Crossing Mongolia, the Land of the Great Blue Sky

Mongolia in summer.
Mongolia in summer.

A two-month crossing of this vast and wide-open land of Mongolia

By Rensina van den Heuvel

A bright, white moon hangs in a velvety sky. She bathes the eerie, desolate landscape, surrounding the Land Rover with a warm golden glow.

Rensina watering some thirsty horses in the Gobi Desert. In some wells there was a bucket made from the rubber from old tyres and wired onto a long pole.
Rensina watering some thirsty horses in the Gobi Desert. In some wells, there was a bucket made from the rubber from old tires and wired onto a long pole.

The gentle visual scene belies an extreme and harsh environment. We’re camped in the Gobi Desert. The wind is brutal, severe in her strength, and howling like a banshee.

Late yesterday, on our daily search for a camp spot, we found this abandoned winter shelter and tucked the Land Rover as close as possible to it. Hundreds of pieces of slate make up the walls of the shelter, all stacked on top of each other.

The pieces, about the size of my hand are every color of the rainbow and have a sort of pearly hue to them. There’s mud between each layer holding it all together. Small mountains surround us, catching the moonlight in their peaks. The scene is ruggedly beautiful.

We’ve been in Mongolia for seventeen days and have found it to be an absolutely enchanting country. After spending a few days in and around the capital Ulaanbaatar, waiting for Mongolian and Kazakhstan visas, we were glad to be off into the wilderness.

After shipping the Land Rover from Brisbane Australia to South Korea, we drove to the north of Korea then hopped on a ferry with the car and landed in the tiny port of Zarubino in the Southeastern corner of Siberia.

We traveled across Eastern Russia for five weeks, then dropped down over the border into Mongolia. We now have two months to traverse this magnificent country.

I already know that it’s not going to be enough time. Mongolia’s vastness is difficult to describe. It’s like seeing forever and then seeing more!

Driving through the dry Gobi desert, we stop at many wells and huts looking for water. Now and then we come across a tiny wooden shed that houses the water pumps.

The sheds are all locked. Peering through the cracks in the sunbleached, wooden slatted walls, it becomes obvious that they are no longer in use.

Occasionally we come across a well, just out in the open but for the past few days, they have all been dry and abandoned.

I saw my first two Bactrian camels today. They’re huge, extremely strong-looking beasts, with heavy muscles and thick, rich caramel-colored fur.

Seemingly not bothered by us, their large velvety eyes gaze through long luscious eyelashes. They have a gentle look about them and move in a graceful way, which belies their bulky forms.

We have not seen any cars, motorbikes or another soul in the last two days. We are continuing southwest as we drive through an ever-changing landscape, not on any tracks, just across the country with our GPS and Russian maps. There’s a hot dry wind blowing all day, the landscape like something out of a Mad Max movie. Inhospitable! Just sand, hard gravel and rock. It’s desert all right.

Home for five months
Home for five months

We stop at yet another wooden shed in the hope of finding water. The shriveled, desiccated body of a young goat lies at my feet, it’s face distorted, teeth bared but still intact, the toffee-colored fur on its silky hide, perfectly preserved. It’s even too dry for the flies out here!

Just before we reach the next town, we find a well. Taking the crude wooden lid off it and peering down, the water looks fairly clean from up here. Yippee!

Allen fashions a scoop from the ‘Roman’ mattress bag, and some rope and puts a couple of rocks in it to weigh it down. It works well and we fill up our ten-liter water container with transparent, icy-cold water.

Driving on, we’re on the lookout for somewhere to stop for the night and shelter from the relentless drying wind. This is how we end up at the slate shelter.

The next morning there’s still a strong gusty wind. A quick trek to the top of a small, very steep, rocky mountain nearby reveals a tall rock cairn with a small crude crutch made from pine, lying beside it. Placing a rock onto the pile, I half slide back down to the car to eat some sticky Russian oats.

The preparation of tonight's dinner which is blowtorched goat's leg.
The preparation of tonight’s dinner which is blowtorched goat’s leg.

The desert goes on and on, a parched colorless landscape. Over hundreds of undulating hills, we slowly meander our way across the Gobi. Surprisingly, we come across a small village. There are no smiles here at all. Just a few gaunt, vacant stares.

An arid dustbowl with a couple of small shabby buildings is all that appears to be here. We buy some rice and four slightly withered apples. The town has a lifeless feel about it. To my eyes, it appears to be nothing more than survival and existence. But this is simply from my perspective!

We drive on through a hundred kilometers of barren, desolate, scorched dry earth. It’s so unbelievably harsh out here, like an endless, vast lunar landscape. Far harsher than the Australian desert.

It appears uninhabitable. Just grey rocky plains and small mountains jutting up, jagged against the quartz blue sky. It’s serene…. beautifully stark…… sacred and unchangeable… …constant and silent.

Our average speed is about 30km per hour as we cruise our way over the round undulating hills on two-wheel tracks. It’s a wonderful pace, allowing us to feast our eyes on all the wondrous sights we see each day. Up over another rise and Whoah….

Look at all those camels! About eighty of them, all bunched up together. A gigantic expanse of brown furry bodies, they stare at us through big brown eyes, unperturbed by our presence. We’re downwind when the rank potent odor that drifts our way, hits my nostrils like a sledgehammer.

It’s an extremely intense, ‘circus is in town” stench. Wheweeee! To me, camels are fascinating creatures and I could watch them all day… but not downwind!

I could have spent days wandering the dunes. They were one of the highlights of Mongolia.
I could have spent days wandering the dunes. They were one of the highlights of Mongolia.

As we drive on, many birds which nest in the grass patches, on the sides of the roads, take flight. The constant sweet smell of the herbs is stimulating, earthy, and absolutely delightful, as we drive over kilometer after kilometer of them, on the wide-open steppe.

We stop to look at a strange little creature, which lies dead in front of us. It looks like a little echidna and has a tiny pointy face like a fruit bat.

The skies continue to get greyer and the temperature drops as the day progresses.

We come across nine different colored baby camels that are in various stages of molting. Their fluffy bodies look like they are covered in dreadlocks. One of them is pure white whilst the others are varying brown tones from caramel to chocolate.

As we continue on our journey, the scenery changes sometimes moment by moment. There are lots more groups of camels and whilst gazing at them through my binoculars, I see other signs of life. The moving mass that I can see across the steppe, is an immense herd of about two hundred wild donkeys. Even though they are a long way off, I know they are keeping a timid eye on us as they begin to become a little twitchy and agitated.

Mongolian kids are so innocent and playful. They don't have toys and we watched them play with sticks and stones. They made up intricate games amongst themselves.
Mongolian kids are so innocent and playful. They don’t have toys and we watched them play with sticks and stones. They made up intricate games amongst themselves.

Two hours on, we drive over a rise, and seemingly out of nowhere, a larger town appears before us. It’s built amongst the most impressive, striking rounded rock formations. Like slabs of baked potatoes that have melted over each other and slouched to form soft-looking mountains. It’s called Mandah.

People turn out to be friendly, although Allen freaks a couple of the women and kids out with his snowy beard. The look of horror on their faces indicates that they have probably never seen a man with such abundant facial hair. A few of them actually run to take cover.

Fresh produce is in very short supply in the shops, except for a few potatoes and onions. Oh, how I long for a juicy piece of fruit in this parched environment. I bet the people who live here do to.

As I walked back to the car, I spotted a watermelon in someone’s arms. Thus begins the hunt. After looking in every shop I could find, eventually, two older women in traditional dels come up to help me. I wave my arms around trying to describe a watermelon and made slurping sounds and somehow, they understood me.

Camped in Khargoryn Els. The wind came up with a vengeance over night.
Camped in Khargoryn Els. The wind came up with a vengeance overnight.

With one woman taking each of my arms, they escort me to a shop where three Mongolian men and a woman are sitting at the table playing cards. The floor is literally covered in watermelons. Dozens of green round melons. Oh, joy! It was like an oasis in the desert.

I waltzed back to the car ecstatic and triumphant with my two round green, juicy prizes. A handful of curious, jovial adults and kids had gathered around the Land Rover. No conversation takes place, just lots of nods, smiles, and waves goodbye.

In the center of the town, there is a water pump where we again, take the opportunity to fill up our bottles with icy cold, clear water. Once we leave the edge of the town we are immediately back into the vast, arid wasteland. Not a blade of grass nor even a chive is visible anywhere now.

An hour or so later we come across an old man sitting on the edge of a well literally surrounded by at least one hundred goats and sheep. On one side of him sits a small boy and on the other side, right next to him, stands a big, dark brown horned goat. The animals are all different shades from pure white to brown to black.

Women at the markets in Khovd, selling their milk from the back of the truck. The goat has the premium seat!
Women at the markets in Khovd, selling their milk from the back of the truck. The goat has the premium seat!

The old man’s face is weathered beyond belief. It’s dark brown, dirty, filled with deep lines and crevices, and has a lifetime of character etched into it. He’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Oh… how I long to take a photo of his incredible face. The small boy sidles close to his grandfather as he peers at our unusual foreign faces.

We don’t need water from the well so there is no need for us to disturb this scene and we move off again. Sure, photos are great to paint a picture of what I saw. For memories.

The reality is that it is absolutely not possible to capture on film what I saw, smelled, heard, tasted nor how I felt, anywhere in Mongolia.

This unique journey throughout Mongolia is indelibly imprinted in my mind and on my soul.

Rensina van den Heuvel

Rensina van den Heuvel lives on a remote property when she is not traveling. Rensina and her partner run “grassroots… way off the tourist tracks” expeditions to Mongolia and Outback Australia. “Russian Documents, Mongolian Dust” is Rensina’s first book about her 21,000 km overland trip from Australia to Switzerland in a Land Rover. She also writes travel articles for E-zines and magazines. Visit her website,

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