Impressions of the Gobi Desert

Posted by on December 7, 2011
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“Above all, there was the charm in the very word Mongolia. Out of that great, little known plateau, almost as large as all of China proper, had comes in days past hordes of savage warriors, the scourge of God, the terror of the West, carrying north and south, from Peking to Budapest, from the Volga to the Hugli, their victorious banners. What was the land that bred such a race? What of the Mongols nowadays? Even a few weeks would tell me something.” -Elizabeth Kendall, A Wayfarer in China: Impressions of a trip across West China and Mongolia

Travel at its best should always evoke such feelings.  Mongolia has always struck me as one of the less considered countries in the world, and after months spent exploring places like SouthEast Asia and China I felt like I was being pulled to go somewhere a bit out of the ordinary.  After booking a reward flight from Hong Kong to Mongolia and back, I started getting more and more excited about the possibilities that were in store in this big empty spot on my mental map of Asia.  By the time I actually boarded my connecting flight in Beijing, I was more excited than I had been for any new country in quite a long time.

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Knowing that I was going to be in Mongolia for about a month, one of my top priorities was to get lost in the Gobi Desert for a bit to spend more time in one of my less-experienced landscapes.  I managed to get in contact with two other Americans (Susan and Dan) who were arriving about the same time, and stumbled across an Israeli couple (Ben and Tamar) and a solo Swiss girl (Nicole) in Ulan Baatar guesthouses who were also excited to get out and explore.

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International Explorers and our driver, newly christened Peanut.

For ten days we wandered by jeep through the small sandy highways of the Gobi desert, and at every step I was reminded of quotes from Elizabeth Kendall’s Impressions of a trip across West China and Mongolia and amazed by how some of her observations from the early 20th century remain true up to the present.

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“Without these wells the three hundred miles of Gobi would impose an almost impassible barrier between North and South Mongolia. As it is, the desert takes its toll from the passing caravan; thirst, hunger, heat, and cold count their victims amoung the animals by thousands, and the way is marked by their bleaching bones.”

For ten days we spent our nights in tents under the stars, our days playing word games that would only appeal to travelers (A country… Azerbaijan, B country… Bolivia, …, Z country… Zimbabwe), and the times in between exploring more of that big beautiful natural bounty that seems to abundantly Mongolian.

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Ten days of riding camels through the desert, climbing sand dunes for sunset and trying valiantly to slide back down, looking for dinosaur fossils like some new-school Roy Chapman Andrews, and sampling all manner of camel and goat dairy products.

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“The Chinese is an unwelcome alien in Mongolia, and he knows it.” I also find it really interesting that Tibetan Buddhism, even after oppression under Soviet rule, seems to be at least visually as prevalent in parts of Mongolia as it was in rural Tibet. Prayer flags and stupas and the occasional re-built monastery are not uncommon, and with the tense relations between Beijing and UB I’d be interested to know what the official Chinese take on this is.

By the time of our last night and a bonfire on the riverside in the Orkhon Valley, it seemed almost unbelievable to be saying goodbye to Peanut and Svetlana and our whole Gobi crew.

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One last quote applies not only to my time in Mongolia, but seemingly to my life as a whole at this point:

“Whoever has once come under the spell of the Orient knows that henceforth there is no choice; footloose, he must always turn eastwards.”   Now that’s a thought.

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6 Responses to Impressions of the Gobi Desert

  1. Nugen

    Great to hear everything is going well for you mate and that your travels in to Mongolia were a blast. If you ever find yourself down Vietnam or Australia way, be sure to give me a yell. Cheers mate

    • Stephen

      Will definitely hit you up if/when I get down that way. Forward plans from here have a lot of Europe and Central Asia in my future, but I’m sure by the time I’ve been in the dusty heart of the continent for 3 or 4 months a SouthEast Asian beach will be just the thing.

  2. Susan

    Yay! Great post about a great trip. I LOVE the picture of the sunset and stars.

    • Stephen

      Yea, that was one of the very first nights when Dan and Nicole and I walked off to one of the big dunes on the horizon to check out the solar action. I’m considering a potential return to Mongolia next summer, by the way.

  3. peter

    Great photos Stephen. It really is a stunning country. It is massive with so few people but the ones you meet in the wilderness could not be more welcoming. I have wanted to go to Mongolia most of my adult life and eventually go there this year. Spent two fantastic months mostly in the desert. A group of us walked from west to east through the Gobi for 51 days covering 1136 miles. We came form 9 different countries and most did not know each other before the trip, but what a trip. Camels were our constant companions on the trek carrying our heavy gear.

    Mongolia makes a impression one that will keep dragging you back once you have experienced it. I plan to mountain bike across it next and then walk across it again by a different route.

    • Stephen

      Yea, the hospitality was one of the things that really sold me on Mongolia. You ride a horse for three hours without seeing another person, but then the next ger you come across will undoubtedly invite you in for airag (is that right? the semi-fermented horse milk stuff) and fresh bread and a warm stove to sit by.

      Sounds like you’ve already had one awesome trip and have two more planned! I’d love to hear about either of those when you take them. I think my next trip to there will probably be overland from UB to the Altai mountains, and over the border from there into West China to complete the loop back to Beijing.

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