After the warm-up in still civilized bits of Mongolia, we head for Gobi. The intermediate stopover is planned for Ongiin Khiid. The transfer is excruciating. We drive through the proper steppe, or at least what I have always imagined to be a proper steppe: vast, interminable plains occasionally dotted by solitary gers and flocks of animals. At least we see camels, though. Ongiin Khiid looks very unimpressive from the pictures on the internet, but it’s surprising. The ruins of once big and renowned Lamaist university (with the adjacent temple) sit on a slope of a mountain overlooking a beautiful valley, and you quickly realize how immense ad magnificent the complex must have been. The school used to host several hundreds of students and more than 2000 monks were slaughtered here between 1920 and 1937 during Stalin’s purges. There is a newly rebuilt small temple and a museum ger that shelters some pre-purges artefacts from everyday life of the monks.
Just few hundred metres from the temple a small river that creates a shallow canyon. Actually there is no river most of the time, depends how much it rains. We were lucky, the level of water was more or less knee-high. There are several tourist establishments there, a meditation centre and a tacky hotel that looks like a gothic castle. It’s still early in the afternoon, so we go for a little walk, following the river deeper in the valley, and it’s an enchanting little spot: black volcanic rocks contrast lush green grass. At night we get the first chance to see the stars. The sky is amazing. Coming from London, even on the rare occasion when the sky isn’t overcast, the light pollution hides most of the stars all the time. I try to take some pictures, but I definitely need to work on that bit.
4 hours drive to the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag. I am at this point getting used to Tsogtoo stopping in every ger he sees to ask for directions. I am trying to illude myself that he’s just being overly sociable and keeps stopping for a chat. It is becoming clear that this is the first time he is driving tourists any further than the Ulaanbaatar airport. However, this morning we have to remind him that maybe it would be a good idea to refuel before going to the desert, given the tank is almost empty.
Bayanzag is astonishing. You will see it from far as you approach it through the desert, a brick-red rugged cliff facing east, and a deep canyon from the other side, so depending on the time of day, period and weather, you can see the cliffs changing colour at sunrise or sunset. We spend hours walking around Bayanzag and we decide to camp at the edge of the cliffs to watch the sunset. Tsogtoo tries to convince us that camping there is out of question, claiming there are snakes. I point out that the nearby ger camp had all the gers wide open and a yak would walk in if it wished to, so I don’t see the snakes being too much of a problem. Tsogtoo ignores the irony and insists that we have to camp 50 km away. I suspect that he doesn’t give a flying toss about snakes, since he sleeps in the car when we camp, and I don’t fear that se would care in the slightest if a snake got into our tent, he just wants to drive somewhere where he has cellphone reception, because he is addicted to his samsung. There is a car parked next to ours, and old soviet UAZ, with three young Canadians girls aboard, and they inform us that they have every intention to camp right there. That’s settled then. I don’t think I will ever have similar view again when I go for a pee break.
We invite the girls, Caroline, Maude and Raphaelle and their driver Ogii for dinner. They are fantastic. 19 years old, travelling through Mongolia for 50 days, camping every night, and they have similar itinerary to ours for the next few days. Ogii on the other hand is the opposite of Tsogtoo. He knows everything, he takes care of everything, he is always aware of where he is and what needs to be done, and the girls can just rely on him. We have to remind ours to refuel.
We head to the southernmost point of our journey – the sand dunes of Khongoriin Els. We leave the camp in Bayanzag 90 minutes before the Canadians and we arrive later than them, to their great amusement (whileas I already resigned on trying to explain to Tsogtoo which direction he needs to go). We had planned to stay two nights here because there was supposed to be a small naadam event nearby, but unfortunately it has been cancelled due to a livestock disease deeper in the Gobi. That also means we cannot travel further west to the desert as we planned to, because the entire area is under quarantine. However, I am quite happy to stay in the area for a couple of days, because the ger camp is a total luxury. We have our own toilet and shower in the ger, which is enough to make me happy (even though there is not much to do in the area to kill two days).
Khongor sand dunes is a stripe of sand about 100 km long and 12 km wide at its largest point, and they can reach up to 300 m altitude, depending on the wind. We climb one of the smaller dunes (starting from the small spring with sulphurous water), the ascend takes us only about 20 minutes (with hiking boots, very bad idea), and the view over the dunes in the low sun is incredible. The green grass at the bottom of the dunes, golden sand of the dunes, black rugged mountains at the background and blue skies. We decide we will climb the tallest dune on the following morning.
Again, the stars are out, and thanks to no humidity, the visibility is pristine. It’s also still the period of the Perseids and in fact I see so many shooting stars that I run out of things to wish for. At one point I see one so bright it splits the sky in half as it flies by. The photos are a bit better this time.
We climb the highest point – the Singing Dune – in the morning. We start at about 9 and it takes us about 45 minutes (two steps forward, one step back). This time we go barefoot and it’s much more comfortable, only if you chose to do so, start before the sand becomes too hot. We hang around for an hour or so on the top of the dunes, walking to the neighbouring peaks, talking to other people (some of them crazy enough to do the hike without any water).
We have no plans for the rest of the day – and to be quite honest there is not much to do anyway – which I am quite happy with, because the heat is suffocating and I refuse to leave the ger before 4 in the afternoon. However, Jimmy feels like the world will fall apart if we don’t do SOMETHING (I brough hundreds of books on my Kindle, I have quite a nice something to do in the shade of the tent, but any activity that does not involve snapping shots after shots with a camera does not seem to be an option). The only activity available is a camel ride, so we go to a random local family and they take us for a 30 minutes ride around the steppe. It is arguably the most kitsch thing you could do in Mongolia, on the other hand, when is the next occasion I am going to ride a camel? The animals seem quite well-kept, only stink a little bit (I feared worse) and are really soft and fluffy. The ride is very pleasant (for me, Jimmy is seasick, or camel-sick, or however you’d call it), the animal moves in slow, fluid pace and it almost rocks me to sleep.
We spend the evening exchanging travel stories with an Italian couple, Cecilia and Salvatore, that we met already before in Tsenkher. Tsogtoo is seen leaving the restaurant with a bottle of vodka before disappearing into the night.
Breakfast meeting at 8 am, but Tsogtoo is fast asleep in the car and ignores all our attempts to wake him up, including shaking the whole car. He later appears in the breakfast room with bloodshot eyes and barely touching the food. Knowing his normal appetite, he must be feeling really rough. We are going to Yolin Am, which isn’t even too far from the dunes, but I am tempted to drive myself. Yolin Am means the “Valley of Eagles” and it is a very picturesque canyon that is normally blocked by ice until mid July (but there was no ice in mid August anymore). The valley is about 12 km long, and according to the Lonely Planet, “an experienced driver can pick you up on the other side”. Well, this is clearly not our case, so we only plan to hike to a certain point and come back, because we realize asking Tsogtoo to wait for us on the opposite side of the canyon would mean parting our ways forever. Still according to the guide, there is a spot not far from Yolin Am and quite close to the main road, from where a little path takes you for a short hike up to the hills, where you can find some ancient rock carvings dating up to 8000 years back. I try to explain to Tsogtoo which way to go, but he merrily ignores me as usual and just fucks off to the steppe, constantly calling someone. As if by magic, Ogii and the Canadians appear parked on the horizon. I try to ask Ogii for directions, but he does not seem to be familiar with the site either. Turns out Tsogtoo had called him in the morning to fix this little appointment.
Instead we continue to drive to Yolin Am, using the alternative route through Dogany Am gorge, a canyon so narrow that the vehicle can just about pass. We get off and decide to hike for a bit, when it starts raining heavily. Tsogtoo unexpectedly comes to pick us up, but after more or less 500 m the car stops and will not move again. Tsogtoo opens the engine and stares hopelessly in it, randomly fiddling with wires. There is of course no cellphone coverage, so i offer to hike to the village and get help. Tsogtoo pronounces a single word: “Ogii” – who, of course, appears with his car in about 10 minutes. Us and the girls go for a little walk in the valley, which is really beautiful, while the guys try to understand what is the problem. When we go back, Ogii takes us to his UAZ and drives the whole bunch to Yolin Am, to send someone with the same car to help out Tsogtoo. I communicate with Ogii in my broken Russian, which is actually hilarious, but I think, judging from how chatty he becomes, that this must be the closest thing to a conversation he’s had since 2 months. And then he merrily exclaims that “Czech and Mongols are socialist brothers”. Sure Ogii, whatever you want.
Yolin Am is extraordinarily pretty. It may not be frozen, but instead it’s full of wild flowers, colourful birds and pika – an animal that looks like a lovechild of a rabbit and a mouse. The walk is very comfortable, you follow the little stream into the canyon, that becomes more and more narrow, up to the gorge that is normally blocked with ice (there is a small waterfall in August), and once past it, the valley widens and reveals a beautiful meadow full of violet flowers. We turn back at this point, so that we can return with daylight, and Ogii takes all of us to a campsite, and tell us he’s gonna come back with Tsogtoo and our things. We cook dinner and we play cards, and the girls very kindly shelter us in their tent when it starts raining, because all our things are still in the Mitsubishi. Way after midnight, and by the time we start panicking, Ogii and some other guy tow the car to the place we camp. How did they manage to get it out of that canyon will forever remain a mystery. Ogii the Great.
There is nothing to be done with the car, so Ogii agrees with our agency to drive us to Tsagaan Suvarga (as planned) and leave us in a specific ger camp there, and someone, either Tsogtoo or another driver will pick us up on the following morning. I don’t stress too much about it, because the agency tells us something different every 10 minutes.
Tsagaan Suvarga means “the white stupa”. OK, everything I’ve seen so far in Mongolia was beautiful. Each day diverse, and all places that we visited were wonderful and different from each other, but Tsagaan Suvarga beats them all. High cliffs, where white, red, pink and orange soil create breathtaking patterns, the colours are unbelievable. Lonely Planet does not even mention it.
The camp is ran by a family that has a herd of camels. We come back just as the milking time approaches. It works like this: they keep the babies on a chain, so that the mothers don’t wander off too far. The the youngs are hungry, they start crying, and the mothers come back. Each one recognizes her own and starts feeding him, while someone from the family milks her at the same time.
A group of italian tourists arrives to the camp later in the afternoon. We spend the evening with them, actually having a pleasant conversation. A real conversation. Not just swapping travel stories, without actually listening, trying to amaze each other to death. A dialogue that is not a battle. Very refreshing. A civilized conversation is the rarest pleasure.
The Italians leave at 8 am. Surprisingly, Tsogtoo arrives at full speed roughly half an hour after that. From the opposite direction than where the main road is, ca va sans dire, it would not be Tsogtoo otherwise. Actually the agency warned me that Tsogtoo might appear in out ger at night, but I was quite confident that that would not happen. He would never be able to find this place at dark. We drive to Ulaan Tsuvarga, “the red stupa”, the little red brother of the white cliffs we visited the previous day. It’s less spectacular, obviously empty, still it’s worth visiting if you’re in the area.
This is where we leave Gobi and head towards Baga Gazryn Chuulu – a ruined monastery hidden between rock formations halfway to UB, that looks like a nice spot to spend the night at. Of course we start exactly as we expect from out intrepid driver: driving away from the main road as opposed towards it, but that’s quickly fixed. Tsogtoo obviously does not believe me when I point out we’re going the wrong way, and Jimmy always backs him up on that – of course, no man likes to be advised on his driving, especially from a woman, even when he has no clue where he is going. Jimmy claims it’s impolite to constantly correct Tsogtoo, but I think it’s unprofessional to constantly drive where the fuck he wants instead of where he’s supposed to, and unfortunately, I am a paying customer, not a friend. I also have a map and am not scared to use it.
The rest of the day is on the paved road (although the tarmac looks like it’s been recently bombed) and there are no problems with orientation until the point where we are supposed to turn towards the monastery that is supposed to be 30 minutes away, but we repeat the usual exercise of going in circles in the middle of the steppe before someone starts taking into account my suggestions. After 90 minutes we finally make it to the ger camp in BGCh by sunset. We could have camped, but I am pissed off and I really need a shower and Tsogtoo really needs to sleep.
Conclusion: Of course it’s the unexpected that turns a normal travel to an epic one. And nothing really bad happened at the end. I can laugh about all of it and I have a few funny stories to tell. Actually, the livestock disease has been a blessing. Had we been allowed to, we would have continued to the deep, really deserted Gobi, and the car would have broken anyway (the battery wasnt’s charging because of a loose contact) and there would be vultures circling above us at this moment.