Gers, Roof Cheese, Wizard Coats &Goats in the Gobi

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mongolia  , South Gobi Aimak,
Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Back in May when Tim & I were living the high life, watching Jeremy Kyle with breakfast in bed and kicking back booking and planning our travels, I remember the conversation we had about visiting Mongolia. The general agreement was that we could not go to Mongolia and not visit the Gobi Desert.  Having done some research we established that travelling outside of Ulan Batuur on our own was going to be pretty fruitless as there are barely any roads outside of the city let alone any public transport so we set about booking a tour.  The Great of the Gobi, that sounded perfect, 9 days and 8 nights being whisked around the best sights of the Gobi in a Russian truck staying with nomadic families along the way, perfect, with a flash of a credit card we were booked.

Oh if only we had really thought this through!

We were beginning to panic a little about this tour when the weather started to cool in Siberia and we were watching the temperature in Mongolia drop.  My mum has always told me that you lose 90% of your body heat through your head so off we went and bought woolly hats, sorted.

We met our tour organiser Manlai at our hostel the night before the tour began and we reminded him that we needed to hire sleeping bags like we had discussed back in May.  A look of horror flooded his face but he did his best to convince us that he had something to lend us and we would be fine.  We were off the desert; surely deserts are always scorching hot, aren't they?!

The next morning we were looking out of our window and we saw our chariot arrive, a big grey Russian Bus.  We were bundled in, saw some sleeping bags that looked like they were mad in the 80’s get loaded into the van and we were off to meet our travel companions.  This is another element that we had not really thought through, who on earth would be as mad as us and book this tour at the turn of the season.  Here we met Phil and Candy, a couple from South Carolina who had retired and taken to the road, hardened travellers with many a story to tell and thankfully the best travel companions we could have hoped for.  Phil and Candy had already been in Mongolia for a week and had been on another of Manlai’s tours and had also borrowed the same sleeping bags which we had been armed with.  They had had the foresight to go to a camping store to buy 4 season sleeping bags. Oh dear I fear that this is not going to be pretty.  They did their best to reassure us, but there was no hiding the fear in their voices!

So off we go day one and the introduction to the transport infrastructure in Mongolia, or the distinct lack of it.  Within minutes of leaving the city the roads vanish and are replaced with a maze of dry mud tracks where seemingly each driver has a preferred pathway.  Seemingly every pathway is sprinkled with pot holes, dried out crevices from the spring thaw and just random curves for the sake of a direction change.  The Bus did not have seatbelts but luckily on my side I did have a strap to hold onto when it got particularly bouncy and we were hitting the ceiling and clinging to each other to avoid injury.  1800 kilometers - that is how far we bounced around the Gobi on the Whiplash Express. Trust me we felt every single kilometre of it!

After about four hours on the 'road’ we veered off into a field and stopped, seemingly this was our lunch stop.  Our guide Enkee (Inca) and our driver Bataa (Barter) unloaded us from the truck and proceeded to set up a make shift kitchen in the middle of nowhere on the flattest part of land we had seen yet, behind us were a heard of Horses and a couple of gers and overhead eagles were circling, cool.  After a brief walk to stretch our legs and stop our bodies vibrating we were sat down eating pasta and vegetables, quite a feat considering the location and facilities.  Then another bolt of reality struck, this tour was not going to be taking us to lovely tourist destinations with museums and plush bathrooms, our bathroom was the great outdoors, my heart sank as I scoured the flat plains for a place to pee, oh this was going to be interesting.  Whilst squatting in the desert peeing on my trainers showing my bum to every horse, goat, eagle and person who happened to be in the vicinity I understood penis envy!  It is amazing how quickly your standards drop when you find yourself in a situation like this as by day 9 peeing in the desert had become second nature, with any small bush serving as a perfect device to preserve what dignity I had left, however my aim did not improve and my trainers definitely needed a wet wipe wash.

Back on the bus and after another 4 hours of bouncing we were unloaded and hit with the most freezing cold wind I had ever felt, the sun was shining but it may as well have been snowing given how cold it was.  Here we were at the Baga Gazriin Chuluu Mountain looking at the ruins of a small monastery and wishing we were somewhere warm.  Back in the bus and within 5 minutes we are at our first ger for an overnight stay.  Walking into the ger there was a distinct lack of temperature change, I looked longingly at the wood burner and willed the family to light it for us thinking it would turn the ger into a snug little nest, oh how wrong could I be.  This turned out to be possibly the coldest and worst night of our lives.  With a sleeping bag that would probably pass as a 4 tog duvet with a broken zip and blanket loaned by the family we got into our beds.  When I say bed, they looked like beds but mattresses are not a common feature in Mongolian life.  The base of the bed was made up of uneven wooden planks and where we would usually expect to find a mattress we found a piece of carpet.  Needless to say not only was this a little hard; there was a constant flow of cold air coming up through the carpet for an all-round cooling sensation which in summer is probably quite pleasurable.  When there is a gale blowing with a wind chill of about -10 this is not so good.  Tossing and turning was not an option as every time we moved our zips split open or our blankets fell off the shiny sleeping bag.  We slept in every item of clothing we had with us, thank goodness for our thermals as without them I think that frostbite would have been a reality.  The ger was freezing despite the wood burner being lit, this is because they don’t burn wood in the wood burners they burn dung.  We became experts after a few nights at identifying which dungs burnt the hottest for the longest.  Camel was one of the best, but only if it came in the form of a big dried pat, next was cow and after that horse.  I never thought I would contemplating the fuel efficiency of poo but each day as we arrived at our family ger we would be checking out their herds to see what fire fuel we would have, goats were never a good sign!

At this first ger camp Tim got his first glimpse of the traditional Mongolian coats, or Wizard Coats as we liked to refer to them.  They looked so warm and some of them were so glamorous with intricate gold detail and always worn with a yellow, orange or green sash belt which signifies long life.  Tim spent the rest of the trip trying his best to get a go in a Wizard coat.

Thankfully this turned out to be the coldest night that we experienced, the weather improved as we headed further south and we even stayed with families that would treat us like royalty and give us wood and even coal to burn, I can confirm that poo does not even begin to compete with the burning qualities of coal.

The beds did not improve.  On about day three having not taken off the 6 layers of clothes we were wearing we came into a fairly large town (by Mongolian standards) and were advised that they had community showers and for 2000 togrog each (less than £1) we could have a hot shower.  Bliss, clean hair, clean socks and underwear and we felt as good as new.  Although removing our clothes just confirmed how uncomfortable it is sleeping on wood and carpet as our bruised hips glowed black and blue.

Living with nomadic families was quite cool; many now have guest gers for tourists so we had a ger to ourselves.  Each morning we would wake up to see the family milking their goats, herding their camels or horses and going about their days.  They would invite us into their family ger and it was odd to see that they had TV’s telephones and sky boxes, some running from a mains supply, some from solar panels.  We occasionally had a light bulb in our ger running from a car battery that was linked to a solar panel but usually we just had a candle, but we adapted well to the basic lifestyle and slept when it was dark and got up when it was light.

Being invited into the family ger started off being really exciting, but very quickly the excitement waned as at each ger we were handed various offerings which it was rude not to accept but boy these offerings were bad….. Aside from checking out what animals the families herded to see what fire dung we would have for the evening we also became wise to what offerings would be forced upon us.  Goats meant milk tea and roof cheese, camels meant camel roof cheese and horses were worst of all this meant Airag or mares milk.  Milk tea was basically fresh hot goat’s milk which had been heated with some unidentified tea leaves; it tasted a bit like the cereal and generally had a nice layer of fat on the top.  Roof cheese was also made from goat’s milk and was rock hard and tasted like the most sour bitter chalk you have ever eaten.  We called it roof cheese as they would put it on the roof of the ger to dry out.  Camel roof cheese was the same as goat only more sour and pungent.  Then we get onto Airag.  Oh my, words cannot explain how bad this is, it is cold horse milk which is fermented so it tastes fizzy, the Mongolians drink litres of it to get drunk, there was not a chance that we could manage more than an egg cup full.  The last offering that we had was amazingly cow milk, how bad could this be?  Well this cow’s milk was being boiled within an inch of its life so that they could skim the top off to the make butter.  As we were handed a steaming hot bowl full, it tasted significantly better than all the other milks but the skin on the top just kept congealing leaving us with lumps of buttery skin in every mouthful.  Luckily I managed to pass mine to our driver Bataa.  The thought of these dairy delights still makes us feel a bit queasy.  Oh what I would not give for a nice piece of fresh English Goats cheese grilled on some crispy bread.

Whilst I am on the negative points of our nomadic experience, I can’t ignore the toilet situation.  Whilst not showering or washing when it is freezing cold and removing clothes is likely to result in frostbite is ok, the toilet situation just seemed to deteriorate as the trip went on.  Peeing at the roadside was a much more pleasurable experience than many of the long drops.  Some had doors, some didn’t.  Some looked like the floor might cave in and deposit you at the bottom at any second.  Some had flies (these were my least favourite).  All of them stunk to high heaven and really made me question whether I wanted to eat or drink for the remainder of the trip.  Tim and I reached a whole new level of our relationship on this trip as with his peg legs squatting is just not an option so escorting him to the log drop to make sure he didn’t fall in took us to places we never wanted to go and generally left Tim likely to fall in the long drop as I was bent over double laughing at his efforts to bend his knees and angle his bum over the long drop with his trousers around his ankles in the middle of the desert.  It was not a pretty picture; even the camels looked ashamed for him.   

On a brighter note we really did see some amazing sights, every day the landscape changed, from glass lands to mountains to sand dunes.  The wildlife was equally amazing, the herds of goats, horses, camels, cows and the odd yak were everywhere.  But we also got a glimpse of a heard of antelope and the birds of prey were magnificent, eagles, hawks, kestrels circled above the mountains and on the odd occasion we would see an eagle stood at the road side, it must have been 2 feet tall.  The most amazing sight was seeing a flock of vultures.  They looked like something from Jurassic park, they were easily over 2 feet tall and had a wingspan of more than 7 feet, we drove right up to them in our rumbling bouncing truck beeping the horn and they barely moved.  Magnificent creatures but I definitely did not want to come face to face with a flock of them in the desert.  Suddenly we understood how the animal bones we had seen were stripped clean.

We also met some interesting animals on one stop at the Yolinn Valley which is a narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains.  Most of the year this is an ice gorge but it is usually melted by the end of the summer.  Fortunately for us they had had some fresh snow fall in the days before we arrived so it looked suitable cold if not frozen.  Here we met Cow Mice, these looked like big fat mice with funny ears and they would let out a big squeal and dart across the path in front of us.  Seemingly they are used to tourists feeding them so are not shy at all. There seem to be as many little rodents in the desert as there were goats; we also particularly liked the ground squirrels that looked a bit like meerkats stood at the side of the road keeping watch.  I think that these are the reason the eagles look so healthy!  Luckily we did not cross the path of any snakes, scorpions, wolves or the lesser spotted Gobi bear that were on the sign posts at the entrance to the gorge! Phew.

One of the sights that we saw en-route was the White Stupa which is a cliff in the middle of grasslands which was seemingly formed when the Gobi was under the water.  It is a series of cliffs that are white and pink limestone and take the appearance of stalagmites 30 meters high.  Not only was this a great sight, the weather had improved and we were out of the woolly hats and actually feeling some sun on our faces.  The family ger we stayed at this night had our first heard of camels; Gobi camels have two humps, also known as a Bactrian.  There are said to be 2million domesticated Bactrian camels in northern China and Mongolia and only around 800 in the wild.  Another interesting fact is that these camels can go 30 days without water and during the winter they are one of the few animals that are able to eat snow to meet their water needs.  The most important thing to know about camels is that they are huge, they stink and they cry all the time.  When they park themselves outside your ger for the night you are going to endure a night of ‘maaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrs’ and ‘urrrrrrrrrhhhhhs’.  I was pretty much petrified of the camels and that was brilliant as at the next camp we were going to ride them.

So the next camp we finally make it to the real Gobi, the bit with some sand.  In my uneducated little head I thought everything south of Ulan Bataar was going to be sand, but no we had to drive for 4 days to get a sniff of it.  Boy was it worth the wait.  The dunes were amazing; our ger camp was facing a wall of sand so each day we had the most spectacular view whilst brushing our teeth.  We arrived early in the afternoon so after lunch had time to go and explore and to attempt to scale the dunes.  Note that I say attempt.  Initially we decided that the dunes directly opposite our camp looked the least steep to set off in our reefs and shorts with water and cameras.  After about 30 minutes of approaching the dune the land got wetter and boggier and suddenly turned into giant ponds.  Apparently not only is the desert cold with a distinct lack of sand, it is also surprisingly wet.  So we backtracked to the road and finally made it to the base of the dune, we climbed a little way up but as the sun was going down and the sand was cooling we decided to save the climb for the next day.

During the night at this ger camp we experienced something new. Something that I never anticipated.  The friendly heard of goats that had been surrounding our ger during the day decided to start ramming the ger.  They were hitting the outside so hard that at one point I thought I was going to fall out of the bed.  Luckily this also woke Tim up so we had a laugh and listened to the madness before they trotted back off to their pasture and we fell back to sleep.  Phil and Candy slept through the whole thing.  I think they thought we were mad or making it up.  I am not surprised when my explanation was that they were probably running up the ger like in the Matrix.

So day 2 in the desert and it is time for a camel ride.  The nomads don’t name their camels as during the winter the camels are called dinner.  So we took to naming all the camels Charlie.  We had met other travellers along the route who had already ridden camels and our heads had been filled with horror stories of the camels running off, falling off and most regularly wet camel dung being sprayed from the camel’s tail over the legs of the unsuspecting rider behind.  Needless to say I did not want to get on Charlie, but when else are you going to get to ride a 2 hump camel in the Gobi.  I begged Enkee to make sure I got a really slow dopey camel that would do nothing but plod along, seemingly that meant I got a giant of a camel who’s humps were so bent over they rested on my knees.  I won’t be holding onto them then.  Both Tim and I were as stiff as boards on the camels and I was watching the time just willing the hour to be over.  But in all fairness it was fun.   The sun was shining, we actually needed sunscreen (yay) and the camels slowly wandered across the dunes.  I did not have any fear of my camel running but I was in absolute fear of the rear ends of the camels in front.  Some camel train this was.  I had a camel bum directly in front of each foot and with every sudden stop I feared that my feet would be lost for good in the rear end of a camel.  I can’t believe that some of our nomadic families were so mean with the camel dung fuel.  Boy do these animals create a lot of fuel!  Safely back at the camp and on our own two feet we bid Charlie the camels a fond farewell and limped off like John Wayne.  Those camels are wide and the carpet saddles did nothing to protect our delicate bottoms.  More bruises to add to the collection.

So now came attempt number 2 at scaling Everest, well the Gobi sand version.  We were still adamant that our initial location was going to be the best route so we walked to the dunes and backtracked across to where the dunes looked flatter.  Oh my can those sand dunes look deceptive from a mile away.  As we started to climb along the ridges it definitely seemed like the best idea to go further but at less of an incline.  This would have been so had it not been for the sheer sand face that we reached.  The sand in front of us must have been at least on a 75 degree angle.  Tim was convinced that we could get up it and as it was spattered with the odd tuft of grass which held the soft sand together a little better.  Tim had borrowed Candy’s walking canes so whilst he had peg legs he still had an advantage over me, which was quickly realised when I am laid flat out face first holding on to the smallest tufts of grass to hand feeling like my heart is about to pump out of my body.  My cries of "Tim I am not sure we can do this" were brushed off with reassuring yelps of “we are nearly at the top”.  After about 2 hours of huffing and puffing and water breaks and clinging on for dear life whilst watching a small avalanche of sand slide into my face we reached a piece of sand where we could finally stand again and check our options.  As it was our options were climb a 90 degree cliff of sheer sand with not a plant in sight or turn around admit defeat and slide down the mountain on our bums.  Option 2 it is.  Going down was significantly more fun than going up and the sand made and odd growly noise as we slid down it.  We may not have reached the summit and got a good view of the dunes, but boy did we have fun trying.  It was quite funny looking back from our ger camp at the dune we tried to climb.  It actually looked a whole lot more sheer on a second inspection, oops.

One thing that I have forgotten to mention is that our trusty Russian truck had done a good job of getting us to where we needed to be but on occasion we would be driving along with Bataa hanging out of the door listening for something.  We soon became used to this and it generally ended with an impromptu stop somewhere for lunch whilst spare parts were sourced and the truck was repaired.  This is where the cultural differences of Outer Mongolia differed from pretty much anywhere in the Western world.  On days when it was a bit too cold to stop and have lunch in a field and when the truck needed repairs  we would just pull up outside a random ger and within minutes we were sat on their sofa with milk tea and roof cheese in hand.  Can you imagine if someone turned up on your doorstep and asked if they could use your kitchen to make lunch?  Some of the sights we saw during these stops were the best of the tour.  One ger had a drunken man passed out asleep on the floor; apparently he was just separated from his wife and had taken to boozing and sleeping on friends floors.  I would have loved to see his face if he had woken up and seen 4 westerners sat eating rice watching him sleep.  Other days the families were sat around watching movies like Titanic.  At another of these impromptu stops we finally got to see a child, they all seem to have been at school age and were away at school.  The most adorable little girl called Yogi; she was 3 years old and was adorable although her favourite game of eating rocks left me a little concerned, I was much happier when she was chewing on the dustpan brush.  Some of these stops were a little less impromptu than we thought and Bataa our driver had mapped his route to drop in on family and friends.  One day Bataa had stopped by a little shop and had bought a big box of Choco Pies (these are like Wagon Wheels) and we thought that we were in for a treat after lunch.   No these were actually to be traded for Airag when we stopped for lunch.  The usual procedure for these stops was that Bataa would pop his head into the ger and ask if it would be okay for us to stop for lunch, next we were in the ger generally feeling a bit awkward awaiting our dairy treats.  This one day we faced our biggest surprise yet.  As we walked into the ger the family had freshly slaughtered a goat and were in the process of beheading, skinning and hanging the meat.  You might think that this is something that Bataa might have mentioned to us in case we were a bit squeamish but no.  In all fairness it is one of the coolest things I have ever seen and it made the experience that bit more special.  They have to skin the animal inside to avoid spilling any blood as this will attract wolves and will endanger the rest of the herd, but it was something of a sight to see a goat head lying at the foot of a bed next to the mum’s slippers.  Once they were done with the meat the innards were washed and prepared to make some kind of blood sausages, literally nothing went to waste and before long some of the ribs had been boiled and were being passed around.  I suddenly felt the need to pee in a field and made my escape.  My Mongolian hadn’t progressed to I am a vegetarian and even if I knew how to say it the concept is alien so I got out whilst I could.  Once it was safe to return I got back to the ger to find that the mum of the family was trying to teach Tim an Airag drinking game.  Boy this is a game that you want to know the rules.  We played for a good 20 minutes, lost numerous times and still had no idea of the rules, it was a bit like paper, scissors, stone but each finger just beat another finger. Needless to say we drank our fair share of Airag that day!

Enkee, our tour guide and cook for the duration of the tour did an amazing job of creating something from noting when it came to our meals.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all prepared at the side of the road, in a random ger or by the light of a single candle.  She never let us down, whilst by day 8 we were all a little sick of vegetables with either rice, pasta or noodles, you had to give her credit for the effort she put in.  Some mornings we even had pancakes!  The best dinner by far was Mongolian dumplings which were like little fried pasties, yum.  I did get the better end of the stick being the vegetarian as the others ate some mutton which Enkee bought in the black-market for about 5 days solid, even I was feeling sorry for them.  For once the veggie comes off best, yes!!

Now for some more sights.  One of the most spectacular sights we saw was the Flaming cliffs of Bayanzag.  Other than looking amazing and glowing orange and red in the sun, this is said to have been the birthplace of the dinosaurs.  In the 1920’s an American palaeontologist Roy Chapman found the first ever dinosaur eggs at this sight.  Tim and I had a good poke around and other than finding some camel bones and some fossilised moss we came back without any dinosaur remains.  Gutted.

We also visited the remains Ongiin Khiid, an 18th century monastery which consisted of 17 temples - among them one of the largest temples in all of Mongolia. The grounds also housed 4 Buddhist universities. It was completely destroyed in 1939 by the then president and leader of the Communist Party of Mongolia. Over 200 monks were killed, and many surviving monks were imprisoned or forced to join the Communist controlled army.  After having some time to wonder around the ruins we set off to our first tourist ger of the trip.  We had high hopes of soft beds, showers and western toilets.  We were not completely disappointed, we had a western toilet.  What made this camp so depressing was that next door was the crème de la crème of tourist ger camps, the roofs were all sealed and it generally looked so much more inviting than our funny little camp.  The strange thing was that despite being over the moon about having a western toilet, it was so cold I still ended up squatting over it!

Our last day and we got to some more ruined monasteries.  Basically all monasteries were destroyed in 1939 under the communist regime and over 10 thousand monks were killed.  This particular monastery was in the city of Kharkhorin which was the ancient capital city of Mongolia in the 13th century.  There are some museums on the sight which preserved some of the ruins, but there is also a reading room where local monks now come each day to read.

Our last night and another tourist ger, our hopes were not high but amazingly this turned out to be the best yet.  Hot showers for 3000 togrog (about £1.50), soft beds, extra blankets, a cafeteria where we could eat our dinner at a table, wood & coal on the fire and even a souvenir shop with a wizard coat for Tim to try on.  Before dinner we were relaxing in the ger and a man came and introduced himself and told us that he would be putting on a music show in the cafeteria after dinner for 6000 togrog (£3) we literally could not say no, but it was awesome.  He played the horsehead fiddle, a strange board with strings, the flute, the spoon and he even did some throat singing as he liked to call it.  He also had a really cool wizard coat.  Amazingly he was only 60 years old, but Tim and I felt like we had aged about 10 years in 9 days so the Mongolians are definitely made of tougher stuff than we are.

The final route back to civilisation was a tarmac road for 400 kilometers, amazing. We could actually have a civilised conversation, could sip water, eat chocolate and could take off our coats without risking life and limb.  We laughed because most other groups we met had done this trip in the reverse to us so have the comfort of the tarmac road and tourist gers at the start of the tour. For us everything just kept getting better and more comfortable, for them they must have been crying by day 9!

Ulan Bataar was a stark change to the beauty and silence of the Gobi.  Mad traffic jams, pollution, car horns beeping and a general smog in the air.  I actually think we are going to miss our gers and goats.

We may have been uncomfortable, cold, peeing on our feet, had our bodies shaken, rattled and rolled. But we are so pleased to say that we did it.  Anyone that comes to Mongolia and doesn’t get out and get involved with the nomads really hasn’t seen a thing.  This is an amazing country and we only saw a tiny glimpse.  Perhaps one summer we might come back a little more prepared and see some more, who knows.

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Tony James Slater on

Wow, awesome post! I'm off to Mongolia myself in a couple of months, so I'm eager to find out all I can - and this was very informative! And a little bit intimidating... Hm. Might need to pack something warmer than my novelty R2D2 beanie... :0)

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