I actually woke up just before sunrise, hoping for something worthwhile. I didn’t get it – it was flat and colourless, with haze and clouds in the sky. I didn’t even bother turning my camera on to look at it through the viewfinder, hoping to salvage something worthwhile from being awake at 5:40AM.
We had an ‘early’ breakfast as we were going to have a big day of driving ahead of us. It was fried pancakes again, but this time we didn’t get any jam – the jam helped to mask some of the grease.
One last visit to the awesome toilet. It was truly a ‘loo with a view’. There was a door, but the wind usually made it too difficult to shut, so you’d have a great view outside of the sand dunes while using the toilet. I haven’t spent much time in non first-world countries, so this was a new toilet experience for me – a hole in the floor of a small wooden shed above a pit full of excrement. I wasn’t put off, and it really didn’t bother me, it was just something new for me. It’s not a pretty sight, but if you want to see, the picture will be in the thumbnails below.
We said goodbye to the herder family, but to be honest, they didn’t really seem that bothered. I think we’ll miss Mr. Dangle (our name for their little black dog) and the two sickly baby goats more than the family, too. They weren’t rude or impolite, just indifferent to us existing.
We didn’t travel far before we made our first stop. We got out and walked to a little stream that was running. It was a considerable amount of water, and really changed my opinion of what deserts are like. There was a strange amount of water that was disappearing down into the ground, too.
There was a really strange fruit growing in the sand – it almost looked like a red/purple mushroom. Our guide reached down and tried to pull it out of the ground – she had no luck, but I managed to pluck one out. Hard to believe that it’s a sweet tasting fruit, but we will give it a try once we are back in UB and report back.
We continued the drive south, following the sand dunes all the way. The dunes are inside a valley surrounded by large, black mountains. It was a long, long drive today, over rough and corrugated roads. Apart from the sand dunes and mountains, it felt like we were back in outback Australia.
The one major difference to our time in Australia was the amount of water and greenery in the middle of the desert. We’d visited a large saxaul forest on Monday, but it looked like a bunch of dried out dead shrubs. However, here we were seeing them green and in bloom.
Another big difference between here and Australia were the free paths for roads. It seems that after one set of tracks gets too corrugated or rough, someone will start a new set of tracks parallel to the existing ones. This then continues on and on until there is a superhighway-like set of trails across the land.
The rough roads lasted for a couple of hours, the whole time we were flanked by amazing mountains. I did wonder how high they were, and how long it would take to climb, but since we didn’t have time for me to climb them (and with the weather the way it was, there wouldn’t be much to see anyway), I tried to put that thought out of my head. The desert eventually returned back to steppe, and there started to be more signs of life.
We stopped in a small settlement to restock on water and snacks – ice cream!! The town seems to just exist in the middle of the desert, ending just as abruptly as it begins. Our guide tells us that we are going to get lunch here in this town, so we follow her around the corner to a small restaurant. It seemed like most of the foreigners in the area were also in this little restaurant. The restaurant seemed to only serve one thing – buuz, those meaty Mongolian steamed dumplings. After having one bite of the juicy treats, I understood why all the tour groups stopped here. Easily the best we’d had, and they were only T500 ($0.30) each!
When we arrived at the restaurant I was jealous of two German men on their motorbikes travelling around Mongolia. That was until I spoke with them and realised that the Chinese bikes that they’d hired required daily repairs, usually taking a few hours. For whatever reason, they said that renting was their only option, and they couldn’t get anything more reliable. Less keen to travel Mongolia on a Chinese bike after speaking with them…
There was still a lot of driving left before we got to Yolyn Am. The weather had gradually gotten worse (not bad, just not photogenic), and now that we were quite high (2300m) it had become quite cool, too.
Yolyn Am is a special national park, and it was amazing how much better condition the road was here. The road was smooth and there were even road signs! Our experience of national parks in Australia was that they generally had the worst condition roads…
We had originally paid to do a horse ride up the canyon, but we were told that it was too early in the tourist season, so there would be no one there offering horses to ride. I didn’t know much about the area, so thought that a horse ride would be fun. I didn’t realise that it was only a 3km walk, and that we were probably only able to take horses half way, making the whole exercise pointless anyway.
The canyon was quite spectacular, but Risa seemed to be more interested in the ground squirrels and little rabbits we could hear squeaking and see running into their burrows.
The canyon kept getting narrower and narrower, and after a while we started to see patches of ice. The ice kept getting thicker and thicker as the canyon kept becoming narrower. The canyon eventually became so narrow that there were no options but to walk across the ice. There were small streams running along the surface of the ice, which would occasionally end in a waterfall down a deep and dark hole. Seeing just how deep/thick the ice was made us more than a little nervous about walking much further.
Eventually our guide said it was too dangerous and that we should turn back. Actually, she said that several times, but she eventually managed to persuade me.
On the way out, we stopped at a small tourist shop (lots of nice handmade products, but nothing we needed). There was also the small Southern Gobi Museum – T2000 ($1). It seemed to mostly consist of (horrendously) stuffed animals. The taxidermy was some of the worst we had seen. Risa burst into laughter at some of them, which seemed a little inappropriate with the museum attendant standing beside us. I didn’t blame her, I just used more restraint.
Our final night was in a ger camp just behind the museum. It was actually run by the same lady that was working in the souvenir shop. We sat and watched her make dinner. She started rolling out dough as if she was making pizza (which got me a little excited). Then she started rubbing camel fat (lard) all over it and searing it on the top of the fireplace. The dough was then cut into small noodle-sized pieces, ending my curiosity.
These noodles were added to the meat and vegetable mix she had already prepared. It simmered for a while, and we sat in her tent and relaxed while the driver went outside and washed the car ready for his next tour tomorrow – just as it was beginning to rain.
The meal was genuinely amazing, and although I keep saying this, it was one of the best meals we had in Mongolia. I greedily chased a second bowl.
As we were all finishing up dinner, our guide brought out a bottle of vodka and shots were poured for us all. Luckily there were enough of us that the vodka didn’t last too many rounds (and we didn’t get too boozed).
The rain steadily got heavier, and outdoor toilets quickly became a whole lot less enjoyable. Oh, and the toilet here was a new level of basic – a small fabric barrier on one side to offer privacy, and literally two planks over a mid-sized hole filled with excrement. Again, it wasn’t a problem, just a new ‘experience’.