Mongolia’s countryside, which, with its profound sense of isolation and sparsely populated landscape, captures the ‘real’ Mongolia. And you can’t get much more isolated than the Gobi Desert.
Some would argue that it’s a little too stark and desolate – a huge, windswept barren stretch of nothingness that is harsh, unforgiving and far from being an ideal place to visit. And yet for me it’s precisely that which drew me to the place. It’s a place where you can truly escape the immersive stresses of the modern world.
The Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag
Back in 1922, this area was excavated by one Roy Chapman Andrews, and he dug up a veritable bonanza of dinosaur fossils, eggs and bones. These days, most of his finds are on display at museums – mostly in his native USA – but the disappointment of there being no fossils or skeleton bones on view is more than made up for by the vivid red of the landscape itself, plunked as it is in the middle of the otherwise classic barren sweep of the Gobi on all sides.
Photo opportunities of the rock formations and cliff faces abound, and they don’t stop when you head North to the surprisingly verdant scrub forest nearby. Ok so forest is a generous term, but there are more clumps of lush green undergrowth than you wouldn’t think possible in any Desert, let alone a vast, harsh one like the Gobi.
Khongoryn Els sand dunes are a great place for a camel ride. The one I had here was infinitely more pleasant and safer than the one I did on a temperamental camel in India, although I was almost too relaxed and almost slid off the side of the saddle toward the end – our guide had to step under and push me back up in to the saddle!
After the camel ride, we had a brief walk along the foot of the sand dunes, where we found a spring with fresh drinkable water, which was pleasantly cold, although sadly it had an earthy, almost eggy smell to it…
Then, after dinner, came the sunset ‘highlight’ of the day – an exhausting climb up the beautiful sand dune arrangements of Khongoryn Els. Looking like huge sandy meringues, and with the more jagged edged rock formations of the mountains behind providing a backdrop, this place was visually stunning and a natural highlight of the Gobi. But climbing them is not easy…
For each step forward it felt like two steps back, and even the supremely athletic have to stop and rest frequently, as the way the sandy quagmire drags you down is energy-sapping. It took us the best part of an hour to hit the summit, and I nearly missed the sunset at the top, needing our guide Enkhbold to push me up the last bit to ensure I just about caught it. The view was, of course, spectacular, and the winds that whipped and sculpted the dunes produced a chilling whistling sound, although we didn’t linger for too long at the top; sand flying in your face is not a pleasant experience!
Then began the infinitely easier and more pleasant big foot-esque tramp down the steep slope, where this time the sand works with you rather than against you! We’d definitely earned the beers back at the camp this night…
After yesterday’s endeavours it was undoubtedly welcome news to have restful lie in again, before taking a long jeep ride in blazing hot weather back toward Yolyn Am, which is near the airport we had flown to from Ulaanbaatar.
First up we checked out the Nature Museum at entrance to gorge, with stuffed animals, fossilised Dinosaur eggs and other Gobi-based curiosities. Then we walked to the gorge itself through verdant valley paths as soaring mountain scenery, with vultures gliding overhead, shaded the paths on both sides. Despite it being a tourist hot spot, it’s possible to find relative solitude here, and the landscape is peacefully and beautifully unspoiled.
Yolyn Am is famous for its ice, but sadly it was just too warm at this time of year, and we saw none within the gorge itself, unfortunately. But to compensate we were instead lucky to see an ibex relatively up close on the way out, which was a treat, as apparently they can be very hard to spot!