Mooching around the desert

Onwards.

After a frankly horrific 4am alarm it was time to get to the airport. I had mixed feelings about booking flights- After a month and thousands of hard-won overland miles it almost felt like cheating, however given the time we had remaining in Mongolia and the things we wanted to see it was a compromise worth making. I’m fast coming to learn that Mongolia really is the middle of nowhere, and even UB’s thin veneer of civilisation and coffee shops cannot disguise the fact that outside of the centre, there really is stuff all. The “roads” on maps are, for the most part, dirt tracks, and apparently decent-sized settlements are actually tiny one-horse towns.

Plane wankers 

The flight to Dalanzadgad in the Gobi Desert was completely hassle-free once we’d worked out which airline desk to check in at. Hunnu Air whom we flew with, for some unfathomable reason which is likely to be aviation safety-related and I’d probably rather not know, use the airline code and name of a defunct Mauritian airline.

However, the airport was basically a hangar in the middle of the desert. Lonely Planet’s confident assertions about the availability of taxis to the local town proved entirely incorrect and, once the plane had disgorged its cargo of mainly tourists they all climbed into their tour buses and buggered off, leaving us alone at the airport other than for a sleeping check-in clerk, gift shop employee, sole baggage handler [who managed to impressively damage Sarah’s bag in his brief custody of it] and a security man who really wanted everyone to bugger off so he could lock up the airport.

I had kept an eye on the location of the town as we came into land and so worked out that walking the couple of miles there wouldn’t have been a disaster. 

Luckily though we found another slightly lost-looking Westerner: Jo from Poland, who had managed to enlist the help of the airport’s gift shop lady to find a driver, who arrived shortly afterwards. Unfortunately hopes of a reasonably-priced tour were in vain due to his pushy sidekick in town but he dropped us at the town’s sole supermarket for a decent fare.

The Mongolian Effect soon stepped in to help us out, being a country where Westerners are on the whole are still a rarity random people do come up and speak to you. As luck would have it, we quickly found a driver, and negotiated a decent price for a tour of the main Gobi sights over the next 2 days.

We set off in his hired Landcruiser, leaving the limited tarmac of the town to hit the dirt roads. Our first stop was the entrance to the National Park, which has a dusty but well-meaning natural history museum. Their taxidermists should be sacked though. 

Surprised fox

Camel diorama

And then upwards. I didn’t know what to expect from the Gobi, but it’s certainly not like my Lawrence of Arabia first impressions. The track, sorry river, soon became somewhat more challenging but I had every confidence in our driver, particularly after he had callously and deliberately run over a fleeing gopher before turning to me and laughing. This was someone I could work with.

Snug.

Our driver, driving

Actually, over the course of the trip he proved to be an absolute gem, a great guy who, despite his complete lack of English and our complete lack of Mongolian, entered the miming game with much gusto, and made great efforts to make sure we saw and did everything we wanted to. He would frequently start chuckling for little apparent reason, after a while I worked out this was due to Sarah’s constant eating in the back seat and he mimed appropriately with a “belly” sign.

Our next stop after the park entrance was Yolyn Am, a sacred Shamanist site and a beautiful gorge. We hired horses to ride up to the farthest point, passing herds of Yaks and numerous gophers (safe from the driver) on the way up. This apparently comes into its own over winter when the river freezes over and it’s possible to walk all the way through the narrow gorge. 

Having left the gorge, we carried on into the never-ending desert. This really brought home to me how remote we were, having driven mile after mile on barely-made dirt tracks not seeing another soul. We paid a short visit to one of his friend’s gers in the desert and then pressed on towards Khongoryn Els, our first night’s stop.

During one comfort break I decided to take the initiative and mimed to him suggesting I could drive. To my eternal surprise he chucked me the keys and we set off again with me at the helm of the huge Landcruiser. I can certainly see why they are the choice of IS and other terrorist groups as it seemed completely unstoppable, particularly in off-road guise with decent tyres. #Mujahidspec

‘Cruising  

I soon got the hang of driving smoothly on the tracks, only missing a couple of hidden dips which did propel us somewhat skyward. Sadly, after about an hour of barreling across the Gobi with my arm on the window imagining my new Lawrence of Arabia life we stopped for another break and he relieved me of my driving duties.

A while later disaster struck as a strange noise emanated from the engine compartment and we found that a belt had gone. After preliminary investigation it turned out to only be the alternator/ac belt and so we were alright to continue. Toyota made these things well! It did bring home to me how much of a bad idea just hiring a jeep and setting off would have been- Becoming hopelessly lost or breaking down in the miles of emptiness was not a pleasant proposition. There’s no phone signal, hardly any other people to help and no Plan B here.

Khongoryn Els

In the late evening we arrived at Khongoryn Els, the site of the highest sand dunes in the Gobi. We’d made a preliminary enquiry at one place nearby which was somewhat overpriced and full of “all the sights” type tourists so ended up at the driver’s suggestion which was a family ger camp nearby. These are smaller and less well equipped than the tourist places, basically nomadic families have a couple of extra tents which they rent out. 10% of the price of the other place. And usefully they fed us, and also possessed a fleet of camels!

Camp…

Morning view from the door of the Ger

Bracing morning camel ride

After a hearty breakfast we bid the family farewell and pressed on into the desert. The next stop was Khavstait, a rocky outcrop overlooking the Gobi where there are reputed to be ancient petroglyphs on the rock. Unfortunately as we were doing this trip on a shoestring and the driver was, well a driver rather than a guide, we had a lot of trouble finding the site, ending up driving up an ever more rocky and steep river before calling it quits and finding a local camp to ask its whereabouts.

Suitably directed, we found the parking spot as suggested by Lonely Planet and started to follow their somewhat hazy directions to the petroglyphs up a narrow, rocky path. Never before this point have I felt the need for a specalist GPS unit however it would have been bloody handy for Mongolia since places are near-impossible to find and the Lonely Planet therefore lists GPS coordinates for everywhere!

I did however have my Tackleberry watch with built-in altimeter which actually helped significantly to follow the directions. After half an hour of fruitless searching on the rocky, windy outcrop we hit gold! 

Petroglyph

We managed to find some, not all of the scenes which it was suggested we should, however I was just overwhelmed to have found any of them without a guide, they really aren’t obvious. Looking at drawings from 8000-3000BC that very few other people will see in person was a really fulfilling experience. Life back then must have been unimaginably hard.

And so onwards to Bayanzag, the “Flaming Cliffs”, a site where numerous dinosaur bones have been discovered and with striking red cliffs. A great way to end the day, looking over the vastness of the Gobi.

At this point Sarah and I parted from Jo and the driver, who were returning to Dalanzagad. Despite having a return ticket we had decided to keep going North, back towards Ulan Bator and with the intention of seeing a few more sites. This would turn out to be a brave decision.

What you have to remember in the Gobi is that you are in the middle of nowhere. Therefore transport options are few and far between. No roads, no buses. The majority of tourists come on organised packages which tend to be eye-wateringly expensive, especially if booked from home. Even the ones booked in UB tend to cost an arm and a leg, around £1000 for a 4 day tour.

Gobi is mainly set up for these tours, so finding drivers on the way can be challenging. We’d made extensive enquiries that night with other guides and groups, who had rung friends to no avail. The prospect of staying another few nights at the somewhat expensive lodge we had pitched up at was unappealing. We’d even canvassed the tour groups, but they either weren’t going in the right direction or weren’t impressed at the prospect of hitchikers.

Luckily though we repeated the mantra “It is possible” and retired to bed. 

The next morning I chatted to a different driver from one of the tour groups, who quickly got hold of his friend who agreed to take us for far less than we’d previously been quoted. GREAT SUCCESS!

A remarkably un-Mongolian hour and a half later, he arrived and we were on the road, bidding Gobitour lodge farewell.

Another day, another 4×4

We made good time across the final stretch of desert to our stop for the night, a ruined Buddhist monastery called Ongin Khiid. Destroyed in the 1937 Communist purges, there is now a move to rebuild some of the old monastery and 2 monks live here year-round. It’s set on a beautiful river bank, a rare oasis after days of sand and dust.

Not a castle.

We stayed at the cheap ger camp right by the river, with a rather grand castellated restaurant building. Again, this was a fraction of the cost of the posh place over the track but hey, who cares when you’re right here…

And the view from your front door is this:

After a pleasant afternoon wandering around the monastery and surrounding countryside, we finished the reliably huge included meal and retired for a very cold night. The weather in Mongolia really does seem to fall off a cliff around the start of September, only a couple of weeks ago I was walking round UB in shorts and a t-shirt, absolutely boiing however now the temperature has dropped massively and there is a constant cold wind. Glad I didn’t jettison my warm clothes!

From Ongin Khiid we drove to Mandalgov, the next “major” town on the road from Dalanzadgad to UB. The driver helped us to catch the afternoon public bus by helpfully driving in front of it as it was leaving and blocking its path, which endeared us greatly to the other travellers. 5 hours later, and £4.50 lighter, we arrived in UB again for a welcome night in a building rather than tent and to arrange our next onwards movement.

All in all I loved the Gobi. I was initially skeptical that there would be much to see, but was proven wrong. All in all including return flights from UB, all food and accommodation and the drivers we spent about £270 for a 4-night tour of the best bits. The going rate for organised tours of a similar length is £1000 upwards, and I don’t feel we missed out on anything, I actually don’t really like heavily guided tours as I like to find things for myself. However I’d strongly recommend arranging a driver for the WHOLE trip from Dalanzadgad, once you are 100 miles from the nearest settlement in the middle of the desert you’re rather over a barrel!

Next stop, Altai mountains.

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