Double lucky in the Gobi

The Gobi desert can be divided in four regions: the Middle Gobi in the north (Dundgov), the East Gobi (Dornogov), the South Gobi (Ömnögov) and in the west the Altai Gobi. Gerlee, our guide, explained that by calling it a desert, we probably would be expecting a big sand pit. During the first part of our tour through Mongolia, we would be visiting the Middle and the South Gobi and she assured us that we would be able to see many different landscapes in both regions. This was certainly no lie, because after every corner a new view or natural phenomena was hidden. This is certainly what made this part of the trip such an amazing experience.

Leaving UB also meant that we would be staying our first night in a ger (pronounced gir). We had read a little bit about these round “tents” and the do’s and don’ts, so we were excited to put the theory into practice. Our first ger camp would be located in the outermost north of the Middle Gobi. The moment we left UB behind us, we were immediately in awe of the endless steppes and the emptiness of the countryside. One thing that struck us, was that it seems all very green, but when you look closer, the grass was very patchy with sand and rocks in between. We had lunch at a small ‘cantine’ near the road and ordered Buuz, steamed dumplings. First lesson: always order less than you think you can eat, portions in Mongolia are huge! A couple of hours of admiring this vast emptiness later, we ascended between the rock formations of Baga Gazriin Chuluu. Close to this sharp peaks and caves, we would stay the night in our first ger. This turned out to be a very cozy and comfortable experience. After dinner we enjoyed our first beautiful countryside sunset with some camels in the background. Certainly a very gentle start of our Gobi experience.

The next day would introduce us to the real Mongolian nomad life. We were going to be the guests of a camel herding nomad family in the South Gobi. This region is the most dry and hot region of the country, so naturally the land supports less herds and thus people. Distances between families and their gers were getting bigger. More to the north of Mongolia the nearest ger would be somewhere within a km or two, while in this region the next neighbor would be several hills further. Clearly a harsh life, except for the camels, which are perfect here and deliver the main source of food and income for the nomads!

On our way through this changing landscape we stopped by a natural phenomenon that is called the White Stupa (Tsagaan Suvraga) or more catchy “the Mongolian grand canyon”. Beautiful sandstone cliffs with a collection of small, colorful hills at its foot. The Mongolian equivalent of the Rainbow mountains in Peru. That Suus was taking more photos of a nest of falcons in the side of the cliff than of the cliffs, was clearly confusing for some other tourists.

In the late afternoon we arrived at the nomad family and were heartily welcomed in their ger for tea and cookies. The legendary Mongolian hospitality is clearly not exaggerated! The family consisted of a mother, father, teenage son and one year old daughter. We were told that it is appreciated if you bring a small gift and our guide had told us that they had a little baby daughter. Not sure what to bring, we bought some baby food for a 5 months old. Seeing that this cute girl had just learned how to walk, we were a little late with the gift, but she still liked to eat it! She had a great curiosity for us and especially for the camera, which resulted in tons of cute pictures.

After dinner, we had the opportunity to witness the milking of the camels. During the day, the young camels are kept near the ger, while the mothers are sent out to look for food. In the evening the mothers return to their young to feed them. While they are drinking, the nomads milk the other nipple. One-by-one the camels returned while the sun was setting, creating magical moments.

The next morning, after saying our goodbyes, we left for the most southern part of the Gobi that we would reach. While we got closer to Dalanzadgad, skies were getting darker and darker. Rain in the Gobi desert? Check!

Nice to know: in Mongolia, arriving somewhere and then having rain is a sign of good luck.

Due to this good luck, we decided to switch the program and go to Yolyn Am in the early morning. This national park is famous for a narrow canyon that contains ice until far into summer. Yes, ice in the Gobi! (not for us though, after the beginning of July all the ice is gone) Apart from that, the national park is the home to a lot of rare and endangered species. Since going very early would increase our chances of seeing some wildlife and potentially a beautiful sunrise, this alternative plan sounded very attractive. After a rainy afternoon relaxing in our ger, we were treated on a fantastic rainbow and sunset over the nearby mountains.

After watching sunrise over the camp, we reached nearby Yolyn Am early. We were told that normally the parking spot is always packed with busses and 4×4 vehicles, but now everything was very quiet. We then hiked deep into the canyon, but the summer had already been too hot, so no ice for us. From the car, we had already spotted one Siberian Ibex on the top of a distant hill, so we were more focused on spotting one more closely. Our very attentive spotting was rewarded when we saw one Ibex just peering over the ridge of a mountain, with the rising sun highlighting it. After this one, a second and a third one appeared. We watched them for 20 or 30 minutes while they were walking along the side of the mountain. A very special moment for sure! Gerlee told us that she had never seen three of them at the same time. So indeed, we were lucky!

Although it was already an amazing day, we still had another highlight of the South Gobi on our program in the afternoon: Khongoryn Els, the singing dunes. A long stretch of high sand dunes, often used on promotional pictures of the Gobi. Seeing that it again started raining when we reached them (Gerlee started to call us double lucky from now on), we waited until right before dinner to try to climb the highest sand dune.

When we were about to leave for the sand dunes, the rain stopped and the sky started to clear. Reaching the top of the sand dune seems easy when you are standing at the bottom, but doing it was something else. Gerlee told us that she never reached the top before. Warned by this, we started slowly climbing in the loose sand, almost straight up the dune. Just before halfway, Suus started doubting if she was going to make it to the top, so she wanted to climb at her own tempo.

After a heavy struggle with the sand, I was the first to make it to the top. A magnificent view unfolded, but clouds and no sun meant no good pictures. After some time, Gerlee also reached the top. In the meantime, Suus was crawling her way up the dune. With pure determination, (and a tear or two) she got to the top just in time to see the clouds disappearing. A very special moment for the three of us! Double lucky indeed and fantastic photos as a bonus!

Apart from the present-day nature, Mongolia is also the land where a huge amount of dinosaur fossils were found. The groundbreaking discovery of the first ever dinosaur eggs was done at Bayanzag, our next destination. This place was nicknamed “the flaming cliffs” by the expedition leader that found the dinosaur eggs here in the beginning of the 20th century. Although a bit smaller than we had imagined, the yellow/red sandstone cliffs were a beautiful sight. After we returned to the nearby ger camp, it again started raining. Our luck seemed to be endless!

Because we really hoped to catch “the flames”, Suus and I decided to go back to the cliffs to watch sunrise. No one could give us the exact time and unfortunately we arrived 5 minutes late so the sun was already hidden in the clouds. Still a special moment to have this amazing “attraction” just for the two of us. While driving to the north through the empty steppe, we felt very blessed and said goodbye to the magnificent Gobi.

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