Our best organised group travel so far

Another must-do for us in Mongolia was a trip to the Gobi desert. We could have winged it, but for ease and to make sure we see all the different sights we booked a tour with Khongor guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. We chose the 7 day Gobi and Terelj NP tour but cut off the last day since we had been there on a daytrip with a friend before going to the nomads.

Our guide introduced herself at breakfast and once our driver had loaded our luggage in the back of his Soviet era minivan we were off. We were joined by two medical students from South Korea.

Our trusty old Soviet steed

On our way out of town we stopped for a last stock up in a supermarket where our guide bought all the food for the next few days and we re-supplied ourselves with snacks. The van was surprisingly comfortable, and with two free seats there was plenty of space for the four of us. Probably partially due to the age and lack of power we drove along at a very leisurely and tourist friendly pace. We were impressed by the scenery of snow covered mountains on both sides with the odd ger and quite a few animal herds of different sizes.

Parts of the Bala Gazriin Chuluu formation

Roughly two and a half hours later we stopped for lunch at a simple but nice roadside rest place. Not long afterwards we turned off the smooth tarmac onto a non-descript track. This was the last time on tarmac for two days 😦

Instead we had a strong deja vu of our driving in Namibia thanks to the copious amounts of ‘wash board’ or corrugated roads. And they were the flat sections! On top of that we drove across countless crossing tracks, river beds, ditches and over bumps.

The first sight of our tour was the Baga Gazriin Chuluu ‘little ground rock’; a fairly big area of rocks and hills; including the highest point of the middle gobi area. Once upon a time there had been two tiny monasteries nestled between some big rocks until the Soviets decided to tear them down and sadly kill the monks. We had some time to walk around and enjoy the scenery but due to the icy wind we were happy to be back in the warm van after half an hour. Had it been warmer we would have felt rushed but at this time of year it was about enough. From the car park it was only another 8km to the ger camp for the night. Because the tourist season was coming to an end, the family had already taken down half of their gers ready for storage. 

Beds for those who feel hot

We discovered that there seemed to be a lack of burnable dung in our accommodation so when we saw more of it during our evening walk Matthias ran back to get a container and out of habit we started collecting whatever we found. We even managed to draft in our Korean friends. Soon we had enough material to ensure a warm night.

Our tour guide Tegi was also our chef and cooked us very tasty tsuivan for dinner followed by tea and coffee. A short while later we all went to bed as we were all tired and we had to get up early.

The next day was the longest drive of all (not in terms of distance but of time). Today’s destination were the well-known flaming cliffs. Apart from a short stretch before and after the village we had lunch in, all of the 380 km were on bumpy and bone rattling off-road tracks. We stopped a few times along the way to sort our bones out and stretch our legs before the next section. There are at least 4 tourist camps near the cliffs so during peak season things must get really busy, but at this time of year most gers were empty. Before we got there we drove past some vast fenced in fields with small bushes in them. Tegi explained that people grow saxaul trees there before replanting them in other areas. These trees have roots up to 30m long so they are perfect for growing in deserts and play an important role in stopping desertification and securing soil.

Zoë and her sauxall tree

Tegi had given us the choice when we wanted to see the cliffs. Considering it was late afternoon already we decided to go there straight away to catch some good photography light. The cliffs consist of red sandstone and the setting sun really sets them on fire. Worn and carved by strong winds and sand they show beautiful features such as camel shaped outcrops, holes and others. It was here where in the 1920s the first dinosaur skeletons were found in Mongolia by an American archeologist. This place is especially famous for the finding of petrified dinosaur eggs. Excavations are still ongoing in different areas. Most of the fossils have been moved to the U.S. but there are enough left the fill a dinosaur museum in Ulaanbaatar.

Cliffs set on fire by the sunset

Sadly, we arrived at the cliffs a little early for the sunset but the views were awesome nonetheless. If it had not been for the strong and icy wind we would have hung around longer. That night we were very happy to see we had wood to burn instead of dung. Used by nomads if there are no trees around, dense dung is difficult to light; especially if still damp inside. This is quite difficult to judge from the outside and if the fire is too small, dense dung never burns properly but only smokes. We also got treated to a superb night sky with thousands of stars plus the milky way. Combining our friend’s tripod with our DSLR we managed to get some fairly decent shots. It was also a very cold night and therefore we went back into the ger soon and spent some more time chatting in the warmth.

One of our attempts in star photography

Next day’s’ drive was a lot shorter which meant a later awakening and departure. By now we had also gotten used to Tegi’s breakfasts which were better than what we had in our last two hostels in Ub. We only had to endure 180km (all off road) which was very much welcomed after yesterday’s torture. From the cliffs we had seen a long chain of big, rocky and snow covered mountains and we had been told that today we would drive over them. From the distance they seemed impassable unless on foot and it turned out they were (at least that section). There are three mountain ranges in this part of the Gobi and they are called western, middle and eastern beauty. The namesake story goes about a man who loved three beautiful women. When he had to go to war, the beloved ones climbed up three different mountains to weep and wait for him though he never returned.

The snow-capped middle beauty

The route to the other side of the middle beauty was surprisingly long; we had to go basically all the way around the west side. Our first stop was in a small village ten minutes drive away, where we stopped a public bath house for showers. The water had to be heated up in a wood-fired boiler and because we turned up early wasn’t really hot yet. Further down the bumpy tracks we saw many nomads watering their herds at wells along the way. Our driver stopped for a quick break next to a wandering herd of camels. One of them was very photogenic and gave us a long photo session before eventually rejoining the others. 

Two camels

Soon afterwards we hit the mountains and followed a dry river bed up a valley. Zoë spotted a group of ibex fleeing from our rattling Soviet van up the side of a mountain. Soon the other side came into view and our descent began. In the far distant there was another snow capped mountain range and before it, at the bottom of a wide valley, was a long sand dune. Tegi explained that this was the biggest sand dune in the country. It was 120km long and up to 20km wide. The view was beautiful but limited by haze. Our Korean friends were getting hungry and kept asking our guide about lunch but she told them that today was buddha’s birthday and a fasting day in Mongolia. She must have forgotten about this when she gave us breakfast but she still claimed not having eaten anything herself. It was not until 5 minutes and many shocked enquiries later that she revealed it as a jest and that we would be having lunch soon.

Our first river in the desert

We arrived at our ger camp soon after leaving the mountains and found it empty since the owners had gone to get the camels for us. Unfortunately they were a long way away so we had some time for relaxation, lunch and a walk to the nearby river. We decided to go to and up the dunes the same day and despite the camp being only about half a kilometer away from the dunes, we boarded the van for a short drive to a car park from which we could climb up the side of the highest part of the dunes. 

Ted preparing for his camel ride

Following Tegi’s advice, we left our shoes behind. We didn’t fancy spending the next days shedding sand from our socks and therefore embarked on the climb barefoot. Unfortunately we had to climb it from the leeward side which at this time of day was already in the shade. The sand was soft but very loose and we got very cold feet from sinking in and sliding down with every step. Matthias won the race to the top with Zoë close behind. It took us about 45 min including breaks to climb the 300m. The view from the top was beautiful and totally worth the effort. We also greatly enjoyed warming our feet in the warm sand on the sunny side. 

I’m on top of the world, hey!

Ted felt quite lofty at the top

While we went for a walk along the ridge line, our Korean friends reached the top as well and it was time for some selfies and a well-earned ‘Gipfelbier’ or summit beer. Zoë set off a ‘sandvalanche’ which surprisingly grew bigger and bigger and even kept going after it reached the bottom. The whole dune started to vibrate and produced a low frequency humming sound. Sitting on top all this was both mesmerizing and creepy. After about an hour it started to cool down so we decided to return to our tour guide and the van. Running down the steep slope was great fun and much more enjoyable than the climb. We had to be wary though about the more solid areas where sand was so compact that our feet did not sink in as expected.

Zoë reflecting on the great dune landscape

Shortly after we all made it back to our minibus, three other cars turned up and eight other tourists started the slog up the sand wall. Unlike us, they all kept their shoes on and we wondered how long it would take them to get rid of all the sand afterwards.

Tegi revealed to us that plans had changed and we would be riding camels while she went ahead to prepare our dinner. It was our first time on two-humped camels. Unlike horses, camel saddles only consisted of a carpet with stirrups attached and no other belts or straps to attach them to the animal. Our four camels were attached to the saddle of the next leading one and the front one was lead by a nomad women. Like us, the camels did not seem to be particularly content with this arrangement but eventually complied. The guide led us back along the track to the dune car park before turning around and walking back along the dunes. It was a nice experience but we would rather have done it in a nicer place with more space (longer ropes) for the camels.

How many camels can you see?

Thanks to the lovely scenery and the fun activities this was by far our most favourite day of the tour. Our fourth day saw us again driving quite a long distance but this time a fairly big proportion of that was on smooth tarmac roads. Again we stopped at a village for lunch before following the road to Gobi Gurvansaikhan national park. Here many mountains form a beautiful canyon scenery. One end of this narrows down to a gorge with a stream running through it. Due to high cliffs around it, it remains covered by ice until the summer. This year was quite hot and thus all the ice had melted by July. There was ice all along the central and narrow part but we assumed it was only from the recent frosty nights. There was also plenty of snow for a good snow ball battle on the way into the canyon. This rugged area is home to a population of lammergeiers. We saw a few big birds circling above but we think only one of them was one of these majestic and bone-breaking vultures.

Inside the icey canyon

Again Tegi had changed plans and instead of walking we got to ride up the valley on horseback. Our horses were smaller than the ones in the Eight Lakes NP and skinnier. Zoë’s horse was lame and despite Matthias’s saddle being adjusted as much as possible, the stirrups were way too short. In short, we did not enjoy this riding outing and would have rather walked the few kilometers.

Following this, we drove back a few kilometers to our camp for the night. There were gers and a few actual buildings with a basketball pitch and an outdoor gym. Before dinner we spent about an hour playing basketball (once we managed to locate the ball) in which our guide beat all of us.

On our penultimate day we spend a lot of time on the road again. This day’s sight was a white stupa which turned out to be a rock formation rather than a buddhist building. It got its name from the fact it resembles a stupa when approaching it from the north east. We drove to the top and enjoyed picturesque views overlooking the surrounding plain. Wind and rain have done a good job eroding the rock depositing colourful heaps of gravel and sand around the bottom. 

Stripy foot hills around the white stupa

Millions of years ago this area was the bottom of a sea and different time periods are still visible in form of coloured stripes. After a while walking up, down and around the white stupa we were taken to our last ger for both the trip and our time in Mongolia. It turned out to be our best ger so far with spring mattress beds and a stove with a stone lining to store heat during the night. Shortly after our arrival we were invited to the family ger for tea with camel milk (a first for us). Sadly we missed the promised camel milking because of the sun set. Since it was our last dinner together Tegi cooked a special Mongolian dish called Khorkhog. Chunks of meat are cooked under and in between hot stones together with a little water. To be honest, we didn’t think the stones made it taste much different. This evening, Tegi and our driver ate with us. We sat around a big bowl with about 4-5kg of meat and bones and a plate of vegetable (maybe 400g). It was a very sociable meal and we managed to devour almost all of it.

On our last day we got treated to a shower in a town along the way before the long and monotonous drive back to Ulaanbaatar. Our Korean friends had another day and went to see the Chinggis Khan statue and Terelj national park so sadly we had to say good bye. We had arranged to get picked up by another driver in a small town near the new airport roughly an hour south of the capital. This swap worked seamless and soon we were back in our hostel.

The next day we spent shopping in Ub and sorting out various things. In the evening we treated ourselves to a Mongolian cultural show. It included the famous throat singing, the horse-headed fiddle and traditional dancing. This was a worthy end to the great and fantastic time we had in this exciting country, but by this point we were looking forward to experiencing China.

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