Friday, April 2, 2010

Day 1 in Gobi [Ulaan Baatar to Rock Formations] - Introductions

I woke up this morning wondering whether it was a good decision to choose to go to Gobi. Getting up at 6am on Day1 didn't seem like much of a holiday. Plus Khuvsgal was always my first choice but the guesthouse I am staying at couldn't find anybody who was interested in going to Khuvsgal to put a tour together.

The morning madness began with a cold shower
as the water heating doesn't start until after 7.30am and was followed by substantial amount of time making sure we had everything we needed for the trip. I met the Austrian couple Leo and Katharine who would be my travel buddies for the next 8 days. Having only met them once before and that too for a couple of minutes I wondered how we would all get along. But the thought was interrupted in the middle by Bobby (the owner of the backpacker's lodge) introducing us to our guide 'Thuksa' and the driver 'Ganaa'. But what really got me excited was the Russian van that would be our camel in the desert for the next few days. I had heard a lot about these vans but had apprehensions about their exaggerated stories of versatility in difficult terrains. The only way to find out the truth was to hop on and begin our journey and that's exactly what we did. With Ganaa and Tugsuu in the front and three of us backpackers at the back began our 2000Km journey.

For the first hour or so we drove through the morning UB traffic going through introductions. The Austrians are on a 5month holiday having gone through Russia and heading for Nepal, LaosCambodia. Leo is a computer Engineer specializing in SAP while Catherine has just finished her Masters in Philosophy (Maths and History). Thuksa on the other hand graduated with a degree in tourism and was working in an office for a travel company until she realized her true calling to be a guide. Ganaa has been driving for as long as he can remember and his son is in the same profession working for the same company.

Our first stop was a gas station just outside the city, near the airport. This was the first time I had to use a traditional Mongolian toilet – four walls of wood and no door – and we were still in the outskirts of the city. It had finally be
gun I thought… the journey to the middle of nowhere…far from the madding crowd.

Second stop was an Obo (religious stupa) about an hour from UB. We got down and Thuksa asked us to go around it three times wishing for a safe journey after which we hopped in again for the “real thing” to begin. Soon we passed through a town that survived on poultry farming and dairy industry and was one of the major food suppliers to UB. This is where things changed forever. Out of nowhere Ganna got off the main tarmac road and turned onto an off-road behind what looked like somebody’s backyard. The three of us at the back initially thought Ganaa was visiting someone here for a short while until we realized there was a bus following us on the same tracks. We were not going through people’s backyard… apparently IT was the main road to Gobi! No tarmac, no roadsigns, just tracks in mud. And then suddenly the terrain changed - we were surrounded on two sides by mountains and were driving on steppes covered with snow! As far as the eye could see everything was white. The view was beautiful but we were dying of cold even though we had two pairs of socks, trousers, thermals and gloves on. Tugsuu and Ganaa however looked very comfortable to the point that Tugsuu was sleeping in the front with her head bobbing up and down round and round! Lol the Austrians thought it was funny and that they could never sleep on such bumpy roads. I however have had many such experiences with buses in India and wasn’t too bothered.We stopped after traveling in the snow for 2 hours after seeing a family stuck in snow in a station wagon. The first question in our mind was “Why would you drive a station wagon through these conditions?” but instead of waiting for an answer we all got behind the car and helped them get out of the pit. After some more photos and goodbyes we were off again towards Gobi. On the way we saw many wild animals – gazelles, wolves, eagles etc and I felt like I was in Photography heaven.. everything was mesmerizing, everything was beautiful. I wanted to capture it all and capture I did.

To tell
the truth I had not read up on Gobi or Mongolia before the trip just to keep things exciting and for similar reasons I was not carrying any Lonely planet or other travel guides… I wanted Mongolia to surprise me and by golly it did! Even though I had been told we would be staying in traditional ghers and would be far away form civilization I had still expected tarmac roads and little towns on the way with restaurants. But it was all proven wrong on the very first day. Lunch came unexpectedly in the middle of the snowy steppes. We stopped in the middle of nowhere surrounded by snow and Thuksa surprised me by taking out gas stoves from the back of the car and cooking inside the van! On the menu were noodles with lamb. Boy were we hungry! The food was good and Katherine, Leo and I realised we weren’t going to have too much problem with food since our guide was also a good cook in disguise!

After spending two hours preparing and eating lunch we moved on heading for the Rock Formations, our destination for today. Along the way we drove through the most amazing sites of nature I have ever seen. Mountains after mountains lay along our path through the steppes. There was no end to it. Occasionally we saw some
ghers and some animals. All we could say was “wow!”.

By evening we were getting a bit bored of the silence in the van... to make things interesting I suggested we hold a competition involving transferring of water from one bottle to another empty bottle while we were driving through the bumpy roads in the van with the winner doing it in the shortest time and least amount of loss of water. It took me 5 minutes to get through with very minimal loss of water. But we forgot all about the 'water olympics' when we got sight of a lone double humped camel in the steppes. We hopped out of the van to take some pics with the camel but it wasn't too friendly to us. Everytime we got near it, it seemed 'Mr Camel' as we called him was going to spit on us. After much discussion we decided he had wondered off too far from the
ghers since we couldn't locate the owner or a gher nearby. We wished Mr Camel well in finding it's owner and got back in the van to head for the Rock Formations. Taking him along wasn't an option even though Katherine really wanted to!

We finally arrived at our gher around 7pm welcomed by loud barks from all sides by bloodhound dogs owned by the family. It was like a nightmare for me as I have hated dogs ever since I was young when I was bitten by a dog. But it seems when it comes to dogs Katherine has skills similar to Dr Do-little! I was saved and was very glad we had a dog handler in our crew!

The 11 hour journey had tired us down but we were still very excited about meeting our first hosts and to live in a real
gher. Our hosts had three ghers in the middle of nowhere with no neighbours and no civilization for miles on either side. One wondered what they were doing there? The only reply we got was that they have been living at the same spot for many generations and they called it home.

gher we were staying in had no electricity but it's intricate detail and hand paintings kept our wandering eyes busy. We were offered some Tse (Mongolian milk tea) with homemade biscuits (well not exactly biscuits but something like biscuits :p) which was followed by a nice dinner consisting of pasta and lamb! After some discussion the Austrians and I decided it wasn't real Mongolian food and our hosts were offering us food we were more used to in order to avoid any discontentment on our part. We weren't complaining though. The only thing that mattered was food - no matter what part of the world it originated in!

Soon after dinner we chose our beds and were fast asleep waiting for a new adventure to begin tomorrow :)

Leo and Katy in the van. Pic2: Ganaa, our driver. Pic3: The first outhouse toilet I had to use in Mongolia. Pic4: Obo we prayed at for a safe journey. Pic5: The Russian van in snow. Pic6: The station wagon we helped get out of snow. Pic7: The beautiful landscape we drove through. Pic8: Cooking inside the van. Pic9: The lone 'Mr. Camel'. Pic10: Gher we stayed in. Pic11: Cute lil baby of our host family posing for a photograph outside the gher. Pic12: Me outside the gher. Pic13: The sunset as we were driving along to our destination]