I thought that there wouldn’t be a lot to do in the desert, after all it’s mostly barren rock and sand, but it turned out it was well worth a visit down to Sainshand (Сайншанд) in the Gobi (pronounced ‘Gov’ in Mongolia). Granted, we exhausted every tourist highlight around the town in only two days, but it was still a great two days.
Our hosts were Casey and Corinne, who were based in Sainshand for a six month project on water management. Six of us took the overnight train down from Ulaanbaatar in the ‘soft sleeper’ cabins, which feature four folding beds each. My cabin included a friendly Kazakh who shared his horse meat with us, and a drunk Mongolian who woke us all up in the middle of the night to ask us to wake him up in the morning.
Casey had organised a driver to take us out to the Buddhist monastery and ‘energy centre’ thirty minutes out in the desert. The monastery was built near the 19th century desert home of Danzan Ravjaa, ‘Mongolia’s second most intelligent man’ (after Chingis Khan). He was true renaissance man, a poet, philosopher, Buddhist, doctor, etc, etc.
We visited the brand spanking new monastery, the caves he lived in, and various Buddhist slash spiritualist places in the area. This included crawling through a needlessly narrow cave to simulate re-birth (it had been artificially blocked up to make the experience more realistic and awkward).
Aside from being reborn, the highlight for the ladies was visiting their fertility monuments. These were two large breast-like brick constructions that they had to circle three times, while spraying milk on them. While it sounds harmless, the brick breasts were coated inches thick in many years of stale milk that made us all want to vomit when we stood downwind.
It was a lot easier for us as men. No surprise. Our pilgrimage task was to climb a mountain (a small hill really) and drink vodka at the top. Actually, we were just meant to throw some around as a libation, but we drank a little too just to cover all our bases.
The energy centre was an open area with a few walls, monuments and small buildings. Visiting it means going through a collection of quirky mystical rituals like dropping handfuls of millet in marked circles (while walking around them three times of course), singing songs, and throwing more vodka while making wishes. It culminates in lying down for a few minutes on the rockiest section of ground to absorb energy directly into our bodies. In a nod to modern technology you can also call people on your mobile phone and download some energy to them as well. We actually did get up feeling energised, and nursing a few puncture marks from the rocks. I put the effects down to the sheer amusement of the experience.
The other highlight of the weekend was watching the Australian elections. Thankfully Casey and Corinne’s shonky wifi held up all evening as we watched it online. A volunteer crowd always has a pretty strong left-wing flavour, so we watched with bitter-sweet amusement as the incumbent center-right government came within a whisker of losing the election.
The rest of the weekend was spent leisurely hanging out in cafes and restaurants, visiting the small local museum, and falling asleep whenever we lay down. However, there remained one last unpleasant surprise when we bought train tickets home, and had to settle for the low ‘hard-sitter’ class when all the sleeper compartments were sold out.
The trip home was amusing enough until about 1am, when we finally gave up trying to stay awake and spread ourselves out on bench seats, luggage racks and floor spaces to try and get some sleep. After about two hours of fitful rest, I was relieved to be awoken by the sun as we neared Ulaanbaatar. I’ve had much worse trips in the past, but I was a younger man then. The consolation was sharing the tiresome experience with a group of friends instead of being stuck on a train alone.
There is plenty of the Gobi still to see, and I’m looking forward to the Gobi marathon in September for a whole new kind of punishment!