Carmel gets carsick and Shawn ponders what constitutes a road
Carmel and I decided to kick off our trip in style and take a seven-day tour of the Gobi desert, via Russian-style van. We booked our tour through my friend Manlai’s company and left three days upon arriving to Ulaanbaatar, still acclimating to the drastic time zone difference, jet lag and the jitters of being far from the comforts of home and familiarity. This was it. To the mighty Gobi we went. We left mid-morning and traffic in the city was already getting congested. Luckily, our driver Baatar, was very experienced and skilled with maneuvering the van through the scant, narrow openings between cars and getting us out of the city limits down to the southern countryside.
I’m glad I don’t have to drive in this mess
One of our concerns was who our travel mates would be like. We knew we would be traveling with four other people, other than Baatar and our guide Enkhee, and the possibility of spending seven days with somebody who was a pain-in-the-ass weighed on our minds as we packed our backpacks and waited outside for our van to pick us up from the guesthouse. Luckily, our fellow travelers were all interesting, funny and far from being obnoxious, and at the end of our tour, we considered them new friends. Thank the gods for lucky breaks!
The first day’s destination was at the Baga Gazriin Chuluu Ruins. Located in the granite belt of Mongolia and elevated 1,768 meters, the mountains were a great introduction of sights to come. We hiked around huge boulders and through narrow passageways, and peered into small caves. Unfortunately upon arriving to this site, Carmel had begun suffering from the dreaded car sickness and focused much of her energy at not heaving our lunch or falling down on one of the rocks. As we left Ulaanbaatar’s city limits and ventured out to the surrounding countryside, there is a sudden end to the paved roads, then a quick receding of well-traveled packed dirt roads, until there is nothing but ruts, knolls, dips, holes and, well….dirt. As efficient and skilled as Baatar was, it was hard to tell at first from his sudden sharp turns, dramatic braking and constantly turning the steering wheel back and forth like bad actors did in old movies. We were jarred, bounced around in our seats, gripping onto our seats and each other with initial amusement but after several hours of his bad impression of a roller coaster, things started to get serious and potentially messy.
A gorgeous day greeted us at our first stop, the Baga Gazriin Chuluu Ruins
Luckily, Carmel recovered with some water, solid ground and travel sickness pills to enjoy the ruins. Located on the Southeast side of the mountain, were the remains of an old monastery, now really a shell of its past glorious and likely beautiful self. During the late 1930s under the Stalinist repressions, over 2,200 monasteries were destroyed and thousands of lamas were killed or imprisoned. Across the country were these shells; mere foundations of monasteries, like this one we were visiting. Among the concrete ruins, we could make out doorways and crumbling walls. Several trees were growing where floors and rooms were and the trees’ beautiful autumnal orange leaves were contrasting to the violent history of the last days of this building over eighty years ago.
A cave on the grounds of the ruins, considered good luck by some
The beautiful orange of the leaves brightened up what’s left of this monastery
After visiting the ruins, we reluctantly jumped back into our van and headed to our lodging for the night, a family ger. If you haven’t spent any time in a ger (or yurt, if you will) take the time to do so. Mongolians have been using gers as a means of shelter for thousands or years and the basic structural design is still viable and used by herders and nomads to this day. Our beds outlined the inner perimeter of the ger and easily fit six small beds (not constructed for tall Americans however) a small stove in the middle for heat and cooking, and a small table. We used “tourist gers” which meant it lacked the flair of ornate rugs adorning the wool lined wall and hanging photographs of family members and other stuff like toys and television sets (yes, even in the middle of nowhere, satellite dishes bring news and entertainment from the capital).
Outside our first ger for the week…little did we know what backaches to expect in the coming days
Two of our tour group companions, Vicki and Anna from Hungary…it was cold, it snowed the next day
We stayed in gers the whole week, which was essential considering that temperatures dropped to below freezing some nights. Gers do an incredible job shielding the harsh Mongolian winds, but it got quite cold without a fire keeping in the heat. We were fortunate to have our hosts feeding dried goat or sheep dung as fuel into our stoves in the evening before bed and in the wee-early morning. I attempted to tend the fire, but I quickly learned that keeping a fire burning in a ger stove with dry dung is much different than getting a nice campfire started before s’more time at our comfortable American campsite. The dung burned quickly and the smoke was thick, so I spent an hour and a half feeding the fire, then opening our ger door when the smoke was getting too thick (death by dung smoke asphyxiation would be a rather unpleasant way to end this trip) then closing the door when it got too cold, then re-feeding the fire with the dung pellets. By the time everybody woke up, I was ready for a nap. But after a power breakfast of yogurt, bread with a variety of fruit and chocolate spreads and a couple cups of instant coffee, I was ready to take on day two of our mighty tour.
Shawn gets carsick and we ponder the liability of Mongolian sightseeing
Early the next morning, we hopped back into our van, continuing south and deeper into the vast Gobi. Our destination was the Tsagaan Suvarga (White Stupa) cliffs (stupas are mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics, typically the ashes of Buddhist monks and used as a place of meditation). Composed mostly of pink and white limestone, these formations often resemble stalagmites reaching up to 30 meters high. When exiting the van and stretching, we were all taken aback (literally) by the high winds. I found myself swaying a bit, the flaps of my jacket began slapping against the side of my face. We all zipped and bundled up, keeping a close eye to the cliff’s edge. There were no guardrails, fences or posts to keep one from plummeting over, and the relentless wind and my recovering bout of carsickness was a concern to me. Earlier in the morning, I found myself feeling queasy from our topsy-turvy jaunt through the desert. Initially, I thought it might have been the chocolate spread I liberally glazed on my bread, but after a series of sudden drops and elevation swoops, I felt that familiar unsettling feeling of my stomach shivering and quivering followed by a wave of nausea curdling upwards to my spinning brain. In my head, I was trying to find the Mongolian words for, “Driver, stop! I’m going to vomit!” (which I used often after a doomed vacation in the Gobi back in the summer of 2002) but the words were jumbled and swayed uncontrollably. Oh crap, I thought, closing my eyes and concentrating on just about everything else but that nagging nausea that was as jarring as the van unexpectedly swooping back down into another ditch.
The first sight of this natural beauty literally takes your breath away…that or the thought of falling over that cliff
After some precious and focused time and a travel sickness pill that Carmel had on hand in our travel pack, the dizziness finally began to fade and I could breathe comfortably again and enjoy the barren beauty of the desert to our eventual destination to the Tsagaan Suvarga cliffs. “Ok,” our guide Enkhee shouted over the howling wind, “you can explore the cliffs now and climb down there,” pointing over the cliff’s edge to a dramatic, deep drop to the valley below. “Um,” I said to nobody in particular, looking for a path at least. There was none initially to speak of so we found the least menacing drop and began scaling down one of the cliffs. We were told that it was an ancient ocean at one point and as we carefully hiked down, it was easy to see the immensity and depth, including its remains today – a mix of limestone, clay and the occasional seashell fossil still imbedded in the rock face. The many “stalagmite” formations surrounding us warranted me musing aloud, “Holy crap, are we on another friggin’ planet!”
Later, after successfully and safely walking down to the valley and then laboriously tromping back up against the wind, Carmel and I talked about the impossibility of having such “tourist” attractions as this in the States. There would be a complex maze of barriers and fences alongside the cliff edge and if there was a path down to the valley, it would be lined with handrails, pavement and required liability clauses that would resemble an English grad-student’s first attempt at a novella. But out here, it was up to us to decide our limits, relying on our common sense and experience. With that in mind, we were all cautious but not fearful or skittish of this exercise in “extreme sightseeing.” Sometimes it’s good to not have so many warnings, precautions, liabilities and outside forces telling us what’s safe and not safe. In the end, most of us know what’s good for us…it’s how the human race has endured for thousands of years. The panoramic view from atop the cliff and the sights at the bottom were equally stunning (I fear that I’m going to run out of superlative adjectives while writing about this tour, so I give you a preemptive apology). After about an hour of playing around on the cliffs, jumping from formation to formation, we headed back to our van for another family ger campsite, another dinner of mutton and a cold, windy night in the middle of nowhere.
The climb back up to the van was much harder due to the sand along the “trail”
Maintenance showers, taxidermy gone wrong and gorge hiking
We were on a fairly consistent routine at this point. We had breakfast at 8am, packed up our things and were back in the van by 9am or so, bidding adieu to the kind family that took us in for the night and their mischievous, but entertaining, three year old boy.
Our entertainment for 12 hours
The idea of a daily routine in such a wild and uncertain environment helped the tedium of the often long travel day (we averaged about 220 kilometers a day in the van) as well as stifling the concerns of a van breakdown, serious illness or injury in the middle of the desert. It probably kept us positive and eager to jump back in the van each day, to know what our day was like, to have a schedule, to know when we were going to have lunch and reach our next destination. It helped me, at least.
Our guide and chef extraordinaire, Enkhee
Our other two tour companions, Sara and Jackie from Australia
This particular day was a special one. We were informed that before we would head to our featured destination, we would have a brief stopover in a small town and have the opportunity to take a hot shower! We all sighed giddily with the news. There was already a general stink emanating from all of us, our collective body odors swirling around the van and gers. The chance to clean off a layer of dirt and grime was an enticing and much welcomed invitation. Costing around a dollar each, we eagerly grabbed a new layer of clothes from our packs, dug out the shampoo and soap bottles and enjoyed the spoils of private stalls to reap the wonders of hot water and steam. I won’t get fancy here, it felt great. This opportunity, we were told, would be the last chance to clean ourselves proper (a wet-wipes “bath” notwithstanding) before heading back to Ulaanbaatar, so nobody sat out. Afterwards, the shower seemed to be revitalizing, the inevitability of more bumpy (non)roads and dust choking my throat and lungs didn’t seem so bad. Besides, we had a museum to visit and a gorge to hike. It was going to be a busy day for us!
Our destination was at Yoliin Am, a deep and narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains, nestled within the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park.
For those who know us well, I’ll let you guess which of the above was our favorite
Before heading into the actual gorge, we all visited the “Natural History” museum at the entrance of the park. The museum was free, although I got the impression that we should buy some souvenirs as compensation (Carmel bought a great, colorful postcard for her grandma back in Seattle). The museum consisted of several spacious rooms and exhibits presenting the precious metals and ore found in the area, as well as excavated dinosaur bones and fossils. However, what caught the most attention from us were the display of stuffed animals that were reportedly common in the area. What set these unfortunate creatures apart from ones I’m used to seeing was the genuine lack of experience by the taxidermist who prepped these things. The snow leopards were cross-eyed and heavily glazed, their painted tongues sticking out dopily from the corners of their uneven mouths. The stuffed birds were misshaped, looking bloated despite their huge and menacing marble eyes. There was a definite awkward presentation of these animals…and honestly, worth admission in itself (in a kitschy kind of way).
You could hike forever through this beautiful gorge
Where we finally turned around, reluctantly
The hike through the Yoliin Am gorge was rewarding and much needed exercise for all of us weary travelers. Again, there were no trails to guide us, and we were left to our own experiences and good senses to choose which rocks to balance our feet on or find the best way to cross the narrow stream eeling on for seemingly miles. The air tasted fresh and seemed cleansing to the dust that was slowly accumulating in our respiratory systems. The hike was brisk, the pictures we took were stunning. Apparently, much of the gorge remains frozen until late in the summer so we caught a brief glimpse of the flowing water and natural colors of the rocks before the first freeze returned later in October. Finally, after about an hour, the air began to cool and the stream continued on after each bend, so we decided to head back and call it a day.
The group with our gracious hostess who made an effort to tell us about her life even though she spoke zero English
Needless to say, with relatively clean bodies and some physical exercise, we all slept good that night. Our ger hostess even fed our stove with wood before bed and early the next morning, soothing our aching bones with smokeless blankets of heat. Life was good.
Read our full itinerary here on Manlai’s Budget Tours website.