Mongolia Part 1: The Gobi

Sky, driver Naraa (meaning sun) and the Russian van.

What a trip it’s been! Ulaanbaatar has all the charm you’d expect of a rapidly developing, ex-communist city. Things are slow, fast and chaotic all at the same time. We knew from last year that we wanted out as fast as possible so as to avoid falling into an uncovered manhole in a jetlagged stupor. After a day of running errands and adjusting to a new pace of life in Ulaanbaatar, we left early for the Gobi. Our group consisted of myself, Jeremy, Derek and Jobe from the US, and Ogii, a Mongolian geology student and translator, Dagi, our cook, and two drivers Naraa and Tsele.

Camels surround the spring at Bayn Zag

We ditched the pavement after hardly an hour on the potholed pavement. Each day we rotated seating arrangements, and I took the first day in the trusty, if not always somewhat broken, Russian van. Just like getting sea legs, it takes a while to get used to life on the dusty steppe, and the learning curve for riding in the Ruski is steep. We all came away with a few interesting bruises. The next day, we reached Bayn Zag in the afternoon heat, and worked the main part of the Flaming Cliffs, a touristy dinosaur fossil locality.

Discussing our route with locals at a spring west of Bulgan

After Bayn Zag, we settled into a rhythm as a group. We would drive around half a day to our next locality, scout it out if not sample it in the afternoon, then finish work or move on in the morning. We kept the momentum up through all of our Gobi localities, knowing that we still had a long road ahead to western Mongolia. We only took one day off late in the trip to deal with a car problem, and only once did we stay in the same camp two nights in a row.

Jobe, Derek and Jeremy go to work, Gobi desert

The Gobi is a beautiful but fairly challenging place. It wasn’t crippling heat but rather constant wind and sand that made our bones weary. We’d wake up to a fresh coat of sand inside our tents each morning, meals would be prepared and eaten behind vehicles or rocks for cover. Still, nothing was spared from the sand. The days on the road were challenging as well. We frequently encountered impassable sections. Navigating by GPS and going days on end without seeing anyone, we had to make sound decisions. Tsele, our Land Cruiser driver, was a nice man, but didn’t know much about his vehicle. We chuckled when he always engaged the rear defrost instead of 4WD when we got in a jam. Sometimes, we were lucky to cover 5km in an hour…at most it was 20 or 30. But the places were as wild as it gets.

Jeremy: Stable isotope paleoclimatologist of stable isotope paleoclimatologists

After Bayn Zag, we headed west toward Nemegt. Partway through the second day, we crossed the largest sand dunes in Mongolia. The scenery looked straight out of a movie. We did the classic dune running and jumping. Being an idiot, as usual, I think I broke my tailbone on one of them. “Oh great, I thought, bumpy driving will be the missing ingredient to make this a really fun trip.” The rest of the trip, the tailbone was always with me, but I’ve found a few sitting strategies so I’m not in constant pain. Once we crossed the dunes, we were in a different dimension. Now, not a single tourist had reason to be where we were, and I got the sense that many locals didn’t even know why we’d keep pushing west.

Breaking my tailbone (in style?), Hongoryn Els

Hongoryn Els, Gobi desert

Jeremy and I looked at each other knowingly. I think he said it first, “Is this as far out as you’ve ever been?” I immediately said yes, and said I was thinking of asking him the same. He said only the remote northern slopes of Alaska came close. Nemegt was unbelievably beautiful. The badlands looked like the great parks of Utah, except we had it to ourselves. The layout was amazing, and we scrambled up spires and ridges only to find miles more beyond us. I went for an amazing run along those knife edge ridges and then dropped down into a dry wash back to camp. Birds would come along and play. I always took note of the buzzards and eagles, thinking they may look to us as their next meal.

Camp, Nemegt Basin, southern Mongolia

The second day at Nemegt, Jobe and I headed off to complete our sampling of the white unit at the top of the main sections, while Derek, Jeremy and Ogii headed east to look at some new sections. As we were finishing the bottom of our peaklet above a gravelly plateau, I remarked to Jobe, “Hey, this could actually be something.” Closer inspection revealed that I was in fact, looking at a dinosaur. Then, once we adjusted our eyes, bones started appearing everywhere. It was hard to even walk without stepping on them. A few meters to the left, I found a large bone, then down in a wash, two more including a huge vertebrae. I’m not much of a fossil hunter, but I do approach science as a simple observationalist. Moments like these definitely make things pop into focus…”Oh, hey, it really does make sense, and you can go out there and see it.”

Dinosaur fossil, Nemegt

Stay tuned for Part 2 in a few days. I leave for the mountains on July 8th, and will reach Lenin Peak base camp after about 60 hours of travel. For the time being, I’m showering, sorting samples with Jeremy, and stuffing my face full of Indian food, “Mexican” food, and khuurshuur, Mongolian fried dumplings to fatten up for the mountain. I’ve been running hard and I’m ready to go, tailbone be damned.

Gurvantes, southern Gobi