We signed up for a nine day tour of the Gobi Desert. To make it cheaper, we grouped up with three other people. Kim was an older (though I’m not sure exactly how old) Korean guy who took tons and tons of pictures. Johan and Jetlse were a young guy and girl (but just friends!) from Belgium. Johan, possibly the most laidback person I’ve ever met, thought everything was “no problem,” and Jetlse was a total sweetheart who could find the silver lining in almost anything. The crew consisted of Gana, our big, jolly driver who would make “cuckoo!” noises at random like he was a General Mills mascot, and Sonje, the more quiet cook.
The beginning of our trip was a little rough for me, to be honest. The roads in Mongolia are so terrible, the van hopped and shook all over the place. On our way out of Ulaanbaatar, there was a paved road, but it was in such bad shape that all the cars drove on the ground next to it instead of on it. The few that did use it seemed to spend more time steering around potholes than driving forward. Most of the country, though, is crisscrossed by dirt roads. Actually, “road” might be too generous of a term. Many of them were just tire tracks through the desert, and sometimes we were even blazing our own trail. Between our slow progress and the long distances we covered, we spent about eight hours in our van each day.
Luckily, our van was somewhat comfortable and up for the challenge of the tough terrain. It was an ancient, sturdy, Russian-made beast that was easy to fix if something broke. We didn’t have anything major go wrong. At one point, the muffler was coming loose, but that was an easy fix for Gana. The van did just fine driving through rivers (which we had to do several times and some were so deep, water was seeping in through the doors), but we did get stuck in the mud once. Gana had to wade through the mud and change something on the tires to give us more traction. There was also one nasty moment when the van stalled at a crazy angle on top of a hill and we almost rolled over, but once again, Gana had it under control. (While we were all freaking out and trying to grab hold of something, Johan remained leaning back in his seat and said, “No problem.”)
We also didn’t have access to modern conveniences, like plumbing. The places we stayed at night had outhouses, but for the most part, we were taking care of all our business out in the great wilderness. At first I was nervous, but eventually looking around for a rock and squatting down behind it became the most normal thing in the world. A few times when our van stopped for pee breaks, we were surrounded by level, sandy ground with no brush or obstructions in sight. In those cases, we either went behind the van or just walked into the distance. We were able to take two showers during our nine day tour. The other days we freshened up with baby wipes.
At night we stayed with nomadic families in ger camps. The gers were quite comfortable and cozy, really. They’re made with a wood frame with canvas wrapped around. Inside there are usually about six beds along the wall and a table, chairs, and??wood burning??stove in the middle. They all had some sort of flooring, either wood or carpets. Our little group of five always had our own ger. Even though we were staying with nomads, we didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with them.
So in a lot of ways, Mongolia feels like the wild west. Besides the tire tracks and herds of domesticated camels and sheep, there are few signs of life out in the country. It’s the least densely populated independent country in the world. While we occasionally went by ger camps, we hardly ever saw other cars. The towns we came to were very strange because they were literally in the middle of nowhere. They seemed completely alien and out of place. And, again, reminded me of an old Western movie. All they needed were swinging doors and strutting sheriffs.
Up next: what we actually saw and did in the Gobi Desert.