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.