Mongolia – The Golden Gobi

Why would anyone want to travel to Mongolia? That is a question you might get asked when mentioning “I’m off to Mongolia for a couple of weeks”. For those who are fortunate to have experienced this country, they will have said “why haven’t you been to Mongolia?”. Mongolia has made my heart full, with an experience that will be engraved in my memory for a lifetime. I can close my eyes and still picture the vast scenery, beautiful landscapes, and the absolute silence you may experience. Mongolia is a mixture of organised chaos, as you move from a busy city into the countryside, and experience tranquillity in the purest form.  There is nothing quite like this large vast open country. The animals are free to roam in this abundance of land. The people are very kind and welcoming to everyone, even foreigners. Leave no stone unturned, Mongolia will have you wanting more, I’d go back in a heartbeat!

I arrived in the early hours of the morning and started my long journey from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad better known as “DZ Town”, in the Mid Gobi Province. This was an 8-hour long journey, with constant, magnificent scenery. As we made our way out of central Mongolia, all I could see for miles was lush green landscape, hills stretched far into the horizon with herds of animals roaming free. It was incredible to see sheep, goats, and the likes of the Mongolian horse congregating in what could’ve easily been in numbers of about 300 to 500. It was something very fascinating to see. Mongolia must have the happiest animals, as no livestock is kept in captivity in the countryside. All of these animals belong to an owner, which is astonishing to think about. Some owners will track the leader of the pack with a GPS necklace that links to their mobile phone, so they always know where the herd is. Mongolia was experiencing its highest consecutive rainfall in 60 years when I arrived, which was great for the country, but due to how dry most of the country is, it created some bad flooding. This was barely an issue as we had a very comfortable 4×4 SUV to make our way through the roads. There is only one tar road that links the capital city to the Gobi Desert, and reaches as far DZ town. It’s amazing to see that almost 50% of Mongolians still choose to live the nomadic lifestyle in the Ger Camps scattered miles apart from each other. They technically have the biggest gardens in the world!

My first Mongolian meal was large, consisting of grilled chicken with charred pineapple and a sweet and sticky BBQ sauce drizzled over it atop a bed of salad. We then had another dish of crispy chicken tenders with a mustard mayo dipping sauce which was incredibly tasty! The Mongolian food portions are very generous, and most meals consisted of three courses with a complimentary bottle of water. I tried my first Mongolian beer with my lunch; a nice, crisp, regional lager called Golden Gobi. It’s almost worth travelling to the Gobi just to try this beer!

As we made our way towards DZ town, the terrain started to change from rich green hills to dry sand. The temperature started to drastically rise. I could feel the dry heat as we moved from the heavy downpours of rain in the Mid Gobi to the South Gobi region. My first night was spent at a Ger Camp Khanbogd, tucked high away in the mountains, 2000m above sea level. Most toilet facilities are shared but the beds are comfy enough, and they certainly are a cosy and a fun experience. Breakfast is always a buffet breakfast on this tour, and we always got given sausages with a sweet and sour Mongolian sauce, which might seem odd for breakfast, but were certainly delicious!

Once in the South Gobi there are no longer any tar roads, and you drive along the empty plains where the roads are made from previous vehicles, which are apparently national highways! I left Khanbogd Camp to carry on my 5-hour journey into the Gobi Desert to meet up with the rest of the group. This was definitely the best 5-hour drive of my life with breathtaking scenery of the Gobi. We stopped halfway for our packed lunch, where the diver and I sat on small fold out chairs taking in the vast, desolate landscape. This was without a doubt the quietest moment I have ever experienced. Not a sound, not an insect buzz or a scuffle, just pure silence and tranquillity. This was a beautiful moment in my mind. We carried onwards through the mountain ravine, where the roads curved through the rocky valleys. You could now see a few camels walking about and we even spotted a couple of Gazelle! We passed through the valley and descended into the desert with its soft white sand dunes, such a beautiful sight to see. The scenery was barren, dry land in what seemed a harsh environment, but also very pleasing to the eye in some way too. I finally met up with the group at the Gobi Desert Camp. Here we were fortunate enough to stay in wooden cabins with en-suite bathrooms. In the afternoon, we made our way to the sand dunes where we had the opportunity to ride camels. Before we headed off, the family who owned the camels invited us into their Ger and offered us some breadsticks and sugar cubes, which is a local snack for the Mongolians. We then set off for our camel ride, which was interesting to say the least. If you have ever ridden a camel, you will know that they aren’t exactly comfortable, but the experience was brilliant. It’s not every day you can say that you rode a camel in the Gobi Desert under the sunset, over the picturesque sand dunes. What a fortunate experience! After the camel ride, I tasked myself to climb the highest visible sand dune, which only took a grand total of 1 hour and 40 minutes. I made it to the very top, the pinnacle ridge. The sand was so soft which made it very difficult task, but it sure felt like an accomplishment. The views at the top were certainly worth the effort of getting sand blasted.

“If you are looking for an off-the-beaten track experience, then look no further, Mongolia is the destination for you. Escape the madness of your western lives and come feel the serenity of Mongolia.“

The sun set over the horizon at about 9:30pm every evening. This was a great time to reflect on our day, sharing stories with the group and admiring the clear sky. As darkness settled in, the stars slowly started to appear by the thousands. Mongolia is a great region for dark sky enthusiasts. We could see the Milky Way stretched across the sky, so bright that even my Iphone camera was able to pick it up. As we stared into the night sky, enjoying an ice-cold beverage, we gazed into the stars from our camp’s deck. The land feels very uninhabited making it feel ever so still and quiet, something which was so captivating to experience.

I woke up early the next morning around 5:30am, to go for a nice run through the desert hills. I thought to myself, I need to do this, as I probably won’t get this opportunity again. It was well worth it as the morning sun was creeping over the hills in the distance, I could already feel the heat settling in. As I made my way over the hills, all I could see was the Gobi plains for miles and miles. I truly felt alone in this moment, taking in the scenery and the views of endless landscape.

We began our venture out of the desert making a stop for some photos and taking in some brilliant views. It amazes me that the drivers always knew where to go without any GPS aid. They just used the tracks made by other vehicles, which again are considered their “highways”, going in a general direction, and never getting lost. We stopped halfway in a town called Bulgan, A.K.A “Ice Cream Town”, named by our guide Tulga, as this was the main attraction in the seemingly desolated town in the middle of nowhere. They had three small shops right next to each other, with a good selection of ice creams and lollies. This was a well-deserved treat and some group members even had up to 3 ice creams in one go!

Our next stop was the Mongol Gobi Camp, right next to the Flaming Red Cliffs. This was without a doubt the highlight of my trip. The views and scenery at this incredible landmark of history are just too good to fathom. The cliffs glow a dark red and in the evening sunset, they come alive and live up to their iconic name. There is great story of discovery, in which explorers first made their way here led by the Mongols in the early 1920’s, where they discovered dinosaur fossils and eggs. Word spread to China that dragon bones had been found, which led the initial inquest to come and excavate the Gobi Desert. This region of the Gobi feels very dry and hot. Our Ger camp had kept all their beverages in a freezer to our delight, which went down a treat in the evening!

We ventured further north into the Gobi, making our way through a landscape that truly felt like we were on Mars. The sand was darker and almost reddish in colour, and the rocks were a dark grey. The land was dry and desolate. We couldn’t see any sign of life for miles. We eventually made our way to the most prestigious Ger Camp of them all, Secret of Ongi, rated the best tourist camp in the whole of the Gobi Desert. 24-hour electricity and Wi-Fi, large Ger Camps with great beds, this felt like pure luxury. It was incredibly hot, but some of the group and I decided to go for a walk after lunch to explore the rocky terrain. There was a river that barely flowed through this area and rich greenery where the river once flowed with some trees surrounding it too. The contrast of dry desert to rich green was truly spectacular. After lunch, we made our way to the ruins of the Ongi Monastery. This was a sombre moment as we walked through what once was a village, home to many peaceful Buddhist monks. It was completely destroyed by the communist government of Russia at the time. Over 200 Mongolian monks were killed as the Russians wanted to remove any influence against communism. The ruins are a sad sight to see – where there was once great peace and harmony, now lies the rubble of a sad story. They have rebuilt one of the main temples so that we were able to view inside and witness the beautiful shrines of the Buddhist monks. Take money with you if you would like to photograph inside the monastery. Later that evening, I was asked to join in a ceremony of traditional costumes. It was a good laugh and I didn’t fit the bill of a Mongolian king, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless along with the traditional Mongolian dancing.

Our next stop was the Naadam Festival. The Naadam Festival is a national celebration across Mongolia. Known traditionally as the 3 games of men, they take part in wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Wrestling is the only sport with male only participants. The festival began with an opening ceremony, full of an array of colours, traditional dress and traditional songs.  We then proceeded to go and watch the opening rounds of the archery. While watching the archery, we were offered the national drink of fermented mares’ milk which was very sour, and slightly alcoholic. The locals love this drink. I personally, had to make sure I had a brave face on, which I failed to maintain when trying this local delicacy for the first time.  Let’s just say, I don’t handle sour very well. Later that evening we waited at the finish line of a horse race. When the winning horse finishes, everyone rushes to it to rub the sweat off it onto their foreheads. This is for good luck. They also do the same with the winning wrestler of the festival.

The following day we woke up early to capture the start of a horse race. The horse racing consists of young children aged between 5 and 15 who take part. This is because the Mongolian horses aren’t very big, and it takes someone lighter for them to ride faster. The horses must race far distances over 15km to reach the finishing line, a real test of endurance.  We watched as they galloped away at the start, and followed the race from a distance in our 4×4’s. This was such an exciting moment watching these young and brave kids, fearlessly galloping through the plains to be crowned the victor. It is a prestigious honour to win any event in the Naadam Festival. At the end of the race, it was a young girl who took the win, to which most of the group were delighted about. Girl power! In the evening we watched the finals of the men’s wrestling. This was a fierce battle between two very strong Mongolian men, neither wanting to make a mistake. The gruelling intensity lasted about 45 minutes until one wrestler was made the champion! Again, everyone ran towards him, to rub off his sweat for good luck.

After the festival we travelled further north and due to the many days of consecutive rain, the road was completely flooded. We took a detour through a very high mountain pass, that was incredibly beautiful. It was rich in green fields with an abundance of space. We spotted 30 to 40 steppe eagles, perched on the grass, as there were no trees around. We stopped by a local family who were in the process of milking their yaks. They invited us inside their Ger and passed around their homemade yak yoghurt for everyone to try. We then made our way through to Kharkorin Town, where I sadly had to part ways with the group to make may way back to the airport for my flight home.

My heart is full for Mongolia, a place where I left feeling revitalised. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, learning about the local culture and experiencing the vast lands. Some parts of this trip will be engraved into my memory forever, and I will definitely return to explore more of this beautiful country.

Jason Van Der Wath travelled to Mongolia for the Nadaam Festival in July 2023.

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