Traveling The Gobi Desert in a Broken Down Van

Posted by on Jul 13, 2006 in Mongolia | 5 Comments

After Victoria and my 10-day trip around the Lakes in Mongolia we were pretty tired. It sounds silly to be so physically exhausted from just sitting, but it’s possible. As soon as we got back to Ulaan Baatar we started asking around to find travel partners for The Gobi. It’s the most popular trip, shorter than the lakes and most people who leave UB go to The Gobi. However, suddenly there seemed to be few people heading in that direction. I think we were too far from The Naadam Festival to have a ton of tourists, but too close to it to meet people on “normal” trips to Mongolia.

We spent three days eating at the English pub and updating our websites before we had a group ready to leave. Our group turned out to be myself, Victoria—who I went on the lakes trip with and three Belgians. Seba and Ari, a 26-year old couple from the North who spoke Flemmish and Sylvie, an anthropology student studying Mongolia from the French-speaking South. Although Belgium is a small country Sylvie and the couple were very different and usually spoke English to each other, which was a more common language to them all than Flemmish or French.

Day 1: Sum Khokh Burd
Our first day we set off earlier than our last trip, around 10am. I had told the others to bring as much food as they needed because there would be plenty of room in the van. I was mistaken, because our van for this trip had been configured differently than the last one, with more leg room in the front and less trunk space. Most of our food had to go in one of the back seats next to a small boy. I was immediately confused and then angry that we had acquired a sixth passenger who was taking up one of our seats. With six people and a seat full of food there were no extra seats and someone had to sit in the middle. I also discovered halfway through the trip that half of the trunk space was being used up by the driver’s collection of empty plastic bottles.

It took me a day or two to warm up to the boy, who was named Bogi and was the driver’s 15-year old son. He turned out to be one of our main sources of entertainment throughout the trip. The first day of driving was pretty mundane, much of the same rolling green hills that surround UB. Around two in the afternoon we made one of what would be many daily stops to cool the engine down and we each ate whatever lunches we had brought—I had a sandwich from the French bakery waiting for me. Another tourist van pulled up and their interpreter told us that our driver was going to follow their van to take us to a resturaunt. This was news to us because we had been told there were no restaurants and we had already eaten. We piled back into the van and watched for some sort of town to appear. After a few more hours of driving we decided that there was no restaurant and that we were lost. Our driver began to stop at any ger he saw, apparently asking for directions. I had noticed a few tourist vans and jeeps heading in a different direction than us what seemed like hours before. This driver spoke no English and made no effort to communicate with us by any means.

Finally, around 6:30 we stopped at a ger next to some large rock formations and the driver got out again. I assumed we were asking for directions again because we had driven back and forth on the same path for a while. This time he talked to a woman, went into a ger and pointed to us. Seba took a look and was happy but I was skeptical, apparently this is where he wanted us to sleep. I took a look inside and realized it was the family’s personal ger with no beds or blankets for all of us. Victoria and I knew from experience that this wasn’t the usual setup and had been told that there were no “acceptable” families in the area so we would be staying a hotel the first night. After pointing at our map for a while we soon deduced that our driver was lost and had stopped at a random ger for the night because he was tired.

I refused to stay in the ger for a few reasons. First of all this was a family’s ger and even though it is the Mongolian way to take in strangers I felt that five of us (I assumed the driver and his son would sleep in the car) would be taking advantage of their hospitality, even if we were paying. There wouldn’t be room for all of us and the family and they wouldn’t have enough bedding for us all. Unlike the last trip, the owner of our guesthouse had insisted that we wouldn’t need sleeping bags in The Gobi so we had nothing with us. The second and more pressing issue was that we were lost. I didn’t want to start out on day two heading into the desert with no idea where we were. We were told that our driver was from The Gobi so I assumed he knew where he was going.

After more pointing at the map the driver sat down with one of the homeowners and drew a map in the dirt. The Belgians were very happy to stay in this ger and thought it would have been a good opportunity. They had all just arrived in Mongolia and hadn’t even seen any “real” Mongolians outside of the city. Although they didn’t accept my reasons for leaving they eventually got into the van and we set off. One of the couple’s main problems was sitting in the van. They didn’t want to spend all day in the van. They were told how long would would be driving each day and I explained to him that he should add at least one hour to those estimates based on my experience. To drive only a few hour each day it would take week to get to and from The Gobi. At this point I realized that we had a serious clash of personalities an cultures which turned out to be an issue with almost every decision we made as a group for the rest of the trip.

We finally pulled up to a one story hotel complex that looked like a nuclear test site. On the inside, however, it was very nicely appointed and quite clean. We were all famished and Seba went about making dinner, as he had agreed to do. When discussing supplies before the trip I explained that we would need to eat anything fresh right away. I agreed to buy all of the cooking gas if he agreed to make dinner the first night. I am fine eating ramen noodles but it was obvious Seba and Ari wanted some “really nice” food. I suggested pasta, thinking a bowl of spaghetti and a can of pasta sauce would be great. They bought all fresh ingredients and cooked their own “sauce” with the fluid from tomatoes. Most of the Europeans I know prepare pasta this way, but I had forgotten. I’m pretty happy with some Ragu.

So the dinner was good (apart from the uncooked bacon I had to get rid of) and much more elaborate than necessary. I sat outside watching the gorgeous sun set and the others took a walk around the grounds and looking at the Sum Khokh Burd ruins next to the hotel. They weren’t much to look at and were surrounded by marshland and ferocious mosquitoes. I slept well in my hotel bed with sheets and pillow, happy that we had continued on from the ger earlier that evening.

Making dinner Victoria and Megan at Sunset

Day 2: Tsagaan Suvarge
In the morning the ruins outside our hotel were swarming with the tourist jeeps we had seen speed off in other directions the previous afternoon. We headed on but Victoria and I were soon throwing each other questioning looks when we began heading North. We needed to drive South for a few days to reach The Gobi so we seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Normally I wouldn’t second guess the driver, especially one from The Gobi, but he had driven us around in circles the day before. Before we could get too worried we stopped at a large rock formation with some Buddhist nooks and crannies. We climbed around the top for a while and headed after and English speaking group with a guide. Before I got far I felt a sharp pain on my foot, like a bee sting. I had sandals on and my foot had brushed a stinging plant that was quickly leaving small white welts on the top of my foot. Victoria headed up to the top of the rocks where a small temple had once been and I nursed my foot.

Ari and Seba were reading a Mongolian phrasebook and accused me of not wanting to learn Mongolian. I admitted that I didn’t want to learn Mongolian besides the few useful phrases I had already learned. They accused me in not so many words of being a bad traveler and not wanting to get to know the people. I had gotten to know plenty of Mongolians and had “talked” to them without a phrasebook. Even with a month in the country you can’t learn enough of the language to put together anything besides basic thoughts. With as many countries as I travel to I have to decide what I am most interested in and what I want to spend my energy on. Remembering my Chinese would ultimately be much more useful than learning a handful more Mongolian phrases. I could tell it was going to be a long trip.

I was sitting next to Bogi in the back seat on the second day, which was nice and quiet. The Belgians didn’t understand why Victoria and I alternated sitting in that seat—in their eyes it was the worst seat in the van. We both are very happy to be alone and enjoy the scenery or our own thoughts. Ari even turned to me at one point and said “aren’t you lonely back there?” How could I be lonely sitting in a hot van with six other people!? I bonded with Bogi by sharing my iPod with him in the afternoon (Ari had began singing children’s songs at this point). I don’t know if I should credit Bogi with just being a teenage boy or Apple for designing a logical interface but he was able to navigate very well. In fact, when I wasn’t watching he would switch over to the game or go back and find the audio file of SNL’s “Lazy Sunday”. He was looking for Rap and Hip Hop on my iPod and that was the closest thing he could find. When he looked in his phrasebook and called me a “ray of light” and then asked me to a disco I worried that maybe sharing my iPod was too forward. The kids here look so young that you forget they’re teenagers sometimes.

We stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere and our driver just disappeared into a ger. You see, we would stop at random times and we never know if it was a lunch stop, a bathroom stop or if there was something wrong with the car. He could have at least made an eating motion. Three of us got the stove out to boil water for our noodles while the couple disappeared in another direction. It was quite windy and I tried to get them to set up the stove behind a fence, but they took it right into the wind. Logic wasn’t a strong suit with this group. Finally the driver came out amid my protesting and took the stove into an empty ger and we waited for the water to boil.

Bottle on a fence used as "faucet" for washing hands Bogi bogarting my iPod

We arrived in the middle of nowhere, with the same terrain as our lunch stop, to sleep. Our driver disappeared and we found a ger to sleep in. The roads in this area were only tracks of overturned stones. The soil was dry, but not too sandy with a few layers of dark stones on top. We were served our dinner which looked like pastries filled with something. I naively thought it maybe potatoes. I discovered the horrible reality when I bit into a pastry and was assaulted with a layer of oil and a foul smell. Looking down I realized that I had just eaten some purple meat! I scooped the meat out and tried to eat the rest of the breading but the smell was quite bad. The others weren’t having much luck aside from Sylvie, who ate both of her pastries “to be polite.” I thought I was really polite to try it and them, after discovering it was organ meat, eating a tiny bit more. Being Irish, Victoria is more knowledgeable about strange meats and confirmed all of our fears. Sylvie started to feel sick and them got worse when we discovered the ger next to us housed drying meat covered in maggots.

A small boy, between one and two-years old was wandering around naked after dinner. The driver and Bogi played ball with him and we were all surprised how resilient he was. He fell down a lot, with no clothes on, and didn’t cry at all. The ground was covered in rocks and any Western child would have been screaming. We all agreed that it would be depressing to see nothing all day long and didn’t understand why people lived here.

My fellow travelers playing keep away, boy vs girls Organ meat for dinner

Day 3: Dalanzadgad
Our third day of driving should have been one of the shortest but turned out to take 8 hours. We set off and the ride was pretty uneventful. The terrain got more desert-like and barren with only a few shrubs here and there. When we passed through what may be a town (anything more than five gers, really) I had Bogi point it out on my map. Through that I figured we couldn’t be a more than 90 minutes outside of Dalanzadgad when our van broke down.

Bogi pretending to work on the van Megan sitting in the desert Sylvie pretending to eat gecko

At first we thought it was the usual problem, overheating. We had rain the night before and the desert wasn’t nearly as hot as you’d think. After the driver turned the van into the wind, revved the engine for a few minutes and let it sit, he opened up the engine. In these Russin vans the engine is between the driver and passenger seats and is accessed by lifting a cover in-between the seats that otherwise acts a a very large armrest. As soon as that goes up you know it’s going to be more than the usual 10-minute break. When he started pulling out parts I knew that it would be much, much longer than our normal breaks. We had passed by cell towers but the driver wasn’t getting a signal, not even when he stood on the roof. The next time I looked up our driver was a tiny speck on the horizon, walking South. We looked to Bogi who, with the help of a dictionary, was able to tell us “big problem.”

We ate lunch and Bogi circled the van catching geckos. He also caught something with a stick which he threw at me. I know that when a local doesn’t want to touch something it’s probably poisonous so I jumped out of the way. Like most 15-year old boys would he proceeded to smash it in half with a stick. Somewhere around this time it started to rain. The rain felt good at first until it got too windy and we took refuge in the van. Our driver soon reappeared on the back on a motorcycle and fiddled around a bit more with the engine. When a car appeared we all tried to alert the driver, assuming he would want to flag it down. He wasn’t interested, which was good because the car pulled up twenty feet behind us with a flat tire. I sat in one of the front seats, which had been thrown out into the desert, drawing the car and the very tall herder who had brought our driver back. Bogi saw this, and even though I made it clear he wasn’t to tell the herder, he showed the herder my drawing. In one quick motion the herder ripped the page out of my sketchbook and folded it up for himself.

Lunch Megan and Sylvie waiting for the van to be fixed Bad photo of Megan and Mongolian herder who stole my drawing All of us piled into a jeep

The driver took off on the motorcycle again, and came back in a jeep. Some of the group had walked out into the desert because they were bored (who walks out into a desert?!) and were missing when the driver started throwing our bags into the jeep. The tall mongolian went off to bring the stragglers back with his motorcycle and I jumped in the back seat. There was a nice space in the trunk area for my day bag which I threw in. Soon a small Mongolian and our driver climbed next to me and jumped into the trunk and onto my bag. Apparently what I thought was a nice space for my bag was actually a nice space for two Mongolians! They grinned and laughed to each other, the driver was from Dalanzadgad so he must have been happy to be heading home.

Our driver left Bogi with the van and carried a large part of the engine with him to town. We were dropped off just as Sylvie realized that she had left her camera bag with all of her money in the van. We had also left all of our food and the others assumed we would be seeing the van again that night. I assumed we wouldn’t see the van until the next morning and tried to assure Sylvie that Bogi would protect her things. Victoria and I headed off into town to find the public showers (the only showers we would have the entire 7-day trip) while the others waited for the van. The showers were clean and felt wonderful but it took only 10 minutes walking along the dusty streets in the sun to feel dirty again.

Clean Megan at the public shower Public shower

After dinner I walked around our neighborhood, talking pictures of the local kids sitting on their roofs watching the sun set. They were happy to have their photos taken and a few of the older kids knew some English words. Many kids played on metal carts for carrying water from the well to their houses. It reminded me of when my dad used to give me rides on our hand truck. I believe it was this night when I first realized the couple were sleeping in the nude. I woke up in the middle of the night and right in my line of sight was Seba’s white butt, poking out of the blanket. The next day, when I told him I didn’t want to see his ass again he told me not to look. Sylvie later told me that this was not a Belgium-specific custom and that she was surprised they would be so rude as to sleep naked in a room full of strangers.

Locals posing on a rooftop Mongolian-style furniture decoration, what's with all the orange? Random hat

Day 4: Ice Valley and Hongoryn Els
The next morning we were greeted with a really good breakfast—a thin crepe-like bread covered in sugar, like a churro but softer. The van hadn’t shown up during the night and no one really knew when we would be leaving. Around 11 the driver pulled up and loaded our bags. Sylvie got her camera and money back, all intact and we were ready to get to Hongoryn Els, which is where we could ride camels. We stopped in town at a shop for more water (and chocolate for me!) but didn’t get much farther. As we pulled away from the shop the van stopped again. He pumped the gas and the engine didn’t budge. He tried to start the engine manually with a long crank through the front of the van next. We were stranded in the middle of the street, still in Dalanzadgad, and the sun was blazing down.

We got out and stood in the shade while Bogi cranked the engine. When our driver disapeared we knew there was another “big problem” and sat down to wait. Two local teenage girls had been watching the ordeal and said hello when we sa tnext to him. They warmed up to us quickly and took an interest in the drawings in my sketchbook and my family photos. More children came by and most of them seemed the most enthralled by the flowers I had pressed from the lakes. They touched the flowers gently and talked amongst themselves—there aren’t many flowers in the desert. I also find it interesting to see what area of the postcard of Chicago people are most interested in. Neema, our previous driver, had been amazed by the highway. He smiled, gave a thumbs up and said “good road!” These girls were most interested in Lake Michigan and the boats, as one would assume in the desert. Finally we watched our van being towed away with a thin rope and Sylvie took out her video camera to show the kids what she had on there.

Our van being towed through Dalanzadgad Sylvia showing locals her video Bogi after working on the car

The car was a quick fix this time and we were back on the road with only a two hour delay. The car smoked and gurgled the entire trip to the ice caves, one hour outside of town. Once we dropped into the cool mountains the engine improved and I felt a bit more confidant that we’d make it to our next town. This was already supposed to be a long day of driving and we didn’t leave Dalanzadgad until 2pm. When we arrived at the ice gorge (which is a quickly melting glacier) there were swarms of people with horses. We hadn’t heard about horses but the map made the journey look long and uphill. Because Victoria has a bad ankle I decided to take a horse along with her and Sylvie joined us. A guide grabbed my arm and put me on a horse. It wasn’t much of a ride, as we weren’t even allowed to hold the reigns and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they find riding a horse exciting. The terrain was very flat and wouldn’t have been a problem for any of us to walk.

We stopped in a narrow green opening and immediately saw a thick ridge of aqua blue and white ice along the side of the mountain wall. It was quickly melting and we carefully walked out onto the ice. We couldn’t go far and when Ari climbed down she said that the ice we were standing on was really thin. The real attraction of the ice isn’t the ice but the fact that it’s there, right next to the desert. By the time we got back to the van a quickly ate some bread and jam it was 4pm. We still had about six hours of driving ahead of us and I was not excited about arriving so late.

The terrain changed a lot in this section of The Gobi. It started as mountains near the ice valley and alternated between flat desert, rocky desert, slight hills and eventually dunes and mountains. Originally the couple had wanted to spend an extra day on this trip and it was suggested to stay somewhere in-between Dalanzadgad and Hongoryn Els. We did see one green valley but I’m glad we didn’t stay there. Victoria and I had said that we didn’t want to extend the Gobi trip because we had spent so long in the lakes and were tired. Besides, what would we do for a while day in the desert? The sun is too hot to walk around and I’m not too keen on exploring such a harsh climate on my own. They gave in a few days into the trip when we got Sylvie on our side and we pushed on to Hongoryn Els.

Bogi playing on a motorcycle Satellite dish, solar energy, wind power

We arrived at 9:30, earlier than I expected, but the sun had already set. We set about making our own dinner and talking to the Peace Corp volunteer that was on vacation in another ger. We ended up seeing her a few more times when we got back to UB, where she was based. Bogi burned himself on a motorcycle and we we played with what must have been the happiest baby in Mongolia. She was wandering around the desert naked with the biggest smile on her face and liked to play peek-a-boo with our ger door.

Another naked baby Our ger camp from afar Our nice ger

Day 5: Bayanzag
We woke up the next morning in a downpour. Not only had we seen rain in the desert, but now it was raining on the actual sand dunes. Someone’s translator had came by and asked if we wanted to go camel riding, which we did as soon as the rain let up. Finally it stopped and a large group formed and we all wondered if there would be enough camels. We were three short and one of the other groups waited for us. The camels had numbers branded onto their faces as well as backsides which seemed a bit cruel. Camels are very tall and lunge forward when they stand up. There was no saddle, only a pile of blankets to hold onto but no one fell off.

We rode a very short distance to the start of the dunes, got off and climbed to the top of the dunes ourselves. Climbing in the sand was the most difficult thing I’ve done in a long time. It’s physically more difficult than running or biking because you are constantly fighting the sand that falls onto you. It took me a while but I finally made it and was glad I had only brought my point and shoot camera. Unfortunately, that camera developed a large mark in the lens or on the sensor which was very evident on light surfaces. All of my sand dune photos have a large mark right across the center.

Megan on a camel Camels Seba and Ari head up the dune Megan on top of the dune

The camel riding and dune climbing was the highlight of The Gobi trip even though it was very short. Unless you have a serious health condition I suggest really trying to climb a dune when the opportunity arises. It seems really hard and you want to turn back the entire time but in the end the view from the top is usually worth it. The rest of the day was a dash across the desert with a stop in an orange colored gorge. The heat was intense and the air near the surface looked strange, like when you’re at a gas station. We saw a serious of mirages in the distance and a few camel caravans.

This horse was looking at me Bogi is attacked by horses when getting water from a well

Our ger was just past the Bayanzag gorge but was surrounded by flat, rocky desert. In many of the camps, like this one, the toilet was very far away. Obviously it’s good to have it far away because of the smell but you had to be careful if going at night. Even with a flashlight you were too far away to see the ger unless a light was on. It would be very easy to walk off in the wrong direction and find yourself in the middle of the dark desert. At this point the couple started to laugh and make anti-American jokes so I sat by myself to watch the sun set. It started off as a very clear light blue with bright yellow accents on the clouds and grew into a fiery orange. Right when it peaked Seba and Bogi came over and started to play frisbee right in front of me, blocking my view. I was already in a bad mood from Seba’s smoking and leaving empty cigarette packs where I could see them before the anti-American comments started so I wasn’t in a mood for socializing.

A thunderstorm rolled in near the sunset where large swaths of rain poured down. Most of the lightening was so bright it made large sections of the sky glow, highlighting the rain. Every once in a while a strike of lightening would hit among the rain, making for a spectacular show. Before we went to bed someone caught a baby hedgehog and put it in a metal tub. We looked at it up close and told them to give it water. Instead of giving it water to drink our driver threw water on top of it, scaring it. Eventually we convinced them to let it go but it was a reminder to be careful when walking around the desert.

Ari and Bogi wrestle The group The chair was no match for Seba

Day 6:Erdenedalay
We had seen the desert portion of our trip and just wanted to get back to Ulaan Baatar. Unfortunately, we still had two full days of driving ahead of us. We had a seven hour driving day filled with searing heat and mirages. We still saw some camels in caravans but started to see more horses roaming around.

Mirage Wells (with troughs made from tires) in the middle of nowhere Sylvie took this photo of me blocking the wind for the stove

We pulled up to the family we would be staying with and were greeted by a smiling woman who spoke a bit of English. She was hosting her older sister’s two boys and her younger sister’s entire family on their vacation. The two boys ran around the house, played in the abandoned cars and fought the little girl with sticks. After dinner I taught Bogi to shuffle cards and the couple brought out their recorder and frisbees. Soon most of the adults as well as the children were playing frisbee in the last bit of light. The owner of the house spent most of the night negotiating making a del (the traditional gown) for Sylvie. It took about 20 minutes just to explain that she wanted a color besides purple, which seemed to be a problem.

When it started raining, a lightening storm not quite as dramatic as the previous night, the owner climbed onto the roof of or ger to secure the covering. Most of the hosts earlier that week had just let us get wet. The woman was really nice and genuine and I felt taken care of. She had even attached a Western toilet over one of the holes. It didn’t flush, but it was the thought and effort that made a difference.

Ger roof opening with embroidery Kids play fighting Megan teaching Bogi to shuffle cards

Day 7: Back to Ulaan Baatar
The sixth day is probably the worst because you’ve seen so much of the desert landscape but you know that you still have another night out there. On day seven at least you can look forward to being back to the city, getting a shower and eating some fries. We saw a lot more wildlife, including eagles, cranes and gazelle as the landscape gradually turned green. After more than nine hours we were back at our guesthouse and said our goodbyes. I only wish I had gotten Bogi’s address because I think he would really appreciate a postcard from somewhere. He told me he will come to visit me in America in 10 years, I told him to keep practicing his English.

The view from the car Cranes

5 Comments

  1. unplug
    September 1, 2006

    Great writeup! Thanks.

  2. Life Unplugged… has no real message...
    September 3, 2006

    […] So if you’re up for fascinating stories from China, the Gobi desert, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Japan give her blog a try. She also spent much time talking about pre-trip planning, so for all the future rtw’ers, this is the stuff you should read. […]

  3. Megan
    September 6, 2006

    Thanks, Unplug. I hope reading it was more exciting that the trip was!

  4. andy
    September 13, 2006

    Hiya,sorry you didnt enjoy mongolia, the secret seems to be to fit in with what you find, rather than try to make the world fit in with what you wantm yes?
    my trip has not gone anywhere near according to plan, but what i have found has been good anyway, like the people, and love the mares milk
    but i am probably older than you are cheer andy

  5. Rafal
    November 6, 2006

    I like to be on that trip,but I am going in 2007 to Mongolia with(that is my dream)Billie Piper.