautifully carved bar and crystal chandelier and sconces on the walls.
After lunch, we are back on the road to our camp. We are driving down this broad grassy valley, butted by mountains in the distance. This is very flat country with minimal streams or rocks to disturb the roads. As a result, there are multiple parallel tracks that constantly crisscross leading to individual gers or ger camps. When the washboard in one track gets really bad, the driver just takes off cross country to locate a smoother track to follow. If he finds a better track, he takes it, if not, he just makes a new track. Interestingly, there are no road or directional signs of any kind, and we wonder how the drivers know where to go.
This flat country lacks any significant streams, so it is punctuated by watering holes several miles apart that were installed by the Russians years ago when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state. The valleys are now grazed by many different household animals: horses, goats, sheep, and camels. Along the way, we see individual family gers with herds of horses, camels and sheep. It must be a tough life out here in such desolation. There is nothing close by. Finally, we arrive to our ger camp. A nice big lodge with deck all around it and with our individual gers lined up in neat rows.
Every afternoon we have a happy hour on the deck, observing the wide flat plain around us as far as the eye can see. And in the distance, family gers with herds of animals all around. At one point, a herd of goats grazed through camp, and a lady with a little girl came to chase the goats away. She then jumped on her motorcycle, which was parked in the grass nearby, and continued herding the goats home. In the distance, we could see horses at the trough drinking water, and when finished, they too wandered home.
While we were all enjoying our happy hours, our excellent drivers, owner operators, were working on their vans, cleaning them, inspecting them, and tightening the screws and connections that might have gotten loose driving these seriously wash-boarded roads.
Next morning, as we walked out of the lodge, we enjoyed the crisp fresh air, clear blue skies, and the yellow-green desert sprawled all around us as far as the eye can see. Only herds of goats, sheep and horses quietly grazed around us. We are looking forward to a hike in the mountains of the Gobi Desert.
As we drive through the desert, we see a herd of two humped camels grazing, and we get out of our vans to take pictures and walk toward them. They see us and make a circle around their babies to protect them. Their humps are strait up, which means they have been feeding and drinking well. They are as curious about us as we are about them.
There are multiple parallel roads so our vans are all driving three and four abreast so nobody has to eat dust. However, they are barreling down the road at 40 mph, across the bumps and ruts without slowing down and I am hanging on for dear life.
We finally make it to the trailhead, for a beautiful hike into Yolyn Am (Mongolian for Vulture Valley). It is a deep and narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains and contains a variety of colorful wildflowers scattered along the streambed and tiny pikas running all around. We hiked about 3.5 miles with a multitude of stream crossings and even one waterfall to scramble down.
The next morning, I woke up at 4 a.m., and decided to peek outside to look at the stars. There were more stars in the sky than I have ever seen, and the Milky Way was so bright it felt like I to could almost touch it. This is the first time that I saw the stars on this trip, as the days are so long here that when we go to sleep around 10 p.m., the sun is still up in the sky.
The next day, we are off to visit a camel herding family, and in the afternoon, will visit the area known as Flaming Cliffs. As we drive through the desert by the solitary family gers, we notice that they all have solar panels and satellite dishes, and usually a car, a truck and a couple of motorcycles.
When we arrive at the camel herd.ing family’s ger, they invite us in, and offer us camel milk cheese (which tastes like our cottage cheese) and fer.mented camels milk (which tastes like our plain yogurt). The lady of the house gave us a hands-on lesson on making felt from the sheep’s wool, which they use for covering their gers, as well as for blankets, clothing, pot holders, etc.
For our next activity, our hosts help us get on the camels for a ride through the sand dunes. The camels kneel down on the ground so we can easily climb on, and they have a nice saddle that fits in between their two humps. I am instructed to lean on the back hump while the camel is getting up. Next, a young boy maybe 9 years old is leading my camel to wait in line until everybody is ready to start riding toward the sand dunes. These are red sand dunes, sort of like our Coral Dunes in Arizona. My camel was well behaved, and very comfortable riding, much more comfortable than the one humper we rode in Rajastan, India. Today’s was a nice ride through the desert, and every so often my camel would stop to graze on the greenery along the way. As I was riding, I thought to myself, it is hard to believe that I am here in the Gobi desert riding a two humped camel, something I would have never dreamt of doing in my younger days.
Next on the agenda was a hike in the area called the Flaming Cliffs, a wonderful area of red rock outcroppings lifting vertically from the valley of red sand. In many ways, it reminded me of Monument Valley, but it was different.
On the way back to our camp, we passed by a Naadam festival, sort of like a local county fair where the locals set up tents catering food and the ubiquitous fermented mare’s milk (FMM), and conduct competitions in the three national sports: archery, horsemanship, and wrestling. It was really fun to watch the locals, dressed in brightly colored outfits, socializing and passing around large bowls of FMM to share. Since it was late afternoon when we got there, they were awarding prizes for the horsemanship, a fat sheep and a felt ger cover, which contestants were very happy to receive. However, we were able to witness the finals of their Mongolian wrestling match. This was between the standing winner who looked like an old pro and a young ambitious local; both were scantily dressed in red bikini bottoms and long sleeved crop tops. As the festival ended, the locals packed their gear and prize winnings into their trucks and we headed back to our ger camp for the happy hour, dinner and packing for our early morning departure. The neon red, pink and gold colors of the sunset sky with horses grazing in the horizon was a perfect ending to our magical adventure in the Gobi Desert.
The next morning we boarded our comfortable vans in complete darkness and wondered how the drivers would find their way to the airport without a GPS. Along the way, we were rewarded with an extraordinary desert sunrise as we said good bye to this exotic part of the world.
~ Nancy Maclean