Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows, and Suzanne Roberts, winner of the "Next Great Travel Writer" essay contest, have been exploring Mongolia and sending IT dispatches along the way. In her last dispatch, Suzanne continues her quest for the "Real Mongolia," this time finding it in the Gobi desert.
Legend has it that the Gobi was created by the stampede of Genghis Khan’s horses, flattening the scrubby desert. In the distance, outcrops of rocky, black hills bubble from the plains, reminding me of a desert not far from where I live, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, home of the famous, or infamous depending on whom you talk to, Burning Man Festival. But here, meager grasslands cover the sand, providing food for the Bactrain camel, wild horse, and wild ass. This ancient inland sea is also home to the endangered wild camel and Gobi bear, the only desert-dwelling bear in the world (and there are only about 30 left). The Gobi occupies about a third of Mongolia, but it is one of the most sparsely populated area in the world, with only one person per square kilometer. The area is rich in coal, copper, and gold, and China, Japan, and Canada are all getting involved in mining. This will create jobs and revenue, but I can’t help but wonder about the environmental implications upon this amazing ecosystem.
We drive into the “city” of Dalanzadgad, and warped wooden fences enclose small parcels of land that contain gers, motorcycles, and cars in various stages of disrepair. We stop at a convenience store for batteries and water. A khadag, a piece of blue silk hangs from the ceiling, a welcoming sign. The store carries various sundries—sodas, snacks, beer, vodka and more vodka.
We load back into the all-terrain vehicles and bump along the roadless desert to the Three Camel Lodge, an eco-lodge that practices responsible and sustainable tourism. They take advantage of wind and solar power and use both local products and people. The roof of the main building was built by local artisans in accordance with traditional Mongolian Buddhist architecture, without using nails. The tourist gers here are luxurious with in-suite bathrooms, queen beds, robes, and slippers—a nomadic Four Seasons.
Before lunch, I set off for a hike across the plains to, well, nowhere. Crickets and geckos scurry out of my way as I cross the desert. A shepherd on a motorcycle herds sheep, waves as he zooms past. A couple of gers dot the otherwise empty landscape. Sadly, I collect a couple of plastic water bottles next to the dirt “road” we came in on. Although the plastic bottles are few and far between, they are an ominous reminder of what may be in the future as the Gobi becomes a more popular travel destination.
After lunch, we head for the “Flaming Cliffs,” named by Roy Chapman
Andrews, the American explorer and alleged inspiration for Hollywood’s Indiana
Jones. Andrews stumbled across dinosaur eggs and fossils
in the area in 1923 when he was looking for the animal that would link
humans to apes. After the discovery, he led subsequent expeditions to
recover dinosaur bones, leading to the discovery of previously unknown
species, such as protoceratops and velociraptor. Many of the dinosaur skeletons in the Museum of Natural History in Ulaanbaatar were found in this area.
At the top of the red cliffs, vendors sell fossils and dinosaur bones, which our paleontologist says are real. One little girl selling her wares tells me she wants to grow up to be a paleontologist, so I introduce her to Dr. Ichinnorov, who has come with us to the Gobi. Dr. Ichinnorov is a researcher of stratigraphy and paleontology at the Mongolian Academy of the Sciences in Ulaanbaatar. The tour group we are with, Travcoa, has arranged for her to give us lectures and accompany us to the site. Admittedly, I have never traveled with a tour group before, but details such as these create amazing learning opportunities and experiences.
On the way back from the Flaming Cliffs, we stop at the camel breeders. They invite us into their ger for fermented camel’s milk. Although Keith and I are the only ones brave enough to try the milk, I find it quite delicious—a bit like plain yogurt, really. I bring gifts of crayons and colored markers for the children and spend some time coloring with the little girls; then we are off for our camel rides. Zu, an 83-year old granny who is traveling with us, is among the first in our group to hop onto a camel, making her an inspiration to us all.
After our camel rides and another bumpy jeep ride, we return to the Three Camel Lodge, get cleaned up, and enjoy wine on the terrace—not exactly “roughing it.” The sun sets, washing the desert horizon with a swath of yellow light, and I realize that this too—in addition to the bustling city life of Ulaanbatar—is the “real” Mongolia.
The next day, we make an early start to hike into the gorge at Yolyn Am in the Zuun Saikhan mountain range. As we wind through this rocky gorge, hundreds of jerboa—rodents that the Mongolian call “ground mice,” but look to me like pika or giant hamsters—scatter across the grass. Streams cut through the green canyon and we hike up past many ovoos, circling these sacred rock piles three times for fortune and fulfilled wishes.
Vendors race past us on horseback to set up their wares, and I buy a camel-hair hat, which I am happy to have when we reach the shady ice-filled canyon, and the temperature suddenly drops. Who would have thought there would still be ice in this hot desert? The terrain of the Gobi is astounding in its diversity—scrub, sand dunes, mountains, canyons and glacier all within 100 kilometers—truly making it one of the natural wonders of the world.
Photo: Suzanne Roberts