On the way to ‘Khermen Tsav’, the equivalent of the Mongolian grand canyon and one of the world’s most important dinosaur fossil sites, the Gobi began feeling very remote. At lunch we met three four by four Jeeps returning from the site, and then we didn’t see anyone for two days. Wilderness surrounded us, and anything that had looked like a road faded into a memory of a path. It’s worth noting here that the Lonely planet recommends that if you want to go to Khermen Tsav, you should take at least two cars and an experienced driver and guide. We had one ancient Russian van and two Mongolians who had never been in the area, and did not have the faintest idea of where we were heading.
So, as was predetermined by fate, we spent one day going in circles. We found an actual oasis, rising out of the desert sand dunes- a small river with marshy reeds and small trees, surrounded by sand. Adventurous Luke wanted to feel some soothingly cold water on his face as temperatures were climbing towards forty degrees Celsius, and on the way in got stuck in what was remarkably close to quicksand. We also spent half an hour that day trying to get up a sand bank, some attempts including pushing the vehicle, and placing roll mats under the wheels… before taking a detour and realising we could have saved time by driving around it. In the evening we ended up near a red cliff side- impressive, but definitely not the canyon we had been aiming for, no matter how often our tour guide attempted to make it so by saying it was the same thing.
The next day we tried again, and ended up at another cliff side about 5 kilometres on, faced with sand dunes that were simply impenetrable for our Russian van. Luke had his GPS watch out and the coordinates from the Lonely Planet (which had been part of the problem, as the roads and GPS did not align, and deciding how to follow the different ways is a curse of this modern technology). Staring into the distant sands, we realised that Khermen Tsav had been a key part in swaying us to go on the trip. We didn’t want to miss it; so we made a rash decision- in the hour and a half we had been given to explore, we were going to go find it on foot, by ourselves. We had GPS of where the bus was, where we were going, and were armed with cameras, walking into the desert. Nothing could go wrong.
We sped walked across a flat sand plateau, climbed half solid sand dunes, and delighted as a scar across the earth opened up in the distance. We knew we’d push it time wise but when we realised that the GPS coordinate referred to the middle of the canyon and not the sides, we were not going to turn back without standing on the edge. The success was sweet, if short lived. We had around five breaths to take it in, then spent around five minutes taking pictures, and then turned back. Elated, we had to concentrate hard to make sure we found our footsteps (we had to rely on GPS for a while again), and then make our way back to the bus, surprisingly, on time. Khermen Tsav is a miraculous sight, but until they build a main road and a visitor’s centre like the American Grand Canyon, I don’t think I ever want to suffer the two days torture of being lost in a bus in the 35 degree heat to find it, again.
And in our haste, we did not find any dinosaurs.