Thursday, February 23, 2012

Epic Adventures Part III: In Search of the Gobi Bear

Whenever I wonder where I get my affinity for adventure, I remind myself, with a knowing, inner smile, of one of my closest family members: my father. Adventurousness could be a genetic trait, but in my case, it could also be that I was taught to love all this craziness. It wasn’t explicitly taught of course, as both my parents will tell you that I’m often prone to follow the opposite of any actual instructions. It was taught, as most things are in this world, by example.

Slideshows of my father’s journeys from my younger years still remain vivid in my mind – scuba diving trips mostly, to places like the Galapagos Islands, the Red Sea, and the Great Barrier Reef. Photos of brightly colored birds, coral reefs teeming with life, and all manner of undersea creatures still seem like the stuff of magical lands to me. Our planet still seems like an exciting place to explore.

To the casual observer, my father and I might appear to be opposites. It’s true, we have some differences. I like to characterize them by saying that he gets his news from the Wall Street Journal, and I get mine from National Public Radio. But the truth is, he still turns on NPR in the mornings (even if just to gripe about their liberal bias), and I’ve recently enjoyed the benefits of following @WSJ on Twitter. My Christmas gifts to him are nearly always non-fiction books, hopefully on topics that inspire good conversations between us. I shoot for books where we have common interests – endurance sports, adventure, sometimes history. Family visits usually find an opportunity for us to go on a long bike ride or a short run together, (except he would probably characterize them as a short bike ride and a long run).

So when, in the winter of 1999, my father suggested he and I take a big trip together, it made perfect sense to me. He’d just finished riding his mountain bike across Siberia the previous summer, and was eager to return to the remote areas of the Asian continent. One of us, I can’t recall which, had recently read about the Gobi Bear – a sub-species of the Brown Bear and the world’s only desert bear. Located in the vast desert of southern Mongolia, this rarely seen bear was on the verge of extinction. When discussing the idea of an expedition to view it in the wild, both of our eyes widened in excitement. We had to try!

The idea that a 50-something doctor from Orange County would be setting off to explore the outer reaches of the Gobi desert with his 25-year-old, nature-girl, feminist daughter may sound odd at first. As it turns out though, we were the only two in our family who could see that traveling by jeep and camel across a desert of the most sparsely populated country in the world in search of a rarely seen bear had the makings of a dream vacation.

The month of May was set aside for the adventure, and soon we were off, with quick stops to Tokyo and Beijing, before arriving in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. I had already spent several years working as a wilderness guide at that point in my life, but the challenges of world travel were largely unknown to me, so I considered it quite an adventure just getting to Mongolia.

Beijing's Forbidden City

A soldier at the Forbidden City

We had a contact in Ulaanbaatar named Timur who helped us arrange the logistics of transportation, food and a guide who would know where to look for the bear. While in the city, we visited a museum and a Buddhist Temple, and Timur explained some of the recent changes in Mongolia since the fall of Communism in the early 90’s. The country had become a parliamentary democracy with a free-market economy, which had increased the prosperity of the people and resulted in a baby-boom of sorts. It also gave way to a resurgence of the country’s majority religion, Tibetan Buddhism, which had been suppressed under the Communists. There was interest from foreign businesses in mining exploration, and their tiny tourism industry was expanding. It was a hopeful time in Mongolia.

Buddhist Temple in Ulaanbaatar

Our plane at the airstrip in Gov-Altay

A short flight in a propeller plane brought us to Gov-Altay, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. We still had several days of driving to reach the tiny desert outpost of Bayan Tooroi where we would pick up our guide and finally set out in search of the bear. We piled into an ancient-looking Russian-made jeep with a driver who, unbeknownst to us, was completely unfamiliar with this half of the country, and headed south.

In researching our trip, we’d had difficulty finding a good map of Mongolia. The one my father finally did acquire was rife with mistakes, but still helpful since our driver had no maps. We quickly learned that no one navigates by map in Mongolia, largely because once you’re 100 miles out of Ulaanbaatar, there aren’t any roads. (Also, there aren’t any maps.)
Here’s how navigation works:

1)      Find a jeep track that heads in the general direction you want to go.

2)      When you see a shepherd across the steppe with his flock, drive up and ask him directions. (It helps if your driver speaks Mongolian, not just Russian. We learned this the hard way.)

3)      Follow the direction indicated until you see another shepherd.

4)      Repeat process.

After a day of this, we spotted a line of power poles heading south into the desert and followed them, reasoning that our destination was the only inhabited area with power, so that must be were the electricity was going. Navigation by power lines!

Fixing the jeep. The russian made jeeps popular in Mongolia were fairly simple, which was good since on-the-go repairs were frequently necessary.

As we bounced slowly down the rough track, I had to put my hand on the ceiling of the jeep in order to prevent my head from cracking into it. These jeep tracks couldn’t be any better than simply driving cross country, I reasoned. But when we inadvertently veered onto a track heading away from the power lines, I was proved quite wrong in this notion.

Once the error was discovered, we turned off the track to cut cross-country directly back to the power line guide posts, and I learned the true meaning of jeep-crawling. The vehicle became a giant washing machine and we the dirty laundry tossing about inside. After ten hours of already rough driving, this wasn’t the ride my stomach had been looking for, and I couldn’t imagine how the driver was keeping his foot on the gas pedal with the jeep lurching about so much. Perhaps that was a contributing factor in the lurching.

Our driver and his jeep. He was obsessed with keeping the dust off and would wipe it down at every opportunity, which seemed like a fruitless effort to me. 

We rejoined the power line track right at dusk, and by comparison the ride suddenly felt incredibly smooth. Finally, I saw the tiny lights of Bayan Tooroi! It had been a long day of driving – not really my favorite activity. We were probably 30 minutes from our destination when the headlights went out on the jeep, and it turns out that there is not much darker than the Mongolian desert at night. My heart sank; there was no way we could drive without lights. But one thing you learn when the conveniences of civilization are always a far off thought: improvisation. Our driver turned on the emergency flashers and we found our way across the desert with the aid of a red strobe. Brilliant!

The next day I had a chance to explore the small village on my own. This turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of the trip for me. I was wandering among the gers (yurts) admiring how each identical home distinguished itself with a decorated door. Gers are the traditional dwelling of the nomadic people of Mongolia, and they still house the vast majority of the population. Round in shape, they are composed simply of a lightweight wooden frame covered in hand-felted wool. They are quite structurally sound to keep out the harsh Mongolian weather, yet easy to disassemble, transport, and reassemble, allowing nomads to follow the herds of animals.

Bayan Tooroi 

Russian made motor bikes were also a very popular form of transportation. Also frequently in need of repair.

As I photographed the doors, I attracted a growing flock of children and turned my attention toward them. It should be noted that tall, fair-skinned women were an anomaly in the Gobi desert, and they were clearly as curious about me as I was about them. I held up my camera, and they gamely posed for pictures. Sharing no language, we communicated surprisingly well through gestures and smiles.

Children of Bayan Tooroi

Eventually someone’s mother showed up and invited me, with an ushering smile, into her ger. I followed, along with my dozen giggling companions. Her ger had rugs for flooring, and we sat in a group on them as she handed me something I thought of as tea. It tasted bitter, and actually rather nauseating, but I was completely thrilled to be there and smiled graciously as I sipped. I felt so honored to be welcomed into their home, and the fact that we couldn’t actually speak to each other seemed insignificant. Even though we came from incredibly different lifestyles and backgrounds, it was a moment that made me feel that as human beings, we are all so much more alike than we are different.

My father showed up to join the party, and he had brought his Polaroid camera. We took pictures of each kid to give to them. They were excited about the Polaroids, and we enjoyed having something to share.

Dad snaps Polaroids of the kids.

Bayan Tooroi was also where we were to meet our guide, Choijin. A small man, seemingly far along in years, he was a naturalist paid by the government to study the bears and other wildlife, and he was the person with by far the most knowledge on where to spot animals in this vast, sparse landscape.

(In fact, years later I was watching the BBC documentary, Planet Earth, and I was thrilled to see Choijin leading the BBC team through the Gobi on a quest for wild camels. I love this YouTube clip from Planet Earth because it shows exactly the same Mongolia we experienced.)

Preparing for the desert meant obtaining food, among other things, and food in Mongolia is mutton. With the help of our guide we negotiated the purchase of a sheep from a local herdsman and I watched, fascinated, as they slaughtered and prepared the meat for us. Our small group wouldn’t be able to eat all of it before it would rot in the desert heat, so we gave some of it away as gifts.

Selecting dinner (and breakfast and lunch) from the flock.

I was first handed the reigns of this camel with zero instruction. Not how to  make it stand up or how to steer it. Not even how to get on. Because what idiot doesn't know how to ride a camel?

My camel was totally punk rock.

After we had gathered and organized the necessary supplies, we set off for a two week exploration of the desert. On our very first morning, around dawn, we had our first sighting of the Gobi bear. Wow! I thought our guide was amazing! It turns out that in a desert there are very few food and water sources. Ah, yes. The locations where it is likely to see a large animal such as a bear are actually fairly limited, and thus somewhat predictable. Still, I was impressed with our early success, and excited for the rest of the trip.

We returned to the same site that evening and lay quietly in wait for the bear to return. When he did, we had our best views yet. Completely lacking in wildlife photography experience, I didn’t have the right camera equipment for such low light conditions. All my bear pictures could be summed-up as “fuzzy brown dots.” It really didn’t matter though. From our perch up on a rocky outcropping, we watched with giddy enthusiasm as he poked around the small valley until it was too dark to see.

The Gobi bear is quite small compared with brown bears of North America. This is a result of living in the harsh desert environment. Although I have a great deal of respect for all bears as wild animals, I couldn’t help thinking of our bear as “cute.” He just was.

The remainder of our desert explorations were unsuccessful for bear sightings. I learned a lot about hunting, even though we shot with cameras and not guns. I learned that there is a lot of sitting and waiting which is, not surprisingly, something that neither my father nor I am very good at. We did see gazelles, wild camels, and Argali sheep. The sheep especially were beautiful. The rams have the largest horns in the world which, sadly, makes them a target for trophy hunters.

This is the most awesomest picture of my dad ever!

With our early success at spotting the bear, my expectations had been raised, and it was tough to spend the rest of our days with no other sightings. We had known from the outset though, that we could potentially come all that way and not see a bear at all, so in truth, we had been quite lucky.

These soldiers were living in a cave guarding the Mongolia/China border. It kind of freaked me out to see men with machine guns in the middle of nowhere.

Choijin and me.

Before departing the desert region, we made a trek to several sites near Bayan Tooroi. One of these was an area of sacred pools among some fascinating rock formations. I imagined that when the water was flowing it was even more beautiful, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why such a site would be considered sacred in that endless, arid land.

Rock Formations

Relaxing among the sacred pools.

The journey back from the outer reaches of the desert, to the relative civilization of Ulaanbaatar, turned out to be the biggest adventure of the trip. We made it to Gov-Altay with relative ease, but a storm had moved in which caused some issues with our flight. The tiny airport did not have appropriate communications, and the plane was not rated for instrument flight. Or perhaps it was the pilot that wasn’t rated, but regardless, the plane was grounded until visibility improved.

We spent a day in wait, and this allowed us to do a bit of exploration around Gov-Altay. Eventually though, we realized such things as:

A) If we wanted to make our flight from Ulaanbaatar, we might have to drive, and

B) If we were going to drive we had to get on our way. It would be a three day trek via jeep.

It was during this epically long drive that my father finally admitted I’d given him appropriate advice on what to pack for the trip. He’d laughed that I had him bring a fleece jacket and pants, as well as rain gear, to a desert. As we drove through the mountainous region of the country, the temperature dropped and the same storm that had stranded our plane now coated the landscape with snow. We were both wearing everything we had with us.

Hearty camels in Mongolian weather.

Along with an immense, unending barrage of bouncing around the inside of the jeep, a few memories stand out vividly from this crazy drive:

  • We encountered another jeep headed in roughly the same direction and our two drivers decided to stick together for safety. This scared me because only then did I realize that our driver thought the journey was dangerous.

  • We saw a wolf in the middle of the night, and the other jeep pulled over to shoot at it, prompting me to scream, “NO! Don’t shoot the wolf!” Talk about a culture-clash of perspectives. My father and I still laugh over this one. I felt relieved that their shots missed, but at the same time a little guilty about my relief. The wolf probably would have meant a lot to them.
  • We reached a river crossing which was so deep I was positive we should not attempt it. It was dark and snowing and we were in the middle of Mongolia and our driver wanted to go for it. I was fairly certain the water would rush in the doors and we might die. But what could we do? I remember turning to my father and saying, “Mom would NOT like it if she knew what we were doing right now!” We both erupted in laughter.
  • At the top of a snowy mountain pass in the dark we got out of the jeep in front of a large pile of rocks adorned with prayer flags marking the summit. We joined the people from the other jeep in a local ritual of circling the giant summit cairn three times, adding our own rock to the pile, and asking the gods to bless our journey and keep us safe. I enjoyed participating in a local custom, but again, it made me nervous that even the locals thought this trip was dangerous.
  • The driver had one tape in the car. It was traditional Mongolian music performed by a popular artist. I would conservatively estimate that we listened to it no fewer than 47 times. Eventually, I began to sing along. In Mongolian. The driver loved this and pretty soon we were all singing together.

Stopping at the pass to ensure our safe travel.

Eventually, we made it back to Ulaanbaatar quite exhausted, but in time for our flight home. My experience in Mongolia wasn’t all about seeing the Gobi bear, although that was certainly an exciting bonus. A lot of it was simply about foreign travel and experiencing the kindness and hospitality of people on the other side of the planet. I saw a country living very much the way it had for thousands of years, yet with a western influence that made me more than a little uncomfortable. Gov-Altay, for example, was a big enough town to receive a lot of imported products – disposable things with disposable packaging. Yet, they had no real garbage system, so people were in the habit of merely throwing things out the window, into the wind. This made my heart crumple, as I could only see western influence destroying their beautiful country with its garbage. In Ulaanbaatar this was evidenced by garbage blowing around the streets, trapped up against chain link fences that prevented it from escaping into the broad landscape. My dad thought a bigger problem was their expanding population and lack of infrastructure. Even in Gov-Altay most people lived in gers which had no running water and only pit toilets. I wondered deeply what the future would bring for the people of Mongolia.

Gobi Sunset 

Ultimately, for me, this trip was an adventure that influenced my thinking about my own life. I saw a rare, near-extinct bear, countless friendly smiles, and a country in a place of hope yet tempered with uncertainty. I spent an unforgettable month connecting with a new culture, facing unexpected challenges, and sharing it all with my dad.

He and I have continued searching out new adventures.  He still rides his bike, whether it’s a double century or simply to work and back. I seem to run farther and crazier with each passing year. But we still manage to get together for adventures of the less epic type – day hikes in Yosemite or mountain biking around Tahoe. The older I get, the more I see myself in him. Or perhaps it’s that I see him in me? Regardless,  I know I’m lucky that I have a dad who gave me the gift of adventurousness and wanted to share it with me so many years ago in Mongolia, where we found much more than just the Gobi bear.


  1. Michelle in Michigan2/23/2012 3:55 PM

    I LOVED this post. I can relate as my dad and I often travel together, just the two of us. We run together weekly and run several half marathons a year. He is 68 and I am 45, always daddy's girl... Next big adventure - 2013, two+ weeks in Alaska

    1. Thanks, Michelle! Glad to know I am not the only father/daughter adventuring pair. Alaska sounds awesome - have fun!!

    2. Gretchen, OMG,Mongolia is one of the top 10 places on my places to go Adventure list. I would love to go there and stay in the Yurts with the "few true Nomads" I ride across country with them on horseback. They are excellent horsemen. What a wonderful, simply, yet harsh, poverty strickin life they lead. There was a wonderful article in National Geographic about Mongolia a few months ago. Did you get to read it. Ulaanbataar, the inner city is doing very well, but there thousands living in shanty towns all around the outskirts plywood/sheetmetal shacks, no electricity, running water, plumbing, etc. Enjoyed your story Gretchen. Thank you for sharing.

      A fellow adventurer!

    3. Hi Jack - No, I did not get to see that article. I'd be interested though. I heard they suffered quite a drought a few years after my trip and that affected the economy quite a bit. I haven't kept up much on recent events though.

  2. Now that's an epic adventure! It reminds of a trip I took with my Dad back in 1994 to a little village in North Vietnam to visit my ailing grandfather. My father had left North Vietnam when he was 5 to flee the Communist takeover of the North then. Then his family fled again in 1975 to the US when the communists took over South Vietnam. Thanks for sharing your cool adventure!

    1. John, that sounds like a great trip. I bet your father's story is pretty interesting as well!

  3. Great trip! Great write-up!
    The Mongolian people were some of the friendliest I've ever met.

    1. Hey, Fiddlehead! Totally agreed about the Mongolian people. So welcoming! I guess I am not surprised you've been to Mongolia. I'd love to hear sometime about what part of the country you were in and what you did.

  4. Gretchen, this is wonderful! Thanks so much for letting the rest of us, once again, have a little peek into your exciting, memorable adventure. Guess I have to publicly admit big brother is a pretty awesome Dad! He's a pretty awesome big brother too. Love your Punk'd camel and the way you looked at the bike ride / run views between you and your Dad. Exactly.

    1. Thanks! I was thinking about all these family similarities ever since I made that comment about you saying something that sounded just like my dad. Good thing we're all cool people! :)

  5. This is such a beautiful story. What a gift to your dad, too, to show your relationship and adventures this way. I would be extremely happy in my later years if my kids wrote something like this about my husband and me, since we've tried to role model to them the benefit of global travel and adventure. You capture the profound relationship-building that takes place on far-flung travel, both between yourself and the local people and environment, and between you and the family member(s) you travel with. Now I want to hit the road with my kids and husband again! Thanks for sharing -- and for remind us what travel was like pre-Internet!

    1. Thanks, Sarah! You are the experienced world traveler, so I appreciate the feedback. I have no doubt when your kids are grown, they will be so thankful for the gifts of travel you have given them. You're right that there is so much to learn by experiencing other cultures. And I suspect travel in Mongolia, the Gobi at least, hasn't changed much with the internet. :)

  6. Joseph Brugman2/23/2012 7:42 PM

    Thanks for writing this. We must have been on the same trip because that's how I remember it too. Your lead picture cries out Mongolia!! Love it. Dad

    1. Thanks, Dad. And thanks for such a great trip! I'm glad I finally got around to finishing this write-up. It definitely took me some time, not to mention the photo sort. But totally worth the effort. :)

  7. Wow, Gretch, great job! I really enjoyed it. And you didn't even mention playing "hangman" with Dad while waiting for the plane that never showed. Nor the book (what was the name of it again? Was it The Eight?) that you and Dad each read a bunch of times because you had only brought one book. It was a very fun post to read and I'm sure I will read it again. Definitely an epic adventure!

    1. Thanks, Mom. (You're not really trying to be anonymous, are you?) Well, no need to bore everyone to death with too many details. :) Plenty of stuff got left on the cutting room floor, and it's still a long post. But I guess it was a long trip!

  8. This was so beautiful, Gretchen. I would love to have an experience like this with my dad :) You are a lucky girl! Great story, and it's even better because it's true. The picture of the little girl with the pompoms in her hair makes me smile so big. What an incredible experience to have. I just loved reading this!

    1. Thanks, Paige. Yup, I am lucky. :) I love that picture of the pom pom girl too!

  9. Great post. What a huge adventure! Really nicely told, of course. In a way, it's no surprise you have such huge tales "up your sleeve" but still ... wow.

    1. Thanks, Stac! I do have a few other stories in the hopper for the Epic Adventures series. If the amount of time it took me to write this post is any indication though, I wouldn't expect to see them too soon. ;)

  10. Wonderful piece, and your father rocks. Now I want to be adopted by all of your family, female clan of cousins and aunts and parents to top it off. I had to read aloud capitol's name twice before it rang a bell (Ulanbator is how I spell it in Russian), and I wonder if Timur was former Soviet (or named after Soviets friends). Desert is really horrifying when cold, and I am glad you made sure to pack extra clothes. The experience of a lifetime...somehow I don't think it even touches the tip of an iceberg:)

    1. Definitely always bring extra clothes! :) And I know there was a famous Mongol named Timur: Timur the Lame, also known as Tamerlane. He was a big ruler back in the days of the Mongolian Empire. But other than that, I don't really know the origins of the name.

  11. What a wonderful adventure! And so awesome that you got to share it with your Dad. Thanks for telling your story....I love the pictures.

  12. I loved hearing about your adventures with your Dad. Perfectly written, of course. Thanks so much for sharing!

  13. Thanks, Sarah and Kelly!

  14. Gretchen, I have been saving this up for a quiet moment. Lovely piece. Coming from a non-adventurous family (I am something of a black sheep in that regard) I am always happy to read about families that travel/run/bike/climb/whatever together. I hope I can someday pass on my love of adventure to my kids the way your dad passed his on to you. I dream of doing stuff like this with my kids someday!

    1. Pam - So glad you had a chance to read it! I think you are already passing on your love of adventure to your kids. (You don't have to go all the way to Mongolia to do that.)