Mongolia is a vast country with half the land area of India but barely half the population of Bangalore. I visited just as the winter chill started setting in in late September / early October with my friend Linto. Continued from Dirt tracks of the Gobi: Part 1
Day 3 had fewer kilometres on the road for us. We arrived at our ger camp in a few hours. This was run by professionals catering toward tourists. It had a proper restaurant with plenty of charging outlets and even a laundry service. We had our lunch and headed out for a camel ride. The camel herder welcomed us into his ger and provided us with the usual refreshments plus cheese curds from camel milk. We were told that the herder was rich, with a herd of a thousand animals; the big flatscreen TV in his ger and heavy items that would take some effort to move around were evidence of this. The area around his ger was filled with excrement from camels and goats; by this point we had gotten used to this and didn’t think much about walking on the shit.
Bactrian camels in the Gobi have two humps and stand more than a metre above the average human. One really appreciates their size when seeing someone sit on them. The camels were made to kneel down. I approached from the camel’s left and put my right leg over, in between its two humps. Once I was well-seated, I put my feet in the stirrups. The camel rose hind legs first, then front legs. We set off on a little train, our host’s wife leading my camel and I leading Linto’s by the reins. Oogii was a good-enough rider to go about by herself. Camels’ fur protect them in the cold winters. I held onto the front hump of the camel; the fur kept my palms warm in the chill. We did a short ride to the sands dunes, took a break and returned.
Bilgee then dropped us off at Khongoryn Els, the singing dunes. These were the highest in the Gobi and we would climb to the top. Oogii warned that it would be difficult; that one would slip back with every step. I responded (truthfully) that I had experienced something worse that was much higher (this was Mt. Rinjani in Indonesia with a rather painful ascent to the summit). Nevertheless I saw very quickly that I was struggling to keep up with my trekking boots. I took them off and continued the climb. This made the climb much easier, but it was not easy nevertheless. I found myself getting down on my knees and fists to rest my ankles as much as possible in between pushes to take another 20-40 steps. It took me 47 minutes to climb the 100 or so metres to the top. Thin grains of sand sharply divided the eastern side of the dune from the western side. We sat there watching the sun as it lowered on the horizon, took some pictures and headed back down. The descent was rapid, gravity aiding us all the way.
Khavtsgait was our first stop of day 4: a bunch of green, grassy and rocky hills that were very pleasing to look at. The bonus was that ancient nomads had left petroglyphs (rock carvings/paintings) on the jagged black rocks.
The paintings that we came across mostly depicted domestic animals such as goats and camels. We saw one that might have been about a hunt.
Our Gobi trip had one last major attraction: this was Bayanzag, the flaming cliffs. The cliffs were similar to Tsagaan Suvarga from our second day, but these were a brilliant orangish-red in colour. It was in this area that dinosaur fossils were first discovered in Mongolia.
Our trip hit a little snag. We were supposed to stay at a ger camp, but all the camps in the area had closed or moved for the winter. Our camp for the previous night had stayed open extra long for a few tourists like us who had unexpectedly arrived in early winter. No such luck here. We had to put up with a hotel that had a fancy restaurant and a bathtub with hot water.
Day 5 was just the long slow journey back to Ulaanbaatar. We sat in the UAZ and stopped only for lunch, fuel and bathroom breaks. Mongolian-style, we had all gotten used to “going” to nature. I had to accustom myself to getting electrostatic shocks everytime I touched the door to get out of the car (this only happened to me). In five days we had passed through many vast, empty lands filled with little more than grass and shrubs and herds of animals.
I appreciated the nomadic lifestyle and the immense resilience and hardiness of these self-reliant people. It had been an adventure. I was not done. I was heading to the western side of Mongolia, with its own idiosyncrasies.