Mongolia – Land of Blue Skies

“Do not go into this country unprepared, or underestimate the hazards of getting lost,” read Paul, as the track ahead of us once again became impassable. We weren’t lost. The sands of the Kongoryn Els were clearly visible glimmering in the distance. Our difficulty was in how to get there. As the day faded into twilight and the wind began to howl eerily and whip up the dust we received word that three French trucks had passed this way earlier – if we could find their tracks then maybe we could follow them across the plain.

ImageEnd of the road

Landlocked Mongolia receives few visitors, which is a shame as the country is both beautiful and unique. Once the centre of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, it is now the most sparsely populated country on Earth and nowhere else can you find such huge unfenced landscapes stretching to the horizon, sporadically dotted with the gers (felt tents) of some of the last real nomads on the planet. Nomads who also happen to be some of the most friendly and welcoming people you will find anywhere.

ImageNomad camp in the Orkhon valley

We had begun our journey some days before in the Mongolian capital Ulaan Baatar – the name means Red Hero and is so called in honour of the revolutionary hero Suhkbaatar or Axe Hero. Drab soviet style architecture and coal fired power stations mean UB is not the most attractive of cities, although if you dig beneath the surface there is much to see and do: old palaces; the huge state department store or ‘great shop’ from which you can buy almost anything; Tibetan Buddhist monasteries; museums and many excellent bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, our guide cheered up noticeably as we left the city behind and the grasslands of the great Mongolian steppe spread out before us.

ImageWild horses

Staying in tourist camps, we spent the next ten or so days travelling around the Mongolian countryside and staying in comfortable gers. Our first stop was Hustai National Park. This is home to the primitive looking wild Mongolian horses – the Takhi or Przewalski horse – successfully reintroduced in the 1990s following their extinction in the wild earlier that century. Further west we visited Karakorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, and the magnificent Erdene Zu monastery built atop its ruins.

A common sight throughout the country were ovoos – shamanistic cairns that should be walked around clockwise three times, adding new stones as you do so for good luck.

We had opportunities to visit the incredibly hospitable nomads, sharing airag – fermented mare’s milk – and clotted cream with them. Our guide and drivers taught us how to play some Mongolian ankle bone games, and once we watched an impromptu wrestling match taking place by the side of the road. But for me the real highlight was the legendary Gobi.

This vast region covering around a third of Mongolia’s territory is technically semi desert for the most part – able to support camels but not marmots! It is not how many imagine it to be, consisting mostly of rocky plains often covered in chives and wild leeks, or forests of stunted sauxal trees. Sand dunes like the ones we were trying to reach are actually something of a rarity.

The Gobi Altai mountains lurk on the horizon, their snow-capped peaks a contrast from the dust. The heat of the sun distorts the air creating mirage lakes that seem completely real, reflecting the huge blue skies. Flash floods carve out temporary rivers and invalidate any maps that may have existed. Domesticated camels graze the plains – there are few wild camels now apart from deep in the south – and every now and then you can spot the encampments of their owners.

Some mountainous areas are full of ancient petroglyphs featuring humans and a plethora of different animals – some real and some, like a four humped camel, clearly imaginary – in scenes from thousands of years ago.

ImageAncient petroglyphs

Finally, we managed to find the tracks of the three French trucks by the light of the nearly full moon, and, after a number of false turns, followed them across the plains and sauxal forests, eventually arriving at our camp shortly after midnight. Luck was on our side though as apparently a sandstorm had been expected but had failed to materialise.

The els stretch for about 100km by 20km and some of them are nearly 400 meters high. Known as the singing sands, when the conditions are correct they emit a strange deep musical noise – almost like an aeroplane. We tackled them the next morning.

As we climbed the texture of the sands was constantly changing – at times good and solid and then suddenly almost impossible to make any progress. From about halfway up it was easier to go barefoot. The view from the top ridge was stunning – a sea of dunes with the plains of the Gobi and mountains beyond. I found myself feeling very insignificant amid this landscape and the urge to cross over the ridge and run into the emptiness was hard to resist.

Whilst it took around thirty to forty minutes to climb the dunes coming down was much quicker. A combination of running, sliding and rolling can get you down in around three very funny minutes – although you’ll be finding sand everywhere for a few days afterwards!

ImageThe Singing Sands

The opportunity to ride horses or camels is ever present in Mongolia and that afternoon we went for a camel ride with the dunes as our backdrop.
Camels stand up – back legs first – remarkably quickly and you need to be prepared for this and lean back or there’s a real possibility of falling off head over heels. They are surprisingly flexible too and it’s quite unnerving to see your camel staring straight back at you sat astride it. Riding a camel is a great way to experience the serenity of the desert and is surprisingly comfortable. You will smell of camel for some time afterwards though and I can tell you emphatically that you do not want a camel to sneeze on you. Ever.

ImageCamel riding in the Gobi

During the winter season the ger camps are shut and most of the gers taken down. A caretaker stays near the main camp buildings. That evening before dinner a few of us decided to help the camp staff move a ger for the caretaker to stay in. First the covers and felt are removed from the structure, and then the roof poles and the central pillars are taken down. Finally the doorway is removed and the four walls are untied and folded up. The exact process is followed in reverse to rebuild the ger. It took us less than one hour from start to finish although I suspect without our help it would have been a lot quicker.

ImageMoving a Ger

The following day we headed – via a fossil shop in the middle of nowhere – to the region of Bayanzag. Known in English as the Flaming Cliffs due to its glowing orange coloured rocks, the area was made famous in the 1920s by the American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews. Many discoveries were made by him here including the first dinosaur eggs and many dinosaur skeletons. He was director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and many of the dinosaurs there originate from Bayanzag.
Even walking around this location today it is possible to find fossilized bones sticking out of the rocks all over the place.

ImageFlaming Cliffs

Our final stop in the Gobi was Yolyn Am or the Vulture’s Mouth canyon.
At the entrance to this canyon we found a herd of yak – an unexpected sight in the desert, although due to the geography of this area the canyon itself is extremely cold and ice can be found for much of the year. We made our way up the canyon – first on horseback and then – as the walls narrowed in – on foot, trying not to fall in as we crossed the river multiple times. Near a waterfall the canyon became too narrow to proceed and we turned back. An elderly Mongolian lady who had been walking alongside us for some time continued even deeper, however. Where her destination was, I cannot say. On the way out we caught a glimpse of an ibex standing guard on the cliff tops above us as we watched the birds from which the canyon gets its name soaring on the thermals.

ImageVulture’s Mouth

The next morning we drove to the fantastically named provincial capital, Dalanzadgad. The feeling of being on a paved road again was quite unusual after so many days.
We had a quick look around before taking the short flight back to Ulaan Baatar.
That night it snowed for the first time of the year.
Winter had arrived in Mongolia and unfortunately it was time for us to return to our homes.

Copyright Jay Selley 2012



One Response to “Mongolia – Land of Blue Skies”

  1. […] just uploaded a short article I wrote following a trip to Mongolia in 2009. Like this:LikeOne blogger likes this […]

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