My paradise: Dirt and camels in the Gobi Desert

My paradise: Dirt and camels in the Gobi Desert

by Kat Nickola
Stripes Korea

Dirt and gravel as far as the eye can see, jagged rocky mountains with scrubby plants, dramatic red sandstone cliffs and dunes punctuating the endless gray-green expanse; that is the Gobi desert.  It’s hostile and windy, and surprising. This summer my family willingly bounced in an old Russian jeep for weeks so I could check “GOBI” off my bucket list.

The Gobi desert is a vast area stretching between Mongolia and northern China. It is high in elevation and blocked from seasonal rains by the massive Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya mountains to the southwest.  It’s 1000 miles long and 600 miles wide.  To find it scenic, you really need to be in the moment and awed by the vastness.  Think northern Nevada on a colossal scale and you’ve got a glimpse of the Gobi.  Rocks. Dirt. Sky.

The trek my family bravely undertook was the typical tourist route, if it’s possible to say tourists in Mongolia are typical.  We flew to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and proceeded to a town called Dalanzadgad where we met our driver. Travel in Mongolia is not smooth; our driver was late, the vehicle was being repaired, there was limited communication and he had little to no detail about our route that I meticulously outlined with the tour company who made the arrangements.  Oh well!

The vehicle of choice for budget Mongolian trips is a lifted, no-seatbelt, 4-wheel drive Russian van;  visualize a pale blue warped VW bus with purple carpeted interior and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep blaring from the open windows. So it was that we roared across the vastness of the Gobi. Sometimes we were on a dirt track, sometimes we were just blazing our own trail.  Our driver, Baghy, wanted so badly to believe he was driving  in the Baja 1000.

Our first taste of the Gobi was actually a reprieve into the mountains of Gurvan Saikhan National Park.  We hiked 2 kilometers into a pleasantly cool and green canyon called Yolyn Am.  My children were enamored with the rabbit-cousin pika that scurried all over the place chirping and carrying grass into their burrows. They enjoyed jumping the creek which slowly grew wider as we continued down to the narrowest portion where a small shelf of dirty snow packed ice was still sitting and thawing in August!  This is THAT kind of desert; high and dry and cool.

We camped during our time in the Gobi, both for frugality and the novelty. It is wild and darkly beautiful.  Never before have I seen so many stars or felt so very far from the world.  Our first night we camped in Dungaree canyon not far from Yolyn Am.  The drive through the canyon the following morning was a highlight. The road and river were one in the same, and our vehicle narrowly  fit through the tightest gorge.

Once past the Saikhan mountains we were thrust out onto the Gobi plains.  It was sometimes flat, sometimes rutted, but always covered in stones and tiny grass stubble.  From an angle it appears to be green, but if you look at the ground it’s apparent that the grass is few and far between.  That was exactly what the terrain was like as well; the mountains in the distances all around seemed numerous but we soon realized they were just far, far away.  After four hours of driving, sand finally appeared on our left and we found ourselves at Khongoriin Els.  This is the tallest sand dune range in the Gobi reaching a height of 800 meters.

There are no facilities right at the dunes; all the “ger camps” are a few kilometers away.  These are little guesthouse with a few traditional Mongolian ger’s (similar to a yurt) where you can bunk or buy a meal. With some minor difficulty we arranged for a camel herder from a ger camp to drop us and our camping gear at the dunes for the night and retrieve us the next morning.  This idea of staying at the dunes for more than a couple hours of sightseeing seemed quite foreign to them.  So much so, that our driver had an English-speaking guide from another tour group ride a dirt bike out to check on us at dusk and make sure we were safe from the fabled ‘zombie wolves’.  We were just fine!

Riding Bactrian camels is stinky and funny.  Each was outfitted with a cloth saddle and a single guideline rope through its nose.  We were lined up caravan; the guide held my husband’s camel reign, my husband with my son on his lap held my daughters reign, she held mine, and I had “Sheila.”  This camel wanted to be up front and wanted attention.  She held our camping gear and food and would not stop rubbing on my leg unless I pet her tufted head. Sheila was so relieved to have our gear off her back that she rolled and kicked her legs like a dog, farting all the while, which much improved my 4-year-old son’s mood as he was grumpy for being denied his own camel.

After the pungent camels dropped us off, we played on the dunes for the rest of the day.  It was thrilling to walk up and slide down, take in the view, and dig up whitewashed bones from long lost horse herds. This was my favorite day; it was overcast and cool but the sand was warm and we felt free.

The next two days were decidedly different.  It was sunny and windy; a sandstorm of sorts came through during the night which was fairly alarming. Our tent held, but I did need to venture out and re-stake the fly.  The dust was so intense it muted the light from my headlamp so I could only see a foot or so in front of myself.  My husband also had to get out at one point and found a big herd of semi-wild horses around the tent.  No zombie wolves, though, just an exhilaratingly windy night without sleep. The next day we tented near the ger camp along a desert creek and napped.

When we left the dunes our destination was the flaming cliffs, or Bayanzag. These are sandstone rocks that outcrop from the rough stony ground.  They are famous for their beauty and abundance of dinosaur fossils; both things we love!  On the way there, however, we were sidetracked when our driver discovered that  the local town of Bayan was having its annual Naadam festival.

Naadam means ‘three games of men’ and is a celebration of the traditional Mongolian nomadic skills of archery, horseback riding, and wrestling. This is tough wrestling; wrestling in tiny shiny trunks on the hardscrabble ground in a sandstorm. The first knee down lost. There was much ceremony to it as well. Each wrestler would imitate a bird flying in a small dance to show his intention to compete, then again as a winner in the direction of the judges and flags, and only accepted honor and some hard cheese as a reward.  The horseback riding was no less burly. The riders were all kids who had been marched into the desert about 20 kilometers and raced back to town.  Many were bareback, some didn’t even have shoes, and those who came in last had no one left to watch and cheer them on as the entire crowd swarmed the winner.

Well, really they were interested in the winner’s horse and not the poor kid who rode it in a sandstorm.

Eventually the pelting dust and rock pellets were beyond our tolerance. We drove to the flaming cliffs where the wind was no less intense but even more scary at the top of the cliffs.  We much enjoyed our evening in the area exploring the exposed sandstone.  The wind finally died, and we saw the beauty we could not appreciate earlier.  The area very much reminded us of southern Utah, but on a surprisingly small scale.  The flaming cliffs were not large or vast but more of a dramatic and unique anomaly from the never-ending gray rock scrabble ground.

We did find dinosaur bones!  Small ones, verified as fossil by the tongue-test.  A fossil will stick in an odd Velcro-ish way to your tongue. They were tiny and fascinating to see, and another bucket list check box was filled.

The thing about the Gobi desert is that you need to want  to go there. It’s work to be in the Gobi. You will not shower, you will not have a toilet, you will be dry and hot and full of dirt.  But you will also see one of the most amazing vastness that exists.  If you really want to go I suggest arranging a tour or just a driver as we did via a guesthouse or tour company based in Ulaanbaatar.  There are many available with fine websites.  Read reviews and choose wisely, but expect delays and setbacks and time when you sit around not knowing what is going on while your driver has a meal in a ger.  Just go with it and play with the kids or pet the camels.

We did not find the country entirely ready or interested in tourism, but once we made personal connections during a homestay it was as if we had become family and stepped back in time.  The trip got shockingly wilder at that point, but that is a story for another time. (read my blog at

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