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Journey into Mongolia

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Journey into Mongolia
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A Journey into Mongolia with Sarah

        I have on my desk a film canister half-filled with sand.  Not just any sand, but sand of the Gobi, the desert at the heart of the border between China and Mongolia.
    As a kid, I remember the phrase, “outer Mongolia” being used when someone wanted to describe the furthest extremes you could reach, just before outer space. It was here in Mongolia that my 16-year-old niece Sarah and I found ourselves in July, 2001.
    We were met by our English-speaking guide Andy, who had lived in New York for four years while his father worked for the United Nations. Twenty-one year old Andy was a fount of information about Mongolia for me, and a lively companion for Sarah. During the rest of the year, Andy studies Korean at a local university.    
    The ride from the modern airport to the city of Ulaan Baatar was a relief for me after the congestion and urbanity of China. Sweeping vistas and green mountain ranges in the distance greeted us.
    The name Ulaan Baatar means Red City, and is a legacy of the Russian occupation. After ten name changes in 360 years, the Mongolians decided to let this last one remain. In U. B., as it is called, lives one out of three Mongolians, or about a million people. It is a city not of high rises but of mostly smaller buildings surrounded by mountains, its setting chosen for protection from the previously warring tribes.

“Grassed plains stretched for miles, ending at the feet of a string of mountains.
We could have easily sat and watched
the light play over these distant peaks for hours...”

    U. B. is a city of cattle and internet cafes, of young people in western dress strolling alongside the elderly in their traditional robes or dels. Billboards display the beaming faces of Mongolia’s seven most famous wrestlers and its most notorious leather-clad rock n’ roll stars.  
    Despite the noise of the disco next door, Sarah and I slept very well after a delicious meal of hot and spicy Indian food. Korean and Italian foods are also readily available here. Though there’s no Burger King or Pepsi, we learned that both companies are due to set up shop in Mongolia next year.  
    The next day, we woke early and trundled back to the airport to board a small plane to the desert. Only 3% of the Gobi is true Saharan desert, but nearly all the rest of the country is wide open and sparsely populated. Inexplicably, we would see an occasional ger, the classic Mongolian dwelling, standing isolated. We wondered: What do these people do for a living? What do they do with their spare time? How far to the nearest video store?
    Less than an hour and a half later, our small plane landed in the compact town of Dalanzadgad.  Sarah was tremendously impressed to be greeted by a fiberglass camel at the tiny airport!
    Here the three of us met our driver, Pavel, who was all that I expected a proper Mongolian to be. Over 6 feet tall, Pavel was powerfully built, with wide cheekbones, a ruddy, handsome face and dark fine hair hanging into his narrow eyes. He spoke no English, but was always smiling, and exhibited much patience with the dirt roads and occasional long distances. He was also far more finicky than I would have been about keeping our Russian jeep clean, no small task in a windy desert!  
    After a bumpy 45-minute-drive, we reached our ger camp, a collection of comfortable tents seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The word tent is the closest we have to describing the home of the nomads of Mongolia. Like tents, gers have cloth walls. In the case of a ger, the walls are usually lined with felt or wool. Unlike most tents, gers are high enough to walk into, roomy enough for 2-5 people and fitted with cozy, colorfully painted furniture, including real beds! The inside of our ger was wallpapered with images of African animals.
    Due to the lack of firewood in the Gobi, the gers are heated by burning dried cakes of cow dung on a small, centrally placed stove. Andy swears that once dried, these cakes don’t smell. We considered ourselves fortunate enough not to have to test this during our stay, but Sarah did take a photo of our cache of fuel, to show her friends back home.
    The western halves of traditional gers are considered to be the husband’s domain, the eastern half the wife’s domain. If you are lucky enough to be invited into a ger, don’t lean against the center support column, don’t whistle, and leave your weapons outside.
    From our south-facing door, the sparsely grassed plains stretched for miles, ending at the feet of a string of mountains toward the northwest. We could have easily sat and watched the light play over these distant peaks for hours, a lone ger in the distance the only thing interrupting our view.
    Other than the tourists (Sarah, myself, and two other 16-year-old girls that Sarah immediately fell in with) the only other people nearby were the folks who worked at the camp, forming a little village next door. In the evening, we could hang out and watch the local kids play basketball. Judging from the presence of basketball hoops all over Mongolia, this sport is behind only wrestling and horseracing in popularity here.
    We ate dinner in a building by the camp. Although Sarah found Mongolian food tasty, however I would have preferred more vegetarian options. We had lots of rice, lamb, potatoes, carrots and fresh bread. I also was delighted by the occasional wedge of cheese.   
    Over our meal, I asked Pavel how old he was. The translation came back: “How old do you think I am?”  When I suggested early 30s, Pavel allowed that he might be 35 or 36. It turns out that Mongolia retains just enough of its Shamanistic past that its citizens do not like to divulge their age, for fear that it will give the person some power over them.
    We had our first foray into the wilderness the next morning, to the Flaming Cliffs, so named because of their burnt orange glow at sunrise or sunset. Here we meandered, enjoying the stark scenery that looked like the badlands of the old west.
    Andy showed us how to find fossils: search for a white stone, pick it up, and lick it. If it sticks to your tongue, it could be a genuine fossil bone. (It turns out that fossils and bones are porous, which is why they stick. Stones won’t.)  However, since it is forbidden to remove such artifacts from the Gobi, we replaced them.
    The Gobi is well known in scientific fields for being a repository of dinosaur fossils. In the 1920s an American, Roy Chapman Andrews, found fossilized dinosaur eggs on the Gobi. In 1971, a Polish and Mongolian team found the famous fighting dinosaurs: a velociraptor and a protoceratops who died 80 million years ago while locked in combat!  
    Before we arrived, the Gobi in July was reaching temperatures of 110 F. Happily, we were greeted by much cooler temperatures and Andy remarked that a change was on the way. Sure enough, the day grew overcast and breezy. By the time we returned to camp and finished eating lunch, we had a true rain in the Mongolian desert.
    The Gobi is also home to a collection of animals: goats, horses, camels, and so many black-tailed gazelles that at times it recalls the African Serengeti. We watched the skittish gazelles leap away on match stick legs, their stumpy tails waving frantically. Birds and lizards also make their homes on the Gobi. We saw moon hawks soaring overhead and vultures lingering over a bovine cadaver by the roadside. Other denizens of this desert include the rare snow leopard and the even more rare Gobi Bear, but they remained hidden.
    As Sarah and I relaxed in our ger after lunch, we enjoyed the sound of rain on our canvas-covered roof. From our cozy nest we propped open the door to watch the clouds move across the mountaintops, and then we curled up and read and napped the afternoon away.
    After the rain cleared, our party headed to a nearby ger farm, with cattle, goats and the Bactrian, or two-humped, camel. The vast majority of the camels you’ll see in Mongolia are descended from those domesticated thousands of years ago. We learned that reserves are being set up for the khavtgai, their wild ancestor. The khavtgai are thought to be descended from camel-like animals from North America that crossed the Bering Strait 3 or 4 million years ago. There are rumored to be fewer wild camels in Mongolia than there are Giant Pandas in China.

“Found in the Gobi are the famous fighting dinosaurs: a velociraptor and a
protoceratops who died 80 million years ago while locked in combat!”

    Clambering atop a camel is easier said than done. Even sitting on the ground, the camel is a big animal. You have to swing your leg over, adjust yourself on the saddle between the humps, and hang on for dear life as the beast unfolds first its long front legs, then its long back legs. Once you’re up, the view is impressive over the long hairy neck and head of your faithful steed. The bragging rights of riding a camel in the Gobi are inestimable. I suspect that Sarah is glad she overcame her reservations, and took her seat high up on her “ship of the desert.”  
     The next day we awakened to a chilly sunny morning and drove to the Yol Valley for a hike, scattering a group of yaks and startling a moon hawk into flight as we entered the valley. The Yol Valley is an unexpected geological formation, tucked as it is in the middle of the desert. This is where we caught sight of the argali, the wild mountain sheep, silhouetted against the early morning sky at the top of a ridge. We were glad we’d brought binoculars for a glimpse of the impressive curved horns. It was an auspicious start to our two mile hike. The valley is crawling with critters, especially ground squirrels, the Mongolian equivalent of the prairie dog, and jerboas, similar to kangaroo rats.
    Morning light played on the chocolate flanks of horses and their matching foals grazing quietly at their sides so that they glowed against the grassy rises behind them. Lammergeiers, vultures with wingspans up to 10 feet, nest here.  We saw them cruising back and forth over the valley, no doubt keeping an eye on the delectable wildlife below.
    The valley ended with an interesting surprise, but don’t ask me to divulge it, you must see it for yourself.
    On the way back to camp we stopped to eat our box lunches in the middle of the plains, which stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Sarah posed for a photo wearing my big floppy hat and huge sunglasses.
    Continuing on, we reached a section that reminded me of Cape Cod: silky beach sand with scattered long grasses. We looked for  the ocean, but we saw only shimmering mirages. We listened for waves, but we could hear only the desert wind. Andy showed Sarah how to lean into the wind and let it hold her.


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