Desert Queens’ 40th Anniversary Korea and Mongolia Adventure (itinerary)

As part of our commitment to visit every desert on earth, we decided to celebrate our 40th year by visiting Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

This was a pretty substantial undertaking. All told, it took us around a year to plan, tho, if we’re being perfectly honest, I think we mostly dragged our feet out of necessity (little things like accruing enough time off from work and, yanno, money). If money was no object – which also presumes that we’re funemployed – we could probably have put it together within about a month, but I bet even a few weeks if we were really efficient.

We each read through the Lonely Planet guide for Mongolia, selecting those things that interested us. This was probably the longest part of the planning process, in large part because we tried at first to share one copy of the book, like some kind of misers. Tho we apparently saw nothing wrong with spending thousands of dollars to take the trip, an extra $20 for a second copy of the guide book was really just asking too much.

After months, we sat down to merge the lists. We each came to the table with some absolutely positively we will do these things (ie: must have), some wow I would really really love to do these things (ie: would like to have), some gee these things sound really cool (ie: nice to have), and some if time allows and it’s convenient I’d like to see these things (ie: sure why not). Unsurprisingly, our must have and would like to have lists were identical, if not in priority, at least in final content. We travel really well together! We each had at least one nice to have that the other questioned that the other just gave up, because, meh, on second thought, you’re right, that doesn’t actually sound interesting after all. And the why nots were mostly things in the capital city that, seriously, we’ll probably see if we’re passing by, but probably would only go out of our way to find if we’ve already done everything else and still have free time to fill.

Once we had our list, we plotted everything out on a map. That helped us to identify some clear outliers: there were two different high priority things we wanted to see – one on the far east side of the Gobi, and one on the far west – that would each have cost us three additional days: one to drive to it, one to be there, and one to get back from it. And they probably would have required for real-real camping. Given how much else we were trying to include, we had to make some hard choices. I know it sounds preposterous to think that these choices would have been hard, but they were. I tried over and over to find ways to include everything. Maybe we can start from a different point? Or we can take a different path? So what if it means we have to fly back to the capital city at the end of the trip and then we can go do the rest of the stuff up here after that! No. We had to make some hard choices.

So, now with a vague idea of an itinerary in hand, we went about finding someone to implement it for us. We’re all about a good adventure… but, especially given that we don’t know the language, in a country where the understood method of getting from place to place is stopping and asking people when you see them if you are still on the right path, there’s really no question that a successful adventure requires local knowledge that we most certainly lack.

I received tour agency referrals from two friends: one based in Cleveland which specializes in tours of Mongolia, and another based in Fremont which covers Asia more generally.

I initially reached out to the folks in Ohio. They were very nice. They helped us trim out a few things that were missable, and they gave us a good sense of what was achievable with the time available. In the end, we started with about 135% of what was possible (not bad, actually!), pared ourselves down to probably 115% of what was possible (also: not bad!), and they helped us narrow down a nice even 100%, including some intentional down time.

But they couldn’t arrange everything that we wanted to do, so we would have had to do some extra work and incur some additional cost. Plus, they are based in Ohio, and I have a personal grudge against the state of Ohio (sorry guys!). And so, if only to see how different the proposal would be, I also reached out to the folks in Fremont. They were able to arrange everything that we wanted, and for less money — none of which would be exported to Ohio! We were both sold.

On 2016-03-18, we committed to spend 22 days exploring central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert together with a driver and guide. We’ve spent the last four months slowly preparing, and are down to the last two weeks.

This week, while readying this site, I prepared a google map with the points of all those locations on the itinerary that I was able to find references to. Eventually, I’ll have the exact track that we travel that I can overlay onto a map, but, this will do for now.

2016-07-28: Day 1

I arrive in Seoul ~7pm, about a day before Brian. My former classmate, Hong, will meet me at ICN, and carry me safely off to his family’s home where I will stay for the next two nights.

2016-07-29: Day 2

Brian arrives in Seoul ~6pm. Hong and I will collect him at the airport (much to his delight). We’ll have a Friday night out on the town in Seoul before retiring back with our hosts.

2016-07-30: Day 3

Today, we will visit the border between North and South Korea. Cleverly referred to as the Korean demilitarized zone, or “DMZ” if you’re ITK (that’s “in the know” – which clearly you’re not), this spot of land is actually the most heavily fortified area on earth.

We fly out of Seoul around 8pm, landing in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, about five hours later.

2016-07-31: Day 4

We arrive in Ulaanbaatar around midnight. Tho we will be met by a guide at the airport, given our new SIM cards, and transferred to what I’m hoping will be a lovely Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Ulaanbaatar, we will be left alone for the night and following day.

We’ll visit the State Department Store to buy snacks for the next two weeks. And we’ll spend a second night at the same hopefully lovely hotel.

2016-08-01: Day 5

We wake early: 5:20am. No! Haha!! I’m just kidding!!! Don’t be silly. No no no. No, that’s when we meet our guide in the lobby to take us to the airport. We have to be packed, pressed, and dressed by 5:20am. Let the desert adventure begin!

After our flight, MR1011, scheduled to land Dalanzadgad at 8:20am, we meet our local driver who will transport us about another hour to our first desert destination: Yoliin Am. The descriptions of this canyon make it sound a little reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, if only on an obviously smaller scale: beautiful deep canyon, many rocky cliffs, created by many years of water erosion, very wide at the entrance, narrows gradually, enjoyed best on foot. It is also notable for a deep ice field, which gets many feet thick and stretches for several miles even into the summer.

We sleep this evening at Dream Gobi Lodge, about a 90 minute drive from our first Gobi Desert site.

2016-08-02: Day 6

After viewing a historical documentary at the lodge about our second destination, today we will visit Bayanzag, the so called Flaming Cliffs, perhaps the most famous dinosaur site in the world. Maybe we’ll find a baby dinosaur!

We return to Dream Gobi for a second night.

2016-08-03: Day 7

It sounds like this will be a long day of desert driving speckled by short hike adventures – perfectly characteristic of our domestic travels!

We check out of Dream Gobi and head off for the Khongoryn Els sand dune field.

On the way, we’ll stop to check out probably the only evidence of lasting human impact on the desert that we don’t mind (and, in fact, really kinda love): petroglyphs! I am crazy excited to see how much the petroglyphs in Mongolia either resemble or differ from the ones I’ve seen in the US. I am especially excited because I was able to find exactly no information about this set of petroglyphs online!

We check in tonight to Gobi Erdene camp.

2016-08-04: Day 8

Today will be ridiculous. We will spend all day riding the iconic two humped Bactrian camels across the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, broken by a picnic lunch at midday. This is the reason I got a rabies vaccination, so I really hope one of those bastards at least drools on me. Not that I want it to have rabies, but, meh whatever. Anyway.

Before we ride, we spend time with the camel breeders learning about the camels and the equipment.

Return to the nomadic family and Gobi Erdene camp.

2016-08-05: Day 9

Today we drive to the Ongi monastery ruins in the Middle Gobi province, and take a walking tour of the monastery grounds.

We stay at the Secret of Ongi camp by the river Ongi, the longest river in the Gobi.

2016-08-06: Day 10

We drive today to the Orkhorn River Valley, which is certain to be a treat, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the way, we’ll get to soak up some nomadic culture and traditions: dairy making, embroidery, cooking, etc. We also expect to try the famous airag, a traditional drink of fermented mare’s milk. Brian is more excited about this than I am, tho, given a culture where it is rude to refuse anything that you’re offered, I expect I will develop a taste for it by the end of the trip!

We sleep tonight at the Talbiun Lodge.

2016-08-07: Day 11

Today, in the morning we visit the Tuvkhun monastery ruins – we may choose to walk or ride a horse (but I think that choice is obvious) – and in the afternoon we visit the waterfalls in the Orhkorn River valley.

We sleep again at the Talbiun Lodge.

2016-08-08: Day 12

We drive today to Tsenhker Hot Springs, and begin the relaxing part of our trip. Here, I expect I may feel compelled to work on organizing photos and thoughts from the previous 11 days, since the plan is actually to just relax here. All that the tour description says is: dinner and hot springs bathing under the starry skies. It’s like they wrote this for me. Oh wait, they did write this for me. Well.

We sleep tonight at the Altan Nutag Ger camp.

2016-08-09: Day 13

Today, we can hike and/or ride horses, and then (or just) soak in the hot springs again. I think that is exactly what we will do today. I guess I should have a book or two.

We sleep again tonight at the Altan Nutag Ger camp.

2016-08-10: Day 14

We will get another history lesson at the open-air Karakorum Museum this afternoon, and then we will hike to the hilltop turtle monument and phallic stone in the evening.

Tonight, we stay in Dream Land Resort. I think this was the one place that we basically demanded to stay, tho I can’t remember why anymore.

2016-08-11: Day 15

Today we will participate in the morning chants at Mongolia’s oldest Buddhist monastery, then spend time exploring the grounds.

We stay again at Dream Land Resort.

2016-08-12: Day 16

Today, we visit Khungu Khan National Park, and Elsen Tasarhai Sand Dunes. “A picturesque combination of rocky mountains, green grasslands, pretty lakes, and sand dunes.” I think I may never want to leave here. We will hike the Khungu Khan mountains for photography opportunities with locals and monks.

We sleep tonight at Hoyor Zagal camp.

2016-08-13: Day 17

Some more education, today about the world’s last remaining wild horse species: the Takhi. Hopefully, we will be able to get some photographs of the wild horses in the Hustai National Park.

We sleep tonight in the park, I think. The itinerary just says: Hustai. But we apparently have rooms with beds. Here’s hoping! 😉

2016-08-14: Day 18

Today definitely sounds like a driving day. We visit the giant Genghis Khan statue – 40 meters tall! – on the way to Terelj National Park which offers opportunities for hiking, rock climbing, swimming, rafting, riding, birdwatching, and visiting the meditation center.

We sleep tonight at the Terelj Lodge.

2016-08-15: Day 19

Today, we will spend half of the day rafting on the Tuul River!

We sleep again at the Terelj Lodge.

2016-08-16: Day 20

Today will be another relaxing day, at least in that there are no set plans. Sounds like another time to organize photos and update travel blog, but we can go do some more hiking, maybe some more horse riding, maybe learn archery, maybe hang with the nomad family, maybe convince the folks at the restaurant to teach us how to cook with them, maybe go do more rafting (cuz I really miss doing that!), or maybe just a purely mellow chill out and read a book day.

We sleep again at the Terelj Lodge. I hope this place is comfortable; after Shangri-La, it’s the place we will spend the most number of nights! They do have their own website, I’m just not sure whether that lends them more credit or strips it away.

2016-08-17 – 2016-08-21: Days 21-25

We return to Ulaanbaatar for five more days and four nights of exploring the capital city. Some of the key things to hit during these days include the Center of Shaman Eternal Heavenly Sophistication, and a number of unusual museums such as the Victims of Political Persecution Museum and the International Intellectual Museum.

We’ll sample North Korean cuisine at the appropriately named Pyongyang. And we’ll go dancing with local homos.

We’ll spend too much money on gifts for ourselves and for our friends. And then, late in the evening on Sunday 2016-08-21, we’ll return to Seoul.

2016-08-22 – 2016-08-27: Days 26-31

Arriving around 4am with only about 12 hours before Brian’s return flight, we’ll do some eating and shopping.

I’ll spend the next six days exploring Seoul with Hong before getting back onto an airplane some time in the afternoon on 2016-08-27, and traveling back in time, arriving back in San Francisco about four hours before I left Seoul.