Mongolia: Gobi Desert

Day 1:

Our trip began with our introduction to Bagii, the driver we had hired to take us around the Gobi desert for a week. He came by the guest house in the morning to pick us up and his few-toothed grin and enthusiastic hand-shaking suggested that we’d have a fine time with him, despite the fact that he knew only a few words of English. Considering he was practically our only companionship for the next week, this is actually pretty important. We loaded our bags up into his vintage Soviet UAZ-452 and bumped our way out of Ulaanbaatar. The UAZ-452 is a specimen of extreme endurance, crafted with the utmost attention to structural integrity and redundancy, complete with four wheel drive and two gas tanks. If anything was going to get us through the Gobi, it was this. The first several hours outside of UB were pretty uneventful, following the main (paved) highway south. At the northern edge of the desert we were greeted by a few dozen camels grazing by the side of the road. It’s worth mentioning that these (Bactrian) camels are the two-humped variety, native to Central Asia. The dromedary, using the infrequently-used but technically correct nomenclature, is the single-humped variety occupying the Middle East and North Africa. This was the first time we had seen true Bactrian camels in person, so we yelled for Bagii to stop to take some pictures. It wasn’t long later, near Tsogt-Ovoo, that we split off the main highway onto an unassuming dirt road to begin our trip in earnest.

Bagii in his trusty UAZ.
Camels grazing by the highway.

Some 90% of the possible paths of travel in all of Mongolia are on little more than faint tire marks across the vast stretches of land. Much of our travel was done on tracks like these; a crosshatch of long, and very straight tire tracks extend for as far as the eye can see. Bagii would cling to a track, then switch to a perpendicular track, then switch to another, all the while pointing to his head and exclaiming “GPS!” What is more, the land out here can be completely devoid of any geographical marking with no indication of which track is which. Breaking up the monotony were breathtakingly beautiful mountain ranges, colorful rock formations, or the strangest imaginable desert outposts of a hundred or so inhabitants. These outposts were few and far between, and most consisted of a handful of brick-and-mortar shops or administrative buildings surrounded by fenced in yurts with broken down cars in the yards. The telltale sign of these towns is the solitary cell tower, visible from far away in the even terrain. Out from these towns grows a spider’s web of tire tracks in the dirt, it is anyone’s guess where one would lead, but a town is certainly considered major if it has even a single paved road leading to it. The straight roads across the flat terrain were the most manageable, we’d top out at about 60km/h on these ones. The more difficult paths were up and over the mountain ranges, or down through once-flooded (and now bone dry) gullies. These range from being stable enough to almost drink from a bottle of water to being thrown against the inside of the van. Needless to say, we grew accustomed to the different grades such that pulling back onto the paved road on the last day was something like slipping into silk sheets on a water bed.

Another long forgotten desert outpost.

The Tsagaan Suvarga cliffs were our first destination on the trip, and we arrived there in the late afternoon. The scenery was beautiful, with centuries of erosion showing brilliant mineral deposits across the cliff faces. This is something of a destination for most Gobi desert tours, so there were a handful of other vans and SUVs ferrying tour groups to and fro. Unfortunately, Oona’s newly-purchased hiking shoes were already proving to be a disappointment as the poorly-designed lace hooks would catch the laces of the opposite shoe mid-stride. This happened a handful of times on the trip, resulting in bruised and scraped legs, but none more threateningly than at these cliffs, where the same fall a few meters to the right could have easily taken her over the edge. Merrell will be receiving a strongly-worded email soon…

Tsagaan Suvarga.
Decent looking couple…

After a few dozen more kilometers along the road we came to a well where a shepherd was watering his goats. Next to the well was a splayed out 4×4 tire, stretched to become a makeshift trough. The shepherd would hoist buckets from the well and fill the trough while his goats would drink their fill and move along. Shortly after, Bagii’s signature “sleep?”, accompanied by the universal hand signal for sleep (laying one’s head against one’s hands) indicated that we could pull off wherever and set up the tent. We hiked a short distance to the top of a nearby hill as the sun was setting, the cloudless sky suggested that we go without the rainfly. This was a good decision; as the sky darkened we saw the Milky Way in unparalleled clarity while the cool desert wind kept us comfortable.

The local watering hole.
Just after sunset.

Day 2:

We headed back down from our hill to find Bagii in his usual spot with his van. When we would retire to our tent, he’d stretch out on the back bench in the van. When he had some spare cycles while we were out hiking or taking pictures or doing some other touristy thing he would polish and clean the van’s fenders and windows. His life was the van. Our meals were basic and prepared on the small camping stove lent to us by the guest house, today’s breakfast was no different. After a couple hours back on the road we passed through Dalanzadgad, which is the capital of the region, but that fact is certainly not evident judging by its size and organization. We stopped at a derelict-looking yurt in Dalanzadgad, into which we were ushered by Bagii. He evidently knew the occupants; an unsmiling woman of thirty-something poured us suutei tsai (fresh camel or goat milk with salt and bits of tea leaves, a universal drink in Mongolia). Eventually, the patriarch of the house procured an ornate and expensive-looking flask from a locked cabinet. He carefully passed it around to the other Mongol men in the yurt who would extract a bit of brown powder from the flask and snort it. When it came time for us, we followed suit, and our sinuses burned and our eyes watered, much to the enjoyment of the Mongols. We later learned that this is a type of snuff. At some point a bit later, Bagii abruptly announced “Let’s go!”, so we got back in the van and headed out.

Hiding behind the mountains.

Today’s destination, as with any other day, was not readily known, and it was a matter of Bagii pulling in somewhere and saying something like “OK!” and indicating that we go explore. Some time after Dalanzadgad, the flat had given way to gently sloping mountains, and eventually to the jagged peaks and gorges of the Gurvan Saikhan mountains. In the past, this has been a tourist destination due to its year-long ice cover in the Yolyn Am gorge, but in recent years the ice has been melting earlier, and it was already gone by the time we arrived. Nonetheless, we trekked a few kilometers into it.

Deep in the Yolyn Am.
Searching for a camp site.

Our way out of the mountains was through a narrow and curving passageway in the rocks. There was a huge pack of semi-domesticated horses kicking up a dust storm leading the way. We managed to pass all several hundred of them on a wider portion of the canyon, and eventually found a place to camp as the canyon opened up to a vast, high elevation plain. Again, seeking a bit of privacy, we found a tent site up the hill a ways from the parked van, and watched the horses from up the canyon make their way into the opening. The stars were beautiful again, but our attention was focused on the various headlights miles off in the distance –speculating about their ultimate destinations– until we drifted to sleep.

Band of Horses.
Horses in the canyon.
Bagii trying the navigate the river.
Surveying the site with Bagii.

Day 3:

Towards the beginning of the day, the trip was nondescript. We drove from valley to valley, plateau to plateau, and eventually came upon a long valley with something sandy-looking in the distance. As we came closer, it was clear that they were sand dunes. Not entirely impressive-looking as they were, we were secretly hoping that this would not be the day’s destination. Indeed, they grew higher and higher, and more impressive-looking as we drove. We eventually came to a spot where their elevation was practically as tall as the mountain range on the opposite side of the valley, this is known as Khongoryn Els. Between us and the dunes was a narrow swath of deep greenery, evidently the only water source in the region. As we approached an isolated area, Bagii asked “sleep?”, we shrugged and prepared to set up camp. After a bit of lunch, we realized how truly hot it was, and with some broken Mongolian communicated this fact to Bagii and naively asked if there was a river or a lake around. Bagii took us to a shallow, muddy river a few kilometers back in the direction we came, but we continued on to the verdant stripe just our side of the sand dunes. We decided to set up camp around here, and figured we would climb the sand dunes that evening as it cooled down a bit, as it was, walking bare foot on them was intolerable for more than a few seconds.

Oona cooking bones.

Suddenly, a professional-looking crew of who appeared to be Koreans showed up with recording equipment. They were prepared for the task at hand, and were covered from head to toe, including gloves and masks. In the back of our minds, a question lingered about whether these were run-of-the-mill yet very well-prepared tourists, or some kind of actual media crew. Our curiosity was satisfied when a huge luxury helicopter swooped in from over the sand dune. It landed briefly and exchanged some sort of equipment or information with the crew, and abruptly took off again. We eventually learned that they were filming for some Korean reality TV show, they spent the rest of the day getting shots of camels and sand dunes and flying camera drones overhead. Their operation settled down a bit as the sun was going down, and they were confined to a makeshift studio behind one of the dunes. About an hour before sunset we set off towards the top of the dune ridge. We spent the next few hours frolicking in the cool sand, running down steep dune faces or jumping off edges or falling ungracefully in the deep sand.

Execs flying in from Seoul.
In the dunes.

We forgot that proximity to water, while making for a nice camp site, also harbored the only mosquitos around. We managed to rinse the sand off and get into the tent with only a few dozen bites. The few minutes after that were spent killing the handful of mosquitos that made it into the tent with us, a few blood stains on the tent tell the tale of this battle. One of the few annual rain storms happened tonight as well. We spent the evening looking out at the lightning crashing down on the dunes in the distance, and counting the seconds to the thunderclap (it turns out it was really far away). The rain pattering on the tent was our lullaby.

What now?

Day 4:

Our original plan was to stay in Khongoryn Els for two days, but the extreme heat of the previous day coupled with the fact that there’s really not much to do there except for hike in the dunes, which is not very enjoyable during the day, led us to change our plans. After a difficult conversation with Bagii we eventually conveyed that we’d like to just move on to the next destination, so we packed up and hit the road again. We spent the afternoon at Bayanzag, hiking around the “Flaming Cliffs”. We were again impressed by the lack of controls in Mongolia, there’s really not much that you’re forbidden from doing. Likewise, even in an important tourist destination such as this, there were no fences or walls, and not much infrastructure to speak of; you are free to simply hike where you’d like at your own risk.


After another hour or so on the road we came to an isolated yurt in the middle of the desert and were again ushered in by Bagii. This family was more friendly than the one before, and the kids (four in total, but from different parents, or so we gathered) opened up to us immediately after we supplied them with coloring books and colored pencils (kids who live in the middle of the desert are easily-entertained). The patriarch arrived shortly after on a motorbike, and immediately offered up the tobacco substance with which we had previous experience. At this point, we were seasoned users of once before, so the burn wasn’t nearly as strong. We were given a few beers, and vodka was poured into a small, ornamental bowl and passed around. It was around this time that we realized we were way out of our depths in terms of Mongolian customs, we committed gaffe and faux pas with reckless abandon, but were gently reminded after each infraction, thus solidifying our knowledge. At this point some mysterious man had shown up with a few bottles of airag and arkhi, sat around for awhile without saying or doing much, and then left. The airag wasn’t particularly to our taste, but I quite enjoyed the camel arkhi. It’s essentially a distillation of sour yogurt, so the final product is around 20% alcohol and tastes vaguely of yogurt and livestock. At this point it was time to go water the camels, of which the patriarch owned 400 or so. We were invited along and came upon a well in the desert (similar to the one described above, with the tire trough) where the camels had congregated. We hoisted bucket after bucket into the trough, and the camels slurped it up and waited for more. We were told that each camel typically drinks between 40 and 70 liters per visit. Back at the yurt, the housewife (or yurtwife?) was preparing tsuivan (hand made noodles fried with mutton) with freshly-slaughtered goat meat. We ate and drank into the night, and eventually retired to our tent a few hundred meters from the yurt to look at the sky again. We concluded that gazing at the stars is a nice pastime.

Some of the kids looking photogenic.
The horse he rode in on.
Yurt life.
Desert camp.

Day 5:

We were invited into the yurt again for some late breakfast, and were offered a gift of camel cheese (which is actually quite terrible) and a bottle of arkhi (which was most welcome). Back on the road again and we were a bit hungover from the night’s festivities and in no mood for socialization. It wasn’t long later that we stopped in some random village and were invited into yet another yurt. Bagii’s family was there, so we were a bit torn and were trying to act as cheerful as possible. It was around this point that things started descending into chaos and confusion. Bagii’s wife joined us in the van after 30 minutes or so at the yurt and we hit the road again. We were slightly confused as to why she was with us, but assumed we’d be dropping her off in the next town or something. We stopped at a desolate gathering of yurts further into the desert for another visit. We were sick of yurt visits and our discomfort was probably pretty obvious. To make things worse, the yurt we were invited into was occupied by a couple young Mongolian guys who were absolutely unintelligibly wasted. They were crawling around the floor and trying to speak in English, which resulted in maybe one or two butchered English words followed by a stream of slurred Mongolian. One of the guys offered us a hit of some ornate pipe he was smoking, but it was all quite poorly-executed and whatever was in the pipe didn’t stay lit long enough for much of anything to happen. There were some kids coming and going, and we wondered what it would be like to grow up in such a place, surrounded by such people. Bagii’s son was invited into the van, and Bagii coyly said something about how he’d be joining us to Ulaanbaatar, as some attempt at placating any growing resentment. We were really not sure where things were going, and doubted that Bagii’s family would be joining us for a multi-day trip, so we assumed that we’d be heading back to UB with some urgency. We were left to deduce from external sources what was happening, and concluded that they must be staying with us for at least a short while since we stopped in another dusty backwater and bought a few liters of water and a loaf of bread; hardly suitable for a few days of camping, but Mongolians are full of surprises. After hours of loops and zigzags and (possibly angry?) words exchanged in Mongolian between Bagii and his wife, we figured that we were somehow lost, and attempted to help by first pointing out the cardinal directions (with the help of my watch) and then showing them the offline map Oona has on her phone. Neither did much good, and we continued to drive aimlessly around the countryside. After a very long day of a whole lot of things that we didn’t understand, we eventually set up camp in a beautiful countryside area more reminiscent of Scotland than Central Asia.

Delger Khangai, the dusty backwater we bought water in.
A run down desert cafe.
Possible livestock burial ground.

After some hand motions and questions we discovered that Bagii and his family would be sleeping in the car, and we took turns using the camping stove to prepare our meals. The night was extremely still, but the cloudy skies intimidated us into putting the rainfly up, adding to the warmth in the tent. Confusing lights in the distance seemed to symbolize our baffling experience that day. A distant campfire in an unlikely direction. Headlights of cars that looked startling close but lacked the familiar growl of an engine. The buzzing of distant motorcycles and bobbing of what could have been flashlights across the valley.

Scotland or Mongolia?
Still and eerie dusk.

Day 6:

We were fairly certain that we’d be heading back to UB today. We concluded that the day we cut short at Khongoryn Els was removed from the itinerary altogether and that this was our last day in the countryside. How could these random people put up with so much just for a free ride back to UB? We were aware that we were being taken advantage of, but we weren’t really sure what to do about it. After a few visits to various other attractions (including a small hole in a rock filled with water that was ostensibly good for the eyes) in another valley, we came back from one attraction to find Bagii’s wife rifling through our food and apparently using it to cook. We were pretty irate, but again didn’t know what to do or make of it. Another tour group with a guide who spoke English came along and did a bit of translating between us and Bagii. She said we’d be heading to another yurt for the night to ride some horses and be merry and all that stuff or whatever. We were totally fed up with everything that had gone on over the past few days and suggested that we head back to UB instead; it would be easier on everybody to simply cancel the thing and head back to the city. The problem was, as the guide explained, that Bagii had signed a contract with the guest house (the tour operator, in this case) that stipulated that he and we be in the countryside for seven days, or else Bagii would not be paid in full. The fact that he was concerned about getting his money out of the transaction after picking up his family for a ride on our dime was equally infuriating, but our argument wasn’t getting very far, so we conceded with another night of camping (no more yurts, please) and some possible horseback riding.

Bagii apportioning medicinal water.

Things were tense, and Bagii could certainly tell that we were upset. He was trying hard to please us, but in all the wrong ways. As it turns out, his wife was cooking for us the whole time, and her and their son were not going to be eating. In principle, this is a nice gesture, but going through somebody’s food without their permission and cooking something you’re not even sure if they’ll like or be able to eat is a bit of an overstepping of boundaries. To add to this, she sat with us while we were eating, which was not surprisingly extremely awkward and guilt-inducing. We took turns offering her the rest of our food while she politely declined and ate bread instead.

An ovoo in the hills.

After learning the nature of her well-intentioned but ultimately offensive gesture, and at least getting to the bottom of what was going on, and also having a square meal (which turned out to be not only edible but quite good) we were gaining somewhat of a repertoire with our ad hoc travel partners. We set up camp up one of the canyons, and were told that when the horses were wrangled up (they’re not fully domesticated, and so they run wild for most of the time until they’re needed) they’d be brought up the canyon for us. This didn’t end up happening, so we went down in the valley with Bagii and his son to investigate. Apparently they were having a hard time finding the horses, so we hung out around the yurts for a bit instead. They had some goats inside a pen, so we headed over there to hang out with the goats for a bit. There was an adorable baby goat which was butting its head against our legs and licking our fingers. It was then about time for the goat milking, so we climbed into the pen with the locals and helped pull all the goats together onto a rope for the women to go down the line milking each one. We even had a shot at milking them ourselves, but this proved to be fairly difficult work, and we immediately respected the task a bit more. There was a girl of only five years old running around wrangling goats like a pro; she would fearlessly grab them by the leg or the horn or whatever part was most accessible and drag them kicking and screaming over to her grandfather to tie them up for the milking. This girl immediately took a liking to Oona, during dull moments she’d run up to Oona and hold her hand or hug her leg or initiate a tickle war. The power of human bonding prevailed yet again in that this little girl, so far removed from the society we’re used to, sharing no common language, magnetized to Oona for comfort.

A lone stupa.

We concluded that the horses would not show up that night, and so we headed back up to camp after negotiating a time to meet the following morning. Bagii’s wife, having had the last few hours to herself, had cooked something up for us again. Having no use for further vitriol and recognizing that our fates were not the result of one malicious decision, we pooled together all our remaining food, in addition to that cooked up by Bagii’s wife and insisted that everyone be fed. We drank vodka, toasted, ate, and were generally satisfied with life.

Last night in the desert.

Day 7:

We headed back down the valley to see if the horses were anywhere to be found. We did indeed see two horses tied up and saddled. It was my first time riding in many, many years, but Oona is an experienced rider of more than a decade. The ride itself was awfully boring, with the horse guy (for lack of a better term) refusing to let us ride any faster than a walk. We couldn’t deduce why, but figured it had something to do with the fact that we were all roped together. After a quick up-and-back of a few kilometers, we managed to convince him to take Oona for a gallop. They rode off like the wind and were out of sight within a few minutes. I hung around the van while Bagii was cleaning and polishing it, as usual. After 10 or so minutes I spotted a cloud of dust on the horizon and Oona rode triumphantly back to the yurts.

We made it back to Ulaanbaatar later that day and had a bit of a bone to pick with the guest house owner. He charged us a flat rate of $90 per day for the driver and the van, plus a flat rate of $40 per day “for gas”. By our initial calculations, based on gas mileage assumptions and a rough guess of the total distance of the trip, this was a fair price. In what proved to be a shrewd move, we surreptitiously kept tabs on exactly how much gas we bought, and even asked Bagii about the van’s total fuel capacity. As it turns out, Bagii spent about $130 less than we paid up front ($280 over the seven days), so we wanted to get to the bottom of where that money went. The guest house owner waffled around with some vague, hand-wavey excuses about new carburetors and mysterious auxiliary gas tanks. We essentially demanded some sort of compensation, and eventually settled on five nights at the guest house free of charge. While this is a far cry from $130, we were fairly satisfied and just happy to be able to take a shower again.

At this point we’re back in UB waiting for the conference which I’ll be participating in. We went to the Russian embassy to attempt to get our tourist visas so we could cross the border into Ulan Ude in order to get tourist visas back to Mongolia (in place of our student visas). As it turns out, citizens of Finland (and all other countries except for a small list, which the US is miraculously part of) aren’t able to get a visa to Russia in Mongolia unless they’re officially registered here and in possession of a residence permit (putting us back to square one with our predicament before), so we were turned away visa-less. We’re not sure what’s next for us as we don’t have a lot of options short of totally abandoning Mongolia, but our loyal readership will be the first to know of any developments. For now, stay tuned.


Our feelings after the trip.


4 thoughts on “Mongolia: Gobi Desert

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