Mongolia Trip Day 1 14.10.16

We have booked onto a five day, four night tour into the Mongolian Steppe to see wild horses, ancient Buddhist temples and the ancient capital of the Mongol horde founded by Chenggis Khan. We will be staying each night in a ger (yurt) with a local family.

I revel in the luxury of a shower and pack and the hostel owner introduces us to Badz, our English speaking guide. We wander downstairs and outside head towards a Soviet 4×4 called a UAZ where we are introduced to Moogii our driver.

Moogii loves his van. They are one.

We head out of Ulaan-Baataar at rush hour named after the adrenalin rush you get and we stop at a supermarket on the outskirts. It is recommended to take gifts to the families you stay with so we buy 3x bottles vodka (dad), 3x tea towels and soap (mum) and 5x bags of sweets (kids). We have no running water for 5 days so we also buy wet wipes and another bottle of vodka for ourselves. We are basing our hygiene routine on the Glastonbury model.

The traffic thins, the buildings become more run down, then we pass multiple industrial plots and finally we leave the city behind. We are able to see a black layer of pollution against the hills created by fuel burners in gers in the outskirts.

After around 80k we swing off the main road and bounce down a dirt track for another 15k until we are inside Hustai national park. Badz spots some Przewalski wild horses on the horizon so we stop and head towards them on foot. We pass marmot burrows, some of which are sealed with their own dung showing they are hibernating for the winter. We manage to get to within 250m of the stallion and his two mares before they run off. 

Down the valley, shaped like an arrow, marches a flock of sheep and goats with cattle to their rear and a few dogs either side. We stare transfixed as they seem in perfect formation hoovering up grass as they shuffle forward.

Back in the van Moogii demonstrates his superb driving skills as we bounce back down the dirt track to the tarmac highway. 

Eventually we stop for lunch of sizzling beef and peppers with rice at a service station, then its back on the road heading west.

We doze a bit after lunch but the scenery stirs us. We are driving down vast flat plains flanked on the horizon by shadowy mountain ranges. The road is dead straight disappearing to the vanishing point. This is the Mongol steppe; beige scrubland underneath bright sun and blue sky. It is an epic landscape. 

Moogii swings off down another dirt track without troubling the brake pedal and we bounce around for a while enjoying the scenery. In the distance we see a camp of tourist gers and our hearts sink. We head towards them but out of no where we take a hard right and drive over a dry river bed through a pack of camels onto another track and a while later we pull up at three gers and a stable.

The mother and young daughter emerge from the central ger looking ruddy and rosy cheeked. They smile and we shake hands and say hello and we’re invited into a toasty tent. In the centre is a cast iron hearth with a chimney pipe. There are three beds arranged around the outskirts of the tent interspersed by two cabinets, one used as a shrine and one used for kitchen equipment which has a small table next to it. One of the beds has a rope tied to it and on the other end is a toddler, crawling around safely away from the hearth. Dad is lying on the floor snoozing. They explain that he is ill but after we leave our guide reckons he has a hangover. We smile at each other and Mongol is spoken around us. I am offered snuff which is a traditional male greeting on the Steppe. Badz demonstrates by taking a pinch from the bottle onto his right hand, rubbing most of it away with his left index finger and then sniffing nothing from his left index finger. I copy him. Black Tea with salt is served with dried sweetened yoghurt.

A family helper arrives and we are led out for a camel ride. The family look on grinning as we mount them and are thrown forwards and backwards as they rise. Despite my English reserve and in spite of my cynicism I really enjoy it. A bright full moon rises behind a rock escarpment as we plod up rippled sand dunes with the Steppe tinged orange from the glow of the sunset behind us. A truely magical moment.

After a graceful dismount, we are back in the family ger watching mum cook goat stew in a huge wok on the fire. In front of the hearth is a box of dried animal dung which is used as fuel, on top of which sits a pile of lamb fat. Mum is adding bits of meat to the boiling water and things she made earlier, like blood sausage and inards sausage. A dough is rolled out and placed onto the stew and the boiling liquid ladelled over it to create a giant noodle. Eventually its ready. Mum removes goat pieces from the wok to a plastic washing up bowl and carves a few bits off to throw into the fire as an offering.

Finally, tea is served and the expression ‘in at the deep end’ springs to mind. We have goat kidney, lung, liver, blood sausage, inards sausage, ribs with a potato and some noodles. The expression ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ springs to mind and I start with the inards sausage. My senses are assaulted by rich flavours and unusual textures that I’m not used to. Aware that I don’t want to appear rude, I’m conscious of my facial expressions as I chew and swallow. Things become more familiar with liver and kidney and I like the noodle so much I eat Al’s too.

Al dishes out the presents to the family and the vodka is opened. The traditional way to drink is from a small round saucer that the host fills and the guests pass round. You drink using your right hand and toast ‘tok tooy’. The dad starts but I get the impression it is mainly for our benefit to kill any stomach bugs as it’s mainly us who drink it. We chat to Badz who asks us how old we are, we tell him and he exclaims ‘Wow, same age as my parents’. 

The bottle gets emptied and its dark outside so we hit our ger which heated by burning animal dung is about 30° and home to a thriving bluebottle colony circling round our lightbulb powered by a car battery. I’m told that to turn of the light I have to pull the cable from the battery and don’t touch both connectors at the same time.

Before turning in we head to the long drop bathed in moonlight serenaded by lowing cows.

Moogii slept in his van. Inseparable.

13.10.2016 Ulaan Bataar 

How excited are we to be in the capital city with the most vowels in it, and the capital of the most sparsely populated country in the world (4.3 people per sq m)? Answer – Very. 

After very little sleep we we woken up at 4.40am by the carriage attendant as the train crawled into the station. We have never done 650km on a train so slowly, it has taken us 24 hours. 

As promised a chap was there to pick us up from the hostel…. we felt like royalty! We arrived at the hotel at about 6.15am there was a hushed atmosphere when we got there as quite a few people we packing rucksacks in the main area for their trips into Mongolia or the train to Bejing. One chap had a bottle of Genghis Khan vodka, climbing equipment and 2 bottles of motor oil (we later saw him with a motorbike outside which went someway to explaining the motor oil). We are slightly dazed and quiet. Still we had WiFi so we were happy having a quick catch up with the vital events of the past 24 hours (none) .

Hostel owner arrived and our room was ready so we unpacked, showered (cold for me, hot for Guy who worked out the shower fitting was fitted the wrong way so hot was cold and visa versa) and we decided to stay awake and battle on through. Checking our tour information we then had to somehow get a couple million of Mongolian togrog out of the bank so we started our withdrawals. 

Some money obtained we decided coffee would be a great idea and so clutching our battered old money, held together with sellotape (no new fivers here!!!) we went to get some. I hadn’t quite got the hang of the cash so tried to pay with 4 20,000 togrot notes, the equivalent of £40. Guy quickly intervened and I eventually handed over a tenner for the three quid coffees.  

The sky was blue and the air seemingly)  clear so we wandered around the city and avoided being killed by mongolian drivers who aren’t that bothered about stopping at traffic lights, and certainly not the (voluntary) zebra crossings. Human shields were used. A lot. 

The place has a real feeling of Asia about it, one vendor had his stall set out with scales (for weighing yourself), telephone (for phone calls), cigarettes and matches (for smoking, of course). I didn’t jump on the scales as they looked like they wouldn’t take the shock and so I could end his livelihood. 

The place is really relaxed, there are knock off H&M, Mango shops, streets are shabby chic in their paving with the odd hole through the concrete, and everyone has really good pair of boots. Toilet paper has taken a nose dive in quality with toilet roll holders not having been introduced here yet (how they make anything from 1970’s Blue Peter is beyond me).

We did see a brown murky haze at the end of one street which had snow sprinkled hills in the distance and found out later that Ulaan Bataar has bad air quality, it was worse than Bejing yesterday!!! But the hills looked very picturesque. 
There were plenty of restaurants with mongolian food on offer however we had our hearts set on an Indian restaurant behind the wrestling stadium (every town should have one) so got there easily and had a feast. 

We took our leftovers with us and had another wander around, it was glorious sunshine and we were taking off the layers of clothing whilst seeing statues and the very impressive square. We decided to take a rest in the square and watch life pass by, kids on roller blades whizzed past us, older people walked past in their clothes which looked like costumes to us but seemed to be normal kit for them and also the now familiar toy cars for cute kids to ride around the square until the battery ran out. It was a lovely relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

We managed to negotiate the ATM’s and got lots more battered old notes out of the machine and handed them to our hostel owner. 

Chatted to more travellers in the hostel, we have met loads doing the same route as us and just winging it. It seems strange to be back in a route again, but fun. We even met someone from Coventry! 

Ulan Ude to Mongolia 12.10.16

Up at 5.45am and a brisk 10 minute walk to the station. As usual we can’t see the signs for the platform but unusually there is no friendly Russian to help, so we follow two backpackers to a long train and ask a  carriage attendant who points to carriage 8 which is bound for Mongolia. Tickets checked by our first Mongolian crew and we say hello to Patrick our French cabin mate who has also just boarded. Mattresses are laid out and as its still dark we rest for a couple of hours until I’m woken by Patrick’s camera shutter repeatedly clunking. I look out of the window to see a beautiful rolling landscape tinged orange by the fresh sun and get out the compact camera.

Mongolian railways don’t provide a glass and silver holder like their Russian counterparts but a cup of tea from a papercup still tastes good. It is soon apparent that we are in the tourist carriage as I haven’t seen this many westerners in one place since Stockholm. Hellos are said and languages and accents eavesdropped upon. A windows is opened so we can take it in turns to get the vital ‘train round the bend’ Trans-Siberian photo that you simply must have. I decide to finally walk the entire length of the train to the back to get the other vital ‘tracks behind the train’ photo and am pleasantly surprised to find that our carriage is the end of the train.

We chat to Patrick and watch the scenery as from out of nowhere, huge refineries churn smoke with their ugly reflections polluting mirror smooth lakes.

Noise in the corridor. We look out to see our crew placing four boxes of bananas in a locker under the carpet. Nothing to see here.

At 1.15pm we reach the Russian side of the border. We are ordered off the train as are the prisoners in the jail wagon a few coaches down from us. Unlike them we are not handcuffed together in bunches of six and marched down the platform. We all stand transfixed, watching them as they stand and stare at us. We have paid for our ticket to Siberia. 

The distraction finishes and we chat and as travellers do, swap stories of where we’ve been and info on where we are going. The train is moved and sits and is moved and two hours later we are allowed back on. We sit in our compartments as the sniffer dogs and customs check us and then its time for passport control with the usual smiles and laughter. Not really. We all sit there, as if before our maker in solemn desperation hoping we get the stamp. We all do and four hours after we stop, we’re off again.

Sundown is coming so cameras are out and relief and excitement is tangible as we roll through no mans land. The Mongolian border guards wave at us and we are greeted at the station by two saluting soldiers. Immigration arrives and collects all our passports and we wait for two hours. Patrick tells me of a holiday he took in the south of the USA seeing bluesmen play in small bars and his enthusiasm is so great I want to fly there now.

After dark and the passports are back and off we go. Eventually the crew tell us to go to bed as we are going to be woken up at 4.40am for arrival into Uaan-Baatar at 5.50am. We crash but I’m very excited about seeing the capital of Mongolia and shifting into Asia.

P.S. – we arrive and say our goodbyes and as we walk down the platform we see the contraband fruit getting wheeled away. The trolley hits a dint in the platform and over the boxes go and and their value on the black banana market rises.