Day 29 – Wednesday, July 15th, 2009 Erenhot, China to Mongolia into Gobi Desert!! (219 km – total to date 5,992 km)
We are leaving for the Mongolian border into the Gobi Desert for several days. Do not know if there will be internet. You can reach us via Russ’ satellite phone 011-8816-3169-2312.
This day was very exciting and sad. We were all looking forward to crossing the border into Mongolia! But at the same time sad to say good-bye to James and Yura. Especially James, he has been with us since the beginning and we had become very close to him; whereas, Yura joined us after Anvar left so we were not as attached but liked him very much as well. All our guides have been fantastic and I highly recommend MIR Corporation if you are planning a trip to China, Mongolia, Russia or Central Asia.
We did not have to get up as early as normal this Tuesday because the MIR employees were at the border working on our behalf. We all slept in until 8 a.m. and had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, probably our last Chinese meal for a very long time. At 9:30 we received a call from Ada at the border that it was all clear. So off we went, both Russ and I each driving our cars. It was another beautiful day, 31 degrees C. Russ and I had to drive the cars across the border because they were registered in our names. The border is about a ten minute drive from Erenhot and there was hardly any traffic just a couple of trucks. All the paperwork had been done for us by Ada (this is the girl that helped us get our drivers licenses in Tianjin)! She had travelled all the way down here to help us with the paperwork at the Chinese Border.
To leave China everyone must be cleared through the border. Kelly, James, Kevin, Brad and Bea all had to get out of the cars and walk through a Customs Building. They were all tested to see if they had a fever again. The Chinese take this flu scare very seriously. Luckily they all passed and were allowed to leave China. Russ and I had to drive our cars through a vehicle section. Army personnel inspected our cars, checking paperwork with serial numbers then a couple of bags were searched lightly. We got the okay for our cars then Russ and I had to stand on a granite block about two feet high and two feet wide to talk to a Customs Agent sitting inside a little office, who checked our passports with the paperwork completed by Ada. We got cleared after a couple of corrections (who knows what it was) then had to say good-bye to all our Chinese guides and helpers. I cannot say enough about how good they all had been to us, how hard they all worked for us and how much fun they were. It was hard to say good-bye as we had become very close during the past month! James tried to take photos at the border but after just one he was told no photos by a crossing guard.
After we were approved to leave China, we passed through the Chinese border crossing, we then drove up a few meters to the Mongolian border crossing. This time we were on our own. Again our passengers had to walk across by themselves through a building and Russ and I drove our cars through the truck area. When we met up with the Army Crossing Guard, they stand at attention and salute you before they take your papers or tell you what to do. That was nice. You didn’t feel intimidated at all. We got all cleared about three times by just handing them our passports and car registrations and shrugging everytime they asked something. We then met up with our Mongolian guides: Timuujim who is Mongolian and Tatianna who is Russian! Tatianna does many tours for MIR in Mongolia and Timuujim speaks English, Russian and Mongolian. Timuujim was also Genghis Khan’s real name. As we drove past the border into the little border town of Zamyn-Uud we immediately noticed that Mongolia is much poorer than China! We stopped here to go to a bank to exchange our money for Mongolian money called Tugrik which is approximately 1,000 to 1 dollar Canadian. So a 10,000 Tugrik dress is really 10 dollars. It took us 3 hours to clear the Chinese Border and enter into Mongolia. According to Russ, the total kms we travelled in China was 5,773 (3,587 miles) and our Range Rovers got 27 MPG (10.45 L/100 km)!!
Tatianna had arranged a boxed lunch for all of us which we ate in ours cars in the parking lot across from the bank after changing our money. After we gobbled down the boxed lunch we drove through the town of Zamyn-Uud which was just a couple of blocks and looked very impovershed with gers and run down houses scattered around. And then the road just stopped and we were on a gravel road for a little while then just a dirt path worn in the sand by cars traveling over the desertt A good part of the path was like washboard waves. If you stayed on the path you just bounced up and down driving over the ruts so we drove with each side of the car just over the edge of the path to avoid the “err-err-err-errr” movement.
There were power lines along the gravel road going into the town to provide power to the town and there were literally hundreds of dead birds (sand grouse) lying on either side of these power lines. They must land on them and get electricuted. We drove for a long time across the Gobi Desert which looked different than I imagined. It looks like a sandy steppe with sage brush and lots of tiny, tiny green patches. Every once in a while there would be a few Elm trees growing in a row because there was an underground creek, watering their roots. I was expecting all sand dunes. It was very hot and dusty though. How our guide knew where to go is a miracle because sometimes the trail would split and there is no such thing as a sign, he would just know which way to go. Other times he just turned off the path and we made our own path across the open space. We travelled at 60 to 80 Kms. which is pretty fast considering the road conditions and we had to be spaced quite far apart because the roads were so dusty and we do not want our air filters to get all plugged up. We paced ourselves about 3 – 4 blocks behind the lead car and we just followed the dust trail which was very challenging because there are rolling parts where the van just completely disappeared and then you panic thinking you are lost but somehow we always find the dust trail as we sped up to keep up the guides.
We stopped to take pictures of some horses that had foals (which were so cute). The horses here are small but very beautiful, sturdy and they come in all colours. The horses walk around free in their herds and eat up the tiny sparse green patches. I had turned off my car to take some photos of the foals and when I tried to restart the car it was totally dead. I had a little bit of a panic attack as we were in the middle of the Gobi Desert with a completely dead car! And of course it had to be my car (not Russ’ car) that died. So Russ jumped in thinking he could start it because I don’t know how to start a car properly. But still dead. Then Brad tried, still dead. So after we all had fiddled around with it, Brad decided to look under the hood and found to my relief that the cables had been worked loose from the battery. Probably from all the bouncing around while driving on the gravel roads or the mud ruts! That was an easy fix (I was relieved that it wasn’t my fault) and we were off again.
This was the day we saw our first camels. It was so exciting! They also travel in herds, free to roam around the desert. Some camels are hobbled and others are not. We stopped the cars, walked up close to them and took photos. The camels here have two humps and are called Bactrian camels. They can run really fast too! They look like they move slowly but they don’t, we often saw them running across the desert. The nomads use camels to move their household items and the Gers from place to place. The nomads move at least four times per year , sometimes more depending on the grass available for their animals. The camels can carry 200 kilos of weight and do not need water for five days! So they are very valuable for the nomads when they move their Ger site from place to place.
Late in the afternoon we stopped for gas at a little settlement of approximately 30 houses which are a mixture of Gers and wood homes. This settlement looked very similar to what our Native Indian Reservations looked like in the 1980′s. Before paved roads and new houses. At the gas station which looked like a shed with one pump in front, we gave away hats and took polaroid photos for some kids to keep of themselves (they really liked that gift). The guides had a little disagreement with the attendant over the price he charged for the fuel as well as how much fuel the cars received. He said the pump was broken and did not read right. One car received 10 litres more than the other one? We didn’t bother with it and just paid our bill. It’s not like you can go anywhere else.
We finally stopped around 7 p.m. and starting pitching up our tents. The last time I camped was when I turned 15 (over 40 years ago)! I did not know how to put a tent up but I sooned learned. I was surprised how easy it is now compared to the olden days when I previously camped in a canvas tent. Now they are nylon and there are these cute little sleeping pods on either side of the common area of the tent. The sleeping pods have zippers and are completely enclosed to keep out the bugs. Great invention! The frame of the tent is on the outside and easily goes up because the poles are connected with elastic inside (they disconnect and snap together as needed) easy as pie! It only takes a few minutes and your tent is up and ready to use. I was impressed.
They even had a biffy tent, with toilet paper and a toilet seat attached to the legs of a folding chair. The toilet chair was placed over a freshly dug hole and when you used the W/C you topped off the hole with some dirt. Very clean and practical. Then they set up a shower tent with three canisters of water. This definitely was upscale camping.
Even our dinner table and chairs were cool. The tables were very light and all snapped together in a matter of seconds. The chairs had arms with tables and little sleeves to hold your stuff! I was almost converted to camping versus five star boutique hotels which I prefer to stay at. We had a chef with us as well as our drivers and guides! How is that for roughing it!! Our chef made a wonderful dinner and Brad, Bea and Kevin donated wine. It was very romantic because we took the top off our LED flashlights and the bulbs look like candles when we stood the flashlights up on the tables. How cool is that! In the middle of the Gobi Desert being served a gourmet meal cooked in a tent with red wine, fake candles and over a million stars out in the sky. The stars were amazing! We watched satellites, falling stars and even some lightening far away in the north. It was excellent.
Then we went to bed each of us in our little pods inside the tents. It was so hot, after all we were in the middle of the desert, so I just stripped down and went to sleep on top of my sleeping bag. And just as I fell asleep a storm came up. The wind was so powerful that my pod collapsed on me! I had to fumble around in the pitch dark to try to find my clothes with the stupid tent all over me and the wind whipping about. I finally got dressed and woke up Russ to help me set up my side of the tent again. We learned that you have to hammer the spikes in really good and that is hard to do in the Gobi Desert because the ground is just sand and the spikes just pull out. Also there were prickles under our tent which we should have dug out before setting up the tent (which everyone else did and we missed this instruction)! Somehow we tied the tent up and went back to bed. This time I left all my clothes on just in case. The wind was whipping the tent flaps about so hard it sounded like someone was standing beside me popping bubble wrap. Nylon flaps can sound just like a bull whip when there is a strong wind like that night. I could not sleep so I tried saying I-ing, I-ing, I-ing over and over to stop thinking. I tried counting sheep. No luck, I was awake all night.
In the morning we all got up and dismantled the tents. Sand was everywhere, inside the tents, inside our ears and noses, etc. Hundreds of little black beetles were under the tents (didn’t like the storm I guess). The potty tent had blown away in one direction and the toilet seat in another. No one showered, except Kevin and Russ, the rest of us just packed up and left.