THE GOBI DESERT, MONGOLIA

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The second stop on our Trans Siberian Railway adventure

THE GOBI DESERT, MONGOLIA

(WRITTEN ON THE BUS JOURNEY FROM ULAANBAATAR TO ULAN UDE)

It was hailing as we walked out of Ulaanbaatar Airport to find our pick-up. We began driving towards the sprawling city through an enormous flat plain, with mountains following a line to our right and the city ahead of us to the left – all power stations and tower block buildings visible from miles away across the flat landscape, churning out smog and smoke.

Ulaanbataar alone has 1.5m residents – half of the total Mongolian population – which is impressively contained for the fourteenth biggest country in the world and the second largest land locked country. We were staying in Mongolia for nine nights in total, six of which would be spent out in the Gobi Desert. Each night in the desert would be spent with a different nomadic family, in their ger (the tent-like structure that would traditionally home the Mongolians).

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Peter later described Ulaanbataar as a ‘poorly done Chinese-Soviet crossover’, and it certainly isn’t one of the prettiest cities I’ve been to. The traffic is even more chaotic than it had been in Beijing – in fact, here, a steering wheel may be on either side of the car since drivers cross over lanes so often. Our driver switched from road to beaten track, in attempts to shortcut the route to the Sunpath Hostel where we staying. We finally pulled up about 200ft away from the hostel, upon finding out that we had arrived in Ulaanbataar on a national holiday, so the main road that ran outside out our hostel had been closed until 6pm that evening. In the spirit of the holiday, there were children and families everywhere, on scooters, bikes and mini Jeeps, enjoying the freedom of the big road and Sukhbaatar Square. The sun had cleared and it felt rather cheerful as we walked to the nearby bakery for bread and treats – though it was clear that the city would have a different feel completely once the four lanes of traffic had resumed. We spent our first evening in a strange German restaurant which the guide book had recommended, which was huge and completely deserted, drinking Mongolian ‘Mango Blizzards’.

The next morning, we woke up early ready for our six-day Gobi Desert tour. We had one other person joining our trip, an American called Ezra, who had been doing WWOF-ing work in Fiji and was having this break before continuing on another organic farm in Mongolia for the rest of summer before starting law school. Our guide, Sergie, came to the hostel and took us outside to meet Hootla, our driver, and the van that was to become our home over the next six days and thousands of miles. Unbeknownst to us then, our dear little van would break down every day without fail – but it would be hugely fun and hours would be spent looking out the window over the vast Gobi desert listening to old songs on my iPod and hearing the boys complete the New York Times crosswords.

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As we left the congested city behind, we headed straight into the wide plains of the countryside. Within half an hour, we had left the tarmac road behind and were driving over the open land along a dirt track, apparently racing a taxi since it was the only other car for miles around. We seemed to have got in the van with a Mongolian ex-rally driver intent on killing us all and only 50% seemed to know what he was doing. I wish I could describe the speed he was going and the huge holes in the off track road that we were careering over. There was a Nissan sign plastered on the dashboard, but Sergie later told us that the van has been manufactured in Russia and the sticker was just a posing fake.

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We drove 400km into the desert that first day, very narrowly avoiding many herds of cattle (‘there’s a cow in the road!’), as the entire van swerved from side to side, with us constantly falling out the seats. It was sunny outside and the engine blew hot fumes into the back, so we drove the entire way with the windows fully open trying hard not to suffocate. We learned a little more about Sergie – that she had grown up in a traditional ger family herself but now lived in Ulaanbataar with her daughter when she wasn’t doing trips (which didn’t appear to be all that often. We noticed throughout the rest of the week that family life is very different in Mongolia – the parents work away separately from the children, who are mostly boarding at school in town or raised by their grandparents).

The scenery outside depicted that we were, without a doubt, in the most remote place I’ve ever been to – more so than the vast stretches I’ve seen in Iceland and Australia. Hours would go by, with the only signs of civilisation being the packs of horses, cows, sheep and camels and the odd horseback riding farmer along the way. All along the side of the road were skeletons of animals, horned skulls and dead horses. Small shanty towns would appear on the horizon every 200km, like a mirage rising up out of the sand dunes.

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Our first stop was the White Stupas – spectacular white cliffs that had formed where the ocean previously existed in ancient times. Patrick and Peter climbed down the rocks until they were just little dots in the desert below. In the distance, dust storms threw up sand like mini tornadoes.

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We had no idea what to expect from staying with the nomadic families. The first evening, not far from the White Stupas, we drove up to a small collection of gers, belonging to a family by the name of Ulziibayer Gerelmaa. Totally isolated as far of the eye could see, their camp was made up of three gers (the family living/sleeping area, the ‘spare’ bedroom and the tourist bedroom), and a screen of wood surrounding a fairly deep hole in the ground (a squatty toilet). As soon as we arrived we were ushered into the family ger to sit down. The grandmother of the family offered us homemade biscuits and hot milk tea – both of which would be presented to us upon arrival in every home we went to for the rest of the week. The biscuits, called boortsog, have a texture of almost-stale bread, best dipped into the hot milk tea, which itself is a warm Horlicks-like treat away from the wind of the desert. Afterwards, we were offered fermented camel milk as a ‘treat’, which tasted like thick drinking yoghurt. All the gers that we visited throughout the week had the same musty smell of food and smoke, which I suppose now is the hot milk and meat that is cooked on the stove within the tent every day.

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As Sergie was making conversation with the family in their native language, we wandered outside to explore the area. We walked over to a herd of goats and looked back on the camp and, as we did, we saw the little boy from the family walking over to us from the ger. We beckoned him to come close, which he did, but then continued to stride past us over to the animals. A few of them scattered away as they saw him marching over, but as he got closer, he started to mock creep, pretending to be one of them, using his hands to imitate horns. We took his lead, and as a pack of pretend goats, quickly sealed our friendship. Immediately he began playing games with us, pretending to fight with sticks and stones that he found on the floor, while we picked him up and tickled him which he loved to hate. By pointing at ourselves and then at him, we found out his name – Mongano. He certainly had an endless imagination for games – as I suppose you would out in the desert!

We were called inside for dinner an hour or so later, where Sergie explained that, next year when he turns six, Mongano would be sent away to board at the school in town where his mother currently lives – over 2 hours away from the family camp. We spent the evening playing a Mongolian game called ‘shaggai harwakh’, which uses the bones of sheep joints to match similar shapes together. We then brought out our deck of cards and taught them how to play ’21’. After a while we bought out some chocolate biscuits and the rest of the Chinese baijou drink, which went down a welcome treat with everyone. The Mongolians are certainly not adverse to a shot or two – particularly Hootla, who became extremely competitive at cards afterwards! Sergie claims that spirit alcohol helps to cleanse the stomach of bacteria following dinner, so we all decided it was for the best anyway. The evening ended just before 11pm, when we went out to our own ger and had a surprisingly good night sleep in our sleeping bags. The family stay in the living ger, either sleeping on the floor or the hard sofa, in order to stay warm from the stove throughout the night.

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On the second day, we left our cosy ger early the next morning in order to drive the van a further 170km to the South Gobi. Here, we planned to hike through the Three Beauties National Park in the Yol Valley. When we arrived, the scenery was gorgeous green mountains and filled with friendly cow gerbils and packs of horses. The landscape was similar to the Lake District and we began hiking through the rocky hills, where Patrick found a Pride Rock lookalike and raised an imaginary Simba to the kingdom below and heavens above. As we continued, the earth below opened up to a crack in the ground where an ice-water stream flowed through and shelves of ice had formed which we walked across. Ezra filled his water bottle up from the stream and drank the pure glacial water. That night, we stayed with a nomadic family who were having a party of sorts, and their ger was so filled up with people that we decided to retreat to our own ger and spent the evening playing cards and drinking vodka. The grandmother entered our ger later in the night, bringing with her hand-carved wooden sculptures. I bought a wooden spoon which had been carved from sandalwood, with its distinctive sweet smell, into the shape of a horse’s face. That night, Ezra disappeared out of the ger to brave the toilet in the dark, but came running back in five minutes later, panting and with a mad look on his face, claiming he had been chased by a frenzied dog across the flat plains.

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The next day we drove another 6 hours and 200km to the Khongor sand dunes, which were an impressive 800m high and which we were due to climb up. Luckily it had rained earlier in the day, so the sand had become firmer and easier to tread on – otherwise Sergie said that usually, in the heat and soft sand, for every step that you take, you fall another two behind. After quite a steep walk, we reached the top of the dune only to be exposed to a huge wind and thus a complete sand storm, one which you could barely breathe in without feeling as though you were suffocating. We sprinted and leaped back down the steep sand dune in a tenth of the time it had taken to climb up.

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That night, we were staying with a family by the name of Eondon Naraa, who lived just beneath the sand dune. They had a gorgeous little girl who looked just like the Mongolian equivalent of Boo from Monsters Inc, and a little boy who loved making fun of Peter for wearing glasses. Before settling in for the evening, the family offered us a ride out on their camels. We rode through the desert in a line, trying to battle through the winds and overtake one another at walking pace (although it was great fun, I think I will probably stick to horses in the future..).

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When we arrived back at camp for the night, we were invited into the family ger, where the grandfather spoke to us through Sergei and we told him about our previous travels and how it compared to Mongolia. He must have liked us, since he went into the wooden cabinet and pulled out a box swathed in a silky material which he unwrapped, and pulled out a small silver box of snuff. He then offered it to us all formally, in a ritual which involved passing the box in your right hand and tapping it onto the back of your left hand, before passing it back again. He watched us intently as we all sniffed it; I could taste it through my nose and it was just like snorting the strong spice of incense smoke with a very faint taste of tobacco. He smoked strange roll-up cigarettes all through the night which were surprisingly odourless, while we made vegetable dumplings which were hand-folded and then deep fried. After eating five of these delicious Cornish-pasty like things each, we decided to call it a night and went back to our ger.

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The next day was another long drive in our van across the desert, which was broken up by a visit to the Flaming Cliffs in Biyanzag. These cliffs formed a magnificent break in the flat plains of the desert, created from a red clay and that supposedly form a gorgeous place to watch sunsets from. We were there mid-afternoon so just explored a little and climbed across the tops of the cliffs, before eating noodles in the van that Sergei had cooked on the little portable gas stove.

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The camp for that night wasn’t with a nomadic family, but was more of a tourist ger camp in a really beautiful location right by the Ongi River. As soon as we arrived, the boys decided to go for a quick dip in the river and we then walked up to the top of the cliff overlooking the camp to see further across the desert. It was a great view but, more importantly, I found a really cool skull hidden amongst the shrubs on the rock. We had met a German boy called Felix while paddling in the river, and that evening he joined us on a walk as we climbed the rocks along the river to watch the sun set behind the mountains. He had been travelling a lot the past year and this was his last trip before joining Deloitte in London.

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On our last full day, we were driven to Hootla’s hometown in the desert. He was in a great mood all morning as he drove homewards, singing along to his MP3 and playing jokes on us, and once we arrived into his small desert town, he immediately seemed to stop and talk to everyone. We were taken to his home for lunch, which consisted of an actual house, compete with ger in the front yard and outside toilet. The house was strange, as it was empty and half-finished, and felt barely lived in. Each property in the town was surrounded by tall fences, very clearly marking each individual’s portion of land. Sergie cooked up more noodles and Hootla’s young son ran over from his grandparents house to meet us. We watched music videos on a green-tinted TV screen that showed pop singers miming their lyrics in the desert, wearing traditional Mongolian clothing and riding horses over the land. It was then time to continue on the road.

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Our final night in the desert was spent with Sergie’s friends, a nomadic family in Erdele Dalay. The ger was noticeably larger and better furnished than all the previous homes we had been to, and the family were more stylishly dressed. It turned out that the father of the family worked as a driver, like Hootla, on the tourist trips – it evidently paid well considering both their accommodation. However, when Ezra asked where the toilet was located, the family replied ‘the toilet is everywhere!’ Sergie gave us a smile as we gazed about at the miles of flat, flat landscape around us and tried to decide where the best place to crouch and hide might be. Indeed, later on that night, I was chased by a herd of horned cows when I tried to duck behind their penning fence. Presumably, they thought I was coming over to feed them and got very excited – meaning I had to run away with my trousers falling down, clutching my toilet paper like a white flag.

We spent our final evening playing with their little girl outside – racing one another, playing football and drawing pictures of birds and hopscotch patterns in the sand. We were called in for a special dinner that night – a BBQ, Mongolian-style. Hootla dragged in a huge bucket of meat, from an animal of some description, that had clearly just said its farewell to the world just moments earlier. I sat down on the floor next to this bucket of blood, liver and intestines, as Hootla cooked parts of it in the stove for the next forty minutes. In the meantime, each member of the family would come and stab bits of the meat onto their penknives and devour it raw while they waited for their ‘BBQ’ to cook. Needless to say, I ate vegetables and potatoes that evening.

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Sadly, there was a very sick little boy lying inside the ger, who was unable to move for himself or make a sound. He looked bloated and blotchy and Sergie explained that he had been this way the past five years, since birth. It was a common illness amongst children in Mongolia and she had written a letter to a charity in the States to see if any of their money was spent on these ill children. She never received a reply.

We all seated ourselves around him in the ger for the rest of the evening, while the little girl planted kisses on his cheek every five minutes. Surprisingly, every family that we had visited in the week had had their own television, which ran on solar power. We hadn’t watched it a ger before, but this night we stayed up and watched kids TV and soap operas. We were all sleeping in the one ger tonight – all ten of us – so we unrolled our sleeping bags onto the floor and I ended up sleeping by the stove between Patrick and Hootla.

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Our van broke down on the final drive home, as it had done every single day of the trip. As we were leaving the desert, Hootla sensed a flat tyre so hopped out and changed it in five minutes flat. As we arrived back in Ulaanbataar however, the van seemed opposed to city life and decided to overheat and stop on our final stretch through the city. Amongst the tooting horns, we jumped out and walked back to the hostel. After saying goodbye to Sergie and Hootla, the three of us and Ezra spent our last evening at a traditional Mongolian theatre show, which included the delightful throat singing and contortion acts. Patrick bumped into a school friend of his back at the hostel, so we spent the rest of the night chatting to them before getting into bed ready for our early start the next morning: bus-bound for Ulan Ude. Despite the heat, the wind, the strange foods and constant feeling of dirt, I’d had a truly fantastic experience in the desert and I would definitely do it again.

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