Those of you who’ve been watching the map will have seen we made it into Mongolia! Having received a message from Mike saying ‘Coming! Pack the chairs!’ we departed, in what was a slightly terrifying, totally hilarious, mad-dash-with-minutes-to-spare before-the-border-shut fiasco accompanied by our guide, the customs agent, a senior tax official and several border guards. The system here – which may turn out to be common for all the countries we pass through – is that only the driver can be in the car to physically drive it across the border, all passengers must walk. So the first checkpoint gave us a ticket, the second checked the car, and the third escorted us back the way we had come, this time on foot, to present our passports for stamping. Mike went back to the car, I went through to await collection, and having said goodbye to Yingchu Mike drove through to find me on the far side. The fourth and final checkpoint collected the ticket, checked our passports again, and waved us cheerily off into no-mans-land. Now just the Mongolian side…
This, we were delighted to find out, was complete chaos. Several lines of Mongolian jeeps, most crammed with so many Chinese goods they could only actually close the driver’s door, fought tooth and nail to push through the series of checkpoints separating them from home. At the first one I was once again led away, whilst Mike presented the Carnet (vehicle passport, not officially used in Mongolia but immediately asked for) for inspection. After two more ticket booths, a payment of around 30p for goodness knows what, chasing a customs lady around the car park for a quarantine inspection stamp, having the Carnet officially completed by another agent, and then handing in the quarantine ticket to someone else, we happily drove off into Mongolia. A shout of “Oi!” from yet another officer, cleverly blending into the background in his camouflage uniform, told us that we had merrily driven through the final hurdle. Fortunately he also found this funny, and having checked our passports for the umpteenth time waved us on our way. The whole process on this side took two busy, crazy hours, throughout which we were directed, mocked and assisted by friendly, if a little bemused, Mongolians. We were enjoying this place already.
We spent the first night camped just outside Zamiin Uud which, apart from the odd truck dumping loads of sand next to where we were parked, was pretty pleasant – it was great to be back in the tent. From here we headed north the next day. We’d both thought about the merits of taking things easy this early in the trip and breaking ourselves, and Giles, in gently, so after 200km on the road we turned left and headed straight out into the Gobi desert for a 500km crossing we knew nothing about…
From Sainshand there’s a mapped ‘road’ through the eastern Gobi with settlements about every 100km or so. The road, it turns out, is multiple braided tracks all heading in roughly, but not exactly, the same direction – a bit like the rivers in Canada only with much less hope of ending up in the right place. The most trafficked sections are heavily corrugated just like in much of Australia, and, as any self respecting Australian knows, there is an optimum speed for ‘skipping’ over corrugations – somewhere around the 50km/hr mark. Should the corrugations suddenly grow in amplitude, however, or a precipice open up in front of you, 50km/hr is very much sub optimal. We learnt to recognise brows of hills and converging tracks as warning signs for ‘deteriorating road surface ahead’ or ‘old dried churned mud’ or ‘chasm’.
We made good progress and arrived to a small settlement called Saikhandulaan at around 2pm. Needing a leg stretch and keen to try out our Mongolian we asked some friendly passing folk if there was a tsai ny gazar nearby (tea shop). They motioned us to follow them and after knocking on several closed doors we were led into what called itself a karaoke bar, complete with freshly severed goats head on the counter. Again we asked for tsai and did some excellent miming of tea (I’m pretty sure mike even had a saucer and pinky out) and much nodding and general cleaning ensued. We sat at table number 1, the only table, and waited. Some crashing happened in the kitchen and a recently dead sheep was hauled through the front door, where it was rapidly divested of its skin. We were then presented two huge bowls of goat stew and a plate of fried bread all of which Mike declared the best cup of tea he’d ever had. It was excellent!
The eastern Gobi is probably not what most people imagine when they think of a desert. In fact it consists of great expanses of wide open golden stubbled prairie edged by rocky escarpments and enjoyed by huge herds of sheep and goats, cows, horses and camels all grazing and galavanting together. Far from being desolate or empty we spotted Ger camps nestled into the sheltered nooks at the bottom of the ridges or tucked at the top of valleys. Also some out in the middle of the wide open plain visible from miles away. We found a sheltered campsite just off the track to spend our first night in.
The soil of this part of the gobi also isn’t sand but fine dust which coats everything and dries skin. When it started raining heavily in the night we worried that the tracks might all be turned to clay mud and make progress impossible but luckily it didn’t last long. It was enough, though, to wake the grass with fresh green shoots, send the dried sticks of shrubs into bud and cause the ground to erupt with flowers. The next day was a marvel of green tinged steppe, wandering animals and stopping for directions from surprised nomadic families. The roads, having become single lane rocky tracks in the most remote regions, became broad multi-lane corrugated affairs as we approached the town of Tsogttsetsii, with its enormous coal mine and apparently direct paved road to China. (FYI, if you’re ever lost in the desert, ignore Bear Grylls and just follow the electricity lines). A bit more desert hopping brought us to Dalanzadgad, the provincial capital and base for further Gobi exploration. The towns so far have been an odd contrast of soviet influenced architecture interspersed with Streets of gers in the winter compounds of nomadic families. Whilst we have been tourists and sightseers in the desert we feel very much like foreigners in the towns. A growing recognition of Cyrillic script and a willingness to attempt appalling pronunciations is starting to remedy that… We passed on through to find a campsite for the night and some shelter from the building desert wind which was so severe it had prompted an emergency Sand Storm Contingency planning session.
Thanks to: all the Gobi residents, particularly the ones who stayed still enough to be photographed!