Mongolia's Gobi

My perch was a swinging chair on a soporific balcony, my view a treeless vista that extended for miles. If I strained my ears, I could pick up the rustle of breeze, barely.

My perch was a swinging chair on a soporific balcony, my view a treeless vista that extended for miles. If I strained my ears, I could pick up the rustle of breeze, barely.

Otherwise, as I looked across the plain, I saw and heard…nothing. And everything. It was like staring across an exquisitely placid sea, soothing in its rolling emptiness. The picture was slightly ironic, since the Gobi Desert of southern Mongolia was once a vast inland sea.

Then a free-ranging horse crossed the panorama to stir me from my ocean notions, and I thumbed through the tome I had pulled from a bookshelf, A Field Manual of Camel Diseases.

The Gobi — a word that actually means “desert” — is one of the most inhospitable and least-inhabited places on earth, with a history punctuated by both prehistoric residents and a man who emerged as the world’s most famous warlord. A parched region of not just desert but grassy plains and snow-dusted mountains, temperatures in the Gobi range from well below zero to higher than 100 degrees, and water, much less food, is alarmingly rare.

Yet it’s not hard to be seduced by Mongolia’s Gobi, especially its people — nomads who welcome strangers into their gers, the round felt-insulated tent homes favored here for more than 3,000 years. The terrain’s sheer inhospitality is contrasted by its residents’ utter generosity.

Mongolia was closed to westerners from the 1920s until the collapse of communism when Soviet troops withdrew and the country opened its doors to outsiders. Elections and a free market economy took root.

Accessibility as a tourist destination has not been an overnight process. Mongolia is not only remote, it possesses meager infrastructure — it’s three times the size of France, yet there are almost no paved roads outside the capital. It’s one of the highest countries in the world, with an average elevation almost a mile above sea level.

But for anyone intrigued by nomadic culture or faraway outposts, the Gobi delivers. A roster of notables has visited, ranging from Richard Gere to Julia Roberts to Tom Brokow. The land of Genghis Khan welcomed President Bush warmly.

My visit began in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The guide on a tour with Nomadic Expeditions was Bayanaa, who greeted our group with a local aphorism, “Welcome to the land of eternal blue sky.”

The skies were impeccably clear in May, but as we crested a rise, the first view of the capital revealed something else: soot-belching coal power plants against the mountains that envelope U.B. (as the city is almost always referred to). In the foreground sat burgeoning suburban camps of gers — a close relative of what Russians call yurts. More than 60% of the population still lives in a ger today, Bayanaa explained.

But Mongolia is changing.

“Since democracy it’s possible for anyone to move to U.B.,” said Bayanaa. In search of a better existence, the nomads of outlying Mongolia are emigrating to the capital — perhaps abandoning their arduous way of life forever.

We were headed the other direction. After two days exploring a short menu of cultural sights in U.B., we boarded an old Russian Antonov prop plane for a 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) buzzed over a severe landscape of tawny plains, speckled with occasional ger camps that sprang from the ground like clusters of white mushrooms. At D.Z., there was no paved runway — just a strip scraped from a blanket of flinty gravel. No topographical features were apparent far into the distance.
We sped out of town in Land Rovers, heading 50 miles across the plains to the Three Camel Lodge. Anchored against the eroded remnants of a long-extinct volcano, the central stone and wood lodge structure was constructed in accord with Mongolian Buddhist design, without a single nail. A balcony overlooked dusky plains, and inside was a lounge and fully stocked bar that linked to the dining room.

Entered through a door just four feet tall, each ger measured about 15 feet across. Furnishings and support beams were painted a traditional, yolky orange, and during the day the sun cast a beam of light through a roof opening for ample illumination. A bare fluorescent bulb offered light at night.

Considering the minimal fresh produce available in the Gobi and that the lodge is primarily powered by sun and wind, meals coming out of the kitchen at Three Camel were delicious — tasty soups, salads and grilled meats. Better still, after dinner a quintet formed to present folk music and dance, including traditional throat singing.

After Genghis Khan, Mongolia’s most famous inhabitants were prehistoric. American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews — possibly the model for the Indiana Jones character — came to the Gobi in the 1920s and discovered a bluff “almost paved with bones.” Andrews collected thousands of Cretaceous specimens, including the earliest known mammal skulls and the first discovery of a nest of dinosaur eggs, shipping them away in crates lined with camel hair.

“No finer packing material could be devised,” Andrews wrote.

Local geologist Chimid Tsereu led us to the historic excavation site, the Flaming Cliffs. With a smiling face appropriately proportioned to his Buddha-like belly, Tsereu explained that most major paleontological exploration today takes place elsewhere in the Gobi, sites that are perhaps the richest dinosaur graveyards in the world, regularly revealing new species.

Flaming Cliffs is where fossil hunters pay homage to their predecessors rather than do any major digging, although there are still finds, especially after a brisk wind or after the almost-annual cloudburst shifts the veneer of sand. The mile-long mound of red-dirt bluffs is also a lavish morsel of scenery in the otherwise bleak terrain, with tufts of wild garlic and blue iris poking up from the soil.

Tsereu encouraged us to search for fossils. My untrained eye had little success discerning the difference between bone fragments and shards of white rock. But Tsereu eventually steered us to an embankment with a row of penny-sized white spots.
“A velociraptor spine,” he said, using a pen to outline the animal’s 80-million-year-old pose.

A picnic was laid out in a field nearby. Incongruously, a traveling salesman and his son pulled up on a weathered motorcycle, opening a suitcase with trinkets for sale. Roving camels crossed the horizon, eventually meandering our way. With their winter coats shedding for summer, the camels had an absurdly shabby demeanor. Tufts of hair tumbled off their humps, cascading to the ground to bounce aimlessly in the breeze.

We crossed a path above 8,000 feet to reach Three Beauties National Park, where ibex sprinted up mountainsides and a red fox watched us carefully. Bayanaa told us that lucky — extremely lucky — visitors might spot a snow leopard in the wild (less than 1,500 are thought to exist in Mongolia).

In Yol Valley, where a narrow gorge sheltered a semi-permanent trough of ice, we could try out Mongolia’s famous horses, said to outnumber humans 13 to one and shorter than a standard western riding horse. But they appeared to be no less strong, and willful enough that one trained rider in our group was thrown from a half-broke horse.

Fortunately, short horse, short fall — the only bruise was an ego’s.

Another mini-expedition took us to Khongoryn Els, a 70-mile range of sand dunes towering 1,000 feet. Also known as singing dunes, the sand whispered to us like a distant passing jet — a faint roar caused by the dune’s endless cascading. I couldn’t resist scaling the steep slope, sinking my bare feet deep into the balmy silica, but after a few hundred feet my lungs begged for reprieve.

At the foot of the dunes, herders offered informal camel rides. I found the two-hump Bactrian camels of Mongolia offered easier travel than their one-humped counterparts, the dromedary camels of the Middle East. But both species share a whiny, honking, spitting testiness that is entertaining — from a safe distance.

After a plodding journey along the base of the dunes, camel driver Zorigo invited us to meet his wife Urango and four children, my first encounter with local cultural mores. The traditions of nomads are precise: no visitor to a ger is rejected; no one is charged for the welcome.

Zorigo explained in a soft voice how his family’s typical summer day begins at 6 A.M. to milk the camels and lead sheep to a grazing area. In winter, camels transport the camp to a more protected location, shared with other families through long, cold nights.
The children played quietly and Urango served tea while a snuff bottle was passed around with careful, ceremonial motions. Zorigo showed off a Russian-made 22-calibre rifle that looked like it had seen decades of hard use. In the desolate Gobi, what did the family need to defend against?

“We’ve had a lot of wolves,” he said. “They’ve slaughtered more than 10 of our animals this year.”

Arriving back at the lodge late that evening, the night was distinctly cooler. I entered my ger and discovered someone had fired up the stove, heating the room perfectly. The nomads of Mongolia had an innate instinct for hospitality.

The next day, when it was time to bid goodbye to the Gobi, Bayanaa hugged me warmly and looked into my eyes to quote another proverb: “While your father is alive, make as many friends as you can. While your horse is alive, see as many lands as you can.”

Exploring the Gobi stirred my soul.

My father, and apparently my horse, seemed very much alive and well.

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National carrier MIAT flies to Ulaanbaatar from Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo; Aeroflot, Air China and Korean Air also fly to Mongolia from their respective hubs. Flights to Dalanzadgad operate daily in summer. 

Prime season is late May through September. The country’s big annual festival, Naadam — wrestling contests, archery matches and horseback competitions for children — dates to Ghengis Khan’s era and takes place in Ulaanbaatar in mid-July.

Accommodations in the Gobi are in ger camps. The 45-ger Three Camel Lodge sets a high bar for comfort as well as ecological and cultural sustainability and is relatively central to the major attractions of the Gobi. Most units share spotless, slate-floored restrooms with hot shower stalls and toilets; 20 deluxe gers have attached, western-style bathroom. Rates from $80 per person including meals (800-998-6634; 

Travel outside Ulaanbaatar is difficult without some knowledge of the Mongolian language; flights around the country are unreliable. Although independent trips can be arranged in the capital, it’s better to start with a well-connected outfitter in the U.S.

Owned by a Mongolian ex-pat, Nomadic Expeditions, which also operates Three Camel Lodge, offers itineraries year-round. Some of them combine visits to Mongolia with Siberia, China, Tibet, or Bhutan, and many have themes, like fossil hunting, fishing, kayaking, horseback riding and camel trekking. The 13-day “Ultimate Gobi” itinerary is priced $3,805; independent and family itineraries can also be arranged (800-998-6634;