A TRUE GOBI WELCOME
Leaving our camp in the foothills of the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains, jackets on and mist rolling in, our guide Bogii had said, ‘Today you will experience the true Gobi.’
Driving down into the desert, those words quickly seemed to match the reality around us, as the Gobi of our imaginations began to manifest and take form. A flat, hard sandy plain unfolded before us, pebbled by countless small stones and rocks. Clumps of tough grass and plants dotted the baking landscape, food for the camels and the handful of undernourished horses. In the distance, low mountain ridges rose on either side like broken teeth; between, gers were dotted here and there, the sun glinting off the ubiquitous motorbikes outside. As we drove further, the midday heat bore down, and mirages shimmered on the horizon. Drawing closer to our destination, the famous Khongoryn Els sand dunes seemed to grow in size, impressing us with their massive bulk.
Arriving at our camp, we were quickly ushered into the host family’s ger.
The herdsman, Yondon, beckoned us to sit, a welcoming smile on his dark, deeply lined face, sitting cross-legged in his decorative lilac shirt and knee high black leather boots. His wife poured hot milk tea from a large thermos, filling white porcelain bowls with the reviving bone coloured liquid. The air was cool and a soft light illuminated the ger, from the doorway, and from the half-moon skylight, the light difused by a thin cloth strung below and dancing in the gentle breeze. Brightly woven rugs lined the walls, mounted with gold laquer framed pictures, an intricate silver and leather ceremonial saddle, plus other ornaments and practical household items. Above the doorway, two saws were wedged firmly between the canvas and wood poles – a ward to keep away evil spirits.
As we sat drinking our tea, Yondon produced a small bottle from his pocket, like nail polish only no brush – instead, a small spatula fetching out tiny amounts of snuff on its narrow end. Laying a thin line on his hand, he lowered his nose and sniffed, a quick motion left to right, then raising his head, a mischievous glint in his eyes. He offered the bottle and soon, one by one, we came forward, accepted with our right hands, and filled our noses with the tingling and mildly burning spice.
Yondon looks down, preparing his line of snuff
Through our guides we exchanged questions: questions of age, jobs and marriage, questions our host was keen to know. In our group of nine, eight of us were in our thirties, four of us married, and none with children. Yondon shook his head in mild bemusement. ‘Strange,’ he said. He nodded thoughtfully at the mention of teacher and architect, but looked back blankly at designer and editor. We asked him questions about his goat herd (700 strong), his family, and his sixty years of life in the Gobi. All the while he puffed intermittently on a hand rolled cigarette, the smoke burling around him in loose clouds. After a time, his host’s duties done and curiosity satisfied, he left, wandering out into the bright afternoon sun, while we sat longer, served lunch by our cook in his charming homely ger.
Later that day we saw Yondon outside, readying the camels for riding.
His thick brown hair was gone, replaced by a pale stubbly grey scalp, shaved to the skin, exposed to the sun, done in a drinking ceremony with our drivers – an excuse to sink a bottle of vodka. At first he looked shockingly strange, a different person, but that same warm welcoming smile and twinkle in the eye was unmistakable.
As the day wore on, we wandered around camp, watching as the kids played, the scrappy dogs scampered to and fro and the big dogs lay in the shadows of the gers. After dinner, as the day drew to a close, we climbed the massive Khongoryn Els sand dune – a tough slog of an ascent, but the prize was a spectacularly stunning sunset view. Back at camp that night, we collapsed into bed, tired and content after a truly special day in the Gobi.
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