3. Camel Trophy

Every camel has two humps,
'Cause the life's a road with bumps.
Soviet proverb

The next morning was sunny and warm. It took us only three hours to have breakfast and get ready to leave. Our hosts were not to be blamed for delays: it takes a lot of time and effort to cook breakfast for many people on a small iron stove, fed by argal (dried manure).

Usually travelers are fed free of charge, but on some major road junctions there are special gers, which are considered restaurants and charge for food (approximately a dollar per person). Substantial lunch includes bread and mutton-based pilaff, but usually you get only sheep cheese, aaruul (dry curds, sometimes completely petrified), and tsai (green tea), in which older people put some salt and butter, while younger ones add sugar and milk. Tea is often the most nutritious part of the meal. When you switch to this diet, you miss fruits and vegetables at first, but you get used to it in a week or two. Healthy gums and teeth are essential.

During long trips it is customary to stop two-three times a day for food, and six-fifteen times for airag (fermented horse milk, also known as kumys, which contains 3-5 percent alcohol). Mares can only be milked if their foals are close by, so you can recognize a ger of an airag-making family by a group of foals tied close by. No car would pass such a ger without stopping. Airag is always free, so I have no idea how these families make their living. Airag is as important in Mongolian culture, as vodka in Russian or vine in French. Classic ritual includes giving airag to each guest three times, and takes about an hour. During that time, men of the family chatter with the guests, while women lurk around, offering food and constantly cleaning the ger.

Gers are usually very clean. I don't know how the women manage to keep it that way, with constantly burning stove, stockpiles of argal, half-naked babies crawling around, and dusty air. In summer, they are assisted by the wind: they leave a gap between the floor and the walls of the ger, so the dust is blown away. All gers have the same layout: the entrance is on the southern side, and the northern wall is the "red corner", with Buddhist icons and old yellow photos of family members. Eastern side belongs to women and serves as a kitchen, and western side belongs to men - someone is always sleeping there. One or two pairs of steelframe beds and a few large wooden chests line the walls.

We'd spent the night beside a ger which was a mile or two away from the road. After a brief discussion my companions decided not to return to the highway, but to drive directly south instead. Semi-deserts of this part of the country are so flat that you don't really need roads. It is a yellow-green plain with low hills, sometimes crossed by rocky outcrops. A long time ago, it was a high Alpine plateau. But the mountains have since been reduced by erosion to hills and islands of rocks, which look like rotten teeth. The ground is covered with layers of tanned gravel. Only in deep depressions you can see patches of shifting sands.

In one such patch, two small gazelles suddenly sprang up in front of our bus and started jumping up and down, slowly moving away from us. They looked like a couple of butterflies in a courtship dance.

"Zeer (Mongolian gazelle)", said my companions.

"Harasult" (black tail - local name of Persian gazelle), I said. Even in Mongolia, city folks don't know much about Nature.

"Tiimee, harasult", confirmed the driver, waking up for a change.

Others were so impressed by my knowledge, and by the fact that I could use the sun for navigation, that they started trusting me with finding the way while the driver was asleep.

Even formidable-looking rocky ridges in this area are usually crossed by deep gorges, so you can drive through them. Following one of such canyons, I encountered a sandy spot.

"We'll get stuck here", I said. Our bus had very small wheels.

The driver woke up again, got behind the wheel, and got us stuck real bad. We tried to dig the bus out, then found an old cabin two miles away, broke off some wooden boards and got the bus out. To get around the sandy spot, we had to drive the bus over the rocks, while everybody was walking in front of it, looking for the best route.

It felt really strange, driving a tiny city bus across deserts and mountains without roads!

All other ridges didn't cause any problems this day. Sometimes the climbs to mountain passes were so gradual, that only by the presence of ovoos could you know you were crossing a mountain ridge. Ovoo is a large pile of stones, decorated with pieces of cloth, old truck parts, and sometimes a buzzard nest. They are usually built at mountain passes, road junctions and other important places.

We didn't see eagles or marmots any more, but foxes and hares were still common. The most beautiful inhabitants of these plains were tiny Phrynocephalus lizards. They can be yellow, pink, or gray, with delicate pattern of reddish, bluish and chocolate-brown spots. Their coloration always matches the gravel around, and they are almost impossible to see, until they try to run away. The most splendid individuals, deep purple with bright pattern, can be found in areas with black gravel.

At noon we got back to the highway, but it looked exactly like numerous wheel tracks that crisscrossed the desert, so at first we didn't recognize it. We realized our error when suddenly the plain ended and we were on the edge of a high cliff. Below was a sea of low hills, and on the horizon, a black sharp-teeth jaw of a mountain ridge - Gobi Altai. I turned a bus around and followed the cliff edge back towards the highway. Suddenly, a few hundred yellow dots appeared ahead, and rolled across the plain with unbelievable speed. These were Mongolian gazelles. They can run at 60 km (37 miles) per hour, so I couldn't keep up with them. No matter how hard I pressed the gas pedal, they scurried around, like dolphins playing with a rowboat.

The road descended from the cliff, crossed some dry alkaline lakebeds, and headed directly south. I expected the grass to become even more sparse, but instead it became as lush as in the grasslands to the north. The driver explained that they'd had an unusually wet summer in Central Gobi. The rains were good for everybody, not only the cattle. As soon as the night fell, thousands of jerboas started crossing the road. Even the driver had never seen so many of them. Mongols have different names for different jerboas: the large, long-eared ones are called alagdaaga (this word became their scientific name), small short-eared ones are emuraanch, and dwarf jerboas are called daahai.

Blinded by our headlights, the jerboas froze in the middle of the road, slightly moving their ears and long whiskers, then suddenly took off and disappeared in long leaps, steering with their flag-like tails. Small ones were not so good at jumping, and it took me a lot of effort to avoid running them over. I tried to count them, and looked for dwarf jerboas. These cute, large-headed creatures are the size of a chicken egg, and they are so shy that they don't venture on the road. They stay on road shoulders, and disappear in the grass when you approach them, so they are very difficult to spot and identify (there were three species in the area). Within a few hours, I counted many thousands of larger jerboas (with five species present), but less than a dozen "dwarfs".

At midnight the jerboas suddenly disappeared, and during the next few hours I saw only one Gobi jerboa, few long-eared hedgehogs, and one tiny dwarf hamster.

"O, Dalanzadagad!" the driver woke up just when we were entering the capital of Omngov aimag (South Gobi district). Everybody laughed at him. The guy was so happy to have someone drive for him, that he spent almost all trip sleeping in the back seat, despite all the bumps and potholes.

Mongolia is divided into aimags (districts), and aimags - into sums (or somons), an equivalent of counties. The words aimag and sum are used for the territories as well as for their capitals, while the capitals are sometimes called not by their names, but by the territory name. For example, Dalanzadagad is usually referred to as "aimag" by people living close by, and as "Omngov" by people in other parts of the country.

The driver delivered everybody to their homes, and invited me to spend the remaining hours of the night at his place. In the morning, he dropped me off near the local environmental office. In front of the building, some young guys were busy fixing the engine of a jeep (all SUVs are called "jeeps" in Russia and Mongolia).

"Zohiolch biologch" (writer-biologist), introduced me the driver.

"Do you know Petr Dmitrievich?" they asked.


In less than an hour we were resting in the shade at Experimental Agricultural Station just outside the city, drinking arkha (local vodka) served with the only tomatoes in the entire Gobi Desert. Songs of numerous skylarks were accompanied by the sound of water running through irrigation channels, and by Russian rock music. All the guys graduated from universities in either Moscow or Odessa, so they could speak fluent Russian, knew all recent Moscow jokes, and ended each toast by saying "We drink so much because of the bad influence from the Soviets".

"Tell Petr Dmitrievich to get here as soon as he can", they instructed me. "We haven't had such rains for sixty years. Normally, nothing grows around here, except for sage and tyrsa (dwarf feathergrass), but now, look, flowers everywhere. Let's have a toast for Petr Dmitrievich, and for all Soviet scientists. How do they say in Moscow: a chicken is not a bird, Mongolia is not a foreign country?"

Everybody looked at me.

"We say Bulgaria is not a foreign country", I answered.

"Good evasive action!" - they laughed. "Let's drink to the friendship between nations".

My arrival coincided with a visit by an inspector from Ulan Bator, so the drinks, food and entertainment were pre-planned. We drove to an area of moving sand dunes, and organized camel racing. Mongolian camels are the fastest of bactrians, although dromedars of racing breeds are even faster (besides, contrary to what you might think, riding a dromedar is more comfortable). Riding a camel is much easier than riding a horse or a donkey, not to mention a yak or a reindeer. You have to be very drunk to fall from a camel, and only a few of us were.

We had lunch at a Zhuulchin camp (Zhuulchin is the state agency running almost all foreign tourist services). In the camp, Western visitors lived in sterile ger-like tents, complete with hot showers, a swimming pool, a restaurant and "massage girls" imported from Thailand. But I overheard some of them complaining that "only these savages could make us live in these Stone Age-like conditions". At the camp I met a young mechanic named Koolt-baatar, who was very interested in my idea of traveling further south, across the Gobi Altai range.

"I've lived here my entire life, but never crossed the mountains", he said.

Then he told me that there was a jeep in his garage, which he'd already fixed, but was supposed to return to its owner four days later. We decided to take it and go beyond the mountains, while I'll pay for food and fuel, and Koolt will fix any mechanical problems. The "escape" was scheduled for the next morning. Meanwhile the guys from the environmental office took me on a short trip to the mountains.

The part of Gobi Altai range which is just south from Dalanzadagad is called Gurvan Saikhan (300 Beauties). It is the last in the chain of mountain ranges stretching from Western Siberia to Southern Mongolia and called Altai or Ala Tau (Multicolored Mountains) in all local languages. Gurvan Saikhan is 2,825 m/8,475' tall, and is made up of two parallel ridges, squeezed together. The southernmost ridge is the older one, with rounded peaks, while the northern ridge is young, made up of bare black rocks. As the northern part was growing, rivers from the southern part cut deeply into it, creating spectacular slot canyons.

The most famous canyon, on all tourist interaries in Gobi, is called Yolyn Am (Lammergeyer Narrows). Himalayan griffons, golden eagles and other raptors nest on its walls. In some places it is so narrow that you can touch both walls at once. But it is 1,000 m/3,300' deep, so parts of its bottom only get sunlight for few minutes a day.

My friends stopped at a small cafe at the entrance, giving me three hours to run down the canyon and back. The trail was easy, although I had to wade through the creek sometimes, and to avoid the webs of huge black spiders crossing the canyon from side to side.

The canyon is an oasis of wet climate in dry mountains of Gobi Altai, and it shelters some locally rare fauna, such as wallcreepers and ermines. Less steep slopes are overgrown with sweet gooseberry. Here you can find gerbils and Alashan ground squirrels. Rocky slopes are inhabited by tiny pit vipers, Gobi's only venomous snakes. The canyon led me out of the mountains and into the foothills, all purple with blooming asters. Upper slopes were decorated with large neat green circles of creeping junipers. Here I spotted a herd of wild sheep, accompanied by a flock of finches and buntings.

When I came back my friends were all asleep among empty bottles and tame Mongolian pikas. We had dinner at the house of the director of a local Nature museum, who also offered T-shirts, postal stamps and other souvenirs for sale. For some reason, Mongolian stamps with Mickey Mouse were most popular among westerners. While his beautiful daughters served dinner, he kept complaining about the hardships of Perestroika. Many locals, especially the older generation, felt nostalgic about the communist times, including the past friendship with Russia. Although each new government declared itself pro-Western, Russians were still welcome everywhere. Actually, the traditions of hospitality worked for any visitors, even for the Chinese (who were generally hated in Mongolia).

The museum collection included dinosaur eggs, huge petrified tree trunks, and a mounted dhole, the only one ever killed in Mongolia, as well as hundreds of arrowheads. Some parts of Gobi are literally covered with stone knifes, spears, choppers, and arrowheads, particularly the so-called Silicon Valley in Northern Gobi, which had served as a flintstone quarry for all Mongolia for many thousands of years.

It was getting late. The chorus of crickets and grasshoppers went quiet, tens of thousands of Pallas' sandgrouses moved across the sky, tiny kestrels gave up locust hunting and hid into their nest burrows in sandy cliffs. The museum's light attracted all kinds of strange insects: striped root-eating beetles, huge fat grasshoppers and other rarities of virgin grasslands.

At midnight my friends quietly drove me to Zhuulchin camp. Koolt was waiting, hiding in deep shadows. We rolled the car out of the camp, loaded it with gas, water, and food from the restaurant, started the engine and drove south.

Beyond the mountains the desert really looked like one. That area is called Transaltai Gobi and stretches across the Chinese border all the way to Hwang Ho river. (In Mongolian, gov means simply "desert" or "dry depression"). As soon as we left the mountains, we found ourselves in Hongoryn Els, a large area of tall sand dunes with scattered saxaul bushes. I drove off the road to look for rodents, and not in vain. In addition to many rough-legged jerboas, that are common in all dunes between Volga River and Beijin, I found some extremely rare long-eared jerboas. This unbelievable animal seems to be made up entirely of wing-size ears, trunk-like nose, long whiskers and fluffy tail.

At dawn we got out of the sands and went westward between low ridges. We were surrounded by immense fields of shining flattened gravel, usually black (Mongols call this color harbaran, bright-black). These fields were actually old alluvial fans, merged together into broad, gently sloping pediments around eroded mountain ridges. Such pediments are called bel' in Mongolian. The art of driving in Gobi is to keep midway between rocky ridges and sandy or alkaline depressions, crossing these bel's one after another. Once in a while we spotted Persian gazelles, foxes, houbara bustards, or small snakes called striped racers. Generally, snakes are rare in Gobi because of cold nights.

The route we were following had been known since ancient times as The Road of Winds. It connected steppe plains of Eastern Mongolia with Jungaria. Until recently Mongols avoided living in the desert but crossed it occasionally along caravan routes. Transaltai Gobi is still sparsely populated: in half a day of driving we saw only one somon with eight houses, and it was the capital of a territory the size of Corsica. The largest settlement beyond Gobi Altai is Noyon (Sir), a small village surrounded by black extinct volcanoes.

We turned off the road towards Nemegetu Mountains to look for a depression in the foothills called Flaming Cliffs, site of the country's largest "dinosaur cemetery". But the only map we had was a 1:2,500,000 map printed in Moscow in 1960, and it didn't show much detail (although it was much more accurate than any Western-made map of Mongolia I've ever seen), so we couldn't locate the Cliffs, and it was getting late. The only interesting thing we found was a giant petrified tree trunk, apparently a swamp cypress.

We decided to continue west, towards the Great Gobi Nature Reserve. At dusk, we encountered more dunes, this time with dense saxaul groves. We tried to cross the area by following a deep dry river bed. I carefully drove along the wadi while Koolt was napping. Getting around a turn, I suddenly saw a camel - not your average camel, but a huge dark male, for which any camel races fan would pay a fortune, with tiny humps, long muscular legs and small, dry head.

The camel immediately showed that he was, indeed, capable of winning a race: he hit the sand with all four feet, and ran down the ravine as fast as a good horse. I tried to follow in a cloud of dust, as our poor "jeep" jumped from bump to bump as a scorpion-stinged gazelle. Koolt woke up and tried to stop me. We made another turn, just to see the camel fly up the slope and out of sight.

I stopped the car and checked the camel's footprints. Now I was sure that we'd really seen havtgai, the wild camel. A few hundreds of these splendid animals still exist in Transaltai Gobi and in one small area of China.

We followed the arroyo further through the sands until it ended at a large wet playa with lots of animal tracks. I looked around for tracks of irves (snow leopard), or mazaalai - desert brown bear, said to number less than fifty by now. But the only tracks I found were those of two other wild camels, chono (wolf), sharuneg (red fox), and numerous Persian gazelles.

We collected some dry saxaul, made fire, and had dinner. The light attracted a black windspider the size of a dinnerplate. While I was playing with this beautiful arachnid, Koolt suddenly dropped something equally large, fluffy and kicking under my T-shirt, and said: "zusag".

It took me at least a minute to catch the zusag and find out that it was not another windspider, but a cute dwarf hamster. Larger hamsters are called shishuuhei in Mongolian.

I spent most of the night exploring the sands under bright desert stars. The weird, leafless saxaul forest was inhabited by ghostly creatures: large white wolf spiders, velvety Przhevalsky's geckos with golden eyes, little and eagle owls.

Next morning we woke up to the warbling of numerous birds who came to drink from a pool of water in the center of the playa: desert finches, accentors, saxaul sparrows, and VIP-looking black-bellied sandgrouses. We had to drive back all the way up the river bed, and then around the dune field. Soon we met an airat who informed us that we were already in Bayan Hongor aimag and in the Nature reserve. He also told as that the sands were called Ingen Hroveriin Hooloi, and were inhabited by a dozen wild camels (the Mongolian word for domesticated camel is temee). He said that the area south from us was called Aimishigtai Yor Omhii (the first part means spooky or horrible, the second - a bad omen, and the third means spoiled or stinky). We were intrigued by such a promising name and drove south but found nothing interesting.

Later we discovered that we should have gone west instead - we were not far from Ehin Gol oasis, with a large research station. But, as we moved south, we couldn't turn west any more - the road was blocked by Tsagaan Bold mountains. Further south was the Chinese border. So we had to turn east. Trying to stay as far as possible from the border to the south and the mountains to the north, we slowly drove back.

The Chinese border is now almost unprotected because of the lack of funds. One of the Expedition scientists told me that their field camp in Eastern Gobi aimag was once visited in the middle of the night by a group of "new Mongols", who were smuggling Mercedes cars from China by driving them across the desert.

We spotted a bright-red slope ahead and decided to check it for dinosaurs. The entire slope was paved by petrified bones of softshell turtles. In the middle of the slope we saw a pile of sand, which covered a layer of small bone fragments. Apparently, these fragments were parts of a broken Ceratops dinosaur skull, covered by paleontologists to protect the find from the elements. We put the sand pile back in place and drove on, occasionally trying to chase a herd of hulans (Asian wild asses, a. k. a. onagers).

We finished the remaining food in a grove of huge tograk poplars (Populus diversifolia), and returned to the road across Gurvan Saikhan mountains. There we encountered an old airat with a herd of camels. Koolt talked to him and said:

"Let's climb this slope, there's an interesting thing up there".

The "thing" was a glide mirror - large rock with glasslike surface. With good lighting, it looked like a magical transparent door leading inside the mountain.

Koolt was a well-educated guy, and he loved Nature very much, but it was a bit difficult for him to understand all the sharp turns I made on the road trying to avoid running over jerboas and other small creatures. Finally, he decided that it was some kind of a game, and started doing the same. But being a much more experienced driver he took more risks, so we almost overturned in front of the Zhuulchin camp, trying to avoid a Gobi hamster. It would be so sad to get in an accident one minute before completing the trip, after driving almost a thousand kilometers across the desert!

At eight o'clock next morning I took guard at Dalanzadagad's only gas station, waiting for someone to go north. Soon I was picked up by a small bus, squeezed myself in, paid the fare (about ten dollars for 600 km), and was glad to find that this bus was to take a different route to Ulan Bator.

I still wasn't used to local rhythm of life, so the endless stops at airag stations started getting on my nerves. This time nobody asked me to drive (otherwise it would take us half the time to cross Northern Gobi). Once we had to get out of the bus in a dry rocky canyon, to let it cross a sandy patch unloaded. There I saw Stolitchki's agama - a large lizard, very rare and local. The bus got stuck anyway, but there were twenty of us this time, so we easily pushed it out.

After a brief rest under a large elm tree we crossed the so-called Valley of Lakes. We saw only one lake called Ulaan Nuur (Red Lake), it's water was really bright-red because of planctonic algae. This part of the Valley had had no rains that year, so it looked very desolate. In many hours of driving we saw only a few birds and one Mongolian lemming.

Another brief four-hour stop for lunch in a grim gold mining town called Mandal Ovoo, and we entered the valley of Oingin Gol, a seasonal river. The driver tried not to get too close to the river bed, to avoid mosquito clouds and soft mud. Meanwhile, the passengers taught one very little girl to call me in Russian, and laughed every time she pointed at me and called "papa!"

Night was cold. Just as everybody got wrapped in all clothes available, the engine coughed and broke down. We had to wait for dawn in the bus. I tried to look for wildlife outside but had to come back after half an hour because of cold rain.

Next morning we somehow made it to the next village, and the driver declared that fixing the engine would take four to five days. Other news were bad, too: there was an outbreak of cholera in the North, and many roads were expected to be closed at any moment. We were back in the grassland zone so it was raining all the time. Still I decided that in general, the trip was going on just fine.

Endless steppe,
Music of the engine,
Scent of sage,
And stars overhead.

Hissing of tires
On a gravel road,
Slow, slow flight

Through the night.

We roll and roll
To the distant mountains,
And there's no reason
To hurry.

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