10 Days in the Gobi and Central Mongolia

Friday, June 21, 2019

I'm baack in Ulaanbaatar after a thrilling--but quite physically taxing--ten-day trip through the Gobi desert and central Mongolia. 

Rough route that we took through
Gobi desert and central Mongolia
I'm frankly still processing the trip, which in many ways passed in a blur. Nevertheless, I took careful notes, and will make an attempt to piece things together once I'm back in Montana later in the summer. At that point, I plan to write things out here in more detail. For now, however, I can add just a few telegraphic points, as I am still in Ulaanbaatar at present. 

Puji (left) the driver and Ogie the guide/cook
in front of the trusty Russian van.
In some ways, the tour was quite easy, while in others in was difficult. As far as organizing the logistics was concerned, nothing could have been less difficult. I booked a tour through the guesthouse where I'm staying in Ulaanbaatar. They found a few other people who were interested in seeing the same parts of the country as I, grouped us together, and supplied us with a driver, a Russian van, and an excellent guide/cook. All we had to do was sign on--there was no thinking or planning required on our part beyond assenting to the tour as it was explained to us. So, compared to, say, traveling through eastern Europe in the early 1990s or some of the other places I've gone, the planning aspect of this trip--figuring out where to stay, what to eat, when to leave, etc.--was simple and required no work on our part. 

On the other hand, the traveling itself was quite rough. Other than days 1, 9, and 10, virtually none of the driving took place on roads. Instead, our Russian van followed car tracks across clay and crabgrass, grassland and rocks, up and down mountains, and through sand. At times, six of us in the van were swaying and shaking back and forth while our indomitable driver led us over incredibly difficult terrain. We averaged about 4-5 hours of driving per day, sometimes never going faster than 10-15 mph in a stretch. And even when there were roads (at the very beginning and end of the trip), they tended to be spine-rattlers, filled with so many potholes they looked as if they'd been shelled, and still obliging our driver to go off-road for long stretches where the road itself was being repaired and was therefore impassable. 

Typically our party would get up at around 8 or so and have breakfast, then hit the road. We generally arrived at a new destination in the middle of the afternoon, having stopped for lunch somewhere along the way (either in a restaurant, or prepared by Ogie ("Oh-ghee") our guide and cook. Often while Ogie was preparing lunch the four of us--myself, a Puerto Rican, a Brit, and a Dutchman--would go on a quick hike somewhere. Every day, either en route to our destination or upon arriving, there was usually an activity of some sort--going for a hike in a valley, climbing a sand dune, going horseback riding, visiting a national park, temple, or museum, etc. 

We generally stayed in gers, little white structures that most readers would probably call "yurts." These are what nomadic Mongolians use year-round (they're well insulated) as they pack up and travel from one place to another as the seasons change. Most of the gers that we stayed in were next to those inhabited by nomadic families, as our guide eschewed the ger camps (kind of like camping sites) that also dot the landscape. A couple of times we camped out in tents--once in the Gobi desert in front of 400-meter high (and incredibly steep) sand dunes, and another time in the mountains north of the Gobi. On our second-to-last night of the trip, we stayed at a hot springs resort, also in a ger but in physically quite cushy surroundings--in that we had actual toilets and showers, unlike most of the rest of the time that we were on the road. 

The topography was really stunning, and much more diverse than I'd imagined. The Gobi has its sandy parts, but also includes steppe, glaciers, grasslands, clay-and-crabgrass, and even cold, green mountains. One day I'd be stuffing all of my cold weather gear (down winter coat that I wear in the winter daytime in Montana, long johns, etc.) into the bottom of my backpack in order to wear a t-shirt and shorts, and then the next day I'd find myself doing the opposite, wearing several layers to keep warm and keeping the winter gear up top. At times it felt like every day we were visiting a different country. 

A friendly neighbor visiting our campsite
in the Gobi
We also saw a lot of animals. Livestock such as sheep, cows, goats, horses, and two-humped camels (found only in Mongolia) were all over the place in the Gobi, although as we started climbing into the mountains we stopped seeing camels--in these regions we instead saw many yaks. Wild animals that I saw included many predatory birds such as eagles, falcons, hawks, and also cranes, wild horses, and gazelles. The so-called "great gerbil" of the Gobi was also a pretty constant feature of certain parts of the landscape. 

Sunset in the "Mini-Gobi" the last
night of the trip
With sand in my ears, shit under my fingernails, and hair on my teeth I returned to Ulaanbaatar Wednesday afternoon and headed straight for the shower. While I may have been a bit dismissive of Ulaanbaatar's charms in my previous post, I now saw the Mongolian capital in a different light. Wednesday evening and all day Thursday I walked across town, almost feeling like I was hanging out with an old friend. As I noted in the previous post, Ulaanbaatar is not a big city--at least not in terms of its "downtown" area, but it's pleasant and friendly, with a likable urbanity and certain cosmopolitan flair, it seems, at least after ten days in a van. 

Once I've had a chance to digest all of this and go over my notes, I'll try to write more about these experiences later on in the summer. For now, however, I've got new places to go and different people to see.  

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

Photos from this post can be found in the Borderlands Lounge in an album posted here. More shots can be found here

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