The day after the Naadam festival, we embarked on a 21 day tour of Mongolia in an old Russian van. In Russia it had been uncharacteristically dry, Ulaanbaatar was unusually hot, and all five occupants of the back of the van (Luke, our new travel buddies Amanda, Mon and Jim, and myself), began to worry what the Gobi desert might be like. We talked of 40 degree heat, of baking sun and lack of trees at breakfast on our first day, with equal measures of anticipation and dread. By lunch these fears had largely evaporated- or perhaps more accurately, had been washed away. Our guide explained that the Gobi is the windiest area in Mongolia, and on our way south from Ulaan Baatar, it also felt like it must be the wettest.
The heaviest rainstorm was on a stop in ‘Vulture Canyon’ or Yolyn Am Canyon. The area is famous for its bird life and the ice in the bottom of the canyon which survives the summer heat until the end of July. As we pulled up, it began to drizzle. As we progressed towards the ice the sky started to drop an ocean on our heads. While I am sure that the gorge with its rocky walls, the colourful wild flowers at its base and the vulture circling high overhead make a lovely sight in the sun, we began hurrying towards our destination (the ice), with our heads down and our cameras tucked under our jackets.
We stopped only a few times to admire ‘gobi mice’ (who bear a striking resemblance to over fed hamsters), sparrows, and the vulture who circled, seeming to watch us below. When we arrived at the ‘end’ of the canyon, the ice had clearly been melting. There were several large holes in it and the top layer had turned a dark brown. The river followed quickly underneath it, new rainwater mixing with meltwater. Soon there would be little left to see- not that the grey ice on the grey day made a particularly exciting sight, anyway. On the way back it was decided that although we had aimed to spend the evening camping near the gorge, none of us were even remotely tempted. Water had begun dripping down our soaked legs into our shoes, squelching with every step, and any tent we would try to put up would not have coped well with the wind and rain.
Unfortunately, it was already quite late (due to our driver’s hangover that day we had been unable to drive as quickly as many of the other groups, but that’s a different story), and we arrived at ger camp after ger camp which was full of tourists attempting to dry out. In the end we stayed in something which was more of a Mongolian tourist camp, offering the luxury of cabins rather than the traditional, round felt tent ger. Even here, there was no space, however, and our arrival meant that the family who was occupying a cabin helping cook dinner for the drivers and guides was evacuated and sent to a neighbouring family. The upside was that this space, in which we now felt like real intruders, had a dung fireplace, and our clothes slowly began to release some of the absorbed water.
The rain continued outside overnight as we huddled on the floor, the five of us on roll mats and with sleeping bags of various quality and warmth. In the morning the sky cleared, and we saw how beautiful and un-desert like the area seemed, full of rolling green hills, crazy little goats, and mountains in the distance. From that day on the rain seemed to disappear for the rest of the trip, and it wouldn’t be long before I missed it- but at that moment in time I was more than thankful for the sun attempting to peek out from behind the clouds and warm the chilly breeze.