Published: November 18th 2009November 1st 2009
Three Brits, two Finns and a Mongolian! We all took an old Russian van that was prone to breaking down, thousands of kilometeres into the Gobi desert on a week long trip. Each night we would sleep in a 'ger' - a tent like circular framed hut with a fire and chimney inside. Depending on the quality of the ger it was be either cold, very cold or absolutely freezing! Fire fuel varied from wood, to Sheep poo, camel poo, and horse poo (noticably better than camel and sheep poo in case you ever need to know), or in one ger we upscaled to coal.
We left Ulan Bator early one morning and soon we were in the middle of nowhere, as we would remain for the next week. The track (not even a road) stretched miles into the horizon, and there was nothing as far as the eye could see. It was definitely one way to feel small in the world! Occassionaly we would pass a flock of sheep or goats which would run out of the way. Wild horses roamed and camels grazed together. I distinctly remember one morning in the windy desert as two horses took off
into a gallop to avoid our van, creating a cloud of sand, their tails blowing in the wind - it was like a scene from a wild west movie.
Sometimes we would drive by skulls and skeletons laying on the ground, just another animal that had lost the battle for survival in these cold, harsh, barren conditions. Along the way the ground was covered in snow, and sometimes it was hard to tell where the land stopped and the sky began. Our first night in a ger was fairly warm as it was well insulated and had a good fire. The Mongolian lady who lived next door in her family ger came in to tend to the fire and served us dinner of rice and mutton. We could not communicate other than with smiles and pointing, but of all the things she might say in English, I did not expect her only words to be "horse shit, sheep shit" when pointing at the fire fuel!
Thankfully each morning someone from the family who owned the ger would come in and make a fire so that it was just possible to leave our cosy sleeping bags and put many
layers of clothing on! The worst part of ger life was going to the toilet! Always just a pit in the ground surrounded by a woden or stone makeshift fence, you were exposed to the elements. I made the mistake the first night of drinking vodka too late into the night and having to get up and walk out in the snow at two in the morning, very disheartened at the fact I would have to get up! All I remember was the bitter cold, and snow on my bare posterior! Watching my hand shake in the cold, I literally couldn't pee fast enough! It also dawned on me that should I fall over on the way back to the ger, it would take no time at all for me to shiver to death! Looking at the positive, it was incredibly silent being out in the wilderness under the light of the moon. However, from that night onwards I didn't drink a drop after about 7pm, and braved the toilet twice before wrapping up for the night, determined not to move until there was a fire the next morning!
Throughout our trip, the landscapes were fantastic, just vistas all
the way to the horizon, and more vast landscapes appearing over every hill, it was breath-taking. I've never been anywhere so vast and wild, where the internet does not exist, and facebook means nothing! No electricity, no heaters, everyone just living within their means.
The Gobi desert national park was no exception to the beauty and we were taken to some fantastic viewpoints. The sand dunes were stunning and we enjoyed a camel ride in the morning sun. We walked through an ice valley, crossing over a frozen river and watching gazelles jump around up high on the rocks.
Yet another story related to visiting the non-existent bathrooms...what does one do, when on the road in a flat desert with nowhere to hide?! In need of the loo, I started walking away from our van to a point where Nora our driver had previously visited and had been out of sight....after a good five minutes walking, I thought I must be safe and out of sight as the van was disappearing from my view. Luckilt for me, Ben my travel companion yelled that I was still visible and was shouting directions for me! I kept crouching in different
spots until we found somewhere I'd be hidden from view! What an effort, and the most exposed I've ever felt for sure!!
Ger life seems tough to me. At one ger, a fantasticaly jovial grandmother greeted us and we all adored her instantly. I spotted her in the evening with an axe, chopping up wood for our fire - I think that takes a lot of strength for a grandmother, out in the cold weather and in the wind as well. I wondered if they thought that us tourists were weak and pathetic! Food in Mongolia is not varied to put it mildly! Each night we ate a variation of mutton - either with potatoes, pasta, carrots or onion - in a soup or with noodles, and once with rice. I don't think I want to eat mutton again for a while, despite it being hearty and tasty at the time!
Another aspect of our trip that I should mention, was that of washing! Something I usually take for granted! Not anymore. Once we arrived at the 3rd largest city in Mongolia (let me tell you it does not relate to Britain's third largest city!), we were treated
to a power socket and an actual lightbulb, and best of all...a local shower block! Yes, we paid 1000 Tugrik for a wash at the local public showers. One shower in the week was all that was available.
We had fun communicating with our driver, Nora. He taught us some Mongolian, which I made sure I used at each ger, as I was only able to say "chimney, fire, bed!" We had fun using sign language to figure out that he had a wife and children and he was always laughing and didn't seem angered by the fact he always had to get out in the cold to fix our van! It's funny how you can still get to know someone even when you can't speak the same language! We became fond of Nora and had huge admiration for his abilities to fix a van in the middle of nowhere in bitter winds. We even managed to listen to his high pitched Mongolian singers cassette tape for a whole week!
All in all a fantastic experience, excellent views and a chance to see the real Mongolia!
I'll let the photos explain everything better!
There are more photos below