Mongolia - An adventure into The Gobi Desert

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October 15th 2015
Published: November 10th 2015
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Having passed through the Russian border control without issue, we breathed a sigh of relief and snuggled into the first class bunks we had treated ourselves to for this journey. We had read that the Russia to Mongolia border crossing can sometimes take up to eight hours, so we were very surprised to find Mongolian immigration knocking on our door twenty minutes later. Following one more search of our cabin and after a rather stern lady immigration officer had had a good look at Ross (he had just had a haircut and clearly looked suspicious), we received our stamps into Mongolia and the train rumbled off towards Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar at six thirty in the morning, much to our surprise as we had thought we would be arriving about six hours later. Up until now, all the trains we had caught had been operating on Moscow time, but of course as soon as we had entered Mongolia, the train began operating on Mongolian time, so we had skipped forward six hours when we crossed the border. So, slightly disoriented we alighted the train into the bright Mongolian sunshine and after a long wait in the central square and a bakery, we headed to our hostel.

On our travels we have stayed in a huge variety of places, from bamboo huts to salt hotels, but never had we stayed in a hostel where so many people were squashed into such a small flat. A large Mongolian family, an eight bed dorm and a double room all in a small apartment, all sharing one bathroom with no lock. Thankfully, we had booked the one and only double room, so after Grandma had kicked out another British couple (sorry Kate and Ross) we settled in. Somehow, despite the lack of space, the hostel worked and it was a very sociable place where we met other backpackers to take a couple of tours with, the first to The Terelj National Park just for a day and the second an eight day trip deep into the Gobi Desert.

Mongolia had always been a country we had planned to pass through on our way from Russia to China, but we hadn't really given it a lot of thought. The capital is a modern, rapidly developing city, but those who live in the countryside live a predominantly nomadic life, moving their ger camps (yurts to us) depending on the season. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on earth, so the countryside is wonderfully remote and wild, but also not very accessible to your average poorly prepared backpacker. In order to independently explore Mongolia, we felt we would need our own wheels and some serious equipment (a bit more than just a spork for example), so we decided to leave the transport and planning to the professionals and see Mongolia on a tour.

So after a taster of things to come from our day trip to the Terelj National Park and having been told horror stories of flies laying their eggs in human eyes by our kind fellow hostel companions, we set off for the Gobi in a very robust looking Russian van, which had been blessed with milk, a Mongolian tradition when anyone is embarking on a long journey. Our companions for the trip were to be driver and chequers champion Oogi, guide Undra and the British couple, Kate and Ross, who seemed to have forgiven us for kicking them out of their double room.

Our first stop was Baga Gazryn Chuluu, a granite rock formation in the middle of a dusty plain where Buddhist Lamas hid from the Communists during the Soviet Era. We also saw a cave where legend has it an old woman ventured inside to fetch her goat and neither goat nor woman were ever seen again. That night we got to experience sleeping in a ger for the first time, saw the Milky Way more clearly than ever before and on arrival were offered a nibble on charred cow intestines, which none of us were brave enough to try.

A ger to us at home is a yurt, however, a yurt to the Mongolians (and they do know) is a small, triangular tent used by the reindeer herders of the North. So basically we should be calling what we at home think of as yurts, gers. A ger is really cosy when the dung burning stove is alight, but pretty chilly when it goes out in the middle of the night due to the huge hole in the roof (great for observing the spectacular night's sky), so we quickly learnt to wrap ourselves up in the sleeping bags and extra blankets provided. The bathroom facilities left quite a lot to be desired and were certainly not for the faint hearted.

The next morning we set off into the wilderness, stopping for lunch on the way and almost losing Kate in the Gobi. With no landmarks, just rolling mounds it would be very easy to get lost in the desert. Thankfully her Ross found her after about twenty minutes or so and we all enjoyed our lunch, whilst Undra our guide told us stories of sand storms and other lost tourists. We decided to stick together after this!

After a long drive we arrived at our ger camp for the night, where we helped milk the owner's camels, supped on salty camel's milk tea and tried the local hooch, fermented camel's milk, which even Ross (who is a fan of most things fermented) found hard to stomach. The next morning we helped release the baby camels who had been tethered to aid last night's milking. It was great fun watching them run and throw their back legs up in joy after realising they were free. Liz got to release a lovely, gentle, little camel, who followed her for a while before realising she was free, whilst Ross got to release the naughty one, who tried to spit in his face, much to everyone else's amusement.

After a visit to some spectacular cliffs in the morning, cliffs which only Undra was brave (or crazy) enough to walk to the edge of (crumbly and muddy cliffs in high winds didn’t seem like a good idea to us), the main event of the day was a shower. As the ger camps don't have running water, we visited the bathhouse in the local town to freshen up, along with a number of locals queuing up for their weekly wash. Our camp for the night, where we were welcomed with goat's milk tea, was spectacularly located underneath some snowy mountains.

The following day kicked off with a visit to the region's natural history museum, which housed a number of very sorry looking stuffed rare animals and more interestingly some dinosaur eggs, followed by a walk through the Yol Valley, a shaded gorge where ice survives well into the summer (but unfortunately not until October) and hundreds of pikas, small, squeaky, mouse-like creatures live. After Oogi had squeezed the Russian van through the tightest of gaps in the canyon, we had lunch a sheltered spot and headed west to the Khongor sand dunes, some of the largest and most spectacular dunes in Mongolia.

Our ger next to the sand dunes was cosy, or it was after a stove turned up on the back of a motorbike driven by the owner's wife and was installed in the middle of the ger. The first chimney was broken and caused us to evacuate, but fortunately a second turned up and was placed over the top of the original chimney, problem solved.

The next day we climbed up onto camels, wedged ourselves between the two humps and made our way to the dunes. We formed a camel train, each holding onto the camel behind. Ross this time was given a very well behaved camel to hold, but Liz was in charge of the youngest, naughtiest camel, who we named "Troublemaker". Troublemaker was raring to go but was afraid of puddles. Thankfully though we all arrived at the dunes in one piece and having been safely delivered by the camels, we climbed up the vast dunes and admired the view. Arriving on these perfectly formed and deserted dunes on the back of camels was a wonderful experience. After returning to the ger camp, we thanked our camels and settled in for an afternoon of card games and chequers in the ger as the wind had quickly blown up, postponing our trip to the largest dune until the next morning. That evening we were treated to wistful renditions of Mongolian folk songs sung by our talented hosts. Unfortunately us talentless Brits could only just about manage a fairly awkward rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in response, which was not a proud moment for our country.

The next morning we rose bright and early and set off for the largest dune around. The dune is said to be the height of a nine story building, but it certainly feels higher than that when you are climbing it, particularly as with every step forwards you take, you slip four steps backwards. Ross took the lead and was first to reach the summit, proving that whilst he may not excel at chequers, in a test of strength and endurance, he is the clear winner. Liz came a respectable second.

The views from on top of the sand dune were stunning, but the best part was running back down. We felt like we were walking on air as we glided down the dune, listening to the hum the sand made as it slipped with us. Thoroughly exhausted and with our shoes entirely full of sand, we climbed back into the van and made our way north, stopping for lunch in a small town. The local restaurant was closed, but as is the way in Mongolia, someone got to touch with the chef who offered to cook us mutton dumplings at her own home instead. The dumplings needed quite a lot of preparation, so in order to fill time we somehow ended up playing table tennis in the local school, after someone had run to the shop to buy a ping pong ball. Luckily our table tennis skills were better than our singing skills, so we may have redeemed ourselves somewhat. A couple of hours later, we returned and enjoyed our dumpling lunch.

Our penultimate stop was a ger camp next to Bayan Zag, which is also known as the Flaming Cliff. Bayan Zag is renowned worldwide for the high concentration of dinosaur eggs and bones discovered here, which are now displayed in museums worldwide. The cliffs themselves were great to see, particularly in the red evening light when they fully lived up to their name.

Our last day was spent driving to the camel-herding village of Erdenedalai, where our driver and guide prepared a Mongolian feast of mutton cooked on hot stones. Our evening was spent trying to convince the Mongolians that even if we couldn't sing, we Brits do at least have some skills, although unfortunately they were rather useless talents such as juggling, licking your own elbow, putting your foot in your mouth, some rather dubious magic tricks and pulling funny faces (something that Ross managed without even trying).

The next day we travelled back to Ulaanbaatar, stopping off for one last bowl of Mongolian mutton pasta, desperately in need of a hot shower and with a new respect for roofs and running water. After a good night's sleep, we reflected on how lucky we have been to be able to experience the traditional and slowly disappearing Mongolian nomadic way of life. Having been travelling for almost two years now, we felt pretty much at home here in this land of nomads.

Through our adventures in Mongolia we have learnt:

- The valuable lesson of not spitting into the wind whilst cleaning your teeth al fresco.

- That Ross can stomach Mongolian goat's milk. Apparently it's not quite as offensive as other goat's milk.

- That the great Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan was actually called Chinggis Khaan and is buried somewhere in Mongolia, but nobody knows where.

- How to milk a camel, an important life skill.

- Numerous Mongolian card games, all of which seem to involve some sort of punishment.

- Mongolians are really friendly and all seem to be able to sing.

- Mongolia is a beautiful country, one which we hope to return to in the future, although we won’t mind not having any more mutton for a while.

Additional photos below
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12th November 2015
Terejl National Park. A first glimpse of the spectacular scenery just outside the capital.

Excellent adventues!
How fabulous that you explored the Gobi Desert--certainly off the beaten track! And camels, yurts and friendly singing people--what could be better? Well, maybe a shower and less mutton, eh?

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