The Wonders of the Gobi
Melissa Coleman, a PJ travel designer, recounts her first visit to the Gobi Desert. It is just a short flight from the lush heartland of Mongolia to the hottest and driest region of Mongolia; the South Gobi.
Having heard tales of dinosaur remains found in this area, I was keen to see with my own eyes the ‘Flaming Cliffs’ of Bayanzag. In 1922, American palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews first discovered fossil beds of dinosaur bones and the first ever recorded dinosaur eggs here in amongst the canyons and red sandstone cliffs of Bayanzag (‘Rich in Saxaul’), just 65km north west of Dalanzadgad. Sunset is an incredible time to visit this area as the striking cliffs look alight with the red soil complementing the sun’s dying rays.
The stars in the sky over the open horizons of the vast Mongolian Gobi Desert are hypnotising. Having an idea of certain northern hemisphere constellations was definitely a bonus but ultimately it was priceless to be allowed the time to just sit, look and appreciate the beauty of such a celestial extravaganza.
Puffing and panting I was determined to make it up the highest sand dune in the Khongoryn Els range. Towering at 300m above my head, I feared this challenge may have been a little optimistic, especially in the searing heat of the morning with the imposing and dramatic Altai Mountains as the backdrop. As the wind whistled along the sand, an eerie sound grew louder; these are not called the ‘Singing Dunes’ for nothing. Vibrations rose up through my body from the sand as I sat, mesmerized by the peace and splendour of the nothingness surrounding me; the terrific emptiness of it all.
I could smell my new mode of transport approaching … and then it appeared from behind a smaller dune. Humphrey, my Bactrian camel, was to be my trusty steed for the next couple of hours. Camels are incredibly versatile – they can last a week without water, a month without food, can carry up to 250kg, provide wool, milk and are a great source of (somewhat gamey) meat. In (surprising) comfort I rode, hair flicking wildly in the wind, sun beating down – I could truly have been featuring in my own Lawrence of Arabia scene. I felt such peace and serenity there; I didn’t want it to end.
Entering the camel herder’s ger, the typically Mongolian aroma of fermenting dairy products hit me. As my face began to give away the fact I wasn’t particularly keen on such a whiff, a mug of suutei tsai (salty Mongolian milk tea) was thrust into my hands and oh so generously, aaruul (dried curds) was next on the menu … Dried curds can be stored almost indefinitely. Describing them as ‘quite solid’ is an understatement. In fact, some say that chewing on these is the reason that nomadic Mongolians have very few problems with their teeth!
What is this? Ice – in the Gobi? Well I never! Smiling under the big blue sky and with a chill in the air I strode down the narrow gorge of Yolyn Am. Being entertained by the playful pika’s (small round-eared mammals) dancing at my feet, I was careful to keep my eyes peeled for the infamous lammergeyers (bearded vultures), giant argali (wild sheep) and rare Siberian Ibex. Avoiding the Mongolian horses being ridden up and down the gorge, I followed the little stream until I could go no further. The remains of the last glacier in the Gobi Desert were in front of me at last; glinting in the sun light and showing off the splendour of its blue underbelly. Being midsummer, the ice was a fraction of its winter self – where it can reach an immense 10m high and continue down the gorge a further 10km.
One of the harshest places on earth even throughout the summer months, this arid land has been made home by Mongolian nomadic people for many years. As with many other places in Mongolia, the Gobi surely would be an incredible place to visit in the winter months too …