Day 1: Gobi Cold Camel Expedition
20th Jan 2018
We woke long before sunrise to begin the drive to start camp. Everything unnecessary, including my phone and my laptop, has been left in the city as there won't be any use for them where we're heading.
After last night's briefing I'm feeling a little more confident about what's in store but am still largely uncertain about what I'm getting myself into. By 7am we're on the road, heading south and it's already -30, with the landscape covered in snow. Even once the sun rises it's impossible to see out the iced over windows which make a good place to scratch drawings into, or play naughts and crosses to help pass the time.
A few hours into our 600km drive I experience my first Mongolian bathroom outside of the city, planks of wood to squat over in a lean to. Another hour passes before we stop at an Ovoo, a sacred stone pile customarily found in high places like mountain passes; this one is decorated in horse skulls and blue silk. We stop and walk three times around it in a clockwise direction, adding a rock to it with each lap.
Five hours into our journey we stop for lunch in the province of Ovorkhangai, then continue on to visit the Horse Monument Memorial which was founded by our Mongolian host Unenburen. I have only known him for a day but already sense he is loved by his people and is a man that can make things happen - he is Mongolian horse racing royalty and the Mongolian Derby’s master of the horse. His monument celebrates the most influential racehorses in Mongolian history and the skulls of hundreds of famed horses lay within its walls; herders will travel for hundreds of miles when their best racehorses pass away from old age, to add their legacy to the monument.
A few more hours pass before we turn off the state highway, which in itself is just a rough two-lane road. Now we're off-roading the last 200km in a 9-seaster two wheel drive van and it makes for a bumpy ride. There are seemingly no road signs as we make our way into the Gobi Desert, yet we eventually pass two herders who guide us the last half an hour to their Ger. Along the way, well after the sun has set, they point out four Big Horn sheep in the hills - a rare sight with only about 1000 left across Mongolia.
Finally, after 13 hours of driving, we arrive at our destination; three felt and canvas lined Ger's, portable round dwellings about 6m in diameter, and home to our first Nomadic family. We are at their winter base and a rough lean-to and yard is set up to protect their goats and sheep from the cold. In the Ger beside us baby lambs and kids are piled inside to protect them from the harsh elements.
Unenburen and Tsestgee (our interpreter) have their first surprise for us; traditional Mongolian deels (sheepskin and silk robes), fur hats and long boots. They aren't convinced our western clothing will be sufficient for the trip ahead and also gift us with an additional layer of thermals. We are all speechless by their generosity and the beauty of our clothing and try them on inside the Ger - a fire is burning bright and we are soon too warm to stay indoors and venture out into the night.
Tomorrow we get to meet our first camels and attend a Camel Festival, but first we need to eat with the herding family and set up our beds for the night.