Oasis in the Southern Gobi: A Camel-Back Trek

Buntings framed by desert wood n

Brown with October’s cold, a gnarled desert tree frames buntings (possibly Jankowski’s) (Emberiza sp.) near our ger in Mongolia’s southern Gobi Desert .

A few miles south of the Khongoryn Els singing dunes marked our southern-most push into the Gobi.

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A herdsman’s goats crowd around a rare source of water. 

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While driving, we encountered a species of gazelle that was new to us – black-tailed gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa).

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The black-tails proved to be every bit as skittish as the Mongolian gazelle we’d been seeing throughout the trip. 

After driving through an expanse of mostly sand and rock, we came into an area of small trees, shrubs and tall grasses, evidence of water close to the desert’s surface. The family gers there would be our camp for the next two nights. With water available, one of our first orders of business was good hair shampooings all around. This was to be the closest thing to a shower we had during our eight-day trek, and it was decidedly refreshing.

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Jimi Carter and I lug water cans to our ger for impromptu hair washing. The effects of the mini-shower were immediately spirit lifting. 

gerbil in s gobi

There was a large gerbil warren not far from our camp – and signs that a fox had recently visited it. 

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For dinner, the appetizers featured steaming bowls of temeni suute tsai (suu – te – tsay) – camel milk tea, fried bread and camel milk aarts. Aarts is similar to sweet, mild cream cheese. It was absolutely delicious, and we had to remind ourselves to save room for the main course – goat with a variety of goat meat sausages. 

sunset south gobi

The sunset that night was, as usual, spectacular. 

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This was the most spacious and ornately decorated ger we stayed in. Note the bag of aarts – camel milk cream cheese – on the right wall. After breakfast, our host rounded up several camels for our trek to a set of dunes about three miles from the ger. 

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Decked out in a traditional dell, our driver, Nimka, (foreground) and our host were ready to mount up and lead the way to the dunes.

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Raptors use the dunes as perches and hunting grounds. Here a cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) executes a take-off… 

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…and a common buzzard (Buteo buteo) soars above the landscape scanning for prey.

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Evidence of a successful hunt. The porcupine-like quills are those of a hedgehog. We found several of these pellets along the ridge of the dune. Birds of prey regurgitate the undigested parts of the birds and mammals they dine on.

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Camels tethered below, we ascended a fairly steep dune where we’d seen raptors perched. Although we never did encounter a fox, once again their tracks were present, along with those of hares. 

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We named our camels for the trek. Here Barbra’s camel, Timmy, hams it up for the camera. (The Mongolian word for camel is teme – hence Timmy the teme.)

Below: Surprisingly lush growths of various seed producing grasses provide forage for the abundant bird and rodent populations, which in turn provide prey for foxes, wolves and the Gobi’s numerous raptors.

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In addition to the many buntings and sparrows around this oasis ger, there were times in the early morning when thousands of doves filled the skies. 

 

 

Climbing Khongoryn Els: The Gobi Desert’s Singing Dunes

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Towering nearly 200 meters high, Mongolia’s Khongoryn Els are among approximately 30 “singing dunes” worldwide. Precise balances of humidity, silicon content and sand grain size and shape must be perfect to achieve the deeply vibrating hum these dunes produce. Click any photo to enlarge. 

With each step up the steep slope of the dunes, we simultaneously gained and lost elevation, slipping back with the shifting sand. Although the mid-October day was cool, we were stripped down to jeans and shirts, and would have been more comfortable in shorts. By the midway point, we were drenched with sweat. And that’s about when we began to notice it – an unmistakable vibration that began in our feet and traveled through our leg bones up through our hips accompanied by a low, resonate hum. The sound was audible – sort of like monks chanting “ohmmmmmm” from somewhere deep in their throats.

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Wind sculpted sand has fascinated humans for millennia. Views like this were our reward for hiking to the top of the dunes.

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Water bottle in tow, Barbra takes a breather halfway up the tallest dune. Livestock look like mere dots on the shores of the distant shallow lake. The water is a morning gathering place for doves in the thousands… perhaps tens of thousands.

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The top of the dunes felt like the top of the world –  the perfect place to make sand angels. 

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Although much of the Gobi Desert is rocky and wet enough to support plant life, the area of the singing dunes is an ocean of ever-shifting sand. See Yolyn Am Canyon: Wildlife Safari amidst Remnants of the Gobi’s last Glacier and The Gobi Desert’s Valley of the Lammergeier.

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Dusk was closing in by the time we descended the Khongoryn Els, creating dramatic contrasts along the dunes’ curving edges. 

One of the funnest runs of our lives was racing down the dunes barefoot – a 200 meter decent, big strides landing in soft, cool sand, only slightly tilted away from vertical.

 

 

The Gobi Desert’s Valley of the Lammergeier

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On our second day in the Yolyn Am Canyon in mid-October, we encountered more ibex such as this handsome billy. The sheer number of raptors was astounding.

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Out trusty Russian van slipped through a seemingly impossible passage. Here and there, falcon, hawk and eagle’s nests were perched on ledges along the craggy, vertical walls.

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A saker falcon stretches his wings during a morning of hunting. 

rough legged hawk wheatears

Small birds and mammals abound in the canyon, providing ample forage for raptors and other predators. On this morning, swarms of wheatears seemed oblivious to this rough-legged hawk, which was probably hoping to score one of the canyon’s many small mammals.

shy pica

This shy pica had good reason to be on high alert. 

rough legged hawk pair

Probably a mated pair, these rough-legged hawks were hunting along a spring creek.

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During our two-day journey on foot and by van through the canyon, we saw over 20 ibex.

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Bearded, muscular and with iron-like knobbed horns silhouetted against a blue Mongolian sky, this billy cast a baleful eye on us as he calmly passed by.

lammergeier disapper rocks

The shape of the tail and the gold under the chin make it easy to identify this as the Yolyn Am’s eponymous bird – a lammergeier, also known as a bearded vulture. They kept their distance. We have equally blurry shots of the canyon’s golden eagles. 

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Three-hundred fifty miles (560 km) south of Ulaanbaatar, the Gobi Desert is wild and remote yet accessible. (In Mongolian cyrillic, the   “P’s” are pronounced as “R’s” in English.)

Coming next: The famous Singing Dunes – an Ocean of Sand

Day 3: Tsagaan Suvarga, The Gobi Desert’s White Cliffs – Gazelles and Ger Life

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In the distance, Mongolia’s Tsagaan Suvarga – The White Cliffs. In the foreground, a camel skull. A zud (harsh winter) can wipe out hundreds of thousands or even millions of livestock. And yet a hardy breed of people thrive here and in a land where humans and their herds of animals have coexisted with nature for millennia, wild animals are surprisingly abundant.

As we continued our journey south, the land unfolding before us bore little resemblance to what we had imagined the Gobi would be like. Throughout the journey, our van passed through nearly endless mixed flocks of passerines – wheatears, larks, buntings and sparrows. Eagles, hawks, ravens and vultures soared overhead. And there were times when gazelle seemed to be everywhere.

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Initially, we had no idea what to expect from the domesticated Bactrian camels we encountered, so we approached with caution. As it turned out, they were even-tempered and in some cases not opposed to having their heads scratched. With thick coats of fur, sturdy legs, heavily muscled bodies and the capacity to go for a full week without water, these magnificent animals have evolved to thrive in one of the world’s harshest environments.

“Would you ride one?” Barbra asked playfully motioning toward the group of camels standing a few meters from us. I could tell by the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eyes that she was in.

“Maybe,” I replied with some hesitation. They appeared to be docile enough.  “But not in circles in some tourist camp. If I get on a camel, it’s going to be to go somewhere.”

In fact, we’d get our opportunity in a couple of days. Between seeing several mammal and bird species that were new to us and after eating and drinking things we’d previously only read about (and in a couple of instances had never heard of) this proved to be a trip of firsts.

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A thick-necked buck (center) vocalizes an alarm to his group of females and young. Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa) are the definition of skittish. It took our group several attempts before we began to learn how to approach these shy animals closely enough to get decent photographs.

Almost constantly on the move and sometimes covering thousands of square miles in a given year, Mongolian gazelle have adopted a nomadic lifestyle well-suited to the arid steppe and desert. Hunted both legally and illegally, their numbers remain robust at more than a million individuals. On our trip from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi, we encountered thousands.

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Pounding hooves and flying dirt. Standing about as tall as a man’s knee at the shoulder, these diminutive ungulates are capable of speeds up to 40 miles an hour (65 kph). (Click any of these photos to enlarge them.)

With seven of us in the van along with camera gear, sleeping gear, cooking gear, small chairs, tubs of food, extra water, eight three-liter boxes of wine, gifts for our host families, day packs and clothing bags rattling over steppe and desert, you might suspect we felt crowded and uncomfortable. It amazed us that we did not. We never tired of seeing the wildlife and landscapes and anticipating what might be around the next hill.

Nonetheless, after a day of bouncing across the open range, we were always happy to pull into our next ger, meet our hosts, and settle in.

hostess airating tea horizongtal

Our hostess aerates a steaming pot of yamani suute tsai (suu – te – tsay) . Goat milk tea is a staple beverage in many Mongolian gers. Adamant non milk drinkers, Barbra and I loved the warmth, nutrition and flavor of this drink and came to look forward to a steamy bowl of it (or of the equally delicious temeeni suite tsai – camel milk tea) before dinner each evening. 

Gers are eminently well-suited to the life of nomadic herdsmen and their families. Round and with conical roofs, there are no flat walls or edges to catch the wind. Covered with felt, they are well insulated. At around 500 square feet, (46 square meters) these one-room homes are an answer to the “tiny house” movement’s quest for a comfortable, efficient living space.

In modern times, many gers feature solar panels and batteries to power TVs and lights. A centrally-positioned steel stove, generally fueled with dry dung, serves as both a cook-stove and a heating system. Typical gers are appointed with wooden-framed beds, a small dining table, a few chairs, and perhaps a chest of drawers or two, all generally brightly colored. If you look around carefully, you’re likely to notice a rifle tucked away somewhere; wolves are still a threat to livestock in many locales, and foxes are common. There is no running water.

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Although many herdsmen tend their animals on horseback, motorcycles have proved their usefulness as well.

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In the last remaining light of the day, our host prepares a young sheep for dinner. His wife used the entrails to whip up the best country sausage we’ve ever tasted. Nothing was wasted. As the eldest in our group, I was offered dibs on the heart, kidneys, lungs, blood sausage, liver and the highly prized, succulently fatty tail. Some of these were epicurean firsts. Salted and otherwise very lightly seasoned, all were quite toothsome. The cigarette, which our host hand-rolled prior to beginning this chore, never left his lips.

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Breakfast. Our driver, Nimka, relaxes with a bowl of goat milk tea in which homemade sausage from the previous night’s meal is steeping.

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Following Nimka’s lead, I have a bowl of the same. It was absolutely delicious.

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No doubt the key to the excellent flavor of everything was its freshness. Here is the bucket our hosts used for milking the goats.

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Looking out over the desert plain from a vantage point on the White Cliffs. Day by day, hour by hour, we found ourselves falling in love with this country.

Next stop: Yolin Am Canyon: Remnants of the Gobi’s last glacier. Ibex, Picas, Raptors and more…

Ulaanbaatar to the Singing Dunes of Khongoryn Els – Eight Days in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert: Part I

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Roughly 75 miles (120 km) from Ulaanbaatar, grazing horses and the first ger we stayed in are dwarfed against vast grasslands rimmed in mountains. Although the mountains appear low, the grasslands themselves are over 4,000 feet above sea level. With abundant wildlife, few villages and virtually no paved highways, the Mongolian steppe is one of the world’s great high plains wildernesses.

We have no idea how our driver, Nimka, and our guide, Otgo, found the first ger we stayed in. Pitch dark except for the wash of the Milky Way in the night sky and the headlights from our van, Nimka steered from one set of indistinct dirt tracks in the grass to another. My insistence that we stop for a look at herds of gazelle coupled with our late-in-the-day start from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, had us arriving well after dark.

And then, suddenly, there it was. A faint glow gradually assumed the round shape of a nomadic family’s home. Nimka eased the van to a stop, introductions were made, and we soon were inside. A bowl filled to brimming with airag – fermented mare’s milk – was ladled out from a large leather bag hanging on one side of the ger’s wall and passed around.

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Proudly displayed on a rustic, hand-decorated wooden frame, this leather bag contains airag, the fermented mare’s milk that is the traditional welcoming offer in many gers throughout Mongolia. Slightly sour, slightly alcoholic, slightly sweet…

In addition to the airag, the couple who owned the ger prepared a large wok-shaped pot of mutton stew – hearty fare and welcome as we hadn’t eaten since noon. This was our first experience staying with a family in their ger, and initially it was a bit awkward. Our hosts spoke no English. We spoke almost no Mongolian. Would it be OK to take photos? Should we bring in a box of wine and offer it? And, uh… is there an outhouse or something?

Our guide Otgo, spoke excellent English and quickly helped us get acclimated. Upon entering a ger, one is to move clockwise. The oldest male in the party (in this case, me) is expected to sit at the “top” of the ger, directly across from the door. We’d be rolling out sleeping bags at bedtime. As for an outhouse… pick a bush, clump of tall grass or rock outcrop to duck behind, and for the “big jobs,” dig out a hole with the heel of your shoe.

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With a diameter of around 25 feet (7.6 meters), a typical ger has about 500 square feet (46 square meters) of living space. The ger’s centerpiece is a steel stove with a wok-like pot designed to fit perfectly. Outside temperatures at night dipped to freezing in mid-October, but a steady feed of dry manure kept the ger warm to roasting. 

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The stove’s chimney extends through an opening in the center of the ger. The sun hadn’t been up long when we sat down to breakfast: coffee, tea, cheese and bread and jam.

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After breakfast, Nimka got to work changing one of the tires on his tough, Russan-built four-wheel drive van. This was the first of four flats during our eight-day trip.

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Freshly-made aaruul, a type of dried milk curd, cures in the early morning sun atop the roof of the ger. Once it’s dry, aaruul can be kept almost indefinitely. This was the food that fueled Chinggis Khan and his armies as they conquered the largest area of land ever to fall under one empire. Tasting like sour milk, aaruul is an acquired taste for most non-Mongolians.

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Legendary for their endurance, the horses of Mongolia are sturdy, tough and beautiful. 

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There essentially are no fences in the Mongolian countryside.

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Dogs such as this handsome fellow are an integral part of herders’ lives. While not abundant, wolves are still part of the Mongolian landscape. This guy was quite friendly, as were most of the dogs we encountered.

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A string of cattle makes its way along tire tracks that pass for the local road near the first ger we stayed at. Over the next few posts, we will share more of what we saw and experienced on our trip to the Gobi, including encounters with thousands of Monglian gazelle, countless birds of prey, groups of Siberian ibex, dinosaur fossils, exotic traditional Mongolian cuisine, a sojourn into the desert by camel, and even a pit viper. Stay tuned!