Why Mongolia?

When I tell people that I’m going to spend three weeks in Mongolia so I can visit the Gobi Desert, the most common first question I get is: “Why?”

It’s kinda become a theme, actually:

  • August, 2007: “I’ll watch three nights of the Perseids from a dry lakebed in the middle of the Mojave Desert this year!” (Why?)
  • June, 2009: “A friend and I just spent the day driving to a town called Rachel to try and find Area 51!” (Why?)
  • July, 2010: “I’m going to climb across the boulder pile and up to the top of White Tank in Joshua Tree this weekend!” (Why?)
  • November, 2010: “We’re gonna spend Thanksgiving week just, yanno, driving around the desert!” (Why?)
  • November, 2014: “Yeah! Again! But, a different desert this time!” (Why?)

In all cases, my only response is, “What? Really? Wait, are you serious? Why NOT?”

I love the desert for many reasons. Asked to my face, I’ll most likely tell you something about my love for the desert’s rugged untouched natural beauty that practically screams: “Don’t mess with me, because I will mess back! It’s hard out here!” Most people think of brown lifelessness when they think of the desert, but they could not be further from the truth. The desert pronounces the full spectrum of colors: pink flowers and ripe red prickly pears on opuntia paddle cacti, orange sandstone rock cliffs, swarms of yellow honeybee abdomens, green rattlesnakes and tortoises, shimmering iridescent blue dragonfly wings, dark purple sage blossoms, soft patches of brown coyote fur, mountains of obsidian black lava rock deposited by long dormant volcanoes, alongside long and wide white slat flats – not to mention the fact that this all sometimes lives beneath actual rainbows! And a surprising number of lifeforms – plants, birds, reptiles, small and even some large mammals – survive the desert’s harsh crushing conditions. They improvise to protect themselves against the forces, and they defy all sense and logic to be able to say: “Hey, guess what? I figured it out!” I can’t help but feel deep respect and admiration for that.

Pressed on the matter, I’ll definitely talk about the level of darkness we achieve at night in some desert locations. If you’ve never left a major metropolitan area, it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen the milky way with your naked eyes, but, let me tell you: you’re missing out. Even just outside of Las Vegas (which, I learned while writing this, may hold the title of brightest city on the earth), one only needs to drive about a half hour past the mountains on the edge of town to escape to complete and total darkness. Drive three hours, all the way to Rachel, and you will absolutely be in one of the darkest locations on the continental United States, where you’re rewarded with the really cool astronomical phenomena that you only get to see when it’s really that dark, like the Zodiacal light and the gegenschein. That’s because there’s just nothing else there. No additional sources of artificial light produced to illuminate the dust particles in the sky and obstruct our view of whatever is beyond our atmosphere. Why wouldn’t you want to go see that?!

But, if truth be told (and, for what will soon be obvious reasons, I don’t often say this to someone’s face unless we have a very strong and well understood personal bond), probably the most appealing thing about the desert to me is the fact that… you’re not there.

Once, on the first of those Thanksgiving trips I noted in the list above, we met a BLM Ranger out with a class of students for the day. She was awesome (and will be the source of another post one day, I hope), and she pointed out something I’ve not since forgotten: from our location on the entrance to the Cadiz Dunes Wilderness, you could see for miles to the horizon in every single direction, but you could not identify one single sign of human impact. There were no structures – not even foundational remains. There were no paved roads – we drove out on a very aggressive washboard dirt road, which actually claimed a tire to “reckless driving” (in the form of 15mph instead of 9mph) the afternoon before. There were even no train tracks or power lines – and, at least in the United States, those two things definitely feel ubiquitous. I still don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to go see that. But, if I’m being completely honest, I’m actually really happy that you’re not!

Now, I could probably spin that last line. I could probably say something like, “…because, yanno, the desert is unsafe! And you need to be prepared!” or, yanno, something altruistic. But, really, I’m just happy you’re not there. That is why I go there!

I like the remoteness. I like the desolation. I like the quiet. In the summer, I like that it gets so hot during midday — even with well constructed shade! — that I force myself to stop thinking just to keep my brain from releasing extra heat across the synapses. And I like that all of these inhospitable traits make you stay away from it. Because I like that it’s all mine — and I don’t even have to get all Daffy Duck about it!

But that’s answering a different question. That’s answering: why desert? We’re here to answer, why Mongolia?

The simplest answer is: it’s one of the deserts of the world, and we wanted to pick off another one! In reality, the answer is more complex.

Had we more seriously considered doing a circuit of Australia’s four deserts, I might be writing about that upcoming adventure instead (or, actually, on second thought, we probably already would have taken the trip this past January and February, because southern hemisphere, but that’s just details). I really would love to one day do a whole Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert tour through Australia’s outback (minus the actual climb up Uluru, because respect for the wishes of the indigenous peoples) followed by diving the Great Barrier Reef (“since I’ll be there”), but the 10,000km drive I plotted would have been far too much for us to accomplish in the time we knew we had available for this journey. On top of that, I had already visited Australia, and so it also lacked the exciting appeal of adding a new country’s entry stamp to my collection (of, so far, only two)!

We did consider Chile’s Atacama Desert, parts of which have seen absolutely no measurable rainfall for, literally, decades. We shelved that because we felt a 40th birthday celebration needed more of an epic feel. Maybe it was the proximity of South America to North America that discredited Chile – we wouldn’t even change TIME ZONES, would we? (Actually, we would travel across like three, but whatever.) It remains high on my personal list, but once we started really looking at the details of the Gobi Desert, the choice was easy.

By area, the Gobi Desert is the fourth largest contiguous desert in the world (preceded by the Arabian Desert, the Sahara, and Antarctica). In terms of warm deserts that I am confident I would feel safe visiting as one of the two desert queens, it was easily and comfortably number one. The Gobi covers almost as much earth as all four of Australia’s deserts combined (actually about 75% as much), and is roughly 10 times the size of the Mojave Desert, the desert with which I currently have the greatest familiarity. It is home to the critically endangered wild Bactrian camels. And, it’s the one place that Sir David Attenborough has said he regrets never getting to visit! (How’s that for an endorsement?)

19th largest by land area, and 138th in total population, Mongolia is the 2nd least densely populated country in the world. Only Greenland has fewer people per square mile than Mongolia, and, as Brian has pointed out to me (and the almighty W confirms), Greenland is a territory of Denmark! So, Mongolia is the least densely populated fully independent country in the world. Adding to that, the country of Mongolia was among the 50 least visited countries in the world in 2014, reporting fewer than a half million tourists. By comparison, the state of Florida reportedly had 100 million visitors in 2015.

I know that I gave you a lot of back story about why we choose desert in general, but do you see how it also directly applies to how we chose Mongolia in specific? It is the quintessence of what we want from a desert experience: almost nobody and nothing but the untouched amazingness of it all. The only truly surprising thing here is that it’s taken us this long to make it happen.

Since deciding to visit Mongolia, we’ve learned some fun stuff:

  • Khan is not a name; it is a title, conveying the approximate weight of: ruler. By extension, Genghis Khan is also not name, but rather a title, this one conveying, essentially: supreme ruler, or Emperor. The birth name of the man known to the world as Genghis Khan was Temujin.
  • The first wholly preserved dinosaur eggs were discovered in the Gobi Desert.
  • During communist rule, Mongolia’s diverse religious history was silenced, and most of the structures and symbols of religious worship were destroyed. Only the oldest of monasteries, which had previously been declared museums, remain preserved as something more than just ruins.
  • Only 30% of Mongolia’s roughly 30,000 miles of roadways are paved; the rest are rock and dirt.
  • There are evidently no real road signs in Mongolia, and the accepted method of navigation is to stop and check with folks when you see them to make sure that you are still on the correct path.
  • Mongolia is the home of the only truly wild horses in the world.
  • Mongolia was the first of the Marxist-Leninist type socialist governments to fall after the Soviet Union. Of the Marxist-Leninist type socialist governments, only China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam remain today.

This is the first time either of us have taken a trip of this magnitude in any terms: distance traveled, length of time away, and range and amount of activities planned. It’s exciting, and it’s terrifying, and it’s nine days away.

Featured image stolen from here.