CAMELS, DUNES, AND MARE’S MILK IN THE GOBI
A bouncing, twisty ride brings us to a ger near the Khongor Sand Dunes…a remote area of the Gobi desert with extreme temperatures in summer and winter. MacGyver the driver, and Speedy, need to repair a broken stabilizer bar. First, though, they serve us fermented Mare’s milk, (from a horse, not my Mare) which has some alcohol content. We feel our stomachs simmer, and suspect that they are trying to get us drunk.
A nearby herd of groaning camels produce an eerie song, similar to ghosts in distress. Ah, “free day” this afternoon, as the two drivers and guides want to watch the Naadam wrestling finals. The family ger has a solar power panel, complete with flat screen television. The camel ride we expect will have to wait until tomorrow. These guys deserve a break anyway.
After the drivers and company get liquored-up from Mare’s milk, two baby camels are stuck in the mud by the river, interrupting their sports viewing. Erka tells us that they had to dig down to the camels’ toes, and then pull…which stimulates a side effect of Mare’s milk…let’s call it colon cleansing. I picture them lying on the ground in mud and, well, you get the idea.
The bond between MacGyver and I strengthens the next morning. We hunch down, stare at each other, and then clench at shoulder level. The wrestling match is on, baby. He is smaller than I, but incredibly strong, like a Mongolian horse. After a while, I throw him off of me, and neither one of us hits the ground…a draw, both of us out of breath, but we do the Mongolian victory dance anyway.
Mount the camels, in between the humps. This feels like a circus ride, slowly moving in a single line around a very hot desert. After the ride, they want to drive us to the dunes, but we decline, with a plan to climb them ourselves early tomorrow morning. Bring out the hot cans of beer.
At five o’clock in the morning we walk to the Khongor Dunes, which are about 1,000 feet high and 70 miles long. Of course, they move with the wind like a slow, slithering snake. Barefoot, we crab-crawl sideways to climb this steep mountain of soft sand.
Take a breath every 15 or so strokes. Finally, we reach the top, where a gust of sandy wind greets us with a blast. All alone at the top, we watch the sunrise.
MacGyver hooks a welder to a generator, and repairs the broken stabilizer bar. Off we go…bouncing and twisting, testing the weld. Hours later, we stop in a random ger, sip hot goat milk with salt, (try not to swallow the little floating black things) and eat lunch of ramen soup. A teenage boy serenades us with his flute, made from PVC pipe. Lots of fermented milk lately. Stomachs starting to boil.
On the road, we stop at Ongiin Khiid Monastery ruins, where in 1939, Stalin’s Communist Purge bombed, murdered and tortured over 1,000 Buddhist Monks.
Finally, a ger camp with a shower! Okay, barely more than a cool, dripping faucet, but enough to take off at least one layer of grime and stench…Tomorrow we head to Orkhon waterfalls and maybe stand under a real shower. Ron Mitchell