So that last post was kind of a beast. This next one won’t be nearly as long. That’s mainly because we went through the rest of the tour at a more leisurely pace than those first two days. It’s also because I didn’t keep very good notes about what happened each day, so I’m having to do some forensic investigating of my pictures from the trip to remember what happened. No matter. It will still be fun!
I also want to make an embarrassing disclaimer. You may notice some of the pictures (alright, most of them) are very grainy. At the time, I had assumed, I’d gotten some sand in the image sensor of my shiny new camera and would have to take it in to a service center to get it cleaned. I’d written off being able to take good pictures and made do with what I had. Just a little over a week ago, I discovered what the problem was. My camera has a touchscreen feature that sometimes comes in handy and sometimes is a royal pain in the tuckus. This was one of the latter. Somehow, my ISO settings had been changed from AUTO to over 12000. Aaaand I’m an idiot. Anyways. While the issue is fixed now, the pictures from my Gobi adventure will be forever grainy. No matter, though, they’re still awesome memories.
We left off at the end of the second day of my six day trip into the Gobi. Combining Bayanzag and the Khongoryn Els into a single day resulted in one of the most memorable days of my trip, though I definitely wish I could’ve had a little more time to spend in each. I guess I have yet another reason to return to Mongolia some day!
The next day, day three, we took our time getting ready and walked along the dunes a bit more. I think someone got up for the sunrise, but it ended up being far less memorable than the sunset, so I didn’t feel too bad about sleeping in.
One last time…
We had a long drive ahead of us, however, one which we broke up with a number of stops. During one such potty break, Simon and I took the opportunity to wrestle Mogi, who just so happened to be an ex-wrestler. Despite being significantly taller than him, it wasn’t long before my knee hit the ground and Mogi was prancing around doing the traditional eagle victory dance.
Photo credit to Thanuja 🙂
Eventually, the mountains surrounding Yolyn Am appeared as dark dots on the horizon. The group of peaks looked so small, even as we grew close, but quickly became a real life example of C.S. Lewis’ ‘further up, further in’ phenomena when the heroes are heading to Aslan’s country. Our ace of a driver found a path into the maze of peaks and followed its harrowing twists, dips, and turns into the bowels of the mountains. By this time, I’d pretty much gotten used to terrifying bus/car rides, poorly maintained roads, and generally perilous traveling conditions. The ride to Yolyn Am was the singularly most intense bit of driving I’ve ever experienced in my life. There were moments I was positive the van was going over, but somehow our driver managed to keep it upright and got us to our destination. What a champion!
After getting out of the van (shakily, with much excitement) and doing some business with Mother Nature, we all walked into the park that contained Yolyn Am. The path wound along a flowing stream flanked on either side by budding green vegetation. Furry little pikas dashed and squeaked as they foraged for tasty food while trying to avoid becoming tasty food for the eagles, hawks, and lammergeiers circling overhead.
Find the pika!
We entered the mouth of the canyon and were quickly lost between the towering walls of the mountains on either side of us. The stream went from a bubbling, flowing body of water to a crumbling icy slab. Probably the weirdest thing about it was how cold we were… in the middle of the day in the Gobi desert!
The ice presented a welcome opportunity to play and horse around a bit. Whether that meant crawling into crevasses in the ice (totally safe, right?) or jumping on overhanging ice ledges (even safer!) we had no problems finding ways to entertain ourselves. Sure, there were a few slips, a few near plunges into some frigid water, but what’s an adventure without a wee bit of danger?
We nearly lost Simon…
Getting ready to let the beat drop…
We didn’t walk all the way through the canyon, simply because the ice got a little sketchy to walk on and our guide really didn’t want to have to carry any human-sized popsicles all the way back to the van. As we walked back, I took those last minutes to absorb all I could of the otherworldly sights which surrounded me. It boggled my mind to think that just over the rugged mountains which towered over me lay the vast, sweltering expanse of the Gobi desert. Yolyn Am really is a singularly amazing place.
The ride out of the canyon was scary, but not nearly as much as the ride in, so we toughed it out like the bosses we all are. We made it to our next host family with health and safety intact, which was a pretty awesome outcome. This evening was a little sad, as Thanuja left shortly after arriving to start her journey back to UB. It was a real bummer to part ways with her, she was definitely a great source of laughs and happiness. Secretly, though, we all fervently hoped the rain would follow her back to UB 😉 After saying our goodbyes, we ate a tasty dinner, caught a beautiful sunset, and reminisced about our adventure so far. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good way to end a great day.
Well that’s adorable
We left the next morning, piling in the van again to head towards our next destination. We stopped at another place in the Yolyn Am area for a few pictures and a little bit of fresh air. While it was a nice little excursion, it paled in comparison to what we’d seen the day before, so it wasn’t nearly as memorable.
After our brief sojourn in the ice, we headed off towards more dry and hot vistas. Along the way, we hit a brief snag that would’ve been a trip ender if we had been ill-prepared. Luckily, though, our driver and guide were on top of things, so this flat tire resulted in nothing worse than a slightly longer than usual potty break.
Day four was a pretty boring affair, mostly being taken up with driving from one host family to another. The saving grace at the end was a plethora of goats, camels, and other things that breathe, as well as a ger full of Mongolian models (not even joking) out in the Gobi for a photo shoot. Our guide, Mogi, was particularly excited, but his attempts to catch a peek inside the ger were firmly rebuffed by several stern, namby-pamby security guards. Sad. That would’ve made the trip even better.
We did get a kick out of all the primped and spoiled models being put up in a ger, especially with a family who, when asked where the toilet was, simply gave an all-encompassing gesture towards the expanse of the Gobi. Happy squats, everyone!
As usual, the sunset that night was fantastic. All the livestock meandering around made for some excellent photo opportunities…
Flo also met his soulmate that night…
The next morning, we set off for another destination, one I remember only as the White Rock Cliffs. While not exactly white, they were an amazing place to explore. Never content to just stand around and gawk at things, we quickly found a way down to frolic and gallop among the alien-looking terrain. I felt like I was in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel.
Highlights included seeing some gazelle practically flying over the red hills as we descended the walls of the cliffs, finding an eagle feather and putting it behind my ear, and climbing up the side of the cliffs to get back up to the top. I think these cliffs and the hills below them were the most surreal, alien landscape I saw in the whole of my time in Mongolia. Trust me… that’s saying a lot!
Our friends the models showed up after we’d climbed back to the top of the cliffs. We walked out on a ridiculously thin peninsula of rock, heedless of the lethal drop to either side, to gawk and be obnoxious while they did their photo shoot. Silly models.Lucky for us, the day had another pleasant surprise in store as we piled in and headed out to a tiny, ruined temple hidden in the navel of a small group of hills. Our driver pulled up to what really didn’t look like much, but a short walk along a small opening in the hills revealed the crumbling bones of an ancient holy place. It was the perfect location for a hidden temple, and we had a blast exploring it for a time.
After exploring what remained of the temple and getting my climb on a bit (nearly getting stuck in a crack in the rocks, too!) we headed towards our last host family. The man’s daughter came with her family to make us a delicious dinner while I managed to offend everyone by (once again) incorrectly guessing the gender of their little baby. Iiiiiiidiot. Still, we enjoyed ourselves and were able to see one last magnificent sunset before heading into our ger. Seriously, this one was amazing…
I love the colors in this picture!
Worn out and totally happy after the best possible end to the day, we slept well that night (after plugging Mogi’s nose a few times to get him to stop snoring!). The next day was our final one, as we began the long trek back to UB; where soft beds and warm showers awaited all of us!
Now, those of you who know me already know this, but to everyone else; let me set the stage. The day was Friday, March 10th, the final day of the tour. I had booked a flight home for Saturday, March 11th so I could surprise my mom for Mother’s Day. In what was nearly the cruelest, most ironic backhand of fate ever, I came very close to never making it out of Mongolia that Friday. Let me explain…
It started when we stopped one last time to see a mineral spring amid some hills. While very tired, we weren’t tired enough to pass up another cool sight, so we all piled out and ran over to where the spring was. Being the end of spring, a notoriously dry time in Mongolia, the stream was very boring and completely dried up. Still, the area and site were very photogenic, so we were wandering around taking some pictures.
Suddenly, as I was looking up at the hills around and readying my camera for another picture, Mogi screamed, “NATHAN, STOP!!!” Despite my usual sluggishness when it comes to response time, I froze nearly instantly. He was pointing at my feet, eyes wide, as he yelled, “SNAKE!!”
Out of all the critters out there, snakes are one of the only ones who really can make me jump out of my skin. In my home state of Washington, not so much… pretty much all the ones around where I live are harmless to anything bigger than a slug. Mongolia, on the other hand, is chock full of vicious, slithering Hell-spawn who can inject you full of nasty venom quicker than you can say, “NATHAN, STOP!!!” As I looked at my feet where Mogi was pointing, I saw one such beast: a Halys viper… coiled and ready to strike.
In what might not have been the best move, I leaped backwards out of range of the viper. I know you’re supposed to move slowly, but I didn’t really think, I just jumped. Luckily, the snake didn’t strike, and I landed a safe distance away. Pulse pounding, I did the natural thing and took a picture of the thing I had been a foot or two away from stepping on.
The snake was only about half a meter long, but still… if I had stepped on it, we were hours away from the nearest town. I’m just lucky my guide had the eyes of an eagle and the reaction speed of… well… a snake. Cheers, Mogi. You’re the best!
Nearly dying aside, we made it back to UB late that night in one piece; exhausted, filthy, smelly, and in serious need of some R&R. It seemed like hardly any time had passed, yet we had had so many amazing experiences. The Gobi lay behind us, as barren as bleak as ever and, for me at least, my journey was winding quickly to a close. Looking back, I can’t imagine a more epic, awesome finale than my adventures in the Mongolian Gobi. Here’s hoping I’m able to return there, someday!