Searching for Something #20: Into the Great Wide Open – Gobi Desert and Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

20: Into the Great Wide Open

10 August 2002
Mongolia is utterly wonderful. We’re back in Ulaan Baatar after spending 11 days driving around the Gobi Desert and through some of the western part of the country in a jeep. This is a land with virtually no fences (apparently the nomads spend 50% of their time looking for lost animals) and no concept of private land ownership. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen this much wide open space.

Ulaan Baatar seems to be quite westernized when compared to China. Many varieties of goods are available. The Mongolians also put a lot of effort into their appearance. Throughout the country many of the women wear outdated teenage-hip styles, including high-rise sneakers and psychedelic hot pants. The city seems Russian to me, with wide avenues and large blocky buildings, some of which are only partially occupied by corner stores or internet cafes. When we stayed at “guesthouses” in Ulaan Baatar, we were instead put up in guestrooms of private families’ apartments – a little bit of a strange situation but quite comfortable. Mongolians look very similar to Japanese, so again I’m often mistaken for being a local here – I still can’t figure out if it’s good or bad.

The food, however, is less than desirable. Mutton, mutton, and more mutton. We were quite happy to be cooking most of our own food while camping, but even so had our fair share of mutton. Mutton pancakes, mutton noodles, mutton dumplings, etc. The problem wasn’t the mutton meat itself, but the fact that every dish had an equal amount of mutton fat to mutton meat. The fat is quite valued here, but I spent most of my mealtimes picking it out and trying not to get grossed out. The smell of mutton fat, which they also use for cooking, permeates everything. Water starts to smell and taste muttony, and the old bills definitely emit a muttony odor.

Driving through the country on the dirt tracks was surprisingly comfortable. After Tibet, I’d expected to be hot and jostled around constantly, but we’d wised up and put 3 passengers into the 4 possible seats in our rented jeep. We travelled with Juan from Barcelona, one of the most considerate and interesting travel partners we’ve met so far. The drive was fascinating. The scenery would change quite frequently in the Gobi, from grasslands to mountains to gorges to dunes, so we were constantly entertained. We passed all sorts of animals including eagles, horses, 2-humped camels, sheep, and yaks. To add a surreal aspect to the journey, we also listened to a lot of Abba, as well as Chinggis Khan, a popular Mongolian rock band that incorporates horsy-noises into their music.

Our 11-day camping trip was the highlight. Basically, you come to Mongolia to get out to see the countryside. About the only lodging options are tents and gers (round structures the size of a small room, also known as yurts). We slept in gers owned by families when it was too windy to set up our crappy rented tents or when it looked like rain. It was great fun to try to chat with the various nomadic families and play with their kids. Everyone was extremely friendly.

Each day, we’d drive for 4-6 hours and then set up camp in yet another beautiful location. From Ulaan Baatar, it’s a 2-day drive to the Gobi Desert. We spent a night at Bayanzag which looks exactly like the red desert cliffs in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Many dinosaur remains have been found here, including a huge velociraptor on show in a museum in Ulaan Baatar.

This was the worst day for heat. Josh had a little thermometer, and the temperature reading shot off the charts – 50�C (122�F). It was much worse for poor Josh and Juan, since they were suffering from bad vodka hangovers. Earlier in the day, we’d stopped at a lone petrol station to fill up our car and met two other jeeps filled with Mongolians. The men-folk all got out and sat in the noon-time desert sun drinking endless vodka shots, smoking cigarettes, and arm-wrestling. Forget feminism – I was quite glad to be not-invited and left in the relative coolness of the jeep!

In the middle of the sweltering Gobi is the strange phenomenon of a cool grassy valley called Yolyn Am. The valley contains an ice gorge, which normally contains ice for most of the year. Unfortunately, since we’d chosen to visit the Gobi in the hottest month of the year, the ice had turned into a small stream… but it was a much-needed break to camp in the coolness. The next day we headed back out into the hot desert, driving by endless kilometers of tall sand dunes.

After a week in the Gobi, we were sick of the heat and drove towards the Middle West of the country. We visited the old capital of Kharkhorin which contained a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, but that wasn’t so impressive after our travels in Tibet. The landscape here was less unique than the Gobi, but still spectacular. Josh said that it looks like large parts of Colorado and the Midwestern United States. But the overarching feeling of space is uniquely Mongolian. We spent some time by Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, a huge beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes. We had a couple of pleasant days hiking and horse-riding, although the temperature had dropped dramatically and we were now freezing at night in our puny rented sleeping bags.

Other than the wide open spaces, the other unique part about Mongolia is the light. Since it’s so far north, it doesn’t get truly dark until 10pm, making it perfect for camping. The light is truly magical between 7 and 9pm. It’s kind of like the altered atmosphere you get at dusk, but somehow more vivid, brilliant, and brighter. Every day, we’d each go off and sit somewhere by ourselves, just watching in awe as the sky would slowly change.

Sadly, we’re leaving such a friendly country tonight to go back to Beijing. We’ve gotten quite lazy towards the end of the trip and are indulging in a flight back, instead of the 30+ hour uncomfortable train ride.