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The South Gobi and beyond | Handcarry Only

The South Gobi and beyond

By December 20, 2011Travel

vast featureless landscape of mongoliaThe vast featureless landscape

Mongolia ger at dusk, with laundry lineMongolian Ger at dusk

The gobi desert with mountains in the backgroundGobi desert with mountains behind

a herd of camels in the gobi desert, mongoliaCamels in the Gobi

a camel herder and his camel mongoliaCamel herder and his camel
a very sturdy russian vanExtremely hardy Russian van


The South Gobi and beyond.

The Gobi desert is the largest desert in Asia and the 5th largest in the world, covering parts of northern and northwestern China and southern Mongolia. We caught an early morning internal flight on Aero Mongolia from Ulaan Baatar to Dalanzadgad, and then driving a number of hours before reaching our base in Khongor.

Outside of a vague halo around the capital city Ulaan Baatar, roads are pretty much non existant in Mongolia, much of it is crisscrossed by tracks and even more, just the wide open plain. We were in 4x4s speeding across the sometimes featureless landscape, sometimes without even a track but across the grass plains. I marvelled at the ability of our drivers to figure out where they were and where we were heading, they were of course, working without the luxury of modern navigational aids like GPS. Our driver would sometimes make a turn right in the middle of nowhere and continue heading in that direction, leaving us clueless as to how he knew when or where to make that turn. We would eventually meet a track a bit further on so we know he wasn’t just making random turns.

Another thing that struck me was the complete lack of trees, we could go for days without seeing a single tree, the climate was so extreme that all it could support in many places was just grass and small, low, hardy shrubs, sometimes not even shrubs could exist. I certainly have never been to such an extreme climate in my life.

The sheer ruggedness and beauty of the landscape was breath-taking, it was probably somewhere between the Scottish highlands and the moon. But the amazing thing was that throughout the journey, no matter how hostile the landscape, right in the middle of nowhere, literally hundreds of miles from any form of cabled electricity or civilisation, we would find traditional Mongolian gers (a Monglian version of the yurt) dotted around the landscape, representing nomadic families living off what little they can eke out from the land. Without doubt, a sheer testament to the hardiness of the Mongolian nomads. Everything is mobile, the ger can be packed up and put on the back of donkeys or horses and the family could move within a day or two, leaving the landscape pretty much untouched, just as it had been in the time of the legendary Chinggis Khan. The nomadic lifestyle does not have any concept of land ownership, all land is common, and you take what you need from it and move on. The Mongolian nomads are famously hospitable people, in part, necessitated by the barreness of the landscape and a livetime of travelling. It is just not possible to be completely self sufficient on long journeys across such an extreme landscape and nomads know that they will receive a warm welcome at any ger they come across in their journey, with the provision of food and shelter, and would likewise offer the same hospitality to other travellers and visitors.

See more photos and read more about my Mongolian adventure here.