Day three of our Mongolia tour was Gary’s birthday, so we started the day with a huge cooked breakfast and presents in the Ger! Me and Emily had smuggled some birthday goodies with us on the tour and had managed to keep everything well hidden for the first few days.
In the morning we were treated to our first shower (out of two!) of the eight day trip. We drove for a few hours to reach a small village which had building with a block of showers that you could pay a small amount to use. We all spent far too long in the showers as it felt so good to have a hot shower after three days.
Next stop was a small museum to learn more about the Gobi Gurvan Saihan National Park, but it wasn’t particular exciting – it was mostly a collection of dodgy taxidermy!
In the afternoon, we reached Yolyn Am, a deep and narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains of Southern Mongolia. The word ‘Yol’ is Mongolian for the Lammergeier, an Old World Vulture, so the valley is often translated as the ‘Valley of the Vultures’ or ‘Valley of the Eagles’. We didn’t see either, but we did spot lots of other wildlife! There were small mice, gerbil-type rodents and pikas everywhere, which made for a fun game trying to spot them as we walked along (they are quick!). I also waited for ages outside a pika’s den to see if he would pop his head back out if I was quiet enough… He did, and it’s one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken! Too cute.
In Mongolia, you will see strips of blue cloth everywhere – especially tied around trees etc in sacred/ spiritual areas. The blue cloth is called ‘hadag‘ in Mongolian and is blue because this is considered the most sacred colour, representing an eternal blue sky. There were strips of blue cloth tied around rock piles throughout the valley; this little guy was using the cloth to build a nest!
The Yolyn Am Valley was really beautiful – it required trekking across a narrow stream and scrambling over a few rocks to get through, but it was worth the effort! The valley is known for its ice gorge but we never actually saw any. I think maybe we just didn’t walk far enough as seems to be described as a ‘year-long’ ice gorge online…
On the way to our overnight camp, we stopped at a small local village to replenish our depleted beer supply. There was a decent selection and we were happily loading our baskets with bottles when a manager came up to us and was miming ‘no!’, waving his arms to indicate we had to put the bottles back. We were all a bit confused and called Oyuka over to translate. It turned out that in Mongolia, most villages will have one day a week where they do not sell any alcohol, in an attempt to combat alcoholism. What were the chances – this particular village had Wednesdays as their ‘no-alcohol’ day! As we were heading further away from any villages and wouldn’t come across another shop for a few days, this was a sorry prospect for Gary’s birthday celebrations…. Feeling defeated, we all headed back to the van. When we there, we realised our tour mate Matcha had a bottle of beer. She had gone in before us and had apparently purchased a bottle with no problem, thanks to a member of staff forgetting they weren’t supposed to sell alcohol! With this discovery, Oyuka headed back into the shop to bargain with the manager… She told her that we’d managed to buy one bottle already, so why not let us buy a few more?? After a few minutes, Oyuka managed to do a deal that involved giving back the receipt that showed we purchased alcohol and sneaking all the additional beer we wanted into a cardboard box, paying her in cash rather than going through the tills, then sneaking the box out the back to the van!
Once we got to our camp for the night, we spent the evening playing card games and helping Oyuka create a traditional Mongolian dumpling dinner. Mutton dumplings were made for the meat-eaters and potato, carrot and cabbage ones for the veggies. It was now day three of mutton with every meal for the meat-eaters and they were all starting to get a bit sick of it, so the vegetarian dumplings proved to be much more popular!
Our fourth day was a longggg day of driving to reach the Khongoriin Els sand dunes. These dunes are the largest in Mongolia and stand 200m high, 12km wide and about 100km long. After driving through barren lands all day, not seeing a single person or settlement, we arrived at our camp around 4pm.
Our camp was home to a herd of camels and as part of our tour, we were offered the chance to go on a camel ride alongside the dunes. The others decided to do it, but I knew it wasn’t something that interested me – especially after I saw the sticks that had been poked through their noses and were being used to direct them 🙁 I helped out with preparing dinner while the others went off for a one-hour ride. Dinner tonight was vegetarian BBQ ‘ribs’ with veggies and buckwheat – yum!
After dinner, we were driven to the bottom of one of the dunes which was supposedly the easiest place to climb to the top… We were in a bit of a rush as the sun was due to set at 7pm and we wanted to make sure we were at the top to get the best views! The first bit was fairly straight forward as you are walking on sand but the ground is pretty flat, so it’s not too strenuous.
Leaving our shoes on the flat section, we began our hike to the top. I’ve done some pretty testing hikes before – including a challenging trek to Machu Picchu – but this was hands-down the HARDEST thing I’ve ever done! Every step was a huge incline and with the soft sand, it was a case of one step forward, two steps back most of the time! The incline was also so steep, you couldn’t stand up straight without sliding down, so we spent most of the 30-40 minute climb on all fours. It took the wind out of me like I didn’t imagine was possible and after every three or four steps, we were having to stop to catch our breath!
Thankfully, the views at the top were worth the effort – unfortunately the photos don’t capture just how special this place is. At the top, we were roughly 200m high, with a steep drop either side. There were hundreds more steep, rolling dunes in the background, but it looks kind of flat in the photos. We sat on the top and watched the sun setting behind the sand, before making the much more enjoyable decent down the dune back to our van.