Mongolia – Gobi Yourself

Sitting around in the hostel, we tried to figure out what else to do in Mongolia. It’s not like there is a shortage of things to be done, just we never really prepared. We looked around other people’s blogs and found some GPS tracks for Gobi. Perfect, i guess we are going to Gobi Dessert.

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In order to keep our blog education as well as entertaining I need to state that the road from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad is completely paved and can easily be done in a single day.

On the way to the city you will see more camels than actual humans. And you do start to realize that Mongolia is truly the least densely populated country in the world.

There are stretches of the road with no hills, no trees, no tall grass or bushes, just greenish land as far as you can see and you, only you. Not even a lonely Mongol on a horse to break the monotony.

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That doesn’t mean that the place is uninhabitable, as you get closer to Gobi the random herds of camels get progressively larger.

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This one had over 200 animals and was the larger single camel gathering we have seen to date. But besides this, not much else interesting along the road. Unless you are the kind of person who like the nothingness and the inner, though-provoking calmness it brings on to the mind and soul.

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Dalanzadgad itself is a tiny village, we drove through it with out even pretending to ourselves that we should go back and check it out. Filled up and moved on.

I’m not sure what you think a dessert is supposed to look like, but is not always yellow sand and blue skies. Those would be the sand dunes, and they require very specific condition for formation. Most desserts look like what you see in the photo above. So if you are satisfied with this view, then you only need to drive out 20 minutes West from Dalanzadgad on a paved road and not worry about anything.

We decided that 350 miles was quite enough for one day and found a place to sleep off the main road, near a ger camp.

I’ve heard terrible stories of people camping next to Mongolian camps and then having to deal with the Mongols coming over and bothering them. I’m sure this happens but in our experience has not been a problem. We always ask them if its okay to sleep here or there. They usual point to a good place and leave you alone….most of the time.

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After a nice dinner we climbed into the roof-top-tent and passed out. Only to be awake in the middle of the night by a terrible wind. a f

This is one of a few downsides of our current setup, its vulnerable to wind. Rain is okay for a few days, but a strong wind it feels like will break the tent. So we had to get down and set up the little REI ground tent behind the car for cover.

I’ve emailed the manufactures of the Maggiolina roof-top-tent about wind stability and will write more about this topic later.

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You know us…so by know you know that we are not afraid of a challenge or more often we don’t know that something is supposed to be hard or scary and do it anyways.

To see that stereotypical image of the Gobi dessert you need to drive another 150 miles West from Dalanzadgad. Here the switches from brand new asphalt to 4.5 billion year old earth.

Tire pressure lowered to a reasonable 1.2 bar (17psi), this makes the road a bit more bearable. Otherwise its not hard driving, keep the compass and GPS on hand as you will get sidetracked and lost unless you constantly check your bearing.

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Khongoryn Els (43.795247,102.18479) this is the reason for that arduous 5 hour drive. As you drive along you will see the sand dunes long before you reach the final point. If you are short on time for some reason, pull over right there, climb then and go back. The actual coordinates lead you to the biggest, most bad-ass dunes on the block.

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Tired from the long drive and not exercising since Torres del Paine in Chile, Hyein decided that she doesn’t want to climb all the way to the top.

Yes, we can come back any time…you’ll do it next weekend. At first with a smile and then with a raised eyebrow Hyein understood my snarky remark and stormed up the hill.

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The trek up was long and we lost a lot of people on the way…no seriously, some old guy had to turn around because he couldn’t make it up. He made the crucial mistake of wearing shoes, go bare foot if you can. Come to think of it, he was a good 40 years older than us…that might have something to do with it.

Took us about 40 minutes to get up to the top and the last 15 minutes i thought of joining the older gentelman for whisky at the bottom and say the hell with this mountain climbing business.

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I’m glad the though of turning around didn’t take hold in my mind. The view from the top is amazing, you get to see the dunes and sand stretch out as far as the eye can see in one direction and pretty far in the other.

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The sand is soft and dry, it feels like a playground…a very large sandbox for adults. Jump around, slide down…its forgiving.

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Hyein looked at the untouched side of the dune that i have spoiled with my presence, but decided not to go down there.

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I’m always disappointed in the lack of depth in the photos that we give you guys, the sense of scale is missing a little bit. That’s why switched to higher resolution and larger photos, make sure to look at them in full-frame view.

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You can walk along the top of the dune as far as you want, the top is only a couple of feet wide but the sides are shallow enough for this not to be too scary.

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Unless your stupid husband starts pushing you off the top. Yeahh….king-of-the-hill, remember that game? Apparently they don’t play this game in Korea. As Hyein thought i was trying to assassinate her and bury in the sand, where no one would even know to look.

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On the way down feel free to jump as high as you can while moving forward, this creates the amazing feeling of almost flying. Find the steepest hard and feel like a bird for a bit.

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After having so much fun in the dunes ourselves, Hodori deserved some time in the sand.

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Pushed all the right buttons to disconnect all the electronics and lock the center differential, drove as fast as I felt was safe and successfully got him Istuck almost at a top of much smaller dune.

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Instead of freaking out about it…remember what the guide tells you “Don’t Panic”, i got out and quickly dug him out with my our bare hands.

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Did a few more rounds of this, trying to get up higher on the dune.

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The sand is forgiving and there are people around so if we can completely stuck…help is not that far.

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Khongoryn Els, definitely a highlight of Mongolia and the whole trip.

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While we were literally flying down the dune we happen to meet a Korean family, eager for company we asked them where they are staying and if they mind if we camp next to them.

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They were doing a two week tour and were staying in one of the many ger camps all around the sand dunes. The great thing is that you can camp just next to the camp and there are no problems, you dont have to pay anything since you are not using any of the utilities.

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Draw in by the general commotion we decided against everything we have read to go and ride the camels with the family.

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I would not recommend this to anyone. The camels are walking sacks of semi-digested but still fermenting plant material, and they silently release the built up pressure without any sort of apologies. So you are constantly surrounded by an aroma that makes your eyes water a little bit. You need to ride in pants, i was wearing shorts and after that my legs were itching like crazy for a while.

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The animals are not very keen of anyone being on top and they show it. Constantly scratching their humps and leaving large trails of foam and saliva on the rider. You can control the animal yourself and will need a guide. So if you want to feel like a child and be led around on a dirt, smelly, uncomfortable animal…then camel is the for you.

Btw these are the Bactrian Camels they have 2 humps, as opposed to Dromedary Camels which have only 1 hump. One really neat thing I did notice and really enjoyed watching, are their feet.

When they put the foot down and actually put weight on it, the foot slowly, like gel spreads on the surface. It definitely looks like these guys are walking on gel. I’m sure this is for better traction in the sand or something like it.

Anyway – listen to everyone else and us…dont ride the camels. Waste of time and money. Plus we had to wash our favorite pants and shorts, not an easy task in the Gobi.

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Not wanting the repeat of last night, we didn’t even open the roof-top-tent and just set up our little one behind the car. At least we can get some rest, even if its a bit less comfy.

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The doom and gloom of the night is gone and the sun woke us up before we would have like to. We peeled our eyes open and looked outside. Any trace of sleep was gone in a moment with gasps of air and shouts.

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How can a place look so beautiful, green, yellow, brown and blue, like the painter only had 4 colors and just brushed them across the canvas. The night before the low clouds really did not do the dunes the justice they deserve.

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We thought of climbing up the dune again, but they stopped lying to each other, smiled and said that the road is long and we dont want to waste any more time than we need to.

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That doesn’t mean that we can’t just mess around for a bit…this is completely acceptable.

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This is the important bit about the route of our trip. We looked at where we were and where we had to go a town called Bayankhongor.

“Hey, Babe. Isn’t it easier to just go up from here? I heard that in Mongolia you can just drive anywhere you want.”

“Sure, babe. Let’s do it, how hard can it be?”

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Now lets look at the map, it makes sense, at least by distance to just go straight up, instead of going back to Ulaanbaatar and then to Bayankhongor.

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At first the road seemed like a pleasure cruise, no washboard, random horses galloping full speed across the steppe.

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Amazing views, as you literally drive on the crest of the mountains.

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The only problem is the absence of any cars on the road and the wet, muddy spots. At some point we drove into a valley, the road going right through the bottom of it and because of recent rains the solid ground turns on you in a minute and becomes a slippery mess. One time with all 4 wheels in the mud and the bottom scraping, only our initial velocity pushed us through. If we would a have slowed down, then for sure we would have been stuck.

You are sitting at home now or in your office, which is better because my goal is to distract you from work as much as possible, and this doesn’t seem that scary.

Okay, i’ll give it to you…we would have been safe, just severely inconvenienced. We have enough food and water for probably a week, in an emergency even longer. Just waiting for some car to get us out might have taken a day.

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Day one of the crazy road is done. We are realizing by now that this is going to be much harder than we initially thought. We average about 120 miles per day…in a 10 hour day.

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Next day, even more mud. But we hit along a busier road, so the prospects of getting stuck didn’t seem as daunting.

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As soon as you come down from the hills to the valley if it rained you get mud and puddles. You have to realize that pretty much all of Mongolia is just valleys surrounded by hills. So the road constantly goes up and down into the valleys.

You really have to pay close attention to the consistency of the ground, in this valley even though the paddles were very deep, there was no danger of getting stuck. The ground was sandy and very hard. There is a bigger problem of flooding your engine bay, but we got a snorkel so we are good.

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We got a town called Bogd, there are two towns called Bogd that we visited on this trip, I’m talking about the second one. The GPS and general sense of direction told us that we have to go from Bogd to Bayankhongor, but the stupid rains have swelled the river and there was no way of crossing it. So we waived good by to the town and the good road and had to find another way.

At first the road was really good, but at every split the GPS kept telling us to take the smaller of the two roads. After many wrong turns and corrections we ended up on roads that seemed completely unused…at least in the last few years. We had to climb up a mountain on tracks that had grass growing through them.

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And at the crest of the mountain we had to do a 180 degree turn to come down the other side.

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I wish we had an inclinometer with us, okay just got an app, so we will have it for next time. This road going down was at least 30 degrees. Heyin got out of the car for safety and filmed it.

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It was scary, but if you feel it through you know the limits. Go slowly, no reason to rush through this. Careful on the rocks and dips, as they can instantly change your lean angel drastically.

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After that mountain pass, we continued on goat trails towards the city. The river that has blocked us once already popping in and out of our view.

And it wasn’t done with us for the day, only 20 km from asphalt and the town of Ulzit, the river swelled over a flat plain, drowning the road at points. The ground was mushy, muddy and very slippery. We were just driving along, keeping up speed to get through some iffy parts, when the car started its ballet performance on ice, swirling around, spinning, the dashboard beeping and lighting up with all kinds of “oh shit” lights.

But the electronics did their job, the car slowed down, straightened itself out, realizing that if we stop completely we might be here for a while, i pressed on the accelerator to get us out of this damn wetness. In one of its spinning maneuvers it felt like the car will go over on its side, but instead it did something crazy with the electronics and managed to stay upright. It was scary, but we were buckled up and secure, so not dangerous.

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We got finally got to some asphalt and thank all the gods we know of for looking out for us. Somewhere along the way, i got so tired that i promised that i will kiss the first asphalt we see.

As soon as we drove onto it, I got out, got on my knees and get it a little peck.

Summary:

Definitely the craziest, scariest, most awesome offroading adventure so far. If we would have known it would be this hard, we would have never done it. Sometimes its good not to be too prepared.

I would recommend it to anyone who wants to experience real Mongolia. People write on the many blogs that the Southern route through Mongolia is boring, well here is an easy fix. Go through Gobi. I promise you will not be bored.

Check out our GPS tracks for more detailed route planning, good luck and remember – “Don’t Panic”.

3 Comment

  1. Will and Amy (blue landy @ Oasis) says: Reply

    This sounds almost exactly like our experience! Even similar roads up to Bogd. We did the river crossing though with the ‘advice’ of some locals. Got it a little wrong and ended up with water up to the top of the bull bar but we made it! Our feet and, more importantly, our vehicle documents got quite wet though!! The track from Bogd to Bayankongor was good after that.

    1. irazinkov@gmail.com says: Reply

      Yeah…looking at that river and crossing it takes some major courage. So far I have not heard of anyone being “bored in mongolia, it offers everyone what they are looking for, whether they know it or not. Off to China soon or already?

  2. Dirk says: Reply

    Nice to read this report. We shortly met at Khongoryn Els. I really understand your problems with driving even when we – with our local driver and the UAZ 4wd vehicle from the 60ies without any electronics – didn’t experience any troubles joining your path up the north. If might make it to Western Europe you are very welcome to Leipzig.

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