It didn’t take me long to get sick of the intense cold that encapsulated Ulaan Baatar. To alleviate that boredom, I decided to look for the best way to get out of the city. As it transpired, the easiest option was to jump onto the train and head due south in the direction of the Gobi desert.
The journey from the city out to the desert took upwards of 10 hours. Although sitting in a bare four-berthed compartment was not the most thrilling way to spend most of a day, it gave us an excellent chance to look at the changing faces of the countryside. After we first left Ulaan Baatar, everything we could see through the window was frozen and snow-covered, but as we headed south, things began to change. A couple of hours into the trip, the snow started to thin out and give way to lush grassland, which in turn gradually receded into desert.
We arrived in the desert town of Sainshand late in the evening. Even though we had a full day’s hiking planned the following day, there was still an evening’s entertainment to be found. The Gobi may be famed for its extreme weather conditions and stunning scenery, but it isn’t too renowned for its throbbing nightlife.
Despite the chances of finding lavish entertainment looking decidedly thin, we still managed to stumble upon one of the best nights I sent in Mongolia. The only place we could find to have a beer and spend the evening was a badly decorated discotheque known as the Piramid.
The atmosphere inside Piramid was decidedly subdued. The dance floor was full of young Mongolians busting their best moves, but unfortunately the music was a rather underwhelming blend of placid Asian pop tunes and dated European boy bands. Not even a succession of chilled beers made the grating background noise tolerable, so I hatched a plan to change things dramatically.
I had, tucked in my jacket pocket, my personal CD player complete with my favourite Johnny Cash CD. This got me to thinking how much better hearing the Man in Black would be than putting up with the din we had been enduring up to that point. So, I dived into my pocket and then sauntered over to the DJ booth. I handed over the CD and signalled with my fingers that he ought to play track
None of us had any idea whether or not the song would actually get played, but we crossed our fingers nevertheless. After around 20 minutes and a couple more beers, it looked as though we were going to be disappointed. It was only as I started to give up hope that the first licks of acoustic guitar drifted out across the dance floor. The Mongolian teenagers suddenly stopped dead and looked around in a state of complete bemusement. They were clearly wondering just how they could dance to the new music that they had never heard before. As the floor cleared and everyone in the whole club stared at us in complete confusion, it looked as though my plan was falling flat on its face. However, just as all appeared to be lost, a pair of guys in the far corner of the room began to holler and clap in time. As they did, others began to join in, and a table close to the bar even started to play air guitar. The whole place was going crazy with country music fever.
Our little musical interlude had certainly made our first evening in the Gobi a fun one. However, the next morning we had the serious business of getting to grips with the desert to deal with. Around 10 or 11km outside Sainshand is a large formation of dark volcanic rocks that we decided that they would be the perfect place to hike to.
We stocked up on as much water as we could easily carry and then ventured out to get sand in our boots. It took around 30 minutes for the town to fade into the distance behind us. The sand between us and the rocks was flat, golden, and seemingly unending. As the midday sun beat down from overhead, our target appeared to teeter permanently on the horizon.
It took almost 3 hours for us to reach the rocks. By the time we arrived, the group was tired, thirsty, and just starting to get sunburnt. However, despite the discomfort, reaching the rocks was well worth it. We looked out across the desert seeing Sainshand in the farthest reaches of the distance and unending stretches of golden sands crowned by an unfettered and cloudless blue sky all around us.
Once we had drunk in enough of the impressive view, we all decided it was time to head back towards Sainshand and grab a train back to the city. It was only as we made our way back across the desert floor that we began to understand the harsh realities of tackling the Gobi. In Ulaan Baatar, we had been used to temperatures that never got even remotely close to breaking above the freezing point and then suddenly found our selves in the glare of bright unrestricted sunlight.
By the time we made it back to the train station, almost everyone was suffering. My skin, which back in the city had grown pasty white, had no idea how to deal with the new conditions. The top of my freshly shaven head had gone from white, to pink, to a rather dramatic looking purple colour. The only part of my head that was not scorched was a thin white line where my sunglasses had been.
The difference between town and country in Mongolia was a stark one. The train journey took us from urban sprawl and heavy pollution to unspoilt wilderness and from snow and ice to sun and sand. Despite the burned scalp and bad music, it was well worth it.