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Published: March 20th 2011
After the dramas of the travel in the Russian van for the Ice Festival, I was relieved to step into a relatively new Hyundai 4WD van for the trip to the Gobi. It was clean, spacious and actually had some suspension! However, never count your apples! Just before starting the return journey to UB, Gans, our tour leader, asked the question, "What is a good Mongolian car?". The answer? "A new one!" Wise words. We did have a few difficulties on the way back. However, our driver was excellent at fixing anything which included making a spare part out of a syringe to keep us moving for a day and a half!
On this trip were Gans (Steel Axe - literal translation of his Mongolian name, our leader), Agi (Golden Axe, our driver), Ramona (my German friend from Darkhan), Ludo (a French backpacker), Alex (a professional photographer from the UK who works and resides in France and Abu Dhabi!) and Gregor (a newly graduated French engineer who was Alex's assistant for the trip). So it was a small group and we got along famously for the week.
After one very long day's travel, we made it to the Gobi
and stayed with a camel herder, Jamin, and his family for the first 2 nights. They lived at the Flaming Cliffs and were (on a smooth trip) about 40 minutes drive from Bulgan where the Camel Festival was to be held.
Jamin was not all that happy the night we met him as his camel polo team had failed to qualify for the gold medal round (the following afternoon) and instead were going to play for the bronze medal in the morning. What did bring a smile to his face was that I said we would be the official cheer squad - if only we had some pom poms!
Food on day one was interesting. We had goat buuz for lunch and camel and noodle soup for dinner - with plenty of vodka afterwards, of course!
The next morning, the bronze medal round of the camel polo was the first event of the festival. Jamin's team won comfortably so there were a few smiles after the match. The game itself was humorous given that camels are not as agile or as fast as horses and
the polo mallets were.....well, look at the pictures, ......very simple, to say the least!
The official opening of the festival in the afternoon featured a camel parade followed by the gold medal camel polo match and the fashion competition. The polo match went down to the wire in a penalty shoot out (which just happened to be at the end of I standing) after the scores were tied at the end of the two 15 minute halves at 2-2. The fashion parade was really exciting for Ramona and I as we were selected as two of the four foreign judges. Our host's entry came in second after we all decided the 'green' couple were the best dressed and had the most well-presented camels. There were some great entries including camels with reindeer ears, and camels ridden by well dressed kids.
That evening we met three members of 'The Weeping Camel' family. I assume most of you will not have seen the movie but I watched it before I left home. I did not truly appreciate it until I had lived in Mongolia for some months. I had initially thought it too simplistic and slow but it really reflected
the pace of life in Mongolia and the level of superstition associated with absolutely everything including a camel rejecting her calf. The camel herders have since retired and now live in a ger in Bulgan village but love having foreigners ask them questions about camel herding and the movie.
On day 2 of the camel festival we watched the end of the two camel races (over 14km for the open event and 10 km for the 2 yo event) and the camel relay. I was repulsed by much of what I saw in the relay but was slightly comforted later that all of the disciplines reflected exactly what camel herders do regularly and not just put on for a tourist show. The relay consisted of breaking in a camel including putting a piece of wood through it's nose and then riding it as well as loading up some experienced camels with a ger. On the breaking of camels, our host insisted it took 3 years to get a camel completely broken in so the 'first ride' was only the beginning of a longer process.
Jamin's team won the relay so there was great celebration at the festival and
These 2 got a water tanker!
in the days following. A ceremony took place at the end of the festival to award all gold, silver and bronze medals as well as the big the gold cup to Jamin! For once, being a foreigner was an advantage as I managed to be a part of the official photography team and therefore got some good snaps of the winners.
I should also mention that during the festival, Leah, Andrew and Navamani (VSO) were there with two other Australians so I think the Aussies were well represented at this festival. We caught up with this group again a day or so later when we went to the sand dunes (more on that in a few paragraphs time).
After the festival, we headed to the Vulture's valley (Yoliin Am). In this valley are the 'glaciers' of the Gobi, and, although global warning has diminished the spectacle, it is still a popular place to visit. After spending the night in the ger of a poor goat herder (who was nearly wiped out by the zud (bad winter) of 2010), we headed off on the scariest horse ride of my life into the Vulture's valley. The reason we rode is
Just hanging about
In general, the camels were very well behaved and just stared at the foreigners and their cameras!
that vehicles could not access the area due to the large amount of recent snow fall. Our guide decided to take us up hill and down dale, literally, to avoid the deep snow drifts. I was frightened enough by riding a horse along ridges and up steep embankments BUT that was nothing compared to the perilous descent where we each led our horses down into a gully where I was struggling to stay upright in my hiking boots. I did fail on the safety aspect of walking the horse as I was clipped on my heels by my pony's shoes! A few centimetres higher and there would have been screams! Same again when walking through the deep snow (see pics of Ludo and Gregor). I believe my pony panicked more than me!
After more than 3 hours of adrenalin rush (otherwise known as horse riding), we stopped for lunch and went off exploring on foot. Through the valley was a small frozen stream which we followed until the sounds of ice cracking underfoot and water appearing under our feet forced us to turn around. It was a pity, as Ramona, who had been there before, assured us a small
Racing camel and me
I got to hold onto this guy for our host. Soooo much more docile than a thoroughbred!
waterfall was just around the bend!
The ride back was a breeze as our guide led us along the road. Instead of 3.5 hours, we were back in 1.5 hours. Oh relief!
After spending another night at Jamin's and the Flaming Cliffs, we headed off to Mongolia's largest sand dunes (Khongoryn els) up to 300m high and a range of 180km in length and up to 15km wide. They are known also as the singing dunes as when the wind blows across them, they are known to sing! I insisted we climb the tallest dunes! Hah! Guess who was the only one in the group not to make it to the top? Yep, me! Vanquished! Beaten by the sand and the ice and complete annoyance at just how hard it was to make any ground. I conceded I was not going to make it to the top by sunset so I sat halfway up and waited for the rest to come down to share in the fun of racing back down the dunes.
Thankfully, the next day we all went camel riding in the dunes and my boy was up to the task and I did get
There were lots of them about.
to see up close what lay on the other side of the dunes - beautiful mountains. I named my mount 'Blossom', the same as my horse two days earlier, as Mongolian's do not name their working animals and mine just needed something encouraging! Attempting the rising trot on a camel is interesting. Camels' pace, not trot, so it took some getting used to but the rising trot still worked a treat in the end. Steering was also interesting. As the camel has only a left rein, it is left to go left, direct pull back to stop and across the neck to turn right. The camels were so well behaved and did what we asked - except go faster than pacing - and did not spit. Thank goodness for that!
It was then time to start the trek back to UB. Apart from a few unscheduled stops for maintenance, it was a long but comfortable trip. And just as I believed I had finally shaken my bad karma and/or had 3 bad things happen and therefore no more to come etcetera, etcetera, the final day was marred by a lovely bottle of French red smashing in my luggage! In
An example as to why I have not previously warmed to camels. So disgusting!
the end, there were only minor clothing casualties but it did take several days to clean up everything in that bag including memory cards and a first aid kit.
In terms of wildlife on the trip, we did see a few vultures in Vulture's valley and again on our penultimate evening, gazelles whilst heading south from UB and a few Ibex when heading into the valley near Khongoryn els.
This was a magnificent trip to end my stay in Mongolia. I met some lovely travellers and locals, enjoyed the camel festival immensely, ate some interesting meals, and went horse and camel riding in beautiful surrounds. It doesn't get much better than that!
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