6AM pickup on a foggy morning in Ulaanbaatar. Even though there was zero traffic, the traffic lights slowed everything right down. Both us were also feeling really sick, probably the start of a cold from being cold the other night at the horse riding camp.
It was surprising how many brand new apartments and shopping malls on the edge of town. Oh, that and the big steaming power stations that our ex-pat friends have joked about.
It was a smooth check-in for our flight to Dalanzadgad. Passed through security, only to find a bare bones waiting room. There was nowhere to buy breakfast – not even a toilet.
The plane was a small Fokker 50 twin propeller plane and for the first time ever, we got first row seats! Thoughts about it being like first class quickly disappeared – they weren’t great seats. We sat right next to propeller, so a little noisy and the view was obstructed, too. But, since it was cloudy we weren’t missing much.
Dalanzadgad was much, much warmer than UB. Sun was baking down, skies were clear, and there was a nice strong constant cool breeze. It (unsurprisingly) really looked like the desert. It was flat and barren, but there were beautiful mountains in the distance.
The tour guide, Altaa, and the driver, Bagi, were a little late picking us up. We were a little worried for just a second, as this was a last minute (as everything I do seems to be) booking. All the other passengers had left the airport, and the only other person still hanging around was a vulturous (though, I’m sure quite a lovely person) taxi driver. Altaa rushed out with a notepad with my name scribbled on it. Best news? They picked us up in a Delica!
We popped in to downtown Dalanzadgad (not much to see there) and got some money to pay for the tour (their credit payment system wasn’t working with my cards) and to grab some supplies, like water. It also was the laziest supermarket check-out worker ever!
We were back in the Delica and on our way to the flaming cliffs of Bayanzag. The bitumen quickly turned to a gravel track, which quickly turned to wheel marks through the desert. There were no signs, and tracks seemed to frequently diverge and converge. It looked like people would create their own new lane once the old one started to get a little corrugated, so at times it looked like there were five or six lanes – like a desert superhighway. The area was so flat and smooth (generally) that you could just drive anywhere you wanted and create your own new road.
After an hour or so of driving, our driver asked us (via the guide) if we wanted to see his ger. We found out later there must have been some error in the translation, as it wasn’t his ger, but rather a nomadic herder’s. They had hundreds of goats, and Risa and I were charmed by the ridiculously cute baby goats, though catching them isn’t as easy as they made it look. I couldn’t help but laugh when the goats started making noises similar to the screaming goats that did the Internet rounds last year – if you haven’t seen it, search youtube for screaming goats.
We were invited in to their home, and given some tea and snacks. The tea was made from goat’s milk, and was actually really delicious. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. To complete the cultural exchange, I brought out the Vegemite, and put a small amount on the bread sticks they served us. They seemed to find it interesting, but again, no one asked for a second serving… It was a simple house, with a strong smell of the sheep skins that are used to insulate it. However, it wasn’t without the modern comforts of satellite television! Their little son (14 months) enjoyed watching My Little Pony (dubbed in Mongolian) while he was fed his brunch.
We stayed for a little while asking questions via our interpreter guide, and while it was truly interesting being there with them, it felt a little awkward and intrusive. We were told that Mongolian nomad culture welcomes all and any who visit.
After another hour or so of driving along the same desert super highway, we came to a ger tourist camp. The driver got out and had a word with a man who had come out of a tent. They negotiated for us to stay here for the night, and also organised for dinner. It was interesting how fluid this tour was, with no pre-planned accommodation or food. We weren’t worried, not at all, just interested in the different way of doing things here.
We moved our bags inside the tent and were told to rest for a while. We got some hot water to make some instant noodles (we were warned that lunch wasn’t going to be possible when we were shopping in Dalanzadgad) and had an afternoon nap. I’d only planned to rest for an hour or so, but we slept for nearly three hours, waking up just before we were to meet and go to see the saxaul forest and the flaming cliffs. I guess we were tired.
The saxaul forest was a bit of a non-event, to be honest. Things might be different at different times of the year, but when we were there, it looked like a heap of dead shrubs. Looking closer we could see that there were a few sprouts of life, thanks to the rain that fell recently. These trees, though diminutive, are actually hundreds of years old. I guess lack of nutrition makes natural bonsai trees.
I noticed in the distance that a motorbike was stopped near our van. I guessed the guy was broken down. I actually laughed out loud when I realised he was a hawker, with his wares on display. Risa actually really wanted one of those small stuffed camels, and luckily hadn’t already bought one. At least buying one from this guy we could be fairly certain the money was going to the producer (his mum). I have to admit they were pretty cute, but I’m just not really in to ‘things’. It was T10,000 ($6), so it wasn’t going to break the bank. Though, I felt a little bad, hardly worth the effort to come all the way out here for a (in my mind) small sale.
From a distance, the Flaming Cliffs looked a lot smaller than I was expecting. I didn’t expect The Grand Canyon scale, but I did expect something rather large. We started driving towards the cliffs, but the driver started to veer away. I thought that maybe he knew a good vantage point for me to view (and photograph) the cliffs from. I was wrong. He opened the door for us (as he did every single time we stopped) and grabbed a small plastic brush and started walking up a hill. We were going fossil hunting! I’d read that the area was originally famous for a large discovery of dinosaur fossils, including nests of eggs! At first, Bagi, our driver, showed us what looked like a dried out piece of bone in a rock. – sad to say, it was a little underwhelming. Then he started to dig and scratch away at the sand. Before too long he’d unearthed a yellow piece of bone. Bagi kept brushing away at it, and before too long you could clearly see the resemblance of a hand. The bones were very brittle due to the recent rain, so we had to be very careful not to damage them. He uncovered a few small fragments of bone while he was excavating. To show to us that it was actually bone (and not a rock) he told us to put it on our tongue. It was so dry that it nearly ripped tastebuds off when we tried to pull it free. Not quite an Indiana Jones moment, but pretty cool nonetheless. Much, much better than the dinosaur bones we’d seen near Lawn Hill gorge in QLD.
Back on track, we headed back to the cliffs, heading back up and driving around the edge of them, stopping a few times on the way to get a better look (and for me to take photos). The cliffs were growing on me.
We eventually drove right up above the cliffs and walked out along them. This was a much better vantage point, and was starting to show off the ruggedness of these cliffs, compared to the flatness of the plains below. We were given the option of going for a big walk along the cliffs, but I didn’t think it was going to really change the perspective, so we lazily opted to return to the car.
I still get a little carried away with photos every time I see a Delica in a beautiful location, acting like it was our baby Deli-chan in Australia.
I’m also making more of an effort to get photos of the two of us while we’re travelling this time, instead of just Risa. I’m slowly training our guide, Altaa, to use the camera as I didn’t bother lugging around a tripod.
It was back to the camp and more rest time before dinner at 8PM – I was starting to notice a trend with resting. It’s more than I’m used to doing with our normal travel, it’s normally go, go go then sleep. Dinner was dried mutton in a noodle soup – a lot tastier than it might sound.
We watched the sunset from outside of the restaurant ger, but it was kind of non-eventful. I’d hoped for a sunset like we got in outback Australia.
After sleeping all afternoon, I wasn’t really ready to go to bed an hour or so after dinner finished (even though I was feeling pretty ill). One benefit of all this ‘rest time’ was the time to be able to plan out the next legs of our journey through Kyrgyzstan and Turkey – I haven’t even started on Turkey, and we’re going to be there in less than two weeks…
The moon was a little later rising tonight, so it gave me a small window between twilight and the moon rise illuminating the sky. There were plenty of stars in the sky, but I couldn’t make out the Milky Way like we could in Australia – I’m guessing it was the wrong time of the evening?
Oh, and the best thing about this tourist ger camp? The beds were long enough for me to stretch out on! It was awesome.