A Visit to the Gobi Desert
Gobi sand dunes
“The desert is a place where guilty people go to live,” said Zolo as we headed south for the Gobi, the arid but living heart of Mongolia. Guilty people or not, deserts are enchanting and the Mongolian Gobi is one of the most mesmerizing. Maybe it’s the vast, empty space, the incredible colors, or the way the expanses make a traveler focus their attention on nothing but the land before them.
Mongolia is how I imagine the American wild west would have looked before settlement – no paved roads, no street lights. Outside the capital city, UlaanBaatar, pollution-free air allows skies to reveal their sparklingly blue colour. Cliche or not, visiting the Gobi is truly like visiting another planet.
Our journey was from the capital to the famous Gobi Gurvansaikan National Park (Three Beauties of Gobi). The classification of “National Park” seemed in some respects unnecessary for the entire country is one giant nature reserve with protected areas mirroring the beauty that sweeps across the nation in collusion with a sand-heavy wind.
These endless expanses of uninhabited land bewitch you with their purity. It becomes easy to forget about the practicalities and inherent danger when traveling through the desert. There is the probability of becoming lost even when traveling with knowledgeable locals. Many travelers have become fatally lost in the Gobi as a result of the “singing sand” dunes which distract people passing through with a low murmer that sounds like a human voice.
We were not fortunate enough to avoid this calamity. Just as the sun was going down, after a ten-hour ride, our driver realized we were lost. We drove aimlessly for another eight hours, singing Christmas carols to keep ourselves entertained and praying that we didn’t run out of petrol. Eventually we reached our Ger camp through the help of nomads living in the area, at three in the morning. Apparently, Dava had overstated the amount of experience he had in the desert. In fairness to him, it is almost impossible to find your way in the Gobi at night, even if you had made the same trip twice before. It is interesting to note that Zolza or Dava couldn’t or wouldn’t use a compass or map for the entire trip. In light of this, they are brilliant navigators.
As inhospitable and unforgiving as the environment can become, Mongolians are among the most hospitable people a traveler will ever meet. They are willing to open their homes to travelers at a moment’s notice. My first night outside UlaanBaatar was spent in the Ger that a Mongolian family had generously offered us because the tourist camp was too full. A Ger is the round, igloo-like traditional home of Mongolians.
Aside from being generous with their homes and possessions, Mongolians have a quiet dignity about them. Local people did not seem interested in making monetary profit from an encounter with foreigners. Of couse, curios are sold in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park but travelers are not pressured or harassed into buying. Why? Wealth has traditionally meant having an abundance of animals, but also because Mongolians are content with their lives. I doubt they pine for internet access, an expensive car and shares of CitiBank.
In terms of having cash, Mongolian nomads live on roughly two dollars a day. Without downplaying social problems that undoubtably exist in Mongolia, there are many aspects of their nomadic lifestyle that are enviable compared to the lifestyle that many people in the world lead. For example, Mongolians are extremely healthy as they are not exposed to pollution on a daily basis and the sheer amount of physical activity that their lives require, helps to keep them fit. There is also no concept of private property among nomads. Mongolians take the amount of land they need, as they need it.
As we traveled through this world without fences, rectangle peaks the color of rust appeared on the horizon like a plant sprouting from the ground after a heavy rain. Bayanzag or the Flaming Red Cliffs are probably the most well known attraction in Mongolia, becoming world famous in the 1920’s after the discovery of dinosaur bones by Roy Chapman Andrews. After playing explorers for a few hours, we were also lucky enough to find some small dinosaur bones too.
A year earlier, Zolza and another tour guide had found a dinosaur tail and head. When she tried to show us where they were hidden, they had vanished. Supposedly, dinosaur bones will stick to your tongue the way ice does, separating them from human or animal bones. After licking various rocks, the other women found more bones. As we were walking back to the van and I was feeling disappointed after not finding anything myself, I looked down and there, at my feet, was a tiny dinosaur bone.
The thrill of finding dinosaur bones aside, visiting the Flaming Cliffs was going to be the highlight of my stay in Mongolia. Just the term “Flaming Cliffs” seized my imagination. They are indeed spectacular, with scarlet sand splotches resembling an open wound spreading for miles. Ironically, our mid-day picnic overlooking the cliffs was anticlimactic. After experiencing so much before, I was not so easily impressed with mere physical beauty.
A much more personal and unique moment in Mongolia, one that revealed a lot about Mongolians as people, occurred not at a major tourist destination, but at a small well. On the way back to UlaanBaatar, we had stopped briefly to ask people resting there for directions. Seeing that the nomads were busy making the material used to cover Gers, Zolza decided to give water to their horses, and I opted to help her. Immediately, we were surrounded by a group of rowdy, thirsty Mongolian horses who fought each other to access the water we were serving up.
At a very early age, children in Mongolia are expected to begin helping out with the daily responsibilities of raising horses, hunting, tending goats and camels, which accounts for how at ease Mongolians are with animals. “Don’t worry, those horses will never hurt you,” said Zolza. Feeling not quite as confident, with the possibility of being kicked by one of the thrashing animals at the back of my mind, I dutifully fed each horse. That 15-minute unscheduled activity made me feel part of the local way of life more deeply than anything else on the itinerary. In the end, I decided that I was guilty in a sense, for having more than my fair share of luck and opportunity in my travels.