During my Gobi Desert travels I experienced all sorts transportation; some more enjoyable than others. True to the Ger to Ger vision, we mainly traveled as the locals did unless we had really far distances to cover. I found the whole experience fascinating as some of the old nomadic ways of travel had evolved into more modern nomadic travel.
As soon as we traveled 35 minutes outside of Ulanbatar, the pavement disappeared and there was nothing but dirt for the next 12 days. I was honestly surprised and a bit scared when I realized this was it – the end of infrastructure. The little bubble of infrastructure around Ulanbatar was so small, what in the world was I in for now? The bus now traveled at peak speeds along the Mongolian dirt super hi-way…a bunch of tracks branching off going every which way like a maze.
by the constant bumps and sways on the uneven ‘hi-way’. In fact, within about 20 minutes the whole bus seemed to be sleeping but us! The bus made one stop in a small encampment where everyone piled off the bus and went out into the barren desert and relieved their bladders. This was my first exposure to the Mongolian ‘openess’ (aka kiss privacy goodbye). Let me remind you, we were in the desert; there were no trees, no big rocks, no hills – nowhere to hide. I watched the lineup of women about 40 ft. away from the bus squatting and peeing in plain sight and thought about how quickly I would have to shed my own culture to survive.
There’s something notably different about Mongolian horses; unlike the people, they are small. They actually look like the size of ponies. Don’t be fooled by their size though because like everything in Mongolia, they are strong. We did a 15k horse journey one day in order to arrive at our next ger and it was full of surprises. To begin with, I was surprised at how small and uncomfortable the saddle was. Mongolians use wooden saddles and like their horses, the saddles are also miniature. As we took off into the vast Gobi Desert waving goodbye to our last hosts I looked at what was ahead of me – absolutely nothing. Just me, my travel partners, and our Mongolian host trotting through miles and miles of nothing. The only shade we had was provided by the large clouds that would periodically pass overhead. Riding in these extreme nothingness conditions felt surreal; was I really here, or was I dreaming this? Once again, a moment where I had to pinch myself.
I didn’t actually ride a motorcycle, however my stuff was frequently transported by motorcycle. In fact, the motorcycle was the modern Mongolian herder’s horse. Many times off in the distance I would see a herd of animals be rounded up by their herder…on a motorcycle. I wondered if John Wayne were still alive and making movies, would he be on a motorcycle now? Considering the massive distances families sometimes had to travel to get to their ‘neighbors’ or a town, I actually think that having motorcycles is quite a good idea for them.
Many times the herders would throw all of our bags onto a old wooden cart, with a blanket and place a camel or horse at the front and off we went to the next ger. I actually preferred this mode of travel as it was more comfortable than the wooden horse saddle and I was able to take pictures at the same time as we slowly rode across the desert. However, I’ve never been a huge fan of camels and this trip solidified that feeling. One of the camels we took wasn’t too terribly happy with his duty and decided to ‘doody’ all over our cart and us…projectile camel shit. Needless to say, we walked the rest of the way while the camel and our hosts slowly rode along without us! I’m positive that this was one of these cultural divides as we walked the remaining 6k and the Mongolians continued to ride on the cart with our luggage wondering why we didn’t find the shit experience as funny as they did.
Many times we had to cover some pretty massive distances and that’s when we went modern…by Jeep. However, before you get the image of LandRovers or Hummers in your head…let me remind you where we were…Mongolia. We were transported by Russian Jeep; old, heavy resembling a tank and riding like one too. Many of the jeeps we rode in had padding on the ceiling, for good reason. The jeep rides were long and hard, bumpy, hot, and dirty; but it was better than the camel shit! Actually, we had a great time in the Jeep. Our driver, Shat (short for Shatarbaatar) was the best. He entertained us by constantly saying he was sorry when he went over a bump that sent us airborne (which was a frequent occurrence), he played Mongolian music, and best of all he would stop whenever I wanted a picture or video!
His English was actually better than most of the people we encountered, plus he had a dictionary in his visor always ready at our disposal. We finished our trip by driving 400 km with Shat through the
Gobi back to Ulanbatar; the scenery was stunning. However the bone jarring ride was hell for 10 hours – yes, 10 hours. It felt as if I was on an old wooden roller coaster all day; it was too much of a good thing! This was some of the most difficult and exhausting travel I had ever done; my whole body ached.
I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the Mongolians amazing mechanical aptitude. In every form of transportation I mentioned we had a mechanical glitch at some point or another (I’m counting the camel shit as a glitch). I’ve decided that if I ever become a race car driver, I’m hiring Mongolians for my pit crew; I’ve never seen people change a tire so fast! In our trip – we had 4 flat tires; 2 the first day within 30 minutes of each other! One of our flat tires was actually on the motorcycle transporting our bags and we were on horseback. Here we were, stuck in the desert as our Mongolian hosts did something I’ve never seen before;
they fixed a flat tire with a piece of shoestring. They found the hole and wound the string so tight around it that it could hold air again. It was a temporary fix, but it allowed us to get back on our horses and be on our way. At one point on our way back to Ulanbatar we had mechanical trouble and Shat pulled out this tray of nuts and bolts, disappeared under the hood, and soon we were back on the road. Plus, I loved the fact that Shat carried a roll of duck tape on his gear shift…you never know when you might need to tape the engine together! The great thing about the breakdowns and flat tires is that is gave us another opportunity to get out and survey our surroundings; as one of my favorite songs says, “There’s beauty in the breakdown.”
In a land with no roads, signs, landmarks or even a tree I was amazed that we weren’t wandering aimlessly in the desert; miraculousy our host always found our destination. Much like Elmer Fudd hunts for wabbits, we had to hunt for 2 tire tracks going in a direction that was relatively correct (this part was determined by the sun and shadows I believe!) I was fascinated with the jeep navigation; we’d be going for 30 km following 2 tire tracks and then we’d suddenly lose them.
We’d zig zag around the desert aimlessly looking for another set to follow. During this time I was normally doing a mental checklist of how much water and food I had with me and if I knew any survival skills for surviving in the desert. After doing this day after day, I have to admit that I actually got pretty good at finding tracks and pointing them out occasionally to try to help out Shat! One of the funiest moments was coming across this one sign in the desert. For 10 days we hadn’t seen a single sign until this exclamation point – I was so tickled by it that I made Shat stop so I could take a picture; he of course thought I was crazy.
Whichever way your cross the desert; camel, horse, by foot, cart, motorcycle, bus, or jeep I can guarantee you it will be an adventure you’ll never forget!