3rd – 8th April
Crossing the Gobi
All in all it takes us four days to traverse the Gobi Desert, the fifth largest desert in the world, and one the coldest.
This, however, makes it sound much harder than it really is. We spend one day in China, covering a third of the total distance (355kms) on excellent Chinese expressways. Another day is spent idling at the border, waiting for the incomprehensibly officious Chinese border guards to let us and the car leave (you’d think after five weeks, they’d be glad to get rid of us!).
That leaves only two days actually driving across the desert in Mongolia, but they rank as one of our trip highlights so far.
The border town
Thanks to the Chinese officials (the Mongolian entry process takes a comparatively swift 70 minutes) we don’t actually reach the Mongolian border town of Zamyn-Uud until 3.30pm on Friday afternoon.
The sun is shining and the temperature has risen gradually all day, from a bitter -8°C first thing to a relatively balmy -3°C now. Nevertheless, there’s a fearsome sand-ridden wind blowing from the west, gusting around 70kph. We don’t know just how bad the road will be once we leave town, or how long it will take us to drive the 220km to Saynshand, the first town en-route where any form of indoor accommodation may be possible.
In these conditions, we don’t really fancy chancing it so late in the day and being forced to sleep in the car. Instead, we check into the delightfully cosy Hotel Nomrog, located in the epicentre of Zamyn –Uud, between the market square and the railway station.
Zamyn-Uud is the definition of a remote border outpost: dusty, windswept and decrepit. But despite the disorder, the unpaved streets and the ramshackle concrete buildings, it feels so much more homely than the rigid efficiency of the huge Chinese towns we’ve left behind. It feels like we’re back in Central Asia again, another step closer to home.
After a quick nap we wander through the market square where hardy locals are playing pool, of all things, on three outdoor municipal tables. Local girls in tight jeans and trendy coats chatter in groups; older, weather-beaten men in sturdy leather boots and patched up wax jackets watch the youngster play pool. The piercing wind doesn’t seem to bother them – as far as they’re concerned this is a mild spring day. They’re made of stern stuff, these Mongolians.
We enjoy our first supper in Mongolia – hearty goulash and mutton cutlets served with mashed potato and carrots. The local lager – untranslatable but pronounced ‘jalam kar’ is as strong as the locals and looks like London Pride. So far, we’re enjoying every moment of this country!
Fully refreshed after an early night, we’re up on Saturday morning at 7am to hit the road, or track, or whatever the desert may have in store for us. Sure enough, just beyond the last house, the aged asphalt disintegrates into sand and the Gobi Desert stretches out before us.
As soon as our tyres touch the sand, our pent-up trepidation transforms to sheer excitement –this is what proper overlanding is all about. We’ve had enough of Chinese highways and toll-roads; this is where the proper adventure starts again. We can’t see anything on the horizon apart from a deep-blue sky and endless sand and scrub. Bliss!
Trucks and nomads
Actually, the Gobi Desert supports a surprising amount of life, given the hostility of its environment. Within a few minutes we’ve spotted our first herd of wonderfully woolly Bactrian camels, flocks of sheep, goats and hardy desert ponies all follow. All are a sign of nearby human life; indeed every half hour or so we drive past low-lying ger (yurt) encampments comprising a handful of field-mushroom like tents, aerodynamically hugging the sand.
Despite the total absence of tarmac (or any form of grading), this is a reasonably busy ‘road’. All overland trade with China passes this way, mostly via the train line that guides us north but also by way of an array of dilapidated Soviet trucks and road trains, their size matched only by their unreliability.
Every quarter an hour or so we pass another vehicle, usually a truck but occasionally a snazzy new Land Cruiser or similar. About half of the trucks we see are broken down, but our offers of help (a pre-requisite in this climate) and politely declined by toothless grins.
Lunch in the desert
After five hours of bumping along at 20 – 50kph, picking our own route and ensuring we head in a north-westerly direction, we arrive in Saynshand, the first major town on our route to UB. We see it come into view as we summit a small hill to the south: a motley array of little concrete houses, gers, filling stations and industrial odds and ends that litter the outskirts. We stop to refuel the car (-35°C diesel marginally reduces our fuel consumption) and ourselves.
Lunch is hard to come by, so not wanting to start on our emergency supplies just yet, we buy a tin of sprats and some concrete sliced bread from a local store, for the handsome price of 50 pence.
The landscape’s flatter and the wind intensifies – even momentarily opening the door turns everything brown with sand. So we settle for sprat sandwiches, sat where we are, enjoying the otherwise peaceful, remoteness of it all.
Today’s good deed
Driving on again the terrain improves dramatically for driving – the track is still not graded (although there are patches of abandoned roadworks that indicate that a tarmac road to the border may not be too many years away) but the ground flattens out, unburdened by grass, rocks or river beds. Astonishingly, on some stretches it’s possible to comfortably drive at 80kph – something we never envisaged – it’s a remarkable driving experience.
We spot a local Mongolian couple, in their 40’s, standing beside an evidently caput motorbike, flagging us down whilst desperately shielding themselves from the relentless wind. Mr Mongol asks if we can take his wife home, whilst he waits for a pick-up to transport him and the bike? We readily agree.
Mrs Mongol, brightly dressed in a sky-blue keel, only four foot tall but with a heart warming smile expresses her gratitude despite the language barrier and we exchange names. It’s lovely to help out in these situations, and we’re relieved that for once it’s us doing the helping and not the other way round. We can’t help but feel sorry for her husband though…
Overnight in Choir
Having dropped off a beaming Mrs Mongol and accepted payment in the form of a quick photo, we take a gamble on the track continuing to be kind to us, and push on past the only other habitation, aiming to drive another 100km to the aimag (province) capital of Choir.
It’s 4.30pm, 100km, the sun sets at 7.15pm – should be fine…
It is. Barring the occasional rocky hillocks and boggy riverbeds that require careful navigation, the tracks to Choir are flat, gravely and heavily corrugated. Above a certain speed it’s possible to ‘skim’ the corrugations, giving us and the car a far comfier ride than rattling through them at 15kph.
We reach Choir at 6pm, enjoying the last 2km on the pristine asphalt road that runs from here all the way to the capital. Elation at such a successful day’s drive is mixed with a tinge of regret that the most adventurous part of it is over already; three hours easy driving tomorrow will see us in the capital.
Nevertheless, tonight’s beer feels especially well earned and we sleep soundly in the warmth of the town’s only dilapidated and shower-less guesthouse.
Leaving Choir, the change in climactic conditions and landscape is severe. We’d noticed progressively larger patches of snow as we headed north yesterday, but today we are immediately, and permanently, surrounded by white-blanketed plains. We’re glad the tarmac is here; driving on tracks through this would be slow and treacherous (although it makes us wonder what we have in store when we leave UB and head west).
Within minutes, we start to see the after-effects of the harsh winter: a zud. Zuds are livestock famines caused by hard winters or over-grazing – either the snow is so heavy that the grass is totally covered, or a late freeze hampers water supplies, or heavy snow diverts too many animals to the same areas, so trampling the wet grasslands and destroying scarce food supplies.
All can be catastrophic. This year’s stems from a combination of overgrazing, autumnal drought, heavy snowfalls followed by a late spring. It’s estimated that some 6 million livestock have died across the country, devastating many nomads’ only livelihoods. On the road to UB, we see over 300 ponies, cattle and sheep, long dead and frozen in horribly contorted positions, only now being revealed as the snow is melting. The sheep are usually in groups of 10 or 15, evidently huddled together for warmth, whilst the cows and ponies are normally alone.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this country can only sustain 25 million grazing animals, but in 2009 it had 44 million, so it’s unfortunately not unexpected. It’s a sombre reminder of just how tough life can be in this country – despite its beauty, it can be a brutal place to live.
We arrive in UB at a leisurely 2pm. We’re staying with a friend of a friend, Luke Leslie, an English ex-pat who has very kindly offered to put us up having never met us and received only the briefest reference for us, courtesy of our drunken Saturday night in Beijing.
Although it’s a Sunday, Luke’s busy with clients so arranges one of his staff to meet us at the ‘Great Khan’ Irish Pub – the centre of the social universe in UB. We find it easily enough (it’s not a huge city) and wander into the warmth of a huge, Irish style pub, complete with excellent food menu, Guiness on tap and live band stage.
As we tuck into very welcome nachos and cheeseburgers, we can’t quite believe where we are, having spent two days driving through such relatively remote, barren and harsh lands. It almost feels wrong – like we haven’t done enough to deserve it – especially when we think back to the piles of dead animals littering the roadside that we’ve just seen.
Luke’s assistant, a 24 year old, stocky Mongolian fellow called Ochir, arrives to take us up to Luke’s flat. Admiring the view of UB, ringed by snow-dusted mountains, we tell Ochir our plans of ‘heading west’
”You guys better have my number. There are no cars going west right now. Still too cold, everywhere’s covered in snow” Ochir speaks fluent English like an American.
“Have you guys got a gun?” We reply in the negative.
“Man, it’s pretty dangerous out there, you know. You guys need to be careful.” He’s putting the fear of God into us and we’ve only just met him! We enquire about the roads, or lack thereof.
“No roads, man, and even the locals get lost. Have you got good maps? You should beware, too, that if you ask a Mongolian directions, he’ll probably tell you the wrong way”
“Why’s that – because they’ve never left their home villages?” we enquire, imagining it may be similar to India.
“No, man, they think it’s funny. They just do it for a joke. Not just foreigners, locals, everyone!”
Wonderful. Our relief of arriving unscathed in UB has suddenly evaporated, having been told in no uncertain terms that the worst is yet to come. But luckily, over the next few days, we learn that Ochir enjoys talking things up a little – conversations with numerous other locals and ex-pats reassure us that we’re not heading into certain calamity the moment we leave UB… We hope.
Skiing – Mongolian style
Luke arrives shortly afterwards, a cheery, tall, well spoken fellow, accompanied by his colleague, mate and fellow English ex-pat, Will. They are excellent, amusing company and we instantly feel at home – we know we’ll have a lot of fun in this city.
After Ochir’s scare-stories, there’s nothing for it, but to forget about them all, enjoy a few Sunday afternoon beers and go skiing!
Yes, UB does have a mini ski-resort, complete with floodlights, two chair-lifts, five runs, real snow and bar and restaurant… It’s a real, unexpected treat to be able to get a little skiing fix, in such a random but beautiful location, watching the sun set behind the mountains that surround the capital on Easter Sunday..
We spend the next few days in UB getting our rear diff lock mended (it hasn’t worked since we left the UK but now is the time we’ll really need it), stocking up on supplies and meeting up with Catherine Decker whom we’ve been introduced to via our UN friend Jonathan in Vientiane.
Catherine also works for the UNDP and is currently up to her eyes in zud disaster relief programmes and humanitarian projects. It’s amazing to learn just how fragile this environment is, and how much damage has been wrought by overgrazing, especially by the much valued cashmere wool-producing goats, Mongolia’s latest cash crop.
After four hugely enjoyable and civilised days here we’re prepared, stocked up and ready to go. Here’s hoping spring is on the way!