Apart from the few hours of plains we viewed from the Trans-Mongolian, this was our first look at the countryside of Mongolia. Swerving around livestock and potholes, it was a quick introduction into the types of conditions we’d be experiencing over the next nine days.
Wide and vast and with tracks not for the weak of stomach, it's no wonder an adventure anywhere takes time. With 12 days in the country total, we could only choose one journey, and we chose to explore the central area of the country with stops in the Semi Gobi Desert, Orkhon Valley, Eight Lakes and with plenty of horse-riding and ger-sleeping in between.
What's a ger you ask? It's basically a traditional circular tent made with lattice walls, a poled dome and felted exterior. And they aren't just a way of the past continued for the sake of tourists (although hosting tourists in their own or extra gers has become a big part of the expanding tourism industry). They are still used today all over the country, with some families living in them for part of the year, while others remain fully nomadic.
Our first stop, the “Semi” Gobi, is exactly as it sounds: partial desert, sandy with green vegetation and a mountainous backdrop. We walked down to the permanent pools of water in the valley below where a herd of horses were grazing. The ground was dotted with tiny specs of color, simple yet amazingly pretty wildflowers so at home in the extreme conditions around them.
Even though it was already well into the evening, the sun was far from setting. We ventured by camel through the vegetation and into some more sandy dunes. It was our first time riding a two-humped camel and can we say, it’s a whole lot more comfortable than our one-humped Sahara experience. As we were heading back to the same camp that night, there was no need for the camels to also be transporting bags and supplies so our legs could rest comfortably around the camels’ girths.
My camel led the way, taking every opportunity to bow its head to tear a mouthful of weedy vegetation from the natural supermarket below. Hai’s camel meanwhile was roped to my saddle and quickly decided that the distance between us should be closed using whatever means possible.
It rubbed its mouth into my thigh, breathing so heavily that the warmth exuding from its huge nostrils evoked the imagery of childhood tales of fiery dragons. It tapped me with the side of its head, pulled at my jeans, all while making a peculiar whiny sound. Was this an expression of love or an agitated resistance to my presence?
Fixated on that metal bar through its nose and with the best medical care within reach being what could be found in our medical kits, it was time to instigate some preventative measures. I tried talking to it calmly. I tried tough love. It made little difference. When putting my hand on its head didn’t result in an increase in erratic behavior, I managed to pat it into a calmer state.
Reaching an area with more sand dune patches breaking up the greenness, we got down for a break.
The camp’s dog had followed us and without hesitation approached and laid down for a belly rub. Any pause in the scratching resulted in a paw on the back of the pants in request of continuance of this informal massage service.
Desert, semi-desert, green, red, brown, mountains or streams, the Mongolian interior was simply beautiful.
As my camel was leading, I got back on first. Stubborn as could be with a touch of crazy, my camel just did its own thing. Not waiting for instruction or a moment for me to put my feet into the stirrups, it suddenly got up, sending all the other camels into slightly frenzied acts of disobedience. Thankful for that second hump, I was able to hold on to the one in front and lean into the one behind me to stay alight.
The guide rounded up the other camels who had been untied during our rest stop and one-by-one coaxed them back into their seated position. For once, despite having the literal freedom to bolt off into the sunset, my camel took on a more relaxed demeanor and just hung out coolly by the sidelines until the other camels were re-united with their riders and re-tied in single file, expedition style. A good thing seeing as though I didn’t really feel like a rogue adventure with this unhinged individual.
Passing through bodies of water and back through the patchy green terrain, my camel continued to pull up chunks of bushes and munched at them noisily like the sound of chomping on the crunchiest of carrots with one’s mouth open. Just as a child about to be scolded at the dinner table, he shoveled more and more into his mouth without having finished what he’d put in before.
Halfway up the hill, we witnessed a standoff between the camp’s dog and a solitary black goat, the dog circling the forlorn being before they stared each other down. The guide tisked at the dog to retreat but it seemed he too had only partial hearing.
Nearing camp, the dog reappeared, apparently becoming disinterested in tormenting the goat. In true desert style, the diminishing light brought with it a nipping chill, the felted ger warm and inviting. After several rounds of Mongolian games using the ankle bones of sheep and camel, none of the rules we still really understand, sleep came to the sound of crazy camels.