Ode to a Russian Minivan – Gobi Desert Tour in Mongolia

Beautiful! Extreme divers and vast! Wild and harsh. Freezing cold. Warm people. Mongolia was what I expected – and more.

  • sand dunes in the Gobi desert
  • the fellowship of the travellers
  • seeing herds of wild camels, horses, yak, sheep, as well as birds of prey
  • staying in Mongolian gers every night and also visiting “real” Mongolian family gers
  • experience the travel through many different kinds of steppe, at the end also covered with snow

Mongolia is a special country! There are some you feel a special relationship to (like Mexico and Ecuador). Maybe it was because the people smiled and talked English more than in Russia. Or because I had expected Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, to be a dirt-road shithole and it turned out to be quite different. Or because I encountered unexpected Mongolian hospitality. But surely because of it’s beauty and diversity. I had never thought that Mongolia offers so many different types of landscapes: From steppe to mountains, from woods to lakes, from cliffs to deep canyons.

To discover that beauty, the usual way is to book a guided tour. The alternative is to rent a SUV/Russian SUV-minivan yourself including a driver (plus a guide who speaks decent English). After doing a lot of research and actually receiving an offer (local priced) for a minivan, I had to admit that it was not worth trying to go DIY. Maybe with DYI the guide would have been better and I would have seen more secret places, but even shared by three or four travelers, it was more expensive than a set tour with five people. However, I met people who went by motorbike and that might be a different story, the bike being dirt-cheap – if you exactly know where you are heading. And mind you, summer is the best time to do that…

I can recommend the place I did my tour with: “UB Guesthouse”. For a 9-day tour to the Gobi desert I paid $495 (if you can pay with US-notes, they charge a little extra for paying with local money). If you travel in times with chilly nights, make sure you receive a decent sleeping bag fit for the temperatures. The one I got was rather a blanket with zipper…

I ended up going on a 9-day trip to the Gobi desert, seeing some sights on the way down and up again. I was joined by the couples Angel and Jeff from the US as well as Lucia (also known as Princess Mandarinka of Slovakia) and Mark from Holland. Our crew consisted of two: Our cook and DJ Tseko and our superb and fearless driver Aratcha. Our vehicle was a UAZ, a Russian military style minivan. Having been in the Army for two years riding a lot of (German) military minivans, I can say that the Russian type beats the German one…

We hit the road on October 14 after stocking up provisions: 3kg of nuts & berries, chocolate, spirits (vodka and French scotch…), and a lot of water and toilet paper. Southbound we headed out of Ulan Bator. After lunch (dumplings with lamb in a milk-enriched tea soup) we suddenly left the road (and did not get back on one in the following days). Without paying to much attention to the breaks, Aratcha steered the UAZ right through the steppe. Before reaching the only sight of the day, Baga Gazriin Chuluu (“Land of small rocks”), he suddenly broke hard, jumped out of the van, through himself on the ground and grunted: One of our tires lost air – it was the first flat tire of half a dozen. While Jeff got out his ukulele and played a little in midst the steppe, Aratcha changed tires as quick as I find some batteries for my headlamp…

Baga Gazriin Chuluu reminded me on pancake rocks I saw in New Zealand, many layers of rocks on top of each other. In the fading sun it looked quite nice – but was surely not the highlight I had hoped for. That came at our first camp: Close to the rock formation, the van came to a hold in front of some gers, Mongolian-style yurts. Our crew took off right away to prepare dinner at the family ger some hundred meters away while we got settled for the night. We were welcomed by very friendly watchdogs who obviously do not get petted a lot in Mongolia – so they were more than happy to see foreigners who have been trained to pet fur animals with waving tails…

Our little party became officially inaugurated when I started to pass around my Russian vodka left over from the Trans-Siberian – Jeff followed quickly with his French scotch. We took a little walk to the family ger and were surprised as we were invited in. So we sat according to Mongolian custom: Men to the left of the ger (but not at the holy place opposite to the entrance – today rather the TV’s spot…), women on the right. It was great to see a “real” ger from the inside, not some fancy (or not so fancy) tourist ger. Mongolians heat their gers highly inefficient, using an iron oven they also cook upon, burning mostly wood and animal excrements. It heats up the ger in an eye-blink but cools down just as fast (note: I should start importing insulated ovens to Mongolia, maybe with my buddy Hagen). Electricity came from a solar panel that was feeding a car battery during the day. Most of the power went to the TV in order to be able to watch Korean soap operas…

After a very cold night (due to my sleeping bag I did not get many warm nights, but this was the worst) I got up early. To get the cold out of my limbs, I climbed a hill nearby and had a fantastic view on the surrounding steppe, lit by the rising sun. It was very quiet save some birds and the whistling wind. This day we headed to Tsagaan Suvarga (“White Mountains”), a beautiful rock formation that reminded me on some desert landscape in the US (Nevada I guess) with huge single standing rock pillars. On our way to our next ger quarter in the city of Dalamzadgad we saw camels for the first time – we walked close but neither of us dared to pet them, having no clue how half-wild camels react on curious visitors (spitting was my least concern)..

Waiting for the Shower

Waiting for the Shower

Early next morning we had our first shower (of two) on our trip. Even in larger settlements, Mongolians tend to live in their gers instead of houses (not so in Ulan Bator) and thus visit bathing houses to clean themselves, mostly only consisting of shower cabins. Yolun An, the Ice Valley, was our first stop of the day. There we hiked between high, rough hills and spotted the local wildlife, foremost a kind of big mouse or hamster (I am sure zoologists call it differently) that was very eager to hide from circling birds of prey above.

Bayanzag (“Flamming Cliffs”) were our next halt – another rock formation, glowing red in the sinking sun. These consist mainly of clay, being quite fragile – big chunks of the main massif had broke off and lay in the desert as if a giant had thrown them there. In the early 1920’s excavations had found heaps of dinosaur fossils and eggs – of which I expected to see some on the trip. Sadly, all had been removed and the mere thought about them had to suffice..

Our next ger camp lay close to them and as well as to some solid, small sand dunes dotted with the first trees we saw in days. From there the view was beautiful, many single gers close and far away could be seen, several herds of livestock (sheep, horses) lingered in the steppe without any kind of fences or barriers. Instead, one of the dogs that felt like walking with me for a bit (some mix with a Bernese cattle dog – I later learned that most watch dogs have their kind of colored eyebrow that are believed to serve as an “additional pair of eyes”) suddenly dashed off, racing to a herd of sheep in midst the steppe. Just three minutes later he had chased them close to a ger camp again…

Next day’s stop was surely my highlight of the trip: Khongorun Els, the Gobi sand dunes. They towered as high as 200m and reach out for about 180km on just a very narrow stretch. Although I had been on wandering dunes, for example on the Curonian Spit, I had never experienced this kind of “perfect sand dunes”. Being barefoot, I hiked up and was amazed by the sensation under my feet, the view and the silence. That was if we did not make a lot of noise rolling down the dunes…

Our Mongolian host of the day had not only presented us camel airag (fermented camel milk, nearly as famous as fermented mere’s milk) which I answered Mongolian style by passing my snuff flask around – he also took us out for a ride on camels. I was surprised how comfortable it is to ride them (much more so than on horses). Hard to imagine there are also racing and war camels!

Place of Worship

Place of Worship

After the following day consisted mainly of driving (save a place of worship for racing horses close to Arvaikheer) the day after was the most exciting one in terms of driving: Aratcha steered the van through a vast valley, dotted with little pools of water. Here we learned how tough the UAZ really is: It jolted along, over hedge and ditch and through streams without any problem. The five travelers in the back enjoyed free roller coaster rides while trying to take pictures of the amazing landscape. After days of ever-changing steppe, we now came into a part of Mongolia that was dotted with single trees. When we reached a high pass, we had not only reached one of the few woods of Mongolia – we also stood in 10-15cm of snow. The first sign of winter.

Passing by herds of yak, we reached our ger camp early in the afternoon and there was plenty of time walking around the area, finding a beautiful canyon and a waterfall. We did not bother to do longer hikes for we were staying at this peaceful place during the next day and wanted to do some extensive hiking then. But alas! early next morning we rose and the first thing I heard Angel saying was “snow”. When I stepped outside, everything was covered in 10cm fresh and beautiful snow. So instead of the active day out it became the active day in: Writing diary, reading, listening to Jeff playing his ukulele, playing chess, tending the fire in the oven, and sharing stories. We only visited the waterfall again that now looked even more beautiful, being partly frozen.

Despite the cold we all went riding the next morning, this time on small Mongolian horses. We rode silently beside our local guide through the beautiful white land, no sound was to be heard besides our horses breathing and their hoofs breaking though the snow. I imagined what it had been like for Mongolian warriors following Genghis Khan through the steppe, kilometer after kilometer, until they finally reached Europe on horseback. Being thrilled by our experience and despite our frozen hands and feet, we departed for Kharkhorin (the old capital) and Erdenezuu monastery. Being a nomadic people, not much was left of the old city and much of the monastery had been destroyed by the early communists (however, it was great to see it being active again). The small but fine museum in the city nearby was worth seeing as well. This night we finished our alcoholic provisions, celebrating our adventurous trip in the Gobi desert (at least for us, not so much for Tseko and Aratcha). Arriving in Ulan Bator the following day, I was very happy with the choice I made and the amazing people I met on this trip.

For some videos also check out the blog of Lucia and Mark.


One response to “Ode to a Russian Minivan – Gobi Desert Tour in Mongolia

  1. Pingback: Smog and other Wonders – Beijing Stories | Reisen um zu Reisen - ein Reisebericht·

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