We went to bed hungry, as usual. Our meager nightly meal ration of white rice with a gravy of goat fat and gristly bits of meat accompanied by a few boortsog - little traditional mongolian biscuits was wearing thin. We drank the last of our bottle of kumis (a local moonshine made from fermented mare’s milk), trying not to gag as the fizz brings a pungent aroma of expired yoghurt and sharp alcohol to the back of your sinuses. I put our third and final yak dung patty into the small central fireplace and crawled under my brightly coloured sandy blankets wearing every stitch of clothing I had brought with me. The thin canvas walls of our yurt provided very little protection to the howling winds and plummeting temperatures outside as tiny sand particles drifted down from the ceiling, filtered through the cloth.
Early morning came as a welcome escape from the metal springs embedded in my spine. The ideology of yurt life in the Gobi desert was rapidly losing its luster. I stepped out into bright October sunshine, instantly warming my sluggish limbs and walked towards the only structure on the horizon - a waist high wall of scrap wood masking a hole in the ground with two planks spanning a horrendous scene below. The view outwards was unbeatable though - 200m high curving and sweeping sand dunes bathed in crisp yellow autumn light, crowned with the dramatically barren mountains of distant northern China.
Our guide Ghazan had a pot of porridge on a portable stove using the grey Russian army jeep as a wind barrier and his old friend, a bottle of kumis at his side to garnish his portion. We were to head north in the direction of the capital Ulaanbaatar, and I was thankful for this as the long bumpy desert tracks and even longer frigid nights were taking their toll on my moral. The weather had been fair which meant we could drive up a dry river bed straight through the heart of the Altayan Nuuru mountains, cutting out a full day worth of travel if we were to skirt around the massif instead.
After an hour of driving on a decrepit desert track, past small shrubs and endless sand, the imposing mountains came into view. Heading straight towards large dark crumbling cliffs, a narrow canyon vaguely revealed itself as we stormed through the sand and gravel of the once wide river, now reduced to a meandering trickle. We weaved in and out of narrow passages under sheer decaying walls while stones haphazardly fell around and sometimes on the jeep, clanging off the steel roof. The crux was a slot barely wide enough for the jeep, but like a game of operation, Ghazan skillfully maneuvered through the narrow passage as I took photos from the other side.
Like sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster, we slowly climbed an impossibly steep slope of loose black rock, our hearts in our throats. Tires spinning and the engine revving and squealing, I was convinced the jeep would tip backwards at any moment, ending in a crumpled heap on the canyon floor. I could see nothing but the flawless blue sky as we crested the rise and hurtled down the other side, skidding and sliding our way down the mountain. With an enormous thud, dust exploding in all directions from under the jeep and almost snapping the rusting suspension, we exited back onto the vast, flat mongolian steppe. Thankful to be back on level ground once again, we darted between criss crossing arteries carved out of rolling grasslands, our heads hitting the leather padded ceiling every few minutes. Only two days to go until pavement.
- October 2008