• Aaron

Gobi Desert - Part 2

In this blog post:

  1. New video: Gobi Desert - Part 2!

  2. We attend Dalanzadgad's Naadam Festival

  3. The Toyota Prius 'Off-Road Club' of Mongolia?!

  4. Where we are now and what's up next

New Video! Gobi Desert - Part 2

This short video is a highlight of this post and viewing is recommended! You can watch this on our YouTube channel here, or just view in the player below this section. This video features three areas of primary interest. (1) the Yoln Am ice canyon; (2) the huge Khongoryn Els sand sea, with sand dunes up to 300 metres high, 100 kilometres long and 12 kilometres across; and (3) footage from a route we took north through the Gobi Desert that turned out to be the most isolated and spectacular we've undertaken yet. If you don’t have time to watch all seven minutes of the video, be sure to see some of the footage from nearer the end too. Bear in mind that this 7 minute video was filmed over a week of traveling, so the footage is already considerably condensed down to the best parts. Please let me have any feedback on the video, as I'm still trying to gauge what works.

The above photo - taken deep in the Yoln Am canyon - shows ice in the background, which may cause some readers confusion as to what temperatures we experienced there. Whilst the canyon offers a reprieve from the heat of the wide open spaces in the Gobi, summertime temperatures in the canyon are still very warm. The ice builds up into thick layers during the minus 40 degree Celsius winters and is typically still melting well into July, assisting that little stream seen in the latest video to continue flowing crystal clear water well into the summer months. This bears some thinking about, as it shows just how extreme the climate is in the Gobi (and Mongolia more generally). The Gobi typically ranges between minus 40 degrees and positive 40 degrees.

We camped along a later section of the route shown in the video and within line of sight of a few nomad gers (traditional nomadic Mongolian tent like structures). Our presence proved quite an attraction for Mongolian families who spotted our camp, as I suspect extremely few (any?!) independent overland tourists would take the isolated route we ventured along. First of all a Mongolian family arrived on a single motorbike (we've seen previously, elsewhere, that families - as many as five - often travel on a single motorbike). I tried to communicate with the family; they didn't understand a word of English, but equally didn't seem overly concerned with communicating anyway - they were happy to just sit a couple of metres from our tent and observe us. The following morning two men arrived together, though on separate motorbikes, and a similar observation of us took place. We understand and accept their curiosity, though there can be something of a feeling of being animals in a zoo. Both men eventually departed, however one quickly returned with his family on the back of his motorbike. It was clear that we were fascinating to observe. This family then departed only to return yet again, this time with a bag filled with a home made dried goat yogurt, this being a staple food commonly produced by nomadic Mongolians.

For those not familiar with Mongolia, this country has the largest nomadic population in the world (30% nomadic or semi-nomadic). This is a way of life here that many still choose to live. Their gers are warm and dry and can be very accommodating inside. Often living far from civilisation, nomadic Mongolians are necessarily entirely self-sufficient. In my view they shouldn't be mistaken for being 'poor', and in any case they often aren't. They can earn income by visiting cities periodically to sell meat and wool, yet they have extremely minimalist living costs. Here's a thought for anyone who still thinks they're 'poor' - you could alternatively interpret these people as living on the biggest 'lifestyle blocks' in the world, mortgage free. Anyway, without further delay here's the latest video.

Dalanzadgad's Naadam Festival

We were just about the only foreign faces to be seen at Dalanzadgad’s Naadam festival. I’ll let the photos below give you an idea of what the event is like. Naadam is a huge part of Mongolian culture and is going on all over the country. It's such an important event that road borders close during the festival!

Moreover Dalanzadgad had what we needed, including a modern café to catch up on work over a latte. After a few days out in the wilderness its nice to briefly experience civilisation again. I’m not sure if it was just in preparation for the Nadaam festival, but we saw workers in Dalanzadgad constantly sweeping the dusty streets and painting fences. Many stores were kept spotlessly clean, which must be a real task in the dusty Gobi.

The Toyota Prius Off-Road Club of Mongolia…

My name begins with two A's, but I am not the 'AA'! I’ve now had to rescue a third vehicle belonging to local Mongolians; this time a Toyota Prius with its nose buried in river shingles. Initially I didn’t think my help was needed, this on the basis there were already a number of people gathered around the stricken Prius digging. But as I got closer, I could see that the nose of the Prius was deep in rocks/shingle, and finally I heard someone cry ‘help’ in English. So, it was out with the winch yet again. I won't go into details, but it's not straightforward safely winching a vehicle that was never intended for that sort of recovery.

But let’s back up here, what’s unusual about a 2wd city car being used to tackle serious off-road terrain, cross rivers etc? In Mongolia… nothing at all!

It’s an important national holiday in Mongolia in July and as we’ve come north from the Gobi we’ve encountered great numbers of locals, often from the capital city - Ulaanbaatar - who have come south into green wilderness areas to camp. Outside of its key cities, Mongolia has the least paved roads of pretty much any country in the world and cars must use the many dirt tracks that go off in all directions. Often these dirt tracks are in good enough condition for an ordinary car to use, but sooner or later when travelling off-road you inevitably encounter an obstacle - be it a river, a rocky section, or a steep muddy slope etc. Perhaps except for down in the Gobi Desert, where Toyota Landcruiser’s reign supreme, most Mongolians own ordinary 2wd cars. This is not dissimilar to most developing countries, where those most in need of a 4wd generally tend to own a regular car, if they own any vehicle at all.

It would be entirely fair to say that the most prevalent car in Mongolia (by far!) is the Toyota Prius, like that pictured above, which we see here in vast numbers. We see them by the dozen tackling off-road terrain they clearly weren’t intended for, which explains why when we encountered the Prius bogged in river shingles it truly didn’t strike me as at all unusual. We’ve driven off-road sections here that were rough enough for me to feel the need to engage one of the Pajero's more serious 4wd modes, only to catch up with a Prius or two ahead of us! I’ve regularly found myself scratching my head wondering if the Prius drivers took an easier track that I didn’t see?! Granted, many of these cars are far from unscathed, with gouges out of bumpers common. Yet it seems that given enough accelerator pedal and plenty of wheel spin, they mostly survive being bounced over a rock or two. Anywhere else this would be deemed car abuse, but here, Mongolians simply have different expectations of what their cars should do!

A few days ago, while en route to the Orkhon Waterfall, we encountered a queue of 2wd cars lined up on a river bank and from a distance I wondered if they had finally met their match. The problem wasn’t the river itself, which was low enough, but the steep slippery muddy bank on the other side. We watched as the first car went. It began to slide sideways down the muddy bank towards the river, but with enough throttle the driver managed to spin his wheels to the top. Other cars took several attempts to climb the muddy bank, but driving an ordinary 2wd in this manner is just accepted as normal here.

Stopped for lunch by a river, shortly after winching the Prius out of the river shingles, I was reflecting on the seeming madness of all this and I commented to Sylwia that if a Toyota Prius were to float by us down the river right now, I would barely even bat an eyelid. Because this is Mongolia, and having spent a month here we’re becoming accustomed to what is normal here. And here, serious off-road terrain and a Toyota Prius DO go together!

The Orkhon Valley and Kharakhorum's Erdene Zuu Monastery

Very briefly... Kharakorum was Mongolia's first capital. The Erdene Zuu Monastery was Mongolia's first Buddhist monastery, established in 1586. It was destroyed by Stalinist purges in 1937 - a cruel but common occurrence at the time. It remained closed until 1965, when it was permitted to reopen, but only as a museum rather than a place of worship. When Communism collapsed here in 1990, religious freedoms were restored and the 'museum' became a monastery again.

Where are we now and what's next

We're back in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital city and only really big city. Somewhere in the Orkhon Valley we managed to break one of the new suspension springs that I fitted just before shipping the Pajero from New Zealand, as this new component seems to have had a manufacturing defect. A replacement part is not available locally and is now in the process of being air freighted from Australia. However, while we await the arrival of the spare parts it's clear that we'll exceed our visa expiry. This is deemed an offence and I'm working with the consulate to try to get some understanding given the circumstances. Hopefully this can be resolved satisfactorily, so that we don't get into trouble when we attempt to drive over the border back to Russia.

So we'll be around Ulaanbaatar for a few days before resuming our travels. There are things here to occupy us, including a dinosaur museum that Marcel (a long time budding Paleontologist) had been eager to visit for some time. I also need to get cracking with an article on Mongolia for NZ4WD Magazine, which is due to be published in the September edition.

When the new suspension spring arrives and is fitted we need to exit Mongolia promptly. We plan to transit through Russia to our next destination country; Kazakhstan.

Apologies for the delay in responding to some questions I received in the website comments section. After figuring out how to, I've attended to this and going forward will endeavour to be more timely in responding to comments/questions. So please do post any questions/comments/feedback you may have.

I'll close with some photos of Marcel's first fossil dig at the site of the Flaming Cliffs, which you saw in my 'Gobi Desert - Part 1' video. I don't think Marcel fully anticipated how hard digging in blazing hot sunshine would be... I think the arduous dig temporarily drained his exuberance for Paleontology somewhat, but in the photos from Ulaanbaatar above you can see that he has since visited the dinosaur museum here and was in much brighter form.

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