The immense scale of the vast steppe, open vistas and the sense of emptiness, made me aware of the smallness and humbleness of the human scale. The total sensory void has a cleansing effect on my soul. The featureless landscape readjusted my mind and the gut-shaking, bone-rattling rides on bumpy dirt tracks realigned my body. I stopped being uptight about trivial things. I started to feel as light as a feather. It was truly an uplifting and humbling experience.
The most forsaken place called the Gobi Desert where people perish pursuing mirages had intrigued me since my childhood. I wanted to go and see how terrible that place really was and get to know two-humped Bactrian camels tough enough to survive in that most inhospitable place. In the spring of 1993, we embarked on a three-day journey in the Sahara Desert on one-humped dromedary (Arabian) camels. After that, my interest in the Gobi and my curiosity about two-humped Bactrian camels resurfaced, but my dream of visiting the Gobi did not become reality until 2006.
In September of that year, Günther was approached by his Russian colleagues to participate in an environmental conference in Irkutsk, Russia, near Lake Baikal. Since Irkutsk lies so close to the Mongolian border and direct flights from Berlin to Ulaanbaatar were just being offered, we decided to bypass Moscow and fly instead to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Because of complications with getting the Russian visa, we decided to drop the Russian part of the trip and conference altogether and spend three weeks in Mongolia.
Come to think of it, my keen interest in visiting Mongolia might have something to do with reasons deeply rooted in my psyche, most likely because of the kinship between Mongolians and Koreans, who are basically cousins. I found that Ulaanbaatar was exactly like the Seoul of my childhood. Seoul of the 21st century is so far removed from the town I knew as a little girl in the 1950s and 1960s that I feel total alienation when I visit now, but Ulaanbaatar reminded me of the roughness and rawness of old Seoul.
We arranged for a four-wheel-drive van with a driver and an English-speaking guide. Our guide Khangai (pronounced as Hanggai) spoke excellent English because she had stayed in Arkansas for two years as an exchange student. A Swiss couple joined us for the tour. Felix came from the German-speaking region, while his wife Rachel was from Genève. We conversed with him in German, but she spoke mostly French, which gave us the opportunity to practice our somewhat rusty French. She corrected my American pronunciation of Rey-‘ch’el and preferred to be called Ra-‘sh’el – the proper French pronunciation.
Shortly after our arrival in Ulaanaaatar, we watched the impressive reenactment of the 13th-century cavalry of Jhingis Khan (actually pronounced Chenggis Hahn). He is viewed as a brute conqueror in the west, but he is revered as a most venerable leader and national hero in Mongolia. 2006 was the 800th anniversary of the founding of Mongolian Empire, in 1206, and provided a good occasion to boost the national pride of the young nation, which became independent from Soviet rule in 1990 and is going through the growing pains of infant democracy. The reenactment of the 13th-century cavalry occurred in a terrain of miles of open vistas and rolling hills. Six hundred military men had been recruited to play ancient horsemen. They were wearing authentic 13th-century armor and made thunderous noise, as they kicked up dust, and galloped at full speed towards the viewing stands. It was indeed a frightful sight. It conjured up the image of medieval villagers dreading the impending approach of Jhingis Khan’s cavalry.
At the time of our visit, Mongolia had no defined road structure outside of Ulaanbaatar, only gravel roads or simple cross-country tracks. In the Gobi desert, we drove many, many miles on bumpy dirt tracks through a vast expanse of nothingness to get to places with unpronounceable names, and nothing much to see. Then it dawned on me that what was so special about Mongolia was exactly that. The immense scale of the vast steppe, open vistas, and the sense of nothingness and emptiness, made me aware of the smallness and humbleness of the human scale. The sensory void had a cleansing effect. The featureless landscape readjusted my mind and the gut-shaking and bone-rattling 2500 km ride on bumpy dirt tracks realigned my body. I stopped being uptight about trivial things. I started to feel as light as a feather. It was an uplifting and humbling experience.
We witnessed mirages in the Gobi, but did not perish of thirst because we had the sense not to chase them. Out of nowhere we saw a shimmering surface and I was almost convinced that it was a lake, but it was just an optical illusion. We also saw a building and then a fence, but our guide assured us that they were just fata morgana.
Throughout the Gobi we lodged at tourist camps with traditional Mongolian dwellings called ger or yurt, circular tents that can be put up or taken down in about two hours. The structure consists of a wooden roof ring, called “crown,” rafters, and lattice wall segments that can be folded or opened flat. The rafters are inserted into the slots of the crown and radiate out to connect to the top of the circular lattice wall. The entire structure is covered with layers of felts and carpets. The door faces south and there are no windows other than a circular opening on top. It is furnished on the northern corner with a big, colorful chest that serves as an altar. Usually, two beds placed along the east and west sides serve as couches during the day. The eastern half, with the kitchen and laundry utensils, is reserved for the wife. The western half is the husband’s domain where hunting implements, saddles and so on are stored.
Once, our driver got lost and decided to ask directions from a woman standing in front of her ger. After a few exchanges, she invited us in and offered us a drink of fermented mare’s milk, which we politely accepted, but had a hard time swallowing. Mongols call themselves a people with five animals: horses, camels, sheep, goats, and cattle (yaks and cows). A horse is worth five to seven sheep or seven to ten goats. Among Mongolian nomads, animals also serve as currency in a barter system. A horse is worth $100, a goat $10, and a sheep $15.
More sheep and goats than people live in Mongolia. Our guide explained that goats and sheep complement each other.
Sheep have a calm disposition, likely to wander away, but are less destructive, whereas goats are easily excitable, and likely to stay in herds, eating everything including roots. Thus it is advantageous to mix them in herds to balance each other. Our guide shared her insights jokingly, saying that different animals gain weight in different parts of the body. Sheep gain fat in their tail area; goats around their neck area; camels on their humps; horses and cows around the rib cage; and Mongolians on their faces, especially their cheek bones. Mongols eat every part of the animal except skin and bones: flesh, milk, and the innards of camels, horses, yaks, sheep, goats, cow, and marmots. We also saw many marmots and picas, which Mongolians consider to be delicacies. I found it weird that there are no chickens, pigs or rabbits. Throughout the Gobi, we did not see any birds except for cranes and swans in the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve near Ulaanbaatar just before they migrated south in September.
There are likely few or no Mongolian vegetarians since growing vegetables is impossible for the desert nomadic life style. The majority of Mongolians simply live off their livestock. However, they have a strong tradition of Buddhism. I am not sure how Mongolian Buddhists reconcile the apparent conflict of strict vegetarian edicts and their dominant carnivorous life style.
Mongolians say that there are three terrible things:
Night sky without stars,
Brain without intellect and
Steppe without herds.
Since traditional nomadic culture was not conducive to building permanent structures, Mongolians had nothing much in terms of lasting architecture, but whatever they did have was destroyed and plundered by the Chinese and then the Russians. We heard that many splendid Buddhist temples and monasteries were systematically destroyed by the Russians during the purges of the 1930s. I felt deep sadness when we saw the rubbles from the temples of the 12th-century monastery. Again and again I had to ponder the seeming maliciousness of human nature. Sadly, right now somewhere in the world senseless destruction is being carried out in the name of nationalist or religious causes.
The most striking feature of the Gobi desert is its huge sand dunes, which are rare and far between. The word “desert” conjures an image of miles and miles of sand, but in actuality the Gobi is sparsely studded with scrubby plants, shrubs such as sagebrush, saltwort, grass, and large patches of chives growing in dry soil. Our guide told us that when it rains the desert turns green.
When we saw the Sossusvlei sand dunes in the Namib Desert in 1998, we thought that those were the most impressive sand dunes, some measuring 300 meters/about 1000 ft high and spanning 32 kilometers/20 m long. But the Gobi has one of the biggest sand dunes in the world: the famous singing dunes of Khongor Els run for 180km/112 miles along the base of the Gobi-Altai Mountains, and in parts reach 800m/ half a mile high. They are an awesome and imposing sight. We found the climb to the top of the mounds a challenge, as they are about 100 meters/830 ft high. Regardless, the most photogenic sand dunes we have ever seen are the Sossusvlei in Namibia with their brilliant red hue at sunset. Because of iron oxidation, the sand glows pink or orange during the day, but it becomes intense red at dawn or at sunset.
Another amazing feature of the Gobi is called the Bayanzag Flaming Cliff, a red clay landmark named by an illustrious adventurer, Roy Chapman Andrews, who supposedly inspired the movie character Indiana Jones. During the 1920s, Andrews unearthed many dinosaur fossils in the Gobi. Our guide warned us not to expect much. We might, she said, see a few small bones buried in the cliff. Günther decided to follow the contour of the gorge to the lowest level, thinking that there could be bones exposed by wind erosion or washed out by runoff. His hunch was correct. We saw many bones and bone fragments. At first, I believed that they were stones shaped like bones rather than real fossils. But it became obvious, even for untrained eyes, that these were real fossils. It appeared that we had benefited from three factors: 1) the record rain in the summer 2006 exposed more bones, 2) there was no official excavation going on, and 3) most tourists do not bother to hike down that far. Our guide was totally flabbergasted. The abundant dinosaur bones half exposed along the cliff side were an astounding sight. Where else in the world, can you see dinosaur fossils lying around exposed and unguarded?
We especially enjoyed getting to know the two-humped Bactrian camels, so unlike the ornery and obstinate Arabian camels. When we embarked on a camel ride, our guide gave us words of caution that the animals were quite ornery, smelly, and hard to control at this time of the year. They had had plenty of food this summer and put on some weight, which increased their self-esteem and stubbornness. My previous experience dealing with one-humped dromedary camels in the Sahara made me quite apprehensive, but the Bactrian camels turned out to be very gentle and surprisingly courteous. I called them Buddhist gentlemen camels. Günther, himself a gentle soul, decided to dismount the camel and walk alongside. Günther believes that people do not have a right to ride animals. The camel must have appreciated Günther’s kind heart because it repeatedly rubbed its head affectionately against Günther’s shoulder.
Whenever possible, I eagerly take up on an opportunity to ride a horse, although Günther stays away from it. While two husbands hiked around the camp, Rachel and I saddled up and cantered over the empty steppe on Mongolian horses which can be said an ultimate dream of any horsewoman. Being a horse lover, I consider it a privilege to get so near to a herd of wild Przewalski’s horses (Takhi in Mongolian) which are the closest relative to the original wild horses never domesticated. They are named after the Russian explorer Przewalsky who reported the remarkable horses in Mongolia. In the Hustai National Park we were able to observe these legendary horses. After the disappearance of the wild population in Mongolia in the early 20th century, they were reintroduced in 1996 from descendants of a small zoo population, originally captured around 1900.
The horses have a special place in the Mongolians’ hearts. Mongolians’ love for horses is well reflected in their traditional musical instrument – Morin khuur, or horse-headed fiddle. According to the legend, a poet and musician had a winged horse and a secret beloved who lived in a faraway place. He rode the winged horse to see her and back every night. Another woman lived nearby who also loved him and wanted to keep him for herself. One day she cut the wings of the horse to prevent the poet from visiting his beloved in the faraway place. When the horse perished, the heartbroken man plucked out two strands of hair from the horse’s tail for the strings of the fiddle. When he played the fiddle, it sounded exactly like the voice of the horse.
The meaning of “big sky” was not apparent until I experienced it in the Gobi Desert. In the vast plain of emptiness a hill of modest elevation jutted out. When we hiked up, I felt that the sky was hanging so low that I might touch it if I stretched my arm. The big blue sky was so BIG, it overwhelmed me and reminded me of the smallness of the human scale. The dazzling night sky in the Gobi desert did not disappoint, either. The combination of the absence of ambient light and the dry desert air acts like a magnifying glass. Stars looked as big as my fist. The Milky Way appeared like a flowing stream and reminded me that as a child I believed it to be a heavenly river. Whenever I stepped out of the ger to go to the bathroom during the night, I encountered the fabulous summer triangle: Vega of the Lyra constellation, Aquila of the Altair (Eagle), and Deneb of Cygnus (Swan), with the Milky Way in the middle. Vega appears one side of the Milky Way, and Altair appears on the opposite side, which might have been the source of inspiration for the Chinese legend of the ill-fated love story of a weaver maiden (Vega) and a herder boy (Altair). The story goes that Vega and Aquila were so much in love that they neglected their responsibilities. The emperor of heaven decided to separate them by placing them on either side of the heavenly river of the Milky Way. On the seventh day of seventh month on the lunar calendar each year, the lovers are allowed to be together for one night. All the magpies gather to form a chain over the river as a bridge to unite the lovers. When it rains on the morning of July 8th, they say that it is the tears of the parting lovers coming down.
For the first time in my life, I could look up to the summer night sky from the Chinese perspective, or from the Korean perspective for that matter, and appreciated the legend of the tragic love story. I could feel the pain of the lovers being forcefully separated.
Mongolia is a strange land where Edelweiss grows like weeds and is used for pillow stuffing, and cranes are so common, they flock along the roadside. Under the immense sky of the vast expanse of exquisite nothingness of the Gobi I became more acutely aware of the smallness of the human scale, which taught me humility.