Authentic or Glamping?
Part Two – 16 July 2023
My travels in Mongolia have enabled me to sample a variety of gers and accommodations. For my final experiences, I travel to Gobi Desert. Once again this involves a flight out of UB, necessitated by distances and atrocious roads. Nomads have a good reason to travel by horse and camel across steppes and forests as it is surely more comfortable.
Gobi Naran Lodge Camp
lies in Hanhongor Soum in the south Gobi Desert. Can’t exactly locate it on a map but it is out there among the flat scrub and sand of the Gobi about 32 miles from Bayanzag, the Flaming Cliffs and Eagle/Vulture Valley. I think that is “how the crow flies.” The beautiful Altai Mountain Range is 55km south.
Our arrival is our adventure for the day. No logical reason occurs to me, but we depart UB at 2:30 am! It is not as though the airport is busy. There must be a plethora of time slots. Many passengers are sleeping about the terminal perhaps waiting for equally nonsensical flights.
We depart several minutes early in our Hunnu Air prop jet which is half empty. Looks like we are all tourist and all exhausted. Our jet lands at 3:30 am at Gurvan Saikhan Airport in Dalanzadgad. A cluster of lights are somewhere close as we bounce down a runway little better than some of the paved roads we have experienced. The airport itself looks to be one-room-fits-all and a clean bathroom with all the toilet paper and paper towels one could want.
We pile into our four-wheelers, buckle up and zoom out of the airport parking lot within 45 seconds. This should have been a warning of what was to come. Our driver, a direct Mongolian cousin of Mario Andretti, drove no more than 200 feet before turning onto a dirt path.
I have decided our driver is a frustrated Naadam jockey who drives a Lexus four-wheeler instead. At an average speed of 35 miles per hour, he races over an open desert of hardpan with only a hint of tracks that might indicate the existence of a road. He slows for desert speed bumps and ditches, barely. The washer board dirt path extends beyond our headlights and into the night. For the first time in days I see a sliver of moon and some stars.
We have left the other cars far behind. All I see are six dots of headlights eating our dust. I ask Buddha to keep our path clear of wandering camels or goats. Ahead it is total darkness. Daybreak begins to lighten the horizon to our right. Our driver seems to divert to a wrong path but simply dashes over desert to our original northerly direction. Nothing but a homing instinct seems to point in the direction of our camp. That and the Big Dipper’s North Star.
We arrive at our camp at 5am, exhausted, cold, but in one piece. Our driver definitely wasn’t the jockey of an “empty tummy” horse in this race. We dash to our ger in the dark, eager to get some rest.
The sound of a fierce desert wind rushing across the Gobi awakens me. Winds seem determined to erase all signs of our nighttime passage. Finally, no rain. In disbelief, a minute later I hear the familiar sound of drops then heavy rain pass over our ger. What is it about rain and Mongolia? I know the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain. In Mongolia it rains wherever and whenever it desires. Weather changes in minutes. We are 4500′ above sea level with not a tree for miles to hinder wind. Winters are brutally cold with snow. This is the Gobi.
Our Gobi Naran camp is relatively new with 25 gers. There is a “nine Chinggis Bulls” sculpture in camp, big and colorful and quite indistinguishable from the real cows at night. Facilities were designed by the travel industry and “we made bettering the environment that we conduct our operation” and “fully equipped sanitary facilities in conformity with the tourist service standard” hints of promised glamping.
Stay: 2 nights. Gers are spacious and well-equipped with two beds, tables and chairs, dresser, benches and fan. There is lots of storage. The attached bathroom is large with basin and shower. Don’t see source of heat but then this is the Gobi Desert so hopefully the comforter is ample. Doors don’t fit and because the roof of ger is not clear, the interior is dark and stuffy. Tea bags and coffee are available and one can get a kettle or hot thermos for morning coffee.
Our ger is comfortable and attractive but too enclosed. The private bathroom and large shower are welcome, as is hot water; the dead bugs and desperate moths are not. One is still requested to place the toilet tissue in a waste basket and not the toilet. Ample electrical plugs about the room, including at the end of each bed. Towels provided but no hair dryer or bar soap.
The restaurant is a large wood structure, bright and comfortable. Food is a typical mix of western and Mongolian cuisine and nicely presented. Alcohol is available for purchase.
Cultural entertainment: there are many opportunities to hike over relatively flat surfaces. The Gobi is alive with herds of goats and horses. Nomad gers dot the landscape. This is a perfect location for exploring the nearby Three Beauties of the Altai Mountain Range. In fact, this part of the Gobi is a paleontologist’s dream. Shivertam Valley and its unique ice glacier is but an hour across the desert. A small museum near the gate has a collection of stuffed birds, mammals, and a snow leopard, also stuffed. After trekking and a warm dinner, there are games, like anklebone. Best to buy your own little set for long Mongolian nights.
To add authenticity, one might get a ger with their own fairy lights. Tiny and faint points of yellow light were seen before dawn in our ger. They reminded me of the suspended glow worms one sees in the caves of New Zealand. When googled, all I found was the Mongolian Death Worm of the Gobi Desert, something akin to what wanted to eat Kevin Bacon in the movie Tremors. When I asked the locals, I was told they were the spirit lights that can be seen dancing about the desert at night. Both are legends. Either explanation works for me.
Ratings 1-5, 5 being tops: Authentic or Glamping? Authentic 3, Glamping 4.
And miles to go before we sleep….
For convenience, we drive to a second camp that is closer to the Singing Dunes of the Gobi. The jagged Altai Mountains, pushed up by the Himalayas millennia ago, and China is to our left, wide open desert is all around us. This whole country was once under sea.
Google Maps may spot where I am but little else is exact out here. Our driver seems to have a map of his own in his head. Much as the nomads did and still do, our driver points to the right direction and speeds off. All part of a great adventure across the Gobi.
There are no roads. A trail is where at least a camel or one car has proceeded you. We slow for goats and Bactrian camels, ravines and washes, go around gashes in the earth. A path is when ten or more cars have used this same route. Usually tire tracks are distinct. Riverbeds sometimes substitute if it saves time. A road is paved, some of the bumps are removed, and there are bridges. Bares repeating, there are no roads!
We snake across a bumpy desert. No path is ever a straight line, even though there is no absence of space and imminent domain is never an issue. I see occasional skeletons of animals who did not make it. There is a faint tinge of green vegetation across the land that one would not think is possible in this environment. To our left appears what becomes a miles long strip of sand dunes. Our destination ger camp pops up on an empty, dusty and hot horizon. Camels roam just beyond a fence which keeps them off our doorstep.
Gobi -Erdene Tourist Camp
lies in Hongor Sands of the Gobi Gunvan Saikhan Natural Park. The area is pretty much in the middle of nowhere among the Hongor sand dunes. Sand hills and mountains are in the distance. There are 24 log cabins each with a shower and bathroom, another 24 standard log cabins with fewer amenities, and 31 simple gers. The restaurant is in a large modern log structure. No extra charge for the sand in your food.
Stay: 1 night. Our stay was in the log cabins. Large dual pane windows let in light and sun, bathrooms are simple with an open but adequate shower. The temperatures are much warmer here as is fitting in the middle of the Gobi. We are at 4820’ elevation and temperatures are in the 90s.
Cultural entertainment: Beyond hiking, guests have the opportunity of horse or camel riding. We spotted many wild camels as we drove here but for our experience they are the domesticated, more friendly type. Most camels act pretty unflappable and mine took tourism in stride. Nearby for hiking is the beautiful “Singing Sands” of Khongoryn Els.
Our ger affords the amenities of one electrical plug and dim overhead lighting . Beds are hard with thin mattresses. Towels supplied but no hair dryer. I questioned the comforter but found use for it as the night cooled and stars appeared. This is the first night and location where the skies were clear for star gazing. Mostly sunset is late and we are too tired to stay up for long. There is no wifi but cellular is sometimes good, depending on where you stand and what direction you point the phone. Solar panels keep the lights on. Many visitors charge devices in the restaurant. There is a large sheltered patio where it is cooler. Unbelievably, it rained in the late afternoon and a rainbow could be seen.
Ratings 1-5, 5 being tops: Authentic or Glamping? Authentic 1, Glamping 4.
Not all camps and gers are alike.
Amenities and comfort depends on what one may want. Most camps have web pages and though information may be limited, one can learn about conditions. For those looking for rugged authenticity, I have no doubt it can be found. For those inclined to want glamping, that experience also can be found.
For a true authentic experience, one must do some serious backpacking. Mongolian hospitality abounds, at least for now. It is Mongolians’ custom to welcome visitors with food and a place to pitch a tent. Be open, friendly, appreciative, bring small gifts for the parents and children. Getting there is a big part of the adventure.
Probably the best part of staying in gers is their locations. Regardless of level of amenities, the scenery is majestic and the night skies, if clear, are awesome. Sitting in front of your ger, wine in hand, looking at the sunset or gazing at stars or watching the rain sheets sweep across the desert – it is impossible to best – no matter what the comfort of shower or mattress.