Seven Continents

7:58 p.m. on September 11, 2015 (EDT)
Bill S
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Barbara and I just returned from hiking and climbing on my 7th and her 6th continent. For our return, we started the final leg on Sept 8, 2015 at 4:35PM, arriving home Sept 8, 2015 at 11:10AM (those are the correct times for departure and arrival, not an error or misprint - we did arrive at the home end of the leg before we started the final leg, per the official clocks at each end of the leg).

I am spending time catching up on the pile of mail, paying bills, and sorting through Barb's 1037 and my 840 images to give an illustrated trip report (don't worry, my TSTR will have a much reduced image count, only the "high lights").

The photo below was taken at the farthest point from home, the temperature being more than a little colder than you might expect from the image.


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I hope to have the condensed narrative and selected images posted in about a week. I do have a gear review to finish writing up and posting, part of the testing having been done at the location in the photo.

2:12 a.m. on September 13, 2015 (EDT)
i.go.slo.mo
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Looking forward to it!

6:41 p.m. on September 13, 2015 (EDT)
FlipNC
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Wow...that is impressive. Makes my quick stop into the Shining Rock wilderness this weekend look really tame. Can't wait for your trip report...you are adding to my bucket list.

6:07 p.m. on September 24, 2015 (EDT)
Bill S
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Adding the Seventh Continent

This map, with the tracks and message points, was done from inReach data and transferred to the map to show in general our wanderings around Japan, before heading for Mongolia
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Having climbed and hiked on 6 of the 7 continents of the world (including summiting 3 of the 7 Summits), I decided to add my 7th continent (Barb had climbed and hiked on 5 of the 7). One problem we faced (aside from the very high cost of travel) was having the lack of the languages in both our destination countries, Japan and Mongolia. While I can get along in 5 languages other than English, they are all European. Japanese is enough different in grammatical structure plus the 3000 characters to memorize, that the several months with Rosetta Stone resulted in the greatest lack of success I have had with any of the languages I have attempted to date (including high school Latin as taught by Miss Finley, a little old greyhaired lady who must have lived through Roman times). We needn’t have worried, however. Most Japanese and a large fraction of Mongolians speak English quite well, plus both have a tradition of friendliness and helpfulness with strangers. Also, Mongolian uses a combination of the Latin alphabet and a modified Cyrillic alphabet. Since I can read Russian, I could read much signage in the Mongolian. Add to that, a couple friends who live in Japan and one friend locally made a handful of Japanese “flash cards” that translated “where do I catch the train to Fuji” and other vital phrases.

Not knowing this ahead of time, we opted to have an environmentally oriented guide service (Adventures Within Reach) make many of the arrangements for us,despite many years of travelling to other countries . This trip also differed in some important ways from our normal foreign trips in that we included a number of “cultural” site visits in the form of shrines and museums with a lot of high speed transfers to get to the areas where we hiked and camped, plus more motorized support than usual.

As we got off the plane in Tokyo, we were greeted by a representative of the company holding a sign with our names. He handed us our packet with our “Japan Rail Passport” (available to non-citizens only), and led us to the Japanese equivalent of Super Shuttle, which whisked us to our hotel. After a night’s rest to begin adjusting to the 8 hour time-of-day clock shift plus a lost day resulting from crossing the International Date Line, our guide picked us up the next morning and introduced us to how to use the JR Passport and how to negotiate the clean and fast rail systems. We were worried at first about the color-coded Japanese characters flying by on the subway signs, but found the Latin alphabet versions popping up frequently enough to get on the right train and off at the correct stop. Our guide took us to the Imperial Gardens and a number of shrines, several of which required a moderately long walk through wooded paths with the occasional dirt trail up moderately steep hills, usually past flowing streams. Moving around the Tokyo area did require some use of the rather crowded subways. But we soon began to catch on to the system, despite not knowing Japanese.


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In the Imperial Gardens


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Stream along the path to one of the shrines


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Our guide explaining about the gateways


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The subways are fast and quiet, but often crowded


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The illuminated, changing signs make it easy to get around

The following day, we took a somewhat longer subway ride to Kamakura and the hike up the hill to the Daibutsu, the giant bronze Buddha.


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The Daibutsu (Big Buddha) in a satellite photo


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The Daibutsu seen from the ground

Needless to say, we were happy to get off the subways and into the more rural areas.  One of the nicer “in-town” hikes was up Mt. Takao, a dormant volcano that lies within the city of Tokyo. Its location and ease of access makes it a very popular hiking location. The summit is topped with a huge shrine and lots of shops. The subway takes you to the base at 201m/663 ft, with the hike taking you to the 599m/1978ft summit on a 3.8 km trail.


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The hike up Mount Takao


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The main trail up Takao


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View from the trail


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Summit of Mt. Takao - many of the mountain hikes lead to shrines and food shops on the summits

Our major hike during the Japanese phase of the trip was climbing Fuji, the highest point of Japan. At 6AM on the appointed day, we searched out our guide group, which gathered in the lobby of a rather fancy hotel a few blocks from the more basic hotel in which we had been staying. The 27 of us piled into a van and a small bus for the drive to Station 5, the starting point for our hike up Mt Fuji.

We took only what the gear list we had been provided said we needed for climbing Fuji plus a change of shoes to wear during our stopover in Hiroshima. The rest of our gear was placed in our 2 duffels and left in the storage room of the hotel where we had been staying in Tokyo.  


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The Subashiri trail up (upper) and descending (lower) Fuji in a satellite photo

I will note that by this time, I had become aware that we could have done the arrangements and the climb by ourselves without needing a guide service. We were very much oversupplied with warm layers, water containers, and snacks (we had been warned that the cost of refilling water bottles and buying snacks increased substantially as you pass each station on the ascent –Between the provided dinner and breakfast, since the round trip distance was only about 10 miles we were oversupplied with food and water as well). This is one of the problems with dealing with a new country which has a language with which I am unfamiliar. There are 4 trails up Fuji, 4 descending trails, and several “other” trails. The most popular is the Yoshida Trail. The trail we took was the Subashiri  Trail, which has its “5th Station” at a somewhat lower elevation (7116 ft) than the Yoshida 5th station and is a bit rougher. The other 2 trails are the Fujinomiya and Gotemba trails. The Subashiri trail merges with the Yoshida trail at the “original 8th Station” on the ascent. The descending trails for each also split off.

Barbara and I were carrying about 20 pounds in our packs, because we were told to prepare for sub-freezing temperatures. Well, this may be true maybe during the pre-season, early season, and post-season. But at the coldest, we each wore a nano-puff and a windbreaker over a T-shirt, as in this photo of Barb at sunrise, the coldest time of day. Most of the climb, we wore what I have on in this photo with one of our guides. There was absolutely no snow on Fuji, even at the summit, despite all the gorgeous photos you might have seen.


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The trail below Station 7

On the way up, Barbara’s knee was bothering her, thanks to the extra weight. So when we reached the 7th station (over half-way), we had a discussion with the guides, and Barbara decided to spend the night there (we picked her up on the descent the next day).  This photo of Station 7 shows the souvenir shop, and café typical of each station. The sleeping quarters are to the left of the photo. The rest of the group headed on up to the original 8th Station, where we rested until 2AM.


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Station 7

This photo is looking down at the 7th Station. The white ropes are intended to keep people on the official trail. They were strongly enough placed so that people could use them as an aid to pulling themselves up the mountain.

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Looking down at Station 7

The following photo shows our sleeping arrangements at Station 8. And yes, the provided sleeping bags were side by side and overlapping. The two hikers on either side of me were a bit on the burley side and rolled over numerous times during our 4 hours of “sleep”. Barbara’s sleeping shelf was much less crowded.

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Sleeping Quarters at Station 8

At 2AM, we got up and started on our way to the summit (12,474 ft, about 5000 feet of climb). You could see the long string of lights as the headlamps illuminated the trails up the volcano. Above the 8th Station, we had 5 switchbacks, then arrived at the rim of the crater. Everyone lined up on the side of the crater to photograph the sunrise. These still photos do not do justice to the spectacularly beautiful rising of the Sun above the cloud layer below. Barbara actually had a better sunrise display than those of us on the summit, thanks to the positioning of the cloud layer.


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Sunrise at Station 7 - this was as cold as it got


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From Station 7


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Looking up from Station 7 at the summit of Fuji


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Sun peeking over the cloud layer at Station 7


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Greeting the sun on the rim of Fuji's crater


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Sunrise seen from Fuji's crater


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The observatory at the highest point on Fuji's crater rim

Because of the multiple revisions in the itinerary, Barb and I hurried down the descent trail and caught the early return bus back north to Tokyo. We were dropped off at the Shinjuku station where we boarded the subway to Shinagawa Station to head back south to Hiroshima. We arrived in plenty of time to shift our reserved seat to an earlier Shinkansen (bullet train), which transported us at speeds up to 200 mph to Hiroshima. For comparison, Japan is about the same size as the state of California. So the train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, a distance comparable to San Francisco to Los Angeles, takes only a couple hours. With the change in seats and earlier departure, we got to our hotel much earlier than the last schedule revision.

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The Shinkansen to the foot of Fuji - fast, uncrowded, quiet

Our hotel in Hiroshima was just across the street from the Peace Memorial. The centerpiece of the Memorial is a museum filled with artifacts and photographs resulting from the first atomic bomb dropped in war.

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The Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima - there are many monuments on the grounds of the memorial, like the one in this photo


Located nearby is the “Atomic Bomb Dome”, the remnants of the building, 160 meters northwest of the “Ground Zero” hypocenter of the blast, which occurred 600 meters above the ground. The building is the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industry Promotion Building, built in 1915, a rare example of Western-style architecture in that era. We found this visit to be emotionally moving, and a reminder that 8 countries are known to possess and have tested nuclear weapons and that 1 other is suspected to posses them, along with several others that “share” such weapons or have the capability of producing them in short order.
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We spent the afternoon going to Miyajima, an island known for its shrines and temples, and for its famous and majestic O-torii, a traditional gate. It is said that when you walk through the gate, evil spirits are left behind and cannot follow you. One thing that puzzled me, and for which I received no satisfactory answer from our guide or from the monks at the shrines, is that if the spirits are blocked when I go through the gate, do they again start following me when I return through the gate – is this a 1-way filter of evil spirits? We scientists sometimes ask really hard questions.

The most popular time to photograph the O-torii gate is when the wind is calm and the tide has come in. In the photo, the tide was in so you can make out the reflection and see the appearance of the gate floating on the water, but the breeze was ruffling the water  so the reflection is not as clear as it could be.
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Miyajima is reached by a short ferry ride. When you get to the island, you are greeted by a number of small deer, all of whom are eager to relieve you of any food or paper that might contain food. You also have to protect your ferry ticket so you can return from the island. The deer are quite aggressive, and their sharp horns can produce significant injuries. In the upper picture, you can see that the deer has grabbed one of the food bags. In the lower photo, I have just grabbed one of the antlers of the deer and forcibly moved it away from the elderly couple, preventing the loss of their food.


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Deer trying to grab the food bag from an older couple


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The OGBO pulling the deer away from the older couple by its antlers

We hiked around the island for a few hours, visiting several shrines before returning to the mainland. The next day we took the shinkansen back to Tokyo. We were supposed to do a side trip to Ise Jingu, one of the National Parks with interesting hiking trails, fairly close to Nagoya. However, when we got to the transfer station in Nagoya, we were in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm. Not wanting to be thoroughly drenched and unable to see the beauties of Ise Jingu through the firehose rain, we changed our passes and continued on directly to Tokyo, where we recovered our duffels, repacked, had an excellent sushi dinner, prepared in front of us by a master chef, and got a good night’s sleep. The next morning, we headed for Narita Airport to fly to our next venue, Mongolia.

COMING SOON - MONGOLIA AND THE STEPS OF CENTRAL ASIA

9:13 p.m. on September 24, 2015 (EDT)
Bill S
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apologies for a few typos -

The photo of Barb showing how we were quite comfortable in just a T-shirt, Nanopuff, and windbreaker is 6 images down from where the reference is.

The photo of the shinkansen shows the one we caught back in Tokyo going to Hiroshima, not to Fuji.

couple of other minor typos as well.

The Mongolia part of the report is gradually taking shape - too many good photos that have to be omitted.

9:14 a.m. on September 25, 2015 (EDT)
Ashleigh
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What a great trip, Bill. Thanks for sharing!

3:13 p.m. on October 2, 2015 (EDT)
Alicia MacLeay @Alicia
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This looks like a wonderful trip, Bill.

So, does Barb have any interest in going to that final continent?

9:42 a.m. on October 6, 2015 (EDT)
Patman
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Congrats Bill! thanks

3:08 p.m. on October 8, 2015 (EDT)
Bill S
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To first answer Alicia's question:

So, does Barb have any interest in going to that final continent?

The answer is yes. We are looking at a cruise that visits the Antarctic Peninsula. We have a couple of cruises that were highly recommended by friends who, like us, normally do not believe in cruises (especially the 3000 passenger type). They match our interests, including going ashore at several locations.

warning - this narrative is very long and includes a large number of images, plus a short video. However, the photos are selected from about 2000 images, taken with 3 different cameras. Note that you can see a larger version of each image by clicking on the image.

MONGOLIA and the STEPPES OF CENTRAL ASIA

Having completed most of our intended itinerary in Japan, and now back at the hotel we first stayed at in Tokyo, we reclaimed the duffels we had stored and did some repacking to put our gear in order for the Mongolian part of our visit to my 7th, Barbara’s 6th continent. We had time to go to a highly recommended sushi restaurant for dinner. Since the restaurant’s sign was in katakana symbols, we had to ask some of the locals for assistance. This generated a vigorous discussion among the bystanders, resulting in one of them leading us almost literally by the hand to the proper doorway. We then had a great meal of sushi, prepared right before us, and at a price that was less than many of the restaurants we go to at home in Palo Alto.

The next morning we got on the Japanese equivalent of Super Shuttle to catch our flight on Mongolian Airways. The flight itself from Narita Airport was fairly short, passing over South Korea and China. We landed at the airport in UlaanBaatar in the early evening and were greeted by our guide and translator for the next phase of our tour of a small part of Asia. The airport is named for the famous leader of the Mongolian people from the 13th Century, Chingghis Khaan (his name is pronounced more like the spelling on the airport terminal than the Westernized “Genghis Khan”). UlaanBaatar is the capitol of Mongolia and its largest city, with 45% of the nation’s population living in that city.

Although we stayed in a hotel for the first 2 nights in Mongolia, we slept in tents for the rest of our trip, plus two nights in a ger. A ger is the Mongolian version of a yurt, a circular “tent” that can be packed and moved readily to a new location


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As a child growing up, I had avidly read the National Geographic Magazine, notably all the stories about the discovery and study of dinosaur bones in Mongolia in the 1920s before I was born. With that inspiration, it was only natural that we should schedule our visit to Mongolia to include the Flaming Cliffs, where a huge number of the discoveries of dinosaur fossils were found.

Our travels around the southern part of Mongolia were mostly in the mountains and on the steppes (the famed “Steppes of Central Asia” are vast plains with numerous mountain ridges), as shown on the map. The tracks and locations were not taken continuously, but are the GPS-derived tracks from my inReach Explorer.


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Our first full day in Mongolia was occupied mostly with familiarizing ourselves with the history and cultural aspects of the country, visiting monasteries, shrines, temples, museums, and monuments.  Mongolia, like Japan, has many Buddhist and animistic shrines and temples. While in UlaanBaatar, we visited several of these. We were permitted to photograph the inside of the Gandantegchenling Monastery (for a fee, which you could consider a donation or offering). Like many temples and shrines, it had a huge statue (often clad with gold or bronze), as seen in the photo.


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This temple also had many prayer wheels with inscriptions, similar to the Nepalese and Tibetan practice. The custom is to walk to the left of the prayer wheels, turning them with your right hand, thus sending many prayers with each turn, as I am doing in the photo.


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We then made visits to the National Museum and the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. The National Museum traces the history from the days of Chingghis Khan through the periods during which Mongolian control ranged into central Europe, then shrank in size and was ruled for various periods by China and Russia (both czarist and Soviet), along with wars with Japan and Korea. Ultimately Mongolia became the independent country it is today in 1990. We were not allowed to take photos in the history museum, but allowed to do so for a fee in the dinosaur museum.


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The Mongolian National Museum


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Dinosaur Eggs


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A relative of Tyranosaurus. Compare the size of the skeleton to the person standing at the lower right.

A large number of the recovered fossils were taken to New York, Yale University, and several European countries where they are on display. Mongolia is currently trying to get these fossils returned to Mongolia, as part of their national heritage. A current controversy rages in the scientific world about the question of ownership vs. study of relics by qualified and trained scientists

We also visited a memorial structure on a hilltop just south of the city commemorating their liberation from the Chinese with help from the Russian czars. Ultimately, the Mongolians declared themselves free of Soviet rule in 1990 and have remained so ever since.


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Memorial of Liberation

One of the activities of Mongolians on the steppes is using eagles to hunt. At the memorial, we met an “eagle hunter” with his eagle. If you look carefully at the wall at the top of the steps on the right in the monument photo, you can see the eagle and judge its size (about 2 feet tall, with a wingspan of about 7 feet)).


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 Eagle

That evening we went to a concert by the Mongolian National Orchestra. The concert was entirely played on traditional Mongolian instruments and included dances and songs sung in the “throat-singing” style common among Mongolians, Tuvans, and Kazhaks. We were not allowed to take photographs during the concert, as is common in most parts of the world.

We were now prepared to head out to the steppes and the Gobi desert. Early in the morning, our two trucks arrived, the one we rode in being a Toyota Land Cruiser with our driver and guide/translator. The food truck, carrying the cook and his driver, was a Mercedes built for the German military, though it was not clear whether this was the West German military or the East German, or possibly by the East German army for the Soviets. The Mercedes was significantly slower than the Toyota Land Cruiser, in part because of frequent break-downs, most of which were minor.


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Our Crew

In this photo, from left to right, are our cook, our guide/translator, the food truck driver, and our driver for the Land Cruiser.

After the first 3 or 4 days, Barbara and I had decided that the cook’s main job was to fatten us up – the meals were always huge and very delicious, with a serving for each of us being enough to more than stuff both of us in our normal meals at home. The standard menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, consisted of soup, salad (a different salad every meal during the entire 7 days on the road), and a large amount of vegetables, potatoes, and meat (lamb, pork, beef, or chicken).  And, yes, breakfast (and lunch and dinner) always included soup, salad, vegetables, potatoes, and a meat main dish. Actually, “on the road” is a misleading term, since Mongolia has only about 3000 miles of paved road. The majority of our driving was cross-country over land with no semblance of a road or even tracks (4WD was in constant use).  

One of the problems we quickly encountered is that communications are problematic in a sparsely settled region like Mongolia, which is filled with many hills. Mongolia does have excellent cell phone coverage, given the small population which is concentrated in a number of small clusters. Cell phone is still subject to line-of-sight restrictions, thanks to the hills and long distances across the steppes, meaning that we were far from having full coverage. The roads, such as they are, are mostly unmarked (though some paralleled power lines and there were a few forks in the road with signs). Drivers in the wide open steppes tend to travel off the roads, as shown on the map. I did have my inReach, GPS, and smartphone, which allowed me to track our progress (and search paths as we searched for the Mercedes), though I saved battery by only running them part time (no handy re-charge stations, though I had back-up batteries)

Although there was a basic plan with a designated destination each day, the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Mercedes Food Truck were frequently out of touch. Navigation is dependent on the drivers’ knowledge of landmarks (usually prominent mountain peaks and some prominent streambeds – no maps, no GPS on board, and except for coming into cell phone coverage from time to time, no direct radio contact, although there is a radio relay system).

From time to time, to keep in some sort of contact, the Land Cruiser would leave the track that passed for a road and go to the top of a nearby hill. The driver would then haul out a pair of powerful binoculars (7x50), while Barb and I pulled out our 8x21 and 10x25 pocket binoculars and scan the horizon. We actually got pretty good in spotting the Mercedes’ characteristic shape and its dust trail, although sometimes the Land Cruiser took some cross-country excursions well off what passed for roads, searching for our missing food truck and the cook.

Most of the time, the Land Cruiser traveled at a high speed (high, that is for the rocky roads, since the speedometer was unserviceable, although I could track the speed on my GPS receiver and inReach.), while the Mercedes diesel truck travelled at a slower pace. This produces a lot of wear and tear on the trucks, resulting in many hours of the drivers working on various parts of the drive trains of each. The video below gives some idea of what it was like on a semi-official road, including entertaining singing by our driver and guide (in Mongolian).

Mongolians raise lots of sheep, goats, the famous Mongolian horses, and Bactrian camels. Herding these days is often conducted on motorcycles, UTVs, and ATVs, not horseback. Driving on the paths that pass for roads, we encountered huge herds of animals, often without attending humans in sight. This photo is of a mixture of goats and sheep. Note the motorcyclist.


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One of our many encounters with herds of sheep - note the herder on motorcycle

We made a lunch stop at Zorgo Khairkahn. This is a granitic mountain, showing its great geological age by the extensive exfoliation. It is considered a sacred mountain, one of many peaks in Mongolia tempting to a rock climber, but forbidden for climbing due to its sacred status. I did a bit of scrambling on the granite, but did no “climbing”.


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Khairkhan - a sacred mountain

The photo below shows our two trucks at our lunch stop.

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At another stop to regroup, we encountered a large mixed herd of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and a small number of pigs. Although you see hundreds of camels, horses, goats, sheep, and pigs wandering around the Gobi and elsewhere in Mongolia, you see very few wild animals. Most of the animals you see, especially in large herds, are privately owned. You might wonder how the owners can keep track of them and know which ones belong to whom. Just like most parts of the world, the animals are “herd” animals. That is, they grow up as part of a herd and stick together as a herd. In part that is genetic heritage, and is in part because they were raised that way. The days of tracking the herds from horseback or on camels have mostly gone, being replaced by motorized vehicles. Plus the animals learn as they are growing up that humans will guide them and supply them with food and water, as well as protecting them against the few wild predators, such as wolves and snow leopards. The herds in the following photos were at lakes and wells.

Note the bucket to lift the water by hand from the well, and the watering trough made from truck tires.


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The camels get lined up for their turn at the water.


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A small group of pigs


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Horses - If you look carefully (or click to enlarge), you can see the owner's brand on the hindquarters of the horse.

Our camp that evening was at BagaGadrizn

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As the trip went on, we realized that the Land Cruiser driver apparently is well acquainted with everyone in Mongolia. As we were getting ready for dinner, a motorcyclist wearing traditional Mongolian attire and his wife arrived to join us, friends of our driver. This photo is of our driver on the right, and the motorcyclist and his wife to the left. They were carrying their tent, gear, and food with them on the motorcycle.


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Our driver on the right, his friend and his friend's wife on the left

The Baga Gadzrin area is noted for its many rock inscriptions in the old Mongolian script, which fewer and fewer people can read these days. The inscription is on the lower left of the monolith.


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Note the old-style Mongolian script inscriptions on the lower left of the monolith - click for an enlarged view.

Barb and I scrambled up on the ridges to get good views across the Steppes.


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While we were there, a friendly National Parks Ranger caught up to us to check on our pass. Again, he and our driver seemed well-acquainted.

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We headed to a rock structure that had served as the residence for 2 revered Buddhist monks for a number of years in the 19th Century. This structure, according to local legend, was built by the 2 monks. They carved writings into many of the rocks in the area. Considering where some of the writings are located, the monks must have had pretty good climbing skills.


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We continued south to Tsagaan Suvarga, a formation of whitish limestone, also called the White Stuppa. We camped here on top of the formation. When we arrived, there were a number of other vehicles. As sundown approached, all other vehicles left. In the morning, we were able to explore the formation from end to end and the upper plateau down into the valleys. Like most of the formations we explored, the formation was mostly consolidated sand with little exposed rock. In the photo, we had walked down one of the gullies, while the Land Cruiser followed one of the many “roads” to pick us up.


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We camped for the night on top of this formation (there are roads up the other side)


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A view from the top of the White Stuppa from our campsite

After many hours traversing the steppes, we made a stop at a gas station in a small town, as shown in this photo. Note the logo on the truck we were sharing the fuel pump with.

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Fuel stop - the explosive truck on the left, our Mercedes on the right

The words are written in the Mongolian version of Cyrillic. They say Maksam Explosives. Mongolia’s major export and product is minerals. We saw a coal mine near this location, recognizable by the huge mounds of tailings. The mine itself was underground. Explosives were indeed being carried in the truck, a re-supply for the mine.

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After getting fuel, we continued along the road for a while, then turned off the “road” and stopped for lunch on the steppe. We were grateful for the awning and table, since it gets really hot in midday in the Gobi, though it can get very cold at night, even in summer.


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Lunch on the Steppe

We continued south, passing through the city of Dalanzadgad, then turning west to the park headquarters of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park. While registering, we took a tour of the small museum there with a number of the local animals stuffed and on display (no photos allowed). Despite the various animals being in the vicinity, you rarely see them.

We located a suitable campsite in the park in Yolin Am (translated as Eagle Valley or Vultures Gorge). The name comes from being the home of a type of vulture with a “beard” of hair on its chin, called the “Bearded Eagle”. We did see a number of these eagle/vultures (they look like vultures and live on carrion, but the local name translates to “eagle”).


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Camp 3, night of September 2, 2015

One of the interesting places in Yolin Am is the Ice River. During winter, this canyon is filled with snow, which solidifies into fairly solid ice. The river retains ice into the late summer in most years. In photos I have seen, and according to our guide, the canyon may have 10 meters (33 feet) of snow in mid-winter (about 2/3 of the way up the photo), which takes until mid-summer to melt away. The past few years have seen warmer summers, with the ice being gone by mid-July. We hiked a few miles down the canyon that the creek has carved to the area where the ice usually lasts all year around. Hiking the Valley involved several crossings of the river and several traverses along the rock walls.


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The Ice River in Eagle Valley

Mongolia in general, and in these mountains in particular, has a large variety of wild animals. The one in this photo are the Mongolian Ibex, a female. The young one is just out of the photo, though I have photos with both in them. The mature males are noted for their large, curved horns.


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We also saw a number of lizards and snakes, no surprise in a desert.

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Pikas were common. These rabbit relatives are a major food source for other animals.

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We left Yolin Am and headed west across the Steppes. Our next campsite was scheduled to be at the Singing Dunes. But we again lost the Mercedes. After a fair amount of cross country and backtracking, plus searching with the binoculars and stopping at a few gers and asking other vehicles, we stopped at a ger village, where again our driver knew the people. Normally, we would have rendezvoused with the Mercedes somewhere on the steppes. But it was now lunch time. This village was one of many ger camps that has been developed for “adventure seekers” who want to camp in comfort.  Note in the photo that they get electricity from wind and solar.  The ger in the background is where some of the staff lives.

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We were treated to a large and tasty lunch, partly because of our driver being a friend and partly because it was now the off-season. It is also customary among the Mongolians that if someone stops by, the locals offer food and tea.  After lunch, we wandered the steppes for another hour or so, finally spotting the Mercedes truck. After rendezvousing, we headed on together for a while toward the Singing Dunes,

On the way, we stopped at a ger more typical of those used by families living and herding on the steppes and the Gobi to take care of their livestock. I was invited to take a few photos of the inside of the ger and of the family. Well, not exactly. The mother wanted a photo of herself and her son, which is below (I have arranged for a large print to be given to the family). Her mother (the grandmother) decided that if I wanted a photo including her, I would have to pay. This caused a bit of turmoil with the rest of the family who really wanted a photo of the young one playing with a couple of small toys we had given him (a tradition is that if you stop for a visit, you bring gifts for the young children). 


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After another 20 km or so, we realized we were getting close to sunset. So we just pulled off the road cross-country for a kilometer or so and set up camp for the night on a nice flat area that was out of sight of the “road”. It rained heavily during most of the night. It was still raining lightly in the morning.

 
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Heavy rain overnight at Camp 4, September 4, 2015

After the now-usual hearty breakfast in the morning, we headed on to the scheduled exploration of the Khongor Singing Sand Dunes. The Mercedes was to finish packing the tents, then meet us at the village of Bulgan. Those of us in the Land Cruiser headed for the Sand Dunes, which are tall enough and extensive enough to be easily seen long before we got there.

We spent a fair amount of time scaling one of the taller dunes (something on the order of 1500 feet high). Because of the heavy rain during the previous night, the sand was pretty compacted and remained silent. Nonetheless, as is common with sand and its steepness, our climb was 2 steps up and slide one down, mostly with a swimming motion. Note the windblown sand around our feet in the photo.

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Starting up the Singing Sands

In the photo below, we were nearing the top of the dunes – our guide and I are the two small dots in the track in the sand about 90% of the way up the image.


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Descending was a lot easier. We plunge-stepped and "skied" back down in just a few minutes. Having tired of struggling with the sand, we took a ride on the Bactrians (double-humped camels, well adapted to the Gobi, thanks to their fur). Just as with Dromedary camels, they store their water and food in their humps. When they are a bit short on water, one or both humps tend to flop over. It was fairly cool and windy, as you can judge by our clothing.

Camels, like horses, have their own ideas about what they want to do. Since Barbara and I had only ridden camels a few times previously, we had to have our camels led. The process of mounting and dismounting from camels is rather different from horses. The camel kneels down completely to the ground. The rider then stretches her/his leg over the camel (between the humps for Bactrians). On signal, the camel stands its rear legs to full extent, making the rider feel as if s/he is going to tumble over the camel’s head onto the ground. Next the camel raises its front legs until both pairs of legs are fully extended. The ride itself is quite comfortable if you are used to riding horses.


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We returned to the truck after a couple of hours and headed for the town of Bulgan, where we again met the Mercedes truck. We fueled both trucks, then headed out to Bayandzag, the Flaming Cliffs. We set up camp near one of the smaller, isolated formations, as seen in the photo below.


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Flaming Cliff Formation near our campsite

After setting up camp, we spent several hours climbing on and around this formation. The formation itself is compacted and partially fused sand. Although the discovery sites of the dinosaur and other fossils found during the 1920s have been carefully re-buried, you can still see many fossilized shells, wormholes, and other material. By Mongolian law, you may not take any fossils you find out of the country (there are serious legal penalties for trying to do so). Mongolia is trying to recover the many fossils that were removed and currently reside in Western museums and universities.


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Our campsite, as seen from the formation, is the small group of tents to the left of the formation, about 1200 meters away .

Here are some shell fossils


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Across the way was a much larger formation that we went to explore for most of the next day.


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 A great deal of time during the entire trek was spent each day doing repair work on the trucks, more on the Mercedes food truck than the Toyota Land Cruiser, though in this case there was a problem with the 4WD to the Land Cruiser’s front axle.


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Most of the next day was spent at the larger formation area. We clambered over and around the formations. You did have to watch your step, since the sand was only partially consolidated. Climbing up the pillars was challenging, since you would often pull out a handful of compacted sand.

Barbara following one of the “trails”


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Bill (on top of pillar) and our guide explore one of the sand pillars

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It was now time to head back toward Dalandzadgad, where we would be catching an airplane flight to return to Ulaanbaatar.

We camped close to the airport so we could get checked in at the early departure time. You can see the control tower in this image. We got a good view during the flight of the many trails crossing the steppes and Gobi, along with the many ger encampments. Some of these were the families, while others were tourist camps. We also could see locations of many mines.

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Sunrise on our last day in the Gobi desert. Notice Venus in the upper middle of the image.

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On arrival back in UlaanBaatar, we went to a fancy ger camp for tourists, which provided us with Mongolian ponies and archery lessons with Mongolian bows. Our ger is in the group on the right side of the photo.  The inside of the ger had a wood stove (which we did not use, having a very warm quilt on each bed), comfortable beds, and a bathroom with flush toilet and shower, in contrast for the camping part of the trek. Our tents for camping did not have showers, and we dug holes in the ground plus had an outhouse tent for the toilet at each campsite.


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The luxurious Ger camp

We spent a couple hours shooting arrows at a sheepskin target. As it turned out, I hit the target a fair number more times than our guide. The Mongolian bows have a much stronger pull than the target bows I am used to – probably about 60 pounds.

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After lunch, we did a tour of the area around the ger camp on horseback. Since I grew up in the Sonora Desert where all the kids grow up to be cowboys (you learn early about horses), I found quickly that Mongolian ponies are much like the Indian and cow ponies I learned to ride as a kid - they have a mind of their own, and they will test who is boss. My pony did obey the reins and signals after I let him know that “no, we are not stopping for you to nibble the grass”. Since Barbara has had very little experience with horses, our guide led her horse, including when we picked up speed. Although we did not go to a full gallop, we did get to experience the interesting gait of Mongolian ponies have at speed.


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Barbara on horseback - our guide and the owner of the horses did not wear helmets, but all visitors are required to wear them.

Dinner that evening was a genuine Mongolian barbecue. All the ingredients from the veggies to the lamb ribs were tossed into the cauldron, including the rocks heated in the wood-burning stove in the center of the ger.  In the image, you can see one of the hot rocks in the tongs, ready to be dropped into the urn.

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    After the food is thoroughly cooked, dinner is served (more than we could eat). There were about 20 other guests, most of them families with young kids, and a few traveling solo. There were 3 or 4 Europeans and a couple of Australians as well.


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Dinner is served!
A game that goes with the barbecue is juggling the hot rocks that were used to cook the food, making sure you do not hold a rock too long and get burned.


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Barbara juggling a hot rock

At 5 AM the next morning, we loaded our gear into the truck and went to the UlaanBaatar airport. We stopped briefly to say farewell to the Great Khan, taking a picture of the sunrise, with the Moon and Venus visible in the sky.

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The government offices are located in the center of UlaanBaatar in a large plaza. This huge statue of Chingghis Khaan dominates the square.

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We got to the airport in plenty of time to have our luggage weighed and bid farewell to our guide and driver. The plane took off at 9:45AM Mongolia time, arriving in Seoul, Korea at 12:50 PM. We changed planes there, departing at 4:35PM, September 8, 2015. After 5664 miles across the Pacific, with just a couple hours of darkness, we landed back in San Francisco at 11:10 AM, September 8, 2015. Yes, you read that correctly. We arrived in San Francisco about 5 hours BEFORE we departed Seoul. How can this be? Jules Verne provided the answer in his novel “Around The World in 80 Days”. By flying eastward around the Earth, we crossed the International Date Line, thus gaining a day on the calendar. You do not escape having to adjust your body to Jet Lag, however. 

 

 

8:46 p.m. on October 9, 2015 (EDT)
steven
403 reviewer rep
185 forum posts

Great trip report Bill. Looks like a wonderful place to visit.

May 26, 2020
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