Yes, that is the Gobi Desert, just a few hours drive away from my town. The notion of a weekend trip was inspired by our site mate/friend, Erin who was having a birthday on the 18th. She lives in a small soum 2-3 hours south of our aimag center, and had to work all day Friday, her actual birthday.
Some conspiring ensued, and our VSO friends with a Jeep, suggested a surprise trip to see her and continue to the desert and another neighboring soum where their landlord happens to live.
Joyce and I convinced Erin we were coming to get her Saturday morning and whisking her away. We all pulled up around noon, and it was great! She was surprised and our adventure began! Not that riding in a Russian Jeep through the whoodo (countryside with passes and ruts that are roads here) isn't an adventure in and of itself! Thanks to Andrew, our fearless driver for getting us around all weekend. We headed from Gochinos soum to Baron Byan something... soum where we were graciously met by their landlord and a local English teacher.
We enjoyed Mongolian hospitality having dinner at his family's ger. Our accommodations for the night was a room in the school dormitory, which was very comfortable, and after taking our belongings there, joined our hosts to watch Mongolian wrestling in the local school gym. One of the coolest differences we noticed here were the saddled camels tied up outside. Not a sight I have witnessed previously in Mongolia.
Camels are amazing looking animals, with their big eyes and long lashes and now during the cold weather, their hair is full and lovely. Their feet are unbelievably huge, and they tend to snort and sniff. Our hosts took us on Sunday morning to an area a short drive out of town to ride camels. We all got a turn to pose with one, then took turns riding. It was a crazy cool experience to see them up close and personal, and to ride them, even for a short time. Though I felt pretty secure in between those humps, the ride was a little wobbly.
I was reminded of one of my favorite Mongolian movies, The Story of the Weeping Camel; if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it as representative of life as a herder in the Gobi.