Sunday, August 11, 2013

Summer 2013 - 4th Stop: Mongolian Tour 1

Two and a half weeks in the Mongolian wilderness - living the nomadic dream! Strap yourselves in, because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, both figuratively and literally. When we first crossed into Mongolia, we had a feeling that it could end up challenging in the best country stakes. And now that the dust has settled on our time here, it’s not even a contest anymore. It was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.

As you can imagine, we encountered an awful lot over these 17 days so I’ve broken this entry into four bitesize chunks for your reading pleasure. I just hope I can do it justice. When writing the blog, I usually try to give a somewhat accurate summation of our stay in the opening paragraph, but for here, I won’t even try. There’s too much to say. It was absolutely phenomenal. Let’s just cut to the chase. Mongoliaaaa!!!

I had lined up the tour a couple of months beforehand with a company called Golden Gobi (I’ll give you a full recap on them at the end). When we were negotiating the terms, we were told that most likely it was going to be us and a few other tourists grouped together for all, or part, of the journey, which was fine with us. But for whatever reason, when the first morning rolled around, there were no other travellers to be seen - we had just lucked into our very own private tour!

We were introduced to our driver, Baaji, and our guide/chef/translator/everything we could possibly need over the next 17 days, Una. (And I just want to say right off the bat, they were amazing!) So, we loaded up, got settled and hit the road - first Ulaanbaatar’s tarmacked surfaces, then bumpy dirt tracks, until it got to the stage of simply driving across the open terrain.

Roads?! Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

That afternoon, we stopped for food. Where? I couldn’t tell you if my life depended on it. I can’t even say it was in a random field as there are no fields here. No fences, no right of ownership, nothing. As soon as you leave the cities and towns behind, the whole landscape is everyone’s to enjoy. You see a nice spot? Set up your ger, it’s yours! You want to move down south? Just pack up your things and go! It’s a really nice way of doing things, and of course the nomadic way of life couldn’t exist without it. And I guess that was our way of life now!

Before lunch, we went for a little wander up to the top of a nearby hill, with a grand view of both everything and nothing as far as the eye could see. And with it, not a single trace of human life. Except for our van of course, which at this stage was a mere speck in the distance, and at that moment, looking out over the endless green steppes, I couldn’t help but think – if they drove away now, we’d be fuuuuucked!

Thankfully, they didn't, and we had a lovely lunch before driving off again, this time, coming to a halt outside our first ever ger – the traditional nomadic dwelling. I guess with anything in life, it’s natural to have preconceived ideas about things you’ve never experienced before. And obviously, for us, living on the Mongolian steppes certainly falls into that category. But we were ready and excited to embrace this simple, traditional way of life.

As it turned out, there was no need for our condescension - we walked in to find them all there watching TV, with a satellite dish on the roof, and a solar panel outside generating their electricity! Boy, did we feel embarrassed… we don’t even have those things in Hong Kong!

The whole experience was very surreal from start to finish – we came in, were served up a bowl of goat’s milk tea, watched an episode of Mongolia’s Got Talent or whatever, our driver, Baaji, slaughtered one of their goats for dinner and we were off on our way again… Life on the steppes!

That night we had dinner and set up camp by the holy mountain of Zorgol Khairkhan – day 1 done!

The next morning we upped sticks and drove on to the rock formations of Baga Gazariin Chuluu on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert. Before leaving though, a group of Mongolians who were passing through the area, stopped to give us some horse milk as some sort of friendly social offering.

It was absolutely rank.

At first I even thought the whole thing might have been a joke, kind of a ‘give the foreigners something disgusting to drink and see if they pretend to like it out of politeness’. But no, they were genuinely proud of their gift to us and looked on expectantly as we drank it.

(Fun fact - Genghis Khan’s father was actually killed with such an offering, although it’s unknown whether it was the poison or taste that finished him off.)

In the end, we just had to choke it down while holding back the tears. We had similar experiences over the course of the trip with camel and yak milk, and let’s just say, Irish cows won’t be finding themselves unemployed anytime soon.

We had a few hours of driving each day, which sounds like a lot over the course of the trip, but it was something we never got sick of. There was always so much to see and an endless assortment of landscapes to admire. Today’s landscape of choice would be best described as Spaghetti Western, as the grasslands started to merge into the desert.

We walked along, admired the scenery, saw a natural spring buried deep in the rocks, visited a former monastery built into the landscape, and even passed a cave that we weren't allowed enter because a pack of wolves lived inside. Nature!!

After our walk and a quick lunch, we took the short drive to our next nomad family. We got the usual milky welcome and were then shown to our own private ger, our home for the night. We’re really moving up in the world - our first steppe on the property ladder!

They even have an outhouse here – no pissing behind a bush for these lads!

We were given a few hours of leisure time before dinner and the sun had just started to come out in force for the first time on the tour, so we went for a big long walk across the open terrain. I just want to apologise in advance as my words and even my photos can’t do justice to the surroundings here. The beauty of the countryside cannot be captured in a single frame because it’s all around you, 360 degrees. And each way you face, you’re given something new.

We had a lovely afternoon, but as we got back, panic struck! I was getting my bag ready for the next day when I realised something wrong… where was Frankie?! We checked all around the ger but he was nowhere to be found! He must have fallen out of my bag during the walk, but where…?! It was just coming up to sunset, so we raced out to find him. We knew he wouldn’t stand a chance out there alone in the dark. Especially with wolves around!

We retraced our steps as best we could (retraced our steppes, I know, I know), but it was tough going in such a wide open space. We called his name but there was no reply. Then, when it looked like all hope was lost, I saw his little black and white head peeping out of the rocks. He was safe.

The next morning, we moved on once again, moving further into the Gobi and stopping off along the way at a tiny cave that burrowed its way underground and back up again. We’ve been in a lot of caves throughout our travels, big and small, but this one was a little bit different in that, you’re crawling on your hands and knees the whole way through. The other thing about the caves we’ve seen in the past was that they were all properly certified; this was just a natural hole through the rocks, in the desert… On reflection, it probably wasn’t the safest thing we’ve ever done. In fact, a couple of times as I gripped the cave walls for guidance through the dark, large chunks came off in my hand… Any potential visitors out there, maybe you should give this one a miss.

And it’s a good thing we survived our potential desert burial, as afterwards we jumped back in the van and made our way to the cliffs of White Castle - one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen!

These huge cliffs rise out of a sea of rolling sand dunes, and any sense you had of realistic colour schemes goes out the window. From cream and yellow, to violet and maroon, the whole landscape needs to be seen to be believed. When I pictured a desert in my head before this trip, I had a pretty definite view of what it would be like. After just two days and countless different permutations, that assumption has been torn to shreds.

We drove back over the dunes and high above the rocky land to our next ger for the night. On arrival, we were greeted by the head of the family – a man of at least 80 years with the leatheriest skin you could possibly imagine from a lifetime working under the hot Gobi sun. If ever there was a perfect image of your typical desert nomad, this was him. Apart from the Chelsea tracksuit he was wearing…

That night, we settled in for an early one, and as our ger had extra room, Una and Baaji said they would join us. After a while, I heard some people coming in, setting up camp on the floor and leaving again. I rolled over, puzzled to see a mat laid out with some sleeping bags on top. I thought this was strange as the ger had two extra beds; why were they setting themselves up on the ground? As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, things started to come into focus – that wasn’t Una and Baaji, and those aren’t sleeping bags… THAT’S A DEAD GOAT! Don Corleone has got nothing on this family! Never mind waking up to a horse’s head in your bed, how about a fully dismembered buck on the floor?!

Pictured: A different goat

And the funny thing is, that wasn’t even the most horrifying thing I encountered that day – the following morning I saw an old woman taking a shit in the desert! How about that for a double whammy!? On the plus side, that’s one more thing ticked off my bucket list - elderly Mongolian lady taking a crap on a sand dune – done and done!

After that early morning eye-opener, we headed off to the valley of Yolyn Am, getting ever deeper into the Gobi. Strangely enough, it’s awfully ungobi-esque in appearance, in that it’s green and lush, and wouldn’t be out of place in the Irish countryside (unlike the shitting Mongolian woman).

Before all that though, we stopped in some small provincial town for a treat that would prove to be quite rare over the course of the trip – a hot shower. As showers go, it admittedly wasn’t the best, but after 4 days of rough living, it went down an absolute storm! 

In other shower related news, when leaving the washroom, Ais got electrocuted trying to turn off the light! She’s fine obviously so it’s the funny kind of electrocution. I guess she didn’t realise that the lights came at an extra… charge! Maybe she should have checked the… current prices! Ok, I’m done. 

Anyway, we had a grand old time at Yolyn Am and it was a nice break to get out of the desert sun. Apparently, there’s even an ice gorge that runs through the valley for most of the year, however we just missed it by a couple of weeks. Ah well, you win some and you lose some.

We drove on and set up camp for the night by a small stream. Baaji had bought a ball in the town earlier that afternoon so we finished up with a game of volleyball by the water’s edge; a nice wholesome end to the day.

Day 5 and we were up and off again to our home for the next two nights, right in the heart of the desert. As I mentioned earlier, over the past few days we had been travelling deeper and deeper into the Gobi, with the landscape slowly becoming more harsh and arid, but it still wasn’t matching up to my preconceived image – where were the rolling orange hills, the bright blue skies and the hot white sun? We had been getting closer and closer to my vision as we worked our way south - the vegetation becoming sparse, the soil loosening, and then, in the distance, there it was.

We were finally getting our just deserts!

As usual, we entered the family ger and supped away on our milk tea while Una and Baaji chatted to the nomads. Of course the family’s English is about as proficient as our Mongolian so there isn’t a whole lot we can do except smile and nod at each other. So, we just sit quietly and let the adults talk, until we’re finally told we can go out and play.

Once Una gives us the go ahead, we’re off towards the great sand dunes in the distance. And it’s just as I had imagined, well, except for the blue skies… and the sun… I guess that’s the curse of Irish weather – the rainclouds even follow you into the heart of the desert! We keep walking anyway, until we reach a small, sandy river blocking our path. I try to traverse it barefoot with Ais on my back, but we soon start sinking fairly quickly. Foiled by the smallest of streams!

I’m sure somewhere in the world right now, there’s someone stranded in the desert who would sell their soul for a flowing river or a heavy downpour, meanwhile, we’re currently being inconvenienced by both!

We sadly had to admit defeat for now, but we did return later on when the skies had cleared up and made a video diary in the process:

All that was left to do that evening was to lie back and enjoy a complete, untainted sky full of stars, falling down to the horizon on all sides. Day 5 done and I’ll pick up from there next time around. Stay tuned!

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