The Gobi is the fifth-largest desert in the world, covering roughly 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 square kilometers). While most of the world might think of the Gobi Desert as a single entity, people within Mongolia recognize thirty-three different gobis, or gov, as they are called in Mongolian. These gov are relatively flat areas, covered with sand or gravel of varying sizes, most trending east-west, and separated from each other by ridges of shale, granite, basalt, and other up-thrusting rocks.
The barren gravel flats of the northern edge of the Edrin Gov with Eej Khaikhan still visible in the distance.
Classic Zag Desert in the middle of the Edrin Gov
Around two in the afternoon we stopped for a tea break. Among my tea supplies I had two disks of Puerh Tea, one of the so-called Ripe or Cooked Puerh and the other Raw or Green Puerh. I am partial to the smoother Ripe Puerh, but on my Last Horse Trip I discovered that the astringently bitter Green Puerh, with the addition of sugar to take away some of the edge, was by no means unwelcome while lounging on our carpets during an afternoon tea break. And thus it proved to be on this camel trip. I also brought along four ounces of Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea for the more delicate palates of the ladies. Indeed, I like it too, but I knew from past experience that the camel guys preferred the more robust Puerh. They had also brought some Mongolian brick tea which we would drink for a change of pace, salted as usual.
After tea we continued on, the camels resuming their usual slow, stately pace. It is of course possible to trot camels, and fast racing camels can attain prodigious speeds, but camels laden with heavy loads like ours, including 100 liters of water (220 pounds worth) plus food and cooking and sleeping gear, can be trotted only for very short distances if at all. For the long haul they must be walked. In walking mode camels have two speeds: slow, and slower. I have measured their walking speed for hours on end with a GPS and have determined that their slow, or regular, walking mode, when they are relatively well rested, is 4.9 kilometer (3 miles) an hour. People are quick to point out that they can walk faster than that, which is perfectly true. Humans can easily outpace even a well-rested camel. After four or five eight-to-ten hour days camels tend to tire, and eventually they slip down into a lower gear, covering 4.3 kilometer (2.67 miles) per hour. Now they are practically moving in slow motion, slowly lifting a leg, moving it forward as if through molasses, and then putting the foot down again with great deliberateness. The liberal use of a taishir, the short cane which the camel men use to prod their camels, will speed them back up to their regular pace for short distances, but until they are rested at least overnight they will always will slip back into lower gear if left to their own devices.
We camped for the night in amidst the sparse zag bushes between the Edrin Gov and the Tsenkher Gov, having covered 34.5 kilometers for the day. The camel men set up one tent for themselves and another for Sister Dulya and Solongo, but as usual in the desert I opted to sleep out under the stars, or as they say in Siberia, “in the Big Tent.” Usually I would throw out my carpets and sleep a hundred feet or so away from the campfire and the tents so that I could fully enjoy the solitude of the desert. Tonight, however, both Sukhee and Brother Duit insisted that I sleep right beside the two tents, since we were still in the area where rabid wolves had been reported. Presumably a rabid wolf would be more inclined to pick off what appeared to be a straggler from the group. I had my doubts that a rabid wolf would be making any such distinctions but did not want to argue with the camel guys.They assured me that tomorrow night we would be out of the danger zone and I could resume what they considered my misanthropic ways.
One of the great pleasures of traveling in the Gobi is gazing at the night skies. Few places in the world offer a better view of the stars than the Gobi Desert. On most nights there is very little if any any cloud cover, leaving a perfect view of the Heavens from horizon to horizon. There is absolutely no light pollution from towns or cities and the nearest source of any kind of industrial pollution is many hundred of miles away if not more. Also the almost complete absence of humidity in the air means that star light is not refracted by moisture. In today’s world most people have probably never even had a real unimpeded view of the night skies. In many cities no stars at all are visible. Before I left I emailed someone in the United States about this trip and mentioned how clear the skies were in the Gobi. This person asked in reply whether it would be possible to see the Milky Way in the Gobi, implying that the Milky Way was now thought to be some kind of rare phenomenon which most people never saw anymore. In the Gobi the Milky Way (which has the same name in Mongolian (Suun Zam = Milky Road) is a near solid belt of light arcing across the sky almost horizon to horizon.
On this trip we would also be treated to a New Moon in three days, which would of course maximize the star-viewing potential, but even tonight there was quite a show. First out was not a star at all, but the planet Jupiter on the southeast horizon. It would remain for most of the night as the brightest object in the skies. Indeed, much of this month it is the biggest it will appear at any time between 1963 and 2022. The first star out was twinkling Capella in the northeast, only forty-one light years away, which makes it virtually our neighbor. Actually Capella is two stars revolving so closely around each other that they appear as one. The light we now see from this binary star left it when I was twenty years old, certainly a sobering thought. One by one the full panoply of constellations popped into view: Big Dipper, Draco, LIttle Dipper, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Pegasus, and Cynus being the most prominent up until midnight, after which Orion dominated the Heavens.