Published: August 17th 2006August 9th 2006
Our First Ger
Sleeping In The Gobi
What ho from Beijing! As usual, I'm a bit behind in my updates (blame the time difference!), so here is the much-awaited (he says, adding a sense of anticipation) update from Mongolia.
After 7100kms of travelling from the UK, I finally made it to Mongolia. Really chuffed as I've realised that I'm now over half-way to Oz - Darwin is 7000kms away (as the crow flies) and I haven't taken a single flight yet! It's been strange travelling through different time zones by train - changing your watch in Russia to allow for a 2 hour time difference in 1 journey, but at the same time remembering that all trains run according to Moscow time.
I was in Mongolia for about 2 and a half weeks - what a fab place. The train ride from Ulan Ude across the border was really straightforward - we had the obligatory 5 hours sat at the Russian side and then another 3 hours at the Mongolian side, where we were asked for cigarettes by Mongolian soldiers who looked about 12. Wondering if the border guards would pick us up on having too few visa reg stamps in our passports, it all went
smoothly - they seemed more worried about smugglers and bombs on board. (Other travellers I spoke to saw locals smuggling toilet seats stuffed into seat cavities and the like!).
We arrived into Ulaan Bataar and were met by the UB Guesthouse taxi - our Irish friends had gone on ahead a few days earlier and kindly sorted out a place for us to stay - and a taxi from the station to the guesthouse - I could get used to this! It turned out to tbe best trip you could imagine. After meeting up with them we went to the supermarket to get supplies for our trip to the Gobi. Danielle, Francis and Clare had booked a fab trip spending 6 nights and 7 days, staying with local families in gers, travelling by 4x4 jeep through the desert. We had to stock up on noodles (again!), Smash, soups and water to last for 3-4 days until we'd get to another town then we headed off with our driver, Oggie - the legend.
First stop was 250kms away in one of the remotest places I've ever been too. We travelled through nothing but flat gravel desert, only passing the
Ding Ding, Round 1!
occasional car or motorbike carrying locals. Sometimes we'd spot a white ger standing out in the distance, literally in the middle of nowhere. It's really difficult to describe how far places are from each other, or even what "in the middle of nowhere" means, but if you can imagine travelling for 7 hours across dirt roads and only seeing gers in the distance and taking 3.5 days to reach the nearest town, then maybe that gives the right impression. The roads were a mixture of earth and sand and were very rough, so by the end of 7 days we felt like we'd been beaten up - but it was worth it. We arrived at the end of a village's annual Nadaam festival - where locals take part in the "3 manly sports" - archery, wrestling and horse racing (see Ewen Macgregor in "Long Way Round"). Although it was just finishing, locals quickly came up to us as we wandered around and offered us some of the local brew. Never one to pass up the opportunity, I tried some of what turned out to be airag - fermented mare's milk. It had a warm, fizzy and slightly alcoholic taste to
Watching Another Sunset
Watching The Sunset, Then Satellites And Shooting Stars Every Night And Even Lightening Storms On The Horizon - aaahh, This Is The Life... .
it - but as lots of people were standing watching us, it was difficult to refuse! We were then offered some rock hard cheese, and dragged into the general melee of tipsy Mongolians enjoying the post Nadaam celebrations. Lots of photographs later and addresses swapped to send on the pictures, we drove off to find our camp, another hour away.
This was our first ger - a round, felt home to Mongolian nomads (called yurts in Kyrgysztan, etc.). It's made up of wooden lattice work and surrounded by felt with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke, so it can be dismantled in an hour or so - even when the wind and rain whipped around on 1 day, it felt very sturdy. It just felt so remote - there was nothing else as far as the eye could see, apart from gravel desert and a lightening storm on the horizon.
Dinner was a mixture of mutton (turned out to be goat) and pasta which was a recurrent theme for the trip. It was usually very filling and it was good to be eating the local food (although we missed out on sheep's testicles and
Sand Dunes At Khongoryn Eels
After An Hour Camel Ride, We Were Ready To Sit In Soft Sand
eye balls!) (message to the chef?!). Breakfast was usually a hard bread (nicknamed "human finger bread" cos of it's shape) washed down with black tea.
The next day, we hopped into our jeep with Oggie at the helm and various tunes pumping out of the stereo - he endured our MP3 mixture of U2, The Kooks and Moby, etc. and countered it with a DVD of Boney M's greatest hits (this was one pimped van!). Throughout the week he took us through the Gobi desert to some amazing sights - we even saw a Nadaam in progress at a village, where the guys were wrestling and the kids were practising archery. We felt so privilgeged to have stumbled onto an event like this.
The next few nights we stayed in family gers, including with Oggie's family in a ger town in the south of Mongolia. They were so kind to us - we were shocked to realise the next day that some of them had slept outside so as to give us the ger to ourselves - Mongolian hospitality being legendary. We had a photo call that day where they let the blokes try on the traditional Mongolian
Miles and Miles of Nothing
We Had To Travel 3.5 Days To Reach A Sizeable Town
silk shirts and have their picture taken with the head of the household and as we left, his wife poured milk onto the road to wish us a safe journey.
One day we rode camels to the Khongoryn Eels sand dunes. I've never ridden a camel before so this was a bit of an experience, but the 6 year old girl and her Dad (the owner) kept a tight rein on their beasts! It was a bit of an experience - especially when my camel was spooked by the legendary Mongolian dogs roaming the wilderness, and looked like it was about to run off. Much to everyone's amusement, my camel did not disappear over the horizon with me clinging to it's sweaty hump!
On our way to another ger, we saw the impact of the heavy rains the night before and got bogged in a huge flood plain. Oggie managed to floor it to get through most of the bog, but we did all end up digging and pushing the van out through the thick mud.
The Gobi for me was a real highlight of the my time away so far - the more so because I've
Inside The Family Ger
Buddhist Shrine Adorned With Incense And Family Pics, As Well As Satellite TV
met so many good people along the way. So it was a sad occasion when on our arrival back in Ulaan Bataar we said goodbye to our Irish friends - Danielle, Claire and Francis. I couldn't have hoped to have met such fab friends on this trip - we were all so laid back despite living in each other's pockets for 4 weeks - sharing stories over noodles, Smash, mutton and airag on the Tran-Sib and in Mongolia (and of course Russian and Mongolian vodka and the infamous 30p beer from the babushkas!). We waved them off at the train station as they made their way to Beijing and then back to Ireland which seemed a world away, but we have some wicked memories of a great trip and of course we'll all keep in touch! (I'll never forget the scary ger with the dog roaming outside as we ran the gauntlet to use the toilet at night, and the night the ger door blew open in the middle of the night and Francis' scream!).
That left Rob, Will and I to explore the city of Ulaan Bataar on our own and to spend a couple of days at
Site Of Lots Of Dinosaur Fossils (Although They'd Up'd And Left By The Time We'd Arrived)
the Terelj National Park where we rode horses across the plains to see the famous Turtle Rock. This was an experience in itself - never having really ridden before, we hopped on our trusty steeds, the little lad standing behind my horse gave it a whack on the backside (I didn't hold back from shouting at him for doing that ;-) ) and off we went! It was the most amazing (if painful) fun - we had the ubiquitous shots of vodka at the rock, courtesy of the teenage lads showing us the way, then it was a brisk canter (mine even galloped for a bit!) back to our ger. Just keep shouting Choo Choo - and off they go!
It was at the National Park where we had the now common bizarre experience - it turned out we were staying on the set of a Russian film about Chinggis (AKA Genghis) Khan. This meant that the guys showing us around were now dressed in full Mongolian warrior regalia, charging up and down for the cameras, with women and children in national costume and a big, hairy Chinggis Khan wandering around. Not what were expecting from Mongolia - but
then anything goes here and we had a great laugh watching the Russians direct it all from afar.
The last day in Mongolia was spent at the Buddhist monastery which was an amazing experience. It's also a college for the young monks and we wandered through the incense and chanting from the various temples and gers, listening to the bells, cymbals and horns being played - a quite awe inspiring experience.
Although I'm writing this from Beijing which I love, Mongolia will always stay with me as such a great place to travel to - for the people, scenery and the memories. I had such a fantastic time there and that'll stay with me forever. I've also made some life-long friends alog the way too. Signing off now - off to Pingyao, south west of Beijing tonight, then onto Xi'an next week sometime.
Take it easy and keep in touch.
There are more photos below