The Land of Eternal Blue Sky

Exploring Mongolia’s Gobi

By: David Swanson

The land is one of the least inhabited places on Earth; its history punctuated by both prehistoric residents and a man who emerged as perhaps the world’s most famous warlord. Temperatures range from well below zero to higher than 110 degrees, and water much less food is alarmingly rare.

Yet it’s not hard to find life in the Gobi, the region of grassy plains, mountains and deserts of southern Mongolia especially if clients stay at an oasis. The 45-room Three Camel Lodge was opened in 2002 by New Jersey-based tour operator Nomadic Expeditions. The company paves a comfortable route to a place that lies far, far off the beaten track.

A landlocked nation three times the size of France, Mongolia is sandwiched between China and Siberia. The country was, for the most part, closed to Westerners from the 1920s until the collapse of Communism. Mongolia opened its doors to outsiders in 1990, and democracy and a free market economy soon took root.

Accessibility as a tourist destination has not been an overnight process. Mongolia is not only large, but also remote. It possesses a meager infrastructure, and it’s one of the highest countries in the world, with an average elevation of 5,200 feet above sea level. For anyone intrigued by nomadic culture and exotic outposts, the Gobi delivers. And a roster of notables has come for a look from Hillary Clinton to Tom Brokaw, Richard Gere to Julia Roberts and most recently even President Bush made a stop here.

Nomadic Expedition

My trip with a group from Nomadic Expeditions began, as almost any exploration of Mongolia would, in the capital of Ulaanbaatar. Our guide for the weeklong visit, Bayanaa, greeted us with a local aphorism.

“Welcome to the land of eternal blue sky,” she said.

The skies were impeccably clear, but our first view of the city as we crested a rise just outside the airport, revealed another dimension. Soot-belching power plants contrasted against the gently rolling mountains that envelope U.B. (as the capital is almost always referred to).

In the foreground sat burgeoning suburban camps of gers, the round, felt-lined tent-homes favored by nomads for 3,000 years. Just three or four camels are required to transport a ger and its furniture, and more than 60 percent of the population still live inside these tents. But Mongolia is changing.

“Since democracy, it’s possible for anyone to move to U.B.,” Bayanaa said.

In search of a better existence, the nomads of outlying Mongolia are emigrating to the capital perhaps abandoning their arduous nomadic way of life forever.

But we were headed the other direction. After two nights of exploring a short menu of museums and cultural sights in U.B., we boarded an old Russian Antonov prop plane for local carrier MIAT’s twice-weekly flight to Dalanzadgad in the heart of the Gobi.

Through heavily scratched windows, the 90-minute flight to D.Z. (as it is commonly called) soared over a severe landscape of tawny plains, speckled with occasional ger camps. Coming in for a landing brought home just how far we’d traveled: There was no paved runway just a flat, rocky plain.

Nomadic Expeditions drivers met us at the airport, and we quickly sped out of town in Land Rovers, heading 50 miles north. Along the way, we passed several ger camps built to accommodate travelers for about $30 a night, including meals.

By contrast, the Three Camel Lodge appeared like a sanctuary. Anchored against the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano, the facility was constructed in accord with Mongolian Buddhist design without a single nail. Inside was a lounge and fully stocked bar, which linked to a clean, bright kitchen and an oversized ger used for dining.

To each side were the traditional gers we would sleep in. With a door just four feet tall and a round room measuring about 15 feet across, the sturdy structures had a wood-burning stove in the center, a pair of beds and a dresser. During the day, the roof opening allowed sunlight in, and a bare fluorescent bulb provided light at night. The shared bathroom facility was equipped with toilets and showers which provided ample hot water, albeit with minimal pressure. Attendants kept the facilities spotless.

A block of 15 new “luxury” gers offered private, Western-style bathrooms with a sink and toilet.

The food we had at Three Camel Lodge included tasty soups, salads and grilled and barbecued meat dishes. Considering the minimal fresh produce available and that the property was powered by sun and wind (and generators as needed), the food coming out of the kitchen was impressive.

Paved With Bones

The Gobi was once a vast inland sea, roamed by prehistoric animals. American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews (thought to have been the model for the Indiana Jones character) came to the Gobi in the 1920s to find the origins of man and discovered a hillside almost paved with bones. Andrews collected thousands of specimens, including the earliest known mammal skulls and the first discovery of a nest of dinosaur eggs.

A geologist led us on an informal expedition to the historic excavation known as the Flaming Cliffs. Although there are still occasional finds, most of the Gobi’s major paleontological exploration takes place at other sites. The Flaming Cliffs’ half-mile-long mound of red-dirt bluffs was also a lavish morsel of scenery in the otherwise bleak plains, with tufts of wild garlic and blue iris poking up from the soil.

The geologist encouraged us to search for fossils (though any remains are strictly prohibited from leaving the country). My untrained eye had little success discerning the difference between bone fragments and shards of white rock. But our guide steered us to an embankment where a row of penny-sized white spots had been exposed.

“A velociraptor spine,” he said, using a pen to outline the animal’s 80-million-year-old pose.

Nomadic also arranged other expeditions away from the lodge including a trip to Khongoryn Els, a 70-mile-long ribbon of sand dunes towering up to 1,000 feet above the plain. Also known as singing dunes, the sand whispered to us like a passing jet. We overnighted in a nearby typical ger camp, Torshim II, which magnified the luxury of Three Camel Lodge.

Another day took us to Yol Valley, in the Three Beauties National Park, where a narrow gorge sheltered a semi-permanent trough of ice. The pass leading out of the valley topped out at an elevation over 8,000 feet. Extremely lucky visitors might spot a wild snow leopard here (less than 1,500 are thought to exist in Mongolia).

We arrived back at the lodge on a noticeably cooler evening. I entered my ger and discovered someone had fired up the stove. The nomads of Mongolia had an instinct for making their guests feel welcome.

The next day, when it was time to say goodbye to the Gobi, Bayanaa said farewell by quoting another Mongolian proverb.

“While your father is alive make as many friends as you can,” she said. “While your horse is alive see as many lands as you can.”



Nomadic Expeditions

Nomadic Expeditions offers itineraries year-round, some of them combining visits to Mongolia with Siberia, China, Tibet or Bhutan, and many with adventure themes, like fossil hunting, fishing, kayaking, horseback riding and camel trekking, plus family trips. The 13-day Ultimate Gobi itinerary is priced $3,150 for 2006.

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