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Splendid Isolation

Following the Road Less Traveled Through Mongolia and Siberia

Posted on 1/16/2018 12:00:00 AM in Traveler Insights

The beauty of the Gobi Desert made such an impression on Mary that she wrote her first book about it.

Mary L. self-published her first book, Following the Road Less Traveled Through Mongolia and Siberia, which is based on her O.A.T. trip to those countries in September 2016. Below is an excerpt from her book and if you are interested in viewing the book online or in ordering it (either as a book or as a Kindle download), visit Amazon.com and search for Mary Logeland.

By Mary Logeland, 6-time traveler and 6-time Vacation Ambassador from Minneapolis, MN

MONGOLIA

"The question is not what you look at but what you see." (Henry David Thoreau)

It is hard to describe the splendid isolation of the Gobi Desert. It is the second largest desert in the world, the Sahara being first. The Gobi is more gravel than sand. The sky is the main actor in the Gobi drama. A slight turn of the head reveals an ever changing sky-scape of actors: stars, mist and a cast of clouds—some puffy & down-like, others thin and inconsequential until back-lit by a mauve and pink sun-streaked sunset. It is so sprawling and expansive that "skies" is more descriptive than sky. This evening at 9 pm, I looked out my ger door, and the sky was pierced with zigzags of lightening—their arrival announced by trumpeting thunder. To say it is beautiful understates the feeling it evokes. It is everything and more than I expected. It competes with my memories of Namibia, and I am fortunate to have that as my basis of comparison. Nor is it like the Sahara where we were greeted by plastic flotsam and jetsam. The Gobi is clean and stark. The peace of this moment is enveloping. And the next morning, the desert is drenched in sunlight.

We are staying at the Dream Gobi (Eco) Lodge—a descriptive name indeed. Lost in the sea of sandy gravel, the “hang-out-and-eat building" is in the traditional ger shape with viewing windows everywhere. This is a larger resort than the other two where we’ve stayed and the busiest too with more guests arriving as the day progresses—but not so busy as to be unpleasant. There is enough space and sky for all. My ger is spacious, and I am enjoying rustic luxury once again. I have a heater and hot & cold running water. A sign reminds us to “save water and save the planet.” I have a reading area, a cozy sitting area, and two comfortable duvet-clad beds. I am tucked away in ger-style warmth at night. The early evening and morning skies sparkle with stars. I can identify the old standards like the Big and Little Dippers, Cassiopeia, and the moon, but four players out of a cast of millions is pretty lame.

Today is another field trip day. We see more yaks in this northern part of Mongolia near the Gobi Gorge because it is cooler than the rest of the Gobi. There are rumors of snow leopards in residence, but they do not grace us with their presence. These beautiful felines are on the endangered list as are the Gobi’s wild Bactrian camels. This is also home to the Gobi Bear, which unfortunately is becoming extinct. Muuggi tells us that there are only about 28 in existence today. And sadly, this species is found nowhere else in the world. The population fluctuates from year to year due to harsh climate changes and shortage of food and water. They may also be accidently trapped and killed.

One animal that we found in abundance was the goat. Goats are quite entertaining to observe, and we had a chance to interact with them up close and personal. My favorite goat scene was from the windows of our off, off-road vehicle. There on a hillside was an extravaganza straight out of a vintage Hollywood musical—a herd of goats tethered together to be milked in a chorus line reminiscent of the Rockettes—50 goats, each one alternating with his fellow dancers, butt to head, in a precise line waiting for their cue, or milking in this case, to start. The sight of 25 wagging tails and 25 chewing cuds was too cute—all they needed were the “Call for Phillips Morris” bellhop red pants and jackets with gold platted buttons, white gloves and black pillbox hats. Not to be outdone, our 4-legged Rockettes were sheathed in soon-to-be shirred goat cashmere in the making. And the best trick occurred at the end. When the choreographer completed her milking, she pulled the rope untethering this 4-legged chorus line, the dancers dispersed in all directions. It was a quite an encore.

SIBERIA

“Let’s take our hearts for a walk in the woods and listen to the magic whispers of old trees.” (Unknown)

Of course, the highlight of Siberia is Lake Baikal, and we travel there on the Trans-Siberian RR. It is approximately 10 hours by train but less than an hour by car.  Why the difference, you ask—it is because we leave the Irkutsk Station on the modern Siberian rail, but after we’ve gone through the city, the xurbs, and the suburbs, our train transfers over to the discontinued steam train track. At this point, we are attached to an old steam locomotive, and we travel at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view on what is called the tourist line - not exactly a Siberian “Express.” Since we are now powered by steam engine, we travel at this unhurried speed with frequent stops to service our steam engine. It is actually quite fun, and we run parallel to beautiful Lake Baikal. It is lovely with the shore line intermittently in close proximity to densely forested areas. The autumn colors are on full display and reflected in the Lake’s crystal, mirror-like surface: golden birch and poplar, tamarack with their dancing yellow needles, and dashes of red and orange maples are interspersed throughout the vertical splash of forest green. An undulating brook cascades over rocks. It is like stepping into a beautiful painting. 

Lake Baikal's immense size alone is unique: its length is 395 miles (the distance between Moscow and St. Petersburg), and its width is 49 miles. Everything about Baikal is impressive: its age of some 24,000 or more years; its clear, transparent surface which spans 12,248 miles; and its maximum depth of 5,387 feet—that’s 1.02 miles. It contains almost one fifth of all the freshwater reserves on earth. Olga told us that the Lake is equal to the land mass of Denmark. Its water is so clear that you can throw a white disk of 7” in diameter into Baikal, and it can be seen to a depth of 131 feet. During the winter, the ice can be up to 32 inches thick, and it is still transparent. These are amazing statistics, and Baikal is often described as the world’s cleanest lake. And it is especially significant not just to Russia, but to the world in general. It is a World Heritage site and the residence of more than 3,700 species, more than half found nowhere else in the world. It is the home of the nerpa, a unique freshwater seal and the sole mammal living in Lake Baikal. The Lake area is home to reindeer, wolves, wolverines, black bear, sable, and beaver. But they do have an agriculturally run-off problem that threatens the future of this wonderful gem. Its purity is facing a creeping environmental threat.

Every now and then, we pass a small village and stop at its train station. One rambling, somewhat dilapidated home is ornamented with a large satellite dish—the old and the new, the infringement of modernity rears its head. The gentle rocking of the train and buzzing voices of our Chinese tourists lull some of Olga’s charges to cat-nap mode. The terrain reminds me of the drive to Rainy Lake in the early fall—shades of gold, yellow beige, brown, and green—occasionally accented by red and orange. We pass a swath of ginger yellow trees, the leaves capping their black trunks. They look like Halloween lollipops. It is a beautiful lake, but fog (or air pollution) keeps it shrouded in a haze of grey, keeping the blue sky at arm’s length.

Perhaps your visit to Mongolia will inspire some creativity in you as well during O.A.T.’s Mongolia & the Gobi Desert adventure.

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