The Gobi Desert (25th - 31st March)
We set-off from UB guesthouse in the morning with our travel companions Grace and Caroline and our driver/guide Loya. Although Loya doesn't speak much English at all, he smiles a lot and sems like a jolly fellow. We stopped-off at a market on the way out of the city and got supplies of water and beer and hit the "road". It isn't exactly a road, but a small track that runs through the desert over hundreds of mounds and bumps. It's a good thing that our little Russian military van has padded walls and ceiling (and fake zebra skin reclining seats) or we would've got our heads bashed-in many times.
Our first stop was for lunch (fried noodles with small slivers of mutton) which we had at a little ger (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yurt) owned by a young man and his 2 cute twin girls. Then on the road again for more hours of driving. That night we stayed with a Mongolian family who lived in a ger with a huge satellite dish: It reminds me of a landscape from Star Wars. We tried riding some of their horses around the camp but the rock-hard wooden saddles made trotting very uncomfortable indeed and we weren't allowed to canter. On top of this we were charged the hourly rate and only got to ride for about 10-15minutes. The Mongols are a very friendly people indeed, but I can't seem to wonder if this friendliness is due to us giving them what must amount to weeks' wages for them for 1 nights accommodation. Sitting in the ger that night, we discovered that the beer we'd bought is actually fizzy water. It's no good for drinking as it tastes like blood and our driver Loya found this absolutely hilarious. Over the next week, he was to tell everyone we stayed with about this and every time the recipients of the story cracked-up about it. "stupid British tourists!! Hahaha!" so instead of drinking beer Loya gave us all some Mongolian vodka (the best vodka I think I have had) and we sang songs in the ger with the host family and danced about. The view of the stars on the first night in the gobi was stunning. I have never imagined that it was even possible to see so many stars as this: from horizon to horizon all around and above us were millions and millions and millions of stars, like the best I have ever seen before (in the south of France or highlands of Scotland), times about 50!!
We spent a LOT of time over the next week in our little van driving about (averageing about 7 hours a day) and by the end of our gobi adventure we were truly sick of the little vehicle. The slightly tortuous hours spent in the van were well worth it though, as every night we were staying with local people, eating local food and experiencing the nomadic Mongolian way-of-life in a way that I don't think could've been achieved any other way.
Despite all the bad reviews I had heard about Mongolian food, it wasn't as bad as I had expected (some of it was pretty dire though; salty rice pudding stuff with meat so rubbery it was almost impossible to chew properly or swallow), but by the end of the trip, I had become quite fond of the fried noodles with onion and mutton and rice dishes we had had.
Other laces we stayed included a goat-hearding family and a ger in a town made-up of 1000s of gers arranged in 'streetst'.
At the goat-herding place, we rode camels for 4 hours (by the end of which it was painfull to walk, lie down, sit down or stand up) to a spot in the desert where dinosaur bones are regularly found. Lo-and-behold, our camel-tour dude started to dig about in the sand and after a few minutes unearthed some tiny bone-fragments which he claimed were those of a dinosaur. We got to keep some of them as souvenirs too, probably the best souvenirs of the trip so far. My camel (Kolkhi Bouchekk) and Ed's camel (Gareth) were both majestic creatures indeed and our excursion into the desert was not a problem for them, infact they both seemed thouroghly in their element and both seemed to be having a fantastic time, but Oli's camel (Wilfred III) who looked decidedly ill at the beginning of the walk, had almost perished by the end, with both of its humps sagging over and a tortured expression on it's mangy face. I fear it may have been Wilfred that we ate for dinner that evening. R.I.P Wilfred. The morning after the camel trek, Ed got his head shaved by a grinning sheep-shearer-wielding old Mongolian man who had given us snuff the evening before. But for me, the most memorable thing about this stop-over was a child. A child so evil and twisted that it made my blood curdle and my skin crawl. It enjoyed seeing animals in pain and, given the opportunity, would have gleefully murdered us all in our beds. I do not joke, it was the Mongolian equivilant of Damien and I was very happy to be leaving that place.
We made visits to: some sand dunes, an 'ice valley' an 'ice waterfall' and several epic-looking rock formations, all of which were amazing places to have seen.
When you think of a desert, you think of rolling sand dunes. But the gobi desret isn't like this. It is comprised of completely flat plains and scrubland as far as you can see. There is not much to distinguish one stretch of 100 miles from another and rocky outcrops/ points of interest are scarce. We were further surprised when it started to snow. As our 4wheel drive was broken and we were only running on 2WD, we got absolutely stuck in snow and mud and it was only thanks to another tour-group from the same hostel in Ulaan Baatar (Simon, a very jolly English photographer, Sam, a cool American dude, Fabienne, a friendly French girl and a French couple who didn't say much to us with their Driver Ned, who we believe was the inspiration of the character from South Park of the same name) that we met and joined-forces with at the Ice Valley who towed us out. It snowed so much that it was on Mongolian national news (which we saw at one of the gers with satellite TV) and the snow transformed the landscape into another Star Wars-esque landscape)