Home to ger-dwelling nomads, dinosaur bones and the ghosts of Genghis Khan, Mongolia's great desert is surprisingly rich in attractions. An award-winning local guide showed Lyn Hughes around
The black curtain stretched across the horizon. Was it a range of hills? Or low cloud? We pulled up 100m or so from the ominous wall, several kilometres long, and gawped in amazement.
It was a dust storm.
We drove on into the maelstrom, having to shout to be heard above the noise of the sand and dust as it hit the vehicle, chipping the windscreen and windows. Even Goyo, my guide, used to the natural phenomena of the Gobi, was awestruck.
We had to trust the driver to find the way – there was no tarmac and no GPS to guide us, just the tread marks of other vehicles. Once we were through, a rain shower hit us. “It could even snow,” said Goyo. June in Mongolia, and the weather is as capricious as a spring lamb.
We had headed south from Ulaanbaatar – known locally as UB – that morning, passing herds of horses, goats and sheep, numerous steppe eagles, and even seagulls – a somewhat unexpected sight in the world’s most landlocked country.
We’d stopped at an ovoo, a sacred cairn, and circumambulated it three times, adding a stone each time, as is the custom if you wish for a fortuitous journey. Previous visitors had left offerings of money, a horse’s head and blue scarves – the symbol of sky, eternity and peace.
By mid afternoon we’d seen our first camels – two-humped Bactrians, their coats shaggy and moulting. Not long afterwards, we hit the dust storm, and sensed we were in the Gobi proper.
We could have flown from UB to our destination in the South Gobi, but we had something special to see on the way. As runner-up in the 2007 Paul Morrison Guide Awards, Goyo – full name Goyotsetseg Radnaabazar – had spent her bursary on her mother’s tree nursery, and we’d chosen to drive via her home town of Mandalgovi to meet her family and see the trees.
The capital of Dundgovi aimag (province), the town was formed in the 1940s and now has a population of around 14,000. It has all the amenities you might expect: a couple of hotels, a small museum, a hospital and a lively bar/nightclub, complete with disco ball and Robbie Williams soundtrack. The town centre is fringed with compounds, each with a traditional ger, their doorways facing south, while wooden cabins provide cooler lodgings for summer.
Goyo’s family live in such a compound. They welcomed me warmly into their ger, where we drank large cups of sweet, milky tea. Goyo’s mother, Byamba, had just returned from speaking at an environmental conference in UB and her eyes sparkled as she told Goyo about it.
Her husband Radna, Goyo’s stepfather, beamed from behind his greying beard and offered me snuff, a traditional greeting to an honoured guest. Pumba, a nine-year-old niece, adopted me as her new best friend, while 18-year-old Bonji smiled shyly whenever I caught his eye.
Goyo and I headed up the town’s hill to get a view of the tree nursery. The wind at the summit was the strongest I had ever encountered, and I clutched a lamp post as we gazed down at the enclosure of spindly shrubs and trees.
The trees didn’t look much more impressive when I saw them close up the next morning. It was a shock to find that some of them were 29 years old, planted when Byamba was carrying Goyo. But then the wind blew a little harder, and you could see how the dozen different types of bush and tree – including willow, used in the building of gers, and saxaul, a natural desert stabiliser – were acting as a windbreak, protecting the town from the brunt of the wind’s force.
This was once a government-owned project, but when Mongolia gained its independence Byamba bought the eight hectares herself. “These trees are like my children. I have tended every one and watched them grow,” she announced.
Byamba showed me the trees that were planted thanks to the bursary money, before inviting me to plant a sapling on behalf of Wanderlust. The family then had a surprise for me – a sign was brought out and thrust into a pre-dug hole. When it was unveiled it read “Paul Morrison, Wanderlust”. I was glad of my dark glasses as I was invited to tie a blue scarf around it.
Back at the ger, the family cooperated in putting together a feast of a lunch, and afterwards we whiled away the hours playing games with the ankle bones of sheep and goats – games that have been played for hundreds of years.
I rose at dawn the next morning and walked down the broad street that passed the compound. The wind carried clouds of sand past me, depositing it in ripples on the street, creating a haze that obstructed the view of the sprawling town.
In the nursery my newly planted tree was trembling in the wind; secure, though, between the sturdy stakes that supported it. I walked along the rows of Wanderlust trees and bushes, and stood for a while by the Paul Morrison sign. Nearby, a wagtail bobbed around.
A few drops of rain were being carried on the wind, and then more, a sheet of water stinging my face and filling the hollows around the trees with some much-needed water. The parched earth sucked it up greedily, leaving little trace. When I returned a couple of hours later all signs of moisture had disappeared.
After bidding the family goodbye, Goyo and I set off on the long drive south. This may be desert but the ground is gravel rather than sand, the colours subtle and ever changing – greys, duns and pastel greens. It would be easy to describe the landscape as featureless but there was always a herd of sheep, cattle or camels in view, while a dot on the horizon could turn into a ger, a motorbike or a camel.
At one point there was a menacing dust cloud on the horizon on the left, while a rainstorm loomed on our right. Mirages abounded, like tempting, silvery lakes twinkling at us.
We pulled up for lunch near a well, busy with several herds of horses, sheep and camels. The herders’ dogs barked at us, discouraging us from going too close. “This is a meeting place for everyone, like an old village pump,” explained Goyo. “The herders can exchange news about the sheep and the weather and so on.”
We were now in the South Gobi, Mongolia’s largest but least-populated aimag. Every now and then we would pass a ger, usually with a motorbike outside as well as a horse or two. Some had satellite dishes, and even solar panels.
As the sun sank in the sky we could see the mountain range known as Gurvansaikhan Nuruu or the ‘Three Beauties’. We passed the local capital, Dalanzadgad, and spent the night in a nearby ger camp, driving to the airport the next morning to pick up some travellers who had flown down from UB.
“We’re just driving through emptiness!” exclaimed one of the newly arrived visitors as we headed out to our base for the next few days, the Three Camel Lodge. But by now my eyes had adjusted to the sights of the desert; to the larks, cranes and sand grouse, the small scattered herds of livestock, the sun-bleached bones, the mirages and ever-changing light.
The lodge is essentially a ger camp, but perhaps the most luxurious and environmentally conscious in Mongolia. The main wooden building was built using traditional methods, and the restaurant is circular, like an oversized ger. The gers themselves contain carved beds and wood-burning stoves, and electricity is solar-powered. A percentage of the profits funds projects such as tree planting, while measures are taken to ensure that local people benefit from the lodge.
Heading back to the Three Beauties mountains the next morning, we explored the beautiful Dungenee Gorge, scouring the cliffs on either side for ibex or argali (wild sheep) to no avail. Snow leopards also inhabit these prey-rich mountains. However, all we spotted – besides some calves and horses – were hundreds of pika, a rabbit-sized rodent.
The nearby Yolyn Am gorge is famous for its bird life, including the lammergeier, or bearded vulture. We hired horses to ride through the superb scenery, and I scanned the sky for signs of the huge raptors. It was too late in the morning for them, but a golden eagle did make a guest appearance. The day was warm, the sun burning down, but a surprise awaited at the end of the gorge, where a huge slab of ice filled a narrow side-valley.
Around 200 million years ago the Gobi was a vast inland sea, which helped to explain the turtle motifs I’d noticed along the way – and even the rather surreal ger-restaurant that had been built in the shape of a turtle.
After the ocean came the dinosaurs. Some remarkable palaeontological finds were discovered here in the 1920s by the American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, including the first dinosaur nests ever found and many dinosaur and fossilised mammal skeletons. Subsequent finds have made this one of the most important places in the world for dinosaur fossils. Most of the discoveries were near a spot dubbed the Flaming Cliffs by Andrews but known locally as Bayan Zag.
The area’s stunning red sandstone cliffs and ravines, combined with the lure of dinosaurs, have made this one of the most touristed spots in the Gobi. We avoided the other visitors and explored a stand of saxaul trees, the remnants of what was once a forest. One moment there was no one in sight, the next two lads rode up on motorbikes with a box of soft drinks and some souvenirs, calling “Shop, shop!”. The people of the Gobi may be herders, but they’re learning to benefit from tourism, albeit in a gentle way.
We visited a nearby ger family and arranged a camel ride. The Bactrian camels are smaller than dromedaries and have two humps. Wild Bactrians are now endangered and you would be exceptionally lucky to see one, but domesticated animals are still widely used for transport and dairy products, as well as for bearing tourists.
A few world-weary camels were saddled up and we took a ride around the steppe. The command “Choo choo” got them going, and we set off at a gentle pace. Sitting between their two humps felt secure, and the slightly rolling gait was surprisingly comfortable. Back inside the ger we were offered fermented camel’s milk to drink, creamy and strong, and then nibbled on a feta-like sheep cheese.
By now it was early evening and the other tourists had left for the day, so we drove to the top of one of the cliffs where fossils had been found. To our surprise, there were stalls selling petrified wood, gemstones and fossils; even a fossilised seashell, and what was alleged to be a dinosaur egg.
It was a shock to find that Bayan Zag is not officially protected. We’d spotted litter, sandstone being broken off by tourists and saxaul being used as firewood by locals. Tumen, the manager of the Three Camel Lodge, is passionate about conserving the Gobi, and is fighting to have Bayan Zag made a national park so that it can be regulated and preserved. An admission charge could ensure that the local village benefits.
Tumen was a mine of knowledge on everything from the wildlife to the environmental issues and history of the southern Gobi. He took us to see some petroglyphs he had discovered near the lodge. We picked our way up a steep, rock-strewn hillside, pausing in front of a 10,000-year-old burial site. Further up we came across several simple drawings on the rocks – some fish and what was possibly a horse – then a more sophisticated female ibex, and more horses.
At the top was a ridge, overlooking the plains. “Welcome to the Gallery!” announced Tumen, directing me towards a rock face covered in several drawings. Some of the shapes were mystifying: were they humanoid? Or aliens? It was all rather baffling. I was left feeling, as I had so many times in the Gobi, that there was so much more still to discover here.
Looking out over the vast plain, Tumen told tales of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, indicating where the mighty leader had spent a winter preparing for war. Then, perhaps inevitably, the conversation turned to dinosaurs again, and he pointed out the spot in which the remains of 15 dinosaurs were found in the 1990s.
The next day I flew back to UB and headed straight to the Natural History Museum to look at the dinosaur skeletons and eggs I had heard so much about. Sure enough, there were many of the finds in all their glory. But somehow they seemed out of place in these gloomy rooms, rather than in the elemental landscape of the Gobi. I did see one familiar sight, though. “Shop, shop!” I heard. I turned to look, and there, in the corner of the main exhibition room, stood a table laid out with dinosaur souvenirs.
The author travelled with Panoramic Journeys (01608 811183, www.panoramicjourneys.com). The tree nursery takes a few volunteers each summer. Contact Panoramic Journeys for details. The author arranged a guide and itinerary in Beijing through the very helpful Top China Tour (www.topchinatour.com).