Back when I was first googling “Mongolia” after receiving my placement from Peace Corps in 2015, I started a mental checklist of things I wanted to do while here.
High on the list was “ride a camel”.
With just two months left in Mongolia, time was dwindling on making it happen, so when my friends Brandon and Godwin started planning a trip through the Gobi Desert and asked James and I if we wanted to go, I jumped at the opportunity.
Godwin planned the three-day trip with the help of Tuya, the woman who owns Gobi Sunrise Tours, and who we knew through word-of-mouth from other volunteers. She put together a reasonably-priced plan and package for us that ticked all the boxes.
The timing of the trip itself could not have been worse, everything in life seems to happen all at once, and it was a frantic week leading up to the trip. Still, we made it to our bus on time and began the journey.
As I have mentioned many times, Mongolia is big, and traveling takes a lot of time. Just getting to the Gobi took an 8 hour bus ride from Our Town to UB, then another 10 hour bus ride from UB to Dalanzadgad, the regional capital of Omnogovi.
The first night in Dalanzadgad we stayed with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Kaelynn, and early the next morning, we were off.
If I’ve learned anything about traveling in Mongolia it’s that the right driver and car can make or break your experience. My first clue that our driver, Adiya, was a real pro was that he was half an hour early to come pick us up; this in a country where no one shows up to anything less than twenty minutes late. By the time he showed us a picture of him driving Michelle Rodriguez (you know, Letty, from the Fast Furious movies), I was sure we were in good hands.
By 8:15 we were already in front of the local Natural History Museum and asking around to see if anyone had a key to get in. The museum was filled with taxidermy animals that were by turns balding, misshapen, and unlabeled. As someone who is going back to school to study museums, it was depressing, but as your average museum-goer, it was entertaining.
After having a good chuckle, and taking mental notes of which animals to keep a lookout for, we proceeded down to Yolyn Am, the Eagle’s Mouth, or Valley of the Eagles. It is a narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains where an ice field used to stay year round, but thanks to global warming, it now melts around September.
The hike through Yolyn Am was very pretty and the closer we got to the ice field, the narrower the gorge became and the more difficult the passage.
When we got to the ice field, we couldn’t go any further because the ice was too unstable to walk on. Almost as soon as we took out the camera to take some pictures before turning back around, a huge rush of tourists showed up and starting forming a line behind us. I was shocked.
Seeing a foreigner in most places in Mongolia is pretty rare, it is truly one of the least diverse places on the planet. Tourists tend to congregate around designated tour-appointed places which are not the places I usually find myself at. As it turns out however, guided tours around the Gobi are very popular, and we were right on the tourist path. Whole buses (I am still not sure how those buses were 4-wheeling across the desert, but in Mongolia everything is possible) full of tourists would pull up to popular attractions in a manner that reminded me of the way buses full of tourists wearing matching tee-shirts show up at the Grand Canyon.
From that point on, we made it our mission to start everything earlier than planned and keep ahead of the crowds.
Back in the car, we drove to a small town’s diner where food was waiting for us in a private back room.
After lunch, we drove further across the desert to the sand dunes where we stayed at Ganbold’s Ger Camp. Really, it should be called Ukhee’s Ger Camp, because it was Ganbold’s eldest daughter, Ukhee, who took care of everything. She was a lovely host who seemed very amused by our attempts at speaking Mongolian. Between the four of us, our Mongolian is nearly fluent, but between the heavy regional accent and the speed at which they spoke, we might as well have been utter beginners. At one point, James asked Ukhee for a broom and we discovered that they used a completely different word for broom in the South.
We spent our first evening walking around the dunes and having fun jumping around in the soft sand.
All four of us were up at the crack of dawn, ready for the day. Today was the day we were going to ride camels! Unfortunately no one else was ready so we had to sit around playing cards for a couple hours until the camels were ready.
Bactrian camels differ from your standard camel in that they have two humps, and grow a thick fluffy coat in the winter to protect them from the cold. Most of the wool is shaved off in the summer, but on most camels they leave the wool between the two humps to act as padding for ridders. Camel wool is soft and super warm: I have my fair share of camel wool socks that are very beloved. They are very comfortable to ride too because their two humps act like a seat with a backrest and something to hold onto in front.
I enjoy the occasional horseback ride as much as anyone else, but I’ll pick riding a camel over a horse any day. Even though bactrian camels are enormous and I was high off the ground, I felt really secure. My camel knelt down on his knees so I could get on and off comfortably, and once between the humps, I didn’t think I was going to fall off easily. The harness was just a carpet draped over the camel’s back with some stirrups sewed in. My camel didn’t listen to my steering instructions at all, but since it just wanted to follow/race the camel in front of it, I didn’t really care. Also unlike horses, the camels never seem in much of a rush, and are very relaxed about the whole wandering around the desert thing.
We rode them around the dunes for a couple of hours and it was everything I thought it would be.
Looking back, I spent a lot of the trip fawning over various animals. That afternoon, I checked another thing off my list when I cuddled one of the baby goats that was roaming around the ger camp. Once I started I couldn’t stop, and when we stopped at an “oasis” I became the goat whisperer as Brandon and James herded all the kids around me.
The oasis was a pit stop on the way Mongolia’s highest sand dune, Hongoryn Els, about one hour away from our ger camp. It is part of a series of dunes, called the Singing Dunes because of the sound the sand makes when it is disturbed. We had to wait until the late afternoon to begin the climb to give the sand time to cool down. It doesn’t show in the pictures, but it really was very high and very steep. From the bottom we watched people try to climb it like little ants in the distance. Many gave up before the top. We plotted a route, took off our shoes, left everything with Adiya in the car and started up. We risked bringing James’ phone to the top because it is in a neigh indestructible water-proof case but I am happy we left everything else because the fine sand got everywhere. It was steep on the top half we had to crawl up on our hands and feet, sinking our limbs into the soft sand to get a grip.
About 3/4 of the way up, we heard a deep rumbling sound and thought there must be a helicopter on the other side of the dune before realizing that we had made the dune start singing. It was a strange experience seeing a sloooow-moving sand avalanche making such a loud sound.
Climbing to the top took us almost an hour and was one of the most exhausting things I have done in a long time (have I mentioned I recently ran a 10k?). It was rewarding though because the views were spectacular. Again there was no camera, so you’ll have to trust me on this one.
We slept especially well that night.
Day 3 was a lot of driving, but that doesn’t mean it was at all boring. After saying goodbye to Ukhee and the baby goats, we 4-wheeled through the desert until one of the back wheels on the car separated and we had to stop. Replacing the wheel only took about half an hour and then we were back on the road.
We got to Khavtsgait right before lunch time. At the top of the mountain are petroglyphs that date as far back as 8000 BCE.
Some of the petroglyphs were elaborate, and all were beautiful. I liked that I had to hike around the mountain to find them, like a scavenger hunt with no clues. It made me feel like I was the one discovering them.
From there we drove toward the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs. Along the trail, Adiya stopped suddenly for a jackrabbit in the middle of the road that would not move.
We got out of the car and walked toward it and still it did not move. Adiya almost touched it before it ran away and I noticed a second rabbit laying down near a small bush. We had stumbled across a rabbit giving birth to three baby rabbits RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF US. The second rabbit looked slightly panicked, but she couldn’t move seeing as how she was actively giving birth. After watching the miracle of life three times, we backed away slowly and gave mom some space.
The Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs are striking red cliffs that overlook a vast expanse of desert. It is most famous for its fossils, including the first dinosaur eggs found in the 1920s. There are no fossils left visible, and it is illegal to take them even if you find one, but the terrain and softness of the rock makes it likely there are more fossils underfoot. I could easily imagine velociraptors making their nests among the cliffs.
I can imagine that the cliffs are at their most fantastic during golden hour, but they were still stunning in the mid-afternoon when we visited. We explored the whole area and had some fun taking pictures before we had to head back to Dalazadgad.
Since Kaelynn had left to help with a summer camp, we had no place to stay for the night, so Tuya generously let us stay in her house and even drove us to the bus station the next day.
The Gobi is arguably Mongolia’s most famous tourist destination. Yes, there are sometimes crowds, but not without reason. The area is gorgeous and you can see so many different sights in a relatively short amount of time. With the right vehicle and driver, even the drive is fun. It was a spectacular trip, and I am glad I made it a priority to visit before leaving Mongolia. Not only that, but I am so thankful that I got to do it with such great friends.