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Into The Gobi (Part I)

“Mongolians drive their vehicles in the same way as they ride their horses.”

I read somewhere, prior our Mongolia trip.

As we threaded our way through and out of Ulaanbaatar’s autumn morning rush hour traffic — one of the worst I’ve ever been stuck in — this quote came to mind. Road rules seemed nonexistent. The drivers, maniacal. The man behind our wheel, who was recommended by our Couchsurfing host, looked menacing himself. Ganba, a fifty-something local, is a desert tour veteran. He’s stout with leathery skin and wore confidence as if it was the latest in fashion. I liked him at first sight. Not only was he in charge of the helm of our beast of a van, he was in charge of the whole itinerary — one we did not have any clue about. Our survival in the unforgiving Gobi basically depended on him.

“Too many construction.”, Ganba waved a hand in the direction of the skyline of cranes. “Have to rush before winter. Winter no construction. Too cold.”. Construction in -45 deg C? No kidding.

We were journeying with a European couple we found also through Couchsurfing. A couple of days back, I organized a meet-up with them plus another Couchsurfing couple from U.S.A. in some Chinese restaurant to assess if we like each other’s vibes (no I don’t judge people based on how they eat Chinese food, that was uhm, random). Because the last thing I’d like to witness in the desert is a Quentin Tarantino-esque duel between strangers I had bunched together. And Gobi is the kind of place that can bring out the best and worst in humans (I know it brought out the best in me, albeit with a few uncried tears).

Eventually, we didn’t take the Americans with us. There’s enough space in the Delica for six adults, but the driver insisted that it’s safer to take only four. It would be more comfortable for us passengers as well (if you travel 7-8 hours every day, you’d definitely need the extra leg room). I chose the Europeans over the Americans because the latter had more remaining days in Mongolia than the rest of us and I was certain that they’d have enough time to look for another tour group. They took the news with no hard feelings and wished us a safe trip.

After a quick visit to The Office of Immigration, Naturalisation and Foreign Citizens for my visa extension (Filipinos do not require a visa to visit Mongolia for 21 days) outside Ulaanbaatar’s center (why I had to extend my visa is a story for another day), we were soon on our way deeper into the Gobi.

Day 1

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“Time is irrelevant in the desert”, they say. In our cause, it was very relevant. Ganba sped across steppes and sand/stone covered plains for about seven odd hours so as we reach our ger accommodation before nightfall. For the entirety of the eight-day trip, driving in the dark was never an option. Luna, our two-year-old trooper, vomitted four times on day one. The ride was that rough. The fourth time Luna threw up, Ganba stopped the car and reached for the duct tape. He plastered, not her mouth, but her navel. She did not vomit anymore after that. Placebo effect or Mongolian sorcery? Either way, we were all impressed.

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Our first stop in the desert. “Restaurants” in the Gobi, run by nomad families, don’t have menus and may only have one item available.

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Which is usually this. Homemade noodles with tough mutton slices. Sometimes no seasoning.

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But we were lucky they got soy sauce. Soy sauce! If you’re a vegan (or a really picky eater), stock up on your own food while in the capital. There’s a chance you won’t find anything “cruelty-free” to eat. The flour noodles are cooked in mutton broth (vegetables too), so not exactly vegan-friendly.

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Soon after finishing our meals, we were back on the road. “On the road” mostly not literal, for we were on unpaved ground 70-80% of the total drive. Ganba was only following tire tracks as guides. Zero directional signs along the way and no landmarks to speak of — at least none to a foreigner’s eyes. In the above photo, we encountered livestock shepherded by kids. They start really young!

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First ger accommodation. US$10 a night per person. Ganba, after driving for almost eight hours that day, set up our camp stove (which he provided) once we had settled in. The man’s a mean machine, I tell you. He heated water for us to make tea while we slumped on our beds and whined about being exhausted and motion sick.

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Inside our roomy ger. When we finally regained our strength and sanity, we quickly prepared our dinner of mystery meat sausages and pickles and bread. We wanted to be in bed before the lamp — charged by solar panels atop our ger — turns off.

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This outhouse shelters the pit toilet. Why so far away? Just imagine the reek if it’s not a flush toilet. It’s a nightmare to be in it. I remember being terrified of passing out while doing my “business” because of the stench and falling into the depths of dung (I might have watched Slumdog Millionaire too many times). And yes, in the nippy evening, we had to trek to the toilet armed with torches.

That night, we were all knocked out way before the lamp died.

See you in Part II (because my attention span can only take me this far).

Gay Emami
When not backpacking, she teaches her daughter sight words and belly dancing (even if she's not good at it). She's currently eating her way around some hippie town in Australia. She loves talking about herself in the third person.

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