travel diary: gobi

While I haven’t been everywhere in the world, I have been to the Gobi.  And I firmly believe there is no place on earth like it.  Perhaps the sand dunes look like the Sahara or Arabian Peninsula.  Perhaps the zag makes the landscape look like Moab.  And perhaps the gobi-steppe bears a slight resemblance to the African savannah.  But combined, these landscapes make for a unique environment, and one made even more so by the Bactrian camel, an animal found no where else in the world.

Of all the places I’ve visited in Mongolia, the Gobi is by far my favorite.  Not because it’s any type of vacation, but because its forbidding beauty challenges the imagination, and because the Gobi people are the hardiest, yet friendliest people in the world.  No longer so isolated due to the presence of satellite TV and cheap solar panels, Gobi people used to rely on travelers to bring news of the outside world.  Thus, friendliness is ingrained culturally, and still hasn’t changed.  Even the ones making a business in tourism are still extremely friendly and giving.

I took two trips to the Gobi (three if you count SE Gobi), once to see all the sights, and the second to take an overnight camel trek across the Gobi’s tallest sanddunes.  The Eastern steppe is fairly remote, sparsely-populated place.  The Gobi is even more sparsely populated, and even more strikingly so, as the great majority of people live in or near the aimag capital of Dalanzadgad.  The Lonely Planet estimates the population density to be 0.3 people per square kilometer.  DC’s population density is about 3700 per sq km, about 10000 times as much. The Gobi is on par with Greenland.

My first trip to the Gobi required a 15 hour drive to Dalanzadgad from UB.  It took us 15 hours to get not-that-far, and another 2-3 hours the next morning to go the rest of the way.  But we did have a flat tire, which definitely slowed us some.  After leaving Dalanzadgad, the emptiness of the Gobi became almost entirely apparently.  We passed a few other vehicles, mostly because it was high tourism season, but otherwise saw little of human presence. Our first day in the Gobi was spent at two of the most popular spots (after we found our way) – Yolyn Am and Bayanzag.

Yolyn Am is otherwise known as Vulture’s Valley, though I don’t recall seeing any vultures.  Instead, the big draw is the ice gorge, a sort-of glacier in the middle of the valley that lasts for about 9-10 months of the year and melts for the rest, before refreezing again (I’m not sure if it is dry).  The hike to the ice gorge is beautiful and distinctly un-Gobi-like, and the ice gorge itself is kind of cool in an out-of-place way.

Bayanzag, on the other hand, is one of those places that sounds very cool on paper, and turns out to be much less cool in execution.  It is the location where the first dinosaur eggs were found, and in past years, excavations have still gone on.  Lately though, not much of anything is happening, so aside from some cool red rocks, there isn’t much to see now.

The highlight of the trip though is the Khongoryn Els, the Khongor Sanddunes.  These are Mongolia’s tallest sanddunes, topping 200-300 meters at their tallest point.  On my first trip to the Gobi, we stayed 2 days near the sanddunes, admiring the view and hiking up the dunes, and catching the sunset.

My second trip the Gobi involved going directly to the sanddunes.  It was a much more unpredictable journey, but by the time we made it to the sanddunes, we were able to catch a wonderful sunset, which I had missed the first time around.  The next day, we met our camel guide, a herder who lived on the other side of the sanddunes.  He suggested a 20 km ride, an overnight stay, and then a ride back the next day.  Agreeing, we mounted our camels, and headed on our way.

If you’ve never ridden a camel before, it is, in a way, similar to an elephant, in that you feel very far off the ground.  But, instead of being safe in a little seat, you are riding the camel on a little saddle that vaguely resembles a rug.  Also, there is the same front and back motion as riding a horse, and then maybe some sideways motion too.  Either way, it’s a bit like being in a boat.  So, for 20 km, we rode the camels along the sanddunes until we reached a lower part, where we proceeded to cross.  At some point, however, 20 km turned into 30 km, and our ride became a whole-day affair, until we reached our camel herder’s ger.  For a good 10 km, there was nothing but sand all around, and reaching his ger in the middle of nowhere came as much of a blessed relief.

Overnight at the camel herder’s ger was like being the only people on earth.  The stars were bright with the lack of civilization, and every sound in the night was audible.  I had, unfortunately, been told about wolves, so I slept very little for fear that said wolves would materialize (no, they did not).  The next day we trekked back across the dunes, but this time taking a more direct route.  It shaved 10 km off our trek, but also had us travelling across the tallest points of the dunes.

From the backside, the rise is more gradual, allowing for some gentle up and down on our camels.  At some point though, the rise was too steep and we dismounted and lead our camels up, up, and up, until we reached the peak.  At the top, we tied up the reins and sent them down the other side, following closely behind, a pretty much steep drop to the bottom. Then we brushed off the sand and calmly climbed back on our camels and made the remainder of the way back to our ger camp.

More pictures here and here.


1 Response to “travel diary: gobi”

  1. 1 yakup October 21, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Greatings, Interesting, I`ll quote it on my site later

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