When I decided to travel in Mongolia, I was excited to see the Gobi Desert but shocked during the trip that I was also on a wildlife safari with its own big five: sheep, goat, cow, yak and camel. On the first day of our ten day van trip, Bolga our translator, said, “We will see yaks on day eight” I had never seen a yak and it was unexpected to me that on the way to vast expanse of nothingness I would see new animals.
I knew we would be sleeping in gers and that the “facilities” would be outhouses at best. I was surprised to see a satellite dish and a solar panel on a ger. Many of the nomads use a car battery attached to a solar panel to charge their cell phones. Some gers do have televisions as well as a three-sided brick wall over boards as a toilet.
One of my favorite sites was Tsagaan Suvarga, a remarkable sand dune in the formation of a white stupa, located in the Dundgovi Province. The area was once completely under water millions of years ago and there are three to five thousand year old rock hieroglyphs. I had been promised the vast expanse of nothingness and as we stood in the brilliant canyon peering at the beautiful blue sky, we listened to the only audible sound, the flutter of wind. We had reached nothingness. There were no roads, no gers, no electric lines or poles, no cars, no people.
We learned a few basic words in Mongolian such as “shu ger” (you’re welcome), “mush sangh” (very pretty) “sain benou” (hello/how are you), and “bai yur lah,” meaning thank you. As we continued our journey, the landscape became more desert like and less green.
One night, Bulga came to get us out of our ger. We went outside and looked into the direction she was pointing. It was the most incredible sight. We saw the moon rise. A large red disc rose from the horizon into the sky. It was one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip. All our city trappings normally block the incredible spectacle of this natural phenomenon.
I loved the vast expanse of nothing. It was a luxury in our crowded times and minds to be able to let go of possessions, people, Internet and everything else.
For day four, we were off to Yolin Am. The incredible ice canyon was surprising to see late in June. Walking into the canyon through green pastures was gorgeous and filled with big birds, and mountain goats. Then we walked on the ice. We ran into a group who waved to us and indicated, “Be quiet. There are seven mountain goats.”
The highlight of the trip was the Khongorin Els or “Singing Sand Dunes.” Our ger camp was directly in front of the dunes with 180-degree views out our open ger door. The Els or dunes extend along the northern side of both the Sevrei and Zoolon mountains. The sand dunes, one hundred and eighty kilometers long and twenty kilometers wide reached almost two hundred meters in height.
From our ger, we crossed a small oasis with splendid scenery near a stream that flowed along the northern end of the sand dunes. We strolled by foliage, cows, beautiful black horses and fields of wild iris flowers. We hopped between green mounds within the stream to avoid soaking our feet. It drizzled. Roars of thunder menacingly came, yet quickly abated. Then the skies swiftly cleared.
At the base of the dunes, I was concerned that the climb would be challenging but the dunes were compact and nearly effortless to scale. The view was spectacular and our ger camp felt far removed. We had been through sunshine, rain, hail, herds of camels, horses, sheep and goats. The cloudless blue sky was stunning against the sand. We saw a few wilting plants growing in the dunes. The dunes had patterns in the sand that resembled sand patterns underwater that can be used for navigation while scuba diving. Evidently, the tides and wind created similar patterns seen both underwater and high up on the dunes.
Mongolia is a place of contrasts that I can highly recommend. I loved my van trip so much that I persuaded our group to add another day in the Dunes. If you are wondering where to wander next, move Mongolia to the top of your list.
Article and ger photo by Lisa Niver
Lisa Niver is an award-winning travel expert who has explored 100+ countries and is the creator of the popular website We Said Go Travel, a top 100 travel blog that reaches more than 200,000 annually. She is a published author of a memoir, Traveling in Sin, and is a regular contributor for USA Today, Wharton Business Magazine, Yahoo Travel, The Huffington Post, the Jewish Journal, and National Geographic, sharing stories of culture and meaning.
See the Mongolian Big Five for yourself as you walk among one of the last remaining nomadic horse cultures on MTS's amazing adventure Mongolia: Horses, Camels & Nomads.