Mongolia – Part II: The Gobi Desert and the route north to Ulaan Baatar
How we escaped flash floods and spent the following two weeks bashing through the Gobi Desert following old soviet maps in the vague direction of Khongoryn Els.
We left Altai with the Frenchies, fully stocked with fuel, water and food. It was raining hard in Altai. The streets were flooded as we left in a south easterly direction heading for some smaller settlements where we could get fuel before heading off road into the South Gobi Aimag later on. En-route we were heading for ‘The Secret Canyon’ which we had been shown the co-ordinates to by another French group. We called it a day about 50km from what we believed to be the canyon entrance a couple of kms from a small gathering of mud brick homes. This didn’t deter local trucks full of men offering vodka or men on motorbikes with their families sat behind (babies included!) popping by to see who we were. None of us could speak Mongolian, and they didn’t speak Russian, so we were limited to hand gestures, toasts and shots of vodka to communicate greetings!
We left late the following morning, and headed to the canyon. We had to drive over a mountain pass to reach it, which didn’t worry us in the slightest as the weather was fine. Not long after we started however, the sky turned black and the heavens opened. This was followed by heavy hail, turning the landscape white. We drove on, hoping to outrun the storm, but soon there were flash floods channeling down from the surrounding mountains, quickly filling the road with water and mud behind us and rushing towards us from all sides. We had no choice but keep driving as fast as we dared, as there was not enough space to pull off the track and wait it out. We eventually outran the flood when we reached a plateau and got out of the car to compose ourselves, just as the loudest clap of thunder crashed above our heads! It was all very exciting, if a little scary. We drove on a little further and within minutes the sun was blazing so we stopped for lunch just before the canyon.
The canyon was beautiful and well worth the detour, with dried riverbeds and red cliffs either side. Driving through it was fairly tricky in places, but nothing compared to the route to get back to the main road, which was tantalisingly close yet almost impossible to reach! There was no track so we had to drive cross-country, and the ground was interlaced with braided drainage channels and dried up sections of riverbeds. Several times we drove a few hundred metres just to end up on a peninsula of higher ground with no way down and had to drive back and try another route. And then there were the thorny bushes we had to avoid, it was not the place to get a puncture. It was harder getting to and from the canyon than the drive through it!
The next few days were a blur of long dusty tracks, tricky navigation, tinned tuna/pilchard explosions, the most ridiculous corrugations imaginable and rum/vodka sessions in the evenings with the Frenchies, until we reached the vague location of a petrified forest at Ulaan Shand. We searched high and low over huge areas, but there was no sign of the forest, which was only loosely located in the guide book and map. We even asked a local who confused us even more by saying one direction and pointing to another! So after a few hours we gave up and moved on.
We had more success finding Bugiin Tsav, where dinosaur and prehistoric marine fossils have been found along the massive sandy bowl, including Tarbosaurus baatar (a close relative of Tyrannosaurus rex) and a 130 million year old turtle. Although we didn’t see any fossils, it was impressive just the same. Shortly after arriving, a huge sandstorm whipped up around us with winds so strong we could lean into it and stay upright, which made for great photos! Later we found a clean well with a beautiful cloth bucket so we topped up all our water before heading further into the Gobi. That night we celebrated our find with hot showers out off the trailer and more alcohol.
We drove into the rare saxaul-forested Gurvansaikan National Park, stopping at Gervantes for supplies and a random cafe meal (everything on the menu was ultimately translated into omelette with meat steak). We realised these were the first people we’d seen in a few days – nowhere else on our trip had we been so remote as to not see another human being. The park was teeming with wildlife; saxaul sparrows, pika, vultures, eagles and falcons (we saw one pick up a pika, legs still running underneath!). Herds of bactrian camels and horses were left to roam the desert, rounded up as and when needed. The highlight for us was a small herd of black-tailed gazelles, listed as threatened on the IUCN list, spotted running through the saxaul.
We drove on towards the “singing sand dunes”, Khongoryn Els, following the sandy tracks. We had to traverse just south of them for their entire length to be able to cross them on the eastern end. On the way we passed a ger next to a well, and decided to stop to see if we could draw some water. The family inside invited us in, where they offered us hard cheese and breadsticks. Around the ger tucked into the felt of the roof wheel were toothbrushes and toiletries, while drying meat was tucked into the walls between the trellis. Storage space is obviously limited but they had a good solution! We took a photo of the family and printed it for them, before continuing our journey to the dunes.
The next few hours consisted of driving on sandy tracks, which got quite tricky in places, before reaching the spectacle of huge golden dunes rising out of the otherwise flat, cracked land. They were an incredible sight, visible for some distance before we reached them. The deep sandy track wound between the dunes while the wind kicked up a storm, engulfing us for a few minutes. We had all decided earlier in the week that we wanted to go on a camel trek, and found a tourist camp on the other side of the dunes that provided treks and ger accommodation. The cost was too high to justify staying the night (when we could camp outside for free) but the food was more reasonable. Ivan and Katia decided to eat in the car but Griff and I treated ourselves to a luxurious three-course meal for $10 each – with real bacon, chicken teryaki and decent tea! I took a sneaky shower in their bathrooms too while we waited for the camel trek, so for me it was well worth the money.
After dinner we greeted our camels and guide for a sunset trek over the dunes – I was so excited! I had ridden a dromedary camel in Australia several years before but I had never sat between the double humps of a bactrian camel. It was so much more comfortable, although I don’t think the boys agreed! We spent the next hour and a half laughing, plodding and swaying in a mini caravan into the dunes, waiting for the sun to set, stopping at a watering hole, before returning to the guide’s ger. There we were invited in for more of the salty milky tea which we still hadn’t gotten used to, and the children laid out all their “locally” made souvenirs (which we had seen in other places) for us to buy. To round off a great evening we drove off into the darkness following our GPS past gers and barking dogs, driving lights blazing into the desert. Eventually we found a little camp spot in front of the dunes next to a nearby river in which a herd of camels were drinking, pairs of eyes reflecting our lights back at us in the dark. Idyllic, or so we thought, until 4am when a tremendous wind picked up and woke us all up. On the plus side we were all up and ready to go by 7.30am, a record for the Mongolian leg of our journey! It also meant that we could walk up one of the dunes before it got too hot, which was hard work at the best of times.
We reached Byanzag, or the Flaming Cliffs, later that afternoon. The red sandstone cliffs indeed do look like they are on fire in the late afternoon sun. The site is famous for the fossil discoveries of palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920’s, namely of the first ever discovery of fossilised dinosaur eggs (originally thought to be that of Protoceratops but recently proved to be Oviraptor eggs) and the tangled fossils of a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor that died suddenly during their struggle (theories suggest intense sandstorms might have been the culprit). Unfortunately we didn’t see any fossils there but we did find a track that wound down to the foot of the cliffs. We took it and made our camp in possibly one of the most beautiful camp spots in the world. The falling sun set the cliffs alight, the tourists around the top of the cliffs departed, and we cooked jacket potatoes in the wood-burning stove surrounded by a red glow.
The next day we began a “relaxed” trundle northwards towards the capital, Ulaan Baatar. The corrugations in the road were getting so bad that it made no difference if we went slow or fast. Either way we had to keep stopping every couple of hours to give our bodies a rest from the violent shaking! On one of our stops we came across a school music concert rehearsal in one of the villages, with children in bright traditional dress singing, dancing and playing haunting Mongolian instruments such as the morin khuur, a small wooden string instrument played like a cello with a bow. It was lovely to watch, but we had to get back on the road to make UB in the next couple of days. It was also to be our last night travelling with the Frenchies, who were taking a different route to us to get to the capital, although we would see them again when we got there. We couldn’t find anywhere decent to camp so we just stopped in the middle of a couple of tracks, and waited for the sun to go down. A couple of local boys raced by on their horses, but apart from that we were left alone for the night.
The next day we came across tarmac again for the first time since leaving Altai. We were so relieved, as by now the car (and we) were pretty rattled and needed a break! But it was short-lived, only leading into and out of Mandalgobi, before becoming so bad we had to slow right down not far from UB and stop for the night before we made it into the capital. In the night we were woken by a herd of horses, one of which decided to scratch itself against the Land Rover bumper. It was a little worrying as we were parked on a hill and too vigorous a scratch would see us rolling down the hill towards the road!
We reached UB the following morning at rush hour – it was a little hectic but for a capital not too bad. We found the Oasis guesthouse which was full of travellers, including Michael from Germany (who we met in Khovd) and Mikael the Austrian (who we met in Uzbekistan). The French-Candians in their (now wrecked) motorhome arrived in the afternoon followed by Ivan and Katia soon after. It was quite a reunion!
Although we had heard rave reviews about the guesthouse, we felt a little awkward as there was little camping room for us (it was the car park) and we had to shuffle every time a new arrival came or someone left. It has a cafe and hairdressers among it’s facilities, so it was actually quite expensive by Mongolian standards. We had to stay for a few days though while Griff serviced the car. The dent the guesthouse was putting into our savings didn’t stop us going out for dinner with the Frenchies to probably the nicest Indian restaurant we’ve been to in a very long time. The owner was lovely and attentive, and the food was delicious. And surprisingly, we were the only people in there!
We also made time to visit the dinosaur exhibit in the centre of UB. It showcased a few of the exhibits normally on display in the Natural History Museum which was under renovations. The star of the show was the Tarbosaurus (Tyrannosaurus) baatar skeleton, which was infamously smuggled out of Mongolia a few years ago and sold to someone in the US before the Mongolian government won a court case to repatriate it back. Also on display were the dinosaur eggs found by Roy Chapman Andrews and a Protoceratops skeleton. The building housing the display was almost as good as the exhibit, with a huge dinosaur head sticking out above the entrance! We took some time to wander the streets of UB, but generally most of our time was spent reorganising, stocking up, checking/servicing the Land Rover and trailer ready for the next big stage of the trip. After a few days in UB, we crossed the border into Russia, ready to start the adventure that is the BAM.
On reflection Mongolia was an amazing country to visit, with beautiful, vast landscapes and remoteness we’ve found nowhere else. Disappointingly the hospitality we had heard so much about did not materialise in the same way as Tajikistan. Often people were hard to communicate with, even rude, and sometimes hand gestures were looked at with blank faces. But we put this down to a lack of tourism in the areas we visited, therefore resulting in little concept of how to communicate with foreigners when neither speak a common language. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, however, because of the company we kept on the way around. Would we have had a more cultural experience had we stayed nearer the more tourist-friendly north, been on a tour or completely on our own? Possibly. Would we have had as much fun? I very much doubt it. Either way, we were glad we stopped by to see the epic country that is Mongolia.