Feb 25, 2016

6 days in the Mongolian Gobi Desert!

Mongolia has always been a mysterious land to me. Almost always portrayed either as an enemy nation in Chinese period dramas or just shown as a land of distinct barrenness. But there is an indescribably rustic yet romantic appeal to its' vast lands and nomadic life. And that was what brought me here. In fact, my entire Trans Siberian journey was motivated by Mongolia.

After some intensive online research, I decided to stay 8 nights in Sunpath Mongolia.  Other than its tourist friendly website, the fact that they do a lot of tours was the main reason I decided to stay with them.
 
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Mu friends were surprised when I told them I joined a tour group in Mongolia. After all, I'm known to be a free spirited DIY traveller that couldn't care less for a rigid schedule. If you are Travelling to Mongolia, here's my tip; get a guide/driver or join a travel group. Because there is NO WAY you can enjoy the Mongolian wilderness by yourself without public transport or experience in outdoor camping and navigation. Another thing to be afraid of is being robbed when you are camping alone in the vast wilderness so no, don't go alone.
 
Since I was there for only 8 nights, I settled on a 6 days tour to the Gobi Desert . This blog entry shall document my experience of those 6 days. 

 Day 1 : White stupa and Tsagaan Suvarga

Rise and shine, the day started with the rising of the sun. I was ushered into a van with 2 other guys from Chile and were on our way to join the other 5 who had begun a day before us. Before leaving Ulana Baatar, we dropped by 2 supermarkets. The first one was huge and was a monolith but it was not opened at the time it said it would; which is 11am btw. So our trusty driver drove us to another supermarket where he carted away a carton of Mineral water and I bought a big pack of baby wipes along with some snacks.

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Our trusty vehicle for the next few days.

By lunch time, our driver had ferried us to a little restaurant with nice furnishing. There were quite a few customers in the restaurant and the western faces immediately caught my attention. I wondered if they could be our tour mates for the rest of the trip and it turns out they were! Our guide came up to introduce herself to us and helped ordered food on our behalf.
 
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I’m embarrassed to say I’m not a fan of Mongolian Cuisine though ^^;
 
We met a bunch of really cute and friendly Camels along the way! I've never been a fan of the ungulate but this dude here was so adorable and mild! He was very curious about us and came up to us him/herself! Isn't that adorable?
 
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It even allowed us to pat it!!


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The main sight of the day after hours of bumpy road drive was the White Stupa and Tsagaan Suvarga. The first impression of the place was the scale of it. It looks very yellowish in some of my photographs because of post processing but it’s actually more whitish beige in real life.


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Notice how small our vans are compared to the range. I assure you, this photo captured less than 1% of the actual mountain range.


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It’s easy to lose interest in self portraits when you’re on a long journey and look like crap most of the time. But photographs like these reminds the need for portrait + landscape travel photography. Ten years later, this photo will probably be the only reminder that I once did something crazy in my life and got to experience the minuscule of fragile humans to Mother Nature.


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The impressive cliff range is created by erosion and the different layers of colour reflects the different stages of age and formation. We were given ample time to roam and climb the ranges. While most of the climb was a piece of cake, there were some parts that can be dangerous due to the loose sands and jagged stone edge. To me though, the hardest part was finding my way back because the view from the top is different from the view down under. But nevertheless, travelling in a group makes safety issues like these much more negligible. After all, if they don't see you at the gathering, the guide's bound to go look for you.

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I made it a point to take feet photographs of myself when I travel. Just as testimony to where my feet has been.
 
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We went back into our our vans and drove off to our Ger of the night. My first Ger experience.

 
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The nights generally ends the same. We gather at the host’s Ger while the lady of the house prepares the food and we enjoy the heat that comes from the stove in the middle. Given it's Normadic lifestyle, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Mongolian cuisine is heavy on dairy products, In the collage above, I’m holding a bowl of milk tea and a bowl of sweet yogurt in the collage above. The small white cookie thing is a form of cheese if my memory serves me correctly.

 
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I really regretted not taking a picture of the water closet though. It was situated around 20-30 meters away from the Gers and constitutes of 4 pole with a canvas wrapped around 3 sides. The tallest point of the construction was probably around 1 meter. There was also, no roof. I guess now I can proudly boast I peed under the stars hahhaaa!
 
 
Day 2 : Yol Valley and Three beauties of Gobi
Towns in the Gobi desert amazes me to no end. We would be driving through miles and miles of dirt and stones and then suddenly, a town appears. It felt exactly like the quiet towns you see in old cowboy movies with howling wind and sand. We had lunch in the town restaurant and was on our way again. The towns though small, often always have a shop for you to replenish supplies so here is where we pick up extra wet wipes and snacks when we're out of it. 
 
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We went to the Yol Valley (Three beauties of Gobi) on the 2nd day. It was amazing to see the snow range miraculously pop up in the middle of the desert. It was also probably my 2nd experience with snow and trying to walk through them with canvas shoes were a challenge. Thank goodness I didn't hurt myself. As a child of the tropics, snow never falls to amaze (and annoy) me haha!

 
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The drive towards the Yol Valley.

 
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  The range of snow capped mountains leading up to the Yol Valley.

 
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There was a herd of horse riders at the entrance of the Yol Valley. I’m not sure if they were travellers or locals.

 
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It was a huge valley and took about 20 minutes to reach our end point, which wasn’t the end of this valley but just the place our guide stopped walking because the path became too narrow and a little slippery.
 
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And then this middle aged man went through it on his little horse. *Standing oblivation*
 

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There was a little Museum near by. Taxidermy was one of the highlights hehe.

 
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Our get stay and host family for the night. We managed to get a pretty big Ger for the night with a stove in the middle! 
 
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Our lovely guide and drivers also prepared a grand feast for us that night. It was Mongolian barbecue lamb and  no prize for guessing who isn’t a fan of mutton haha! 
 
We had a lot of time on hand to check out the perimeter so I just went around and took in the wilderness. After all, it’s not everyday you get to roam in fields like these. 
 
Our Ger set against the snowy mountain of Vol Valley.
 
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The descend and progression of the twilight was a sight to behold in the Gobi Desert. I’ve never experienced 360 degree, unobstructed view of the horizon anywhere else. One can clearly see where the sun sets and the colour gradient in the sky.
 
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Day 3 : Khongor sand dunes

We rose early again today and set off for our next Ger . 
 
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Travelling in the Gobi desert is testament to the saying “ The joy is in the journey” as we cruise hours on end, through dust and breath taking landscape all around us.

 
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Probably the nicest and biggest Ger I’ve stayed throughout the trip. It is significantly bigger than all the other Gers we’ve stayed in because it belonged to the Host’s son. We were told the blue sash that is tied in the middle of the Ger has significant meaning and is tied when a young couple marries. The sash is left as it is afterwards and no one is to untie it as it symbolises the unity of the Husband and Wife. 
 
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Our host family this time were Camel herder and we got to ride an hour of camel! Unlike the camels we saw roaming around on the first day, these camels were nearly twice as big and much scarier than the 'moe' (cute) Camel from day one. 


Not that I'm scared of them or anything, just sayin hehe.
 
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It was an easy ride, camels after all, are not known for being fast haha. Because they are all strung together, we had to move in a straight line (reminisce of old RPG games haha). My Camel however, didn’t seemed very keen on falling behind and kept trying to cut ahead. Squashing my calf between both itself and the camel in front. Of course it wasn’t painful but I really didn’t want my legs to be anywhere near a poop soaked camel tail. I couldn't stop myself from staring at the tail swinging into my calf LOL. 
 
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I got to sit on the white camel because it was the smallest.

 
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My furry ride. The green structure you see in the far background is the only lavatory here. Yes, it’s very far away from the Gers.
 

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It was a nice experience and checks 'camel ridding ' off my bucket list. Now I can say I went through the desert on a camel like some cool adventurer hahah. I did however, came away with some battle wound. The saddle burn is real! Not sure was it a problem with the saddle or the camel we sat but both this girl from Finland ( we took turns to sit on the same camel) and I came away with saddle burns while the rest of the gang were ok.

 
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The family also had a herd of goats (sheeps, lambs? I honestly can’t tell). We got to hang out with the daughter of the family too. She was very friendly and we spent some time chasing goats haha.
 
 
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Time for huge ass sand dunes! As usual, we took another drive to reach the sand dunes. I personally enjoy the long drives because they gave me the chance to blank out and ponder on matters. The sand dunes looked small while we were driving towards it. But when we reached the foot, it was overwhelming.

 
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I had been somewhat confident of my physicality despite my couch potato lifestyle. After all, I've done the Italian Dolomites, the Swiss alps and Mount Kota Kinabaru. How hard can a simple uphill climb be ?
 
I was so WRONG!

It was difficult. Far more difficult than any climbs I've ever done because it is a CONTINUOUS uphill climb of about 70 degree and on incredibly loose sand! You struggle to take one step up only to slide another step down. The loose sand made it so difficult to get a grip! I remember panting and huffing painfully as my heart struggled to keep up with the pumps. This is the first time in my life, I feel my heart pumping so clearly and so anxiously.  It had gotten so bad I even feared losing consciousness. But I kept climbing because my pride wouldn't allow otherwise even though every part of my body was screaming to quit it.


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My group mates didn't make the game any easier for me as they effortlessly glided pass me. Yes, those ang moh (Caucasian) are darn fit ! They literally had their hands in their pockets and walked up casually while chatting. Mean while behind them, was me who was panting like a dog oTL
 
One of my group mate was nice enough to come back down to offer to get my backpack for me. I politely refused because I know my bag wasn't the problem, I was the problem (haha). So yes, that was how badly my body coped. At that point, I really felt like crying because it was just so darn difficult and painful! 
 
Anyway I made it to the top eventually after a long and arduous climb-_-;;;

 
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The view from the top. Can you spot our vans down below ?

 
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The whole range of Sand dunes ahead of us. They don’t look very impressive here but if I tell you I took the photo below at the same point where I took the photo above, albeit just with my body turned 180 degree. I think you can imagine how big an area those sand hills actually covered.

 
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Here's a look at the typical running water system in the Gobi desert.  And in case you're wondering, we don't bath within this trip because there is no shower room at all!


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Our guide couldn't stand the ickiness and washed her hair with the wash basin thing above. I saw her doing it and shamelessly borrowed her shampoo to follow suit. I left my most of my toiletries at the hostel in the city because I thought they weren't going to get used. Not sure how my hair ended up looking worse though –_- ;;;


The Mongolian family were also hosting another Italian traveller and the guy had engaged a driver/guide by himself . I managed to strike up a conversation with him and gifted him a pack of chocolate biscuits because his breakfast was just some boring biscuits so I felt sorry for him. It was so nice to meet an Italian again. Despite some slightly racist service in Italy, I still have a good impression of Italy. 

 
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Day 4 : Baga gazriyn chuluu and granite rock zone
 
It had been a cold night. We woke up to frosts on top of our Ger and while walking to our Host family’s Ger, I found a clever cat snugged up at the warmest place outside.

 
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Like any other day, the day started with breakfast at the Ger of the host. More ride in the van and lunch at a small local town. 

 
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We had Mongolian dumplings at a small town restaurant for lunch that day. Dumplings with meat fillings, much like the Chinese ones are a common dish in Mongolia. The meat filings are well seasoned and wrapped in a thick layer of dough. However, unlike the Chinese dumplings, it does not come with any dipping sauce. I love dumplings however mutton never really quite sat with me. And after so many days of mutton and carbohydrates I was finding it hard to feint lunch excitement.  The red bowl contains red tea.

In case any of you are curious, we are given a 1.5ml bottle of water everyday.  If you want more, feel free to tell the driver.


Like I briefly mentioned above, whenever I tell someone I took a tour package in Mongolia, they gave me a surprised (and maybe sliggggghtly judgmental) look. I went on to explain how necessary that is because, there is absolutely no form of public transport in the Gobi Desert! You can’t even just rent a car and drive through it unless you are highly experienced in wilderness navigating and have strong survival skills. Both of which are obviously none of the skills a city girl like me possess.

 
The terrains we drive are rough and the only roads are well trodden paths with no sign boards at all.
 
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The fourth day was a visit to the famed Flaming Cliffs. The flaming cliffs are named as such due to it’s red/orange coloured sandstone cliffs and they look pretty vibrant even in real life! It’s unfortunate we were not able to see them during sunset though. I’m sure that would have been an even more spectacular sight.

 
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The flaming cliffs gain worldwide attention when the very first dinosaur eggs were discovered there in 1923. Even though that is factually incorrect but well, that’s what the place is famous for!  We were given some time to roam and climb the place as we liked and that’s exactly what we did! We even played with the wind, Laura here is leaning against the wind hahaha. 


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It was so windy that day that even opening your eyes fully was difficult. Bear in mind, we’re in a desert. Other than the blinding sun reflecting on the bare surface, the sand flying into your eyes was also an iffy feeling. A Mongolian lady had set up a little store selling souvenirs at the top of the range, just beside our vans. She came alone in a shiny motorcycle.

 
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So much emotions well up within me as I looked at her set up. I cannot imagine myself camping for sales under a blazing sun, terrible winds and in the middle of a range of barren rocks and cliffs. I felt very humbled and grateful. 


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After the cliffs, we went to the ruins of the Ongi Temple. The monastery was founded in 1660 and was one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia. At it’s height, it housed 4 Buddhist universities , 28 temples (collective of both the Barlim and Khutagt Monastery) and more than 1000 monks. However both monastery were completely destroyed in 1939. Mongolia was going through an Anti-religion purge that the leader of the communist party had spearheaded during that period. 

 
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Inside the Ger musuem.

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The view from the top. From here it’s easy to see how big the Monastery used to be and feel the scale of the destruction.

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The river at the far end is the Ongi River.


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I tried walking to the Ongi River since it looked like a stone’s throw away but decided half way that it’s actually further than it looks and I might get lost on my way back haha. The problem with very flat terrain is that you can’t accurately gauge distant at all! And yes, I got a bit lost returning and became the lost goat that our lovely guide had to search for. Apparently everyone else had already left for the ger and we walked back on foot. Turns out our get was just walking distance!

Our coolest stay yet.
 
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Well, we didn’t actually stayed in the cool-ass stone medieval building but the gers around it. That medieval church like building was actually the kitchen/dining area. 
 
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Our Ger was just beside one of the meanders of Ongi river. It was freezing cold but many of my group mates took the chance wash up at the river. I washed my feet too. 


The sweetest memory of this trip happened that evening. While we were unloading our luggage from the van, the moment I got my luggage down, a small Mongolian boy ran up to me and started asking me something in Mongolian. Not understanding his word, I politely directed him to the driver (who obviously spoke Mongolian). On hindsight, I think the boy was probably asking if I needed help or if there’s anything he could help with. The little boy and I somehow bonded very well and we stuck with each other, playing his collection of plastic bottle caps, pebble skipping, chasing each other near the Ongi river and just basically hanging out. I introduced him to smartphone games . He played a few rounds and stopped, much to my surprise. Apparently Elsa and friends are not attractive to Mongolian boys hahaha. 

 
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It was amazing how two different people without a common language was able to communicate and enjoy each other’s company. We had to charade to express ourselves but most of the time, it was just loud exclamation and laughter. Here he is climbing on top of the basin to check if there is water left in the container. In case you can’t tell from the picture , there is no running water system in the Gobi desert ( at least not the places we went to). To get water to wash your hands with, someone has to fill a container behind the sink and when you turn the faucet , water from the container comes out.
 
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After I washed my hands, like any hyperactive kids of his age, the boy started jumping up and pulling at the flags that was tied together. And he succeeded in spoiling it while I looked on in alarm LOL. I tried to help him fix it back but failed and he laughed. That scene of him telling (charade-ing more like it) me to tie the broken ends together with his child like innocence and brawniness was priceless.
 

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It was our last night together as a group so after dinner, the group decided to celebrate it. And we celebrated it the Mongolian way, with lots of Vodka lol ! Vodka is alarmingly cheap in Mongolia. Taste nasty but cheap regardless hahaha. The night ended with me puking and calling it an early night while the rest of the young and abled ang mohs (Caucasians) friends continued drinking in the other get. Where do they get all their energy???? 


 
Day 5 :Nomadic family and wild natural

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We bid goodbye to the host families after breakfast and went on another long drive until lunch.


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After lunch, we bid farewell to the girls from Germany, Finland and our guide as the girls were going on a longer trip and joining another team. We waited with our driver for our new guide here. While we were waiting, a camel rider came over and started chatting with our driver.

 
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Our new guide joined us and off to our ger for the night again. Our host family tonight, like most normal normads rears sheep, horses and cows. The Gers was surrounded by goats and cows.

 
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Because of the livestock, the ground around was also littered with their faeces. Nothing surprisingly in the Gobi desert though.

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And here finally, is a photo of the lavatory. You can see it’s green structure in the far right in the photo above the photo above (tongue twister yo!).
 
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And we got to ride a horse for an hour ! This has got to be my most precious memory in Mongolia .

It's not my first horse riding experience but its the first time I got to gallop on a horse. GALLOP ON A HORSE. GALLOPPPPPPP ON A HORSE hear that????!


All the horse riding experiences I've had prior just had someone pulling the horse along in front of me, as if I'm a pet going for a walk –_-; For the first part of the trip, my horse and I was led by the rein. But when we turned back to return, I asked the owner if I could take my own reins. He was amused and gave me a “Are you sure?” face. I nodded enthusiastically and he permitted. I reckon since we are on a big flat plain, there was lesser risk of anything going wrong. It will probably never happen to me again since I don’t see myself ever finding the gold to dive into esquetrian so this is a memory I’ll  cherish for a long long time.
 
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The man of the house (I presume), was our guide.

 
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The family also had a daughter who was energetic and abundantly friendly. The first time we met , she leaned her upper torso onto my thigh and then proceed to use them as a drawing table. This cute little girl even went to my group mate’s Ger and helped herself to one of their gum hahaha. 

 
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The rest of the day was spent lounging around while the host families busied themselves with their chores. I spotted them milking a cow while I was out photographing the neighborhood and terrorizing the herd but the activity ended before I could get near. Wish they could have involved us a little more.

 
 
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Dinner that night was one of the best for me. We had deep fried meat puff, Mongolian dumpling, some Mongolian fried snacks and fresh yogurt. I would mix a copious amount of sugar into the fresh yogurt and loved it so much! Our drivers would also help with the cooking haha.
 

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Day 6 : Ulan Baatar

Breakfast that morning had a new contestant; a milky rich pancake that you eat with sugar. It’s the pale white dish closer to me. Other than that, we had plain pancakes, fried snacks and tea. 

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The last day was just driving back to the capital and it was the longest drive yet. We stopped for lunch in the middle at a place that, as usual, looked like I popped up from the nowhere.


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It was a tasty meal but by day 3 , I was already tired of mutton. We reached the city around evening and ended our tour.
 

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I already knew showering during the 6 days was out of the question but I was still not as prepared as I should be. I wasn't prepared to not wash my hands after taking a dump. Well there is a sink to wash your hands with but it's usually only in the host's Ger and some times they are out of water. So my advise to anyone who's going , is to pack a shit load of wet wipes and some antibacterial sanitizer. And bring toiletries, you never know when you might find the chance to wash up.


This trip had been an eye-opening experience for me. I constantly wondered how and why would anyone want to live in a place as barren this. Despite the Gobi desert's magnificent mountain ranges, cliffs, brilliantly azure skies and unhampered horizon, it was undeniably, a tough terrain to survive in. The land is harsh and food is scarce. Livestock are their predominate diet and it is easily swayed by the weather. One harsh winter is all it takes to reduce half their livestock. While I understand the Gobi desert does indeed have forest and rivers, going half a mile or more just for a cup of water is not exactly an easy task. And everywhere under your feet is the waste of the animals, be it sheeps, cows, camels, horses or dogs. And on the same ground, is where your children roll and play the whole dy. I looked on in amazement as the children sat on the ground filled with dung, put their hands on the ground, play catch with the sheeps and then ate their dinner with the same hands and went to sleep with the same clothes.

It was mind blowing to say the least.


After the initial bewilderment, came an immerse respect for nomadic tribes and mother nature. While I was disdained by the lack of hygiene, the reality that these people fall sick a lot lesser than us urbanites kicked me in the face. I started to question our seemingly cleaner way of life and wondered did it in fact, did our God given immunity system in instead? And when you are in the middle of the desert, everything seems to overwhelm you and you quickly figure out how fragile humans are. 

The trip had been fun but it wasn’t without difficulty and hygiene compromise. I’d say trips like these are not for everyone but if you have the chance to do it one day, do it!



6 comments:

devna said...

Hey Kaika, really enjoyed this desert post! I'm a huge couch potato, so it's lovely and fun to read about your travels and experiences. This one is a fav since it actually seems quite surreal o_o looking forward to reading more of your travelogs :)

Kaika ( aka Elpheal) said...

Devna: Thanks for leaving a comment. Always loved reading what you guys think. Yes, Mongolia is really surreal. It's also the only place I've been that allows me to see the sunset in 360 degree =) I'm actually a huge couch potato too but I hope my blog inspires you to travel too^^

Trâm Trương said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi! Really enjoyed reading your post :) Am actually planning to go on the same tour in July so this provided a lot of info for my trip. Was wondering if you needed to apply for a visa and how did you get to Mongolia (by train from Beijing or a direct flight)? Thanks a lot!!!

Kaika ( aka Elpheal) said...

Anon: Hi , glad you found the blog entry useful. Whether you need a visa to enter mongolia or not depends on your nationality. I suggest you google that. I'm a singaporean and my passport allows me entrance without a visa.

I took a bus from Russia to Mongolia. I blogged about it on this blog too, hope you can read it too^^

Grace Johnson said...

Hello Elpheal,

My name is Grace Johnson and I publish Bicycle Traveler magazine. I was wondering if you would give me permission to publish your Mongolia lavatory picture in the upcoming issue.

You can download the magazine for free at www.bicycletraveler.nl to see what it looks like.

Since Bicycle Traveler is a non-commercial (no advertising and free for readers to download) passion project, we're unable to pay contributors (or indeed ourselves). We publish the magazine to hopefully inspire others to travel.

Of course we will give you photo credit and link to your website.

If you are interested, please e-mail me back via the contact form on the Bicycle Traveler website. http://www.bicycletraveler.bicyclingaroundtheworld.nl/contact. Then I will send you the PDF of the story so that you can see how your photo will be used.

Grace