In the shadow of the hawk: a Mongolia adventure

Submitted by mike on Sun, 06/05/2016 - 10:31
Doogie, Alex and Mike in front of Ibex statue above Kahn Bogd Tourist Camp

Well what an experience this has been. A succession of quite randomly different places to stay, in some stunning locations, interspersed by gruelling amounts of long drives over rough dirt tracks through breath-taking landscapes. This is a big country, made all the bigger by the lack of paved roads, at least between any of the locations that we've been to. We've spent ten days, mainly in a Lexus 4x4 with two people we'd never met before, and who hadn't met each other before, performing a massive loop across the Southern and Central areas of Mongolia, spending the night in gers, and taking flying visits to some of the country's tourist attractions.

We are in Outer Mongolia, not as exiles but as visitors. Happy to leave Ulaanbaatar (Улаанбаатар), which is a busy, smoggy city, much like any other capital city, with fast food, buses, advertisements for bandwidth, and people carrying on their working lives. We were invisible (which I like) and could go about our own business without drawing attention until there is a need to communicate verbally and then we emerge from the crowd as obviously different and partially disabled. Travelling as a couple the tendency is to turn inwards and have less to do with real communication.

We were very undecided about how to go about spending our time in Mongolia in fruitful exploration of the whole, massive country. It's hard to tell in Ulaanbaatar how remote and inaccessible most of the country is and so we talked about taking a local bus to the southern city of Dalanzadgad (Даланзадгад) and then finding a way to reach a ger camp from where we could ride camels and visit places we wanted to see. In that way, I imagined that it would be like India or Thailand, and that we wouldn't need to find a tour guide to show us the sights. I confess to being rather put off by the idea of setting off with a driver and interpreter on an 'Adventure Tour' with a fixed itinerary. The idea of spending day and night with a couple of strangers, dependant upon and corralled into a busy schedule, forced to drink fermented mare's milk and eat eye balls so as not to offend my hosts, unable to toss aside the covers of my sweaty bed so as not to horrify the family who's ger we are sharing was rather unappealing and seemed almost like a cop out. A different family every night, each one marvelling at our ignorance in order to boost their local economy. How wrong could I be (and so often am).

Ulaanbaatar Skyline
Ulaanbaatar Skyline

Day two in Ulaanbaatar and we left the hotel on Peace Avenue in search of information to help us work out what to do. The traffic is intense in a way that I haven't experienced since visiting Naples 16 years ago: so many cars, horns blaring constantly and traffic police standing at the centre of busy crossroads, blowing whistles that it's hard to believe any of the drivers can hear. We decided to get out of the smog (which is eye-wateringly bad) and look around the State Department Store (malls are fast becoming the places we seem to gravitate towards, which is ironic because neither of us are happy shoppers).  Just inside the door we spotted the Tourist Information Office; maybe they could give us some tips. Upstairs we are greeted by a beautiful, friendly (Mongolians are beautiful in the majority), young woman who spoke excellent English.  We are quickly drawn into a confidence with her; we tell her about our concerns and confusion about touring Mongolia, and of our half baked plans to travel the 560km to Dalanzadgad by local bus.  She gently informs us that we may not want to do that, that she would never do that, that most Mongolians would never do that. Most importantly that when we arrived in Dalanzadgad we would surely be lost. She urges us to consider a tour with a driver and interpreter. We were reassured to discover that we could make the adventure what we wanted it to be with free days and dinosaur bones, hot springs and sand dunes. She promised us that she would devise a couple of tours and email them to us at the hotel where we could decide at our leisure which, if any, would appeal to us.

The options don't arrive until the following morning. They both involve visiting the same places: including the Flaming Cliffs, a camel ride on the sand dunes, a few days near the hot springs, a monastery or two, and a national park. The more expensive tour involves staying at more tourist camps and fewer Mongolian families. We really can't decide. We worry that we are being cowardly for being inclined to favour the tourist camps; that we will miss out on real experience if we opt for the impersonal, less gritty version. Mona waits patiently as we bicker about our hopes and fears. It doesn't occur to us that we can tweak both the options (We have realised that we are rather passive in this respect; we often take what we are given rather than asking for adaptations to be made when this wouldn't be a problem). Eventually we decide to opt for the more expensive tourist camp option (I'm rather worried about having to constantly drink mare's milk). It involves only spending two nights with a Mongolian family. We leave the tourist office to go and withdraw the money to pay for the trip; this amounts to US$1,420 each for eleven days travelling. To get the money Mike goes to a bank and has to withdraw in Mongolian Tögrög (Tughriks) first and then convert them to dollars. This makes him a millionaire briefly as he sits looking at the pile of 6,000,000₮ in 20,000₮ bills. He decides it's not feasible to carry around such an amount and decides to convert them into dollars.

The price includes a driver and vehicle, all fuel, an interpreter, all meals, all accommodation, a camel ride, and entry to all the places we'll be visiting. Even before we leave the Department Store we realise that we're still a little unhappy with the terms - we'd like to leave at 10am not 9am - and I make Mike go back and tweak the arrangements for the last time. Finally we are 'happy', although I'm scared stiff.

That night I toss and turn. When I do sleep it involves alarming dreams of natural and unnatural disasters. We have asked to be picked up at 10am; this gives us plenty of time to breakfast, gather our things (leaving a suitcase and a few bags in the left luggage, behind the reception desk) and check out. A call comes through to our room around 9.30, it is our interpreter, here already! There's no backing out now! When we get down to the hotel lobby, I try not to look around for our guide and driver; I'm in denial about the days ahead. Could it be her? Could he be the driver? I avoid eye contact with all potentials. As we stand at the desk, a young woman comes and introduces herself. She is Doogie, our interpreter. Next we are joined by Baagii, our driver; their real names are virtually unpronounceable for us. I notice that Doogie is wearing an especially groovy pair of boots. I tell her that I like her boots and immediately realise that we are going to get along; the shoulders drop a couple of inches. While Mike pays the hotel bill I go outside to put our luggage in the car but it isn't a car, it's a brand new, all terrain Lexus 4x4. "Wow, is this the car?", I ask. Suddenly it feels like we are doing the right thing; that in the hands of these two people we will be fine. They have never met each other, and this is Doogie's first adventure tour, but that doesn't worry us because it all feels right.

So off we set. First we pick up a supply of water from a supermarket and then head out on the paved highway from Ulaanbaatar. Leaving the myriad skyscrapers, apartment blocks and coal-fired power stations behind us, we quickly find ourselves in open county with herds of horses roaming around. We have a 600km drive to where we're staying; a ger camp near to the southern city of Dalanzadgad. We stop for lunch on the way in Mandalgovi and having explained that I'm vegetarian, find a delicious meal with tofu in it. After that we continue on and arrive in Dalanzadgad. The road thus far has been paved and there's really hardly other traffic on it. Dalazadgad is quite primitive with some stone and wood buildings in the centre: a restaurant, a hotel, a cafe, a shop; the outskirts are largely what the folks here call 'ger districts'. These are smallish fenced-in properties with a ger and a wooden structure. Doogie says that in the winter people use the house, and, when it's warmer, the ger. I try to imagine how Mike and I would have faired had we followed our initial plan to head down here by bus.

We continue to our ger camp. Leaving the road, we head off over open country. We arrive, it's a tourist camp called Kahn Bogd, which is the name of a number of rulers of Mongolia, but I think refers to the last one, who was bumped off by the communist uprising in 1921. And suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, there's multiple gers to stay in, with proper beds, and wood burners. There's a toilet and shower block (hot showers and flush toilets), there's electricity and lighting in the gers, and there's a dining hall all laid up for our dinner.

Glacial ice pack in Bust Ulan
Glacial ice pack in Bust Ulan

The next day we head out to the Eastern Beautiful Mountains and the valley of the Bearded Eagle and Red Canyon (Bust Ulan). Then we leave the paved road and onto a dirt track for a 200km drive into the depths of the Gobi desert; around 800km south of Ulaanbaatar. As we trundle further and further across desert plains for what ends up being about five hours drive, Mike wonders where the hell we are going and how on earth there can be anywhere to stay out here in this wilderness, so far from civilisation. How wrong he is. Eventually from out of the horizon, like a mirage, appears another Tourist Camp, called Gobi Erdene. This one at first glance is very posh and there are many wooden houses to stay in as well as the gers. There's electricity, hot showers, ping pong, pool, chess, a dining room, a golf driving range, and even a laundry service. The restaurant also sells cold beers.

Over the course of the rest of our journey, there have been some seriously uncomfortable moments, primarily as a result of our Mongolia ignorance and our inability to imagine the implications of our plans and ideas (We do have a Lonely Planet Guide, but it's only marginally helpful and tends to encourage travellers to do the same things, stay in the same places, and eat in the same restaurants). The itinerary we've were given only told part of the story and there were at times heartaches and frustration when it dawned on us that we would be spending six out of eleven days in the car. Our guides had been given a more comprehensive version of the tour and this meant that we were occasionally surprised by arrangements, and not always pleasantly.

It must have been hard for our driver and interpreter, who eventually realised the gap between our vision (that we had been unable to communicate to the tourist organiser despite thinking that we'd made ourselves clear) and the reality of the actual tour. Baagii, our driver, and Doogie, our interpreter, were amazing. Mongolians pride themselves on their adaptability but I think that we have pushed that adaptability to its limits. Baagii, for his part, is a master of the tourist industry: a camp director of many years experience, a skilled all-terrain driver, tour business owner, graduate in tourism, guitarist, friend to every ger owner from Ulaanbaatar to Gobi; he has also been patient, kind and caring, supporting us through what we have found to be an adventure that we didn't expect and weren't prepared for. Doogie on the other hand was on her first mission as a tour guide to the Gobi and beyond and she had to contend with so much more than she bargained for, especially the conflict between what we were expecting versus what had been planned for us. We really were so ignorant and innocent of the many things that were in store and I have struggled to remain philosophical and stoical (another proud trait of the Mongolians) when the reality of our journey has gone beyond my own endurance. There have been tears of frustration, words born of exasperation, and inevitably changes made to the itinerary, with all the accompanying phone calls and cancellations that that involved, but at all times their overall intent was to give us an experience as good as we could have hoped.

Alex in a ger - note washing line with smalls out to dry
Alex in a ger - note washing line with smalls out to dry

Every night has been spent in a ger.  There are three basic types of ger accommodation when on a tour like ours: staying with a Mongolian family, which is essentially a herder family with a spare ger; staying in a relatively basic ger guest house, where they might have a few guest gers and somewhere for a bite to eat; and staying on a fully blown Tourist Camp, which is the Mongolian equivalent of Pontins. We've mainly done the last of these and the facilities have varied somewhat, but the basic Tourist Camp ingredients are a restaurant, a shower and toilet block, gers with beds, sometimes doubles, and occasionally a games room with pool and ping-pong.

A ger, also known as a yurt (from the Russian/Turkic Юрта) is a round structure whose walls are made of wooden trellis.  The centre of the ceiling is a circular wooden wheel supported by two or more uprights.  Wooden poles run from the tops of the walls to the centre and create the roof.  The ger is covered with layers of panels made of wool and a waterproof outer fabric to finish off.  The starting point for construction is the door, which is a proper wooden door and frame.  Covering the centre top of the ger is a piece of canvas that can be flapped open or shut by the use of a traditionally camel-hair rope.  The trellis is traditionally fixed together using dried hide ties and hair.  The floor can be on earth, concrete, or a wooden base.

Yak milking in the Orkhon Valley
Yak milking in the Orkhon Valley

We spent one night with a herder family in the beautiful Orkhon Valley surrounded by yaks, sheep, goats, and horses. When we arrived we had done yet another gruelling 240km dirt track drive and we hoping for something a little bit more luxurious, but we had a relatively comfortable ger and the family were friendly. There were no showers and it's not the done thing to wash in the river (as it's a source of water for land, livestock, and people), so, as there was a wood burner in our ger, we asked for a bowl so we could heat water to wash with. Shortly after we spotted a young man from the family going in to our ger with the kitchen sink from the herder's own ger for us to use! The water was sadly tepid and there wasn't much of it, so we had to ask again, and eventually ended up with an aluminium bowl to put on the fire and gallons of water to heat.  We particularly liked the improvised taps they had, which were plastic bottles fixed to wooden posts; you unscrewed the cap a bit and water trickled out. The food was a little challenging though; their main source of food stuff is yak milk. Shortly after arriving they offered us a plate of yak cheese with a very, very liberal dollop of clotted yak cream; it was very fresh and very yakky. Breakfast included some fresh yogurt (I think from yak) and some jam made from yak milk (you are probably starting to get the picture). The jam was incredible and worked well with the yoghurt.

We stayed another night at a ger guest house alongside the Ongi river, and although basic, this turned out to be one of our favourite spots. The ger was small but beautifully painted and the beds were softish-hard. There was a main building in the style of a Scottish castle, which was where we ate, and they sold cold beers. The couple running the camp we friendly, especially the lady running the place and doing the cooking; the food was pretty good. Alex being a vegetarian creates a bit of a challenge for people, but everyone's been accommodating and rustled up something for her. At the Ongi guest house, we found a packet of tofu that we had with us, handed it to our host, and she produced a delicious meal with it about half an hour later. Mike went veggie for that one, as he was struggling with every meal containing either beef or mutton; he was having terrible trouble with meat getting stuck in his ageing teeth.

Mike and friend Aggi jam at Tsenkher Hot Springs
Mike and friend Aggi jam at Tsenkher Hot Springs

The beds have been a bit of a challenge as well, especially for Alex, as they are generally made of packed sawdust and quite hard. Oddly though the two most uncomfortable beds were at the uber posh Tourist Camp in the Gobi, and probably our favourite camp, the Orkhon Waterfall Tourist Camp, which had sprung mattresses. Again it's really hard to tell what's going to be good, and what's going to be more challenging (for a couple of old codgers like us). One thing that has really helped to bridge the communication gap has been Mike and his guitar. Music and song crosses all divides and some of the loveliest moments arose out of Mike playing and singing much to the amusement of all who could hear. Children at The Orkhon Waterfall camp and workers at the Tsenkher hot spring watched and joined in with enthusiasm. Baggi revealed his own skills as a musician and filmed us singing ‘Jolene’ (our best rendition). Later he could be heard replaying this on his phone; we felt like pop stars!

For those of you who'd like a more touristy perspective on the things we've seen, there now follows a list:

Yolyn Am (Ёлын Ам)

We descended the Valley of the Bearded Vulture in the Eastern Beautiful Mountains on our first full day. This was a beautiful several mile trail of greenery and stunning cliffs that turned from valley to canyon. We walked along what remained of the glacier as it melted in the Spring sunlight. Around us pikas (little hamster like creatures) frolicked amongst the alpine flowers as they tried to avoid the claws of the beaded vulture and the telescopic lenses of eager visitors.

Khongoryn Els (Хонгорын Елс)

Sand dunes in the south Gobi Desert. The Gobi's not endlessly rolling sand dunes, but rather mainly rocky mountains and barren plains but these dunes are the real thing and they're enormous. From the floor of the valley the dunes rise some 300m at their highest point. We attempted the climb, but it was mid-afternoon, hot, windy, and we didn't manage to make it; we were a little physically and mentally ill-prepared for the excursion. I did see some photos of others who had made it and the views looked spectacular; especially at dawn.

The Orkhon Valley
The Orkhon Valley

Bayanzag (Ваянзаг) - aka The Flaming Cliffs

This is where Roy Chapman Andrews found the evidence that proved that dinosaurs hatched from eggs (as opposed to just materialising out of thin air) and it is a truly stunning set of cliffs and a canyon made of a russet-brown earth. The way the cliffs are carved away is oddly reminiscent of a quarry. Well worth a walk and we would have liked to spend longer except we were on a ferocious schedule to drive across country to our next port of call.

Ongi Monestary (Онгийн Хиид)

We declined to visit this one, preferring to sit by the river with a couple of beers, but Doogie said that it would probably be interesting if one was a Buddhist.

Orkhon Valley & Waterfall (Орханы Улаан Хурхрээ)

The Orkon Valley is stunningly beautiful. The Ulan river plunges down a waterfall and then joins the Ongi river on it's way to somewhere through an awesome tree-lined canyon.

Mike with some boiled eggs done in Tsenkher springs
Mike with some boiled eggs done in Tsenkher springs

Tsenkher hot springs (Цэнхэрийн Халуун Рашаан)

The springs are in a green and fragrant valley and gush out boiling water. The water is so hot that we were able to boil some eggs in it. This source of endless hot water was the reason why, some twenty years ago, a Japanese man who fell in love with the country founded the tourist camp we stayed in. Since then the valley has sprouted another four camps of varying qualities (ours being the oldest, shabbiest, and most rustic), each with their own hot water carried across the valley by a network of pipes. The people running our camp were very friendly and kind, and the food was about the most delicious we sampled, but the feel was of faded glory, and many things were dilapidated and in desperate need of repair. They had a spa pool with the very same hot spring water to bathe in and we spent a couple of enjoyable hours soaking in it.

Kharkhorum Museum (Хархорум Музей)

A very smart and informative little museum. It was constructed in 2013 and is very modern. It tells some of the history of Mongolia based mainly around the archaeological finds in the area (Orkhon Valley National Park). You find out about the waves of empires that the country produced including the Huns, the Turks, and finally the Mongols. There's lots of interesting artefacts and samples from everyday life back in the days of Empire.

Doogie, Baggie, Alex and the car in the Gobi desert
Doogie, Baagii, Alex and the car in the Gobi desert

Mongolia is a beautiful country with many diverse landscapes. The Orkhon Valley looked a little like the Highlands of Scotland; the Steppe is reminiscent of Dartmoor; in the valley of the Tsenkher Hot Springs, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in Powys; the Gobi looks a little like the Costa Blanca at times, but often like nowhere in Europe. Any semblance is just that: Orkhon may remind one of the Highlands, but it's the Highlands on steroids; it's an enormous landscape packed into a big country of enormous landscapes made all the bigger by the time it takes to get around on the rough roads. It's been an experience to get to know it; get to know it's people and their ways; get to know our lovely driver and interpreter; get to try the food and different gers. Everyone's been friendly, welcoming and helpful; it's the Mongolian way. But it's not been that easy, and although that is definitely due in part to our naivety and poor planning, it's also definitely not a trip for the feint of heart; if you like your holidays on a beach with a sangria in hand, then this is not for you. If you like landscapes, nature, off-road driving, roughing it a bit, meeting people, trying challenging food, walking or hiking, and seeing something quite different from the rolling green hills and dark satanic mills of dear, quaint old England, this could well be the place to come.

It's been a roller-coaster ride for the four of us, and we're pleased to say that we've ended up friends with Doogie and Baagii who were absolute stars; we couldn't have hoped for two nicer people to have spent the ten days of our Mongolia experience with.