We headed deeper into the Gobi desert, the landscape becoming more and more barren. At one point, we saw a crazy man running through the desert in all his running gear and small rucksack, presumably filled with water. He looked very red in the face! A bit further on, we saw a parked jeep, which we assumed was his support car.
It was quite a long and bumpy drive, so I was glad that my insides were behaving themselves. Our soundtrack was traditional style Mongolian music (lilting songs) or some sort of trashy trance. We only had these two tapes for the whole 12 day trip, so some of the songs became like old favourites by the end! Occasionally we would stop for a loo break in the vast plains and have a kick around with a ball that Daniel had bought. It was very light and there was a lot of wind, so it was quite funny as sometimes you would kick it and end up with a boomerang effect. This suited me well, as I found I could blame my inadequacies on the effects of the wind! For most of the journey there was no sign of life, but we would occasionally see eagles, ger camps, herds of sheep, cows, goats or horses. The grass was quite sparse and yellowing, but there were vast swathes of land, and so there must have been plenty of it to go round.
Just before midday, we arrived at the sand dunes of Khongor. The landscape in this area is fascinating. We had been driving over flattish land, with a few small hillocks, that was covered in small, dark, jagged stones, like an enormous gravel pit. The only vegetation was a reddish coloured plant, which grew in tufty clumps. The whole effect was somewhat martian. Then, abruptly, the stony land was cut off by a magnificent sweep of sand dunes, and beyond this, there was a line of craggy mountains. The sand dunes stretch across for 180km. We parked up at the foot of a very tall sand dune. Improbably, quite close by, there was a small lake of water, but I couldn’t see a river.
We were to climb the highest dune. Bilguun drew out the most sensible route for us in the sand; one which would avoid us having to go directly upwards. He was to wait at the bottom with Baggi. We set off with pockets zipped to stop sand getting in and I had my scarf wrapped around my head Lawrence of Arabia style. At first it wasn’t too bad, but soon it became steeper. We stopped to take our shoes off so we could enjoy the feeling of soft sand between our toes. It was really tiring, as with each step, your feet sank into sand up to your ankles and your calves had to work overtime. We cut a zigzag path, which made it a little easier, but it was still exhausting and the sun was beating down, so we had to stop frequently to catch our breath, rest our aching legs, drink some water and, of course, admire the stunning view. Daniel made it to the top first, and seeing him there spurred the rest of us on. As we climbed, the sand cascaded beneath us, trickling like water. Our footprints, deep though they were, didn’t last very long, as the shifting sands and wind erased our path.
The view from the top was breathtaking (as if we had any breath left to take!) and well worth the exertion. It was a gorgeous, crisp autumnal day and the sun was gleaming off the dunes, sometimes so brightly that the sand looked like snow. On the other side, we could see the dunes stretching out before us; a silent sea of sandy crests and milky black shadows carved into sharp relief by the wind, until they were cut off by the distant mountains. Save for the gentle whisking of the wind at the top, it was so quiet and peaceful. However, on our way up, we had heard the ‘singing’ of the dunes – an eerie whirring noise, a bit like a motor, as the wind whipped through the sand and around the peaks.
Going down was much quicker and much more fun than our ascent! Each footstep still sank deep into the sand, but now we were working with gravity and as the ground retreated beneath us, it carried us along, as if we were on a soft, fluid escalator. We saw a couple of small black beetles that eke out their living on the barren dunes. I have seen them on nature documentaries, and there is something comical, busy and endearing about them. I tried to photograph one, but it wouldn’t stay still, so I made a dimple in the sand in front of it. It was momentarily perplexed, but wasn’t going to be fooled a second time, so the photo shoot was cut short. We ran down the last stretch of the dune – it was loads of fun!
At the bottom, Bilguun had been busy and our lunch was ready. We also seemed to have acquired a friendly wandering dog that was grateful for our leftovers. A man had joined us for lunch, which was surprising as we were in the middle of nowhere, but it turned out he was the owner of the camels we were to ride that afternoon and we would be staying at his ger camp that night. He was in his 60s, very friendly, with a big smile and a gold tooth and he joked around quite a lot. We followed his motorbike back to his ger camp, whch was in their winter spot, in a valley. They would on after winter to a new location for the summer. They had around 20 camels that we could see. Some of the camels had their noses pierced with curved pieces of bone or horn, through which they were tethered, others were free to wander. They looked pretty content; chewing, occasionally belching or making their bizarre camel sounds.
On our arrival, we drank warm camel milk with the family, before commencing our camel ride. We had begun to notice a certain routine at this point – on arriving at a ger, Baggi would invariably drape himself over the bed and make himself comfortable and chat away in a very relaxed fashion. I think he is quite the charmer. Both Baggi and Bilguun were born in gers in the countryside, although Bilguun moved to UB when he was around 5 years old as his parents wanted him to get a city education. Inside the family ger, there was a baby, probably around a year old, tied around his waist with a yellow scarf to the leg of the bed, so he wouldn’t crawl and burn himself on the stove. He had a good time staring solemnly at us strange, silly people as we tried to make him laugh.
The camels were saddled up. They were trained to lie down on their bellies so the colourful, woven, padded saddles could be put in place between the humps; when this was done, we clambered up. Once we were in position, they stood up – back legs first, so you were rocked precariously forward, before they heaved themselves up on to their front legs. Their fur was very dense and soft. We were fastened together in a line, with the owner on his camel up front, and ropes passed from the peg in the camel’s nose, around the back hump of the camel in front and into the right hand of the person in front, so effectively everyone was leading the camel behind them. This way the ropes didn’t tend to get very tight, so there was minimal pulling on the noses. We ambled in a sedate line for an hour, followed by two dogs and two other camels, who seemed to have just come along for the walk. I found the saddle pretty comfortable, but my left knee felt twisted by the angle of my foot in the stirrup, so it ached quite a lot by the end of the ride. Aside from the sore knee, it was a relaxing way to travel – with the gentle rolling from side to side, it was hard not to nod off! Luckily, no one did, as it was a long way to the ground! The path we took was stony, but the big padded camel feet coped fine with this. In the distance, we could see the dunes and hazy lilac mountains.
That evening we climbed up the side of the valley to watch the sunset. The goats started to file in from a day on the plains; they looked great standing in a long line on the crest of the hill, with their curved horns silhouetted against the sky.
There was no drop toilet at this camp, and we wondered what you were supposed to do to clear up after a number 2. Sally discovered that we needn’t have worried, as a scruffy little black dog assiduously cleaned up after her! Yuck!
That night, we were invited into the family ger for dinner. They were a lovely couple and the man was curious to find out about our perceptions of nomadic life, and we were able to ask him lots of questions, with the help of Bilguun as interpreter. He came across as a really intelligent, wise man, and very happy with his lot. His wife was a little shy, so didn’t talk as much – I’m not sure if this is partly a cultural thing. I asked how they met. They told us they met at an art show in the town – a kind of three day party. Apparently the man used to be a really good wrestler, but this wasn’t why she fell for him. She had always lived in the town, so when she married him and they moved into a ger in the Gobi with no neighbours for miles around, it was quite a shock for her! She had never milked a camel before, and was quite frightened at first – he had to push her closer to do the milking or she would have got kicked. Gradually, she learned to love the nomadic lifestyle. Now they have been married for 41 years. He seemed pretty open-minded, and told us how he had visited Russia and China to see how other people live. He’s seen it, and he wouldn’t want to live any other way. So many people crammed together in the cities; the noise and pollution. Why would you forgo the space, peace and closeness to nature you get as a nomad in Mongolia for that? I can’t argue with him – I can see the attraction myself! Although, I don’t think I would cope with the solitude.
I played the flute again, and Baggi and the man sang a beautiful traditional Mongolian song about childhood. That night, after another improvised roof patching job, we all slept really well in our toasty warm ger.