Mongolia – Journeys to the Wild Wild East (Part 1)

The Flaming Cliffs – just one of the multitude of amazing landscapes on offer in Mongolia

Mongolia is easily the least developed and most wild country we have ever been to. And we absolutely loved it. It is not wild in a party sense or even a criminal sense; it is wild for its massive amounts of wilderness. The country is huge and a great majority of it is sparsely populated with nomad farmers, so once you get out of the town you feel like you could be back in the time of Genghis Khan and the birth of this nation. Although the Land Cruiser that we were in for our tour, the satellite TV dishes and solar panels most people owned and the modern style dress are all probably a bit different than how it would have been in those days, but not much else seems to have changed. In the cities things are starting to change at a great rate of knots, but in the countryside it is like stepping back in time.

The view of Ulaan Bataar from Unlce Graemes

We were lucky, as we had Tess’s uncle Graeme living in the capital city, Ulaan Bataar, which meant we had somewhere to stay and someone to give us some background information on the country in general. As he holds a senior position in one of the mining companies and has been in Mongolia for a few years he has a nice apartment, a driver and a wealth of knowledge about the place, all of which we were lucky to have access too. We stayed at Graeme’s for a few days on arrival, mainly to get a bit of a recharge after our Trans-Siberian train journey. It was good to be able to have a few home cooked meals and generally just relax while we did some research into what type of tour we wanted to do, as we had heard this was the best way to see Mongolia. We also stayed at Graeme’s upon our return and we were lucky to have Aunty Dorrie there too, so she could catch up on family stuff with Tess, as well as sharing the wealth of knowledge she also has about Mongolia.

The new and old of UB – Uncle Graeme’s apartment building on left, new office complex and an old Russian WW2 tank

UB itself is a pretty crazy city, with more construction and development going on here than maybe anywhere else in the world we have seen. The mining dollar is driving the urbanisation of the country and apartment buildings are shooting up everywhere. Graeme pointed out to us what was the tallest building when he had first come to Mongolia about 5 years ago; there are now maybe 6 or 7 taller than it. The infrastructure, in particular the roads, are struggling to keep up and this is one of the many things the Mongolian government needs to work on to bring their country nearer to the developed world. At times the trip to Graeme’s office, that should take about 10 minutes, can take an hour or more due to the traffic jams. And it is not just the quality of the roads either, the quality of drivers need working on too, with Mongolians taking the cowboy farmer mentality with them to the city, making this maybe one of the more scary cities to drive around, as everyone jostles for position and few give way.

More new and old – Monastery in foreground, high rise in the back

We spent time in the city both before and after the tour that we did. We spent a couple of nights in a hotel in the centre, to get a feel for it, but it didn’t change our opinion too much. It is interesting enough to walk around and check out, with the likes of the State Department Store and Naran Tuul Market (previously the Black Market) both interesting to check out for shopping, although both  supposedly had much better bargains back in the communism days. There are also some communist era statues and buildings and then some of the complete opposite, brand new office blocks and shopping malls. This is one of the biggest things that we took away from Ulaan Bataar and Mongolia as a whole, the difference between old and new. It appears to be a major thing, with some people living in brand new apartments, while others still live in the traditional ger style tent, all within the same city (some right next to each other). With so much money coming in and development cranking, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next 10 years or so.

Breakfast in the Gobi – generally a good feed with Llama’s cooking

For us Mongolia was more about the wilderness and the tour that we were lucky to do to the Gobi Desert and some of central-west Mongolia. As mentioned, a tour had been recommended to us as the best way to see the place and we quickly discovered there were multitudes of options for this. Most guest houses and travel shops have something on offer and there are plenty more choices online. We went around a few places to see what was on offer and were offered everything from just a van and driver, to a luxury style tour where accommodation and food are provided on a five-star level. We decided you probably get what you pay for and went for a mid-range option. For US$95 per day per person we got a vehicle, a driver, a guide and all our meals and accommodation. This was the price for a 2 person tour and if you had more in your group the price comes down, as a lot of that covers the petrol and driver side of things. We came across a few different people doing the “just a van and driver” option and had mixed reports. It sounded like it came down to whether the driver spoke much English or not, with those with a driver they could communicate with enjoying themselves, while those who could not communicate feeling a bit on the isolated side of things.

Agi, our driver, and the Land Cruiser we toured in

Our driver, Agi, couldn’t speak any English, but that didn’t matter too much for us, as we had our guide Llama, who was an English teacher for the majority of the year, so could speak pretty good. She was our cook also and made us breakfast and dinner every day. For lunches we usually stopped at little guesthouses or restaurants. We were lucky that Llama was a pretty good cook and couldn’t complain about most of her meals, although we were getting a bit sick of chewy mutton and noodles by the end of it. But she did try and provide us something different every meal which we appreciated, although, as she started to run low on ideas we wouldn’t have minded repeats opposed to her trying to come up with things she hadn’t made before. The restaurant meals weren’t as good, with a lot of them consisting of the chewy mutton that Mongolians love and we struggled to finish on most occasions. It was alright, but a few herbs and spices wouldn’t have gone a miss, and not waiting to the sheep was as old and tough as possible before butchering might have been good too. Although when we asked Llama if they ever eat lamb, she did say “No! We never eat babies”.

Overall it was a great trip and we were amazed by the awesome landscape every day. For our blog we kept a journal every day as we knew there would be too much to try and remember. We have reproduced this on a day-by-day basis, as we wrote it on the road. The following is all we did in our 13 day Mongolian tour to the Gobi and other cool Mongolian spots

Day 1

Drinking Airag with our guide Llama…mmmm, fermented horse milk

After a brief farewell to Uncle Graeme we were off on our 14 (turned into 13) day tour of Mongolia’s South and West, namely the Gobi Desert and White Lake areas. Quite quickly the roads turned into dirt tracks and we were bumping and grinding our way past sparse pastoral landscapes. An occasional ger dotted the landscape and we saw several herds of horses. Horses are revered here and at our first stop we got to try “airag”, fermented horse milk, in a small family ger in the middle of nowhere. We then walked over to a large herd of 30+ horses to 17 year old farm girl milk them. Quite a site that we were not used to as they used the foals to suck on the teat to get it out, then quickly pushed it away and hand milked it into a bucket. The horse milk has a kinda yogurt taste too it, though is a lot thinner and has a bit more of a tang. It is hard to explain, as it’s quite different to anything we had had before. Supposedly the stuff we had was just right to drink, as had been fermenting a couple of days so was not too old or too fresh. Supposedly often when people try it for the first time they need to go to the toilet, but we were both fine. Llama said she was going to tell Jared not to drink too much, but as he seemed to be enjoying it so much he drank the whole bowl. It is meant to be alcoholic, but you would need a lot to get a buzz as this batch seemed quite weak. It is mainly used in wedding ceremonies where they drink it out of bowls much bigger than the big soup bowls we used. Pretty Crazy stuff.

So many dirt roads to choose from as we cruise through the desert wilderness

Our driver at various points of the trip stopped and asked for directions, which was slightly unnerving considering the remoteness of the area, but we still managed to find our destination, called “Small Rock”.  It had ruins of an old monastery and purported to have good energy, so Mongolians visit here to mediate and place rocks on the piles, which is a traditional Buddhist practice. Llama says we stop so often as they just want to confirm they are going the right way as it is such a massive place. This does make sense, but we had the feeling we got a little lost, considering we didn’t actually manage to stop for lunch on the first day.

We are writing this on this first night from our small tourist family style ger. There is only the one ger for tourists, so we are hoping no other travellers turn up so that we get it to ourselves. There is just a basic longdrop outside, but it does have a western style toilet bowl. Our bellies are nice and full with a simple meal of noodles and we are about to head off for a sunset walk.

First night ger camp – loving the isolation

We saw a small snake when we headed off for the walk. More of a surprise than something to be scared of, but it did make us wonder if there are many more around. Llama says not many snakes in Mongolia are poisonous. Our query is: how do they survive in the -40 temperatures that hit in winter. After the walk we had some good talks to Llama and started to build up the impression that things are done quite different here than what we are used to. First some shamans turned up to ask directions to a holy place, so one of the hosts went with them to show them. They came back and dropped him off, as they had to find two more holy places before they could start their ceremony and communicate with the dead. Definitely an interesting type of a religion (?). Llama also told us of some strange Mongolian superstitions. “You can’t call a horse by its actual colour” black horses are known as green.  “If you have a single male baby then it must be called a girl and raised as a girl” All things that must be so that the gods/bad spirits don’t know what you are talking about (?)

Day 2

We had the ger to ourselves so got an excellent night’s sleep. With part of the roof left open it was pretty cool to be able to see the stars. It was also pretty cool literally, almost cold, although we did have plenty of blankets so wasn’t too much of a worry. Llama cooked a nice breakfast for us, omelette, tomatoes and bread with nutella.

Pretty rough roads = flat tyre

The first stop was at a capital town of one of the districts. All the provinces are set up like this from the communist days, with an administrative capital town for every district. This particular town came as a surprise to us, as we drove through the usual vast planes, came over a hill, and suddenly a town appeared from nowhere. We ended up stopping here for a while as we discovered we had a puncture when filing up our diesel, so Agi our driver had to get that mended. While he was doing that we went for a walk through the sleepy town (supposedly extra quiet on a Sunday). It was interesting to see a few random statues of local politicians and wrestlers who had made it big. Tess found some sunglasses that costed less than $2, so that was a good score. We then had lunch at a local restaurant that consisted of mutton, rice and eggs. Wasn’t too bad, but the mutton was a bit on the chewy side. When we continued driving we started to head towards a big storm. Typical that it rains when we are in the desert. We ended up following another SUV (although not 4×4) that got stuck in the sand ahead of us. After a couple of attempts, with the tow rope snapping, we managed to push it out, luckily just before a huge downpour hit.

The White Stupa – so many awesome colours

We continued on with the same feeling of the previous day that maybe we did not know where we were going. This turned out to be even more accurate than yesterday as we drove past some big red cliffs and ended up driving up on top of them, and onto a big plane that did not have a track to follow. We were trying to find the White Stupa, but turns out this was the Red Stupa we had stumbled upon. After finding some local farmers and after doing a big circle past the red cliffs again we were back on track. Another hour or so of driving and we made it to the White Stupa. It was a pretty cool set of cliffs with multiple coloured layers and crazy sand dunes below; red, purple orange and white. Almost a 2D effect similar to a painting. We stayed at a nearby tourist ger camp for the night. Llama made a good chunky soup for dinner, quite nice as was getting a bit chilly. We had a few vodkas and relaxed to some tunes in the middle of nowhere desert landscape.

Day 3

Another good night’s sleep. Breakfast, like dinner, was eaten on a table outside of our ger. Great view for a meal, this time so good French toast. We then drove to a large local town, Dalanzalgad. We were meant to have a hot shower here, but it was not available. We haven’t had a shower yet and are not sure when we will get one.

On the rough dirt/gravel roads/tracks Agi’s driving is a mixture of four-wheel driving and rallying. We are getting used to the bumpiness, but still get shaken around a bit. We only stopped and confirmed directions a couple of times, before making it to the museum we were stopping at. There were some interesting stuffed animals here and most impressive were the dinosaur bones and eggs.

Sadly we didn’t get to see this stream frozen

We then drove up a big valley, and then walked even further following a stream. It was quite an impressive valley with big rocky mountains on either side. Usually there is ice here most of the year with the river frozen over, but we had missed earlier in the month.

We then drove for a few more KMs out of the valley and stayed at a campsite with little cabins (and, strangely, lots of exercise equipment). It was a different landscape again to the other nights, with big ranges and all directions. We had a nice dinner of spaghetti, watched a sunset and then watched a movie on our tablet. Good relaxing evening.

Day 4

The gers we stayed at with the Khongor Dunes in he background

It was a pretty quiet day, driving to the Khongor Sand Dunes. Like every day there were more awesome views with big ranges on either side, as the land around us got more sandy and arid the further we went. We stopped for a pre-cooked lunch with the sand dunes behind us a backdrop. We arrived at the family ger where we are staying for 2 nights and just had a relaxing afternoon doing not much. Just looking over the awesome dunes behind us. It was a pretty hot afternoon too, 30 degrees plus and a warm breeze. Another nice sunset and an early night in preparation for the camel trek tomorrow.

Day 5

Camel trekking in the Khongor Dunes

The magnificent Khongor sand dunes were our backdrop for this entire day, as we were staying put at the family ger for a second night. This meant a bit of a sleep in, a late breakfast (cheese toasties) and a lazy/relaxing morning. We then went for a camel trek into the dunes. It was pretty cool, as was just us two and a guide, who was the farmer lady/mother from the gers where we were staying. We just went along in a caravan procession so did not have to worry too much about steering. Although Tess was on the middle camel, so had to hold the rope for Jared’s, which meant she had to stop it every time it tried to take off. On the dirt and grass the camel ride was a little on the bumpy side, but once we got onto the sand things got a bit smoother. We stopped for lunch on the sand dunes, with the camels sitting around us to act as a barrier against the wind. They did a pretty good job, but still couldn’t help a little bit of sand getting into or tuna and egg salad. We did a little climb to one of the nearby dune peaks, which was pretty tiring considering we didn’t get up too high. But the views were still spectacular, with the sandy landscape around us something completely different. The trek back to the camp was pretty relaxing as we had gotten used to sitting on the camels. But we could have gone out for another trek later that afternoon and decided that the three hors we had done was plenty. This was justified by our stretched/sore muscles later in the day.

The rest of the afternoon was a relaxing one. Mike the Canadian was staying at the same ger camp and he was good value to talk to, as was getting to the end of his 24 day Mongolian trek. There was another awesome sunset and equally good dinner from Llama (pancake with a tuna filling) and then that was it for a relaxing day with one of the coolest backdrops on earth.

Sunset over the Khongor Dunes

The weather in the Gobi desert is intense. It is super-hot during the day, but there can be ferocious winds, usually in the evenings it seems. These create some massive dust storms and can be so strong you struggle to stand up. We have also had showers of rain and some sudden cold snaps. And we are here between summer and autumn, which is meant to be one of the more pleasant times of the year here in the desert. We can only imagine what it would be like in the severe heat of summer or the even more severe freezing -30 degree temperatures in winter.

For a short video about our time in Mongolia click here

For Part 2 of our Mongolian Blog click HERE

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One Response to Mongolia – Journeys to the Wild Wild East (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Mongolia – Journeys to the Wild Wild East (Part 2) | eastern tracks

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