It’s difficult to grasp just how empty the Mongolian countryside is until you’ve been there. The country covers an area more than twice the size of Texas, but the population covering that area (excluding the 40% living in Ulaanbaatar) is only the population of Milwaukee. Most of that empty land is flat steppe, rolling, rocky hills, and barren desert. This truly is the land of the eternal blue sky, since it seemingly stretches forever.
Yet this was the center of the largest empire in human history. It stretched from Vietnam to Baghdad, Korea to the edge of Western Europe. Little evidence of this mighty empire remains–even in the old capital city,–due to Soviet destruction and a lack of permanent buildings to begin with. Mongolian people largely still live the same way they have for thousands of years. Nomadic pastoralism in portable gers is still the way of life for most. It reminds me of what I think the Wild West in the early 1800′s would have been like, right down to the dusty, run-down villages in the middle of nowhere.
We certainly were never planning to stay (or even visit) Mongolia for over three weeks. But we had to get our Russian visa somewhere, and Mongolia was the only place issuing them to Americans outside America. Originally we weren’t thrilled to spend so long here, but looking back, the Mongolian countryside was a unique experience that we enjoyed. Now, as we ride the Trans-Mongolian railway almost 6,000 kilometers over five days, we’ll recap our last country fully in Asia.
Top three experiences?
- Climbing the sand dunes in the Gobi Desert.
- Seeing the Badlands-type landscape at Tsagaan Suvarga.
- Watching the Naadam in the small town.
- Climbing the sand dunes in the Gobi. It was hard work getting to the top, but the view was great. Barrelling down it was also fun.
- The Orkhom Waterfall area. The scenery was stunning, and I really enjoyed the horseback riding.
- Seeing a small town’s Naadam festival.
Bottom three experiences?
- The city of Ulaanbaatar.
- Sitting in the van for eight hours a day.
- Biting flies and insects out in the country.
- Driving times. Getting around in the countryside is slow and bumpy.
- Ulaanbaatar. There isn’t much to do there, and it has a run-down feel. The traffic was terrible as well.
- The milk, cheese, and yogurt were difficult to eat. They were really sour.
Nikki: Nobody comes to Mongolia for the food. My favorite meal was the cheeseburger and fries at the Granview Restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.
Brad: While we were leaving Mongolia, the customs agents wouldn’t let our cabinmates, a Mongolian grandma and her grandson, take their homemade food with them. They had a container of giant steaming dumplings filled with meatballs. The grandma kept ordering us to “Eat! Eat!” even when we started to get full, and I kept eating them because they were so delicious!
Nikki: The coleslaw at the hot spring.
Brad: The milk-based products in the countryside. The “goatsicle,” bricks of hard yogurt, milk tea, and airag were very sour and a little gritty. I wasn’t a fan. The actual food in the Mongolian countryside wasn’t awful, though usually nothing to write home about.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Jeltse because she was so sweet and friendly. She would fit right in back in Wisconsin!
Brad: Johan and Jeltse were great company on the Gobi trip.
Nikki: It wasn’t really a disaster, but being stuck in Ulaanbaatar for six days sure was boring.
Brad: Amazingly, the trips to the countryside went smoothly! Nobody got sick and no vehicle breakdowns.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: The ger with Bata’s family in the middle of nowhere.
Brad: At the ger camp near the waterfall on the Gobi trip. The beds were comfortable, we had a nice fire going, and the landscape around the camp was very nice.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: Dalanzadgad town on the Gobi trip. We got to take a shower, but besides that, there really wasn’t anything nice about it. The dogs in the town barked all night.
Brad: Ulaanbaatar. The guesthouse was small and crowded, and the city didn’t help either.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Climbing up the volcano at White Lake.
Brad: The day we left Mongolia was the beginning of Naadam in Ulaanbaatar. (People thought we were weird for leaving Mongolia when the biggest tourist attraction of the year was only beginning.) We went to the square and saw a big military parade the morning before our train left. It was the most interesting thing we saw in Ulaanbaatar.
Nikki: The other backpackers here. Mongolia seems to attract a very weird crowd. I’ve never seen such a collection of goony people all in one place–and I was a band nerd for eleven years!
Brad: Fellow travelers. Mongolia must attract weird people, or really bring out the Weird in them. There were so many weird or unreasonable requests and socially awkward people that sometimes we had to get out of the common area to save our sanity.
Statistics for Mongolia
Statistics for the Trip