While traveling across Siberia on the plan-of-no-plan, a thousand miles down the road, I decided to take a quick southern detour into Mongolia. Once in the capital of Ulaan Baatar, the Gobi Desert seemed so close that I opted for a twelve hundred mile offroad loop into nomad territory.
The last outpost at Mandal Gobi before entering the Gobi Desert.
It's a tough life in the Gobi where winter winds thunder in at forty below zero. To survive, all must share.
The last road into the Gobi
Only two SUVs appeared on the road today, one passing, the other oncoming, both with enthusiastic occupants leaning out windows waving. Vast herds of goats and camels roam the empty plain, scattering at my approach. This is where wanderers seek to be, where emptiness fills the soul. Enveloped by thousands of square miles of gently sloping desert, devoid of civilization, my only companion is the barren Gobi. Swallowed by the desolation of a billion years and giddy with newfound freedom, I am awed by the thundering silence while vanishing into the glory of obscurity.
Although the pink parched soil is coated in sharp-edged stones and small clumps of desert grasses, it’s level enough to ride across. Like circular domains, white felt Gers of distant Mongolian nomads sprout like mushroom patches on the skyline.
Waving herdsmen dressed in blue hand-woven clothing coax me to stop, but each visit requires an explanation in sign language and accepting gulps of foul tasting fermented mare’s milk. After a few fake sips, I pass out raisins and slip back into nothingness.
Not much out there, or so I thought, When dozing off to sleep with nothing alive visible on the horizon in any direction, the blackened overhead dome of the August midnight sky became a dazzling symphony of shooting stars crissscrossing in simultaneous arcs. A mile up from sea level, absent the pollution of burned hydrocarbons and blazing lights of civilization, the cosmic illumination of a thousand distant suns was powerful enough to permit reading a book.
It is in the Buddhist karma of the Mongolian nomads to care for a stranger so every morning, outside of my tent someone left an offering of dried yoghurt.
Although I seldom saw them during the day, early evenings, sometimes curious nomads would visit my camp where we would swap samples of my dried fruit for their dried meats.
Some of the more progressive nomads rode late-model Russian motorcycles
While others carried on more ancient traditions
Involuntary Wandering (Lost)
The Gobi Desert
The two major manufactures of GPS units each sell a CD with downloadable data revealing the main roads of the world. Assuming they used the same sources, it seemed logical that mine would display the same information as Brand X. It didn’t. Primary roads in Mongolia are merely frequently used tire tracks over dirt that became roads. There are thousands of these throughout the country with countless forks constantly dividing them into separate directions. Brand X marks a few of these routes, mine does not. Although mine is an easier unit to operate, except for the black triangle indicating my position near the border with China, for identifying roads it was useless in the Gobi.
Asking for directions has little value either. If the nomads understand questions, they just point to a series of tracks and say, “That one.” It makes no difference which I select, a mile down the road, it forks into several other tracks making gradual enough changes so that by the time the compass registers I am moving in the wrong direction, it’s hard to remember how to return to the original fork.
Fortunately, a friend provided specific GPS coordinates for important landmarks in the Gobi. Since the terrain is flat with no fences, theoretically, it should be possible to ride in a straight line to the intended destination. If there were no washes, sand dunes or low mountain ranges, that would have worked. And getting lost in the desert is common. Even with one eye on the GPS and the other on the horizon, it’s easy to become disorientated enough to question if the GPS is malfunctioning.
On a lightweight bike with knobby tires, sand dunes are fun—with street tires on a four hundred pound motorcycle lugging two hundred pounds of extra gear, it’s a tiring battle. Three hours of spinning through soft sand dunes leads back to where I started--except, now there are no nomads to consult, only numerous herds of foul smelling camels that hopefully belong to somebody. Maybe following their tracks will lead to humans who can point to the right direction. Anything is better than this.
Two hours later the animal tracks scattered but there was a wash at the base of a small mountain range emptying into an alluvial plain. Loose gravel of the widening bed was firmer to ride than rolling dunes but according to the GPS, the wash was leading opposite of the proper direction. It was hard to recall how long it had been since the low-fuel light blinked on, indicating two gallons left. That should last one hundred twenty miles, but it’s unknown if there is somewhere to buy fuel even if finding a main road. Supplies are adequate--a dozen protein bars, canned sardines and three, two-liter, plastic water bottles wrapped in socks. Still, the jarring has broken two of the bottles leaving one full container and an aluminum saddlebag holding the other two. At least they are still drinkable.
Between a hand drawn map provided by one of the nomads and the GPS, it appears that I’ll eventually hit a main road that’s supposed to be recognized by tilting old telephone poles without wires.
Even so, there is still another twenty miles of spinning across the desert. At this point, my own judgment’s in question and since sunset is two hours away, it’s best to setup camp and tackle the situation in the morning with a clearer head. I often seek remote locations to venture, wondering if there is ever enough distance from civilization. Today there was. Wrangling to sleep with concerns over punctured tires and running out of fuel, the Gobi remains unchanged in the morning. Unzipping the tent reveals a half dozen camels sniffing around about to dine on my gear. But before they can discover the taste of canvas and protein bars, I shoo them away.
It’s time for a new plan. The best solution is to program the waypoint into the GPS from my current position and then add an estimated one approximately to where the main road ought to be, based on the nomad’s map. It should be easy to follow the thick black line drawn on the screen. Seven arduous hours later, slightly north of the programmed waypoint, tiny vertical lines appear where a blue sky meets a pink desert. This is not the home stretch but merely where the contest begins. The orange low-fuel light is a steady reminder that the game has plenty of twists ahead.
Realizing that it can be several hours without seeing another vehicle, it’s better to wait for someone to flag over for confirmation that this is the appropriate road. Halfway through a can of sardines and stale bread, I am suddenly aware of a presence at my side. Looking down to the left, I am startled to see a four-year old girl staring up holding an aluminum pale and porcelain bowl. Scanning the surrounding terrain reveals no sign of nomads or their Gers and it’s impossible to determine from where she came.
“Sain ban noo.” I say. Hello. Her smudgy face is frozen in an emotionless gaze upward at the Martian that someone in her family has sent her to assist. Because of a deep Buddhist belief in Karma, it’s in the nature of the nomads to feed and care for strangers. This is a training mission.