Steppe into the void

Nigel Richardson goes off the map to the geological freak shows and dinosaur boneyards of the southern Gobi Desert.

MONGOLIANS have a word for it: zud. A zud is a winter so harsh animals cannot feed through the frost and ice encrusting the steppe. In the winter of 2009-10, Mongolia suffered its worst zud for nobody knows how long - "for decades", some say, or "in living memory". Ten million head of livestock are reckoned to have died.

As I gazed from the vehicle window at the stony desert steppe, I wasn't sure whether I was seeing the dramatic fallout of that zud or whether the ribcages and skulls were the usual cull exacted by nature in this most thrillingly harsh of environments. Whatever the case, the black vultures, sitting like homeless undertakers on the scattered boulders, were making the most of it.
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We were travelling through South Gobi, the largest and most sparsely populated of the five provinces that make up the Gobi Desert. The Gobi is the no man's land between China to the south and the rest of Mongolia and the central Siberian plateau in the north. It is also a byword for the most barren place of the imagination. But deserts, like imaginations, are invariably fertile, even this one.
The Gobi is not just sand and gravel and dead animals. It diversifies into mountains and evergreen forest and geological freak shows - including a dune system as long and high as a mountain range - and sustains an array of endangered species that includes wild ass, wild camels and snow leopards.

That dune system - Khongoryn Els - was our immediate goal. The only road in South Gobi runs for a handful of kilometres between Gurvan Saikhan Airport and the provincial capital, Dalanzadgad. Arriving on a flight from the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, we headed the other way: off-road, off-map, into emptiness.

Our ship of the desert was a Russian-built Furgon, a military vehicle adapted for civilian use and uniquely suited to this terrain. Up front sat the driver, Uulzi, a native of Dalanzadgad. Bouncing along in the back with me was Don Morley, a former US Air Force colonel who happens to be a world-class modern pentathlete.

After we had driven past a pile of brown blankets that turned out to be a dead camel, Morley reached into his pocket and produced a palm-size electronic device that he held up to the raised sunroof of the Furgon. "SPOT Messenger," he said, explaining that it was now firing off emails to 10 designated recipients with a link to Google Earth that pinpointed his position.

"One of the recipients is a two-star general who worked at the Pentagon," he added casually.

For a moment I thought I had woken up in a remake of Dr Strangelove but this was just Morley's way of making sense of space that made even his home state of Texas seem claustrophobic.

My preferred coping strategy for the Gobi, in those first few hours, was to hallucinate.

As we drove west, following a skein of tyre tracks that constantly diverged, subdivided and converged across the scrubby steppe, distant mountain ranges took on the shape of city skylines while wooded islands shimmered in petroleum-fume seas along the horizon.

The corollary of those murderous winters is summers that turn the vast, stony plains into sizzling frying pans with no respite of shade. We slipped in through an autumn window of pleasantly warm days and evenings. Even now, in such balmy Mediterranean-style weather, it was hard to imagine people living and laughing in such emptiness. But they do.

Mid-morning we stopped by a well, where nomadic herders had brought their flocks of kashmir goats and fat-tailed sheep. Their gers - traditional moveable dwellings, circular and made of felt - lay in the distance, looking like squishy buttons on the ragged brocade of the steppe. The watering of livestock was a focus of activity. Wearing deels, traditional calf-length tunics, the men came and went on motorbikes while their children showed off by riding horses bareback.

The life of the desert herders is unimaginably harsh but it has bred in them a unique sense of hospitality. Or, as a tour guide put it: "These are nomadic people still living as Genghis Khan did but they invite you in for tea." Not just tea but fermented mare's milk, feasts of freshly slaughtered goat - and tales of survival. Meeting these people, understanding both the meagreness and nobility of their existence, is like touching fingertips with one's ancestors - and, who knows, with one's descendants, too, for one day we may all need again to live so frugally.

One herder woman I met in the remote south-west of the province spoke somberly of climate change. "There has been a sequence of dry summers followed by bad winters," she said. "The wells are drying up. I see less and less wildlife ..."

Last winter, in that terrible zud, many young people gave up the herder's life and headed to towns and cities in search of work. Those who are left - in the case of many families, just the women and the elderly - are pessimistic about what will become of their way of life if nature does not turn kinder.

From the well we rattled on west, driving for six hours and 210 kilometres (and passing just one road sign and two other vehicles) to reach our first-night's camp. Juulchin Gobi 2 camp is a group of gers with bathroom and dining blocks, within a kilometre or two of one of South Gobi's most dramatic and distinctive features.

The sand dunes of Khongoryn stretch for more than 160 kilometres and rise 370 metres above the plain at their highest point. To reach them, we walked across a channel of spring water with vivid-green margins where hoopoes flitted in the soft evening light. As we puffed to the top of the ridge, the setting sun was turning the vast particulate drifts lilac, malachite-green and what in a fashion catalogue might be termed teal, or possibly taupe.

That evening, the balloonists arrived in camp. The Gobi Desert is forever acting as a vacuum on the human imagination, sucking in restless energies. While we were there, for instance, a Swiss woman named Sarah Marquis was pushing a shopping trolley across it. The Great Mongolian Balloon Adventure was in the same tradition but with rather more point.

No one, you see, had flown a hot-air balloon in Mongolia before, let alone in the Gobi Desert. So a bunch of European balloonists - mostly English, with some French, Germans and Swiss - had brought over four balloons and were trucking around and taking off in them at every available opportunity, creating fires and spheres in the desert skies and astonishing the herders, not to mention their camels.

The following morning, we watched them sail into the sunrise then headed back through a wide corridor of steppe between two mountain ranges, the southerly range being shadowed by the dunes of Khongoryn. Winding up through the mountains, we came across a Buddhist monastery that had been razed in the Communist purges of the '30s.

The monks who lived here were no doubt executed, as some 17,000 Buddhist monks lost their lives in a countrywide extermination. In the Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum in Ulaanbaatar is an exhibit of 20 monks' skulls, each with a single bullet hole in it.

But we were travelling back to a more innocent time in the history of Mongolia. No one epitomises the spirit of madcap adventure that finds challenge and inspiration in the Gobi more than Roy Chapman Andrews. He was the gung-ho American adventurer said to have inspired the character of Indiana Jones and in the 1920s he made a discovery that put the Gobi Desert on the front page of every newspaper in the world.

At a place named Bayanzag is a convulsive gash in the steppe, a geological phenomenon of wind-sculpted sandstone known as the Flaming Cliffs. It was given this name by Chapman Andrews because the sandstone glows red in the light of the setting sun. He also called it "this treasure vault of world history" because of what he found here. The Flaming Cliffs are a dinosaur boneyard.

Chapman Andrews camped at Bayanzag on a series of expeditions from what was then known as Peking. He found not just lots of dinosaur bones but "the first dinosaur eggs ever seen by a human being". Two were broken in half, revealing the white bones of unhatched baby dinosaurs.

In the moment that discovery was made, a new branch of science was born: palaeoembryology.

As Chapman Andrews noted, this is a hugely significant site in the history of planet Earth. Were it in any other country it would be marked by a car park, a museum and visitor centre, interpretation boards, way-marked footpaths - and a shop selling Indiana Jones figurines.

But here there is almost nothing - certainly not a car park, for there are not even roads. A few herders have set up trestle tables to sell drinks and draughts sets (the pieces are tiny gers). And there is a museum - housed in a ger and containing about three dinosaur bones - but it is pitiful.

Among the entertainingly shaped rocks that Chapman Andrews likened to mediaeval castles, no one popped up to offer to guide us, or to pass off a camel scapula as a piece of old velociraptor. Instead, my companions and I made our own fun, seeing vast thigh bones and eye sockets everywhere, though, in truth, we hardly knew what to look for. Our only definite reptile sighting was of a living one, a scuttling sand lizard.

That evening, the balloon circus rolled into Gobi Mirage camp, where we were staying, and the following morning I hitched a flight on a claret balloon named Road to Mandalay. Its owner, Phil Dunnington, said Mandalay had "sat in a bag in Frinton-on-Sea for 10 years" before receiving this unlikely airing in a place so different it seems incredible they share planet space.

In the oblique and dusty light of dawn, we lifted free of the steppe in our wicker basket with its leatherette lip. With height attained, the pilot, Phil's wife, Allie, closed the gas valve that fed the envelope with propane. The roar of flame died. Peace. No sound came from below. For as far as I could see, there were no roads, no cars, no dwellings, no fences or boundaries, no buildings, no pylons or poles, no advertising. Just a motionless ocean of land.

Trip notes

Getting there

Korean Air flies from Sydney to Ulaanbaatar via Seoul, priced from $1964 return. (02) 9262 6000, koreanair.com. Air China flies from Sydney via Beijing, priced from $1349. (02) 9232 7277, airchina.com.au.

Touring there

World Expeditions has several Gobi Desert itineraries, including the 14-day Highlights of the Gobi tour, which includes Khongoryn Els and Bayanzag, priced from $3450 a person, twin share. 1300 720 000, worldexpeditions.com.

Gap Adventures hosts a 21-day Nomadic Mongolia tour priced from $3509 a person, twin share, departing Ulaanbaatar on selected dates between May and September. Includes staying in a ger camp and exploring Bayanzag and two days spent in the Khongoryn Els region. 1300 796 618, gapadventures.com.

Gobi Tours, based in Ulaanbaatar, has a 10-day southern Gobi overland trip that takes in Bayanzag, Khongoryn Els, visiting a camel-breeding family and Yolyn Am, priced from $US1200 a person, twin share. +976 11 322 339, gobitours.com.

Further information

mongoliatourism.gov.mn.

Source:Sydney Morning Herald







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