Mongolia. What an experience. A trip we will never forget. It’s a bit of a challenge to blog about Mongolia and in particular our trip through the Gobi Desert as it’s simply indescribable. But I will give it go.
Ulaanbaatar (UB) is easy: Don’t go there, unless you really need to. We had a full day in UB, were not tired so there was not much else to do than to explore the city (travel problems are so harsh…). Two hours later we were done, and this included our well-known ‘let’s take a coffee’ moment. UB is a chaotic mix of low skyscrapers, soviet blocks, one square with prestige buildings and of course a statue of Genghis Khan, one rebuilt monastery and countless gers (Mongolian tents) and brick houses. The streets are dusty and filled with too many cars driven by people who probably got their driving license in the country side where there are no traffic signs or reasons to apply to the rules. There is nothing really exciting in UB. This despite the fact that UB was established in 1778, so quite old, it is the capital and about half of the population (3 million total) lives here. The Soviets destroyed almost all, and a lot of families do not live by choice in the city. Their preferred choice is the harsh nomadic live which is only possible if you have a herd of livestock – of which many have not always survived the extreme cold winters (-40°C). It’s sad, as the nomadic life is in the DNA of the Mongolians. It’s their culture.
Enough about UB. As unexciting UB is, as exciting Gobi is times two. What is most fascinating are the different views. The locals say there are 33 different types of Gobi. I think it’s true. We saw so many different landscapes. In fact, the typical sand dunes you would expect we only saw ones. Instead we were enjoying beautiful rolling green grass hills and small meandering rivers, endless gravel plains with fata morganas at the horizon, pretty granite stone valleys, the Mongolian Grand Canyon with views till forever and all colors you can imagine between sand brown and red, 360 degrees panoramas of steppe, steep-sided eroded red limestone cliffs, beautiful starry skies at night, sunrises and sunsets and even stunning views of mountains covered with snow. And the best part: we were alone.
Alone means with our group of six: the two of us, a Dutch couple Patrick and Brigitte, our driver ‘Toemro’ who kept it a secret how he knows the way across Gobi on the unpaved “roads”. Trust me, “road” is a big word in Gobi. It is amazing that he got us back safely in UB. And our very nice guide ‘Truusje’ who helped us to interact with the nomadic families and to understand Mongolia a bit better.
In Gobi the only interruptions you come across is herds of goats, sheep, horses and camels and occasional gers of nomadic families. No pigs, they will not survive. No chicken, the wind will blow them away, like tumble weed. On our first view point over empty green hills just outside UB, Truusje promised South Gobi to be emptier. We thought it was a joke, but she was right there were area’s with really nothing. It is unbelievable how sparsely populated Mongolia is. Patrick phrased it nicely: you have empty, emptier and Mongolia.
The best morning was in South Gobi. We woke up and it was cold, misty and rainy. We all switch on ‘I’m flexible and it is part of the game” mode – trying to ignore very hard that it was 5:00 in the morning in order to see a beautiful sunrise… We drove into the mountains and then we entered a valley with steep mountains covered with snow. So beautiful. Silence all around you. Fresh air (very welcoming after the sand storm of the previous day). We spotted rarely seen wild sheep, wild goats with two baby goats (cute!), eagles, yaks and walked on a glacier. It was so scenic. When we left the mountain range we were presented grass plains with the snow mountains on the horizon, not much later we entered gravel plains with 360 views with Mongolian emptiness and a bit later magnificent red limestone cliffs rose up in the landscape where we had lunch in our t-shirts. Amazing. All in one morning! In the desert!
In this extreme environment, the nomadic families live in gers, surrounded by their herd of livestock. Some nights we stayed at ‘ger camps’ – sort of camp sites with gers, showers, western toilets and beer – but the best were the nights when we stayed with nomadic families. It’s purely the experience as there is about zero comfort. You sleep on a very hard bed (and way too short for Wouter). No running water and I still regret my question if the hot water for the tea came from the river (the answer is yes). Which is not that shocking, but you’ve not seen all the poo of the animals around the river. No heating, except when you go to bed they warm up your ger by burning the animal poo. No electricity, other than a battery for a light. Hygiene is let’s say ‘different’ from what we are used to. Collecting poo for the fire and making dinner on a fire happens in one go. And we all tried not to look at the dishwashing brush. That thing was… something to forget, so grose. No fruit, about no vegetables and lots of sheep and goat meat with rice or pasta. When I say a lot, I mean really a lot. They are very skilled in putting as much food as possible on your plate! Maybe they thought those tall people need to eat lot…
Regardless of low comfort, we loved to stay at a nomadic family. It was fascinating to learn more about their nomadic life, the preferred Mongolian way of living. It was insightful to see another perspective of hospitality. One day our ger camp did not had any gers (too much wind to build them up), hence we had to stay unplanned with a nomadic family. For them it was the most normal thing in the world to have six additional people stay over for dinner and the night. They will never say no. Where else can you go in the middle of Gobi at the end of the day? It was cozy to eat, sleep and be in their gers, their homes. It was great to be in the middle of nowhere with stunning views around you with nothing. To be in the nature.