Read Part 1 of our Gobi Desert Trip
The perils of camel riding and Shawn and Carmel get starstruck
“Sallah, I said NO camels! That’s FIVE camels; can’t you count?”
One of the shared interests of our group was the chance to ride camels in the Gobi. All of us, no doubt, had romantic notions of slowly wandering alongside the sand dunes, the blazing sun at our backs. Myself, I had images of being in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade bravely entering some dangerous mission that I was destined to pull off, despite the incredibly unrealistic odds. Ok, those ideas comprised some of my daydreams that passed the time during our van ride but, at least, I thought it would be a nice, serene experience; something that would define the whole of the experience in the desert. Well, after we went on our rides near the Khongoriin Els sand dunes, Carmel described it accurately as an, “underwhelming experience.” That was a generous description.
After settling our backpacks in our ger, we were told that camel riding would be available about an hour later. Carmel and some of our tour mates ventured out to the stable to see our camels. They were initially surprised to see that there were long, thin bones pierced through the camels’ noses, used as a peg for harnessing the animals. Although not a widely used method in other countries, Mongolians have been using this method for centuries. When it was time for our ride, a man in a brown turtleneck sweater and slacks beckoned us to the stable. Considering he lived in the desert and herded camels seemingly every day in the summer, his hair was neat and combed straight back and his clothes were a lot cleaner than ours. After offering him the money for the ride, he casually brushed us off, telling us to pay him tomorrow when we leave. His sense of causality and choice of dress inspired me to dub him, “The Bing Crosby of the Gobi.”
We hopped on our camels, one at a time. All the camels were lying down on the ground, so with graceful hand gestures by Desert Bing, we were told to not slide our feet too far in the metal stirrups, in case the camel buckled or decided to run away, our feet wouldn’t get caught up and we could fall off relatively easily. As soon as we shimmied between the humps, the man would shout, “Stand up!” and tug on a rope attached to the camel’s nose peg, triggering the camel to groan, first lifting its back legs before begrudgingly pushing its forelegs up from the ground.
Sara on her camel before she realized what present had been left on her seat
It’s a bit like being on a carnival ride with a sudden push forward, our heads dipping down close to the camel’s furry neck, then without warning, jerking backwards as the beast stabilized itself on all four legs. One of our tour mates, Sara, realized that her seat was smeared with crap once she had gotten on and settled herself on the camel. It was too late to get off and none of us was feeling humanitarian enough to wipe the camel poo off her butt. One by one, we climbed our camels. Any notion of independent, serene rides in the dunes were swept away like the sand once we were all seated and ready to leave. The man instructed us to hold onto each others’ camel reins close to the nose peg, and not let go under any circumstances.
No, we weren’t posing for a picture, we were actually this close to each other the whole time
Several times during our ride I had horrible images of my partner’s camel suddenly turning towards my hand and biting my fingers off, which didn’t help the overall experience. Holding onto the ropes, we were lined up in a horizontal line and walked that way, not out to the dunes, but the less glamorous barren landscape with stinging nettles and rocks. The line formation technique really depended on how well the six camels worked together, starting with the “lead” camel whose reign was held by Desert Bing. Our lead camel was initially resistant to the walk; bucking, groaning, burping and sneezing disapproval. During this time, our guide was oddly talking to somebody on his satellite phone and I began to imagine the conversation – “Oh, hi there, what’s news? Me? Oh, I’m just taking some idealistic tourists on a walk out here in the middle of nowhere. Yeah, there’s six of them, they look pretty goofy on these things.” Then suddenly, he’d put the phone down to his side and yell something to the lead camel, hitting it hard on its hindquarters. The lead camel of course didn’t like that and buckled more aggressively, causing the rest of our camels to get skittish, bumping into each other with groans of dissent. Our guide found a stick lying on the ground and handed it to our tour mate, Anna, gesturing for her to smack the camel’s butt routinely, which she did, lightly and always followed by, “I’m sorry…I’m sorry….I’m sorry.”
It looks like we’re having fun…so strange
The camel whose rein I was holding onto (and feared it would have my fingers for dinner) slammed into my right leg several times, the metal stirrup crushing into my anklebone. “Argh!” I shouted and pushed the camel away. After a few more times of this painful experience, I had to hold the rein even further up (I swore I could see the beast’s huge dark eyes measure my pinkie finger) and although my neurotic fears swirled in my head, I didn’t have any more problems with the metal stirrup. Another aspect that we all had to deal with for the duration of our ride was the constant chorus of camel belching, groaning and flatulence. Several of our camels excreted poo and urine like they hadn’t gone for days, and a camel fart could easily be equated to somebody eating nothing but fast food for several days, then capping it off by eating raw human flesh before letting the gases build up into a noxious weapon of mass destruction. The farts were potent and lingering, causing some of us to actually gag. About a half-hour into the desert, our guide turned the line around, resulting in our collective, “Thank god!” as we headed slowly back towards our camp. I’m sure there are pleasant camel rides in Mongolia that are closer to mirroring my own daydreams and expectations, but once safely off the camels and onto the ground, we all agreed that it was a good “one time” experience, but that we wouldn’t be hopping onto any more camels in the foreseeable future.
Enjoying a long walk around the area after the camel ride – we all needed a long stretch after that
Hey! Look who found his way into the desert – it’s Steve Squatch!
One of the experiences that I shared with Carmel when talking about my time in the Peace Corps, was the intensely beautiful and awe inspiring view of the night sky in the Mongolian countryside. There are stars…and then there are a sky-full of stars, constellations, and the Milky Way streaking vividly above you. I described it simply as being more clear than any planetarium show and, “You gotta see it for yourself, it’ll be one of the most amazing things you’ll see!” Our first few nights, unfortunately, were either clouded by overcast skies or overtaken by the glow from the moon. The stars were still pretty, Carmel concurred, but I reassured her, “It gets better.” Luckily, the night after our doomed camel ride, we watched the bright orange sun settle under the horizon, leaving layers of deep red, blue and purple, and noticing that the moon was not poking around. I knew the night was going to be pitch dark and reserved for the stars alone. I actually felt giddy as we waited until 9:30, before going outside. As soon as we got bundled up and stepped out from our ger, we both gasped with childlike wonder. “Holy crap,” Carmel whispered. “Yeah,” I replied, my mouth agape with astonishment. Unfortunately, we don’t have the proper equipment to have captured the night sky and it’s one of those moments when I have to tell someone, “you have to be there,” to properly do the scene justice. Also, as we soon discovered, none of us are too knowledgeable with astronomy, so we fumbled trying to identify the various constellations, other than the usually obvious Big Dipper. “Where’s the North Star?” one of our tour mates, Jackie, asked me. “It’s there,” I replied, pointing out into the dark. She laughed. “Oh, great, Shawn, that makes it clear…where exactly is your finger pointing at?” Being from Australia, she said it was one of the few times she had seen the Northern constellations. With some very unscientific explanations and sloppily delivered directions towards the Dipper’s “scoop” and “handles” she was able to see the North Star finally. We could have easily spent hours out there, but alas, the desert gets cold in late September, and eventually the shivering became too much for us and we scurried back to the relative warmth of the ger. I was happy Carmel and the others could witness such a spectacle; it puts things in perspective on how small we really are in the grand scale of the universe.
How high are those dunes? And the B-movie landscape that is the Flaming Cliffs
After an early rise and start to our day, we wanted to go and tromp around the Khongoriin Els sand dunes. Lying north of the Baruunsaikhan Mountain, in the northern part of the Sevrei and Zuulun Mountain range, the dunes are one of the largest and most spectacular in Mongolia, reaching upwards to 200 meters high, 12 kilometers wide and 100 kilometers long. The largest of the dunes are at the Northwest corner of the range, which is where we asked our tour guide, Enkhee, to take us that morning.
It was a relatively short drive to the dunes from our ger campsite and luckily for climbing, the morning air was cool and still. Enkhee informed us that sometimes the dunes “sing” when it gets windy. Some of the earliest references about these acoustical dunes are found in chronicles dating back more than 1500 years. Even Marco Polo described hearing these singing dunes as he trekked across the desert. Due to the calm and windless morning, we didn’t hear the dunes sing, but what we did hear was each others’ pants and heavy breathing as we began our hike up one of the dunes. Enkhee suggested that we take our shoes off to get better traction, and the early morning sand was still cool to the touch. We just had to be extra cautious when scaling the dunes with not stepping on any scattered animal dung or desert creatures that could result in some nasty consequences. At first, it was like plodding through the world’s largest sandbox, but after overexerting the first quarter of the dune, I collapsed onto the sand, desperately trying to catch my breath and quell the spasms in my legs. We snapped some photographs at this point, which was already an impressive height; our van looked like a Matchbox car and the desert seemed to span out into oblivion. Carmel, Jackie and Sara were eager (Carmel says reluctant) to climb further, but squinting up to what looked like an imposing mountain, the task was too daunting for my out-of-shape body. “No, no, I’m good here,” I panted, rolling over on my back, feeling my heart pounding its way out of my chest.
Taking a rest before climbing the big hill…and making sure Shawn’s heart didn’t explode
The ladies continued onward and upward, quickly at first, then slowing down as their figures became smaller and smaller. In the open air, I could hear their voices echoing off the sand, but their bodies became mere black dots as they got closer to the top of the dune. I took some pictures and could barely make them out in my viewfinder, relying on more decipherable grooves and shadows in the sand to gauge their location. I was impressed…actually awed by their tenacity and athleticism to scale the dune in a little over an hour. Judging from the pictures they took when they got up to the peak, they were on top of the world. “Wave!” I shouted up to them, having no idea that they could hear me. The descent back down went much quicker and easier for them, and after some much deserved high-fives, we all dug our heels into the soft, cool sand and tromped back down to our van.
Can you spot the ladies?
Carmel at the top, which is basically just a point, then more steep dunes on the other side
Sara, Carmel and Jackie enjoying a much-needed rest before heading back down
The group, all worn out and ready to spend some time sitting in the van
At this point in our tour, we were at the southernmost destination (only about a day’s drive to the Chinese border, if there were paved roads…or any roads at all). From here we would swoop up back northbound. Enkhee informed us that we were headed to Bayanzag and the majestic Flaming Cliffs. The area is particularly notable by yielding one of the earliest discoveries of dinosaur eggs and fossils, and given its name by American paleontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews, in the 1920s, which he also dubbed the “End of the World” (Andrews later became the director of the American Museum of Natural History and some say that the character of Indiana Jones was based on him). Scientists theorized that this expansive area was once an inland sea bottom some 200 million years ago, and was easy to tell how it earned its name from how the reflection on the sandstone cliffs shimmered brightly from the setting sun.
The first look at the Flaming Cliffs was a spectacular one, to say the least
I thought we were on another planet at the Tsagaan Suvarga cliffs, but the Flaming Cliffs looked like something out of a B-Movie. Huge reddish-orange towers and pillars seemed to surround us, and waves of sandstone enticed us to further explore its winding labyrinths to the valley below. Again, we wouldn’t be able to just start walking along these cliffs in America, but we took advantage of this opportunity and explored for over an hour. The cliffs could be seen as imposing…intimidating even, but once we began walking on and around them, I couldn’t help but feel a bit giddy with the experience, like we were explorers ourselves, maneuvering our way through this alien landscape. The place was simply stunning and although we didn’t find any dinosaur fossils, we took away memories of one of the most hauntingly beautiful places this side of the planet.
Is there life on Mars?
Day Six and Seven
Violence strikes a friendly card game and trudging back to the big city
We braved the cold morning air to watch the sun rise on our last day in the open desert
It was a bit of a letdown the next two days as there were no otherworldly destinations to visit. The agenda consisted of long days in the van, heading back northbound to Ulaanbaatar. Our first night we stayed in a small village called Erdenedalai, in the middle Gobi province, and about the halfway point between the two days of travel distance. Our driver, Baatar, and Enkhee made several calls to our host family on where their hashaa (their fenced in property) was, and after circling the town several times, we finally found our home for the night. Once settled into our ger, the group decided to venture out to the town and forage for a much needed sugar and sodium fix. All we had to do was look for the biggest buildings in town (one being the school, the other being the local government building) and we found not only one food store, but a whole row of them! Although the stores generally carried the same goods, we still relished in examining all of our choices on the shelves. Satisfied with our collective junk food stash, we walked back to our ger, nothing or nobody else demanding our attention (I was keeping an eye out for a karaoke bar, eager to let loose with some American 80s pop, but alas, I didn’t see any).
We passed the time that night gorging on sweets and playing cards. I was taught a game called “Spoons” (there are different variations to this game). It’s one of those games that I have a hard time with – mainly because it involves multitasking (trying to form a four of a kind and keeping an eye on five plastic spoons splayed out before us) and it’s a speed-centric game. Cards kept piling up beside me and I had barely enough time to discard before another card scampered my way. Not to mention I typically was slow to grab a spoon, hence earning a letter (like the basketball game “Horse” if one doesn’t retrieve a spoon in time, they earn a subsequent letter of SPOON, losing when the word is completely spelled out) in several consecutive rounds. Needless to say, I was the first one out, which I quickly discovered may have not been a bad thing for my general health and well-being. As mellow the ladies were during all the other moments we shared the past week, competition brought out the savages in them. Wrestling for the remaining spoons, the ladies were flung forward like rag dolls, scratched from flaying hands and sharpened fingernails, inadvertently hit in the head (Ok, that was my bad…sorry again, Viki) as everybody lunged for the poor plastic spoons that we were going to need the next morning for breakfast. Luckily, there weren’t any major injuries and first-aid was minimal.
Stopping for lunch on our last day
We all spent a little time hiking around the rocks before lunch and contemplating all we had seen in less than a week
Didn’t take long before we missed this view, the air and the silence
Finally, early the next morning, we were off to Ulaanbaatar and its cacophony of car horns and exhaust fumes. It would be our last time we would be eating breakfast together in a ger and loading up the van with our dusty backpacks. One of the things that stood out for us was the fact that the air out in the desert was so clean and so quiet. Despite the dust up our noses, the air itself tasted clean…no coating on the tongue from pollution. And those times in the daytime during pee-breaks and especially at night, everything was still…maybe an occasional dog barking (or the sound of five women grappling for spoons) interrupted the silence briefly, but it soon returned and was welcomed and embraced. In this brave new world where noise is the new quiet and speed is the new slow, it was refreshing to see how things can be…how they really are – in sync with each other, coexisting without excessive sound effects, slowing down and taking time to look around and consider ourselves in this topsy turvy world. We’re all connected, but not in the technologically commercial sense. It just takes some time in a place alien to the chaos and rat-race to reaffirm these instinctive ideas. Despite the total travel distance of about 1,590 kilometers in a hot van on desert non-roads, despite the several layers of dust that grew on us over the week’s time, despite the rock-hard ger beds that were relentlessly painful on our hips and backs, we were all grateful for the experience, taking a little special something back with us…something far greater than the photographs we took and the memories we’ll share. It’s those special moments and scenes we’ll recall in times of stress that instantly make us feel better, when we’ll try to define and explain what “beauty” means to us, and the magic that parades through our favorite dreams with grandiose style. It’s what experience truly means.
If you endeavor, fate will favor you.
Anna, Viki, Baatar, Enkhee, Jackie, Sara, Carmel, and Shawn
We’ve posted the rest of the pictures from our Gobi Desert Adventure on the The Journey Itself Facebook page. While you’re there, take a minute to Like our page to stay up-to-date with our current adventures.