Stopping in Mongolia along the Trans Siberian Railway was a no-brainer for us. When else would we have an opportunity to visit a country that is largely known for being in the middle of nowhere? However, when we showed up in the capitol city of Ulaanbaatar (known as UB), we didn’t really have much of an idea of what we wanted to do during our time in Mongolia (surprise!). What I did know is that I wanted to stay in a ger (yurt) and I wanted to see the legendary Gobi desert. It turns out that finding a ger to stay in was not a problem at all.
Visiting the Gobi was a bit more difficult. Being a very remote destination, there are no public busses that go to the Gobi nor were we able to find any other non-tour option for getting there. So, a tour it was. We opted to join a seven-day tour run out of our hostel (Golden Gobi) that was a great bargain (about $50 per person per day, all-inclusive). We figured that a seven-day tour would help to reduce the amount of driving required per day, which we had heard could be a lot given the long distances and poor road conditions. Probably not our best idea of the trip. There was still a lot of driving.
Much of each day was spent in an old Russian van, which seems to be the staple of tourist transport both here and in Siberia. Unlike most vans I’ve traveled in, this one faces the two bench seats in the back towards each other, meaning that half of the passengers face backwards. Not quite an ideal situation.
Luckily for us, we ended up with a great travel group — a German couple and a young man from South Korea. We were also joined by a very happy, smily driver and a guide who spoke excellent English (and German, Chinese, Russian, etc.).
Because we spent the majority of each day driving or lounging around while meals were prepared, a day-by-day description of the trip would be tedious. Highlights/lowlights/random thoughts of our visit include:
1. Arriving at the “white stupa” at the end of our first day only to discover that it is in fact not a white stupa, but rather a colorful set of cliffs set in an otherwise flat plain. Sometimes not doing much research ahead of time allows us to be surprised!
2. At the end of our second day, we hiked through the snow and ice in Yolyn Am canyon. Our walk involved numerous stream crossings as we criss-crossed our way through the canyon. The views were breathtaking and the snow created a magical (if cold) effect. This was probably my favorite sight of our time in the Gobi.
3. The museum at the entrance to the Yolyn Am is one of the best — if only because some of the taxidermy is… unique. It was a great way to see how Mongolia’s wildlife would look if it were all rabid and on drugs.
4. On most days, we passed through a small village that was equipped with a mini-mart in order to get supplies. During one of these stops, I purchased a seemingly normal bottle of Coke Zero. Within moments of opening it outside, the top quarter of the bottle began to freeze into a slushy before my eyes! HAVE I MENTIONED THAT IT WAS COLD?
5. Stopping in the middle of no where (literally) for lunch on our third day and being told to feel free to walk around while lunch was being prepared. Oh, and while you’re at it, please collect dung to burn over the next two nights because the family might not have enough fuel. Nothing like the threat of cold nights to motivate one to search for dung. It was, surprisingly, not as bad of an experience as one would think. Maybe even fun? I guess we got an authentic Mongolian experience.
6. Admiring the sunset from the top of the huge sand dunes of Khongoryn Els in the middle of the Gobi desert. The hike up was exhausting, but the effort to reward payoff was in our favor.
7. Why is someone playing the Macarena in the middle of the Gobi desert? No really. Why?
8. We went for an hour-long camel ride on our fourth day. We’ve learned from prior encounters that one hour is plenty… although two humped camels are more comfortable to ride than their single humped counterparts in Morocco!
8 1/2. What was weird about fourth day is that the camel ride was literally all that was on the agenda (since we’d climbed the sand dunes the evening before). Because we were staying in the same ger for two nights, we didn’t even have any driving to do. Not ideal scheduling. We took matters into our own hands and joined the German couple on a walk to the dunes in the distance (which we thought might be a couple kilometers away). Our attempt was impeded when we came across a small river that was otherwise hidden from view.
9. The dirt “roads” we traveled on where in the middle of no where and we rarely ever saw any other vehicles. In fact, most of the time, it seemed that our driver was mainly trying to head in a specific direction, rather than follow a particular tract.
10. Since our guide prepared all of the meals, we would also stop in the middle of no where (I mean, really everywhere we went was the middle of no where) to prepare the meal. This typically took at least an hour to prep, so it was always a bit frustrating to stop at 1pm or later, knowing both that we would not be eating for another hour and that our two hour stop would only add to the time that we’d reach our intended destination.
11. We explored the “flaming cliffs” at Bayanzag on the afternoon of our fifth day. The site is known for the number of dinosaur bones and eggs that have been found in the area. We arrived around lunchtime (which for this tour was typically around 2pm) and since our ger camp for the night was located nearby we opted to walk on our own from the cliffs to the camp. It was a nice change from the hours of driving.
And now for the gripes…
1. I had always thought that a ger must have really great insulation in order to keep people warm for the winter. I’ve since reconsidered that assumption. From our cold weather experience, a ger is either too hot or too cold. It’s hard to achieve a happy median for very long because the fire needs to be fed at least once an hour, if not more. Even under the best of circumstances, we’d go to bed with it steaming hot and wake up in the middle of the night to a cold ger. Several of the gers were open to the elements around the stove’s chimney — guaranteeing a cold night as soon as the fire went out. Luckily, between wearing all of my clothing and a fairly decent sleeping bag, I managed to stay warm during the nights.
Despite the lack of modern facilities, it was amazing how many of the gers that we passed (but did not stay in) sported satellite TV…
2. For our sixth night, we were told that we would be staying with a nomadic family. I hoped that this would finally give us an opportunity for a little more interaction with local Mongolians. What I didn’t realize was what a challenge locating said family would present or exactly what staying with a nomadic family would entail. By this point, my patience for the long drives over bumpy dirt roads was growing thin. When we stopped in a small town for groceries at about 5pm we were told we still had 120 km to go to reach the family’s camp. I knew that this distance would take us at least two hours to cover… if we were lucky. That’s when the “fun” began. After about an hour of driving, as the sun was about to slide below the horizon, we stopped at a small ger camp. Apparently our guide was hoping that we could stay there instead of continuing on to our originally intended spot. No such luck, so we started driving into the night. It turns out that finding a specific ger in the dark in the middle of no on faint dirt tracts where can present a bit of a challenge. We ended up stopping at several gers in an effort to get directions to find our intended family (I think). When we finally reached their ger, we loaded a couple of the family members into our van and they took us to where we’d be spending the night… a building in the nearby hills away from where the family was staying. This was a bit disappointing because I’d thought that this would finally be our opportunity to interact a bit more with a local family. It also seemed weird that our one non-ger lodging was when we were staying with the nomadic family. Of course, truth be told, I think that by this time I was too cold, uncomfortable (stomach), tired, and grumpy to really be amused by any situation, let alone the one we found ourselves in. Which was a very cold building with a small stove that was being lit with the help of some tire scraps — the fumes of which were quickly filling the room. I was more than ready to head back to UB in the morning.
3. My life would be complete if I never, ever have to eat mutton again. Just thinking about it makes me want to puke (and I’m not really joking about that, I spent a night puking in UB after we returned). The majority of our meals were prepared by our guide, who seemed to be a decent-enough cook. The problem for me was that each meal was a slight variation on a theme — soup/pasta/rice with veggies and mutton/mutton fat/very processed sausage.
I was okay for the first few days, but by day six my stomach was not a happy camper and I couldn’t face any more mutton fat (which seemed to be a higher and higher percentage of the mutton as the trip went on). On day seven, I opted for the “vegetarian” version of the soup. Obviously, the mutton chunk was still cooked in the soup for the vegetarian version, but at least I didn’t have to contend with the mutton fat 😦 My stomach was still protesting several days after our return. [Note that while I blame the mutton, it is actually more likely that my problem is related to water that was not properly boiled or maybe improper food handling/hygiene. Fun!]
I’m glad that we saw the Gobi desert given all of the hype, but I wish that we’d gone on a shorter tour. By day 5, I was over the endless driving and some of the sights didn’t seem to justify the drive times. This could have been, in part, because we were recently in the Sahara, where we rode camels and saw big sand dunes (which are also something that we grew up near). It’s also possible that we may have enjoyed some of the stops more if the weather had been nicer. Oh well — it’s all part of the adventure!
I wish we’d had the time and energy to explore more of Mongolia — I hear that the central and western parts are amazing. However, with the weather growing colder and our patience (and stomach) for group tours (necessary for some of these areas) growing shorter, we decided that it was time to move on. Of course, that just left the question of where to move on to. Specifically, whether or not we would be able to get our Chinese visas from the embassy in Ulaanbaatar…
[This post describes our visit to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia on October 6-12, 2016.]
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