Wide Open Spaces

Oh do I have a story for you, dear readers: A story of family and friendship. A story of crazy roads and lack thereof, a tale involving far too many bugs (and one snake) and one of horses, sheep, yaks, camels, and goats galore, and a story of wide open spaces.

I promise it’s a tale that will not disappoint – of a true A-team of travel mates and organisers and full of many, many pictures that took far too long to sort and edit for your enjoyment.

Yes, it’s a long story but I assure you, you will not be bored but before you dive in, I suggest you grab a cub of coffee or tea or refill that glass of wine to enjoy our epic trip throughout the Gobi desert. You might also want to get comfortable; this – like our trip – is an epic tale.

Ready? Don’t say I didn’t warn you but now, read on…

We knew well before moving to Mongolia last year that we would need to go see the Gobi. I mean, it’s THE GOBI – one of the biggest deserts in the world (note to self and emerging spellers: not the same as dessert) and a former stomping ground for dinosaurs which may have won the kids’ approval of this trip.

And yes, they consented to insisted on going well before they realised how terribly absent roads would be which may have caused some tummy troubles for one of the kids. (Second note to self: you know you are traveling with a true A-team of travel mates when they all jump out of the car with you and run to your child who is throwing up on the “roadside” [let’s just imagine for a moment there was a “road”] to rub his back, offer water and words of support, dig through bags for medicines – and very helpfully, put a rag drenched in cold water on his head to him cool off. Seriously, they all pitched in and helped no matter how often we needed to stop (and there were multiple stops) and never once seemed to mind it one bit. Seriously, can we get a shout out for that please?! Also, third note to self: the folk medicinal approach of putting a big piece of tape over Luca’s belly button did not ameliorate the situation – very much to our driver’s disappointment).

So yes, the “roads” were rough for a good part of the trip – one in which we drove about 2,000 km from UB throughout the Gobi. See?

Look down south – see the blue oval outline? That was our route

Yes, that little blue oval consisted of 2k km …. that’s how crazy big Mongolia is, just to put it into perspective.

Who was on the road with us? Let’s back up for a moment. May I introduce – our awesome travel team:


Important observation: note the carefully planned to match Mongolia hats for our team, pretty neat idea, no? Well, I though so and it made it pretty easy for us to identify who’s where and who was missing, which may have come in handy once or twice.

Aside from the 4 of us, we had the pleasure of welcoming the “2 Opas” as they are collectively known to Mongolia. My Dad (Opa 1) and his friend, Hubert (Opa 2), flew into UB to celebrate their birthdays in true Mongolian style – and trust me, they got to experience most of what Mongolia had to offer starting with a fun filled tour of UB on their first day (hello cashmere factory tours and loads of shopping) and lots of adventure in the Gobi that yes, included fermented mare’s and camel’s milk (more on that later).

Also joining us was our friend Anne or rather “Tant Anne” as the kids now earned the privilege of calling her (a gazillion hours in the car = lots of bonding time) who is also posted to Mongolia.


The 7 of us along with 2 amazing drivers and an awesome tour guide (seriously, check out Erdene and Mon Trails if you’re considering a trip to/within Mongolia) came along for the ride. And yes, my camera tagged along as well – much to the enjoyment of the 2 Opas who hadn’t really seen my obsession passion for getting the best picture before.

And yes, they made fun of me for schlepping my camera everywhere we went and asking the drivers to stop at random locations so I could take a picture of a landscape, animal bones, or live animals but wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we got back to UB, they both begged for copies of my 1000 pictures. Remind me to start charging a daily photography rate from now on…

But back to the Gobi. What did we see? Many beautiful landscapes that seemed to change at a moment’s notice although one thing was clear …. there was nothing around us but steppe:

Breaking up the arid view were herds of animals. drive

Got cashmere?
Got cashmere?

It was a true picturesque journey of wide open spaces (cue in the song). Lots of land and lots and lots of …. nothingness (is that even a word?) around us. And even the occasional soum (note: pronounced soom; an administrative district center that is home up to 5,000 residents – I wasn’t counting gers or people but the Gobi soums seemed far smaller) didn’t take up  a lot of space so that we could drive through its entirety and refuel the cars in all of 10 minutes – then it was back to nothingness …. just more wide open spaces….drive3

Yes, that is indeed a camel skull. And vultures.

…and animal bones.

DSCN6227And trust me, we were sure to not mess with our drivers who could not for a second take their eyes off the “road” in fear of hitting major rocks, driving us into a canyon that popped up seemingly out of nowhere, sliding up or down steep sand slides, or colliding with some of the not so smart animals who insisted on crossing our paths numerous times. It’s a good thing I was prepared with lots of snacks and candy to keep up energy and motivation levels. Yes, go me! Take-away for future travels: stock up on lollipops as they proved to be a much anticipated candy.

Day 1: UB -> Tsagaan Suvarga

Our first stop in the Gobi were the beautiful “white shrines or stupas”  (Tsagaan Suvarga). All but 20km of that day’s driving was on a paved road (just 2 years old!) so it was an easy peasy driving day for everyone (except for the crazy steep sand slides we rode up and down, often with the car leaning at an angle at the end …. that was slightly terrifying). Our spirits were high since we a) finally made it after a few hours of driving and b) got to leave the car to take in all of this:

stupaThe long beautiful cliffs were part of an ancient sea bottom millions of years ago – yes, apparently there used to be an ocean in this part of the world. The colors were truly stunning.

After checking into our ger camp (more on that later), Erdene, our fun-filled travel guide convinced us to explore some near-by caves. He casually asked if anyone was afraid of tight spaces which then prompted the girls to sit out the visit – a good decision since it turned out to be the tightest and smallest cave one can possibly imagine.

Got flashlights?
The exodus – a sight to be seen!

The boys and both Opas all made it through and seemed very, very happy to emerge to daylight and make acquaintance with my first aid kit that I dutifully carry with me wherever I go (I guess that makes me an awesome travel mate too, right? First aid kit, camera, AND a picnic basket full of treats, who wants to travel with me?).

Day 2: Tsagaan Suvarga -> Yolyn Am

After our first night sleeping in a ger (how fun!) in which we couldn’t sit outside before settling down for the night at the fear of being eaten alive by millions of mosquitoes who took absolutely zero mercy on Luca (poor kid, it was a bit of a rough trip for him between the mozzies and the rough steppe “roads”), we hopped back into the jeeps for another few hundred km to visit the beautiful gorge and valley Yolyn Am in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. Topic #1 in the cars was the sighting of the Rotel Bus which carries tons of German tourists around the Gobi (and other parts of the world). We travel a lot and this was a first sighting of this strange bus/hotel; I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend it.

Before we said a final good-bye to the white stupas, we made a quick stop to take in the changing light in the morning. Beautiful, right?camel fossil

It was the perfect morning to see the stupas in new light – AND – very importantly, for Luca to discover his first “fossil:” an ancient whale bone. IMG_3444

Yes, clearly, an ancient whale bone since this was all ocean floor back in the day. For others it might more realistically be a camel’s hip bone but who are we to argue with the expert?

On the way to the gorge, we stopped in DZ as it’s lovingly called here or Dalanzadgad, the biggest city in Gobi to have lunch and stock up on goods (like the excellent rug I bought there; yes, that brings the total number of Mongolian rugs in our house now to 4) before leaving civilization for the next few days. We also explored the new “dino park” for a nice break.

Some of those dinosaurs moved and roared!
Some of those dinosaurs even moved and roared!
The gorge – simply beautiful. In the summer, there can even be ice here … we missed it by a few days/weeks.

We hopped on horses and yak carts to tour the valley and I still love Erdene’s sense of optimism by handing me the reins to my own horse. No, I have no clue how to ride a horse and everyone else’s horse was being held by someone who knew what to do with a horse but Erdene looked at me and said “you got this.” And. you know what? He was so right. I totally had it – didn’t even fall off (far).

valley1 IMG_3566

We ended our trip to the valley by exploring the tiny natural history museum, which I kid you not, houses some of the most terrifying taxidermied animals I have ever seen (and trust me, I’ve seen plenty here in Mongolia – it seems to be a natural historian’s passion in this part of the world).

I have a serious suspicion that some of these animals are wearing lipstick….no? Oh and yes, also real dinosaur eggs. I didn’t find lipstick on these.

Ger Camps

ger campsRather than staying at a mundane hotel which you could do anywhere in the world (well, perhaps not in Gobi since you know, it’s kind of desolate), when you travel throughout Mongolia, you have the option of staying at “ger camps.” They are exactly what they sound like – groups of gers organised around a camping site. ger camps1A few pointers to those traveling to ger camps at some point in the future:

  • The pictures do not deceive. Ger doors are that small so you must duck every time you enter and leave a ger – a painful lesson for us all.
  • Ger camps are fun but can vary widely in quality so do your homework (we only had one not so nice ger camp that has seen better days; perhaps the interaction with a [small] snake which we thankfully encountered during daylight and not in the middle of the night and the absence of water and electricity may have somewhat clouded our judgment … well not for Hubert since he managed to sneak into the showers just in time to secure the last drops of water while charging his cell phone {nope, not under the shower} before all the water and power were shut off for the rest of the camp. Coincidence? I think not. To the camp’s credit, they were still able to book the Opas for their “couples” massage using romantic candle light; see, isn’t friendship beautiful?)
  • Bring your own pillow. Trust me.
  • Bring a torch/flashlight as the gers have no electricity and it gets very, very dark at night. Also please remember to turn off said flashlights when the kids finally fall asleep unless you want to share your ger with armies of bugs. Yes, there are many, many bugs.
  • Make it a point to leave the ger in the middle of the night to look at the stars – the night sky is amazing in the desert. Also, try to be somewhat awake when your kid starts circling the ger in pitch darkness in search of the bathroom and remember to take him outside to do that. ger camps2
  • Bring your own fun – we took a soccer ball, games, and a kite with us and the kids had a blast. Wide open spaces and all.ger camps5ger camps7
  • Our absolute favourite ger camp – Gobi Mirage – surprised us with a traditional welcome (offering of milk) and parting ceremony (pouring milk on the cars to wish us safe travels). Major photo opp!ger camps3ger camps4ger camps6
  • Some ger camps offer cultural performances – the Opas and I went to a traditional Mongolian evening and it was quite good. ger camps8

Day 3: CAMEL DAY! Yolyn Am -> Khongoryn Els

Day 3 was our much anticipated camel and sand dunes day. The 2-humped Bactrian camel is indigenous to Central Asia and are just so much more comfortable to ride than the North African/ Middle Eastern 1-hump ones (or so I’ve heard). Even more exciting was our visit with a camel herder and his family. It was the first time the Opas were in a traditional “real” lived-in ger and the herder family who hosted us brought out all the camel goodies. Herder and nomadic families in Mongolia are extremely hospitable and will offer their finest foods and goods to visitors who do not need to be announced ahead of time. camel

See the bottom right picture? Traditional bowls of camel milk on the left and fermented camel’s milk on the right. Admittedly, I have a difficult time consuming Mongolian dairy products and will gladly pass on any offers of airag – fermented mare’s milk – which is absolutely a very acquired taste. I was thus a bit reluctant to try camel’s milk (regular and fermented) but I was pleasantly surprised – both were quite enjoyable! And the Opas agreed …. 

And then it was time to hop on the camels – oh how FUN it was! Well, except we could have done without the complaining children who were so excited to pet and ride a camel but then became too uncomfortable sharing the saddle with us. So when the whining became too loud, we gladly handed them over to Erdene who was busy taking a million pictures of us and he accompanied them to the jeeps to wait for us at the finish line. Who said we couldn’t get some private adult time on a camel riding through the Gobi?


After the camels, it was time for more driving; this time to the much anticipated sand dunes, the Khongoryn Els. It was really quite remarkable how the sand dunes seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere in the steppe. dunes1

The original plan was to hike up the sand dunes together – a process that was supposed to take about 45 minutes, at the most. What we didn’t factor in was the crazy sand AND rain storm that literally blew us away (quick, someone run and grab Juliana) so we had to abort mission. Well, except Erdene who made it to the top. Luca was the first to run up far, far up the dune but once the rain and dust blew, he also realised his own limitation. And yes, that is truly the first time I ever experienced a rain storm in the desert. Weather in Mongolia is just that unpredictable. dunes

Day 4: DINOSAURS! Khongoryn Els -> Bayanzag

Day 4 was the killer. The mother of all off-road “roads” and related tummy problems. Perhaps ironically we were heading to THE Gobi destination that Luca had been wishing to see – the famous Flaming Cliffs – the discovery site of many dinosaur fossils. And once finally there, the site did not disappoint. cliffs

The site where once dinosaurs roamed the world is now home to goats. Go figure.
The site where once dinosaurs roamed the world is now home to goats. Go figure.

Tummy troubles were fast forgotten once we climbed the cliffs and Luca discovered real dinosaur eggs. Yes, they are very real, indeed.

Day 5: Bayanzag -> Karakorum

Day 5 started with medicines before we even hit the road which fortunately worked and kept little tummies in check. By that time, we were all a little tired of all that driving and were ready for a change of pace. Little did we know that we would have an absolute highlight of a day (and there we thought between the camels, sand dunes, and dinosaurs, we had already seen it all!).

We started with a quick visit to the Ongi Monastery to learn about Mongolia’s religious purges during Communism before we set on the road to Mongolia’s ancient capital of Karakorummonastery2

The night before we discussed our lunch plans as our route would not lead through any soums in which we could stop for lunch. One of our drivers offered for us to visit his friends for lunch, an offer we gladly accepted. And boy, were we in for a treat.

We drove for hours through the steppe in changing weather (it suddenly turned cold and windy) until we arrived at the herder family’s gers. Again, nothing but wide beautiful open spaces, loads of animals, an amazing warm and welcoming herder family (grand-parents and 3 grand-kids who were spending the summer helping with the animals), and home-made noodle soup waiting to warm us up. It was truly fantastic.herder family herder family1

One of the boys offered to take Juliana for a horse ride; and I may have been just a tad bit uncomfortable when (after she climbed up and they rode of), Erdene shouted after her “don’t yell or make any loud noise, the horse is still semi-wild” – yup, that’s horseback riding in Mongolia for you.herder family2

And then after lunch, it was finally time, oh the much anticipated time, for both Opas to taste the real fermented mare’s milk – a delicacy here and one I will gladly, gladly pass on. Hubert had already embraced the offering of horse’s yoghurt and thought it passable but both may have been bit traumatised by the fact that Mongolians drink airag voluntarily.

Then it was time to drive to Karakoram, again, hours of hours of driving through the nothingness of the steppe until we saw this:IMG_3981

The road mark literally in the middle of nowhere with miles and miles of steppe around us and perhaps the occasional lost goat or sheep. But here it was, the road mark letting us know that we were close-ish to where we needed to go. Only in Mongolia.

Day 6: Karakorum -> UB

At the museum …. little minds doing their thing.
I loved the ovoo with the skull overlooking the hill.

On our last day we explored the ancient capital monument and its monastery and would have been ready to call this trip a success and head back to civilisation but wait …..

Remains of the Erdene Zuu monastery in Karakorum

…. bring in the costumes: That’s right. Across the entrance of the monastery, Anne and I noticed vendors offering to rent out old Mongolian traditional attire. It only took a confirming glance for us to settle on this – both Opas needed to transform into full Chinggis Khan gear before this trip could even be considered over. dress up

And no, they were not willing initially (the only one jumping up and down at the first sound of dress-up was Juliana, of course) but we did not take “no” as an answer. And of course, just as we had predicted, Opas would be Opas and the sword fighting ensued. dress up1

Once the final Opas task was completed, we had no other option but to hit the road back to civilisation so that the Opas could go onto their next adventures (which would probably be far more boring since the rest of the A-team wouldn’t be there to show them the way) and our work and summer days could resume. What a fun and epic trip this was, indeed (and kudos to you, dear reader, for making it all the way to the end!).

So, a few take-away lessons:

  • Remember to duck when entering/leaving a ger (I cannot emphasize that enough).
  • Never underestimate the power of traveling with a bathing suit even if you’re headed to the desert where by definition, there is no / very limited water. Because, there just might be that one watering hole calling Opa’s name; if you find it, let us know as we searched through half of Gobi to no avail. But it was a good thing that Opa had his swimming trunks … ’cause you never know.
  • Would we do this trip again? Definitely for the scenery and adventures …. perhaps not so much for the off-road off-roads.
  • Speaking of off-road driving, ladies, put on a sports bra. Seriously. That was one of the best pieces of advice I got in preparation for this trip.
  • When you have a chance to get dressed up, take it. And then take lots of pictures for the world to see how 2 Opa’s traveled to Mongolia and got all Chinggis Khan.
  • This was easily one of our favourite and most memorable trips – a huge thank you to our amazing A-team. See, even the “real” Chinggis Khan and the vulture agree.

    dress up2
    The “real” Chinggis Khan and his son … and pet vulture, ’cause why not?!

12 thoughts on “Wide Open Spaces

  1. That pic of the river valley in Kharakhorum? It’s one of my most favorite places. I would have spent so much time taking pictures there in various lighting situations had my travel mates let me!
    Sadly my first digital photo loss was of my photos in the Gobi. I learned never to delete stuff off my photo cards after my laptop crashed!

  2. So glad you took the opportunity for this adventure!!! I must say, that photo of the inside of your ger — quite fancy! Our experience was a floor with big heavy blankets and a flat pillow, also no electricity, and an invasion of goats pushing into and under the ger for warmth to get out of the wind. They never made it in, but they tried! Hope your heads (and tummies!) are feeling better now!

      1. At one a.m. in the pitch blackness – um….no. But the memory is seared in our brains forever!!! – I think it was the extreme bleating and shuffling that initiated our 4 year old to wake in screaming fit nightmares that night. The screams were luckily drowned out to the ‘neighboring gers’ by the howling winds. And those goats did provide lovely shelter when nature called the then awake children and the squatty potty ger was way too far away. A return inside the ger saw silken walls swaths twisting like ribbons and sleep only came again by a mass huddle of blankets in the middle away from the chaos of the ger edges. We still consider it all one of our most fun and memorable travel adventures!!

  3. Hi Nicole, Opa 1 fwd your blog to me. I really enjoyed reading it and can imagine the bonding btw all of you in this type of nature and culture. What a great experience for your kids! Needless to say, working for your Dad, some if pictures brought a big smile on my face 😉. All the best for your family in UB and stay warm in the months to come!

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