We scrambled frantically up the final few steps, my feet sinking deep into the sand and being sucked inexorably – and frustratingly – backward, the feeling much like in a dream where your feet feel unreasonably heavy and no matter how hard you try you can’t quite make enough progress to pull away from whatever subconscious horror has designs on your junk this time. Adding even further to the difficulty, the strong wind whipped over the top of the dune, at 240 metres high having had plenty of time to collect an exceptional amount of sand with which to pelt our exposed faces and vulnerable eyes. The displaced sand emitted a low, moaning noise as it slid back down the slope, explaining why these dunes were also known as the “Singing Dunes”. Barely dragging ourselves over the crest, we collapsed in a heap, sliding slightly down the less steep backside in order to escape the worst of the wind. Finally with a moment to catch our breath and look around, we gazed in awe at the smooth, mesmerizing dunes rolling off into the distance. The perfect, sharp line along the tops of the dunes stretched off into oblivion in both directions, looking untouched for eternity. Within minutes our own tracks, and all the messy evidence of our exhausted bodies collapsing, had almost disappeared back into the flawless ridge inevitably presented to the world. Welcome to Khongoryn Els, some of the highest sand dunes in Mongolia.
Earlier, from a considerable distance on the back of two-humped, multiple-smell camels, we watched as another group of tourists creeped up the side of the dunes in painfully slow fashion, stopping over and over, and couldn’t understand what they were doing, or why it was taking so long. It sure didn’t look too bad from down there. A couple hours later, after huffing and struggling about 2/3 of the way up and feeling like we were doing pretty well, then looking up and realizing the hard part hadn’t even started yet, we found our opinions on the matter changed somewhat. The last stretch seemed almost vertical, and with zig-zagging feeling like nearly as much work, we finally gave in and just pushed straight up the side, making our way in short, frantic bursts, doing our best to anchor ourselves in place when we stopped to minimize the backsliding as much as possible. We went up earlier in the evening than most, but later spotted a group of guides waiting at the bottom for their soon-to-be exhausted charges, peering up at the ungainly struggles of all the unprepared tourists through binoculars and having a hearty chuckle at the chaotic scene.
After reaching the top we spent some time taking a wide variety of photos, giddy with accomplishment and the knowledge it was all downhill from there, and cheering Emanuele on as he managed to make it to the top with 25 pounds of professional camera equipment on his back, even using his expensive tripod as a walking stick to fight his way up the last brutal stretch. Then we settled down into a lower sheltered area with Chris and a Dutch guy named Dice to celebrate with the bottle of Mongolian vodka and annoyingly-heavy box of orange juice I had hauled all the way from the bottom. An hour and a half later we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the enthralling colours of the sunset as it flickered over the dunes like a constantly changing painting, bounding back down the side of the dune in less than 5 minutes (it took us 30 to climb up), yelling and giggling like little children. Little children who just finished a bottle of vodka. Despite – or maybe because of – the difficulty of the climb, those couple hours of bliss atop the dunes overlooking the desolate splendour of the desert were unquestionably the highlight of our time in the Gobi.
Coming back from the west about a week earlier, our flight from Olgii was delayed twice, then took longer than it should have, then it took forever to get the bags off the tiny plane for some reason, then traffic sucked right on cue, and in the end we found ourselves back in Ulaanbaatar around 7 pm with just 2 short nights to spend getting ready for our next adventure. A real shower, real bed, laundry, food that isn’t either Turkish or made in the back of a jeep, plus some of the logistical organizing that comes with setting up a Mongolian tour for us, an American friend living in Thailand, an Italian guy travelling in Hong Kong and another Canadian flying in from home. Viva el Internet!
Apparently we caught Chris, a guy we met while in Antarctica, at a weak moment about a month ago when he was wandering around SE Asia and we suggested he get his ass up to Mongolia to join us in the Gobi desert for a week or so. And since he couldn’t come up with any compelling reason not to (clearly all the cool kids were doing it), the next thing you know there we were, all three of us, enjoying some pretty decent Indian food at Namaste Restaurant and topping it off with a couple drinks at the King and Crown. The following night, in anticipation of a week of relative culinary deprivation out in the desert we made our way to one of Mongolia’s only bastions of Americana – Pizza Hut, where, along with a fourth member of our Gobi group, Emanuele, a photographer from Italy who has been travelling and working for nearly 4 years, we all got obscenely stuffed on some greasy pepperoni pizzas and washed it down with some destructive but delicious Coca-Cola. It seemed like the perfect send-off for our coming time in one of the most famously harsh areas in the world. That was, at least, until 12:30 am rolled around and I could be found huddled on the floor of the hotel bathroom shivering and vomiting, in more or less equal measures, at which point the plan seemed to have some holes in it. The entire next day, in fact, was spent rueing the flaws of that decision as I remained propped up against the side of Russian jeep number 2, despising the very thought of food and silently cursing every horrid piece of road (i.e. all of them). Luckily, though, I made progress throughout the day, yet not quite enough progress to participate in the reportedly incredibly uncomfortable one-hour horseback trotting session Laynni and others were subjected to that afternoon at a family ger (a shame, he said, sarcastically), and was more or less back to normal by the next day.
Unlike our trip out west where it was just the two of us, this time we were part of a dynamic group of 5 tourists, plus our excellent young driver (Gansa) and our fantastic English-speaking guide (Galaa). It made for far less room in the jeep but a lot more conversation and a more festive atmosphere, not to mention sympathetic ears always willing to commiserate over the consistently disastrous state of the toilet situation. The two of us and Chris and Emanuele were joined by Kirby, a fellow Canadian who works for Air Canada and has done an amazing amount of crazy little trips like this one. The two bench seats facing each other in the back of the jeep featured steadily fluctuating seating patterns: whose turn is it to – face backward, sit on the sunny side, perch in the precarious middle seat, have to be the middleman between everyone else and the trash bin, etc. All in all, a terrific group, very entertaining, a lot of hilarious moments, and so much candy stocked up that we literally never had to sit around with clean, sugarless teeth like suckers. Very happy we ended up with such a great bunch, considering we spent basically 24 hours a day together, driving, sightseeing, eating, sleeping, other. Maybe the only downside, and only from Laynni’s point of view, really, was that she was once again the only female in the group, meaning that during our very frequent pee/cigarette/stretch/mechanical examination stops she had to wait patiently as we all scattered in random directions to take care of business (the distances from the jeep decreasing steadily over the course of the trip), eventually herding us all back inside so she could take her turn with at least some modicum of privacy (i.e. the precarious trust that no one would turn around and look out the back window).
Overall, this trip, which was also 7 days and 6 nights, involved a lot more driving in comparison to time spent at the actual attractions. But I suppose that is only fitting, considering we were touring one of the world’s most notoriously barren and dangerous stretches of land, at least it was for pre-combustion engine travellers. 5 or 6 hours a day in the vehicle seems like a small price to pay when compared with a slow, delusional death by dehydration, or being violently mauled by wild camel (evidence suggesting the attack was sexually motivated came back inconclusive). Despite the stretches of monotony, which in itself were part of the exotic allure, the scenery was incredible. We were dumbfounded by the amount of different landscapes we saw in a so-called “desert”. From endless grassy steppes to endless rocky wasteland to mountains to dunes to strange rock formations to steep, narrow gorges and picturesque little rivers, it seemed as though we hardly saw the same thing twice. Other than goats, we saw plenty of goats.
Strangely, even though this trip is by far the most popular among the wide variety of backcountry tours in Mongolia, we found the “facilities” to be well below even the very modest standard set on our last outing. Remember those temporary holes dug in the ground with a makeshift toilet seat propped above that I kept whining about (ooh, the frost, it bothers my tender parts…)? Well, that crappy seat, any seat, seemed like a faint, pleasant memory after the week-long parade of hygienic disasters we used in the Gobi. Outhouses with pit toilets, in broad terms, but always with far too much hole, far too little depth, far too few actual planks leading to seeing far too much detail below, with the entire contraption never nearly sturdy enough for any reasonable peace of mind. The wind-rattled rusty aluminum sheeting and inevitably broken “door” hanging askew were mere icing on the cake. Put it this way, we’ve been to probably a dozen of the 25 poorest countries in the world, and Laynni is adamant the worst toilet she has ever used was found on this trip.
Moving on, thankfully…
The food was a decent mix of good, bad and edible, with the “Mongolian BBQ” prepared for us on our final night near the White Stupa being probably the best meal we’ve had throughout our time in Mongolia. A large pot with a small amount of water in the bottom alternately filled with large chunks of mutton and red-hot stones carefully plucked from the roaring fire, all topped off with a generous – by Mongolian vegetable standards – layer of potatoes and carrots, then the whole lot sealed up to steam itself to completion an hour later. Truly delicious. On the other hand, the Mongolian obsession with adding chewy mutton chunks to every single meal meant had me struggling by the final day, this coming from a guy who typically doesn’t consider a meal complete if something hasn’t died to make it happen. But I started edging toward my breaking point after one lunch where we each received 5 “dumplings”, essentially huge empanadas filled with gnarly meat, and each one the size and greasiness of a mechanic’s rag, then was pushed just a bit further a day or two later being served my “vegetable soup” with enough mutton scraps to choke a St. Bernard, along with a slab of pure fat the size of my wallet. Laynni’s fried noodles, special-ordered to be meat-free, actually just ended up including slightly less meat, because obviously she didn’t actually mean she didn’t want any meat, right? In the end, we both made it back without pledging our lives (whatever remains of them relying on these clogged, tired arteries) to vegetarianism, but only barely.
Anyway, on to the sights and attractions, the whole reason we subject ourselves to these sorts of situations (other than for the fabulous stories, I mean).
Best of… The Gobi Desert
Khongoryn Els sand dunes, obviously.
The ruins of Olgiid Khiid Monastery at sunset.
The Flaming Cliffs, which looked a lot like Drumheller, featured the first large group of tourists we had seen, and were windy enough to entice me to challenge my personal record for distance urination.
Passing large herds of camels on the move.
Riding camels alongside dunes – scenic but slow, and noticeably pungent.
Yolyn Am, a beautiful, narrow gorge with small, clear river running down the middle and tiny pikas (like a cross between gopher and mouse) scurrying along the banks. We were told that up until end of July the river is usually still frozen in the most shaded areas and, apparently, earlier this year a Malaysian man jumped into a 2-metre deep ice-hole and needed a human chain to get him out, as he was obviously unable to come up with anything other ideas when encountering such a strange phenomenon (like perhaps walk around it, or maybe take a photo from a safe distance, or sort of anything but what he chose, really).
The Yolyn Am museum and its confusing, and mostly frightening, collection of stuffed wildlife. Probably the most disturbing feature being all the wildly inappropriate facial expressions on the animals, as though they had been stuffed suddenly, and completely without their knowledge, while literally caught in the act. There was the startled wolf (which makes sense, I suppose), the enraged, demented wolf (probably the natural reaction to having your internal organs replaced with sheep’s wool), the confused and somewhat sad donkey (those unhealthy stick legs would depress even the most optimistic beast of burden), and slightly ashamed vulture (you’d be embarrassed to if you had the ability to fly yet drunkenly chose to ride a rabbit home and had this dubious decision captured for all eternity).
The White Stupa, which we had originally assumed to be an actual man-made religious monument, and were accordingly lukewarm on, but turned out to simply be a clever name for a vast area of white rock formations resembling the Badlands in topography, Swift Current in its gale force winds, and every other interesting rock formation in the way it was repeatedly subjected to us enacting ridiculous poses for the camera.
Our ger at Yol Am – the largest on the trip, with blankets, table, a sink (water not included), stove, plastic chairs, and even a desk (where we collected our dirty dishes and old plastic bags).
Listening to Emanuele start humming the Indiana Jones theme song every time he gathered up his gear for a trip to the outhouse.
Finally reaching a paved road on day 6 and immediately getting our first flat tire of the week.
Still waiting to find a market or grocery store that isn’t at least 50% candy, or a Mongolian person who will turn down an offer of candy.
Stopping to take photos of giant vultures feeding on a dead camel.
Fake sheep on the hill overlooking the tourist ger camp near Olgiin Khiid because, um, there aren’t enough real sheep around?
Laynni briefly braving the river for a semi-shower – whether the result of peer pressure or an actual shift in priorities, welcome all the same.
In one of the gers, a cute, baby-blue pillow awaiting Chris that conveniently straps directly to your head, I suppose so you aren’t restricted to sleeping in bed? Japanese, surely.
Stopping to take photos at what we thought was a bizarre outdoor bus station but actually turned out to be a bizarre travelling furniture sale.
Settling into ger near Flaming Cliffs and discovering the first soft beds in all of Mongolia, then being moved on after just 10 minutes by Galaa with the somewhat meagre explanation “Maybe it is better if we change”.
The rough little bathhouse where we paid $1 each for a brief, sort of warm shower that sort of had water pressure, but still felt like being fanned and hand-fed grapes by a group of eager concubines after 4 water-less days in the desert.
Our guide informing us, quite proudly, that the Ulaanbaatar bus station is called “The Dragon”.
Quote of the week, source to remain nameless: “I’ve peed, pooped and packed, I’m ready to go”.
And then, one last long day of driving and, finally, we found ourselves back in UB, checked into our fairly normal hotel room, the same room that seems to get just that much better each time we return in comparison with whatever Mongolia has most recently thrown at us. Showered up, happy to be part of civilization once again, we quickly wandered out to meet Chris and do the only thing that seemed reasonable under the circumstances – Pizza Hut!