19 June – 21 June South Gobi tour
and back to Ulaanbaatar 588 km – Total 7068 km
Uhmm, sorry, wanted to say “Die Wüste Gobi” a subconscious mistake …
Well, this 3-day guided tour trip was a revelation! In more than one sense.
Having been driven along almost 500 km ‘Piste’ I now have a rather clear idea what this is like. Even in a modern, air-conditioned Toyota Landcruiser with big knobby tyres and a local driver, it takes skill, local knowledge and time to navigate and moving forward. We experienced every kind of surface: sand, small sharp stones, mud, grass, gravel – you’ll name it – you’ll drive/ride on it!
And all gets much worse after a rainfall.
The locals say that this 2016 Mongolian summer is a good summer! Cause it has brought plenty of rainfall. I was told, this amount of rain happens every twenty years or so. Much rainfall means good grass for the Nomads’ goats, sheep, camels, horses, the latter are represented here much less. This is Camel, sheep and goat country. Horses are in small numbers entirely used in the hilly parts, the Altai mountain range, well it’s east/southern end. Horses are better than the small Chinese-made 125 ccm motorcycles to locate and drive your Camel or goat herds back to the Ger camp.
So, riding on these surfaces with an Oceanliner-bike, fully loaded, brings little pleasure, much sweat, little progress and most likely falls, several. My decision to go there, if at all, only as a pair or small group is the right one. Support in such circumstances is crucial. I recommend this to any of you who plan a similar ride – take my word for it.
Another confirmation was the mode of travel: a guided tour. Of course, I am seeking confirmation after spending a packet. Nevertheless, I had to rethink considering this: a driver, a guide, about 600 kms covered, petrol for this big Landcruiser, entrance to National Parks, all meals, o/night accommodation and so on. Specifying and realising how many components make up such a tour, the price paid becomes more ‘more agreeable’. If you ever do this, take the modern Landcruiser, not the old Russian-originated ex-Army, OAS 4-wheel truck. The latter is slower, extremely bumpy and loud inside. I also doubt it has aircondition. With such a noise constantly around you, well I would tire quickly.
Finally, the actual experience: well frankly I would not have had even half of it, would I have attempted this on my own. If so, attempting on my own, my experience would be different: lost, broken down, lost, little contextual information about where I am, NOT experiencing Nomadic family life. Have I mentioned thirsty and lost…?
The opposite was true. Great information from my well-informed German-speaking guide, Noruum pointing out things I would have over-looked, providing context to what I saw, sharing rules & regs of Nomadic and city live and the list goes on. Guiding me to places I may not have found myself. A guide, speaking perfect German and a vast knowledge of this country’s past & present. If you are here, make sure you’ll find and engage him. Our driver, and owner of the car, Serrchje (I am sure that is NOT how to spell it) was about my age, local to Dalandgadzad and knew the area like the back of his hand.
My trip started a 9.30, the agreed time for the hotel pick-up. However, I had to solve two problems: what to do with the gear I didn’t need for this 3-say trip and where to park the bike safely??
“No problem”, says Noruum. Loading the gear into a Russian-van (where was the promised Landcruiser??) and ask me to follow on the bike. After a short ride through backstreets of Dalandgadzad, following this Russian truck ,we arrived at a green iron gate leading into a small property, fenced all-round. Here Steppenfuchs has a kind of external support spot, a place where both my problems were solved instantly. The old, white haired man who greeted us, was the father of the girl who had worked hard to organise this tour for me. Thank you Uuree! Later I found out that this small man was a champion mountaineer. A framed picture in his living room taken when he was 66, showed him with medals literally from top-to-toe. Incredible. Another of his daughters is a champion mountaineer in her own right having climbed the 10 major world peaks. Uuree, one was a promising marks-woman, but now works at Steppenfuchs. The people you meet …..
No sooner had I parked the bike undercover, the Landcruiser arrived (Phewww – relief). Some quick shopping in town for a locally-made water ‘Mirage of Gobi’ and some food stuff, which may be unobtainable at the two Nomadic family Ger-camps and we were off.
The road I had plotted the night before on my Zumo navigator turned out to be brand-new: all sealed! The turn-off to our first destination was something I would have missed, just a little wooden sign.
After some off-road we arrived at the park, being the entrance to the Yolyn Am canyon (Bartgeierschlucht/Vulturecanyon). Here was also a small but packed museum which impressed my by showing the large variety of wildlife in the Gobi. Did you now there are Gobi Bears, a specific breed of brown bear only existent in the Gobi?!
fossilised Dinosaur eggs
Moreover, the Gobi is home to Wolves, Lynx, wild Sheep, Steinbock, wild cats of a smaller kind, Gazelles, wild Camels, a specie of a wild donkey, and the mysterious Gobi-Worm, most probably a Nomads’ tale. A wooden replica was exhibited and … well, I am still not sure if this is a real animal. Then they are the many birds, dominated by the large Bartgeier or Laemmergeier, roughly translated as “bearded Vulture” or “Sheep-Vulture”. Smaller birds of prey are equally represented. Last but not least all the animals on the ground, especially Lemmings! and jumping mice. I saw Lemmings everywhere (not only in Richmond in a well-frequented Vietnamese eatery), one trying to hide inside an Oovoo…. The Lemmings here were indeed much younger (insider-joke).
This museum also had a display of some dinosaur eggs, all turned to stone, as the area is known for its rich findings of pre-historic animals.
From the museum we walked into the actual canyon. Basalt stone got narrower and narrower, ultimately leading to a small gap which still had a solid slab of ice! Slippery!! Underneath I could hear the stream flowing. Looking up, I could recognise the Bartgeier on its white-feathered breast, cruising lazily high above the cliffs. On the ground the Lemmings were busy changing holes, running across the hills pretty fast considering their little plumb bodies (another communality with the Richmond place, I refer to the the latter:, the plumb-ish bit J
The views were just magic! This was a moment where I wished I should have taken a proper camera. So instead, I shot-away with my iPhone. It won’t represent the place properly, but at least you’ll get an idea.
Back at the parking spot, some Mongol entrepreneurs had set-up horses for hire, horse-heads carved from the local hardwood and other locality-related trinkets – all handmade – were for sale. A woman sold food out of the back of her truck, freshly-made and we enjoyed Khuusshuur (Fleischtaschen) for lunch.
Then we drove on soon hit the Piste form thereon-in. Gee, how does one select which one to take.??! Looking ahead they were at least eight lanes all seemingly going into one direction, but soon veering right or left. Confusing for the newcomer, known to my driver. He steered the car safely through dips, mud, sand, more dips and over the rims of dried-out creek beds. The landscape was unimaginably vast. To my right (south) the dominating, black-looking mountains of the Altai. To my right a seemingly shorter mountain range more of a reddish-colour. Our destination were the sand-dunes of Khongoryn Els. After 150 km driving on Piste the dunes appeared. Running in front of the Altai it provided a stark and beautiful contrast, with the vast green steppe before it.
At the highest peak of these dunes we stopped in a kind-of carpark. I, old fool I am, attempted a climb of the dune. I made it more than ¾ quarters up, about 180mtrs higher than the car, then gave in. It was just too hard to crawl up-wards with the sand giving in under each footstep. Well, the view from ¾ quarters up was brilliant and I had earned a rest. Going down was ‘funner’ and much faster.
Arriving at our overnight spot, a Nomadic family’s Ger-camp. This is a ‘normal working Nomad family with four Generation in one Ger. This family runs Kashmir goats, Camels and some sheep. They also have three more Gers available to travellers at a small cost.
Upon arrival you are warmly greeted and the head of the family, usually male, invites you into the family Ger. Make sure you duck and step in right foot first, otherwise you invite bad luck! Opposite the entrance is an altar-like arrangement. Religious and family pictures share this place. Other small ornaments relevant to this family complete the altar. The head, or any super-important guest can sit in front of it. Otherwise, ensure to sit on the left hand side, on the floor, just in front of a bed. This is the male-side. The right side is the female side. Another bed and often a cupboard with cooking utensils make this side complete. As we sit, the host offers his Schnupftabak dose (snuffbox) made from semi-precious stone, to all guest. Offered with the right hand, supported by placing the left and on the right underarm and received with two hands and a nod. Smiling is not as common here in Mongolia. I took a little portion of the contents on my hand and inhaled. It had a soft and nicely-flavoured aroma.
Soon after tea arrives in a large thermo can.
This is hot water with a considerable dash of milk and one can dangle a tea-bag for more flavour. A lump of sugar is another option. The tea is poured into a bowl, which later will function as a food bowl. Nomadic life has this in common with motorcycle-travel live: things ought to have more than one function. The conversation flows, however all in Mongolia, so I understood absolutely nothing. I was happy to sit there, noisily slurp my tea (copying behaviour of everybody else) and be in the here & now.
Since Mongolian summers have long days (sun goes down at ~ 22.00), it was still good daylight when the family begun to separate the baby goats from their mothers.
Having no corral, neither a long wooden horizontal bar, the mother-goats were roped together, in a head-to-head pattern ready to be milked. This milk then was cooked (all milk gets cooked immediately after milking, but not mare’s milk!) and overnight the cream would rise to the top serving as ‘butter’ next morning for breakfast. I recommend it.
Later the men sat together, Mongolian Nomadic life has a clear role allocation, and a bowl of milk-schnapps made the round. Another product derived from goats-milk with a relatively low alcoholic content ~ 12%. It certainly tasted sour-milky, but not too bad. About one litre, judged by the size of the plastic bottle when it arrived on the table, was consumed by five men, but I had only one decent sip. Happy to have tasted it once 😉
Reflecting on a great day, full of new impressions, landscapes and Mongolian country life gave me sleep in my own Ger in no time. Early next morning some goats hopped on the roof of my Ger, another new sensation, but I continued to slumber.
Here is what I learnt about a Ger (Mongolian) or Yurt (Khazastan) describing the same round-house tent.
It is a removable home of Nomads, a mobile and interesting construction.
It starts with a ‘groundplate’. A puzzle of wooden planks nailed onto boards. Nine pieces make it complete to form a circular shape. This is the one-and-only piece where nails are used. Some Gers may not have this groundplate rather are build straight onto the sandy floor. Mongols use wood, felt and rope, to erect their Ger, usually in an hour or less, faster than it takes me here trying to explain it.
A solid-wood round roof-piece is supported by two wooden poles. The circumference of the Ger is created by unfolding a wooden mesh, fence-like frame, just like lattice. Where the two end of this mesh meet a low wooden door frame connects both ends. The door always points to the south! The surrounding frame is connected to the round roof piece with about sixty wooden thin poles. They are stuck into small holes in the roof-piece and roped onto the top of the mesh frame. Once this skeleton of timber and rope is up, thick felt is slung around the outside, again ropes (made out of Camel or horse hair) ensure is stays put.
Inside the Ger carpets or thick blankets cover the lattice fence on the inside walls. Carpets on the floor, especially on it’s north (Altar) side, give it a homely feel. The family Ger has beds, small wooden cupboards and other utensils. The ‘surplus’ traveller Ger has three or four beds. You will have to duck to get in (bumping your head means bad luck) and I was able to an stand up-right in the middle. Inside appears to be rather roomy, compared to the outside look. The wind curls around it’s round shape and I can see the sky through the roof-piece. This spot is only covered when rain appears, usually with two layers, one from south – one from north, the main directions for wind and weather. These days, Mongols also use a plastic sheet between the layers of felt, to increase insulation and rain-proofing.
Being inside gave me a happy sense, feeling save and protected in its space. Outside the Camels were singing …
The next morning, the Camels were waiting…
One differentiates between female Camels still nursing their one ones, and riding Camels, usually castrated males. A Camel saddle, a guide and a Camel to smoke made the morning complete.
I soon figured out what might have been the least awkward style to be on top and move with the Camel’s rhythm. Didn’t even have to hold on. A Natural …. 😉
Back onto the Piste and driving north-east towards the ‘Flaming Cliffs’, a huge sandstone jumping from the otherwise superflat surrounds. You drive right up to the tip and take a look:
One can walk everywhere and have a look, a dig and a climb. No constraints nor any restrictions where to explore. Rubbish unfortunately is everywhere. Mongolians just don’t seem to see it.
On top of the ‘Flaming Cliffs’ I could see that a recent strong rain had created deep rivulets down the slopes. At many spots it was still wet underfoot.
It made me wonder how long it will take to make this entire mountain disappear!? The erosion caused by weather, sheep, goats and people is massive. Still nature tries its best to dominate and this little plant certainly wasn’t thinking of giving up.
Off, towards the final Ger-camp which was located directly on the edge of a forest. Indeed a forest as the guide explained. The Saxaul trees are a specific Mongol hardwood, growing in a much twisted way, no taller than 2.5 meters. Several aid-sponsored projects exist creating nurseries for this plant, to be planted in the south Gobi, with the hope to stop or at least delay the progress of sanding.
Just 500 meters away from the camp I took a walk into this ‘forest’ and sat and listened to the nature around me. Flies and the wind made little noises, and soon a small Springmouse appeared digging frantically a hole after the next. It almost looked like a miniature Kangaroo… When I moved a little this animal, stood up and made a loud whistling noise, presumably to inform his/her mates of the immediate danger. Well, the ‘immediate danger’ soon walked on, stumbling over some Camel bones.
Some of which still emitted a rather unpleasant smell.
To my minor disappointment this Ger-camp had no animals, therefore no chance to sample Nomadic life for a second time.
Next morning a little walk to yet another small museum offered to see some 100-year old photographs about Mongolia and, yet another, dinosaur skeleton, this one only in parts, the backbone. The area is known for these finds. My guide explained one can test by licking the stone/fossil/bone if it is a stone or a real fossil. The latter makes your tongue stick, the former not. Well, let me tell you I – of course – had to try it! I found out that my Australian-Germanic tongue is not sufficiently fine-tuned to make these distinctions.
After enjoying a shower in the Dalandzadgad Hotel I had a ‘Stechdurchtag’ run back to Ulaanbaatar. Getting ready there to head west.