Bain-Dzak, or the Flaming cliffs. Photograph by Zoharby on Wikimedia Commons
Travel Destinations

Getting away from it all in the Gobi desert

The southernmost province of Mongolia feels like an altogether different world. In its vastness, visitors can make a real connection to nature, and get a peek into the history of our planet.
Angie Esguerra Pettersson | Jun 27 2019

Vast. I don’t think I ever really understood the word until we went on a trip to the Gobi. The desert was in the southernmost province of Mongolia, which borders Northern China. While we could have taken a plane from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad, my intrepid Swedish traveler husband managed to convince me—the quintessential city mouse and reluctant adventurer—that a nine-hour drive across the Mongolian countryside would be half the fun.

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But, while I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of the lack of available restrooms along our journey through underdeveloped territories, a well-managed itinerary with timed stops at small towns along the way made for a good experience with zero disasters. Rather than cruising in the clouds and looking down below, the drive made for an intimate encounter with endless views of the Mongolian steppe, the skies uninterrupted by man-made structures. Mongolia poetically refers to itself as “the Land of Eternal Blue Sky,” and out in the countryside you see why.

Bactrian camels are native to Central Asia and a common sight in the Gobi.

Other than the occasional car on the other side of the road every couple of hours, the only living things we met along the way were horses, sheep, cows, yaks and goats—from which all that gorgeous Mongolian cashmere comes from. These animals graze on the steppe or cross the road, and are all integral to the country’s herding and nomadic lifestyle.

With only three million inhabitants, Mongolia is one of the world’s largest and most sparsely populated countries. For someone from Manila—with our 16 million population if there is a sale in Megamall—being in the Mongolian countryside felt amazing, and almost otherworldly. At some point we stopped talking in the car, and all I could hear was the woosh of air against our vehicle and the quiet hum of the engine as we drove down the single road flanked by wide-open, immeasurable spaces. When I cracked a window open, the sensation was pure air in the lungs, sharp, brisk and clean, smelling of wild grass and herbs like rosemary, intermingled with hints of earth and cattle. In itself, it was a retreat for the senses—which are more accustomed to being bombarded by car horns, ringing phones, or the smell of petrol.

At the Flaming Cliffs where dinosaur eggs and fossils were discovered in 1923 by paleontologist Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews.

As we approached the Gobi, the landscape changed into a drier topography and sturdier looking brush. Bactrian camels started appearing on the sides of the road, staring back at us with their black eyes fringed with heavy lashes, as we stopped to enthusiastically take way too many pictures. These seemingly languid creatures, ranging in color from golden caramel to muddy brown, all call the Gobi home.

 

Desert oasis

We decided to treat ourselves on this particular trip with a stay at the remote and aptly named Three Camel Lodge. It’s an eco-resort and a renowned oasis offering some unexpected luxury in the middle of the desert. Priding itself on being built and run by locals, many of whom were born and raised in the Gobi, the lodge offers warm hospitality, with a staff eager to share knowledge about their local life and heritage. The lodge is proud to use as much produce from the only local farm in the region, and was designed using locally sourced materials, complementing the natural landscape. 

 
Chilling on the porch of the Three Camel Lodge with gers in the background.

Accommodations are in the traditional, Nomadic-style of felt and canvass dwellings known as “gers,” which are designed to be packed up and re-built elsewhere as the seasons dictate. Equally traditional were the artfully painted wooden doors, all facing south, like you would find in any group of gers across the country. Ours offered unobstructed views of the imposing Altai Gobi Mountains during the day, and at the risk of cliché, millions of brilliant diamond-like stars in the black sky at night with not a neon sign in sight to compete.

We dined every night at the warm, comfortably appointed main lodge, and then settled in the artifact-filled lounge after. There, our host and able tour guide Anand shared an anecdote about the actor Richard Gere’s visit there. A fan and follower of the Dalai Lama and of Buddhism, which was widely-practiced in the country, the actor’s travels brought him to these parts. According to the locals, he impressed the natives with his horse-riding skills. But because of the Gobi’s remoteness and the people’s ambivalence toward such things as Hollywood VIPs, they really didn’t know who he was. As far as they were concerned, “that Russian monk rides well,”. Of course, that’s high praise coming from a people whose ancestors were fierce warriors that once conquered the world on horseback.

At the lounge, we watched black and white documentaries about the early 20th century explorations in the Gobi. These led to valuable paleontological findings, including important dinosaur fossils. This prepared us for the excursions in the next days.

With our guide and our trusty driver, we took off on a trip which to was mostly off-road. Mongolians never really need a GPS, I’ve been told, as they instinctively know the land even with the absence of paved paths. (Also, they have a pretty laidback attitude about most things, including getting lost.)

We landed at the Khavsgait Valley, where trekking up the craggy hill rewarded us with hundreds of petroglyphs. These are etchings on stone made by the earliest human settlers in the Gobi, some dating back 10,000 years. Etchings of the sun, plants, and animals gave us a snapshot of what those early people would have seen here. For instance, ibex would have been roaming the valley, based on the sketches of one of these early Mongolian Picassos. What was it like for them in that early dawn of man in this wild, beautiful, and unforgiving part of the world? I’ve encountered historical artifacts in museums which have inspired awe. But there is something about looking at these crude drawings on stone, having survived the elements for thousands of years that leaves you breathless. (That, and the trek up the hill was like the Gobi version of tackling a Stairmaster.)

A view of Khavsghait Valley.

Then we made it to the the Moltsog Els Sand Dunes, one of several found across the Gobi. Parked at the foot of massive mounds of golden sand, our guide encouraged us to take off our shoes like you would at the beach, and climb up. (I kept my shoes on because I was paranoid that there might be scorpions.) We explored the dunes and, thanks to the whipping winds, had a little taste of it, too. We then allowed ourselves to tumble and slide down the side of the peaks, cushioned by the soft sand. I laughed all the way down.

Descendants of the sun

Bain-Dzak, or the Flaming cliffs, was no doubt the highlight of this adventure. Named after the fiery hue that the soil takes on at sunset, it is where we traced the footsteps of Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews. He is the adventurer and paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History, who in 1923 found the first nest of dinosaur eggs that the world had ever seen. Various skeletons of other species of dinosaurs were also to be unearthed there later. Following a period of isolation during the Cold War when Mongolia was not accessible to outsiders, paleontologists and anthropologists have only recently been able to continue some of the earlier work of such pioneers as Dr. Chapman.

Exploring the Moltsog Els sand dunes.

Today, huge areas in the region still remain unexplored and undisturbed. And even on that day we visited, the soil underfoot was still rich with fragments of eggs and pre-historic fossils. So we treaded lightly, trying hard not to alter anything with our presence or take anything with us. We were also trying very hard not to fall down a gorge to the sharp turret-like rocks below. It was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating all at once, feeding the imagination with the thrilling picture of what it must have looked like here when the basin was teeming with prehistoric life.

But while the Gobi offered encounters with many natural wonders, there were other smaller moments that made the trip unforgettable. Like waking up to the sound of a cow scratching at our ger door. (Yes, I freaked out.) Or wearing a T-shirt during the day in the sunny outdoors, but needing thick blankets and the ger stove during the freezing desert night. Or mornings when we took strong coffee on the quiet porch at sunrise, knowing for certain that we were far away from all that is loud, maddening, and unnecessary. 

Petroglyphs made by the earliest settlers in the Gobi. These depict Ibex which would have been a common species roaming these parts. Some of the petroglyphs date back as far as 10,000 years.

Our lives are often filled with noise and distraction, but the Gobi trip offered a real connection with nature, a peek into the history of the world, and the opportunity to commune with ourselves. We hope to go back one day. Who knows, maybe then we might be able to bump into that Russian monk everyone was talking about.