For a town with such a grand welcome sign, Dalanzadgad is just another small, dusty town of around 14,000 people in the middle of the Gobi.
After a few days camping I needed a shower, and who would have thought Mongolia has such things as ‘Shower Houses’? – Brilliant idea! Basically, you just turn up and pay for a shower; it was great.
I fuelled up, re-stocked camping supplies and headed straight off to find Yolyn Am ‘Ice Canyon’ which was supposed to be around 40km to the west.
Leaving Dalanzadgad and heading west, I was surprised to find a random piece of new road in the middle of nowhere. It even had the first traffic sign I’d seen outside UB, although I didn’t have a clue what it said. It seemed to be more like a map than a simple sign-post.
Don’t worry, the road didn’t last for long, and soon I was using my iPhone App to weave my way across a firm set of tracks that drifted in the right general over the barren landscape, I hoped.
The reason Mongolia hardly has any surfaced roads and few cities, is the Mongol’s nomadic way of life does not require cities or infrastructure; just a few rough tracks are formed by seasonal movements. The reason roads and cities are now suddenly appearing, is the traditional way of life is under pressure from Mongolia’s recent catapult into the world economy and the desire of many to accumulate capital (lots of money). Thus it has become a battleground between environmentalists and herdsmen wanting to keep this untouched land pristine, and the commercial industry who want to rip it up and make loads of money logging the forests and mining for scarce resources. It will be very difficult to balance these two conflicting desires, especially when Mongolia’s GDP growth is presently the fastest growing in the world (18% in 2013).
The good news is that Mongolia is still the World’s least densely populated (independent) country with only 3 million people, and so there’s still plenty of untouched land left for ‘normal people’ to escape the rest of the world and explore to their heart’s content.
I often find it amazing how Genghis Khan (known in Mongolia as Chinggis Khaan) managed to band together a relatively small bunch of nomadic herdsmen (some sources quote only initially 10,000 horsemen) to eventually conquer the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen from 1206-1368 (31 countries from Eastern Europe to Korea, Russia to Vietnam, and China to India). Incidentally, the Mongols were renowned for their ruthlessness, and there were up to 80 million casualties in their invasion of the Indian subcontinent alone.
Had enough factoids and ramblings yet?
After stopping at one Ger to ask for directions (and almost being eaten by their huge dog), I was pointed the point way in the usual vague sweeping motion and eventually made it to the gated entrance of the canyon in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains. At the information centre they were setting a new Ger, which was an interesting process to watch; just like setting up my tent, but a bit bigger and doesn’t threaten to blow away in the wind.
From there I rode on up into the canyon, with the valley sides getting steeper and narrower the further I went. After 10 km or so the track ended at a car park where you could walk the remaining 2 km to the ice flow.
Well, being on a motorbike, getting late, and being in Mongolia, I thought I’d have a go at riding the final 2 km and squeezed my way through the barriers.
The track followed a small stream and then got a bit rocky before eventually reaching the ice. There can’t be many deserts in the world with ice in them – it was pretty cool (in more ways than one).
In the winter the ice can reach several meters thick and several km long. I climbed along the ice flow for a while and explored some of the tunnels underneath. I thought about riding along it for a bit, but in places it had collapsed, and so I thought this was probably another stupid idea.
I stayed a while and watched the sun shadow climbing up the mountain. There were a variety of birds, eagles and vultures flying overhead, and I wished I knew what they were.
On the way back I passed several groups of hikers who looked a bit surprised to see me on a Tiger heading towards them on the footpath. They scattered pretty quickly as I waved.
After 5 km or so I branched off on a small track that led up a mountain into another valley. I considered camping there but it was really windy due to the wind funnelling through the valley, so I thought it was probably best to get out onto the plains and try and find a bit of shelter the other side of the mountains.
Outside the canyon I didn’t have to ride far to find a good camping spot, which was good because the sun was just about to set behind the mountains. The bike and I were covered head to toe in desert dust; it really does get everywhere (I hope my stepper motor remains unclogged).
For the second night it was really windy after the sun went down, but then thankfully calmed down just as the tent was reaching its critical blowing away point.
The wind woke me up around 2am, but thankfully it calmed down again. It woke me up again at 7am and I noticed the poles were starting to bend allowing the tent to cave in. Hmm; perhaps a 36 dollar Japanese special isn’t the most suitable tent for the Gobi. It was character building packing the tent up while trying to stop everything blowing away.
I had a long day’s ride ahead of me to reach the mythical ‘Singing Dunes’ at Khongoryn Els. I was looking forward to practicing my ‘riding on sand dunes’ technique.