Autumn Sonata

Adventure seekers should head to Mongolia's Gobi Desert, with riding a camel and looking for dinosaur fossils on their to-do list.

Published Fri, Nov 7, 2014 · 09:50 PM

IF only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, then it has to be crowd-averse Singaporeans with a misplaced sense of adventure who would attempt a visit to Mongolia in the autumn. This is despite warnings from travel agents that it can get so cold in the desert, some camps close their toilet facilities - forcing you to use the primitive wooden ones out in the open.

Yes, the best time to visit is in summer - the peak being July and August - especially during the action-packed Nadaam festival when national wrestling matches, archery competitions and horse races take full advantage of the tourist-friendly weather. By late September, the crowds and the intense blue skies fade away to be replaced by falling temperatures and shorter days. But you're rewarded with an amazing view of the Mongolian steppes painted in the vivid autumn hues of brown, gold, orange and green - a sight reserved only for the select few prepared to tough it out.

Tough it out is perhaps an understatement after the 18 hours, three flights and bumpy two-hour car ride in pitch darkness it takes to get from Singapore to the Three Camel Lodge camp, somewhere in the South Gobi province of Mongolia. Gobi has few paved roads to speak of, so there is no official address for the camp, at least not on its website. So if you are determined, or crazy enough to want to drive there yourself, you can use the GPS co-ordinates - N43'45"37" and N104'44"26".

Three Camel Lodge was voted last year as one of the 25 best lodges in the world to explore the wild by the National Geographic. Deservedly so, because the lodge's highlights include several deluxe supersized gers - round white felt tents used by Mongolian nomadic herders - which are equipped with wood-burning stoves, en-suite toilets, warm wooden floors and American king-sized beds covered in white linen sheets with fluffy pillows, quilts and fine camel wool blankets.

The gers are warm and inviting with the stoves thoughtfully fired up in the evenings (and again before sunrise) by herdsmen to counter the near freezing autumn night temperatures on the Mongolian steppes.

When you are suitably refreshed, the best way to explore the Gobi is to rent a 4WD vehicle, and most important, an experienced local driver. No way do you want to be caught fiddling with a faulty TomTom or figuring out a passing herdsman's directions when trying to get across hilly terrain, around impassable gullies and navigating the bumpy dust tracks to reach some of the amazing sights before you.

Take the Khongoryn Els, the largest sand dunes in Mongolia measuring over 100 km, which takes four hours to get to by car, leaving you plenty of time to take in the rugged landscape.

There are few fellow travellers out and about in the middle of autumn in the Gobi, so there's nothing to disrupt your photo-taking as you run around capturing the hordes of livestock roaming freely, tended by the occasional herdsman. Cows, sheep, goats, yaks, pigs, horses and camels number more than 50 million in Mongolia, far outnumbering the three million people who live there. Add to this the abundant wildlife that thrives despite the arid environment. Good luck trying to spot them as the animals are notoriously shy, such as the Mongolian gazelles, Altai Argali (world's largest sheep) and endangered snow leopard. The area is also a playground for birds - at least those which seem to emerge randomly from the steppes when a car speeds by, flying alongside for a while before falling away, as if for a proverbial lark.

When visiting the dunes, it's customary to make a courtesy call at the ger of a nomadic family, whether for a quick chat or even to trade. Mongolian nomads are famous for their hospitality, often plying tourists with all manner of home-made snacks from airag (fermented horse milk) and salted milk tea to fried dough and dried curd. When it's time to take your leave, you can hire big, hairy Gobi camels from them to take you to the edge of the dunes.

It's surprisingly comfortable to ride the two-humped domestic Bactrian camel, not to mention the higher vantage point that you can enjoy the surroundings from. It costs more if you want the animals to take you up the dunes - or you can get off and walk. The extra cost might be worth it because sand dune climbing is no easy task. You slide down more than you climb especially on a steep ascent. It takes almost an hour to climb the 200-metre high dune, taking into account several rest stops and crawling on all fours to reach the top.

The next spot you want to tackle is Bayanzag, or the Flaming Cliffs, so named after the red-orange sandstone cliffs which glow brilliantly in the sun. This is where American palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews found the first nest of dinosaur eggs the world has ever seen, in the 1920s. Ancient burial sites are scattered around the area, identified by deer carvings etched on rock pieces - petroglyphs which date back some 2,000 years to the Bronze Age.

For a taste of dinosaur life - and we mean literally - see if you can find small bits of dinosaur fossil at the Flaming Cliffs, which is a protected zone. You will need luck and an experienced guide to detect any bone fragments. If you do, subject it to the Mongolian stick test. That is, scrape off a bit of the dried-out bone and stick it on the tip of your tongue. Squeamishness aside, the real thing will stick to your tongue even when you try to shake it off, thanks to the "suction" power created by capillary action in the hollow tubes of the bone. Smaller bones work better than the bigger ones, which tend to get filled with sediment. Non-dinosaur bones will just fall off if you try the stick test.

The experiment is a small thrill in itself but when you see it in the larger context - standing on the top of the Flaming Cliffs and looking down into the canyon below - you are suddenly struck by an inexplicable sense of awe. You are standing at the very spot where dinosaurs once roamed and thrived - which makes everything else seem trivial in comparison.

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