Love and Vodka in a Van through Mongolia
When we think of the Gobi desert, we immediately think of the golden sand dunes, which we would like to tread barefoot. We can say that our trip to Mongolia was rich in adventures. The Gobi Desert was the first big stop on our road trip in Mongolia. We discovered its many facets with its snow-capped mountains, huge sand dunes, and flaming red canyons.
The Gobi is first and foremost a desert and we have to travel several hundred kilometers on barren roads before reaching one of its wonders. Fortunately, we had a great team, and the hours spent in our 4x4 van do not seem so long. Moreover, our way of traveling is really nice.
We take the time to live and our guide, our cook and our driver pamper us by preparing tasty meals and always good. Let's be one of the lucky few who does not eat lamb meat every day! So we ended up doing our own sushi or fries in the middle of the desert and it was excellent!
As we say right now, this is not what you read when browsing this article. We could have rented a 4x4 and the services of a local guide, in order to get lost in these spaces to live a tailor-made high-marked adventure.
Moreover, to be quite honest and not hide anything, I probably would have appreciated. During my second trip to the Mauritanian Sahara, I had the chance to camp for a week in small oases with a guide. He knew at his fingertips these tracks in the sand, invisible to any foreign tourist. I still keep an indelible memory today.
This time, however, it was otherwise. Our tight budget and a strong desire to go off the beaten track have won over these images of postcards, which we had in spite of ourselves in mind. Finally, except for the stifling heat, our crossing of the Gobi desert trek proved to be perfect, or almost.
Day 1 - Moscow
I start this notebook in the sky, somewhere above the clouds, in the direction of Moscow, where we have to stop before leaving for Ulaanbaatar. The plane has just made a detour to get around a storm, but we still cross a small area of disturbances. A few hours later another storm prevents us from landing in Moscow. We are shooting in the sky. But no, we finally land! In a few minutes, the Russian officials, straight in their boots, refuse us access. There are fragrances from the former Soviet Union.
We wait 24 hours locked in the airport, with no exit in Moscow. We are still provided with a small room, after 3 hours at the aptly-named mini hotel. We go share a lean salad! We have not yet set foot in Mongolia but the trip is already full of meetings.
I have always been surrounded by unrepentant travelers who took me to all corners of the world! And that's how I went to lost places where I would never have imagined setting foot in the deserts of Syria, along the precipices of the Caucasus, on the Korean islands, and in the Brazilian jungle.
At 3 am in Moscow my sleep breaks in the middle of the night, as it's already dawn. The question turns me vaguely in the head in my half-sleep. Why is it day in the middle of the night?
I think at first that it's about the lights of the airport. Then I remember it's June and not much closer in the Arctic Circle. The dark night is not here. I write these lines without a lamp, just in the light of the night. I have not slept all night, because of the Russian polar night.
Day 2 - Ulaanbaatar
We could not get our luggage, and we obviously have no toothbrush or anything. We finally took off past Siberia. We took a flight to Beijing where we had a 4-hour stopover. We followed the twilight, leaving at 7 pm from Beijing. We arrive at 10 pm in Ulaanbaatar, but at no point in the journey have we fallen into darkness.
The evening light simply replaced the morning light. This phenomenon always fascinates me when traveling to Central Asia or the Far East. I write this notebook again in the middle of the night, but in the light of a dawn in the sky.
As expected, we found our friend at the airport and took the same flight to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Our friend had already arrived the day before and was waiting for us in the youth hostel. Our flight to Ulaanbaatar was long because we waited 1 hour before taking off. Only we did not land because the pilot of our plane felt that there was too much wind.
An announcement was made on the plane to warn us that we were returning to Beijing. So we have 6 hours of waiting at the airport. We finally boarded the plane to Beijing and landed at Ulaanbaatar 12 hours after our initial arrival time. Fortunately, our guide was waiting for us at the airport and took us to the hostel.
We first went for a walk in the Ulaanbaatar town market, where our guide bought food and showed us the traditional clothes of the country. Then we drove to the Terelj National Park where we had our first yurt experience. The nomad family shares with us the traditional camel milk tea accompanied by dry cakes.
We also taste their famous Genghis Khan vodka, that Mongolians drink, without any diluent! We were prepared for a road trip in a Russian van, accompanied by our cook, guide and our driver.
Day 3 - Gobi Desert
At 4am, I woke up because of a flashlight. Someone was standing in the yurt. As the light went out as soon as I moved, it was obvious that someone had entered our yurt, though not very big. We had several valuables, including wallet, passport, and our iPad. We continued our road trip by redoubling our vigilance.
We headed south to reach the northern Gobi Desert. The road is long and deserted and there is nothing except some yurts here and there. The vegetation cannot grow on such arid land and the wind is at times violent. The guide explained to us that in the south of Mongolia it rains only once a month and this day is the happiness of the few inhabitants.
Then we descend into the heart of the Gobi Desert, where we saw many camels, wild horses, goats, some foxes, vultures and white marmots. Fortunately, our van is off-road because the roads are often steep and it happens to our driver to take shortcuts in stony paths. We walk to the top of the highest desert dune to admire the sunset.
For the night, we meet the Mongolian family who provides a yurt for us. The yurt is very modern and even equipped with TV and wifi. There is a stove in the middle of the room, and dry camel dung to fuel the fire! We would like to talk to families, but so far none of them spoke an English word. It's a bit frustrating for us, but we're watching their way of life with a lot of curiosity.
Our guide gives us a lot of explanations about the traditions. In the evening, we go to a bar in a small town in the Gobi desert. We had a great time that allowed us to forget our misadventures!
Day 4 - Orkhon Valley
After the Gobi desert, we travel through many hours of dirt roads. After stopping three times due to flat tires, we discovered with surprise the landscapes of Central Mongolia. There are vast green plains as well as big mountains and some rivers. The scenery is beautiful, and as usual, we have a nice itinerary.
We stop to visit the ruins of the Ongi monastery, Saikhan-Ovoo, where we dip in a well of magical water known for its curative benefits. We leave for a horse-riding day in the beautiful Orkhon Valley, accompanied by our guide. It was an extraordinary experience, and we were surprised by the freedom and trust that the guide gave us.
We galloped in the steppes, like real Mongol riders! We eat near a river. In the rocks, we see fantastic Paleolithic engravings, representing horses, and an ibex. On a rock, a yak's head is there. We then travel to the city of Kharkhorin, the former capital of Mongolia. We were able to enjoy a delicious and rare hot shower and a good meal in the restaurant.
The visit of the museum has allowed us to better understand the history of the country and the different empires that have succeeded for more than 2000 years. We also visit the Erdene Zuu Monastery, and we were able to attend a Tibetan monks ceremony, an extraordinary experience for us! It was again after long hours of driving that we reached the hot springs, which were welcome by this cold spring frost.
The temperatures changes from the heat of the Gobi desert! We spend the evening with our guide in the thermal waters while freezing outside. It was another atypical evening that will remain engraved in our memories! We will remember for a long time our improvised evening in a bar supposed to be closed and which ended at 10 in our van!
Day 5 - Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur
After a good night's sleep in our yurt, this morning, we discover with surprise that it snows abundantly and that everything is white around the yurt. We leave the vehicles in the snow, dragging with the rope the less powerful cars. It was a sacred adventure again and we were amazed by the beautiful landscapes!
We drove past Sangiin Dalai Lake and head to one of Mongolia's jewels Khuvsgul Nuur. It is the second largest lake in Mongolia and the 14th largest freshwater reserve in the world. The temperatures remain relatively low. So we have the chance to discover it completely frozen without any noise disturbing the rest of Mother Nature. And what better way to discover these landscapes than a horseback ride like real Mongolians?
Thus we take the road back towards the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur or White Lake. Legend has it that one inhabitant forgot one evening to close his well and the next day the lake had taken place! After being intimidated by bulls approaching a little too close, we take the road again. We stop for lunch in a semi-desert place.
An owl flies over me! She stares at me from the top of a stone. I also find by chance the first Eastern Plovers. Later, while walking in the steppe behind a hill, a horned lark draws me to the surroundings from a cemetery. We are unable to reach Boon Tsagaan Nuur tonight and have to sleep in the steppe on stony ground.
It thunders, and I'm still stuck in my tent. Around me, the cows mow, the storm does not please them! Before the storm broke, on our way, we saw marmots and 5 sacred hawks, Chinese buzzards, blackbirds, citrus wagtails, damsel cranes and barred-headed geese. But what I preferred was the Mongol larks, beautiful, who paraded on stormy sky. It is not easy to photograph them. But the hunger begins to gnaw and takes me out of my lair. The lightning went away.
That night we had the chance to attend a shamanic ceremony, something rare for the tourists we are. The shaman was contacted by our guide. Shamans are very respected and Mongolians often call on them to solve their problems. They had more or less disappeared following the Soviet occupation but today they are more and more common.
In the ceremony, the shaman, a woman in her thirties wear her ceremonial costume and her face is completely covered. She enters into a trance with the spirit of her dead ancestor. Afterward, people send their questions or requests to the shaman for advice or help. Throughout the ceremony, the shaman consumes several liters of yak milk and vodka to maintain the power of the spirit.
More surprising still, the Nazi cross is engraved on many necklaces or rings worn by the shaman. This swastika cross is the symbol of power for the Mongols and was one of the emblems worn by Genghis Khan's horses. This meeting with the shaman was, to say the least, remarkable and allowed us to immerse ourselves a little more in the Mongolian culture.
After this evening quite unusual, we came back to sleep in a small village lost in the middle of the steppes. Here we had the chance to attend a concert of traditional songs. I have a drink that suits me better. The Mongolian milk tea is to say a salty milk, but a treat compared to that horrible yak alcohol. And above all, it is very warm and comforting under the storm!
In the tent, everything is already wet. The rainstorm has all soggy and saturated the atmosphere of moisture. After the polar night of Russia and the endless twilight of the plane, here is the full moon that illuminates the steppe! We sleep in fleece, with pairs of socks, and the cold wind slams the tent. The Mongols made us drink meat soup before going to bed. I fall asleep, exhausted.
Day 6 - Boon Tsagaan Nuur
Last night, after escaping the yak liquor, I could not avoid the vodka flush. The villagers inform our guide that a traditional race of Mongolian horses will take place not far from where we are going.
Our guide tells that we were going to one of the most remote corners of the Gobi Desert, and have no means of communication. When a Mongolian guide tells us that we are going to a remote corner, knowing that most of Mongolia is already, for us, a remote place, it is not super reassuring.
We go to Lake Boon Tsagaan. A little further, two stallions fight for two mares. The landscapes are incredible, Mongolia is a country really different from the others. The more we move towards the Gobi, the more the landscape becomes deserted, with more and more dunes.
The steppe has an odor this season. It smells of a strong and heady fragrance. I dream of a stream, even frozen. It would seem to me a supreme luxury. Finally, after having walked in the region of Trans-Altai, we arrive at Bayanondor, at the doors of the desert, the last village.
A Mongol guides us in the desert of Gobi A, the most difficult. I went alone to a little shepherd's building. In silence and loneliness ideas go through my mind. What if I came across a wolf? What if I found a human skeleton in the old building? In reality, I hope to find an owl or bats, but the building is by no means abandoned!
A family of desert locals stares at me. I am probably the first outsider they see. Finally, we come in sight of Shar Khuls, the oasis in the desert, where we have to camp, and territory of the Gobi bear. It is also a place where the Snow Leopard lives. We have almost no chance to see it, but we hope to find traces.
After that, we eat our rice and the hard meat. Traveling the hard way makes it easy to enjoy simple things. The food, although basic, is welcomed with pleasure. At 11 pm, I have to drink a shot of Chinese vodka! It's the tradition! The first stars rise in the Gobi Desert. The wind has risen and the tent slams more than ever. I finally fell asleep, despite my decision to fight against ticks without mercy.
Day 7 - Tsetseg Nuur Basin
This morning, around the lake, I found an old horseshoe. The guide tells me that in Mongolia, finding a horseshoe brings good luck. A whitetail of the desert begins to sing, and its song is amplified by the silence. The hunt for the wolf of yesterday was not conclusive, even if we saw a new khulan and, for my part, placed a few meters from me, a sacred falcon.
We returned to the oasis this morning. In the oasis, I went ahead, looking for butterflies. We take the road again. We searched in vain for wild camels but saw a gazelle. We then drove into the Gobi B, much less terribly hostile than the unmistakable mineral desert of the Gobi A.
We arrive at the Ikhes lake, where we should find a colony of relic gulls. But the seagulls are not there. They may have moved to Tsetseg Nuur Basin, where we saw them. And we are entitled to a bath! Once we wash, I give all the guys a little cream for the face.
In the evening, we arrive at Har Us Nuur! We celebrate our observations with Mongolian vodka (which tears as much as the Chinese). In the evening, at the telescope, I look for the wolf and I find a saiga antelope. Mongols are burning dried cow dung at the entrance of their tent. This is their traditional mosquito repellent.
We are getting really tired. We sleep very little at night, outside the rock that hurts us everywhere, because we camp often late and get up early, at sunrise. We go to bed in the cold. The fine rain of the rainbow fall gently on our tents, and we fall asleep a few hundred meters from the gulls' relics.
Day 8 - Gobi B
We are on the border of China, near Tahiyn Shar Nuruu Mountain. We leave the Gobi B and return to the grassy steppes. Our road trip ended with a visit to Amarbayasgalant Monastery in Iven Valley, at the foot of Buren Khan Mountain. Back in Ulaanbaatar, we attended a Mongolian traditional dance and song show. It was a very beautiful and diversified show, with typical instruments and colorful costumes.
We took the opportunity to stroll the streets, go shopping and discover the main squares of the city. We found it rather pleasant and modern, sometimes even chic! The small town center is full of cashmere signs, whose clothes are designed locally. Many world cuisine restaurants are established, and prices are very affordable!
Tourists are rare and we are often stared at by Mongolians. Our driver invited us to his home for a lunch. We got to know his wife and his daughters! So it's time for sad goodbye. The hearts were a little tight, eyes a little wet. We want to come back. There is the East of Mongolia, the country of the wolves, and the North, that of the reindeer. It is time for us to fly to Xi'An in China.
Day 9 - Xi'an
We leave Xi'an, eager to reach the Gobi Desert, that old childhood dream. We see ourselves already camping on the silky crest of a pure grain, having admired fabulous sunsets over the topaz dunes. Thus, we abandon behind us all civilization and go headlong into the arms of this endless aridity.
After only a few dozen kilometers, we have the impression of having entered a new country. Mosques have gradually supplanted Buddhist monasteries. The aroma of grilled lamb meat has replaced those of Tibetan Pork. The headdresses have flourished among women and men alike. Good bread also begins to appear, which is far from displeasing us. Finally, the cities are now on a human scale. There are no more megacities.
From the first hours of our long journey, we come across an abandoned section of the Great Wall of China. Without hesitation, we have a photo shoot and strafe this indestructible wall of our objectives. Not very proud of the result, we meet a man explaining to us that it is only a long wall among others. It has nothing to do with the legendary wall.
Arriving at Shikong, the driver who drives us warns us. From here we enter the Gobi desert and watch out for those who stray too far from the road. We agree, thank him and go. Very quickly, we see the first sand dunes which, being imposing, do not fail to make us sketch an emotional smile.
We continue on our way and climb a road that takes a short stretch of highway. The sky is congested and, at a speed of nearly 100 km/h, the driver releases his steering wheel several times. He wants to immortalize with the help of his smartphone a highlight of our common ride, a moon rabbit.
The rest of the journey will, however, be without danger. We leave the comfort of the main axis and now travel on the national G312, parallel to the highway still under construction. We do some spikes at 15km/h, which would almost disguise us. Several hundreds of chaotic kilometers make us change position constantly.
After sleeping in fields of wheat and corn, we make a second stop for one night at a gas station to enjoy the amenities. A long time ago, travelers and their camels rested in the caravanserais. Nowadays, backpackers in need of adventure stay in the rest areas and connect to the wifi in the middle of the desert.
In this desolate and gloomy resort, the staff cannot do enough for us. In the space of a few minutes, we sympathize with the few employees, from the sweeper to the big boss. We are smiled, we are made to smoke and especially we are invited to spend the night away from a violent storm.
From the first gusts of wind, as we were preparing to pitch the tent, a man comes to pick us up and gives us the keys of a room of the only hotel of the motorway complex, still closed to the public. The storm breaks out, and we narrowly evade the wrath of heaven. Once again, we feel lucky to have been picked up by a man with a big heart.
Day 10 - Zhangye
We continue our adventure along the Silk Road, and after camping near the multicolored rocks of Zhangye, we start to trek again. Even in the middle of nowhere, few Chinese people stop to take a picture of us. We get used to playing the superstars and already know that the return to anonymity will be brutal, though.
Helped by powerful 4x4s and some hopelessly slow semi-trailers, we manage to nibble a few hundred more kilometers on the Gobi Desert. Most often, we are transported by pleasant road and a few good souls offer us a cigarette. We reach Jiayuguan and for once we decide not to miss the few tourist attractions. The Great Wall of China is close!
We start our walk in Jiayuguan through the fort, rather nice and well renovated, which offers a nice view of the surrounding mountains. We then go to the Great Wall. This part of the wall is far from equaling its rival near Beijing. Nearly 700 years ago, under the reign of the Ming Dynasty, strong walls were built to protect the Middle Kingdom from barbarian invasions.
Finally, it is time for us to enjoy the pleasures of the deep desert, the one that we imagine inviolate for millennia. An impassable beach without a tablecloth, resplendent under a hot sun. If the heat is good, we remain a little on our hunger. After 250km of dust, of stones on a sordid and sinister track, we arrive late to Dunhuang.
We decide to walk towards the erg and hope to reach the many peaks. The worry is that an airport is blocking the road, forcing us to walk for several hours around it. Although traveling light has become a priority, we are exhausted without gaining ground. We end up giving up.
Tonight, we will not sleep on these impassible and immutable dunes that proudly, rise to the sky. Yet near the graves of an age-old cemetery that watches over the souls of an invincible people, we go upstairs. Under a light evening wind, we let the sun go through the last hours of the day and see at a distance these amber hills that we will never reach.
Dreams of discoveries multiply as each great journey takes place. It would take several lives to realize only one part, proudly ticking one by one on a list these alluring achievements. I must admit that I was initially disappointed not to be able to bivouac between two dunes, as I could do in the Sahara Desert or the Namib.
However, after a good night's rest and reflection, I thought it might be better. We touched with the fingertips the reliefs of the Gobi desert, without having access to it. I will carefully preserve this unfinished dream in my heart. There are times that are priceless in this camp cut off from the rest of the world, under this luminous moon and in this soothing wind. The bivouac is a luxury that makes it hard to tolerate, later, the nights in palaces.
Day 11 - Xingxing Xia
We wake up gently, after a peaceful night in the tent as soon as the sun appears. We resume the course of our road trip. A handful of extreme drivers are slowly transporting us through the void. The bitumen melts, sticking to the soles of my flip-flops. Our skins crackle, our lips burst, our eyes clink under the evil glare of the sun's rays. We roast deliciously.
We cross the first caravanserai of our long route but are forced to admire it from the outside. As everywhere in China, it is especially overpriced. The mere sight of the stones marked by history gives us a little balm to the heart, while we peck a few sunflower seeds.
Luckily, we manage to reconnect with the G30 highway, on which we now fly at full speed. The landscapes are metamorphosed at an incredible speed. There are golden dunes, snow-capped mountains, and rocky hills of ebony black.
We sleep one more night on the highway, to Xingxing Xia. The staff cuts themselves in four to welcome us with the utmost care. We take advantage of this break to refresh ourselves as we can to remove the sand accumulated in our backpacks. We connect on social networks to have news. The meal will be as devastating as the rest. More than ever, the cook had a heavy hand on the pepper. We rest our chopsticks in our dish of sauteed noodles and manchurian.
Finally, in the evening, we decided to pitch the tent a little behind, so as not to hear the noise of engines and horns at night. Once again, we are thinking of the caravans that were making the same journey to Antioch. The myth of the old Silk Road is over. We have to face the facts.
Gigantic electric pylons have bloomed over a thousand kilometers. A railroad now adjoins three paved tracks, and a ballet of concrete mixers ceaselessly face the perpetual calm of the Gobi desert. However, we enjoy this trip as if it was our first trip. Here, all the landmarks differ from those we knew. We go forward every day eager to discover more and we are already grateful for all this path already traveled. What could we complain about?
Every journey changes us. Every journey, in essence, is a little initiatory. This one may be a little more than the others. I will have in the heart and in the head these immense spaces, the drum roll of the lamas, and the quick amble of the last wild camels.
Days go by in our van in Mongolia. We are in the Mongolian backcountry right now in the vicinity of Kharkhorin. This morning, it's cleaning up in the van. It must be said that it needed it! We almost got everything out. There are duvets, mattresses, cushions, provisions, wood for fire but originally, the goal was not at all to make storage.
It all started last night. We just went to bed when I suddenly got up. It's been several nights that we have nothing to drink, and all of a sudden, I remember that there must be a bottle of vodka somewhere. And here I am at 11 o'clock in the evening rummaging through the van in search of this bloody bottle.
But what fly stung me? I assure you, it is not at all alcohol. But tonight, I cannot sleep, and it is absolutely necessary that I find this bottle. Unable to put my hand on it, I fall back on a firecracker. And here I am rolling a seal sitting on my bed.
And that's how we find ourselves the next morning to get out of the van to get our hands on this famous bottle that we will not find elsewhere. But at least, it allows us to inventory the provisions we have left. Not much, but luckily we come across old pots of tomato sauce and even a box of candies! Awesome! We'll have to redo some shopping soon.
We are far from starving but we lack what to embellish the ordinary. We have no more water either. So we need to draw water from the river and boil it. Our epic through the Mongolian steppes continues. Our goal of the day is to reach the city of Khujirt to go to enjoy its hot springs and spa! Yes, you read correctly. There is a spa! Is it worth mentioning that since we left Ulaanbaatar, we still have not showered! Yes!
Fortunately, we enjoyed a sunny morning to wash in the river. But it was already last Monday. And we had not washed our hair. I'm not far from the dreadlocks. So much to tell you, that a good shower in a spa, makes us fantasize like crazy in the van! But already if there is a pool of hot water, it will be enough to our happiness.
The road is very bad, with lots of stones on the way and it is difficult to drive. And the weather is deteriorating more and more. Wind and rain give way to snow squalls. I begin to worry about the evolution of the situation. If the snow continues to fall, I fear that we will be stuck because the roads will no longer be passable.
We ended up arriving all the same in Khujirt and we park in front of the spa! There is a glimmer of hope but soon showered with bad news. The weather forecast is very bad and I prefer to leave immediately, for fear of getting stuck here. Oh what a disappointment! I am disgusted, but hey,
Fortunately, we can still catch up a little the same evening. We are back in Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia. And there are public showers! Well, it's just a trickle of water at a temperature a little random to adjust. What a pleasure to feel clean again, with the hair washed and disentangled and more!
We were able to refuel in the market where I bought unpeeled pine nuts and the Mongolian vodka flows freely inside the van. I'm freaking out, and we're not alcoholics anyway! We return to park in front of the cemetery where we woke up by chance the other day, because we loved this place. It's not at all morbid, just magical and incredibly calm. The night is cold with the snowflakes still falling, and we make love inside in the warmth.
After a nice day of sightseeing in Kharkhorin, and a campfire evening in the steppes, we continue our way back to Ulaanbaatar. In the middle of a path, I take the opportunity to make a stop of a kind a little peculiar. I see that we are in a whole field of wild marijuana. Oh good? I must admit, I do not know what it looks like.
I never got a green thumb, and gardening is not my thing. And here I am drawing out my GPS and notebook and carefully note the geographical coordinates of the place! And here we go again, with some extra provisions aboard the van! We will arrive in Ulaanbaatar the next day. Our Mongol adventure is over. We head to China now!