“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m pretty sure we’re stranded here”. Queue a litany of ‘Tradie language. As our Taxi driver across the non-walking border between China and Mongolia ditched us, very fortunately for us a bus driver took pity on us and took us to Ulaan Baatar (UB). So began a fairly inauspicious start to our Mongolian expedition. As we waved goodbye to Jingquan, Beijing and eventually China, by the time we’d settled ourselves at our hostel in UB, we had endured 30 odd hours in transit, got stranded between the border posts, hailed a bus, Martina was called upon to mind a Mongolian baby, subjected to an array of fascinating local music, Mark had his phone relieved of him, and we hitched a ride with a local family to our lodging for the evening – interesting to say the least. It was of some relief to come through the door and chat with interesting travelers about their trips around the country to take our mind elsewhere before turning in for the night.
As morning broke in UB and Mark completed the requisite passing of information to the insurance company, we acquainted ourselves with Doljmaa – the owner and tour operator of Sunpath Hostel, highly recommended – and within 30 mins we’d linked up with 2 lovely French sisters, Bénédicte and Bérèngère, to head out on a tour the next day. The nations capital of 1m, founded in 1778 is home to roughly a third of the Mongolian population, and most popular as a major stop over for tourists on the Trans-Siberian railway as they head out elsewhere in the country, using UB, the coldest capital in the world with an average temperature of a chilly -1 degree as a staging post. We could only muster a quick walk around the city on a drizzly cold day, however, we did manage to catch the All Blacks game being played on TV at a pub that day. One can’t imagine Ulaan Baatar has ever been accused of being a pretty city, a mix of Soviet era buildings with crumbling facades, potholed streets and unkempt parks don’t make for the most appealing cityscapes.
The next morning we met our driver, Loya, built like an Olympic wrestler with a constant smile and a chuckle that made him instantly likable, and, as it would turn out, an excellent driver with mechanical skills to match. Our guide was Tergel, nicknamed Vampi, also unflappably cheerful with all the knowledge about her country at hand to answer any of our questions and a masterful tactician with a deck of cards. We were heading out to explore Mongolia, derived from the word Mong, meaning Brave in Mongolian, not so much in English. Founded by the all conquering Gengis Khan in 1206, although stripped of his original kingdoms full size, the country is big, about 6 times larger than NZ yet with nearly 1.5m less people. That said, it counts nearly as many horses as NZ has sheep, in other words 13 horses per person. Of the 3 million inhabitants roughly 30% are nomadic generally moving themselves, their families, houses and livestock every season to better feeding areas, or just to escape the worst of the harsh climate here, with temperatures exceeding 30 in summer and -30 in winter!
First, it’s to the Gobi, the largest desert in Asia and 5th in the world winding our way out of UB through the hills, which are adorned with small houses. Blooming with colourful sheet metal roofs of green, red, blue and yellow spread out in a seemingly random patchwork separated with drunken fences, where Gers sit rather incongruously as odd bedfellows among the urban sprawl. Soon enough, giving way to rich green valleys with grazing animals, eagles soaring and mist cloaked hills. A more conventional setting for the nations tent of choice, a Ger, always facing South away from the prevailing wind. Gers are very much a part of the cultural fabric of Mongolia, so much so the shape of the passport entry stamp is a little Ger.
As we were to discover over the next 6 days, the Gobi, formerly a great sea, isn’t like the desert of your minds eye, only 5% is sand dunes, with rocky canyons and mountains breaking up the flat lands of the steppe. Our first night on the steppe was with a family of Nomads. The sound of baby camels crying all night made sleep difficult, but their genuine hospitality sets the tone for the trip with offers of milk tea and biscuits upon our arrival. Nomadic hospitality is a central part of the way of life here, with distances so vast, it’s a lifeline to rely on with a bed and food available for passers by. As we move onward, the variance of the Gobi reveals itself as we come to Yol river valley, with looks as far from desert as you’d expect. The valley itself is an idyllic place. We acquainted ourselves with our new travel buddies as we strolled, hiked and clambered about the river side until eventually it opened out to a meadow. Situated some 500km from the nearest metropolis and in a desert it has some of the freshest air you could ever hope to breath, so as strange as it is to find a river in the desert, the sight of some tourists wearing filter masks was indeed curious.
Eventually, we get to some dunes, the highest around 350m, they run as a sort of
mountain range for around 180km reaching up to 12km wide. It was here we were to ride camels. These lumbering animals are one of the least comfortable forms of transport you’ll encounter, though it appears women fare far better than men in this regard, which was of no assistance to Mark, luckily it was a touristy walk that only lasted an hour, so they were more offensive to the sense of smell than to other body parts. After a hard slog traipsing up the dunes for sunset, the most fun part was racing each other down. Martina making particularly good use of the phone’s slo-mo feature on the race down the hill, meanwhile the rest of us did well not to collide with each other as Bérèngère went “freestyle” on the way down. Once down, the smell of local wildlife hadn’t abated a great deal as the little camels and goats grazed outside our Gers, but it’s all part of the experience, and the amazing desert skies at night more than make up for it. As was the norm, after another day of Loya putting his much beloved Russian made “Yaz all terrain vehicle” through another battery of punishment, we’d made it to the flaming cliffs. This rocky outcrop with features resembling somewhere like Arizona, lights up at night in beautiful reds and oranges. It’s hard to say what the highlight was, the cliff or stopping in a small village for our first shower in 5 days (they had all the power of a leaky drainpipe) but it still has a way of livening one up, and the fact it rates a mention here probably says a thing or two.
Heading out of the Gobi, we visit some old stone paintings dating back approximately 5000 years, and visit one of the oldest monasteries in Mongolia, Ongii. Buddhism was brought from Tibet by none other than Genghis Khan’s great grandson and this was one of the biggest. In it’s glory spanning both sides of the river it sat on, it was razed to the ground at the instruction of Stalin as communism moved into town and destroyed religious institutions, along with everything else it generally touched. This night however were got to make varying degrees of quality of Mongolian dumplings, ranging from the OK to the very bad in terms of looks, but only the very delicious in terms of eating. We (Us two, the 2 Frenchies and another couple) even taught them a thing or two about Nutella dumplings, leaving our mark on Mongolia forever more. After an enraging game of Uno (in Mark’s view at least), and beers like every other night it was our last night in the Gobi. Nights were a very chill affair with little else to do than chat, drink beers and play cards and admire the stars. But it was a great opportunity to get to know Bénédicte and Bérèngère, as well as another couple who had the luck of being on the same route as us, Ben and Rebekka.
The Gobi is truly stunning with its varied landscape, seeming to change with every passing hour as we bounced around in the van. There aren’t many actual roads with these areas being so isolated, and amenities are, how we might euphemistically term, pretty basic: 4 walls, a hole and some planks to prevent you falling inside aforementioned hole. One contributor of this said he thinks such amenities would work well on construction sites, preventing loss in productivity from what we call “lost apprentice syndrome”. There would be no comfort in playing Candy Crush on these thrones! But whatever you do, next time you’re looking for an adventure a little outside the ordinary, Mongolia has floored us with it’s beauty and it’s kind people.
For the second part of our 12 day Mongolia adventure, we’ll continue on to the Orkhon Valley Nation Park (to be shared soon).
Remember to @catchustravelling