Mongolian sky at night
This photo is a 1/2 hour exposure. I've honestly never seen so many stars in the sky!
Like a moon landing, Ulaan Baatar rises from the barren nothingness of the Mongolian steppe - a city occupied by more than one million people and almost half the minuscule population of Mongolia; the most sparsely populated independent country in the world. Venture some five kilometres from downtown and the city ends abruptly as you fall from the proverbial cliff of civilisation, and into the bleak beauty of an undulating landscape devoid of barriers or boundaries, evidently untouched by its millennia of human habitation.
Save a few barren outposts with inflated prices due to their inaccessibility, buying anything in Mongolia outside of Ulaan Baatar is difficult, hence we were required to buy some journey essentials prior to leaving, namely food, drink, clothing and cooking equipment. Gathering all the necessities for our long trip took longer than expected but euphorically, under the searing rays of the midday sun, we turned our backs on civilisation without thinking about saying goodbye, and in our fully loaded Russian ‘Vorgorn’ four wheel drive we departed into the ‘land of blue skies’. And what a blue sky it was.
Mongolia is twice the size of Turkey, three times the size of France, or more than
six times the size of the UK yet has a population of less than three million! Within an hour of our journey beginning we found ourselves sat dumbstruck, collectively staring from the windows of our vehicle at the stark and silent landscape slowly unfurling before our eyes, mesmerised by the bare and barren beauty of a country betraying humanities feeble attempts to civilise it. Bumping and rocking over the unrepaired roads wizened with fissures and potholes, the scars of a brutal winter took no toll on our minds more occupied with the visual pleasure of our surroundings. In the distance and on all sides were sandy hills; desert dry and forbidding, yet paradoxically straddled with many fir and larch trees in the higher reaches. Still brown and black and unrecovered from the winter’s harshness that robbed them of their green splendour, they sparsely protruded from the spine of every hill like a crumbling wall tamed into submission by age and the elements. From near to afar the steppe displayed every shade of yellow, orange and brown seamlessly graduated into each other with an elegance that the finest watercolour artist could only admire as natures perfection, unachievable on his own palette.
Watching our vehicles large tyres throw up a trail of dust that endlessly disappeared behind us into the clear blue sky, the vehicles in the distance appeared so close through the cool crystal clear air you could almost touch them, yet their tiny dimensions revealed the obvious fact they were perhaps more than half an hour away. Every hill was so noticeably shaped and curved over eons of time by the direction of prevailing winds that gods design was evident and open, in an arena so ruthless when the cold from Siberia periodically chooses them to toil and only allows vegetation to grow on the leeward slopes of the hills - the very place where nomads sensibly choose to spot their round white gers (yurts). Smelling the air lightly scented with dust as a mild breeze whispered around me, I contemplated how British people often consider the Scottish Highlands to be barren. Coming to Mongolia, the Scottish Highlands seem like downtown Beijing by comparison.
After six slow hours on roads that quickly progressed to dirt tracks ever chasing our route northward, we stopped for the evening in a sheltered depression at around 8:30 and made camp for the
night, taking advantage of the last dying moments of daylight to prepare dinner. Amid our hastily erected camp site atop the hard-pack steppe with its patchy vegetation gnawed to stubble, we admired first the moon and then the stars appear in infinite numbers - our unblemished 360 degree view made complete by the sun not yet set, illuminating one half of the sky with every shade of red and orange the world has ever known. As the sun sank in perfect clarity beneath the furthest horizon, its last rays graced us as we sat to eat dinner, struggling to comprehend how we could have such a great first day spent predominantly from the back seat of a vehicle. That night we slept well under a sea of a million billion stars lit brightly like Christmas lights across the sky, the like of which I’ve never seen before but already find myself dreaming of seeing again.
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