ARRIVED IN ULAANBAATAR, CAPITAL OF MONGOLIA…
I took train #K23 from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar; which was very clean and comfortable. I stayed in 2nd class in a cabin with four beds and was lucky to have the room all to myself. The crew, all Mongolian was made up of only women who never smiled once. They gave me lots of strange looks as I walked by, and as I came out of the bathroom. One even closed the door on me when I tried to enter her coach, by mistake, while searching for the dining car. I signaled food to the mouth with my hands and she still wouldn’t let me pass, she just pointed me to go in the opposite direction. A nice tourist lady from Australia confirmed a few minutes later that the dining car was in fact in the direction of the lady. Strange! The attendant in charge of the coach where I stayed kept the bathroom locked at all times. Not sure why exactly but finally when she left it open (by mistake perhaps) I entered and noticed the strong smell of cigarette immediately. I guess she had been using it as her smoke room even though it is prohibited to smoke on the train. All the attendants seem to gather in one of the ladies’ rooms often to talk. While walking around I decided to check out the shower room in one of the coaches (they all have one). I noticed these rooms are used as coat closets for the attendants so it doesn’t look like they want us to use them. As I closed the door to the shower room, the attendant whose room was right next to it came out immediately and checked the room and gave me a very unpleasant look. I believe she was checking to make sure I had not taken anything. She definitely did not want me in there. On this train, I was confused as to what is meant for the use of the passengers and what is not.
We made a stop at around 10:00 pm where we had to emigrate (exit) China. I figured we had reached the border because the train came to a complete halt in an area with many different rail tracks. I stepped out of my cabin to find out if we had to go anywhere and the attendant just said “passport”. I immediately saw immigration officers coming towards me so I got my passport ready. They took a look at it, looked at my face and then stepped away taking my passport with them. They proceeded to exit the train so of course I got nervous about being separated from my passport. I tried to ask the attendants if I should follow them but they could not tell me anything in English, they just signaled for me to go outside. I exited the train and entered the big structure that looked like a gigantic train station. I saw no other passengers, just a bunch of immigration officers standing around. I was finally taken by one to the area where the passports were. The officer asked me to wait on the second floor as he said it would take at least two hours to get them processed. The train station was too cold so I went back to the train and asked the attendant about the passport. She signaled me that they would come back to return them to us. I laid down and waited nervously and patiently. During my wait I heard a lot of loud and terrifying noises of the cars being moved back and forth. It was the rails that were being changed underneath them. The railtracks in Mongolia are narrower than the ones in China so it takes about three hours for them to change all of of the cars and put the train back together again. I finally got my passport back to only have to give it away again to the Mongolian immigration officer that entered the train about half an hour later. The same procedure again, they left with it and returned about an hour later to my cabin to give it back with the entry stamp. It was very cold outside and I do not have proper winter clothes so I had to stay in the train the entire time they made the changes. I was able to take some photos of the giant cranes that hold the cars as the changes take place. It looks like a long, resource-intensive and time consuming process and they do it every Tuesday and Saturday. We finally took off again at around 1:00 am. I slept like a baby until 7:00 am when I woke up to watch the magnificent sunrise over the Gobi dessert. I decided to venture out and check out other cars again. I found the dining car being attended by a really nice man. I tried to buy some food but did not even have enough to buy rice. When the man saw that I only had 6 yuan on me (the equivalent of US$1) he gave me the rice and included fries, salad, cookies, and coffee all for only 4 yuan. The rice alone would have been 10 yuan. We shared some pictures of my travels and his family. I met the Australian lady Sharon again and she showed me pictures of double hump camels on the snow and a group of gazelles. Apparently I missed all of the action when I was lying in bed earlier, reading my book. 🙁
I made it to Ulaanbaatar and found my hotel Danista Nomads. The hotel owner informed me that I had come to Mongolia as the tourist season was ending and that it would be very difficult for me to find tours or other people to travel with. He was no longer offering anything himself; which I found a bit strange as his hotel seemed to be full. I decided to go into town and find other hostels that had their own tour desks. At Golden Gobi they had a couple that was looking to share the costs of renting a van and driver to go to the Gobi dessert and Central Mongolia. They wanted to leave the next day; which suited me perfectly as I was looking to get out of the city as soon as possible. I also looked for tours in the Western part of Mongolia to go see the famous Kazakh eagle hunters. Again, I was told that it would be very difficult to find anyone offering such a thing as it was very cold out there and the eagle festival had already taken place; which is what all the tourists go out there for. I did my own research on the internet until I found Bek from www.backtobektravel.com who offered me a good deal to stay with an eagle hunter and his family. See my previous post on hunting with eagles.
I was definitely not ready for the cold so I went to the black market to buy some proper winter clothes before I embarked on all of my adventures. I ended up getting camel hair tights, a long winter coat, insulated hiking shoes, a beanie, gloves, socks, and a backpack all for the equivalent of US$48. So far this country is pretty cheap, I have my own large room at the Danista Nomads Hotel for $10 and I have been able to get meals for $2-$3.
My adventure starts with a nice couple, Marilo from Spain, and Martin from Slovakia, who are also traveling independently through Mongolia. These are the people that Golden Gobi hooked me up with to go see the Gobi and Central Mongolia. I found them through the tourist desk at Golden Gobi hostel. Before leaving I had to buy my round-trip to Olgii from where I would begin my eagle hunting trip two weeks later. We met our driver Nima and began our excursion. We first stopped at the grocery store to buy food for breakfast and lunch. We would be staying with nomad families along the way that would offer us a place to sleep in one of their Gers, and dinner. After driving through barren lands of the steppe, and seeing hills upon hills of cows, sheep and horses, we entered the area of the Khustain Nuruu National Park to learn a bit about the Przewalski horse. This is where the only truly wild horse species was reintroduced to its native Mongolia from captive-bred foreign stock. We drove through the park where we saw a big group of them plus some deer.
After driving for about five hours on very bumpy sand tracks and paved, potholed, uneven roads, we arrived at our host Nomad family where we had some simple but much awaited mixture of macaroni, potatoes and mutton (sheep). We had the traditional local tea with some butter in it. We stayed in our own comfy Ger with a fire place in the middle; which kept us warm until we fell asleep. It is very cold here, about -15 to -20c. In the morning I ventured out to see the sheep that rested just outside of our ger. The family dog kept following me around and finally decided to play with me. He kept jumping on me and grabbing on my legs so I couldn’t move. He then tried to bite my leg. I called for help but no one was around, until luckily the lady of the house came out and called him. I was a bit scared but I know he was probably protecting the sheep. My new coat has some tears now but as long as it keeps me warm, I don’t care about aesthetics too much out here. These gers are located in the middle of nowhere! They are miles apart from one another. These families move around with their stock through the year. Pretty incredible and harsh lifestyle. For us tourists it is a piece of paradise, but a cold paradise!
Our trip offered many highlights like visits to a monastery, the mini Gobi dunes and the Orkhon Valley, now a UNESCO world heritage site. We finally saw trees and a river, a very welcoming sight in this dessert. We stayed in a beautiful camping ground for tourists with about five gers for a couple of nights. We rode horses to a waterfall and relaxed in our ger the rest of the time. The only unfortunate part was Marilo getting bitten by the owner’s dog. The horse riding was an incredible experience, it had been many years since I’d been on a horse. We named our horses Paquito, El Patron and El Guapo. At first they were pretty slow but then it got fun once we figured out how to make them trot.
We returned to our long day of driving to reach Kharakhorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. We took a break from Mongolian food and got some yummy pizza and a proper salad before visiting the Erdenezuu monastery and museum; which were built 200 years after the city was destroyed by the Qin Dynasty. We had a really nice and informative tour of the monastery with a local guide who taught us a lot about important Buddhist figures and beliefs.
We drove by a place where the big attraction was a penis that had been carved out of a rock and placed on an area in the valley with a shape similar to a woman’s vagina. This was made by the order of the Supreme head of Mongolian Buddhism to remind the monks to be careful about seducing women. Interesting to say the least!
After a few hours on the bumpy road we arrived at another Ger and joined the family for some tea and biscuits and waited for dinner to be made. This was the best meal in Mongolia so far, a nice flavorful noodle soup with potatoes, onions and mutton. We tried the popular drink of Airag; which is fermented horse’s milk. I was asked to pass the milk to our hostess and I almost walked in the middle of the two columns in the middle of the ger; which is a big no no. Luckily the woman stopped me in time and asked me to go around. I guess this is bad luck for the couple of the house. We walked through hundreds of goats, sheep and camels to get to our Ger; which was surreal. Once we settled in our Ger and came out to brush our teeth, we noticed the goats just kept getting closer and closer to us and just stared at us. This is one of the best nights in Mongolia so far!
THE GOBI DESSERT
After resting one day in Ulaan Baatar, we were ready to begin the next part of our adventure through Mongolia, same driver, same travel companions with a new addition, Maya from Poland. We began a long 8-day trip covering a total distance of 1700km through the Gobi dessert. We crossed the middle Gobi; which took a few hours on bumpy, desolate roads, with the occasional sighting of a man or two on motorcycles looking after their herds. We saw a lot of horses, camels, and for the first time, gazelles running across the hills and crossing the road right in front of us; which was really cool. And as usual, we saw thousands of sheep and goats. We climbed a beautiful granite mountain called Zorgol Khairkhan and visited Khariin a salt lake nearby, a popular water hole for the local animal life. We later hiked through beautiful rock formations on a sacred mountain where we saw a few horses that seemed to be without an owner. Martin and Marilo decided to gather some wood to burn in the fireplace later at the ger only to find out from our driver that no wood should be taken from this mountain as it is considered sacred. In the Mongolian countryside Shamanism is the main belief. People worship different nature gods. Maya tried to correct our mistake by throwing some food on the mountain in three different directions to appease the gods; which the driver considered very appropriate. After our nice hour-long hike we went to a house at the base of the mountain where we would spend the night. Our nice hostess made us some delicious mutton, potato and noodle soup. It was very windy and cold all day but it actually warmed up a bit during the night and the full moon came out. We were missing the ger life tonight but the house was actually very warm. The fuel for the fire is cow dung. In the morning as we said goodbye, I went to shake the sweet grandma’s hand and she pulled me in to give me a kiss. It was surprising and sweet.
We continued our trip by driving a total of 365km in about eight hours. It was my turn to sit in the front seat with the sun right on me, unbearably hot! We saw lots of herds of animals again including about a thousand gazelles; which we chased for a while. It was completely mesmerizing. It felt like we were on an African safari. We stopped at a proper tourist camp in Bayanzag for the night where we enjoyed a hot shower and a nice meal in a restaurant. We later joined the driver and the caretakers for some karaoke and vodka. In the morning during breakfast we learned that Maya is a Polish celebrity, she wrote a best seller about her travel adventures in 2010-2012 with the name of czyli zyrafy wychodza z szafy (for my Polish readers out there ;)).
We hiked around the flaming cliffs, a group of beautiful red sandstone towers and next to them a beautiful mini canyon. This is the place where the first dinosaur fossils were ever discovered by Roy Chapman in 1922. As we continued to hike up the cliffs we were stuck in the middle of a wind tunnel. The scenery from up there was so spectacular that it made the long drive out there totally worth it.
The only hard part about this trip is the mutton diet, that is all we get for dinner, and lunch when we stop in villages to eat. Pasta with mutton, dumplings with mutton, potatoes and a bit of carrots with mutton. This is the daily local diet, not much else to be found out here. In the shops you can buy all kinds of imported junk food, mostly from Korea so we always stock up on our favorites chocolates, vodka, local beer and breads. Our fave meal has become our “western” breakfast, we make eggs, toast, sausage and fruit salad.
We ended the day enjoying a beautiful sunset over the dunes, pretty spectacular!
Marilo and I decided to try riding camels in the dessert, no one else wanted to go. We decided to name our camels and Marilo named hers Tono. Since this is what I call my step father then it only made sense for me to name my camel Cecilio, after my mother Cecilia. Riding the camel felt very much like riding a horse, it was not as tall as the dromedaries that we rode in India. The saddle is placed between the two humps. We learned that during Spring the camels feed on a lot of grass and store reserves in their humps. Once the winter comes, the humps begin to fall down as reserves are used up. The best part about traveling is learning about other people and their experiences, locals and foreigners.
As we rode towards the dunes, Marilo told me stories about her dad who was a very adventurous man who was big into caving and diving. Marilo has such an adventurous spirit that I can see she definitely takes after her father.
We went to the Khongoriin Els sand dunes, aka. Singing dunes to watch the sunset. The climb up was pretty steep, for every step taken, we slid back about one and a half steps. Finally we made it to the top where we met a group of travelers from another camp. We stayed for a while admiring the dunes from above, perfect ridges shaped by the wind, made up of fine golden sand. As we sat there we saw a guy hiking across the dunes from the opposite side. We were so impressed as we figured the guy had to have been walking for a few hours across the dessert completely on his own. He stopped at the top of the dune standing to the right of our dune. We were curious and wanted to ask him all about his experience but he never came over to us. He became our “mystery man” for the rest of the trip. We also found an empty bottle of wine full of sand and a message inside it. After a perfect sunset Marilo and Martin rolled down the hills, Maya and I I slid down the dunes and found a small sealed bottle of vodka buried in the sand; which we ended up drinking on our way down.
The message in the bottle:
Every good evening
Is made of good company.
It might be a group
Of amazing people
It might be just
Or it can be with
A bottle of wine and
Your best friend.
You have got far in your life
You made it to Gobi
Ps. Glass is made of sand
Another good day today, we began with an amazing “breakie” as Martin calls it, of Chatchuka, a delicious melange of tomato sauce with mushrooms (or letcho), onions, sausage and eggs with some toast, followed by more toast with nutella and bananas on top. We drove for a few hours, had lunch, went shopping in town again for some basics like water, chocolate, and pasta and headed out to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the south. We had a great afternoon, Maya and I deciding to hike through a beautiful canyon while our driver thought that we had just taken a quick bathroom break. He was not happy when we came back about half an hour later. He was concerned that we would get lost and run into wolves! I found two ticks on me later, one on my scalp and another crawling up my pants. We later drove down a very high hill through beautiful mountains to the entrance of the national park. We walked for a while along the river and into a beautiful narrow canyon crossing the river a few times. It started snowing all of a sudden so we decided to turn back.
We stayed with another family in a ger surrounded by sheep and goats. Dinner as usual was noddles with potatoes and carrots but this time we had a different type of meat, horse! I had a hard time eating it, it was actually pretty tasty but I just couldn’t finish. I see them too much as pets. It snowed throughout the evening. It was crazy to think that just a few hours earlier we had been hiking on dessert dunes in the heat and now we are in a winter wonderland.
On a side note, the nomads create outhouses for the bathroom; which are usually located about 20 to 30m away from their ger. There are no showers here, and if they want to clean properly, they have to go to town and use one of the public showers. We used these on day 2 and day 6 of our trip. They cost the equivalent of US$2 and offer hot water and a small dressing room with a mirror in front of the shower.
We visited the white cliffs of the Tsagaan Suvarga, an amazing group of towers and mounts made up of sedimentary rock. It is described as looking like an ancient city with castles. The magnificent geological formations were in pink, orange, white, yellow and purples.
On our last night of our trip we stayed in a beautiful Ger where we were able to eat with the family and spend some quality time with their four year old kid. We saw a line of about two hundred horses following each other in a straight line during sunset, it was pretty magical.
Mongolia, one of my favorite countries so far! Amazing people, beautiful sites, definitely recommend it to all travelers!