Story & photos by Joshua Berida
The first couple of days of my trip to the southern region of Mongolia has been surreal. At the start of the trip, it snowed at the UB Guesthouse. It was so white I couldn’t tell the difference between the sky and the road as ice and snow blurred the horizon, covering the sky and the ground as we set southward.
As our car moved from one destination to the next, the punishing landscape changed from a sheet of white to golden steppes, and to desert topography of dry, craggy rocks and rolling sand dunes seen from a distance.
As our customized Russian van parked, we were ready to explore and discover what the Gobi has to offer.
The Valley of the Vultures
I found Yolyn Am, also known as Ice Valley and the Valley of the Vultures, is part of the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park in Southern Mongolia. The area barely sees any precipitation year-round; however, despite this, it accumulates ice deep enough to become a field that cuts through the valley.
We drove to the starting point of the short trek into the valley, through craggy, peaked and yellow-tinged mountains. Unfortunately, we came during the wrong season, as there was barely any ice, but this didn’t ruin our experience.
We walked for an hour or so into the heart of the ice field; we tip-toed on frozen streams that creaked and seemed to crack with each step. With the last light of the day trickling on the mountains, their color changed from a faint yellow to a faint, flaming orange and red. We left before the sun set completely, with our hearts and eyes satisfied with the spectacular views natured displayed to us.
The rolling sand dunes of the Gobi Desert
We left Yolyn Am on our way to the Gobi Desert; it was another long drive, but I’ve realized that this is part of the journey. The craggy peaks, rolling, verdant hills and the ice valley disappeared into the distance, replaced with a stretch of arid nothingness, characterized by rocks, flatlands, mountains and dunes in the distance.
Our van parked just outside the rolling sand dunes of the Gobi. The desert covers parts of southern Mongolia, and north and northwestern China. It may sound like a contradiction, but this national park is a cold desert, with temperatures in extremes, from 40 degrees Celcius in the summer to below zero, up to -40 °C, in winter.
Our group of travelers, from Germany, the Philippines and the Netherlands, made its way up the dunes, some of the highest in the country. The climb up the sinking sand is different from going up a mountain; sometimes, you take one step up, but take two steps down. After reaching one of the sandy peaks, the dunes below resembled a golden ocean, with the sun’s fading rays bestowing each wave-like dune with a faint yellow, a hint of orange and a dash of red.
It snowed the day after our excursion to the dunes; I knew that this may happen in the desert, but actually being there and experiencing it was another thing. Patches of snow dotted our camp site, and snow-capped mountain peaks stood behind the dunes.
As we left our gers (nomad family houses), the road we drove on transformed from an arid wasteland with little to no vegetation into a white, vast expanse. Here in Mongolia, 12 hours and a couple of hundred kilometers make a difference in the appearance of the landscape and the weather.
The Flaming Cliffs
Bayanzag, or also known as the Flaming Cliffs, are in an arid region in southern Mongolia. It snowed the day before our arrival, so instead of seeing desert features of red rocks and landscapes, a winter wonderland greeted us, with white as far as the eyes could see. We didn’t go straight to our destination. We waited until sunset. While waiting, we decided to build a snowman. We all felt like children again, forming the base, the body and the head, and looking for buttons, a nose and eyes for our would-be Frosty. I couldn’t believe it. We built a snowman in a supposedly desert and arid region.
We set out for the cliffs an hour or so just before sunset. We approached Bayanzag with no expectations; as my eyes steadied on the rock formations before me, I felt like I was on Mars with the red rocks towering over me, and the red earth covered in snow beneath my feet.
The remaining pieces of light coming from the sun shone on the reddish earth and rocks, giving it a faint glow. We climbed up a cliff to get a bird’s eye view of the landscape, the sun slowly descending in the horizon. The last rays flickered in the distance, turning the whitish snow into a haze of orange in sync with the Martian-like surroundings. It was the perfect way to end a day of contradictions and discoveries.
Image credits: Joshua Berida