Ok, well maybe the title is a bit harsh, but that was our first impressions (which lasted 3 days continuously) as we left Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, in a 4WD minivan with our driver, Tiger, for an 8 day tour.
Ulaan Baatar itself is actually a fairly modern city. This was quite a surprise after coming from Beijing. There is international restaurants, people that speak English and/or Russian and people dress fashionably (no, not like Curly, real fashion – high heels, dresses and matching colours – that sort of thing). Our first Mongolian was Indra, from the train ride from China. She showed us around for a day and we had lunch at an expensive place with her friends, who seemed to be TV presenters and semi-famous people. Generally we found Mongolians to be very friendly and not seem to try to rip us off as much as Chinese. Every car in UB is a taxi, you simply stick out your hand and someone stops. The going rate is 500T/km ($0.40/km), but not sure how it’s measured. All I can say is that the system works! Even if an old lady with a fart box of a car stops to pick up 2 of you with 6 bags.
So, along with Jeremy and Ki, our new found couch surfing friends from Singapore, we set off with camping equipment and food supplies, not really knowing what to expect… Nothing… was the answer. And a whole lot of it. Vast, flat lands of dusty, rocky nothingness. We passed by a farmer with his livestock grazing on who knows what. This really was desert. We got excited when we saw a falcon sitting right next to the road. A very big and powerful looking bird with fluffy, feathered legs to keep his tootsies warm. It was the first of perhaps 100 that we saw.
After 4 hours we stopped for lunch at a ger, prepared by the locals. A fairly simple noodle soup, but tasty nonetheless and at $1.60 a bit of a bargain. Tiger suggested that we shouldn’t take photos of the locals drinking vodka in the ger, but sneaky Dasha got a few shots in.
Another 3 hours and we were at Bagagazariin Chuluu Monastery – or what’s left of it. It was destroyed (perhaps bombed (Tiger’s English was slightly below a 2 year old level)) during the Soviet Union times. All of the lamas were killed. It’s hard to imagine why an innocent monastery in a beautiful setting (the first trees we had seen for hours) hundreds of kilometres from civilisation should be attacked. After checking out a little cave with snow and ice inside we arrived at a ger just on dark. 4 bucks for a bed and another $1.60 for dinner – soup and Mongolian doughnuts. We later realised that these prices were fixed at all gers across the country.
The next day was a long day in the car – 400km over about 9 or 10 hours. We stopped briefly in a village for Tiger to grab himself lunch. Meanwhile, we were playing frisbee with the local kids. There’s some things you can always do even without speaking the language. A short time later we stopped and cooked ourselves lunch in the middle of nowhere and built ourselves stone chairs. Doesn’t sound so exciting, but was fun for us. It’s small things that keep you going when there’s nothing else around.
Arrived to Bayanzag, which is the ‘Gobi forest’, consisting of a few spindly, dry trees that grow to a maximum height of about 1.5m. Dinner was similar to lunch the day before, but this time with camel instead of goat.
In the morning we explored the Temeenshavar area, some pretty cool sandstone cliffs where lots of dinosaur fossils have been found. Our archaeological skills obviously need some work.
We decided to rewrite our itinerary and head for Yol Valley. Very glad we did. A beautiful area with big, rocky mountains and, the main attraction, an ice canyon. Not as icy or canyony as it sounds, more like a frozen and slowly melting river, but really cool. Jeremy found a little ice bridge and with a small amount of encouragement thought that it would be cool to get a photo of him in the air above it. He jumped for the camera and SMASH! straight through it on the way back down and ankle deep in the freezing, muddy water. The Yol Valley is part of a very large national park and a lot of the Mongolian animals, birds and plants can be found here. The best we managed to see was a lot of little pikas running around. Oh, and some yaks. They look really big, but I think underneath their fluffy long hair they have quite a small and agile frame, compared to a cow that is.
We stopped in a village where Tiger bought some new suspension struts and changed the old ones. One hour later and our ride was much more comfortable, but unfortunately it did not seem to make us any faster. The 61 year old was getting overtaken by all of the other 4WDs, which averaged about 1-2 per day.
We stayed in a ger by the valley and checked out the museum in the morning. It’s always fun looking at stuffed animals. The next village we called in to had a set of monkey bars and I think the kids were quite impressed with my monkeying ability. One of the kids, climbing with his ice-cream, fell about 2.5m onto the rock hard ground. He bounced back up and dusted himself off ready to go again. We managed to get the kids to show us where he had got his ice-cream and then it was ice-creams all round for everyone! Back to the desert where we saw some mini tornados sucking up a heap of salt. Looked very impressive and must have been 20-30 metres high. Further down the road and we saw a couple of gazelle sprinting across the plains and across the road (hmm, bad choice of word, roads are non-existent out here, just tracks formed by repeatedly driving over the same route) in front of us. They were bloody quick and it looked awesome as they floated across the land with the dust being kicked up at their heels.
We made it to the biggest sand dunes in Mongolia, somewhere between 2 & 300 m high, depending who you listen to and no doubt changing constantly anyway. This was the highlight of the trip.
The climb to the top was extremely challenging, taking 45 mins, with us on all fours for the last 50m or so.
Reaching the top of the first and highest dune and gazing over the 5km wide stretch of sand was extremely rewarding.
Then, of course, the run down. 45 mins up, about 45 seconds down! …with a mouthful of sand mind you.
After that we went for a camel ride, just because that’s what tourists do. It was pretty boring as they only take you along the flat, vast, dry, dusty plains. Although it was pretty funny when Jeremy couldn’t get his to move because it was eating.
We stayed in a ger there that night, playing cards (monopoly deal, quite fun) by candlelight. One of the 2 candles burnt down but then kept burning, seemingly on the wax that had dripped over the holder over time. We let it burn for a while, getting bigger and bigger. When we decided it was getting too big and hot we tried to put it out. Due to the shape of the holder, we couldn’t snuff it out, so Dasha thought pouring water on it would be a good idea…. a MASSIVE flame shot up, with little fireballs spitting off in all directions. 3 out 4 people unitedly and repeatedly screamed the first word that came to their mind… and it wasn’t firetruck. The fire was licking at the top of the ger as someone knocked over the other candle while everyone was running around in a panic, searching for somehow to either put it out or get it outside the ger. After a few seconds of terror the flame calmed down itself and very luckily no harm was done to the ger or Dasha’s face, which was right next to the flame. It took us a while to calm down and sleep that night.
Day 5, 340km to drive – 7 or 8 hours. A horrible noise was coming from the car. Tiger was fairly quick to diagnose it as a problem with the front wheel hubs, but not so quick to fix it… took an hour, with my brilliant assistance.
Dasha took this as an opportunity to start running off into the desert alone. She disappeared down the track and we found her a couple of kms later. It was Sunday, our food supplies were running low and Tiger hadn’t factored in that all of the shops would be closed. Whilst roaming around a village aimlessly, praying to find an open shop, a lady opened up a door and motioned us in. They had received their weekly delivery and were packing shelves ready for the next day, but were more than happy to sell us some goods. Very lucky for us. We found it very amusing in all of the shops we walked into that they would let us walk behind the counter to grab whatever we wanted as we couldn’t communicate with words. It was verging on darkness as we reached the ‘city’ of Arvaykheer. After 5 days without a shower or proper toilet we had decided to stay in a hotel. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, as they were all booked out for some unknown reason; the town was dead. We found ourselves a double room and triple room for the other two. Although it doesn’t look very special in the photos, after 5 days in the desert it felt like we were walking into a 5 star hotel (from what I’ve read about them that is). The lady from the hotel escorted us down to the local restaurant through the snow to ensure we were well looked after. The food was awesome! Best we had in Mongolia. On the way home we called in to the disco – hilarious – for us and them. We walked in, stood next to the door and stared into the bright lights, like rabbits frozen to the spot, at the teenagers bopping away. They were staring back, equally as surprised at the scene in front of them. After a minute or two (or perhaps eternity) we left and called it a night.
With cash supplies running low we went in search of an ATM. Seems that the only ATM in the entire ‘city’ had network problems, possible from the lightning the night before, which did turn the restaurant into darkness for a few seconds. A couple of hours to the next ‘town’ and it was obvious that there was no chance, don’t know what Tiger was thinking. The scenery had changed by now, becoming much more like what we had expected in Mongolia – mountains covered with snow, rocks, grass, horses and yaks.
Unfortunately, in between the mountains is flat grasslands, which when the snow melts becomes a network of shallow rivers and muddy bogs. Sure enough, we got bogged. But it was ok, sort of. Tiger new the best way to get out of it, using a heap of rocks, a short plank of wood and a jack (personally I think a shovel could have come in handy too). After one hour of hard labour Tiger jumped in and reversed out of the problem area….. and straight into the next one. No idea WHAT he was thinking. It took us another 2 hours to get out of this one.
After all of this we took the time to stop and look around. It really was a beautiful place.
And those orange duck-chickens that we thought were laughing at us were pretty cool. The headlights had to come on and it was dark by the time we reached our destination. If it had have taken us much longer we would have been camping right there, and it was 5 degrees at the peak of the day!
That night was the best ger we slept in. It had a sink, ample firewood and water, a double bed and a light. Luxury.
They served us up yak for dinner too, which was quite nice, maybe a little bit strong like beef liver or kidney or something. In the morning it was a short stroll to the waterfall, and apart from the water being a little yellow-orange it was extremely beautiful.
Would have loved to go for a hike up along the river, but just didn’t have time. A quick breakfast and it was onto the horses (a bit smaller than your regular horse) for a ride around the area. Poor Jeremy, it was just like on the camels, he got left behind while we were happily trotting away. After a head butting competition with a sheep (we agreed it was a draw) it was time to hit the road, along with our new companion, Cub, a 4 week old puppy which Tiger was taking home. Didn’t the girls love him! ‘He’s so cuuuute!’ Wasn’t so cute when he spewed all over my pants in the car. Luckily we were at a freezing cold river so I could wash.
We passed a dozen vultures, really big and powerful looking birds, feasting on one of a hundred cow, horse, goat or sheep carcasses that we saw along the way.
2010 was one of the coldest winters Mongolia has ever had, with most farmers we met losing 60% and one farmer losing 80% of his livestock. Seriously harsh conditions. But, with a bit more global warming hopefully the winters won’t be so cold, so come on people, go down to Wonthaggi coal mine and get yourself a truck load and start warming up this place (OK, that was sarcasm. Global warming causes extreme winters and is killing animals in Mongolia. Sell your SUV and buy a bicycle). Tiger promised us a ‘good restaurant’ for dinner in Kharhorin, one of the cities of Mongolia. We got there, it was closed. So we went to the next. They had no menu. One more try. They had a menu, but all 5 of us had to order the one thing because there was only 1 chef. Good old Mongolian food – everything has to have meat. Even a vegetable soup comes with 1/2 a bowl of meat, not joking.
Day 8, the last day. Had a guided tour of Erdene Dzuu monastery, bought something from the tacky markets inside and hit the road.
As much as we loved the trip, we were pretty much over it and couldn’t wait to get back. All of the scenery was the same and the dodgy roads were no longer fun. 8 or 9 hours later we were back to Ulan Baatar and our ever so welcoming and friendly Couch Surfing hosts Tsetse and Odnoo. Good to get the bull dust out of the hair.
Next day we checked out the black market, not sure why it’s called that, but it’s got a massive reputation for being dangerous and full of pickpockets and thieves. We saw plenty of shady looking characters but none of them approached us or gave us any hassles.
Overall, we really enjoyed the uniqueness of the whole experience and learning how the Mongolians live. We didn’t really know a lot before we got there. We also found people to be very friendly. And with that all said and done, time for Russia!