The Gobi

Trip Start Apr 01, 2001
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Thursday, August 23, 2001

Crossing the border from Russia into Mongolia was quite an experience. We were kept on the train, and out of the toilets, by armed Mongolian soldiers. We saw a group of Mongolians throwing bags of money out of the train window to a little fellow who stood on the tracks in the middle of "no-mans-land". Bubbles and Funky were sharing their compartment with a Mongolian guy who had the compartment stufffed with bodybuilding supplements. When the customs inspectors came on board to search the train he invited them to sit down and share a bottle of vodka with him. Then he gave them each a carrier-bag full of sweets and goodies, and stuffed a fist full of cash into their top pockets. The customs men left happy... This how business works in this part of the world.


We arrived in Ulaanbaator and were met by a young university student called "Sunset" - We later found out that his name is actully Sunse which is Mongolian for "Space" because he was born in 1981 - the year that Mongolia's first astronaut went into space. No one called him by his proper name ... he answered to "Sunset", Sunrise" and even "Sunshine"!

We piled into our "limousine"...a van without seats. Tonya sat on her backpack and Paul rather stupidly sat on the wheel arch - a guaranteed way to get a very sore butt. Mongolian roads are a disaster; they don't drive jeeps for nothing here. We arrived at the Palace hotel to freshen up - Luxury! This hotel is brand new and very smart. We had a shower, put on the disposable slippers and towling bath robe provided, watched CNN and BBC World on TV and vegged out on our king size beds. We paid $6 each for a huge buffet breakfast and pigged out on sausages, omelette, fried eggs etc.

Our Jeep arrived to take us on the 8 hour "Jeep Safari" (read uncomfortable long drive) to stay with some Nomadic herdsmen in the Gobi desert. Part of the journey was on tarmac roads, but they were so bumpy and full of potholes that we were bounced right out of our seats the entire trip. Luckily our Jeep had a tasteful powder-blue plastic padded ceiling so it didn't hurt when your head hit the roof. We saw several trucks loaded higher than we thought possible. Most were carrying sheep skins... mountains of fleeces; but others were transporting Gers with the nomadic family standing on the back of the truck clinging on to their belongings. We also saw a 2-trailer petrol tanker with a (live) sheep tied, standing upright, on the top of the drivers cabin!

The Steppe / Gobi Desert scenery is stunning but monotonous - mile after mile of gently undulating grasslands with the occaisional sand dune. The landscape is dotted with Gers and horses, sheep, goats and yaks wandering aimlessly around.

Our Jeep died on route, but luckily the Jeep drivers are also ace mechanics and it didn't take long for the problem to be identified and repaired.

We pulled over and Sunset produced a carpet to sit on and 2-tier lunchboxes containing cucumber and tomato in one section and greasy cold mutton noodles in the other. Tonya hardly ate any of the noodles - cold sheep fat is not her thing. Paul, however, devoured his

We arrived at Banyan Gobi where our nomaidic herdsmen hosts live in summer. There were two families and they had moved out of their gers iinto smaller onesss which would serve as their homes and the kitchens during our stay.. We shared a ger with Lucy & Henry and three vats of "airag"... stinky fermenting mares milk... a bowl of which we were each offered as a welcome drink.

There are no toilets at the gers... we have to walk almost a kilometre to the sand dunes and find a suitable shrub to go behind.

The next morning Paul woke us up with a cry of "I don't feel well" and rushed wretching out of the ger... Welcome to Mongolia! What had caused this? Most likely the bowl of fermented mares milk he drank when the herdsman welcomed us yesterday, or maybe those noodles from lunch. Paul couldn't face breakfast - a mutton sausage wrapped in a cabbage leaf, but Tonya took him a cup of tea and a piece of bread and jam. He ate and promptly threw up yesterday's noodles. Luckily, this made him feel better and we set off on the 85km off-road drive to the Erdene Zuie Khind ("100 Treasures Monastry") at Khara-Korum, 3373km south west of UB. This monastry was founded in 1586 on the site of the ancient capital of the 13th mongolian empire. It originaly had 100 Tibetan Buddhist temples and 1000 monks, but now only 5 or 6 temples and a handful of monks remain. In one of the temples, out here in the middle of the desert a mobile phone rang! If only Tonya had been videoing at the time!

After lunch Tonya videoed the herdsmen's 5 children and then played it back for them to watch - they thought it was great, and fell about laughing when they recongnised themselves.

Interesting facts about Mongolia:-

52% of the country is grassland and shrubs.
15% of the country is forest.
32% of the country ia desert vegetation
less than 1% of the country is used for human settlemnents and crops.

2.3 million people in Mongolia live in Gers

A Ger takes 3 hours to assemble, is made of felt, and the central stove burns dried dung - stinky!

Mongolian words we learnt:-

Nokhoi Khor = Hold the dogs (you shout this instead of knoocking on the door)
Bye-ella = Thank you
Sanbanoo = How are you? / Hello
San = Fine thanks

Mongolian food and drink we tried:-

Buuz = steamed dumplings with mutton inside.
Guriltai shol = Mutton noodle soup.
Khuu-shuur = Greasy donut pancake thing
Airag = fermented mares milk (3% alcohol)

We would not have survied withour our bottle of chilli sauce to spice up all that mutton.

Tourist Ger Camp

This part of the trip was a complete waste of time - the mongolians have set up several "Tourist Ger Camps" just outside Ulaanbaator for tourists who don't have the stomach for the real Ger experience. These camps have 30 or so Gers, with 4 beds in each, a separate restaurant and a toilet/shower block. Our "Epic" Russian Experience itinerary had us stay at one such camp for 2 nights. All we did was sleep and drink - extortionately priced "Khan Brau" beers. On the last night Paul counted 36 ($2) beers, 16 ($1) cans of fanta and 4 ($10) bottles of vodka between 7 people.

There was meant to be some form of entertainment - a traditional mongolian BBQ where they shove hot coals inside a sheep's carcass to cook it, and some throat singers / dancers /contortionists etc. But, because the camp wasn't full enough this entertainment never materialised.

Back in Ulaan Baator we visted the State Department Store which was rather depressing shopping experience - one floor sold sofas and carpets, another sold kitchen utensils, and the top floor sold "Souveners", but it was all junk - lots of plastic key rings and necklaces... all made in china.

We asked Sunset if there was anywhere that we could hear some Mongolian Khuumii - traditional throat singing - This was one of the reasons Tonya wanted to visit Mongolia and she had been harping on about it since we got here. Sunset suggested a "Cultural Show" at the "House of Children". So for $6 we were treated to 2hrs of:

Mongolian music
Tsam Dancing (Buddist Mask Dancing)
Khuumi - this was the strangest singing we have ever heard. A bloke who looked like a Sumo wrestler started squeaking and making sounds with his throat that sounded like a high pitched jews harp! Tonya just had to buy the CD! Clcik here to hear it for youselves
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