Saturday, August 31, 2013

Summer 2013 - 8th Stop: Ulaanbaatar - The Return

So, we're back once more in this fair nation's capital after our 17 (sorry, 16) day tour around the country. When we pulled up in our little wagon for the last time outside Golden Gobi, the first thing we had to do was bid adieu to Hélène, notre amie Française, who had to dash off immediately to catch her Trans-Siberian train. We also had to wave a sorrowful goodbye to our driver, Baaji, as well as a joyous good riddance to our temporary guide / waste of space, Nami.

The last photo of Le Club de Petit Déjeuner... Also, potential cover of our first album.

The next thing we did was satisfy a massive urge that had been festering inside us for the past 17 (sorry again, 16) days. Now, Mongolian food is fine and will do the job in a pinch, but this had undoubtedly been the longest period in our lives without our beloved western cuisine. At that point, I was ready to sell my first born child for a big, greasy burger. (Possibly the same reason why the Mongols demolished everything in their paths to get to Europe...). Thankfully, it didn't come to that, and we found an incredible American diner called California Restaurant to satisfy our cravings. And they certainly didn't disappoint.

And those milkshakes, my God... they'd certainly bring all the boys to the yard!

Properly recharged, we moved onto the next item on our to-do list. As I mentioned above, we had a small bone to pick with Golden Gobi. Nothing major at all, we're not complainers, but first day we agreed upon a full 17 day tour, with a detailed itinerary for each day. Now, I know mistakes happen and plans change, but we thought it was best to raise the issue anyway with the manager, Ogie, just so everyone was on the same page and everything could be concluded on a positive note. She was a business owner after all, so I was sure she would have been interested in hearing any feedback and setting right any slight wrongs from our trip.

In the end, funny story - it turns out she was a monumental bitch!

We were very polite in raising the issue too; in fact, I never even made a big issue of it, when all of sudden she became incredibly aggressive, saying how shocked and offended she was! We were speechless, and, funnily enough, pretty shocked and offended! We had quite a high opinion of the company from our first stay in UB, and we even had a great time on the tour, up until Una had to leave anyway. That's when the first cracks started to appear, and now this!

(After our confrontation, we looked up some reviews online, and while on the whole they were positive, there was a recurring theme throughout - Everything is all sunshine and smiles, that is until you hand over your money. After that, they wouldn't inconvenience themselves to piss on you if you were on fire.)

Golden Gobi, where our motto is "the customer is always right" "we're always right, and if you don't like it, go fuck yourself! [citation needed]

I'm sorry that I've had to complain so much over these past two entries. I hate having to mention these negative moments when the country itself was an absolute dream, but well, every rose has its thorns. (And if Mongolia is the sweetest rose, I guess that makes Ogie the biggest prick! Zing!)

(Flash forward: Their incompetence finally worked in our favour when we checked out, as they forgot to charge us for the three nights we had spent there before the tour. We noticed this of course, and wanted to point it out, but it would be very rude to tell them how to do their job... karma's a bitch!)

The rest of our time in UB was super anyway. Edward and Braden, our Canadian friends were sticking around too for a few days so we had a great old time! We had seen most of the sights from our first stint here, but we saved the best of all for the return leg. Now, if I told you that this big highlight was a statue, you probably wouldn't be too impressed, and rightly so. But, what about if it was a 40m high statue of the greatest man who ever lived, riding a massive horse!?

I hope it looks cool in the pictures, cause it was unbelievably cool in real life! As tourist attractions go, it was kind of a strange one, in that it's over 50km outside the city, with absolutely no semblance of public transport. It's almost as if they don't want you to see it. If you want to visit, you need to work for it! Tour companies will of course gladly take you, at a much inflated price. In the end, we just hailed a taxi, and it worked out to be quite cheap between the four of us.

At the site, there are plans to build a huge tourist village all around (might want to sort out the public transport for that one), but for now, there's just the statue which sits (or stands) on top of the museum building. You can also climb right up inside the statue itself and walk out onto the horses head!

Pretty badass, I think you'll agree. If only there were some way to make it even more awesome, like, I don't know... a four person jumping shot!?

Even the Mongols themselves never pulled off a feat like this!

Another thing worth mentioning about our time in the city - we had the pleasure of visiting (twice), what may be the nicest restaurant I've ever experienced. If you're ever in Ulaanbaatar, for whatever reason, check out Hazara Indian restaurant - it was just flawless in every respect.

I feel like I'm talking an awful lot about food in this entry, and actually, the restaurants were great in UB. Funnily enough, the only meal we were disappointed with was at a traditional Mongolian place! It just backs up our habit of sticking with what we know!

And I think that's pretty much everything. That night we would be embarking upon a 24 hour long journey down south into China. All that was left was a final farewell to our Canadian brothers, and we had just enough time to make a sneaky video diary too as the train pulled away:

So, Mongolia is done! After only a few days in the country, we thought it might be a contender, but it has well and truly swept all competition aside. And not only does it sit atop the best country stakes, but there's still plenty to see here to warrant a return visit some time in the future. I was going to say that I hope the nomadic way of life here doesn't change in the meantime, but judging by the solar panels and satellite dishes we've seen, I think the nomads are well able to handle the future.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Summer 2013 - 7th Stop: Mongolian Tour 4

The fourth and final part of our trip through Mongolia is upon us, and it's certainly with a heavy heart that we will be returning to Ulaanbaatar in a few days time. But it's not over yet. Still plenty of things to see, and experiences to, well, experience before we have to call it a day. 

So, where were we? At the end of the last installment, we had another day of outdoor activities ahead of us, starting with a hike up and down Khorgo Volcano, before returning again to the green, pristine and serene banks of Terkhiin Tsagaan. It's gonna be tough to leave this all behind...

It's like we've been living in a Microsoft Windows wallpaper!

Also, fun fact: Mongolia has the lowest population density of any country in the world with less than two people per square kilometer. To put that into perspective with our current home city, if Mongolia had the same population density as Hong Kong, there would be over 10 billion people in the country! How about that!?

After our two days at the lake, we continued on (via Chuluut Canyon) to the town of Kharakhorum, the former capital of the Mongol Empire. It's quite unlike most imperial capitals however, as the Mongols didn't really build cities, or castles, or forts or anything like that. They just lived, as much of the population still does today, nomadically. In fact, it was built as more of a trade hub and somewhere to store their amassed wealth, rather than a tactical stronghold or seat of government.

Side note: If you want to read more about Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, I'd highly recommend "Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world" by Jack Weatherford. Now, I'm not a big reader at all, especially when it comes to history, but it's actually incredibly interesting! Check it out!

Back in the real world, on the morning of Day 15, we were dealt the worst news of the trip - our guide, Una, had to leave to join another tour and we would be getting a different guide instead. At this stage, there was only two days left to go, but still, we were devastated. And so was she! So, we had to say our teary goodbyes (in which, she said that we were her first ever Irish visitors and we had given an excellent impression of our country! Ireland!). We had the perfect group of four, then the perfect group of seven, and now our little family was being torn apart again...

But we tried to be positive about the whole thing. Sure, a few days earlier, when we found out new people would be joining our tour, we feared the worst, but it turned out better than expected. Maybe the same thing would happen here. Maybe our new guide, Nami, would be a vast improvement?!

She was not. She was not at all.

Now, I don't want to be mean, but... she was a pile of shit. Sorry, I'm really not trying to be harsh, I'm sure she's a lovely girl (questionable), but she just isn't good at her job. She had very good English and was quite knowledgeable about some of the places we visited, but the main problem, and the one that there was just no avoiding - she couldn't cook. And I don't mean, she wasn't the best cook, or I didn't enjoy the dishes she made, no. She absolutely had no idea what she was doing. And for a job where you need to prepare three meals a day for a large group of people, that's pretty important. For our first meal, even the rice was burned to a crisp. Now, I'm sorry, if you can't cook rice, it's time to hand in your Asian card, you're off the team. I'd like to say she'd be more suited to working in a crematorium, but she'd be overqualified!

Ok sorry, back to the tour. That afternoon, we visited Erdene Zuu Khiid, the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in the country. Originally built in the 16th century from the ruins of the ancient capital, it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times in its history. And even when we were there, although it was very nice, there was definitely a feeling of emptiness inside the grounds.

Just like the feeling of emptiness inside our stomachs for the next two days! I'm sorry, I really am. 

Afterwards, we went down the road to the Kharakhorum Museum, which was by far the most enjoyable museum I've been to in a long time! Not really because of any of the exhibits... or artifacts... or actually anything related to the museum itself... but the lobby had wifi and we had been without internet for a looong time! We had a lot of catching up to do. I'd say about 90% of our time in the museum was spent outside the museum!

Thankfully, that evening, the nomads we were staying with cooked dinner for us all (so at least we had one proper meal that day!), and we just spent the rest of the night chilling out with the family.

Day 16, our last on the tour (even though we had paid for 17, but that's a different story...), we went for a nice walk in the countryside (it was meant to be a hike in the mountains, but that too is a different story...!), and afterwards made our way to Khustain Nuruu National Park to see the Przewalski horses which, native to Mongolia, are the only truly wild horses left in the world.

And I think that's all there is to report! So, here's the last of our video diaries:

The next morning, instead of having another day of activities, as was the plan, we went back to UB first thing (again, a story for another day), but let's not focus on the negatives for now. We can't let a few minor blips mar, what has been, the most spectacular and memorable adventure we've had since leaving Ireland two and a half years ago.

Two and a half weeks of sun, sand and no sea! Of running up hills and sliding down dunes. Of getting up close and personal with camels, yaks, horses and goats - between riding them, eating them and drinking their milk. Even waking up to find them hacked up beside you! And speaking of the different creatures we've encountered, how about waking up on your final morning with this on your tent!?

Ah, but we loved every second of it. 

Mongolia is like no other place we've visited before in that you could confidently come here with no plan, no route, no to-do list, and still have the most incredible time of your life. For most, if not all, of the cities and countries that we've encountered in the past, you really need to hit the hotspots - what landmarks are there, what buildings, temples, natural wonders, places to avoid etc. - if you want to get the most out of your trip. But all you have to do here is look around and you'll see beauty. There are no nothing places, there are no wrong turns, and there are no real 'things to see'. The only thing to see here is everything.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Summer 2013 - 6th Stop: Mongolian Tour 3

And we're back, as Day 10 picks up where Day 9 ended, on the banks of the Orkhon River. Unfortunately, the weather also picked up where it left off, but after a gloomy morning, the skies cleared up long enough for us to go on a horse ride across the open terrain. The Mongols were, of course, among the fiercest warriors of all time, spending practically their whole lives on horseback, conquering everything that lay before them, so it was nice to get in touch with the history of the land in this way.

And that afternoon, as we got ourselves saddled up, we could feel the spirit of Genghis Khan coursing through our veins, inspiring us on our fearless gallop into the wild! Well, no... maybe more of a leisurely trot... around the nearby fields... led by a young girl...

I guess every budding Mongol warrior has to start somewhere, right?!

When we had finished our little outing, we were once again forced back inside by the weather, and sadly, that's where we were confined for the rest of the evening as the rain failed to let up. But we never let it dampen our spirits as we continued to embrace the customs and culture of our adopted homeland, by watching Bring It On. (If there's one thing I know about the Mongols, it's their love of teen cheerleading movies. Maybe if they had danced more and killed less, they'd have a better reputation. Just saying...)

The next morning, we were up and off again down the road, although with the new dawn came some bad news - our fantastic foursome was to become an imperfect sevensome, as three new people would be joining our tour. In fairness, I guess we had been very lucky up to that point, having the whole tour to ourselves for 10 full days, but even Una and Baaji seemed a bit disappointed that there would be new people coming to disrupt our harmonious family.

That afternoon, we landed at a natural hot spring, which was probably the most crowded place we've been since leaving UB, with a host of tourist gers, not to mention a few actual buildings! I'd imagine this is the closest thing you'll get to a tourist camp in Mongolia. It was so busy in fact that we were originally meant to stay in one of the gers, but instead had to pitch our tents outside the park grounds. Ah well, life could be worse...

The hot springs themselves actually weren't that crowded and offered a nice relaxing break. And the best part of all, hot springs meant hot showers, something we've really come to appreciate on this tour. So, refreshed and rejuvenated, we bedded down for the night; the last one we would spend alone for quite some time...

And the next morning, the dreaded moment arrived as we were introduced to our new groupmates. On a tour like this, there's no escape so we really feared the worst and would have gladly settled for the mediocre, but instead, being completely honest, we couldn't have wished for a better result! In Braden and Edward (two Canadian guys) and Hélène (a French girl), we had really lucked into a terrific little group for ourselves (and if they are tuning in, read as: "a gerrific little group").

And there was even more good news to come that day! Or rather, the reversal of bad news! One disappointing moment from the tour so far was finding out that we wouldn't get to see a Naadam Festival, as the town we were due to pass through had held it early this year. But that morning, Una got a phone call informing her that another nearby town were currently celebrating their Naadam, so we would get to witness it after all!

Naadam is basically like mini Olympics held every year in each town or district, where participants battle it out in three traditional Mongolian sports - wrestling, archery and horse racing. We only got to see the first two, but it was a really great experience. The wrestling in particular was fun to watch, and they had all of these little rituals for the winners and losers - putting on special hats, doing the "eagle dance" around a pole, throwing a handful of curd into the air - you know, the usual...

And not a steel chair or turnbuckle in sight! You call this wrestling?!

Set up outside the arena walls, there was also like a little county fair going on, with hot food, market stalls, fairground games, the whole shebang! Una even treated us to a round of khuushuur for lunch; a kind of Mongolian fried meat pocket, which were delicious! All in all, it was a great little day out, fun for all the family!

We finished the day at Terkhiin Tsagaan, or, White Lake, which would be our base for the next two days. As I said before, I don't mind the travelling (and as Mongolia is so big, long journeys are part and parcel of seeing anything here), but it was nice to have somewhere to set up shop for a while. Especially when it was somewhere as beautiful as this.

That evening was just spent settling into our new surroundings and our new group; singing songs, telling stories and generally having the bantz.

The next morning, the three lads went for a horse ride while we just took a walk over the hills, (we had already achieved our horse riding badge with flying colours!), making a video diary in the process:

And that brings us into the final furlong of our Mongolian adventure! Only one more entry to go from our trip of a lifetime. Don't forget to tune in next time to see how the whole thing ends. I'm sure you can hardly contain yourselves!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Summer 2013 - 5th Stop: Mongolian Tour 2

Welcome to the next installment of our Mongolian tour!

Day 6 – it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for meeee…. and we’re riding camels! The day before, our progress was halted by a river separating us from the golden hills in the distance, so we needed to bring in some four-legged reinforcements to take us to the promised land.

After getting strapped onto our Bactrian buddies (Bactrian camels are the ones with two humps as opposed to the one humped Dromedary – thank you primary school geography for teaching me the rivers of Ireland and the two types of camel!), we set off once more for the elusive sand dunes that were just out of reach yesterday. But now we had the sun on our backs and the ultimate desert vehicles beneath us. 

Our two camels, Coco and Camelface, were very well behaved actually. I always imagined camels to be the surliest and least cooperative of all animals, but they were good as gold. I had to feel sorry for them though, not only for carrying us around in the desert heat, but for doing so while being reigned in by a camel-hair harness. That must be the ultimate humiliation – your freedom prevented by a rope made from your own hair!

On arrival at the dunes, we dismounted and were given some time to explore – nothing but sand in every direction and it felt great! It was a cool feeling, just looking all around, imagining there was nothing but this; utterly stranded, yet all the while knowing we had our very own oasis at our rear – so, no need for us to look back in anger! Boom, nailed it!

I've also just discovered how to make gifs from our videos! Ultimate fun!

Back at the ger, we learnt how to play an ancient Mongolian game called Shagai. Basically, how it works is you scatter a bunch of ankle bones (taken from sheep and goats) on the floor, and then you have to flick them at other ones that have landed the same way up. I guess it’s kinda like Subbuteo, except instead of the players, there are ankle bones, and instead of the ball… there are more ankle bones...

Despite the thoroughly strange sounding concept, it was actually lots of fun and Aisling turned out to be a natural, even taking down a seasoned pro like Baaji. Each family has their own set that they collect over the years from their flock, but we took a short cut and just bought a set for ourselves, so feel free to call in to our place anytime for a friendly game!

They're quite big into sport and games of all kind here actually, with the Naadam trio of archery, wrestling and horse riding being the most popular. But, even in the desert, you'd see people throwing a volleyball around, or even some kids playing basketball on a makeshift hoop - obviously striving to become the next...

wait for it... 

Gobi Bryant!

That evening, we waited for it to get a bit cooler before heading to the mammoth dune of Khongoryn Els for sunset. It’s the biggest dune in the Gobi Desert and on arrival we were told that it would take 40 minutes to climb. I scoffed in my head - I mean it wasn't that big, how hard could it be…? 

Extremely hard was the answer, certainly one of the most physically draining things I've ever done.

The initial stretch was deceptively easy but as you progressed, the incline gradually increased until it got to the stage where it felt like you were almost climbing vertically. And this wasn't like a steep climb on solid ground either; the sand was loose and soft, just teetering on its angle of repose (civil engineering FTW!) so each step you took caused a mini avalanche beneath your feet as the sand gave way, causing you to slide back with it. You had no choice but to get on all fours and dig in, hoping you could climb up faster than the sand could drag you back down.

The whole experience felt like trying to climb up a down-escalator, except it’s 200 metres high... and the steps are made of honey.

Having said all of that, it’s a hugely rewarding experience, and all of the aches and pains are soon forgotten when you reach the top, stand up straight once more, and look out over the swirling waves of pink and orange that lie on the other side of the peak.

If you are going to attempt this climb, I think sunset is the perfect time to get up there, not just for the view, but also to avoid the heat. It was hard enough doing it in the cool evening; I can’t imagine what it must be like under the hot midday sun.

The views were great and the sense of achievement is hard to beat, but besides all of that, it’s worth the climb anyway, for the slide back down alone!

On our return, we popped in to a different nomad family as Baaji had to buy some wild goat horns. His friend back home needed them for the archer’s bow he was making. It’s strange little things like this we’re going to miss when we’re gone… Mongoliaaaa!

The next day was less eventful in terms of activities, although a lot more eventful as a whole. The theme of the day was certainly breakdowns. Thankfully, they were all mechanical rather than mental. The first one came en route to our destination for that day, the Flaming Cliffs – cool name and equally cool location. On the way however, our little Soviet van shuddered to a halt. I don’t know exactly what was wrong but there seemed to be a problem with the fuel pump or something like that, as Baaji ended up having to siphon petrol from the tank into a canister and then seemingly pour it directly into the engine, through some sort of self-made contraption, while driving. Whatever he did, it worked, and despite a few more conk-outs along the way, we eventually made it to a small town where we fixed it properly. Some man!

The towns we've passed through in the Gobi region have all been little more than a single dusty road with some sparsely scattered buildings and maybe a petrol station. In one, we even saw tumbleweeds! No joke! I wasn't even entirely sure they actually existed outside cartoons!

We eventually reached the Flaming Cliffs which are famous, well, first of all, for looking deadly, but mainly for yielding the first ever discovery of dinosaur eggs. The whole Gobi area actually is quite rich in dinosaur fossils and skeletons. And, I’m not entirely sure what I mean here myself, but this place looks exactly like the kind of neighbourhood that I could imagine dinosaurs roaming about in.

Doesn't it just look dinosaur-y...?!

It’s a shame we didn't have the weather on our side that evening, as the cliffs are meant to glow a fiery red in the sunlight, but I still managed to get a few nice pics, that is until we had our second breakdown of the day, as my poor little camera itself went the way of the dinosaurs. More than likely, a grain of sand had lodged itself inside, as the lens was now stuck in place, unable to move in or out, just giving an anguished grinding noise whenever I tried to turn it on. I was sure I would be able to fix it myself if I could get my hands on a mini screwdriver, but it turns out they’re surprisingly hard to come by in the middle of the desert. I tried in vain all that evening to find and free the obstruction. Even Baaji's mechanical nous couldn't solve the problem this time. I was heartbroken.

The next day, I was brought back to the time when we visited the underground river in Puerto Princesa. I realised that I had left my SD card back at the hostel, so for the whole journey there, a large part of me was hoping that it wouldn't be that impressive so I wouldn't be missing out on any amazing photos. In the end, it was actually awful and today I had the same good fortune (if you could call it that). We were mainly on the road, the weather was terrible and the scenery quite bland by Mongolian standards. We did stop off at an old monastery but it wasn't that memorable, and we've seen plenty of Buddhist monasteries in our time anyway. So, no missed photo opportunities today. The only actual event of note was visiting Baaji's home town, meeting his family and even spending the night in his house. We also had another much needed shower.

I said before that I was confident I could fix my camera if I had the tools to do it, so that evening, Baaji assembled the greatest minds his little village had to offer - one of whom had a mini screwdriver set - and we got to work dismantling it to the lowest common denominator.

And still it wouldn't work!

My surefire method of taking it apart, blowing on it and putting it back together again had shockingly failed! (On the plus side, our desperate efforts hadn't caused the camera to become even more broken, which at stages looked a distinct possibility). For now, I'd probably have to wait til we got back to UB and find an actual camera repair shop. Until then, we luckily had a spare as Aisling had packed her old camera, and she was kind enough to lend that to me til mine was back in action.

The next day was another big travel one as we completed the switch from desert climate - driving between valleys, over mountains, even right through rivers - to a landscape that wouldn't look out of place in Connemara!

Here, on the banks of Orkhon River was where we would be for the next two days, and also the latest location for our video diary!

Unfortunately, along with the Irish landscape, also came the Irish climate i.e. cold and wet. The nights were especially chilly. Even with a full set of warm clothes under the sleeping bag, and a fire lighting in our ger, we were still shivering. Hard to believe that we were riding camels a few short days ago...

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!