The Ice Canyon on the Edge of the Gobi

March 5, 2019

On pages 42 and 43 of Earthforms there are two photographs of the Ice Canyon at Yolyn Am, Mongolia. Here is the story of the day I photographed them, May 13, 2014, during my trip around the world

Our driver Ohchkee (who spoke no English) picked us up in his roomy SUV at Dalanzadgad airport, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 300 miles south of Ulaan Baator, Mongolia’s capital, and spirited us off to his yurt complex in a nearby town, first passing by Flaming Cliffs, where in 1922 Roy Chapman Andrews had first discovered dinosaur eggs (now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York).


Above: Flaming Cliffs, site of Roy Chapman Andrews’ 1922 discovery of dinosaur eggs

Below: Inside our driver’s yurt: quite homey, with a complete entertainment complex. Hot water was heated on a stove and served in a thermos, which are ubiquitous in that part of the world. The blond woman on the right was my traveling companion, Barbara.

After meeting his wife and small daughter, we slept on rather hard surfaces then spent a full day traveling across the desert, following a maze of track strands that Ohchkee navigated with neither road signs nor GPS. Finally we arrived at a series of yurts within view of the famous Khongryn Els, “singing” sand dunes that cut through the Gobi, covering 363 square miles (965 sq. km). Unlike the Arabian deserts, the Gobi is not mostly dunes, which are in a very specific location.  One sees mostly scrub, sparse grass, lots of pebbles—a grazing land suitable for vast herds of goats and smaller ones of Bactrian (2-humped) camels. There are some grassy hills and occasional wild horses. A desert, after all, is defined as an area where the rainfall is less than 10 inches per year.


Top: Barbara wanders on the dunes

Middle: The remains of a rainwater pool among the dunes.

Bottom: Bactrian (two-humped) camels, typical of the Gobi.

The second day out we explored the dunes, then back from the dunes we ate the pickled vegetables we had bought in Dalanzadgad for dinner rather than take “lunch” again from our host, consisting of hard chunks of goat meat and cubes of fat, along with fried bread in various states of desiccation. We went to bed early. The beds were lumpy and rather hard, but marginally more comfortable than the board I had slept on chez Ohchkee the previous night. The outhouse, however, was 77 paces away (I counted), and it rained all night. So every time I had to go (and at my age that’s 2 to 5 times a night) I put on my shoes and coat and out I went. Eventually, I skipped the full trek and just added to the precipitation from the clouds onto the sand in the back of the yurt.

The outhouse, I must say, was fancier than those in the others yurt compounds where we had stayed. Our host had standards! It was made of sheet metal rather than wood, and his sense of style dictated that he cover his planks with colorful contact paper. I imagined it was something like one of Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Boxes (for which Reich went to jail in 1959 and died there).


The outhouse, which I got to know very well during the night we spent on the edge of the dunes. I always carried a head-light.

We slept an extra hour, lulled by the rain, and after breakfasting on our own supplies plus more fried bread and very (goat) milky tea, we were out of there by 8 am. Our host’s son and wife had showed up, both of whom towered over him, and I was glad to know he wasn’t there alone, as he had indicated, but his English was extremely limited (mainly to “camel” and “lunch”).


Left to right: the author, Ohchkee our driver, our host’s son, our host, and his wife.


The family of our host: son, wife, paterfamilias, whose only English were the words “camel” and “lunch” (=every meal), but we understood each other very well.

We had a long distance to go and kept hoping the rain would let up, and the sky did seem to brighten a bit in the distance. We saw two hawks and some presumably wild horses, and I managed to capture this image from the moving SUV.


After about 3 hours we arrived at a small town and pulled into a gas station on the edge of town. No one was there, but a phone number was posted that Ohchkee called. In about five minutes a husky woman pulled up in a 4WD and unlocked the 80-octane pump. There was also a small stupa across from the station.

On the agenda for the day was Yolyn Am, a high-walled canyon and its river, which remained frozen into the summer. In another hour we arrived at a canyon with an iced-over stream, which I took to be our major destination. It reminded me of canyons of the US Southwest, except for the ice, which was quite exceptional. On the way there we passed a small stupa, evidence of piety in this remote area.


Dungeneegyn Am (“Big Canyon”) ice canyon itself was fascinating, but it wasn’t the main attraction.

I thought the day’s sightseeing was over—Ochkee’s English was not good enough to correct this impression, but this was Dungeneegyn Am (“Big Canyon”) I later found out, and only a foretaste of the main event.

So I was surprised and delighted when we pulled up to a “protected area” where there was a small natural history museum and gift shop. We had to wait for the attendant to raise the barrier, then we pulled in and visited the museum. It was rather rudimentary, mostly featuring stuffed mammals and birds of the Gobi, many of them in rather fanciful poses, including some big spotted cats. There was also a room of dinosaur fossils, no complete skeletons, but some interesting eggs and bone fragments, and one complete fossil torso in the original position it was found.


Some of the displays in the natural history museum in the protected area. Paleontology is very big in Mongolia.

We paid the 2000 MNT (76¢) museum entrance fee and then a 3000 MNT ($1.15) “Protected Area Service Fee,” which I didn’t understand at first. Then we drove to the end of the parking area, had some lunch, which Ochkee embellished with some sweet hot coffee boiled on a tiny burner fueled with an aerosol can of methane, and then he invited us on a three-kilometer hike. The weather was nasty, very foggy, and Barbara was in no mood for such an extensive hike, but I figured it was part of the tour, and I’d best see what it was.


THIS turned out to be Yolyn Am, the main attraction of the day, and it was spectacular. Ochkee couldn’t tell us any of this (we had opted, after all, only for a driver who spoke no English rather than an English-speaking guide as well, thus saving $600+), but my faith proved correct. It was a sublime experience.

But not necessary a beautiful one. If we follow Edmund Burke’s 1757 distinction between the sublime and the beautiful from his famous essay on the subject, the beautiful is that which is well-formed, pleasing to the senses and calming to the nerves; while the sublime is that which has the power to compel and destroy us, often inspiring fear. Moreover, its qualities include vastness, a sense of infinity, and magnificence, creating nervous tension rather than tranquility. The distinction is often cited as the critical one between the classical sensibility and the romantic. Burke’s qualities of the sublime were exactly what I found at Yolyn Am in the fog.

We clambered down an embankment and found ourselves on a wide expanse with a river flowing through it. A little farther down the ice began, then it got thicker, up to about 6 or even 8 inches thick, with many surface patterns resulting from differential freezing and the blowing of sand. Water flowed around it. A little farther down the walls of the canyon closed in: jagged black rocks up to about 80 feet high in peaks and pinnacles, with slopes of varying steepness. We followed the river, which was soon completely covered with ice. Underneath, the water still flowed and was quite audible.


Approaching the area of the frozen river at Yolyn Am

The fog was so thick that the canyon walls receded into a vague gray blur at 60 feet away then disappeared. The highest summits were never more than a looming, ominous shape. The wonderful thing about photographing in fog this thick is that you can vary the definition of your foreground by changing your distance from it. So I could make the ice, its lines and textures quite sharp and assertive, the rock surfaces and aromatic brush nearby quite textured, while the receding canyon walls that I framed all this with became increasingly indistinct and mysterious.


Note the ovoo, right, a Mongolian cairn, or sacred stone heap.


The ice textures, thickness, sand patterns, edge lines and even color varied considerably. There were patches of light blue; concavities of shattered crystal (which turned out to be footprints); a shelf about a foot off the water surface that dripped down. You could walk on the ice, but yes, it was slippery. You had to be VERY careful, extremely sure of your footing.


This is the image, above, in Earthforms.


Ohchkee kept disappearing ahead of me in the fog, since I took more time for my photography. At one point a group of about 12 young people came hiking through. I got six of them to pose holding hands across the ice. More people arrived. It was officially before the start of the season, so I’m grateful there weren’t great crowds


I set up this posed photo without any language in common with my subjects, young people out on a hike.


The shelf.

Finally, I arrived at an area where the canyon opened onto a lake, some of which was open water. Ohchkee was ahead of me, but I didn’t know where the solid spots were, so he suggested we turn around.


We had walked about two kilometers in a little over an hour. On our way back I spotted those small burrowing animals that had been so elusive during our drive. Their holes were everywhere. This time, however, they let me approach, and I got some very clear images with my 300 mm telephoto. I believe they were picas or coneys, a short-eared non-rodent relative of rabbits.


A  pica or coney, a short-eared (non-rodent) relative of rabbits.


The author at the edge of the ice. Photograph by Ohchkee.

As we approached the parking area I paid a visit to the outhouse, which was the most refined one I had seen in the Gobi—this was a protected area after all. It was a large pit toilet with a women and men’s side, and a wooden toilet SEAT covered with contact paper. It was almost too much luxury.


We were back in Dalanzadgad within the hour and found a comfortable hotel with bathtub, the luxurious Khan Uul, which catered to mining industry executives, as this international industry has come to develop a strong interest in the Gobi. I could only hope they wouldn’t ruin too much of this sublime wasteland.


Dalanzadgad, municipality of mostly of yurts, some industry, a lovely park, and a historical, natural and human, museum.

Joel Simpson

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