Gers, Roof Cheese, Wizard Coats &Goats in the Gobi
Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
201Trip End Ongoing
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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
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.
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
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
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….
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.