Our second morning in the desert got off to an early start. We were up and dressed by about seven, and were soon presented with breakfast: a sort of porridge made with meat and what appeared to be suet, accompanied by meat dumplings. Meat is a huge part of the diet in the Gobi, and everywhere in Mongolia, so we saw a lot of it over the next few days. After breakfast we finished packing the last of our stuff into the van, said goodbye to our hosts, and rolled over to the nearby Gandanchoinhorlin monastery.
Our translator took us on a brief tour of the little enclosure and then we were off heading south further into the Gobi.
We hadn’t been driving more than twenty minutes when he spun the wheel left and took us bouncing off the track across the Gobi until we stopped at a ger. After a few toots on the horn, a young man came out and held the dog while we went into the ger. There was a very elderly couple inside and they served us tea and camel milk curds as soon as we sat down. Camel milk curds have a similar texture to a really hard cheese, but are actually quite sour. A few minutes later the lady added sugar cubes to our bowls and Blake ate his curd with a sugar cube – bite of curd, bite of sugar – which made it a lot more palatable. We were only there for about fifteen minutes before we were out the door and driving across the desert again. This was not a scheduled stop, or one of the families we were supposed to visit. To this day we have no idea who they are or why we stopped there.
We spent the better part of the next two hours heading further south into the desert and soaking up the views. It was fascinating to watch as the scenery became more and more desert-like.
After a little searching we found the family we would spend the afternoon with herding goats and stopped to watch while they finished what they were doing. After that we were taken to the ger for lunch, a meat and noodle soup, before they brought in their camel herd to be milked.
The two little girls insisted that we put our arms in certain baby camels’ mouths, and later tried to trick us into offering up our arms to some of the meaner ones.
There were two little girls there who Tamara immediately made friends with and a younger boy as well. They were all eager to show us their camels and help us try to figure out the trick to milking them. We were not good at it. You have to stand on one leg, brace the bucket on your knee, and then get a certain rhythm going to really be a productive milker. Also, the baby camel is on the other side so you have to keep the young one from taking your side of the udder. It was a really interesting experience.
After the camels were all milked we were taken back inside the ger to sample the product of our labour. It was really, really sour and did not sit well in our stomachs. Sadly, We may have slightly offended the family because we were not able to finish the cup that we were given. It just was not happening without dire consequences for the remainder of our trip.
We left that family in the mid-afternoon and continued our journey southwards. Another hour or so brought us to the ger where we would spend the night. This ger had only one couple and a small girl about seven years old. As in all our previous stops, we were served tea immediately when we arrived along with something that is like a cross between bannock and a bagel. We had it several times throughout the trip. It is quite heavy and oily, but pretty good dipped in tea. After this refreshment we headed out in the van to take in a few of the local sights.
This area was the driest and most deserty that we saw for our trip and it was cool that we got to spend a bit of time checking out a few different parts of it. Our first stop was an old destroyed monastery. It was really neat to check this out. There was no roof left anywhere, just the shell of old clay and brick walls. We would have liked to stay a little longer but our little guide kept insisting that it was time to head back to the jeep. It was clearly a pretty extensive complex at one time. Originally established to be near the Uush Sand Dune, it was destroyed by the Soviets when they attempted to purge Buddhism from Mongolia in the 1940s.
From the monastery we looped around a set of rocky hills where our host led us into a very narrow, albeit short, canyon. After climbing for a ways he pointed out the opening of a cave in the rocks. Blake went further up the canyon and then crabbed across part of the rocks and into the cave, startling flocks of pigeons which resulted in some pretty erratic dodging efforts on his part. He got far enough back in the cave to see that a shaft ran vertically up to the top of the hill and continued much further down into the mountain. However, continued incursions by the pigeons, and as he went deeper bats, eventually drove him back out to join the rest of the group and head back for the van.
Our last stop was Uush (pronounced Oh-sh) sand dune. After parking at the bottom, our host signed that we were to take off our footwear and head up barefoot. We dropped our boots at the bottom and started to climb. It is actually pretty high and climbing in sand is not all that easy so we stopped twice for breaks. During one of these, he showed us that we should cover our legs in the sand and lie back on it because it is supposed to be good for joints and kidneys. It was super fine and dry and was actually pretty comfortable once you got settled in. Eventually we got to the crest. Our guide stopped there and we continued up the crest towards the higher parts of the dune to get a bit of a view of the surrounding area. It really was beautiful and standing on that sand dune was pretty cool. There was a bit of a breeze that carried fine sand in it (that’s how the dune was formed after all) so sunglasses were a huge bonus while we were up there. Sadly, Tamara had dropped hers in a pit toilet during the bus ride down so she was forced to squint a fair bit.
Once we had relaxed and thoroughly satisfied our curiosity about the dune we headed back down to the van. (One of the tricky things about our trip was that the language gap meant that we were never entirely sure how much time we were supposed to take at any given point). We headed back to the ger and arrived just in time to enjoy a dinner of noodles and meat, although this time without broth. These dishes are surprisingly good given the limited ingredients the nomads have to work with. Basically, it was just homemade noodles, meat and salt mixed together, but it was delicious. This was served with goats’ milk tea which is also very tasty. We really appreciated this tradition of immediately serving people tea when they arrive at a ger, as the process is very welcoming. After dinner we looked at a bunch of pictures of the family and the various guests they had entertained over the years and showed them some pictures of our trip thus far. They had turned on a movie on the tiny portable DVD player, so the husband, daughter and our driver were all huddled around that off to one side while we were entertained by the mother. We set up our tent in the lee of the van just before dark and, after relaxing in the ger for a little longer, we headed out for the night.
It was amazing to see stars again after all of our time in Korean cities. We spent some time just wandering with our necks craned back and took a few pictures before finally retiring for the night.