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Published: August 6th 2007
The first leg of our Trans-Siberian train journey delivered us into the heart of Mongolia, to the capital Ulan Bator. We stayed at the Golden Gobi, a place that had been recommended to us by many travellers, and Helene a couchsurfer whom we had met in Beijing had e-mailed ahead with our reservation so that we were met on the platform by the staff with a welcoming sign for “Helene’s Friends”, and after some confusion we realised this was us, not the name of another hostel as we had surmised!
Oogi the affable host tailor made a tour for us conquering our to do list in the time we had available. We had a long list ... we wanted to go horse riding, hiking in some magnificent scenery, possibly a spot of fishing, visit some cultural sights, play on some sand dunes, stay with local families in a ger, and not be couped up for hours on end driving through the Mongolian wilderness. Oogi and her team delivered all that (well except for the fishing, which was happily substituted for a spot of camel riding) and so much more.
Our group comprised of Marc from Holland whom we had
met earlier in China, (and again in Hong Kong), his girlfriend Jantiene (also from the Netherlands), and Canadian Nate and Swedish David whom had been staying at our hostel in Beijing. Our travel plans coincided, as in we were all on the same train to Ulan Bator and had all planned to leave on the same train via Irkutsk. The Golden Gobi booked our onward tickets when we arrived confirming our departure date, so the deal was set and we were off to explore Mongolia together.
We were greeted the next day by our guide and driver who rocked up in a wicked bright blue Russian 4WD ex-army van that had been kitted out with yellow curtains and a crème padded interior. We were impressed. We made a quick stop to stock up on some supplies - namely vodka, which incidentally is insanely cheap - a 750ml bottle costs only $3 AUD!! Per litre, it’s almost cheaper than water.
The Mongolian countryside is nothing short of amazing. While the countryside is spectacular, Ulan Bator, which could easily be renamed Ugly Bator could be seen as the blight on an otherwise untarnished country. The capital is a mass of
soviet style concrete apartment blocks, with the odd ger claiming space entitlement with a carefully erected fence; vehicles compete for space on heavily congested streets, as pedestrians dart from narrow pavements and risk their lives crossing the road - it’s sad and ugly, and the total antithesis to the rest of Mongolian with it’s wide open spaces, natural scenery and the notion of land as common property. Most Mongolians still live a Nomadic lifestyle, moving their gers and herds with the seasons, enjoying all this vast country has to offer. A few have settled in Soms (small towns with administrative functions) scattered throughout the country.
We did a bit of a loop heading out West from Ulan Bator and arrived for our first home stay in a locally run ger, which is a large round tent covered in felt and contains beds and a furnace for cooking and warmth. On arrival our host invited us into her ger and plied us with bowls of warm freshly made thick yoghurt which was rendered edible after we added some generous spoonfuls of sugar! We were staying at the Mongol Els or “Little Gobi”, where the sand dunes meet the wide open
We took an evening ride on the two humped Bactrian camels, which were loads more comfy and didn’t fart and spit as much as their Indian one-humped cousins. The family had a large herd of goats and sheep so used the camels to round up the babies and mothers into the pens for the evening. We spent the next morning frolicking in the sand dunes, racing up the dunes to slide and jump back down, while our driver and guide waited patiently observing our peculiar behaviour (it was as we hadn’t seen sand before!).
Our next stop for a couple of days was at Khangai Nuuru where we basically hung out and enjoyed the quiet life in the countryside. We spent one day horse riding through the rocky terrain past neighbouring gers and grazing animals. The horses were a little slow to start and some proved rather difficult to steer. Nate’s horse appeared to have a bottom fetish and would only walk when its nose was firmly wedged up the backside of another horse, and Suz’s horse would just randomly stop refusing to move until the guide came and gave it a slap to get it going
But by the end of the day all the horses were in fine form and were all galloping at a crazy and frightening pace.
Bikkie our guide was amazing - and the best cook ever! Our meals were nothing short of culinary masterpieces and as a vegetarian Suz was well catered for. We’d heard horror stories from other travellers about the food, all complaining that mutton was the staple and all they’d been eating for a week, but no such complaints from our group ... However supplies must’ve been running low because on our last day we had the strangest of breakfast combinations: caviar, smoked cheese, crackers, choco pies and nutella!
Budeh our driver was an expert at all cross-country dodgy terrain driving, expertly navigating the van along dusty roads, swerving around pot holes whilst all the time maintaining speed. The only time he seemed to slow down was when he was on proper sealed roads ... it was as if real roads shook his confidence. Budeh wasn’t so sure about woman drivers but when Suz took Swedish Dave and the van for a bit of a spin he was quite surprised (and a little impressed!) that
he got his van back in one piece, although he wasn’t game to jump in for a ride with Suz at the wheel!
So what do you do for hours when travelling across the Mongolian countryside? After a while the scenery all sort of looks the same, so we turned inward for our stimulation which was further enhanced by the introduction of vodka shots in the back of the van. The van became the party central: animated conversation, pumping music and raucous laughter ensued. We had such an awesome group of people, and when you gel together so well, fun is the ultimate result! We were as Nate would say “getting involved!” in Mongolia.
We continued on to Mongolia’s ancient capital of Karakorum, to visit Erdene Zuu Mongolia’s oldest monastery. Our final stop was Khustain Nuuru, home of Mongolia’s famous wild horses. The takhi are sandy coloured wild horses, and have two extra chromosomes in their DNA making them genetically closer to prehistoric horses. The wild takhi were driven to extinction but using DNA from captive specimens a breeding program was engineered and the first horses were returned to the park 15 years ago.
We arrived back
from the countryside with just enough time to visit the Buddha statue, eat, shower and head to the station to catch our train. Stage two of this epic rail adventure: Ulan Bator to Irkutsk (in sunny Siberia) ...
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