“We all live under the same sky but we don’t have the same horizon” – Konrad Adenauer
I have been to about 90% of Asia and there’s one things that hold constant among all Asian countries; population density. There are so many people in Asia, it’s mind boggling. This population density contributes to why Asians aren’t as protective of their personal space as westerners, and they don’t like to queue. However when arriving in Mongolia I was stunned at the emptiness. The country of Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world. I had never experience emptiness like this before. We’d drive for 100km in the desert and you wouldn’t see another human being; nor a truck or car or motorcycle. However, we were never really alone as we were surrounded by the animals; camels, horses, goats, sheep, and yaks. We’d see packs of random camels grazing in the seemingly barren desert. I honestly have no idea what they were grazing on!
Kaleidoscope of Colors and Texture
As we left Ulanbatar the terrain changes from rolling green hills with gers puffing out fairy tale smoke to the pebbly brown hills of the Gobi. I saw the last tree I would see in days, and soon the desert colors and landscape seemingly changed as quickly as the turn of a kaleidoscope. I’d look at the jeep window and see a flat, brown rocky landscape. I’d look up again and see mountains in the distance and then the landscape would be greener with little blades of young grass sprouting up from the parched earth. Next my eyes would be greeted with a pebbly landscape that looked steely and gray with no sign of life. Finally I would stare out my window wondering if I had missed us shoot into orbit somehow; it looked as though we had landed on the moon. This unearthly surface was one of my favorite. Strangely the desert was more colorful than I ever would have imagined.
No Sand in the Desert?
When you think of the desert, you think of sand – right? Not so fast, the Gobi isn’t a sandy desert. In fact, in my 12 days there, I saw very little sand (even though my camera sensor would say otherwise evidenced by all the dust particles on my photos that I had to edit!) Instead there were boulders, rocks, pebbles and dirt.
There are some large sand dunes, however you had to travel to find them, they were more or a rarity than the norm. We luckily did travel to the Uush sand dunes; the dunes known for their amazing healing sand (according to the locals who would bury their bodies in it). After a long drive through the flat dusty terrain, we finally saw the dunes raise up out of the nothingness. We climbed to the top of the dune and sat down in the fine sand and took inventory of our surroundings. It was an amazing view from the top; looking down on the flat, hard desert floor. As I looked out into the distance I noticed that the brilliant blue sky disappearing into a brown haze. I asked our local host about the strange sky; a sandstorm he said. I’ve been in a lot of weather conditions all over the world, but never a sandstorm. I decided to take on the emotion of our host and stay calm and watch it get closer and closer as our sun disappeared and the wind picked up. Seemingly at the last minute he looked at us and said “We go now”, and we all proceeded to race down the huge dune to safety! It was invigorating as we ran into the ger and the sand started whistling past the door and we all took a safe cover. The desert was full of surprises!
I felt as if we were on safari at times; I had memory flashbacks to my time in Kenya, driving a bumpy jeep through barren land in search of animals. In the Gobi, it seemed as if the animals would come look at us, and we in turn would look at them as if the idea of a shared heartbeat in this empty landscape drew us together. At one point we came over a small rise in the landscape and suddenly saw a herd of lightening fast Ibex dart across the vast desert. I yelped in delight as if I had just seen a cheetah! The only thing you could see was little puffs of dust following their trails as they disappeared out of sight as fast they came into our sight. In addition to the unique Ibex sighting, there was another unusual animal in the desert; the camel. It’s important to note that camels in the Gobi desert are actually unique, I was told the Gobi is the only place you’ll find two hump camels in the world which makes them even rarer than elephants!
The Desert Effect
As if I were on a movie set, we drive and bump our way past rotting animal carcasses, skulls, and various bones scattered on the desert floor. The bones would be so white from the sun that they seemed unreal. In fact, my first reaction to going by what looked to be a yak skull was ‘Is that for real?” As if I thought some movie director had decided to put a fake skull out in the middle of nowhere to create a ‘desert effect’. These are the times when realize that maybe there has been too much television influence on my life and not enough real life experiences! Real life in the desert is hard; especially for the animals. These were the animals that didn’t make it for one reason or another. But you can be sure that in the great ‘circle of life’ the other animals benefited from the death as evidenced by the cleanly picked skeletons. One animal’s death was another’s feast.
Mirage of Trees
After driving for miles and miles towards the sand dunes, I saw something off in the distance. The little black formations were unusual, but I assumed they were camels or horses milling together in solidarity against the elements. I kept my eye on the dark odd-shaped spots as we continued to drive closer to them. I rubbed my eyes, still fixated on the spots, realizing that these weren’t animals, nor were they people; they were trees. A strange little clump of trees had sprung up out of the dry, cracked desert floor! I wondered if I was seeing things; was this indeed a mirage? I had gone days without seeing trees and my brain was surprised to see this one time familiar image again. The unexplainable bunch of hearty trees appeared to be growing next to a dried out river bed; I imagined these tree roots sucking every last ounce of water out of the river until it was gone and only a slurping sound remained; certainly the heat was getting to me!
One great thing about a desert is that you can see for miles and miles; the horizon surrounding you like a halo. However, sometime that pure horizon would be disrupted by a strange site; rain. Never once did it rain on us, however it seemed to be quite often raining around us. I felt like we existed with a giant forcefield around us ensuring the rain clouds stayed always in the distance. However, this rain forcefield did provide many fabulous opportunities to watch as the storm took on a life of its own and slowly moved across the desert gathering darkness and power.
I stared out the window trying to figure out why the Mongolian sky seemed so different; unique and larger than life. After much thought I came to the conclusion that in NYC or Saigon or most of the places I’ve ever lived, you have to look up to see the sky. You have to make a special effort to view it as it’s normally such a small percentage of our overall view. However in the flat, treeless Gobi, the sky was now about 70% of my view and it was straight in front of me. I felt as if I were in one of those round-about theatres where everywhere you looked was clouds. When the sky is constantly within your line of sight, it takes on this vastness that you could feel; and this is what I’ll remember most about the Mongolian landscape.