Landscape for the Group of Seven

Imagine if you will, a 2000 km ride with not a single road sign, not one tree, not a landmark to be seen. The only movement obscuring the empty landscape are the occasional tumbleweedsand dust devils careening acrossing the meandering dirt roads that edge forwards towards oblivion. This gives only a taste of the remoteness of Southern Mongolia and the Gobi desert.

Last Tuesday, Rob and I joined 3 Swedes and 2 Australians as a group of 7, going on a 10-day van trip through the Gobi and into Central Mongolia. As soon as we were 10 km outside of Ulaan Baatar's city limits the roads stopped and our driver was only following dirt paths carved by previous drivers, makeshift roads that shot off in all directions giving no indication of their desitination, if they even had one. Mongolians are still very nomadic by nature, a fact that becomes quickly evident in the city's taxi rides, when street signs, if they even exist (which is rare), are irrelevant since none of the drivers know any street names. Landmarks are their only guides.

Our driver, Chaka, took us out on one of the windy dirt spokes heading south and towards the deepest, darkest desert. Chaka spoke no English so we put our faith in his driving and fabricated our own historical stories about the landscape along the way. ("That rusted jeep axel was left here by Christopher Columbus in 1491") After an 8-hour drive we ended up at a ger, where we spent the night.

A typical gas pump in the Gobi.

A ger is the typical housing of the nomads, a circular tent with a conical top and walls made of wool. The base of the tent is about 14' in diameter, and a stove sits in the centre, providing food and warmth. With no trees in a 500-mile radius, dried camel dung is the only fuel for the fire and few nomads who have light bulbs or TVs power them with car batteries.

Meals in the countryside consist mainly of mutton and horse's milk and the main drink is airag, a beverage made of fermented mare's milk; it is like drinking alchoholic runny blue cheese, and really quite tasty. However, with milk added to rice, tea and virtually every dish, my lactose intolerant body took some adjustment. Not as much, though, as for our Swedish girls, all vegetarians - for the meat-loving Mongolians, noodles with dried mutton is considered a veggie meal.

Gobi landscape (and residents).

We spent that first night in a family's ger, stuffing seven of us into a 2-bed space. The man of the house liked my earrings so much he let me ride his camel; I knew they would come in handy someday.

Day 2 featured another 8 hours of driving and little else. It was at this point of the journey that I began to realize the sheer vastness, the all-encompassing nothingness of the landscape. Small mountains would pop up unexpectedly, appearing after hour upon hour of flat terrain, only to disappear again just as quickly, leaving only emptiness ahead, behind, to the sides. The land was awe-striking and beautiful in its starkness.

Joe Camel.

On day 3, tragedy struck. Our driver, amazingly in range that his cell phone would work, found out that his brother had died the previous day. He let us spend the day wandering through a massive gorge before dropping us off at another ger and returning to the nearest city from where he would fly to Ulaan Baatar. A new driver would then fly down to the city, pick up the van and find us, after which point we could continue our trip.

When Chaka left us, we were at a ger 46 km from the nearest phone, from the nearest transport, from the nearest food. This was when our lack of language skills became a real issue and hand-signs became far less reliable: Were we absolutely sure a new driver was coming? If so, when? Or was he trying to tell us that we were going to be eaten by a committee of particularly ravenous camels? None of us knew for sure. What we did know was that if our driver didn't show and we sought to find the town, we had nothing to guide us. And with a population density in the range of 0.3 people per square kilometre, it was pretty unlikely that we would bump into anyone.

Thankfully, at 1 pm the next day our driver showed up. And he took us into a situation far, far worse.