Mongolia for Beginners – Much More Than Expected

The iron beast roared back to life, steam bellowed from its round iron nostrils, like a giant stretching after a long sleep, its body creaked and moaned. Like lambs to the slaughter the people walked into the belly of the beast, disappeared into the steam. We were amongst them, lucky to be riding the iron beast south.

We were glad to be leaving the misery of Russia, the depressing faces, the smog and vodka, we were so happy to be going to a place that time has forgotten. My mind was filled with images of the magnificent hordes, tearing down the steppes of Mongolia. The land of Genghis was finally drawing closer, the land of the wide open, the land of the horse and of a proud people. I was constantly immersed in intense daydreams of a time long forgotten, a time that defined the very meaning of courage, loyalty, dedication and above all freedom.

I was hoping to experience that openness and freedom, I was excited, like a small boy on his way to the ice cream parlour for a rare treat.

mongoliagobi350The Russian border guards were stiff and expressionless, their thick coats hindering their movements in the narrow belly of the iron beast, they were untrusting and very thorough in their search, scrutinising every detail in our passports, leaving a scent of coal fire and stale cigarette smoke in their wake.

The Mongolian border guards smiled with their eyes and their wrinkles showed a lifetime of and compassion and community, they were relaxed and happy to see us, we were in, and in a flash the mutant buildings melted into the horizon, the roads disappeared and all that lay before us was miles and miles of nothing to Ulaan Bataar…

As our beast huffed and puffed South more and more settlements appeared like apparitions, no more concrete, no more hideous statues, just small round tents with children playing and men smoking cigarettes, talking, huddled in the sunshine, hiding from the bitter winds.

Panting and wheezing the iron beast seemed glad to stop, we too were glad, we were in Ulaan Bataar, the capitol of Mongolia. With wobbly legs we made our way passed the family reunions and lovers in each other’s arms, worked our way through the maze of eager porters and touts until we were outside and in our waiting van, heading towards Kim’s guesthouse.

We were tired and smelly, our wobbly legs longed for some stretching, but we wasted no time and dived straight into organising a car to take us into the Gobi. We had met a couple, Anne and Steve in the small town of Litsvianka, on the shores of the mighty lake Baikal, they were also keen to go to the Gobi, this made it easier to get a good price and a fixed departure date. Kim, our twitchy host was eager to sort us out and in no time we had arranged a van and driver for 9 days, now we could kick back and relax.

Ulaan Bataar is a compact city; with everything anybody needs a mere stone’s throw away. During the summer most of the people head out to the steppes with their animals and set up camp in the best grazing lands, during the harsh winter many return to the capitol and set up temporary Ger camps in and around the city, so during the winter there is a hive of activity and the city is alive. The nomadic lifestyle is still very much alive, and I don’t think the people would trade that for anything…

On the surface the city is like any other, with streets lined with shops, banks and much more, quite surprising really, I was expecting less… it was the people that made this city stand out from the rest, they were so exotic, they all wore their traditional long heavy coats and high boots, they all smiled and you could feel their pride like the crisp winter wind.

After a long walk we headed back to Kim’s, for that much anticipated hot shower, we would have to wait, it was clear that we were not alone in this mission all we hoped was that we would have some hot water. Later that evening we joined Anne and Steve for a meal at a local Chinese restaurant, this was a treat as we had been living on 2 minute noodles for over a month and were so glad to have some meat and some vegetables, we ate quickly and with full mouths discussed our plan for the Gobi.

The sparrows had just farted when we got up and headed down the road with twitchy Kim, to meet our driver and van. From the very minute I laid my eyes on Mischka I liked him, I knew he was the best man for the job; I knew we were in good hands. The moment I cast my eyes on the Furgon it was love at first sight. The Russian built van was simply gorgeous, like a wet dream, its gun grey colour and small cute tyres made me hot and fidgety…

All hot and fidgety we headed to downtown U.B to stock up on supplies. The market was alive with colour and smells, the people were happy and the market hall was warm with the bodies and smiles. It was here that I realised how dependent Mongolia was on its giant neighbours for fresh supplies. Almost all the vegetables and fruit bore the stamp of the red star, and the price to match… It was cheaper to buy a case of beer than a kilo of apples, amazing.

So, with a Furgon full of supplies we headed of South in search of that famous openness and above all that freedom that it promised…

It was not long before the tar road ended and the dirt started, from the moment we left the tar I was entranced, spellbound, the vivid colours assaulted my eyes as the bitter cold wind whipped my face.

As far as the eye could see, only rolling green hills, rock mounds strewn with old vodka bottles, rocks, which if they could talk would tell a thousand tales. Some say the body of the mysterious Genghis Khan was buried under one such stone mound. It’s customary to stop at these rock mounds and walk around them throwing a memento or something as you do your rounds, this will please the Gods and give you the luck you need to navigate the sign less steppes…

My time in the Gobi went by like one of those vivid dreams you have, the type you don’t want to wake up from, the type that are so real you have to question whether or not it was indeed a dream. Our boisterous Furgon ploughed on, Mischka ever careful and quiet, as if in a constant state of contemplation, drove it expertly following those invisible signs that he himself could only see. I knew we were in his hands, and although I am pretty sure we would survive without him, I was incredibly glad to know we had Mischka. I was in constant awe and respect for his sheer stamina and vision…

The Gobi is a mysterious place, a place that is constantly shifting and will only tolerate the fittest. The hours would pass and the scenery was bleak, boring and dull, but for those who have been or will go, you will come to have a new meaning for those words. It was the openness that was before us, it was that promised freedom, that breathtaking beauty. The sudden changes of landscape pounced on you like eager trick or treaters, leaving you stunned and out of words.

Don’t get me wrong it was by no means easy and we all had to learn that the hard way. The soft mattresses of Platskartny class trains (3rd class on the trains) had turned us into fat, vodka drinking slobs, we had become soft. The Furgon is the camel of the Gobi, no doubt, this trusty van won a place in my heart, but I must admit, like a camel it was not comfortable. Add that together with the extreme weather, parched desert, extreme isolation you have yourself a slice of heaven on earth.

The people we met along the way were like no other I had ever met, during my travels, I have rarely experienced such a high level of hospitality, and kindness. Considering what little they own they have so much to give, their pot will never be empty. These henchmen of the gods defy reality and survive without much hassle in this deceivingly austere land. Spending time with them and experiencing their ways of life will be imprinted in my mind for the rest of my days. The sheer determination to survive was truly inspirational. Though communication was a barrier, there were countless incredible moments that spoke a universal language.

We did not want this to end, we all became hopelessly addicted, our bodies were just getting used to this, why does it have to end??? The reason is both boring and stupid, but 9 days are 9 paid days and a deal is a deal, so with grumpiness and silence, Mischka was on his home stretch. I was fighting back the tear in my eye as we bid farewell to Mischka and the Furgon, and with a babbling twitchy Kim we headed back to the guesthouse.

Once again our time in the Capitol was to be sweet but short; the hot showers were a total novelty after the 9 days in the desert, in which we had one timed shower. It’s incredible that we take such things for granted, never again. Like two plastic bags in the wind, we breezed in and out of UB, our wind taking us North and a promise of the green, the white and the wet. We were now longing for something that did not involve any type of engine, something that we could control, something that was silent.

Though my love runs deep for those Furgon’s, God bless ‘em, they are a noisy lot.

Nothing could have prepared us for that journey North, that journey was to be the roughest I have ever experienced. What would have been a walk in the park for Mischka turned out to be the ultimate nightmare for us. For once, not even the surreal beauty, the breathtaking panoramas, the far horizons and ancient stone piles, could take the pain away, could make this Furgon more comfortable.

The vodka, though at first seemed to be working ,soon turned into very bad idea, which had the 3 of us singing and keeping the rest of our travel companions awake with our strange language and customs of being pissed. When we finally arrived at our destination, my ass sang praises to the gods, I, we, sang praises to the gods.

One thing I have to admit, though, we would not ever regret that ride; regret the vodka and songs and insane moments. Once we were in a jeep on the way to the Lake Khovskul it all became so worth it. The contrast was staggering, one day in the eternal sand and rock and the next in grass and trees and water, simply amazing.

It was surprisingly easy to arrange horses and a guide on such short notice, our host at the guesthouse was the perfect man for the job, a fantastic example of someone who does his job because he loves it.

I had never ridden a horse for long periods, so I was really nervous, but Sue, a confident rider was urging us all on. Our horses all had their own personalities, they were not the type of horses that saw regular tourist action, and they still thought for themselves, they were free. It was to be a battle of ‘who’s boss?’ for the duration of the ride.

I was constantly filled with that adrenaline of being in the outdoors, knowing that you have stepped down the food chain, knowing that the mountains and snow were infinitely superior. The first sight of the lake was like a mirage, slowly but surely the blurry image became clear and vivid, a massive slate of white ice as far as the eye could see.

The tall Pine trees stood like sentinels, patiently watching. The first couple of days were rough, all of us suffering from incredible stiffness, cold and tired, our horses fared no better and due to the lack of grass over the winter they were also feeling the strain. Khovskul Lake is but a miniature of Lake Baikal, in fact, it’s referred to as Baby Baikal, but as they say “Dynamite comes in small packages!”

The whiteness of the ice was mesmerising, the colours were spectacular and the sound of the cracking ice incredible. 360 degrees of sheer inspirational beauty. Most nights were spent with local people, this being a popular horse trek destination, the locals have jumped on the tourism train, which is great as it gives you a unique insight into the lives of such an incredible people.

One of the highlights was eating the local food, and here mutton was on the menu, mutton soup, mutton stew, mutton bread, noodles, just mutton and for warmth mutton tea with a block of dried mares milk, I was not aware you could do so much with 1 wok and mutton. The Mongolian stove was simply beautiful, versatile and so important both for heating and cooking. The Gers are really cosy in the winter, as long as the stove is burning, with bodies strewn all over the ground, everybody lay still in their cocoon like beds, happy and deserving. Why does it have to end???

Mongolia is simply and inspirational country, I was totally spellbound and a small piece of my heart remained, I knew it was not going to be the last time I came here, I knew that I would do anything to come back and fill myself with that openness and freedom.

photo by PnP! on Flickr

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