The desert is not, as most people imagine, just sand and more sand, or just dirt with scrub brush. It is rich and varied, and my trip to the Gobi was not just hours of driving (we traveled 2000 kilometers in 10 days) with an occasional sight to see, and perhaps explore. Instead it was a continuous series of destinations, and the drive became an experience unto itself. I was captivated the whole time.
As we start our exploration of the Gobi it is raining on and off. As we drive the rain stops occasionally, and the Gobi unfolds its surreal rock formations, mountains, vast expanses sprinkled with gers and herds of livestock, blue sky with puffy clouds, and even more spectacular vistas. I have seen spectacular scenery before (Bhutan and New Zealand come to mind), but in the Gobi, it is the earth that reveals itself. In the Gobi, past, present, and future merge, and time seems to evaporate.
But while the Gobi was a continuous experience, there were some places that were more inspiring than others. And while I am determined not to write a travelogue, exploring these places was a series of extraordinary personal experiences.
As the rain tapers to more than a drizzle, but less than a full-blown storm, we stop at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, a 15 kilometer long and 10 kilometer wide stone massif. To climb to the top, we go through a narrow canyon filled with aspen trees and the ruins of a Buddhist temple, destroyed during the Stalin purge of Mongolian religious institutions in 1939. At the top there is a spectacular view of the surrounding plateau landscape. I had forgotten how much I liked to climb not-too-steep hills and mountains like this — and it was something I would have fun doing again and again on this trip.
As we climb this mountain, and throughout all of Mongolia, we find ovoos — offerings people make to places they respect. It is a sign that the traditional nomadic world view is still alive and relevant in our modern world. An ovoo, in the Mongolian shamanic religious tradition, is a sacred pyramid of at least three stones, usually made from rocks with wood or from just wood. Traditionally a Mongolian would never pass by a sacred ovoo without stopping, dismounting from his horse, make an offering of money, vodka or dairy products, or a few hairs from the tail of his horse, and add a stone to the ovoo.
From Baga Gazriin Chuluu we head out to the rocky formations of Tsagaan Suvarga. To get to the base we drive up and down and across hills at quite an angle. When we arrive close to the base it doesn’t seem all that impressive — we are at the side of the formation and all I could see was a single high wall. But as we climb to near the bottom, and then along the bottom, the view opens up, and my senses are overwhelmed (yet again) by its size and grandeur. It is about 60 meters high and 400 meters long, and looking at the sheer slope facing east, it appears as the ruins of an ancient ghost city.
We climb up the very soft dirt of the slope that leads up to one of the formations. It is an exhilarating climb even though I am wearing my trusty skateboard shoes, which got me through Europe, up Huayna Picchu in Peru, and slipping and sliding in Sapa in Vietnam. They were again not that smart to wear, but they did well, although I fear they are on their last legs.
I have never been that interested in rock carving (although I said the same thing about exploring ancient tombs in Northern Peru, but once I did it, my attitude about that changed forever), but as we leave the camp we were staying at, the manager comes along to help us navigate the Petroglyphic Complex of Del Uul Mountain — the largest site of Bronze age rock drawings in Central Asia — and my attitude changes about petroglyphs as well.
The mountain looks like the back of a horse’s neck, and that’s where the name comes from. There were hundreds of rock carvings, and as we explored them, they turned from simply something chiseled into a rock, into a veritable picture book of the culture, art, and religious beliefs of the Bronze Age peoples who lived here three thousand years ago — the images of ibexes, horses, riders, camels, and people showing the transition to a horse-dependent nomadic life.
We climb up and around the mountain and find beautiful and intricate rock formations …
and explore several sites, including a square tomb. that was adorned with carvings as well.
There are no rangers, no signs, no required paths, and we get to climb and explore wherever we find interesting — that we could, and did do that was exhilarating. And there was remarkably little graffiti. Later I would see a picture of a square tomb in a museum in Kakkorem, but the one I saw first hand was much cooler (and the museum guide thought so too).
Then, across the desert, with its winter camps, some still occupied, others waiting for their families to return next winter. There are flocks of sheep with their shepherds, horses with galloping colts, hills, rocks, fields of green grasses with yellow tops, … and camels.
As we head further south, clouds floating across the sky cast their shadows on the vast expanse of desert and rolling hills. The hills flatten and it begins to look like some serious desert.
Our goal is the Three Beauties — Gurvan Saikhan National Park with its three mountain ranges, the East, Middle and West Beauty.
One of the amazing things about the Gobi is that in the Yol Valley in the South Beauty Mountain there is, at least until mid-summer, a gorge with a deep ice field created by a small stream. As we drive there are fields of wildflowers and the smell of juniper. Adding to the wonder are two mountain goats on the 2600 high meter sheer rock walls that surround the valley and shade it from direct sunlight. Deeper into the valley, in a narrow gorge (so narrow that at the narrowest part only three or four people can pass next to each other) we find the ice field. The whole time I was in the Gobi it felt like I was on a different planet, but here it becomes an even more different different one.
As I walk further and further into the gorge, the ice thickens — in winter the ice is several meters thick, although when we are here in June, it’s only two to three meters. I am amazed — here I am in the Gobi desert, walking on top of, and exploring around a mini glacier.
Our plan was to ride Mongolian horses from the entrance of the valley to the ice, which we did. But I can’t ride, so Ganzorig (my guide) rides in front and leads my horse with a rope. I just hold on, feeling like a three-year-old on a pony ride at the park. Turns out it isn’t that far from the valley entrance to the gorge, so I walk back, which is much more satisfying. I stop and really look at the sheer rock walls, and see up close the marmots scampering throughout the valley floor.
Out of the valley we head west and Ganzorig points out a winter place that was voted the Best Winter Place (I’m still trying to get my head around that one) and many dirt road kilometers later, at the top of a pass, there it is — Khongor Sand Dune (Khongoryn Els) —the most beautiful sand dune in Mongolia, with crests rising 80 to 300 meters.
At 100 kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide it is hard to take it all in. The locals call it “Singing Sands” because of the booming sound produced by the masses of moving sand on a windy day.
Here was another stupid adventure in skateboard shoes. As I climb to the top of the dunes it is very slippery, and several times I have to sit down and then crawl to keep from sliding back down (and if not to my certain death, to a world of hurt) since the sand had gotten quite hard because of the rain. A few times I think about turning back, but going down appears to be just as difficult as going up, so I figure I might as well keep going. When I finally make it to the top, it is so windy, that if I am not careful, I could be blown off the crest. But the climb is worth it— the yellow sand, the light green grass, the red-blue mountains, and the blue sky create a dramatic tableau. It reminds me of Van Gough’s Haystacks, but with an order of magnitude or two of greater drama.
I had been promised a camel ride around the base of the dune, but I demurred. After the recent pony ride, and an elephant ride in Cambodia, I don’t want to be simply a passenger on the back of some poor animal. Instead, we go to an oasis with some stunning greenery on the Khongor River at the northern edge of the dunes.
As we had traveled and gotten to tourist camps, we had been met by people (predominately women) who unload your car and carry your things to your ger. But at the camp that night we are met by a young woman in traditional dress, with a blue scarf across her arms, holding in both hands an offering of milk tea (tea with milk and salt) — the traditional greeting for travelers in Mongolia (like the bread and salt in Russia) when they arrive. I accept it in both hands (as I was coached) and then move the tea to my left hand, dip the tip of my third finger of my right hand into the tea, toss a drop up in the air, and lick my fingertip to show my gratitude for the host’s hospitality. Later when you leave, the Mongolian tradition is to put milk on your stirrups. But in our case, they do it on our tires. I realize, of course, that the whole ceremony is probably staged for the tourists, but some part of it is authentic, and it becomes both poignant and touching at the same time.
The dirt roads we have been traveling on are just tire tracks that are easy to lose, especially when it rains, where they get bad … or simply disappear. It had rained the night before and there was first-hand evidence of that, and Ganzorig decides to take the longer road along the front of the mountains rather than across the ridge to Bayanzag — a classic desert of rock, red sands, shrub, and wide open emptiness.
In 1923 an American expedition, led by Roy Andrew Chapman, an American explorer and the model for Indiana Jones, found the first-ever complete nest of dinosaur eggs, amazing the world. Much to his credit he introduced the original name “Gobi” to the world without anglicizing it.
Chapman named this place “The Flaming Cliffs” for its red colored cliffs that are imposing from a distance, and even more so close up, and appear particularly fiery in the light of the setting sun.
It’s a wonderland for paleontologists, and the fossils that have been found here have amazed the world (among them an oviraptor fossil that died hatching eggs was found over its own nest, as well as two herbivorous and flesh-eating dinosaurs locked in a deadly fight). It gives you pause to think about how lush this now desert must have been seventy-five million years ago.
We climb around the hills at the bottom and then start looking for the place where Ganzorig had found a dinosaur bone. The rain had altered the terrain since the last time he was here, and he had a hard time finding it. Another reminder that this is real life, and not a museum or theme park.
We go back to the top and I am deeply touched by the views that go on forever.
And then as the sun goes down, the cliffs turn red.
Tomorrow we leave the Gobi, back to the steppes, and the origins of Genghis Kahn.