A Boy a Girl and a Yak


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July 16th 2004
Published: July 29th 2017
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Beijing - Ulaanbataar - Chinese Border


Friday 2nd July – Beijing – Ulaan Bataar

Our cab driver was waiting for us when we checked out this morning, and we made it to the airport with two hours to spare which was just as well as check-in seemed to take forever, but finally we made it through immigration. Our flight departed at 9.20am & although the plane was small, it was full. Poor Tony got stuck with a large American lady on his right, who wouldn’t stop talking to him, especially about horses. She was a crashing bore.

The flight took over an hour, but as Mongolia is an hour ahead of Beijing, it was just after midday when we landed. The usual struggle to get through immigration, customs and baggage ensued, & as we were walking out the airport we got hassled by several taxi drivers. I raced upstairs to change my Yuan to Mongolian Togrog in the money changers. I handed over Y1600 & received TG 200,000 – it is so confusing all these different currencies and exchange rates, although there is no exchange rate for AUD – we convert TG to YUAN, & then YUAN to AUD – confused yet??

Unfortunately, our first encounter with Mongolians was not a good one, as we got severely scammed by our so called ‘taxi’ driver. We noticed his car had no meter & when we asked the price he said TG20,000. This sounded expensive but neither of us could get our head around the rate conversion, so we went with him. In the car, I worked it out – our ride cost AUD25!!. It was only a 10-min journey which made us even madder. When he dropped us at our guesthouse, he then tried to scam us again, saying it was TG20,000 each! We stuck to our guns & refused, paying him only TG20,000.

It put a cloud on our day, & as it was raining in Ulaan Bataar, the whole city seemed ugly, grey & depressing. The girl in the “Mongolian Steppes Guest House” was very friendly & although our room is located in an apartment block across town (we had to catch another taxi to get there but didn’t have to pay) it has a kitchen & a bathroom. Our room is really big but the bed is rock hard. She told us that a taxi from the airport usually costs around
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Ulaanbataar
TG5000 ($6) so now we know for sure we were done over. We settled in & then went for a short walk to orientate ourselves. It was still raining so we had to break out our Tibetan clothes at last. Armed with an umbrella & raincoats, we set off to discover Mongolia’s culinary delights.

Our first impression of Ulaan Bataar was of a very Russian-like city with heaps of ‘compound’ apartment blocks & empty playgrounds – the buildings were all grey & drab with bars on the windows. We walked down to Liberty Square, where there was some sort of rally going on, lots of people waving flags. Here a young man had a boxer dog, the first one I have seen in 13 weeks!! We had something to eat in a café opposite, called Berlin Fast Food, where the communist influence lingered as the café was very spartan & you had to line up in a long line to collect your food. We both had a ‘Beefsteak’ which in reality is a mutton pattie topped with a fried egg. Not too bad but a bit gristly, as can be expected. Still cheap, around TG2200 each ($2.70).

After our meal, we went for a walk around, it was still raining and the streets were full of puddles – we both got soaked by a passing car, not happy. After a while we returned to the guesthouse, both feeling a bit tired, only to find it is daylight saving in Mongolia – it’s still light and it’s 1.30pm!

Saturday 3rd July– Ulaan Bataar

Woke up just after 9am, Tony had awoken around 6am & said it was daylight then – not many dark hours this time of year. Had a restless night, thunder & lightening, boys playing basketball, dogs barking & me coughing kept us both awake. The European guy in the room adjacent to us wanted us to go horse-riding with him today (it would help him cut down costs) but neither of us feel up to it yet, so he’s gone alone.

Breakfast was included in our room price, so we had fried eggs on toast & some scented tea. We laxed around in our room until noon & then spent an hour in an internet café which cost us TG750 (-90c). We grabbed a locally made cheeseburger & some fries TG3700 ($4.50) which was great tasting once you had taken the huge gherkin out!

We then went to the National Museum of Mongolia History – entrance fee was TG500 (-60c) with our student cards & was quite interesting once we had fought our way through hordes of German tour groups. Although it may seem like we spend an awful lot of time in museums (we do) they are all diverse & (me especially) learn a lot about the country we are in which helps us to understand the culture,

It took just over an hour to look around the museum, & then we took great delight at looking in the gift shop – all locally made crafts which were exquisite & reasonably priced, the hardest job deciding what to buy. We restrained ourselves though, as this was the first place we had looked, so we left the museum & headed off to Sukhbaatar Square. Not really much to see here just Government House (where they told me not to take photos but I already had) & a statue of Sukhbaatar himself.

Starting to rain again, so we left the square & headed down the main road which is lined with cafes & shops. Had a look in several art & craft/souvenir shops, there was so much we wanted to buy. Made our way to the State Department Store, which has 5 floors & a 1950’s feel. The top floor had a huge selection of souvenirs – all the prices in the store are the same. Tony bought a few things & I will later if I can post them. On the ground floor was a supermarket, so we bought some bread for dinner.

On the way home we took a detour past the embassies to find the Kazakhstan office, which we found relatively easily, now we just have to wait until it opens so we can get our visas !!!

Sunday 4thJuly– Ulaan Bataar

Both had a decent night’s sleep for a change despite the hard bed. Took our time getting ready although we have a few things to do today. I don’t think the girl who runs the guesthouse had much time this morning, as our breakfast was coffee & a chocolate biscuit (like a wagon wheel); lucky we have some bananas left that we bought from a stall or we would have starved!

Did an hour of internet & then caught a cab out to Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace. It was a nice sunny day for a change. Bogd Khan was Mongolia’s last king, and although his summer palace was destroyed by Russians, his winter abode still stands. There are six temples in the garden, all badly in need of repair & a coat of paint – it seems they have started on one, but the others were run down, the grass overgrown with weeds & badly in need of cutting. Inside the temples wasn’t too bad, just more Buddhas again.

We then entered a large square white building which was the palace itself. Entrance cost Tg2500 ($3) with most of the exhibits being costumes, furniture (including impressive thrones) & a rather morbid collection of stuffed animals. Interesting was the costume Bogd Khan’s pet elephant used to wear (with a rather large hat) & a ger made of (unfortunately) 150 snow leopard skins. We spent a bit of time wandering around the palace, the skies had clouded over & we could hear thunder. As we left the palace it started to rain (we were going to walk back to the city) so we
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The Steppe
waited for it to clear.

Of course, it didn’t, it just got heavier & lasted longer – Tony tried in vain to flag down a passing cab but they were all full. After about ½ hour we were sick of hanging around waiting, so we took a chance & started walking towards a town, even though it was still raining. We managed to hail a cab from the roadside & got it to drive us to our next destination, the Choijin Lama Temple Museum.

Admission was Tg1600 ($2) & was a collection of 5 Buddhist temples. All were really well maintained – Buddha has several states of “being” but we still don’t understand what they are, despite having visited so many temples – I prefer to call it “Buddha & his 19 states of confusion”. Each country has a different interpretation of the religion & it was interesting to see horses represented for the first time. Mongolian Buddhism seems to have more demons (& porn) than we have seen before – quite an impressive display.

At least it had stopped raining now, so it was just a short walk across Sukhbaatar Square to a café called Dave’s Place. Although it was nearly 3pm, we indulged in an English breakfast for Tg5000 ($6) – very yummy, sausages, eggs, bacon, tomatoes etc. We just wish the Asians would learn to make runny fried eggs instead of hard ones!

Another short walk took us to the Natural History Museum Tg1000 ($1) – although the majority of exhibits were stuffed animals, it was the dinosaur section we were interested in – two complete skeletons of a flesh-eating Tarbosaurus (15m tall) & the plant eating Saurolophus. There was a large collection of dinosaur eggs, skulls, leg bones, an absolutely enormous pair of hips & a fossil of a Velociraptor & Protoceratops locked in a fierce battle (said to be 80 million years old). The dinosaur section was awesome & the best thing about the museum – the rest of the exhibits were your typical moth eaten surprised looking animals.

It was now past 4pm, so we left the museum (& its tour groups – this time our favourite people- Koreans) & caught a taxi out to Gandantegchinlen Khiid, the largest monastery in Mongolia. Once there Tony’s faith in the Buddhist religion was further shattered as they ‘only’ charged foreigners admission. He was do disgusted that we didn’t go in, so we just took a photo from the outside & left.

Walked along the main street & popped into a small supermarket (we have discovered ‘MacCoffee’ which is a 3-in-1 coffee mix, containing milk & sugar- just add hot water & PRESTO – really good coffee) bought a large bag of MacCoffee, which contains about 25 sachets for Tg1920 ($2-35). Stopped at a ‘pub’(more of a café with tables, chairs & the bar outside) & sat in the afternoon sun (5pm) drinking warm beer – will never get used to that taste. Across the road was a second-hand book store, so we wandered over & picked up a couple of books for about $2 each.

Spent the evening in the guesthouse – the European guy left this morning so we sat in ‘his’ room & watched TV. “Cold Mountain” was on & Tony was delighted to find an AFL game on – Crows V Melbourne & sat up until 1.30am. Who would have thought that we would be sitting in Mongolia watching the Crows play??!!

Monday 5thJuly– Ulaan Bataar

Set the alarm for 8am as we have to visit the embassies today. When we awoke there was all sorts of confusion going on – 4 more people have arrived, they occupy the room with the TV & the girl’s bedroom (goodness knows where the girls will sleep now, although there is a mattress on the kitchen floor now). The new arrivals are more Europeans but older. At least we got a better breakfast today, bread & strawberry jam!

Got to the Chinese embassy just before it opened at 9.30am – already a queue had formed. Filled out our visa forms easily & left them at the embassy with our passports (something we wanted to avoid) & received instructions to collect them on Wednesday & pay USD50 each. The whole process took about 20mins & was quite painless.

It wasn’t even 10am yet, so we headed off to the Kazakhstan embassy. We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to get visas without our passports, so we explained to the guy that the Chinese embassy had them, & he wasn’t too bothered, so long as we produced them eventually. The down side is the visa will cost USD70 each (we can get the Kyrgyzstan visa at the same time), so the two visas will cost USD140 each & they won’t be ready until NEXT Wednesday! This is a real blow to us as it means we will be sitting around with nothing to do for 9 days! We can’t afford to have the visas done express, this costs double, so we have to put up with it. The Nadaam Festival on 11-13 July has also put a spanner in our works – we had hoped to leave Mongolia before it started, as everything shuts down for 3 days -who wants to see a macho dick pulling competition anyway? (Archery, Wrestling, Horse racing). Now we are stuck here until the festival is over.

After our embassy jaunt, we did a bit more research on the Internet before head8ing off to the Berlin Café for lunch. The weather is warm & sunny & the puddles appear to be drying out – Tony & I nearly got killed trying to cross the road, it was our closest call yet.

Spent the rest of the afternoon reading our second-hand books – the Europeans have turned up again – oh God, we think they could be Dutch! For dinner, we decided to try a pasta restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet – it started to rain as we walked there, but it didn’t last long. We sat outside under an umbrella & when our main meals came, so did an old beggar. He sat down in one of the chairs from our table & held out a yellow plastic bag with two hands – we ignored him & told him to “Go Away!” but he sat there the whole time we ate (no waiters happened to come out), it was really off putting. When we finished eating he asked for cigarettes & ended up stealing a butt out of an ashtray. We would have enjoyed our meal if it hadn’t been for our uninvited guest!

Tuesday 6thJuly– Ulaan Bataar

Slept in – no hurry to get up as we have nothing special to do. Last night Tony had a chat to the girl who runs the guesthouse about organising a trip out to the Gobi Desert. All our hopes are pinned on her arranging something, as I think we will go mad with boredom if we can’t get away from here! Spent the afternoon on the Internet, eating lunch at a bakery & exchanging books at the book exchange. We braved the Central Post Office to post a postcard for Tony and walked back to the guesthouse. Weatherwise it is a super day today, blue skies & quite warm.

Wednesday 7thJuly– Ulaan Bataar

Another warm day but we both feel like shit as had a bad night’s sleep – bang bang bang from the apartment next door nearly all night – sounds like they are knocking a wall down with a sledgehammer – but why start at 12 midnight? Crazy. Went to the visa office just after 9.30am to collect our Chinese visas – long queue again & why are embassies always so hot? At least it was ready, so we paid our USD50 each & left.

We hadn’t had any breakfast yet (we have skipped the guesthouse breakfast today as yesterday we got more biscuits!) so we set off looking for somewhere to eat – would you believe nothing was open until 11 or 12 – including the places that specialise in breakfasts!!! We had to walk for miles before we found a small café that served omelettes, but it ended up being worth it as it was quite tasty. We then intrepidly went to the bank to get some USD cash – Tony was able to do a cash advance on his visa card, while I cashed mu USD traveller’s cheques. It was all rather hassle free but we seem to have spent most of our morning lining up in queues.

On the way back to the guesthouse we called in to the bakery & bought some rolls & cakes for lunch. We have decided that Mongolian drivers are the worst – they actually speed up if they see you on the road – crossing is quite dangerous & they completely disregard pedestrian crossings.

We saw the “Bring Out Your Dead!” man on the way back too – he comes around every day with a sack on his back and yodels – we don’t know what he is saying, he may be collecting bottles, but he call him the “Bring Out Your Dead” guy as this sounds like what he is saying (& its funnier anyway). Still no word on our Gobi tour – we are getting annoyed as we are growing increasingly bored – Tony has read 3 books
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in 2 days!

Thursday 8thJuly– Ulaan Bataar – who knows??

Woke early – 6am – we are determined to catch Itte, the girl who runs the guesthouse before she leaves for the day. Luckily we did & explained how desperate we were to join a tour to the Gobi – she said she would contact her driver & let us know around 10am. We lazed around for a bit, Tony is determined to buy our ongoing tickets to Hohhot today, but we decided we would wait until we heard from Itte.

She rang at 9.30am & said she had arranged a driver & we would leave today – she would drop by in about half an hour. It was then a mad dash to get showered & everything packed. Whilst we were doing this the Dutch people left & 4 more people arrived, 2 American girls & another couple. Itte arrived with them & told us she had found a “Denmark “person who was willing to go on a tour & split the cost – we were happy with this as it could save us USD100 each – but he would like to meet with us first.

We went with her to the other guesthouse & met the guy – we were both surprised to find him older than we expected, in his fifties – seems ok, told us about another tour company he had found that charged EURO30 per day with an English guide plus food. Itte assured us that although our driver did not speak English, he knew exactly where to go & it would be no problem. We decided to go with our original plans & were told the driver would pick us up at 12.30pm.

It was then another mad dash to go to the supermarket for supplies – we have to pick up extra for Soren, the Danish guy, & he will reimburse us – then go to the bank. Picked up bare necessities – bread, water, loo paper, chocolates etc & then found a chemist – Tony has caught my cold & feels like shit – unbelievably you can get antibiotics over the counter in Mongolia, so he bought two lots of Amoxil for Tg2000 ($2.50). Then it was on to the bank to withdraw some Togrogs & a quick trip to the bakery for some ham & cheese
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The Steppe
rolls for lunch and then we returned to the guesthouse.

Unfortunately we had found ourselves locked out as we had returned our key earlier in the day – everyone else must have gone out. Inconvenienced because our backpacks are still inside, we had no choice but to sit outside & wait for the driver. As luck would have it, the two American girls happened past & were able to let us in to collect our stuff. Itte turned up about 12.45pm & we piled in & asked if she would take us to the train station to buy our tickets to Hohhot.

Buying the tickets took about ½ hour & that was with Itte’s help, but at least we have tickets for next Friday’s train – a deluxe carriage for two people cost Tg72500 ($89). We went back to the car to find our driver asleep with a bottle of water on his forehead! We then drove back to the guesthouse to pick up Soren & wait for our jeep.

The jeep came at 2pm & was a Russian jeep – surprisingly comfortable, plenty of leg room, so we piled our bags in the back & set off. Our driver doesn’t speak any English but seems to be nice – first we called into a house and picked up supplies for the driver, and then we had to fill the jeep with petrol – two spare petrol cans as well.

Driving through Ulaan Bataar always seems to take forever, although it is a relatively small city, there is a lot of congestion – it was now past 3pm and we hadn’t even left the city yet! Soon, however, we left Ulaan Bataar & were out on the Mongolian Steppes – lots of grassland & herds of horses, sheep, goats & cows, very green. We reached a very small settlement on the top of a hill – just a tiny shop, an ovoo (pile of sacred stones) & a couple of wooden buildings. Took a short break while our driver asked for directions (not a good sign) & then climbed back into the jeep – which didn’t work. The driver climbed out & fiddled about & luckily fixed the problem quickly – we all gave him a clap!

Again we were on our way & according to our tour programme, we should be looking for a
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sacred mountain & a monastery. It was about now that we decided that maybe our driver was lost. It was now past 6pm & again he was asking for directions – the scenery hadn’t changed, still plenty of green & lots of herds, but it didn’t look like we were heading for either a monastery OR a sacred mountain. One place we pulled into was just like the Wild West – a ger & a bar – two horsemen approached (each leading two horses) – one of them staggered off his horse & fell on the ground, where he happily went to sleep with his horses still tied to his wrist!!!

We drove & drove & drove – soon it was starting to get dark & it began to rain – our driver showed no signs of stopping OR putting on his headlights on in the gathering dusk. We soon realised why – as soon as he put his headlights on the car stalled (to start the jeep, sometimes the driver used a crank!!). He managed to get the jeep started again but after about 15 mins it stalled again. This happened repeatedly for about an hour – we’d travel along nicely, then the headlights would die & then the engine.

At 11pm the engine finally died – we were stuck right out in the middle of nowhere with a small amount of food – we hadn’t had any dinner & it looked like we weren’t going anywhere. Our driver tried valiantly to fix the problem – he pulled the alternator out & was busy fiddling about – we had to admire his tenacity!

By now it had started to rain quite hard – felt sorry for him – Soren got my umbrella & held it over the driver while he worked – it had become quite obvious we were going to spend the night out here. Tony was feeling quite ill, but he rugged himself up so he wouldn’t get any colder. No other cars came past – we were well & truly stuck – the rain was quite heavy & we had thunder & lightening all around. Tony had a head torch which he gave to the driver to use as it was pitch black and almost impossible to see.

At 2am the driver had to admit defeat so we all settled down to try & get some sleep. The jeep may have been comfortable to travel in, but was damn uncomfortable to sleep in. No one could get comfy & I don’t think anyone slept although we were all exhausted, cold & hungry.

At 4am Soren noticed headlights approaching – we hoped it was the cavalry but turned out to be a big old truck full of people – they couldn’t help us but gave some electrical cable to our driver, who fiddled with that & the alternator for the next two hours. We never dreamed when we booked this tour that we would see the sun rise from inside a jeep parked on the side of the road!

Friday 9thJuly– Ulaan Bataar – Erdenedali

Our driver has managed to cobble the jeep together & we were on the road again by 6am. Tony still not feeling well & the rest of us not feeling much better – lack of communication with the driver is a big hurdle for us – we still have no idea where we are or where we are going – all we know is that we haven’t seen anything yet!

8am found us at a ger camp – it looked like our driver was going to ask them for assistance with his mechanical problems – Tony & I sat in the jeep while the driver & several of the men in the camp clustered under the bonnet & played with the alternator. Soren got out & wandered around. There were four gers & quite a large “family” as far as we could see – one old patriarch, 3 women, 3 young men (possibly more men, not sure) & about 10 kids. Their stock consisted of goats, sheep, cattle & two horses.

Next thing we knew the alternator was on the ground & our driver & Soren had been “invited” into a ger. Tony & I were a bit annoyed by Soren as he could have come & got us as well, but now the door was firmly shut. About 15 mins later the lady in the ger came out & got us & brought us inside – there is special etiquette to being in a ger, & one of them is to walk around to the left. “Take your shoes off” said Soren bossily, which we already knew. We sat cross legged on
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Bayanzag
the floor, the driver, Soren, Tony & I, & the lady gave us very milky tea, cheese & nutty bread biscuits. The cheese had a very strong flavour & was hard as a rock – might be okay in a sandwich but not good to eat alone, however we were very polite & ate it – the lady was making more cheese on the stove.

Soon we were joined by a young boy of about 5 or 6 dressed in army fatigues, who stared at us the whole time he ate. We mainly sat in silence as no one else spoke English but it was warm & cosy in the ger.

As soon as we felt it was polite enough to leave we did, to find our driver getting ready to leave on a motorbike – it seemed we need a new alternator & it looked like one of the family was going to give him a ride to the nearest town – where that was or how long it would take I know not. On the bike he jumped & off they went – an English-speaking guide would be so handy, we just don’t know what’s happening.

So there we were, stuck on a ger farm out in the steppes with people we don’t know! We stayed with the jeep & watched the family go about their business – first they herded their cows so that all the calves were separated from the mothers & then they herded up the goats – most of the family helped with this, rounding up about 30 goats by waving their arms & shouting.

Once the goats were in a big circle, they then tied them head to head in 3 separate groups. The women then milked them – quite interesting to see how they did it. One little girl came out of a ger with an adorable baby goat that she clutched like a teddy bear – I’m surprised it is still alive by the way she kept grabbing it & pulling it along by one leg – she was so rough! I got to hold the goat, it was very sweet but wriggled a lot, until the patriarch showed me how to hold it properly.

We were still all very tired – Tony still not well & dozed off in the warmth of the jeep – Soren running around taking photos of the family & I rescued a calf that was tangled up in rope.

12 noon came & still no sign of the driver. The family asked us into the ger for lunch, but we politely declined (we didn’t’ want to impose) – Soren, of course, went straight in & we sat in the jeep until a big, strapping lad of about 18 or 19 came with two bowls of rice (lunch was rice & “bugs” – bugs in my rice that I discreetly pushed aside) & insisted we join them. It would have been very rude to refuse, so we went into the ger.

The whole family was in there apart from the men who must have been out working on the land, so it was quite crowded in the ger. Everyone was politely smiling & nodding at each other, although there was one boy who had a bit of English. The kids were all very cute & well behaved, so Tony went & got his last bag of koalas. The kids all loved them (especially the big lad!!) & clipped them on their clothes & hair. Soren went & got a
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Bayanzag
photo of his family & showed it to everyone. We got our Mongolia Lonely Planet as it has some Mongolian words in the back & managed to find out people’s names & ages. The family really enjoyed this & took great delight in telling us their names & ages – from the youngest girl at 2, to the patriarch at 72. This broke the ice, especially with the children, who weren’t shy anymore.

After lunch, we went back outside & as there was still no sign of our driver, passed the time playing with the kids, taking photos & sleeping in the jeep. The big lad is a camera hog & strives to get in every shot. He insisted that I sit on a pony & then he wouldn’t let it go & he held it the whole time I sat on it – couldn’t make him understand that I could ride!

Tony & I went for a walk & found some lizards – spent a bit too much time here now, although the family is lovely, genuine & hospitable, we don’t want to impose anymore – we would be horrified if we had to spend the night. We both agree that spending the day with the ger family has been a fantastic experience & one that money cannot buy – even if we did end up here accidentally.

Finally, at 4pm we saw a motorbike approaching & thankfully it was our driver – we were so relieved – hopefully we will be on our way soon. It didn’t take long to put the alternator in & thank god, the jeep started. We said goodbye to our ger friends & drove away, the family waving blankets until we were out of sight.

Nobody wanted to spend another long night driving, so we three agreed to go to the next town & find a hotel. It was about a 2-hour drive to Erdenedali – driving in it looked like a wild west town – huge dusty streets & wooden buildings & virtually deserted. Apparently, there was a hotel here somewhere, so we set off to find it – Tony one way & Soren & I the other.

As luck would have it we stumbled across it fairly quickly (although there were only 5 big buildings in the whole town) but finding someone to rent a room from was a different matter. There was a lot of head scratching & shoulder shrugging – Tony, who had just joined us, commented on how frustrating this all was, & Soren turned on him, saying he was childish & if he kept it up we would have to separate(!) Tony just nodded, dumbfounded.

Finally, a woman arrived with keys & let us in. With the help of the young guy who spoke a little English, we managed to secure two rooms – ours cost Tg3000 ($3.66) each & is very spartan – two beds in a really run down room that has seen better days – no shower, only a washbasin in the hall & a really disgusting outside toilet – just a wooden board over a pit of putrid slops that absolutely reeks – really gross. The woman asked us if we wanted her to cook us a meal – we asked if there was a restaurant in town & the young guy said there was, so we declined her offer.

To cut a long story short, Tony & I wandered all over the small town looking for a place to eat (we didn’t wait for Soren, he had pissed us off) & couldn’t find anywhere at all – lots of little shops that sold drinks & snacks, but nowhere we could get a meal. We ended up with some dried noodled (a la China) & took them back to our hovel. Soren came out & offered us some soup – he had a small camp stove that he could heat water on, so we took him up on his offer & boy, did my tomato soup taste good!!! All of us are very tired after over 24 hours without sleep, so we were all in bed by 9pm (after Tony & I braved the toilet!)

Saturday 10thJuly–Erdenedali – Bayan

Woke up just after 9am as we had both crashed. Beds surprisingly comfortable & slept well. Washed our faces & packed up, ready to leave at 10am. Our driver was waiting & once Soren was organised, we set off. Landscape is becoming more & more arid, definitely in the Gobi region now.

Our first stop was a ger camp that we (supposedly) should have stopped at on our first night. Our driver was asking for directions & soon there was a cluster of Mongolians around his map which was spread across his bonnet. We got them to open the bar & purchased a couple of drinks. While we waited, Tony played basketball with a little tacker who was wearing a bandana – very cute, couldn’t have been any older than two.

Soon we were on our way again, but our next stop was a ger – not sure what our driver was dong, probably asking for more directions, we couldn’t tell. A “thing” appeared out of one of the gers – a child of about two with long pigtails. We thought it was a little girl until we noticed the bottom half was naked & it had a penis – really weird. We were there for a while, Tony & I hanging around the jeep, Soren being a wank taking photos.

Before too long we were invited into a ger by the women (we really didn’t want to go in as it seems like such an imposition to these poor people) – again, impolite to decline, so in we went. This time it was cheese, nutty biscuits & lollies. Soren (again) brought out his family photo & showed the ladies. We
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sat in the ger for a while, when Tony saw an opportunity to get out he bolted. This ger family is fairly small, only two gers, a herd of goats & a couple of horses – there are two women in the camp, along with about 5 kids & the girl-boy thing. Unsure how many men were in the camp. Soon I was left alone with the women, & the older woman explained which of the children were related to each other. I felt like I was in a wigwam with Red Indians – the similarity in the races is obvious. They brought me a stool to sit on which saved me having to sit cross legged on the floor.

Finally, Tony came & got me as we were ready to leave – we waved goodbye & set off. On we drove, through miles & miles of arid desert – our problem with the jeep today seems to be overheating – we keep having to pull over & cool the engine down. As a result of this, it takes us twice as long to get anywhere.

Our next stop was a desolate hole in the wall town called
Camels resting Camels resting Camels resting

Gobi desert
Mandal-ovoo – we stopped here so that our driver could make a call to Itte in Ulaan Bataar. This took a long time as she had to call him back, so we had to wait (again). This town is not very pleasant as it is right in the middle of the desert & there is absolutely nothing to do – saw 3 camels in the distance, so walked over to them to take a photo & two bare chested Mongolians came over to talk (or rather look) at us. Didn’t really want to talk to them as they looked a bit rough, so we returned to the jeep.

Thankfully we were soon on our way after spending nearly two hours in Mandal-ovoo – we seem to waste a lot of time waiting about. We drove through lots of desert landscape for a couple more hours (still overheating) past the Moltzog-Els sand dunes & onto Bayan zag.

It was about 9pm by now, but still daylight & we could see the very impressive flaming cliffs & a couple of camel farms. We stayed the night at a tourist ger camp – Tony & I stayed in one ger & Soren & the driver stayed in another. The gers cost Tg10,000 ($12) per person & were great, very comfortable & cosy – the only thing was that as it was late, we were unable to get any food – we haven’t eaten a proper meal since we left Ulaan Bataar! We managed to buy a can of peas from the shop & mixed them in with our instant noodles – not too bad!!!

We were able to get beer, so we sat outside & drank under the stars until 11pm. Soren was okay tonight, he is usually opinionated & always right about everything, but he is quite mellow for a change – except when Tony mentioned that he was going to write a book about our adventures & Soren replied: “Well who would read it??” Dickhead.

Sunday 11th July–Bayanzag – Saikhan Ovoo

Woke up in the night to the sound of crunching – a mouse had chewed through two plastic bags & eaten our biscuits! Little shit – moved the bag to higher ground & slept well for the rest of the night. Breakfast was a tin of fruit which was quite filling, we gave the rest of the can to our driver.

Once we packed we asked our driver to take us to the “Flaming Cliffs” – these are world famous for dinosaur bone & egg discoveries, & we spent about 45 minutes exploring the area. The cliffs were beautiful, red sand & unusual shapes. Sad to see some irresponsible Westerners had scratched their names into the cliff face, so Tony spent about 15 mins scratching them off. Took a few photos then stumbled across something that could only have been a dinosaur bone – large in shape, but very smooth & the curves could only have been part of a leg or a hip. Too heavy to bring home unfortunately, but took a photo to prove we had found something – Tony very happy as he was only hoping to find an egg!

Off we set again, but this time we drove for about half an hour before we came to a town called Bulgan. They seemed to have their own version of Nadaam Festival, as everyone was dressed in their best & there were horses everywhere. Once we stopped the driver pulled out a car part & gestured to the engine –
Mighty thistyMighty thistyMighty thisty

Gobi desert
my heart fell as Tony explained it was a head gasket (that’s why we were overheating) & would take 4 or 5 hours to fix/install as the whole engine would have to be pulled apart. Dickhead Soren got quite excited as now he could “get into” the festival. We weren’t very happy about the car repairs, but we were quite interested in what was going on in the festival, so we walked over to where the activity was.

It seemed the wrestling was about to begin, so we found a seat under a marquee & tried to figure out what was happening. It seems like the whole town was there, as everyone was either on a motorbike, horse or in a jeep to watch the festivities. The wrestling turned out to be quite good to watch, as it was loaded with tradition & colour. 3 groups of two men each all wrestled at the same time, so at times it was hard to know which group to focus on – some matches were over in 2 seconds, others longer, as obviously you had to wrestle your opponent to the ground. The wrestlers all wore funny pointy hats which they gave to the judges whilst they fought & were returned to them once the match was over. The winner had to do an “eagle dance” around a flagpole – arms outstretched & then go up to the judge & collect a handful of nuts. These were obviously heats as there were bigger prizes on offer.

After an hour the heats were finished – we had an ice-cream while we were watching & a young girl brought us some “airag” (mare’s milk) to try - we had already tried it at the guesthouse so we knew it tasted disgusting, however, we could not refuse, so we had a sip – our know it all Danish friend had joined us briefly & declared that he “loved” it – what a tosser – if it tasted like piss he’d say the same. There were about 10 other westerners scattered about also.

As soon as the wrestling was over, everyone got on their horses or in their cars and drove off into the distance to watch the end of the horse race. Tony & I decided to walk back & see how our driver was going with the engine.

As we were crossing the field (with cars, motorbikes & horses going every which way) we saw a jeep collide with a motorbike. It made an awful sound & the motorcyclist was sprawled face down in the dirt. We didn’t know what to do – whether to help or not – a girl in her 20’s came running over & lay howling over the still body – the driver of the jeep came over & just stood there – everyone stood around the body open mouthed, until someone decided to look at the motorbike! The man was in his 50’s & appeared to be breathing, thank god – we felt so helpless, everyone was useless. Eventually the man came to & people propped him up – I felt so sorry for him, poor thing, with a dirty face, he started to cry. We ended up walking away, hardly surprised there was an accident the way the Mongolians drive.

We found our driver perched on his car busily working away – looked like he still had about 2 hours work ahead of him, so we went & bought him a drink & sat in the jeep until he had finished. We seemed
The Golden stupaThe Golden stupaThe Golden stupa

Erdene Zuu Khiid
to have attracted the attention of 3 little girls who decided to keep us company – one was 11, another 6 & the youngest 2 – they were very cute & interested in everything we did (which wasn’t much). The eldest kept bringing us cheese & nutty biscuits (which I kept for the driver) & she sent her sister to the shop for a stick of chewing gum which she shared with us.

A guy with a grey horse came over & asked us if we wanted a ride, so Tony convinced me to climb on board the horrible saddle for a photo. The guy kept rubbing his fingers together – he wanted to be paid for the photo – this was disappointing after the generosity of the ger families – I gave him Tg100 but he wanted Tg700 (about 85c) so Tony told him to go away & thankfully he did.

The car was finished at 2pm – Soren had wandered back by this time, waxing lyrical about everything he had seen (again). We all climbed in the jeep & the driver took us over to the finish line to watch the end of the horse race.
Laviran TempleLaviran TempleLaviran Temple

Erdene Zuu Khiid
Only children ride in the Nadaam Festival races & the race classes are decided by the age of the horse – 2 y.o. race over 15kms & 6-7 y.o. race over 30 kms.

Soon we could see them coming in the distance, a huge dust cloud & about 30 horses. The winner was a young boy who romped home lengths before anyone else – he was only about 8 but did a good job. The rest of the field followed (including a token riderless horse) some kids were riding bareback. Soren got into a heated discussion with us about saddles – as if he knows anything!

I’m not impressed by the Mongolian horsemanship – there isn’t a single horse over 14hh & the men are seriously undermounted & rough as guts with the horses’ mouths. They don’t post, they sit trot, but instead of riding into the trot they bounce – to canter they stand bolt upright in the stirrups (to allow the horse to move freely, according to Soren the horsemanship expert – never mind about pushing all your body weight onto the forehand) – a style of riding which has obviously remained unchanged for centuries but
TempleTempleTemple

Erdene Zuu Khiid
badly needs an upgrade – especially the archaic wooden v-shaped saddles.

Our driver got someone else to check the work he had done on the engine & while we were waiting a young boy climbed into the front seat of the jeep & grinned at us. He had a number on his chest, no 44 & I realised who he was – “Did you win?” I asked him, to which his reply was a nod & a VERY big grin. We then took a photo of him & his winning steed – the pony had a blue headdress on his forelock & a blue scarf around his neck – the boy’s grandfather stood in the photo too, obviously very proud.

Our driver then had to give someone’s truck a jump start (NOT a good idea with all his mechanical problems!!) & then again we were on our bumpy way. The jeep is incredible over rough terrain, but it sure bashes us about a bit – Tony & I sit in the back while Soren hogs the front seat.

We soon realised we were going in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to, so we pointed
The train to ChinaThe train to ChinaThe train to China

Ulaanbataar Train station
it out to the driver. Much communication difficulties but we soon realised the driver was saying we couldn’t go any farther away or we wouldn’t make it back to Ulaan Bataar within 3 days. This was obviously because of all our mechanical difficulties which has wasted so much time – a real disappointment as we now miss out on going through the mountains. We were now heading back to Saikhan – Ovoo, which is where we should have camped on day one.

So off we bumped, through the desert terrain. We spied some camels in the distance, so our driver pulled over & we saw there were about 8 young camels tied in front of a ger. We got out & took some photos & the driver kept pointing over the hill, so we got back in the jeep & our driver took us in that direction. As we crested the rise we saw in the valley below about 30 -40 mature camels lying down next to a water trough, along with about 10 horses – it was a magnificent sight.

As we stopped the jeep & got out, all the camels started to get up – superhero Soren found a bucket in a well & started to draw water for the trough. Soon we were surrounded by camels – it was fantastic, they were so big, but despite their size, they were all firmly kept in line by the tiny horses, who kicked out & refused to let the camels anywhere near the trough while they drank greedily. It was amazing – the camels easily outnumbered & outweighed the horses, but were too scared to come any closer!

Soren & our driver continued to draw water & soon we felt the horses had had more than their fair share & I chased them away from the trough so the camels could drink. It was awesome to be surrounded by such huge placid beasts – took so many photos – a hilarious sight was a camel spitting into a horse’s face that had managed to sneak back to the trough! Camels tend to shake their heads vigorously after a drink & our poor driver got showered by camel spittle as he poured them water – he laughed, he was having fun.

We spent about half an hour there, taking heaps of photos & then climbed back into the jeep. Of course, now it decided not to start, so our driver climbed out & fiddled about. We sat there for about 45 minutes while he fixed the jeep – while we were waiting a family arrived on a motorbike & herded the camels away so that their own young camels could drink. It was funny to see their young son of about 3 or 4 y.o. chasing the huge camels away.

By 6pm the jeep was working again, so off we set towards Saikhan – Ovoo. We were driving along the bumpy desert road when there was an almighty ‘thump’ – something had fallen off the jeep. We got out & looked underneath the jeep to see the entire diff on the ground. The driver muttered away & crawled underneath with his toolbox – what else could go wrong- here we were stuck in the desert miles from anywhere with only a little water; if the driver couldn’t fix the jeep we were in serious trouble. We then had an argument with Dickhead Dane, who said it was no problem, we walk to the nearest town – we couldn’t believe how stupid he was – we explained you must always stay with the vehicle & people have died walking away – he wouldn’t believe us & thought we were overreacting, so taking off his shirt & wrapping it around his head like a turban, he set off down the dry dusty road WITHOUT ANY WATER!!! We just stared at his stupidity & shook our heads.

We passed the time catching lizards & sitting in the shade of the jeep – it became apparent that our driver was having some luck, & we could see some buildings way way off in the distance, possibly a ger settlement, so thing started to look up. The Dickhead Dane returned, sweating & hot, & then proceeded to tip our only water supply OVER HIS HEAD!!! Could not believe it – this only reinforces our opinion that Europeans have no idea.

Eventually the jeep was fixed & off we set again – doing an average speed of 60km an hour, it would take some time to reach Saikhan – Ovoo; we just hoped that we would reach it before nightfall.

9pm found us, unfortunately, in the hell-hole of Mandal – Ovoo – we hoped we weren’t going to be here long as Tony & I did not like this town the first time around. Our driver disappeared into a house & was gone about 10 mins – whilst he was gone a group of young men were milling about – obviously drunk as one of them dropped his pants & exposed himself (classy), two of them came over & crouched beside the offside tyre & started fiddling with it – luckily the driver reappeared & we could drive off. Unfortunately the driver needed petrol, so we headed for a solitary bowser on a hill. First, we had to stop & collect the guy who ran it, a rather large bare-chested Mongolian who was very drunk. He squeezed in the back of the jeep next to Tony & kept giving him high fives.

We drove the short distance to the bowser & filled the jeep with fuel – the bowser itself was probably the oldest in civilisation; you had to insert a crank handle & then pump the petrol out. Our driver had a go first, & then the big drunk made Tony get out & have a shot – he tried to get Dickhead Dane out but he refused – eventually he got out & helped. It seemed to take forever to fill the jeep & our two jerry cans. Now we had been joined by some lads who turned up on a motorbike to watch (this is a really boring town) they were all very, very drunk & whilst our driver was settling the account (which also took forever) they surrounded our jeep. One of them tried to get in the jeep but was too drunk to open the door – it was quite a frightening situation as it could turn nasty at any moment.

Dickhead Dane kept chatting to them, which, of course, simply encouraged them – he has no idea what trouble alcohol, isolation & boredom brings, especially with strangers in town. Tony muttered about the driver taking a long time & why can’t we just go?? Which caused Dickhead Dane to turn around & yell: “What do you suggest, WE FLY??!!” That was it, it was on & we all shouted at each other – Tony & I telling him to stop talking to the drunks & he saying that they were just lads – yeah right.

After a lifetime, our driver emerged & brushed the drunks away like flies – thank God, we were on our way again. It was now 10pm & driving at night seemed unavoidable. On we travelled & soon darkness fell – our driver seemed to delay putting his headlights on & peered out over the dash at the gathering darkness. The road seemed to be fairly straight but we were doing 60kms in the dark on a desert road. It appeared by Dickhead Dane’s silence & stiff back that he was no longer talking to us – he has the audacity to call Tony childish!

After half an hour of complete insanity of driving in those conditions (I even crossed myself for the first time in 30 years) Tony & I could take no more & insisted the driver stop & fix the problem. All we had to do was hit a pot hole or an animal & we would be dead – we wondered if Dickhead Dane was ever going to say anything. The driver borrowed Tony’s head torch & set about fixing the problem – we stood outside while Dickhead Dane sulked in the front seat. We set off again but every few kms the lights would die & the driver had to fix them again – rather he stopped 100 times than drive in the dark.

It was past midnight when we pulled into a ger & got some poor old woman out of bed to ask for directions, & it was 2am when we found the tourist ger camp – luckily, they were having a party to celebrate Nadaam & were still up. This camp is quite luxurious although it costs the same as last night’s -Tg10000 - $12. Our ger is beautiful & we have toothbrushes & combs just like a proper hotel – too bad we are too tired to appreciate it! Went straight to bed – hadn’t eaten but too tired to feel hungry.

Monday 12th July–Saikhan Ovoo – Kharkhorin

Woke about 8am had another freezing cold shower – seems to be no hot water in these desert ger camps. Luckily the ger camp does breakfast, so we could satisfy our hunger with an omelette, sausages & toast, which went down really well, even better at Tg2000 each. Soren & the driver joined us for breakfast – Dickhead Dane seems ok this morning & even discussed with Tony our plans for the day. Paid for the driver’s breakfast & Soren said: “what about his accommodation? I have paid for that” Tony replied that we would pay for his accommodation tonight (we shouldn’t even be doing this, we were told that he is supposed to sleep in his car, but we quite like him).

We were on the road by about 10am, heading for a place called Arvaikheer – pretty uneventful drive, the car broke down again – not sure what the problem was this time but our driver worked busily under the bonnet while Dickhead Dane decided to go for another ‘walk’ – “You pick me up once the jeep is fixed”, he bossed. After about 45 mins we were back on the road – we had more or less left the desert behind us now & heading back towards the grassland steppes. Unfortunately, we picked up Dickhead Dane along the way.

Driving along we came across our first small herd of Yaks – we stopped the jeep & our driver rounded them up so we could take a photo. Back in the jeep, it became apparent that our driver was once again lost – he stopped at a ger & asked for directions to Arvaikheer – Dickhead Dane again imposed on the locals’ hospitality by drinking their tea & airag – these people don’t have much yet he is prepared to take it all.

It’s not hard to get lost in Mongolia, there are no signposts or road signs anywhere, so we don’t blame the driver. Apparently, we had passed Arvaikheer & were heading to Kharkhorin. We came to a bitumen road that intersected our dirt one – there was a shop at the crossroads, so we stopped the jeep & to our surprise (& delight) Soren said: “OK, this is where we separate, I go now” – we watched him get his bag out & explain to the driver that he wasn’t going with us – have no idea how he would get anywhere or where he was going – we don’t care anyway. For some strange reason, he gave Tony his email address – like we’d use it!

So off we drove, leaving him in a pile of dust in the middle of nowhere. We reached Kharkhorin just after 5pm – the last hour or so was on bitumen so wasn’t quite so bumpy – then we had to find a tourist ger camp. We found one quite easily but had a brief scare when something fell out from under the bonnet & landed on the road – turned out to be a spanner! This ger camp isn’t as posh as the others but still adequate – it costs Tg24000 for all 3 of us. The location is quite nice, in a green field surrounded by hills & we have horses & sheep surrounding us – nice to hear their noises, neighing & bleating. The toilet is unfortunately a pit infested by blow flies – gross- even worse there are no doors so everyone can see your indignity.

At least we could get some food tonight – we had ‘buuz’ steamed meat dumplings, very similar to yak momos that we had in Tibet. Couldn’t eat too many (I think our stomachs have shrunk from lack of food) so we ended up giving the majority of ours to the driver, who ate his & then woofled ours. Still not a bad meal for Tg600 each!

Talked to some Mongolians at dinner who spoke very good English – turns out they were pilots & air traffic controllers at Ulaan Bataar airport. Very tired so had an early night – our driver worked on the jeep until about 1am – who knows what’s wrong with it now. Found this ger to be pitch black inside – felt like I was suffocating, so Tony had to open up the roof of the ger to let some light in so I could breathe.

We both feel we have spent too long in Ulaan Bataar, we look forward to moving on tomorrow.

Friday 16th July–Ulaan Bataar – Mongolian desert

Only one mozzie bothered us last night, but it still took an hour to for Tony to kill, it probably would have looked comical to an outsider. We catch our train to Hohhot at 810pm so we have lots of time to kill today. Left the guesthouse at noon, we couldn’t find the elusive Itte so left our bags in our room and took the key with us, we will return about 6pm to collect our stuff.

First, we visited a book exchange where we selected some new books for the train journey, then it was lunch in a Mongolian fast food restaurant after which we went to the cinema. Incredibly the cinema in Ulaan Bataar is the most modern place in the whole city, from the outside though it was far from impressive, but inside it’s clean and pretty jazzy. We watched “Spiderman 2” which was in English with Mongolian subtitles, we had to move as a woman next to me had a small child and was READING her the subtitles (obviously if you are too young to read, you are too young to be there….) out loud which was most annoying. By the time the movie finished it was 430pm, so we went to the supermarket to buy some supplies for the train, bread, water, chocolate etc., then sat in a bar for about an hour to pass the time.

We returned to the guesthouse just after 6pm to collect our bags. While Tony was in the toilet the doorbell rang I opened the door. Guess who it was? You guessed – Dickhead Dane!!! We had hoped to leave the country without ever seeing him again. Obviously, he survived his ordeal and got back safely, we didn’t speak much as we were just leaving, so we gave him our room keys and left him with the mozzies. We didn’t ask where he had been or how he got back to Ulaan Bataar, we really weren’t interested.

Got a taxi to the train station which took about five minutes and cost Tg800 ($1). The train station is also clean and modern, although there only seems to be one platform. We ate dinner in the restaurant, goulash, boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots and rice it tasted just like a home cooked meal and cost only Tg1200($1.50). Tony had two serves it was so good. With the help of the “Man from Hong Kong” who was on a table near us, we could work out which carriage we needed to get on.

Our train arrived just after 730pm, so we loaded up and stepped out into the Mongolian heat (the last three days have been extremely warm) to find carriage two. To our dismay it was right near the front of the train behind the engine, so we struggled past 12 carriages, not believing our luck, even carriage 0ne is before carriage two, so it goes 2,1,3,4 etc! Our compartment is a deluxe so it is just the two of us, but it’s not really all that flash, just two beds in a wood panelled room which is quite hot now. The beds are more like sofas and aren’t as comfortable as Chinese trains.

We departed on time and not long after we set off, staff brought around tea, then a linen pack (with a “Hello Kitty” towel!) and a food pack, which included water, sliced meat, a cake and coffee and tea bags all included in the price it seems. It is still stifling on the train, we are travelling slowly and the scenery is the same Mongolian scenery we have seen for the past week. We expect to cross into China early tomorrow morning sometime, it’s now time to get some sleep.








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