When we decided we’d take the train through Mongolia, we both knew we wanted to stop and spend at least a couple of weeks there. It seemed a little pointless to get a visa for the country and not take the opportunity to explore at least some of it! However, our research indicated that Mongolia was going to be a little harder to travel independently than pretty much every other country I’ve visited. Why? There’s basically no roads. No infrastructure. Public transport outside Ulaan Baatar is practically non-existent. I could see there were fairly regular buses between the cities, but there was no way to get to most of the places we were interested in visiting as these tended not to be in cities. It seemed that our options were either to rent a car with a driver, or join a tour.
We looked at everything we could find online regarding tours and had found one we were interested in, Manlai’s Budget Tours. Their tours looked great, but unfortunately too expensive for just two people [prices decrease based on the number of people] and the company took almost three months to respond to an email enquiry. We figured we’d find something upon arrival. After all, July-August is the peak season, so surely there would be enough other travellers that we’d find something!
And fortunately we did. The hostel we were staying at, Sun Path Mongolia, conveniently runs their own tours [like basically every hostel/hotel in UB] and they had a reasonable selection. We ended up choosing a ten-day tour of Central Mongolia primarily because there was already three people booked for the tour starting the next morning. For $55 USD/day including all transport, accommodation, food and entrance tickets it didn’t seem too bad a deal. And it wasn’t.
We set off early the next morning [although not as early as advised – our first introduction to ‘Mongolian Time’] and prepared for a long day of driving. The roads in Ulaan Baatar weren’t too bad – surely they had roads, I thought. And they did… until you left the city and its immediate surrounds. Then the nice road ends and you’re off, off onto a little dirt track that exists only through frequent use and may change with the seasons. It doesn’t seem so bad. And then you start with the river crossings, and hit your head on the roof when you bounce into a giant pothole. It very quickly became clear that, as in China, there is no correlation between distance travelled and time taken. Except that while in China this is mainly due to crappy driving and traffic, in Mongolia it’s due to the crappy roads. A 4WD is an excellent idea!
After a few hours of driving we stopped for lunch at a picturesque little line of shops/houses on the side of a ‘real’ road. They do appear suddenly – Mongolia is investing in building a few ‘main’ roads linking cities. We went in and our guide, Aiyuna, ordered us all goulash. It didn’t exactly resemble Hungarian goulash in any way at all, but was rather tasty – big chunks of lamb in a stew with mashed potato, rice and some salad.
And then it was more driving, and we soon became fairly expert at preparing for ceiling head-butts and managed to mostly avoid being flung into the laps of the guys sitting opposite us. We drove around hills, over rocks, through streams, and we eventually got to the ‘semi-Gobi’ by mid-afternoon.
The most exciting part about this was that we were going to ride camels. And the exciting part about riding camels was that they were Bactrian camels – the ones that have TWO HUMPS! I’ve ridden camels a number of times, in Australia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco and India, but they’ve always been Arabian camels with only one hump. I was terribly excited about riding one with two humps, even if it was only for about an hour.
Where with Arabian camels you sit on a saddle on top of the camel’s hump, with Bactrian camels you sit between the humps. I can see how this would be rather uncomfortable if you were somewhat large, but fortunately all of us fit on our camels. We sat on blankets that lay across the stirrup strap, and I found it was far less awkward when the camels stand up than it is on their Arabian relatives – mainly because with a big hump in front of you there’s nowhere you could tip off!
We rode over some small sand dunes and down to a shallow stream surrounded by a little desert oasis. The sun was out and the water looked pretty tempting, but we all resisted and climbed back on our camels to return to our home for the night – a guest ger beside one used by the family whose camels we’d ridden.
A ger, or yurt, is a round semi-permanent tent that Mongolians have lived in for hundreds of years. The structure is wooden and in the centre it raises up above a wood fire stove, metal chimney-pipe sticking out the very top. The walls are covered inside and out with blanket insulation, and inside they are hung with colourful fabric. Outside they tend to be white and covered in a waterproof tarpaulin or other material. At the top is a tarpaulin flap with a rope attached, that can be used to open the top of the ger to allow light in, or close the top to keep the rain out. A small, usually brightly painted wooden door allows entry inside. Everyone, except small children, needs to duck to get in! In gers that are lived in, beautifully painted wooden furniture is arranged around the sides as well as a bed or two. There are small tables and stools to sit on, and when we were there the stoves generally seemed to hold big metal dishes in which they were cooking horse cheese. Unfortunately they tend to offer you pieces of horse-cheese, and while it vaguely resembles feta cheese in appearance I found it tasted far, far less appealing!
The gers we stayed in were set up for visitors, even though not part of tourist complexes but belonging to families. It’s a way for them to supplement their income, and at the same time gives visitors the opportunity to experience ger life. They tended to have four to five beds arranged around the sides and a stove in the centre, with a table and stools and sometimes other decorations. While the beds were – without exception – truly appalling, overall I loved the gers. They were warm and snug, provided that we kept the fire going, and it was something completely different. It’s a very egalitarian way of living, and very communal. No privacy, no personal space – it made me wonder about the families with multiple children!
When we returned from our camel ride we were invited into their home for some good old-fashioned Mongolian hospitality. And in essence, what this means, is airag. Everyone travelling to Mongolia has heard of airag, and it was definitely something I was very curious to try. Airag is basically fermented mare’s milk, and it is salty, sour, fizzy and mildly alcoholic. It’s safe to say that it’s an acquired taste – acquired by growing up drinking the stuff! A bowl [you never drink it from cups, only bowls] was filled with a ladle from a huge keg and passed around. It’s acceptable and often expected that you drink some and pass it around. I happened to be the first in the line.
I wanted to try it and so took a sip. It wasn’t very delicious. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but at the same time it wasn’t terrible. I certainly wouldn’t want to drink a whole bowl of it, but I could stomach it enough to be polite and take another sip when the bowl came around again. Luckily our first experience of airag was rather smooth – later on we had the misfortune of drinking airag that was thicker and lumpy, and this was much more of a challenge to swallow.
A little later, they invited us to go out and watch them milk the horses. Yes, the horses. It seems strange to us, used to the idea of milking cows and maybe goats. But it was entertaining. The horses, being half-wild, are far less placid than the average cow and they had to trick the mares using their gangly-legged foals. Only a small amount of milk was taken from each, to ensure that there was still plenty of milk for the foals.
What John and I had been enjoying most so far about being out in the countryside was the sky. We’d almost never seen blue skies in China, and suddenly seeing nothing else was unbelievably exciting. We couldn’t help the simple joy we took in being surrounded by green rolling hills and the wide open sky, bright blue and cloud-ridden as far as the eye could see. We were just waiting for night to fall so that we could lie back and look at the stars – something else we’d missed in China. It’s funny how we take such things for granted. Even in Melbourne you can see stars at night, and the lack of light pollution in Mongolia made the night skies simply phenomenal.
We hiked up to a big cluster of rocks, seemingly dumped there by some mythical race of giants long ago, to watch the sunset. We arrived as night fell, using my little torch to climb to a comfortable viewing position. And it was beautiful.