Travelling to the Gobi

travelling to the Gobi

travelling to the Gobi

travelling to the Gobi

"Spectacular South Gobi in the perilous Mongolian winter"

Traveling to the Gobi may appear to be a reasonable option outside of the Mongolian summer. After all, Gobi means desert in Mongolian and a desert is flat and dry.

Moreover, the word Gobi paints a colorful picture in the voyagers mind: dinosaur fossils, towering sand dunes, ice valleys, nothingness. The romantic traveler is correct in at least one of these visions. However, a recent trip to South Gobi taught me not even Mongolia’s desert is spared from the most extreme of winter conditions.

I will start from the beginning. On a Monday night in the not so distant past, I went to yoga, hosted three times a week at Star Complex. Like Grand Khan Irish Pub and Café Amsterdam, you are likely to see someone you know at this makeshift Yoga class taught by a recorded voice. Low and behold, I ran into an acquaintance planning to take a simple road trip with a group to Umnugovi Aimag. Their final destination would be the Khongor Sand Dunes.

With the inevitable need to escape the corrosive pollution of UB, (and to have a good ole’ Mongolian adventure), I offered my body to fill their empty seat. We left on Wednesday morning, driving six hours to Mandalgovi. After spending a night in our driver’s ger, we continued for another six hours to a small soum in South Gobi. That night was spent in a cheap hotel (and it was worth every last togrog). Early the next morning, we continued our tedious drive southward.

The landscape became more desolate, the dirt roads became less distinguishable, and the gers became more and more sporadically visible. South Gobi aimag is the least populated of all Mongolia’s Aimags, which is quite an accomplishment in an already scarcely populated nation. On that third day, we stopped at Bayanzag, otherwise known as the Flaming Cliffs. The cliffs are reddish-brown, jagged rocks resembling the flames of a fire (hence the name). More then a fire, Bayanzag resembles a diorama-size version of the Grand Canyon. It is most famous for the dinosaur fossils excavated in the 1920s.

On the same day, it is possible to go to the unique Yolyin Am, or Eagle Valley. This is a large canyon containing ice even in the summer, due to a chronic absence of sunlight. Later that day, we had stopped at a ger to get general directions. The family told us that the weather was getting bad—the clouds had told them so, but the dunes weren’t far, so we should hurry. The dunes would be our sanctuary because they were the only place in South Gobi with ger camps open in the winter.

Bright Gobi sun turned to golden sunset, turned to gray dusk, turned to no visibility. In the dark, we were unaware of how far we had gone or in which direction we should head. Suddenly, we saw a light, which turned off and back on. Out driver did the same with our headlights, and they responded (like a nonsensical Morse code). We drove toward the light, hoping to get saved, until their light flickered off. We sat there, trying to reestablish contact, but there was no response.

Our guide then told us that the light was one of the many spirits of the Gobi and we must sleep in the car because driving was too dangerous (but sleeping in a car at -25 F with ghosts all around apparently is not). Tied to the top of the vehicle were folded sheets of canvas. Every part of the car had to be covered, making a tent of insulation. Upon completing the task and nearly freezing, we went into the car and dug into the reserves of vodka. All night we could hear the wind whipping the canvas. Body heat kept us comfortable for a while, but as night progressed, the frigid air crept through, radiating through the metal vehicle. When it got unbearably cold, the driver would turn the engine back on to make the car warm.

After six hours of dozing in and out of a surreal state, the first hint of a bluish white dawn appeared. Upon exiting the canvas bubble, I was shocked to be greeted by a blizzard. Although it is a desert, a blizzard in the Gobi is more like a sand storm with tiny particles of hard snow. Visibility basically disappears, the wind whips the small snowy particles all around, slapping you in the face, making it difficult to venture outside, and impossible to drive. The landscape becomes an Arctic wasteland, not with a large quantity of snow, but with a thin layer scattered unevenly.

We knew, and the driver confirmed, that there was no chance we could drive anywhere in that weather. Luckily, as light turned the bluish blizzard into a grayer one with greater visibility, an empty ger was in site. The driver picked the lock and we had shelter!

When the blizzard subsided, we heard a lone jeep driving across the foreboding landscape. We waved it down, and they explained that the dunes were only thirty kilometers away and the ground was fine for driving. Later that afternoon, we left for the Khongor Dunes. In the midst of flat gravel and sand, mammoth mounds suddenly and dauntingly appear like a mega-wave in the middle of the South Pacific, about 200 meters in height. They stretch on and roll like rough seas during a hurricane; on the other side, they are surrounded by the rocky Altai Mountains.

After playing in the sand, riding camels, and feeling proud of surviving a Gobi winter-night in a car, we left for UB. In just two days, we were safe at home. The Gobi expedition proved that traveling to Mongolia’s countryside is not for the feint of heart; and traveling to the countryside in the Mongolian winter is for the crazy, or at least for those seeking a true adventure. With the necessity to cleanse the lungs of UB winter air, keep in mind you have options. Firstly, there are airplanes and closer destinations. And if you do travel by ground, make sure you have the necessary supplies: whether it be clothing, shelter, guide, or driver (for the likely adversity you may encounter). Although the sites of South Gobi may wet the pallet of just about anyone, take extreme caution when traveling during the Mongolian winter.

by Brandt Miller

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Hi, I am T. K. and I am the head eagle hunter of my tribe, just kidding! Connect with me on FB and leave  your comments, questions etc.