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
- Days in the country: 24
- Places we stayed: 12, 11 gers
- Rainy days: 5
- Blog posts: 4
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
- Photos taken: 566
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 212, 37% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 1
- Hours traveling overland: 95
- Hours on horse and camel: 4
- Days without a shower: 9
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 14
- Days on the road: 314
- Places we stayed: 135
- Rainy days: 56
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 29
- Photos taken: 13,091
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,146, 24% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 24
- Hours traveling overland: 651
Ulaanbaatar seemed like paradise to us immediately after our Gobi trip, but before long, we were ready to return to the countryside. ??As Mark Twain said in??The Innocents Abroad, “The nomadic instinct is a human instinct… It has a charm which, once tasted, a man will yearn to taste again.”??We didn’t have enough time to go overland to Lake Khovsgal, so we decided to go to White Lake instead. Once we had a tour picked out, we had to wait around for other people to join us. We spent most of that time playing SimCity 2000 in our pajamas. (There’s not much to do in Ulaanbaatar!)
Six long days later, another couple joined us and we were able to leave. The other couple, Jeff from Ireland and Mags from Poland, are just beginning their year-long trip. Our driver, Bata, spoke a little bit of English. We didn’t need a cook for this trip, since there were restaurants along the way.
When we pulled up to the gers on our first night, Bata told us we were staying with his mother and his brother. I really liked his family, especially his mother, who had a weathered face and walked hunched over, but was still going strong. She even looked a bit glamorous in an emerald colored robe, black and gold head wrap, and matching earrings. Bata and his brother looked remarkably alike. (I wish we would’ve gotten a picture of them!) They invited us in for milk tea and then we finally got to try airag, the Mongolian drink made of fermented horse milk. It was very sour, but it didn’t taste as horrible as I imagined it would. We were staying in a green valley and that night I watched lightning flashing from the gathering storm clouds in the distance.
The next two days we stayed at White Lake. It was a much bigger lake than I had pictured and it was surrounded by green hills and outcroppings of volcanic rock. Jeff thought it looked very similar to Scotland. The scenery was beautiful, but there were many insects and it stormed for several hours on our second day. When it cleared up, Brad and I went horseback riding (again). The horses were well behaved and we had a very nice ride. Jeff and Mags went for their ride after us, and they not only got rained on, but they also both fell off their horses. Apparently a motorbike spooked one of the horses, which then jumped right into the other one, and both took off running.
At lunch the next day, Bata showed us a simple Mongolian game that uses sheep’s bones instead of dice. You toss the bones and depending on what side they land on, they are either a horse, camel, sheep, or goat. We were playing a horse racing game, so each of us had our own horse that got to advance every time you rolled a horse. If you got four of a kind in a single roll, your horse moved forward four spaces. We had a hard time telling the difference between the “horse” side of the bone and the “camel” side.
At night we stayed at a tourist camp with a hot spring. I didn’t want to go, since we had to pay extra for it, but Jeff and Mags really wanted to. Besides the springs, the tourist camp was just slightly fancier than the gers with nomadic families. At least we got to take a shower!
While we were driving the next day, we ran into a small town’s naadam. Naadam is a Mongolian festival that features wrestling, horse racing, and archery. We decided to stop there and watch for a while. The wrestlers wore a speedo and a little shirt that covered only the top of their backs and arms. Before the matches started, they did some kind of dance that resembled a bird flying around in circles. Wrestling in Mongolia has no time limit and the match is over as soon as someone gets taken down, so it’s quite different. After the wrestling, everyone came over to a field to see the horse race. I’m not sure how long the race was, but the winner was very far ahead of the last horse, so I think it was pretty long. The whole festival was interesting to see.
After that, we spent a day in the Mini Gobi Desert, which is a small patch of sand dunes not too far from Ulaanbaatar. We went on a camel ride (again) and played around in the sand for a bit. Before we came back to town, we stopped at Hustai National Park to see the Przewalski horse, one of the last species of wild horses in the world. It was a bit like a safari; we drove through the park with a guide who spotted the horses. We saw nine of them, including a little foal. The park also had a??cheesy??informational video and a small museum that showed all the celebrities who have visited. (The most notable ones included Prince Charles and Julia Roberts.)
Now we’re back in Ulaanbaatar for just a couple of days, getting ready for our next adventure: Russia!
We saw many changes in the terrain on our first day. From the busy city, we drove through green fields that turned more brown and rocky as we went south. Along the way, Gana had only two tapes: a Mongolian singer and ABBA. Listening to “Mamma Mia” while driving through a desolate desert is a very stange experience.
Towards the end of the first day we drove by the White Mountains. It was raining, so nobody wanted to get out and take pictures, but they were very nice. That evening, after it was done raining, we stopped at a large outcropping of interesting rock formations. There were ruins of an old building there, but since nobody spoke English, we never figured out what they were.
On the second night, we drove up to a cliff overlooking the desert and the Tsagaan Suvarga formations. The rocks had red and yellow in them and reminded me of the Badlands. We climbed around on the top and then walked down to the bottom to walk along the hills for a little bit. It was very beautiful and Brad got some great pictures.
Most of the Gobi Desert is rocky, sandy ground, but we did get a chance to see sand dunes. They looked the same as they did in the Sahara Desert, except in the Sahara they go on for as far as you can see. In the Gobi, they’re just a long, narrow strip. Before we went hiking up the dunes, we took a camel ride along the base of them. I had forgotten just how stinky and hairy camels are. Their skin is rough and leathery and their fur really feels like thick, coarse hair. Not to mention that they fart and poop all the time.
After dinner, we climbed up to the top of the sand dunes for sunset. It’s difficult enough to walk on sand on level ground. Walking up a hill made of sand is very challenging. Our whole group did make it to the top and we had a great view of the desert around us. Then we saw clouds moving in, so we decided we better head down right away. We thought it was rain, but we discovered pretty quickly that it was actually a sandstorm. At first it wasn’t too bad, but it got worse as we kept walking towards our camp. We all covered our faces and agreed to stay close together because the visibility was getting worse. Right when I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t be able to find our camp, the headlights of our van cut through the gloom and Gana gave us a ride back. I’m sure the Mongolians were all very worried about the tourists getting lost.
The last really nice part of our trip was at the waterfall. This was much further to the north, so we were camped in a green valley between pine-covered hills and a river cutting through a rock canyon. We got to take a much-needed break from driving and spend two nights there. Brad and I went for a walk along the river to the waterfall and pool. The waterfall was much larger and prettier than I was expecting.
On our second day there we went horseback riding. I had only been on a horse once, and it wasn’t my favorite experience. This time, though, I really enjoyed myself, mainly because my horse was the only one that was obeying. Brad’s horse was tied to the group leader’s horse, but the rest of us were on our own. Mine would go exactly where I guided it and even stopped and started on command. The others were having problems getting their horses to keep moving. I’d like to think that I’m naturally a superior horseback rider, but I’m pretty sure I just got lucky and got a well-behaved horse.
After our relaxing days by the river, we had a long drive back to Ulaanbaatar. We stopped at Kharkorin, the former capital city in the days of Ghengis Kahn’s son, Ogedei. Nothing is left from the empire, but there is a 16th century monastery. Like I’ve said, Brad and I are pretty sick of temples and other religious buildings, but this one was more interesting because we had an English-speaking guide.
It was great to get back to Ulaanbaatar and take showers and use toilets again. Even though it’s not a very nice city, I was extremely happy to return! We still have quite a few days before we go to Russia, so we are hoping to take one more journey into the Mongolian countryside.
We signed up for a nine day tour of the Gobi Desert. To make it cheaper, we grouped up with three other people. Kim was an older (though I’m not sure exactly how old) Korean guy who took tons and tons of pictures. Johan and Jetlse were a young guy and girl (but just friends!) from Belgium. Johan, possibly the most laidback person I’ve ever met, thought everything was “no problem,” and Jetlse was a total sweetheart who could find the silver lining in almost anything. The crew consisted of Gana, our big, jolly driver who would make “cuckoo!” noises at random like he was a General Mills mascot, and Sonje, the more quiet cook.
The beginning of our trip was a little rough for me, to be honest. The roads in Mongolia are so terrible, the van hopped and shook all over the place. On our way out of Ulaanbaatar, there was a paved road, but it was in such bad shape that all the cars drove on the ground next to it instead of on it. The few that did use it seemed to spend more time steering around potholes than driving forward. Most of the country, though, is crisscrossed by dirt roads. Actually, “road” might be too generous of a term. Many of them were just tire tracks through the desert, and sometimes we were even blazing our own trail. Between our slow progress and the long distances we covered, we spent about eight hours in our van each day.
Luckily, our van was somewhat comfortable and up for the challenge of the tough terrain. It was an ancient, sturdy, Russian-made beast that was easy to fix if something broke. We didn’t have anything major go wrong. At one point, the muffler was coming loose, but that was an easy fix for Gana. The van did just fine driving through rivers (which we had to do several times and some were so deep, water was seeping in through the doors), but we did get stuck in the mud once. Gana had to wade through the mud and change something on the tires to give us more traction. There was also one nasty moment when the van stalled at a crazy angle on top of a hill and we almost rolled over, but once again, Gana had it under control. (While we were all freaking out and trying to grab hold of something, Johan remained leaning back in his seat and said, “No problem.”)
We also didn’t have access to modern conveniences, like plumbing. The places we stayed at night had outhouses, but for the most part, we were taking care of all our business out in the great wilderness. At first I was nervous, but eventually looking around for a rock and squatting down behind it became the most normal thing in the world. A few times when our van stopped for pee breaks, we were surrounded by level, sandy ground with no brush or obstructions in sight. In those cases, we either went behind the van or just walked into the distance. We were able to take two showers during our nine day tour. The other days we freshened up with baby wipes.
At night we stayed with nomadic families in ger camps. The gers were quite comfortable and cozy, really. They’re made with a wood frame with canvas wrapped around. Inside there are usually about six beds along the wall and a table, chairs, and??wood burning??stove in the middle. They all had some sort of flooring, either wood or carpets. Our little group of five always had our own ger. Even though we were staying with nomads, we didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with them.
So in a lot of ways, Mongolia feels like the wild west. Besides the tire tracks and herds of domesticated camels and sheep, there are few signs of life out in the country. It’s the least densely populated independent country in the world. While we occasionally went by ger camps, we hardly ever saw other cars. The towns we came to were very strange because they were literally in the middle of nowhere. They seemed completely alien and out of place. And, again, reminded me of an old Western movie. All they needed were swinging doors and strutting sheriffs.
Up next: what we actually saw and did in the Gobi Desert.
The first leg of our train ride across the continent went very well. Our train was clean and modern and we had a whole compartment to ourselves. There were Western style toilets that flushed, soap, toilet paper, and even power plugs. I thought it was nicer than many of the hostels we’ve stayed in!
The passengers were primarily Mongolians and Westerners; we didn’t see many Chinese. My first impression of the Mongolian people was that they were quite large. The men in particular all had gigantic??beer bellies??and seemed determined to spend as much time shirtless as possible. There wasn’t room to go around them in the corridor, so someone always had to duck inside a compartment to let the other pass.
At the Chinese border we had to wait several hours while they changed the bogeys and cleared everyone through customs. The Chinese officials took our passports (which made me nervous), then one of the train workers said something that sounded like, “Shopping god,” and motioned for us to get off the train. We went inside the train station, bought water and snacks, and then discovered the door was locked when we tried to go back outside. I wanted to see them change the bogeys, but the train rolled off, presumably to change them elsewhere.
Once everything was set and they let us back on the train, it was only about fifteen minutes until we had to go through Mongolian immigration and customs. It was already after midnight by then, but at least we didn’t have to get off the train. Soldiers came in and did a quick, half-hearted search of our compartment. They took our passports away again, which still made me nervous, but we got them back without a problem. Then we finally were able to sleep.
Coming into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we passed buildings with brightly colored roofs, giving a cheerful feeling to an otherwise bleak and rundown place. A driver from our guesthouse picked us up from the train station. In the parking lot, he had to jimmy open the door of the van with a screwdriver. The UB Guesthouse is very small and cramped, especially at breakfast time, but the owners keep it very clean and there’s hot water, so we can’t really complain. Besides, we didn’t want to spend much time in Ulaanbaatar. We were anxious to get out into the countryside for our first adventure: the Gobi Desert.