Nothing beats traveling with locals
“Visit the Gobi Desert,” said my most traveled friend when I told him that I was going to work and live in Mongolia. What famous landmarks are to various countries around the world – like the Statue of Liberty is to America, the Eiffel Tower to France, and the Pyramids of Giza to Egypt, the Gobi Desert is to the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky. What makes this a unique reference of most people to the country is that monuments as associations are usually manmade. The Mongolian Gobi is one of the few in nature that includes the Himalayan mountains of Nepal and the Amazon forest of Brazil.
So even before coming here to Mongolia, I already had my eyes set on traveling to the Gobi Desert – but not my wallet. After cursory research, I found out that the usual way to go to the Gobi is on an organized tour. The place is too far and quite inaccessible so an experienced driver and knowledgeable guide are needed. My initial searches on the Internet showed tours that run for around 1,000 USD per person for a minimum of three people. The price significantly rises if there are no other people available and one person decides to go solo, having his or her own private tour.
That was why I thought that my chances of visiting this natural and national Mongolian monument were getting slim. People say that the best time to visit the Gobi Desert is from spring to July because it is going to be too hot in August, and in fall but until November because it is going to be too cold by December. I got my first salary in February and I was saving about 100 USD a month. So by the time my savings could have reached a thousand, it would have already been after the ideal period of going there. I could not travel during spring or early summer either because I still did not have the budget for it.
But as serendipity would have it, I was actually able to finally visit the Gobi Desert – and I did not have to spend 1,000 USD for it, even if I had already saved up the money. Some of my Mongolian friends from work invited me to go there with them during the long holiday weekend of the Naadam Festival. The plan was to leave UB at 5 or 6 pm and drive to the province of South Gobi, arriving the next day. They rented a van with the husband of one of them driving. It so happened that he used to be a tour bus driver, so capable hands were on the wheel and we got to our destination without the help of any map.
I must admit that the road trip was very long, but I spent a lot of time just looking out the window in awe of what I saw. It is no wonder the Mongolia is also called the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky, because I have seen an endless expanse of desert meeting the clouds above it. I was born in an archipelago so I did see never-ending horizons particularly from the coast. But to have a similar view without any body of water was really something very beautiful and totally unforgettable for me. Most organized tours fly from UB to the nearest airport to get to the south of the country. I am sure glad that I didn’t join one.
Upon our arrival in the province of South Gobi, we were greeted by a friend of my friends who was also their colleague. She left to pursue her own business, so she and her family uprooted themselves from UB and planted their life again in her and her husband’s hometown. Upon her invitation, we went inside the family ger where she and her daughter served us hot milk tea and warm homemade “buuz” for lunch. It was not because I was hungry since my friends and I were busily munching on junk food en route to the desert, but everything was really tasty. Inside their home, I could not help but look everywhere as it was my first time in an actual ger. I have been inside the gers in The 13th Century Complex which were mere reproductions. So to be in a real one was such a treat for me.
We spent the rest of the afternoon there, resting from the long and arduous trip. When the sun was about to set and our “driver” was still sound asleep, I was asked by our lovely host if I could drive the van to the water station to collect some water with her son. I definitely obliged, and it was so much fun filling all sorts of containers with water, placing them inside the vehicle, and carrying them back to the ger. It turned out that she and her family were also planning to travel with us to visit the different sights in the Gobi Desert. Apparently, she and her husband have already been to those places but that was a very long time ago when they were still single. So the couple wanted to revisit these places together and especially now that they have three children.
So for dinner, “Horhog” was on the menu. I saw a dead goat hanging by its throat on one side of the fence and, at second glance, the host’s husband was all ready to torch the animal in order for its fur to be easily removed. At the same time, he had some stones placed with the burning coal to give them the much needed heat to help cook the meat. To make a long story short, I witnessed how every Mongolia’s favorite dish was prepared and cooked, from start to finish. After a hearty meal, it was time to play cards and drink vodka. When it was time to sleep, our hosts were even more than gracious to offer us their sofa and bed. But we politely refused and did not mind just sleeping on the ger floor.
Organized tours to the Gobi Desert include sleeping in a ger, but I am not aware of any one of them that lets you have a feel of what it is truly like to live in one particularly with experiencing the day-to-day activities of ordinary Mongolians like fetching water, eating with a typical Mongolian family, and doing the washing up without running water. The next morning (and very early it was), we set out on our Gobi Desert adventure – Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park and its wildlife, the Red Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag with its dinosaur eggs, Yolim Am with the still frozen part of its river in summer, and Khongoriin Els with its “singing” sand dunes.
Before setting out to this amazing desert, my only concern was that I would miss the Naadam celebration in Ulaanbaatar. But after almost three days exploring the Gobi with my Mongolian friends – old and new, the end of our trip was a visit to Oyu Tolgoi’s own Naadam festivities in Khanbogd Soum. And there I saw for myself The Three Manly Games of wrestling, archery, and horse racing – like I was in Ulaanbaatar, but only better because I was in a spectacular setting in the company of even more spectacular people. And how much did this almost week-long trip in the Gobi Desert with locals cost? Less than 200 USD, and this is no typographical error.
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