Tales From the Field: In Which We Ford a Flooded Gobi River (July, 2010)

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Breakfast, with cashmere goats. Great way to start the day!

In a country where 100km is a good day’s travel on the earth roads that serve most of it, we had just learned from locals at Baruunbayan-Ulaan, a soum center where we had stopped to get petrol, that the heavy log and plank bridge we heading for in order to cross the Taatsyn Gol had been destroyed, a casualty of five days of rain in the Hangai Mountains followed by serious flooding downstream in the Gobi, where I was on a two-week camping trip in July of 2010, traveling in a Land Cruiser with Khatnaa, my driver/guide and Soyoloo, our cook. The closest intact bridge would require almost a two day detour north and then back south, which didn’t appeal to any of us. What to do.
Khatnaa decided that we would drive on west to the river and see what the situation was. Also at the petrol station were two very full Mitsubishi Delicata van’s worth of Mongol men and their families. A little later a third one showed up.

Heading south-east into the Gobi. I love this

In one day that had incident enough to two, here’s my journal entry from July 15, which gives a certain immediacy to what followed (photos after the journal entry):
“What an amazing day. Went south-west with Orog Nuur (Orog Lake) as our goal. Khatnaa knew there was the Taatsyn Gol (Taatsyn River) to cross, so stopped at a petrol station to ask about it. Also there were two van loads of Mongols from Togrog who were heading west to mine for gold. Usual Mongol socializing and information exchange ensued.
A third van showed up and we all headed towards the river, which was flooded due to rains in the Hangai Mountains.
We got across one stream, but were stopped by a broad ribbon of streams and mud. The main channel was moving fast and pulsing with even more water.
Went back up to the bluff overlooking the river and had lunch, watching the three van loads of Mongols look for a way across and mess around in the water.
Went back down to the river. Khatnaa walked a long way to see if he could find a crossing point, but came back and told us that the last stream of water was the worst of all. So we were faced with going north 100 km to the closest bridge. Such is travel in Mongolia.
Suddenly, there was action with one of the vans. A bunch of guys had formed a line across one point of the main channel and the van charged into the water, started to stall, but the guys all got behind it and pushed it on through!
Well, if a van could make it, our big Land Cruiser certainly could and did, without even needing a push. We did end up with an extra passenger, a little eej (mother) who wasn’t about to miss her chance to ride in our big car.

We got out on the other side and I photographed the other two vans making the crossing. Then said our good-byes.

We followed one van up a soft sand slope. It promptly got stuck so we rolled back down and went around it and on up the hill.
The entire “adventure” of the river crossing was a perfect example of Mongol practicality, improvisational skills and good humor. No one at any point got angry, showed frustration or swore. When it looked like things had stalled out, the guys took a break and goofed around in the water. Or so it seemed. They were clearly having fun but they were, in retrospect, also searching for a crossing point.
The spot they found was one where the channel wasn’t too wide or deep and where they felt the bottom was solid enough for a vehicle to get across with a minimal chance of getting stuck.
Without winches, cables or even rope, they simply used the same solution they always do – push.”

Here’s a selection of the photos that I took…

Mongols from the vans looking for a place to cross a channel of the flooded Taatsyn Gol (river)
Khatnaa walking out to see if he could find a crossing place as described in the journal entry
After Khatnaa came back from not finding a way across, he drove up to the top of a bank overlooking the river valley where we had a picnic lunch and watched what was going on down below
We drove back down and passed these two local herders who were riding over to check out what was happening
You can see them in the distance on the left. Of course, they just rode across, no problem. Which was pretty funny, actually. It was that kind of day
Would-be miners getting advice from the herders. All this taking place under a spectacular summer sky and crystalline light
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We were waiting at our car and suddenly one of the vans started across. I took this photo just as it started to stall out. The guys behind it immediately rushed up to give it a push and out it came on  the other side
Then it was our turn. I took this shot at mid-stream. The water was up past the bumper
Then the second van crossed with us looking back the way we’d just come
Meanwhile, the herders enjoyed a little unexpected afternoon entertainment…
The third van crossing without incident but some pretty good splashes
All vehicles safely across the guys took a few minutes to goof around in the water.
Then they headed back to their vans to continue their journey
We followed behind and came upon one momentarily stuck in sand on the slope up out of the river valley. We smiled and waved as we went by since we still had a fair distance to go to our next destination, Orog Nuur (lake)
And not too long after….camels!

In Mongolia, when traveling in the countryside, even when it seems bad it can be very good. And something cool, interesting or out and out wonderful happens every day.

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