…and other stories from the Mongolian steppes.
I haven’t done a travel post for a while. I have, however, done a fair bit of travelling.
An excellent thing about Doha is that from there you can get pretty much anywhere with relative ease.
So, naturally, with the whole world to choose from, I chose Mongolia.
It is hard to imagine a place that offers a greater contrast to Qatar then the one I arrived in after two plane transfers, a minor heart attack in Seoul when no-one seemed to know where I got my next boarding card, an excessively long line at immigration, and a scrum at baggage claim that made me grateful that I’m tall enough to see over the heads of most people.
Sandy, who I originally met in Doha and who has since moved to Ulaanbaatar as a teacher, picked me up from the airport and we drove back to his school on deceptively smooth roads that lulled me into a false sense of security about what our impending tour of Mongolia would entail.
Day one: In which two humps are better than one…
After an evening of curry and catch-ups and an unexpectedly long film (The View Beyond the Pines is excellent, by the way) we hit the road at a very reasonable 9am, having been introduced to our guide Khaliunaa, her husband Aba (our driver) and their three-year-old son, Tamulin, who would be coming on our trip with us.
Any trepidation I might have felt about spending the next several days with a three-year-old evaporated when Tamulin gave us a cheery thumbs up before settling into his car seat. He quickly became our trip’s mascot, and the instigator of many driving break games. And a stealer of hats.
The first day offered a tiny insight into what awaited us a few sleeps in the future when the road randomly stopped and Aba casually turned his heavily laden two-wheel-drive Hyundai people carrier off road and continued as if everything was normal.
Which, as it turns out, it was.
We stopped for lunch at a collection of gers (what we would normally call yurts) and the four of us were offered a camel ride.
Living and travelling in the Middle Easy means that camel rides quickly lose their appeal. Camels are bumpy, uncomfortable, stubborn and have massive teeth.
Also, it was raining. Which we were assured was very unusual in the ‘land of the blue skies.’
However, in a bid not to offend we agreed to the ride, and quickly found that the Mongolian bactrian (two-humped camel) is vastly more comfortable than its one-humped cousin (probably cousin, I’m not really sure how camel genetics work.)
We also realised that it wasn’t entirely normal that we were all in a position to compare relative comfort levels of camels.
That first day, as the Mongolian steppes rolled past the car window, and an occasional lurch jolted me out of my revere as I watched some of the world’s most beautiful scenery slide past me (when the windows weren’t steamed up by condensation from the rain on the outside and too many bodies on the inside,) I felt slightly disjointed from the country.
It’s beauty seemed alien and prehistoric, like at any moment raptors would rove down the hillside towards us, and scaled beasts would wing their way towards the distant treetops. The people were so friendly, and smiling and hospitable, but I was aware that I knew nothing of the culture other than what I had read, nothing of the language at all, and nothing of the hardships these nomadic families endured as the seasons shifted.
I had come to Mongolia fairly blind, with no guide book and few expectations. The extent of the wide open plains, punctuated by rolling hills, and the intensity of the culture, steeped in symbols of nature, caught me off guard.
On that first night I embraced the particular silence that comes from a total absence of a noise one is used to hearing, and bedded down for my first ever night in a ger and my first night for several months free from the humming background noise of construction and air-conditioning.
Oh yeah, we also got to see a rock that looks like a penis. Good times.
Day two: In which eagle attacks are the best kind of attacks…
It turns out that if you are going to spend a night in a ger it is better if you’re not travelling with someone who needs to pee a lot.
Despite the occasional disturbance due to nature calling someone else, and a nearby dog that didn’t seem to realise none of the other dogs were talking to it, I found my first ger experience remarkably comfortable.
The night-time urinator (who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this blog) redeemed themselves by providing life-giving coffee before we hit the road again and headed to Mongolia’s ancient capital and associated temple.
Chengis (apparently Ghengis is wrong, who knew?) (well, the Mongolians, I guess) Khan founded the ancient city of Karakorum in 1220 (it wasn’t ancient then, it was all new and the centre of a massive empire and stuff.) The city has been destroyed and rebuilt and razed and resurrected under various occupations since the time of the Khan, but it is still a very important part of Mongolia.
We roamed around the site of the capital and Erdene Zuu, the Buddhist monastery while Khaliunaa taught us about the symbols of Buddhism, showed us the spinning prayer wheel, and told us stories about the eight protectors of Buddhism.
While I love the theory and stories behind faiths, I also find being in buildings of worship to be uncomfortable and claustrophobic, so while people walked around an active part of the site, where monks prayed and incense burned, I stayed outside in the sun and marvelled at the existence of a sky so blue.
Lunch came and we sat with ancient walls on one side and horses on the other in a peaceful field off soft grass.
Shortly before lunch I accidentally attacked Sandy with an eagle, which is as much fun as it sounds. I would like to claim that it was all part of a plan, but the thing just launched itself off my arm straight at Sandy’s face.
It was spectacular.
After lunch it was a ‘short’ 120km to our camp, and our first real understanding that people view distances with a different eye in Mongolia, which either has the fewest or the most roads in the world. Depending on your definition of the word ‘road.’
It became standard to ask two questions each morning:
“How far are we driving today?”
“How much of that is paved?”
We could well have added “how much of it involves Aba selecting a mountain and driving over it?”
The man was a miracle driver and thought nothing of navigating mountain paths, pathless valleys and small rivers in his van. I think someone forgot to tell him it wasn’t 4×4. As the days progressed, we all became aware that our journey, in many places, would not have been possible without Aba at the wheel.
The rain of the first day was burned out by the sun, and I began to feel an affinity for Mongolia as I watched the distant hills, shimmering with a blue haze.
We stopped for the night and stayed in a ger owned by a Mongolian family, many of whom have one or two extras to rent out to tourists and travellers.
I sat on a hillside watching as a seven-year-old who looked like he had been born in a saddle road past while an older boy skillfully herded cattle towards their pens.
After a trip to the hot springs, a blissful shower, and the even more blissful use of a lavatory with a seat, we fell asleep in our ger, disturbed only by the nearby huffing of yaks, and the occasional night-time pee-er.
Day three: In which I hit my head. A lot.
It turns out that gers are not built with height in mind. Particularly the doorframes.
You would think that once this lesson had been learnt once, it would not have to be repeated.
You would think incorrectly.
I’m pretty convinced I gave myself a mild concussion during the course of the day.
My general ineptitude aside, day three saw sporadic rain showers,the beginnings of carsickness an some of the most incredible landscapes I have ever had the fortune to lay eyes on. Rather making up for the rest of it.
Cross legged, eating delicious food prepared by our guide, watching eagles swoop past the rocky walls of a ravine, I realised I hadn’t looked at a phone, or a laptop, or a TV since we had left UB. It was a remarkably liberating feeling when my normal days were spent tied to the news cycle.
Mongolia is what they mean when they say ‘get away from it all’ and by this stage in the journey I was playing Elliot Smith’s ‘Let’s get lost’ almost on loop as we drove through Mongolia’s seemingly never-ending lands, sandwiched between the earth and a sky so blue it seemed unnaturally vibrant, like nature was trying to show you that it could do more than the washed out blue of its normal skies.
Because no trip is complete without pretending you’re a Bond villain, we climbed a (fairly) dormant volcano that afternoon, finishing just as the heavens opened and the rains began in earnest.
We made it to our ger for the night and piled inside.
I drifted into unconsciousness to the sound of rain on the roof, bouncing off the round walls of our hut, while wood burned in the stove, hissing and crackling as it dried on the flames.
Day four: In which misery has a new face…
And that face is Mongolia’s road network.
A 12-hour drive took us 280km further in our journey.
Teresa managed to pass the journey happily, seemingly immune to the gut-churning, unending rocking of the van as we bridged a path of rocks with the walls and were pushed from side to side.
Occasionally the path would flatten out, and a track might temporarily appear, and I would stop wishing for oblivion long enough to stare at the scene around me, the eagles, the ubiquitous ox, the disappointing piles of rubbish that dot the countryside.
Having just finished The Long Earth, I couldn’t shake the feeling we had someone stepped sideways, into another earth, another time, another part of space that humans hadn’t quite taken hold of yet.
We skipped stones over a river at lunch, and my misery subsided as I watched the jumps and ripples. It is hard to stay angry at a place for its lack of comforts, when it is exactly that which is filling you with contentment.
You can’t pick the parts of humanity you want, and leave the rest behind. I wish you could.
Day five: In which we learn what three-year-olds dream of…
We spent the night in our guide’s cousin’s (or some other relative, it was difficult to be sure) house.
It was odd to be inside, and see how the more permanent homes were put together.
Sandy had said at the start of the journey that many of the houses would look fancy from the outside, but none would have indoor plumbing, and that was the case here.
We all slept on the floor of the living/TV/probably also someone’s bed – room, along with Khaluna and her family.
In the middle of the night, Tamulin woke us up as he started wailing in his sleep until Aba calmed him down.
The next morning it turned out he had a nightmare, specifically that his favourite ball had fallen into the outhouse pit of human matter (and maggots) and could only be calmed down by being shown the ball. I think i would have cried as well.
We left late and drove to Khuvusgul lake, where we were looking forward to spending two nights and having a day of no driving.
We avoided the tourist camp and stayed further out of the way. But headed back to the tourist facilities and shelled out for a freezing cold shower in the dark and a close encounter with a nail that left me wishing I knew the symptoms of tetanus. (Spoiler: I don’t have tetanus, but I did have an awesome scar for a while.)
After our shower the rain started in earnest. I also realised that the outhouse was slightly more exposed to the elements than was ideal. Once the rain abated I explored the gloriously peaceful lakeside and skipped stones until a curious herd of sheep wandered slightly too close for comfort.
The vast expanse of the Mongolian landscape is definitely an aid to clearing the mind, and just looking at the skyline had a calming effect that meant it really didn’t matter that I had no internet, no phone signal, no awareness of any possible impending nuclear holocaust.
Clinging on for dear life as the van bounced its merry way along imaginary roads the day before meant my right bicep was aching so it was back to our snug ger and a roaring fire in the wood burning stove, and the sound of rain pattering off stretched cloth.
Day six – In which riding becomes a rainy day activity
At this stage, my notes say “land of the blue sky my ass.” I think the rain was beginning to lose its charm.
Not to be deterred by a light downpour, we upped tools after lunch (is upped tools an expression? Did I just make that up?) and swung onto some deeply uncomfortable saddles, were mildly perturbed by the fact one horse seemed to be branded with a swastika (I know the buddhist symbol came first, but that one is the other way round normally, this one was the swastika way round) and set off through some woods and over some rivers and generally felt very intrepid until we realised our guide was about 13.
Anyway, it was ace. Having not ridden for years, it was still gratifying to dismount after 10km or so and be the most upright and least bandy legged among the lot of us (not including the Mongolians, obviously.)
Given the option of climbing a mountain in the rain for two hours to not see the view because of said rain, and going home in a car, we all unanimously, and almost wordlessly, plumped for the wussy option, went home, and played chess by torchlight.
We also discussed the obligation of travel (whether, when in a new country, you do things you feel obliged to do, in order to say you have done them, rather than because they are enjoyable at the time) and whether it would be possible to live in a ger for a ear (yes, if there was some kind of family unit or community to share up the wood-cutting, ger repairing, horse looking aftering tasks.)
Day seven – In which there was lots of driving and we saw a naked child in the middle of the road.
Um. There was a shed-ton of driving. Although about 20km of it was on a paved rad that hadn’t existed a week ago and so surprised everyone when it appeared.
And our guides seemed unconcerned by the naked child and seemed to assume her parents were around somewhere, casually watching their child run around buttock-naked.
Also, Sandy stood on a spikey thing.
And the rain meant we had to help a bunch of people who had less awesome drivers than Aba and who got stuck in the mud on mountainsides driving tiny little city hatchbacks. Because that is totally normal.
And there was a lot of driving.
Days eight and nine – In which I was unconscious.
I don’t remember much of this day and my notes have the unmistakable scrawl of me losing the ability to see straight.
We picked up some extra people to drive them in to town.
I slept a lot.
Then my headache went away at some point in the evening of day nine.
Day ten – In which I purchase the greatest hat in the history of the world.
Seriously. It’s a trilby made out of baby camel wool. What else do you need to know.
We went to the gobi cashmere shop and got very over excited and bought lots of stuff (including a hat.) Then we did some lovely genteel hitch-hiking back in to town with a busload of German tourists in order to watch a cultural show.
The show was pretty impressive, although the dancing women had terrifying smiles and the painted heads of the prancing horses were the stuff of nightmares.
Day eleven – In which I fly to Korea
I flew to Korea.
Also, this blog is nearly 3,000 words. Whoopsies.
So, Mongolia, awesome right?