I’ve racked up a fair number of countries on the list, most of which were along the tried and tested beaten tracks of endlessly reliable streams of tourists. Not often have I stepped too far off the trail, or travelled to a country which produces a quizzical look from people. With my time in Beijing quickly coming to an end, a week-long national holiday, AND my visa soon running out, it was the perfect storm for one last get-away. But where to go? South Korea was done. Do I go back to Thailand or Hong Kong? How about the Philippines? In the end all these paled in comparison to the truly immense adventure found just across the border; Mongolia.
“Why do you want to go there? What’s there?” Well I might never find myself in this part of the world again, and Beijing is one of the few places you’re able to fly into the country. Mostly however it’s the uniqueness, the remoteness, the very fact I know so little about it is whats so appealing. For a true traveller a lack of visitors to an area doesn’t suppress us, rather encourages.
I arrived in Ulaanbaatar’s miniature airport named after the most notorious Mongolian in all of history, the first of many references. A man which has ancestry to an enormous proportion of the worlds population; Genghis Khan. It’s understandable that a country would be so proud of a once mighty emperor of their even mightier empire, much like those of Rome. However, isn’t it pretty ridiculous when you break it down? I mean are Stalin and Hitler still represented in their respective countries? Genghis Khan caused more death and devastation worldwide than both men combined.
My Mongolian adventure began much like that of any other foreigner that comes to Ulaanbaatar, by visiting Sukhbaatar square. This enormous square was headed by the equally monstrous Government Palace. Unlike the rest of the city its uniquely pristine and luxurious compared to the run-down greyer areas of the city.
Much like every other trip, this one would have to include a temple. Choijin Lama Temple happened to have some unique qualities about it. First and foremost, unlike most others along my travels, this temple seemed to be unrestored and much more authentic. It makes the experience all the more special knowing that each and every brick and beam is as exactly as it was. The most fascinating aspect of this temple however was the mummified corpse of a monk sat beside the shrines deeper within the temple halls. An unexpected and unadvertised exhibition.
Despite the little amount of sightseeing I had achieved, there were more pressing matters at hand. My trip would not be based around the quite lacklustre Ulaanbaatar, rather the rest of Mongolia. In order to explore the outer reaches of the country, I would have to arrange some tours. I had a couple of targets in mind, I just needed a tour operator to discuss some options. Luckily my hostel (much like most others in the city) act as a one-stop-shop, most of which arrange tours at your discretion.
The staff at my particular hostel (Golden Gobi) were beyond helpful and accommodating. The tour operator had her own personal office in the hostel, where I was invited in to discuss options. On the table she had a large laminated map of Mongolia where she’d scribble down the different routes and tours available. I simply wanted to do as much as I could in he short amount of time I had. Fate was on my side, as my perfect tour would be leaving the next morning.
The rest of the night was spent preparing for the trip. Frantic browsing through local supermarket for snacks and essential supplies, mostly vodka.
Bright and early with my bags packed, I met the rest of the tour group; two Russian (both of which also happened to be English teachers in Beijing) and two French (both would be heading to Beijing in the near future). Those circumstances meant we got on instantly.
Just before heading off, the ever so helpful hostel staff pushed my adventure into overdrive. As we were departing, the hostel owner noted that my hoodie would be insufficient for the cold ahead, and insisted on providing me with a coat. Although apprehensive at first, my concerns were instantly diminished once he brought out a thick black ever-so authentic trench-coat, befitting of a Mongolian nomad. I now looked the part, and ready to tackle the Mongolian wilderness.
We packed ourselves into a mini-van with our guide Tsogo and our faithful driver, and headed out of the city into the vast gorgeous emptiness of Mongolia. Before we got too remote, we had one important stop to make. On this journey we’d be staying with a number of nomad families, and it was customary to bring along gifts. But what to give them? Tsogo left that answer quite open, meaning a long hard group discussion about what would be suitable? What do you give to a nomad family? Something useful? Something fancy? In the end we went for more practical gifts of potatoes, fruit and a large bag of candy for the kids.
Back on the road, and a long way to go. We had 300kms to tackle just on the first day, so no time to loose. A short way out of the city the group was already marvelling at the extraordinary surroundings and vast empty wilderness of the country. The lack of any man-made structure was occasionally broken by a tiny cluster of yurts in the distance or a Wild West style line-up of wooden shacks and simple brick buildings along a dusty road which served as a rest-area for the weary traveller.
We kept driving through the numerous consistently changing landscapes. From dusty plains to snow covered mountains and livestock filled grasslands. Occasionally we’d pull over, partly as opportunity for a leg stretch, as well as an opportunity to bask in the beauty that surrounded us. Just to take a second to soak it all in.
Eventually we took a detour off-road, literally. The driver carefully and skilfully navigated the bumps and obstacles before him along the vast empty fields. He carefully made his way towards our first nomadic family of the journey. First we had an important stop upon the hill before the campsite. There stood a shaman shrine, one of many found scattered across the almost featureless plains. It was worthwhile blessing our journey ahead.
Time to meet our first nomadic family. The scene was a typical one for this part of the world: a couple of circular yurts (or gers) with a central chimney bellowing out smoke, surrounded by the family’s herds of life-stock roaming about the area without any restraints. Faithful guard dogs mistakable for wolves approached curiously, just as much as the younger children.
We were quickly introduced to the family and our new home for the night before quickly being whisked away, as we had one last pilgrimage before the sun set. We headed towards a destroyed temple located in the valley through where the mountain ranges receded. Tsogo informed us of Mongolia’s tragic past. Like many other nations, they were under the heavy hand of the Soviet Union. It was these vicious bastards who sought an end to local religion, destroying the majority of the 800 temples that once stood in the country, including this one.
We proceeded to climb the cliffs behind the temple to sit and marvel at the extraordinary view before us as the sun set over the valley. It was at this point where the adventure took on a whole new level of mind-blowing fascination. The complete and utter silence of the valley was only broken by the distant howls of wolves beyond the peak of the mountains. A soundtrack that would serenade us to sleep later that evening.
By the time we were hiking our way back to camp darkness had fallen, and the howls continued. Tsogo ensured us that the wolves were frightened of people, yet it wasn’t too reassuring. By the time we made it back, the local nomad family had prepared dinner for us. A simple stew with noodles thrown in, not too unlike what my own grandmother would make; comfort food.
We spent that night in the ger, working away at the bottle of vodka and learning Russian card games. The yurt itself was well equipped for our needs. I was surprised to see a bed for each of us, rather than sleeping on the ground as I anticipated. That still something I would have been happy with. The centrepiece without a doubt was the central stove with the chimney sticking out of the top, an essential feature to any ger.
But what were they burning? We hadn’t seen a single tree in the 300km’s we had travelled to the campsite, so what were they using? Something there seemed to be an abundance of: poo. The locals had meticulously collected it from their life-stock, dried it, and was the life blood for these peoples survival. This would also be our sole source of warmth that night.
A stand out highlight of the entire trip was the light show we were given at night. Being hundreds of miles from any real civilisation, and being in complete and utter darkness (of which I have never experienced), it provided the perfect conditions for each and every star in the sky to shine bright as though they should. From one horizon to the other, the sky was a blanket of stars, so clear in-fact the milky way itself was clear to be seen, and nothing but moonlight to cast shadows of the nearby mountains.
The extraordinary beauty the total darkness provided quickly turned into instant horror as the howls of wolves restarted, and I quickly and painfully realised I couldn’t see anything around me. How quickly the fear turned into curiosity and fascination as I wished the howls to continue and intensify, as they did to serenade us to sleep.