Fall is upon us in the eastern U.S. and no matter how much I wished for these cooling breezes and drops in temperature and humidity over the past three months, I am already feeling nostalgic for summer. More than the weather, however, I am missing the yawning span of free and easy vacation days that are one of the perks of being a university professor.
More specifically, I am reminiscing about the weeks I just spent in Mongolia, a place that in itself brought back poignant memories for me: my days of horseback riding as a young child and teenager, sleeping under the stars on a totally black night, county fairs, rock-hopping in mountain streams – all thousands of miles and decades away. As I ride a last wave of nostalgia with my final post on Mongolia, I revisit a summery landscape that caught me by surprise.
I’ve said it before: I’m not a desert lover. One of my new travel mates in Mongolia couldn’t wait to get to the Gobi. I, on the other hand, would have been quite happy to park myself in a ger out on the steppe and never leave, riding my horse off into the soft, green hills. I’ve never been drawn to arid landscapes and don’t naturally like places that are dry, brown, or barren. But just as I did at Zion National Park in the U.S., Wadi Rum in Jordan, and other famous desert destinations, I put aside my distaste for desiccation in order to see one of the world’s famous deserts.
I traded a shiny-coated horse for a mangy camel, elevation for endless flatness, and verdant hills for rust-colored cliffs, but the Gobi’s sere, simple beauty grabbed me after all and seems to have stubbornly parked itself in my memories.
Sunset happens precipitously here; one minute there is searing heat and glare and the next, the sun has sunk below the horizon in the blink of a squinting eye. Mornings are equally hasty in arriving, with the deep blackness of desert night quickly shattered by sunlight that has no natural barriers. I am missing that unimpeded view of the sun each morning and night here in my city home.
The Gobi has a few salmon-colored, ridged sand dunes, but on the whole it is a land of reddish dirt patterned with olive-green scrub grass. Four of the usual Mongolian suspects ply the paths; that is, the sheep and the goats, the horses and the camels, always in those pairs.
Vehicles are few and far between, and with no marked roads, routes, or landmarks, I have no idea how they find their way around. There were long periods of time on our drives when we saw no other vehicles and when faced with a choice of three identical dirt paths at just slightly different angles, our driver always seemed to know exactly which one to take. (I normally have a very good sense of direction, and I occasionally had the feeling that we were doubling back after making a wrong turn, but that was just a hunch. We did always end up where we wanted to go!)
One exception to the stubbly green topography was the Flaming Cliffs, a series of sandstone formations that are most famous as the site of Roy Chapman Andrew’s expeditions in the early 1920s that led to the discovery of the first dinosaur eggs, as well as thousands of dinosaur bones, all of which were packaged up and carted away on the backs of camels to their new home in the American Museum of Natural History. After a hike of only several hours on the parched cliffs, I found the notion of mounting such an extensive expedition in this harsh and remote environment – nearly a century ago, no less – to be truly staggering.
A final stop in the Gobi provided a brief respite from the heat and sun as we hiked deep into Yolyn Am, a narrow canyon in the Gurvan Saikhan mountains that is home to an ice field that often lingers the whole way through the summer months. We stream-hopped back and forth until we could go no farther into the gorge, but try as we might, we did not glimpse any lammergeiers, the large birds after which the canyon is named.
The Gobi was the last stop on a wide-ranging trip around Mongolia, chronicled in the posts below, and the final travel spree of my summer break. Soon it will be time to stop looking back in longing and start contemplating the next memory-making escape.
Want more Mongolia?
Danshig Naadam: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/danshig-naadam/
Framing a House Mongolian Style: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/framing-a-house-mongolian-style/
A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/
Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/
Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/