Mongolia is a vast country with half the land area of India but barely half the population of Bangalore. I paid a visit just as the winter chill started setting in in late September / early October. Mongolia’s biggest attraction is the Gobi desert, spread over a vast area. My friend Linto and I had a tour company arrange the logistics.
Our guide Oogii and driver Bilgee picked us up at our hotel. As with a number of other guides I came across, Oogii was American-educated and spoke English very fluently. Bilgee spoke only a few words of English. He owned the vehicle that we travelled in, a Russian-made UAZ. This was a very hardy van built with fuel tanks on both sides for very long journeys. It was customised with a high wheelbase and off-roaded through some very rough terrain. Given that there were just two of us, we had plenty of space in the van.
Our itinerary was customised and rather aggressive. We set off Southward from Ulaanbaatar. The road had started off as paved and smooth, but we soon switched to a dirt track. Vehicles raised large streaks of dust behind them as they travelled. Cars appeared differently-coloured at the front and at the back, the backs being altered by the large amounts of dust sticking to them. The path to our first few stops was well-worn, but I slowly noticed changes. Further on in the trip, some of the tracks were not much used. Some of them, it appeared, would be reclaimed by the sands, rocks and grasses of the desert if a car failed to pass over it in the next few weeks. Drivers in the Gobi need to make their own roads and find their routes with some amount of trial and error. Bilgee had been doing this route for decades as a postal worker and a tour driver, so we were not concerned. The man knew the way when even our GPS and map apps did not.
We stopped by a roadside restaurant for a lunch of homemade noodles with meat and salt. We were advised to not expect any fancy spices. Away from the city, the Mongolian diet is primarily rice or dough-based stuff, meats and milk products. Vegetables and fruits are only for the tourists, if available at all.
One of our first attractions was Baga Ghazriin Chuluu or the Little Book Stacks. Wind-blown black rock formations looked like stacks of books. The locals believe that the area produces scholars. Oogii guided us toward a “monastery” – a place of great energy according to the local shamans. There was no building. Stacks of stones called “ovoo” were all over the place. Shamans would direct people to pray to the spirits of particular ovoos to have their wishes fulfilled.
We spent the night at a homestay at the town of Mandalgovi. Our host showed us a few methods of shaping dumplings and we partook in our creations a few minutes later. We conversed with our host and her family with Oogii as our interpreter. Our accommodation was a ger – a portable round structure with a wooden frame, tarpaulin exterior and carpets inside. A stove stood in the centre with a chimney leading upward and out of the ger. The top was covered in a clear sheet of plastic to let light in. We had proper wooden beds to sleep in.
The first attraction for day 2 was Tsagaan Suvarga, the White Stupa. Wind-blown orangish-brown rock had left some spectacular rock faces in the desert. The wind was indeed strong here. I found myself relaxing my legs to find that the wind could actually topple me over.
We saw a herd of camels and stopped to take a picture. We were surprised that the camels walked toward us; they were clearly expecting something. Oogi spotted the well and figured that they were waiting to be watered. We approached the camels cautiously, keeping a distance from their faces and hind legs. Oogi removed the wooden covers of the well. A rubber bucket lay on the ground, attached to a piece of wood and a rope. I dropped it into the well, pulled up the filled bucket and poured into the trough next to the well. The camels drank. This was one of my most pleasing interactions of the trip – an unscripted stop where we helped a bunch of thirsty animals get their water. They might have waited another day if they had waited for their owners to come around.
Mongolian nomads live by maintaining livestock, mostly keeping horses, camels, sheep, cows or goats. The animals are semi-wild, allowed to roam free for the most part, being herded only when needed by their owners or for their protection at certain times. We drove past many herds of cattle roaming around with no bells or ropes attached to them. We also came across dead cattle by the roadside. These were fascinating sights; I saw vultures, eagles and crows ripping and hollowing the carcasses.
In the afternoon we stopped at Yolyn Am AKA Lammergeier Gorge. The latter is the English translation of the former. The Lammergeier is a kind of vulture, called ‘Yol’ in Mongolian. The gorge must have been shaped by a river but only a stream remained as we walked through it. Despite it being late September, we saw patches of ice here and there. Little rodents named Pikas bounced around, heading for their holes as we approached.
We spent the night at a proper nomad’s ger. Our hosts would move every few months, calling no spot home. They welcomed us to their family ger and offered us salted milk tea, homemade bread sticks and boiled lamb. By “milk tea” in Mongolia, one means milk, with some tea leaves/powder mixed in. No water is involved. I was game for the boiled lamb, pulled one of the big bones from the pot and ripped the meat off it with my teeth. Bilgee carried a knife with him to pare the meat off the bone with considerably more ease. I noticed many men carry knives for the same purpose.