There are no road signs in the Gobi Desert. Part 1

No road signs in the Gobi Desert. Part 1

There are few blacktop roads in Mongolia once you leave the smog blanketed chaos of Ulaanbaatar, out in the desert it takes knowledge and experience to navigate the wide open plains.

The sun and the stars become your road signs, mountains and rock formations guide you on your way. Many well-worn tracks fan out across the emptiness, bewildering to the untrained eye.

It was into this magnificent wilderness that we found ourselves bouncing along, in an old Soviet Uaz van, one icy morning in early November.

Our driver Bata knew these tracks like the lines on his palm, his navigational skills were completely unaided by maps or GPS {electronic units could fail and the desert is a deadly place to be lost, we were informed later.}.

The five of us were on a six night tour into the Gobi Desert, booked through our hostel in Ulaanbaatar {UB}, Sunpath. Chris, Sean, Severi, Sophie and myself were cosily bundled in the little grey van that we would be spending most of the week traveling in, many kilometers every day.

'Where we're going, we don't need roads!'

‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!’

Not too far out of UB, the cement buildings had dropped away, the solid road was now a track into a seemingly un-peopled landscape. A small herd of fluffy cows were huddled in the snow, as we neared we spotted a ger, smoke drifting up from the central chimney pipe. A typically Mongolian rural scene, one that would be repeated many times over the miles, one that I could never tire of seeing.

We stopped, our guide Badmaa and Bata took us over to the cows where we found an older woman amid them milking a cow, perched on a low stool, filling a metal bucket by hand. She turned to us, beaming, her cheeks flushed from the cold.

Such a warm, encouraging welcome. Would anyone like to try?

Chris took up the challenge, he has a rural background. A fresh cow was brought round and her calf allowed to suckle for a moment to encourage the milk. He managed a few squirts with some hand-signaled tutoring from the laughing lady.

We were invited into the ger for some milk tea, I had never been inside an authentic family ger before and I was so curiously excited to see how these nomadic people lived.

The tea was warming in a large pan over the central stove, which was also heating the ger.

We were enveloped by its warmth as we entered, inhaling what would soon be the familiar smell of ‘ger’: a smell of farm, of old milk, of meat stewing, of the smoky scent of the dried dung that was used for fuel.

The tea was weak, made with salted watery unpasteurized hot milk. We were offered fried dough nuggets: cold chewy bread bites to dip into the tea. We never entered a genuine ger after that without being offered the milk tea and the dough things, they were as expected as the smell and the welcome.

No road signs in the Gobi Desert. Part 1

We travelled through a flat valley, wide with rocky mountains along the edges. Vultures devoured the dead out here.

They abandoned their carrion, flapping their ragged wings to rise up from the approaching van, soaring away to the safety of the hills.

Out here the horses are small, skinny and plentiful. Large herds, farmed by the nomadic people for their strength, their milk and their meat.

A local family had turned their home – their ger – into a restaurant, the sign ‘ресторан’ hung above the decorated door.

We stopped for lunch, the meat eaters were served thick home-made noodles with mutton, I slurped up the vegetarian option: milky rice pudding which was very plain but perfectly warming and comforting.

No road signs in the Gobi Desert. Part 1


Snow was swirling around the van, some grumpy camels peered at us curiously through the blizzard.

A small farmstead consisting of some sheds and two gers came into view, more fluffy cows were tethered near the gers and a large dog, tied up, barked fiercely at us as we pulled up.

This was to be our accommodation for the night, sleeping with the family in their ger.

No road signs in the Gobi Desert. Part 1


The farmer welcomed us, he lived in one ger with his son. The grandparents lived in the ger next door.

The ‘farm’ had a more permanent feel than the one we had visited in the morning, the set-up was far more substantial.

Inside the ger was warm, the furniture was prettily decorated with colourful designs and was grubby with a lived-in appearance.

Two beds were opposite each other on the left and right of the ger as you step through the doorway, right foot first and avoiding stepping on the door frame: correct ger etiquette.

At the back was a cabinet displaying ornaments, toys and a TV, a low table stood in front of it.

No road signs in the Gobi Desert. Part 1


While Badmaa prepared our evening meal we explored the farm and nearby desert as the evening fell around us.

We walked out to a small Buddhist monument and wandered back through the farmers goats and sheep. Thoroughly chilled to the bone we sought the warmth of the ger.

The farmer, very kindly, offered us fermented mares milk. Served in cereal-sized bowls this drink had a very distinct taste: to me it was like the bread-making yeasted liquid, with the sourness of yoghurt and a strong dairy, farm, horsey aftertaste. Oh, and slightly fizzy.

All I can say is that it took some finishing! Luckily it is etiquette to leave a small amount of any drink.

Dinner was bubbling away on the stove, Badmaa taught us some knuckle-bone games. We played on the carpet, learning the animals represented by the different sides of the bones: horse, goat, sheep, camel.

We raced knuckle-bone horses and played ankle flick which was a bit like a boney cross between bowls and the table-top soccer game Subbuteo.

Photo by Sean Watts

Photo by Sean Watts

Ger, MongoliaAnother ger delicacy was offered around, dried cheese biscuits.

I think they were more like compacted dried yoghurt, very crumbly and powdery in texture. After watching Severi’s horror as he ate a piece I passed on trying it, the worst thing he’d ever eaten apparently!

The biscuit exploded in your mouth, coating it entirely in a sour powder.

After dinner we sat cross-legged around the low table and played cards, sharing a bottle of vodka with our host as he watched our card game with interest.

The table was removed at bed time and we rolled our sleeping bags out in a row.

In the warm darkness I lay thrilled to be in this incredible experience, sleeping with a nomadic family in a ger in the desert.

Through the small window above our heads in the top of the ger I could see a single twinkling star: this is why I travel, for magical moments like this.

Pin it for later:

There Are No Roadsigns In The Gobi Desert_ Part 1

Try these posts:

There Are No Roadsigns In The Gobi Desert: Part 2 Our Soviet van breaks down! We are stranded in the middle of absolute nowhere!

There Are No Roadsigns In The Gobi Desert: Part 3 Waking up to deep snow at the valley of the vultures.

There Are No Roadsigns In The Gobi Desert: Part 4 Spectacular rocks and cards by candlelight.

Hello Mongolia! Arriving by train into Ulaanbaatar on Chenggis Khan’s birthday! How very auspicious!

Crossing Siberia By Train, Fulfilling a Dream Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, and one very boozy Russian experience. Yes, we did sing Bohemian Rhapsody to two bemused Russians. Oh dear!

Moments of Clarity Have you ever found yourself acutely aware of the moment when you’re travelling?

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By Rachel Davis

7 Responses

  1. Wow, what an incredible experience! Love your stories Rachel, they really bring the places alive to us readers x

  2. Wow, what an incredible experience! Love your stories Rachel, they really bring the places alive to us readers x

    • Aw, thank you! I’m slowing getting through them, typing them up. I’m rather behind with them but it’s all about the quality eh! Don’t want to rush them! Bring the places to life, that’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve, glad to be hitting the mark! 🙂

  3. mmmarzipan says:

    looks amazing in winter too! 🙂 I was there in summertime. love your posts

  4. davegct says:

    Wow! What a story! Sleeping with a Mongolian family in a ger. What a feeling that must have been! So was the ger plenty warm? Sounds like it was freezing cold outside. And are the people Buddhist? You mentioned the shrine… I love the thought of you all heading out into the wide desert in the old Soviet van. I guess those old vans must be pretty hardy! Looking forward to the next posting!

    • Thanks Dave, yes, it was rather chilly outdoors, or should I say out-gers! The gers got so warm from the central fire/stove and putting out max temp just before bed so it would take hours to dye down. When it did though, overnight, it was rather parky, you needed plenty of bedding! Every morning on the tour, someone came in early to light it so we could get up to a warm ger,which was nice!
      Yes, they are Buddhist, you can see signs of it across the country, temples, monasteries, monks and shrines.
      We love the Uaz vans, Chris wants one! In the next post {which is written and ready to post!} you can read about it breaking down!