Days spent – 8 days (1 September 2016 to 9 September 2016)
Places visited – Ulaanbaatar
Things done – Tour
Highlight(s) – Cheapness
Lowlights(s) – Tour
Cost – £492.92 (£61.62 per day)
Warning: This blog contains content that some readers may find distressing.
My last border crossing feels as though it was on the other side of the planet. I guess it sort of was, only thirteen days in Russia but vast distance covered. The Russia-Mongolia border is worse than the last one. This is because the Russians like to check you on the way out also and the Mongolians of course check you on the way in. About three minutes after getting through customs, I get stung by a wasp. Sudden panic. Have I been stung by a wasp before? I don’t know. Where is the nearest hospital? I don’t want to know. But after five minutes the pain subsides and I seem ok. Panic over.
The only real way to see Mongolia is on a tour, so by the next morning I’m on one! The going is slow as most of it is off-road so there is a lot of travelling. In fact, I’ve travelled for over forty hours in the last four days. That’s enough really… That evening we stay in a ger, which is a circular nomadic tent with a hole in the roof for sunlight and ventilation. Here lives a family of nomads. They have a girl of about eleven and a boy of about four. The boy is a pretty cool dude. He doesn’t have much but entertains himself with a rope and interacting with passing tourists. He wanders into our ger after dinner, he looks around and takes in the surroundings whilst thinking what to do as kids of that age do. We wonder what he will do, he then pours us all a tea. Bayarlalaa. He then unceremoniously kicks the cat out of the ger and off he goes.
Part of this tour is a ‘free’ camel ride, which is an experience. Firstly, they smell. This is my third day without a shower but I think I’ve found something that has a worse odour than I do. It’s a bactrian camel which means I’m sitting between the humps. The rear hump isn’t as comfortable a backrest as you might think, and the ride in general is about as comfortable as you’d imagine. Luckily, it’s only forty-five minutes to the dunes and the same back, which is bearable. But the worst bit is that all the camels are tied together in a train and there isn’t much room for maneouvre so more often than not your leg is crushed between your own and the adjacent camel. Getting back to camp is a bit of a relief.
The food in Ulaanbaatar is great and cheap. Everything is a combination of meat, rice, vegetables and cheese. The tour food is subject to how good your guide is at cooking! On that score our group gets a little unlucky, but more on that to follow. On our tour we try airag, which is fermented horse milk and it’s what the nomads get drunk on. It’s disgusting, I didn’t think it would be possible for something to make lemon taste sweet. On our tour the food is hit and miss so as a group we pay to get a goat killed. Our share costs just over four pounds each! Bargain. They kill it by cutting a hole in its underbelly and then reaching in and squeezing the heart, the blood erupts up the arm of the man whose duty it is to do the deed. The first meal is goat barbecue. They cook it by heating up stones in a wood fire and then throwing them in with the meat and putting the pot on the gas. Before the barbecue we try goat heart, stomach, liver and other obscurities. None of it is particularly horrible.
Time isn’t a fact, it is very much a concept here. Dinner is when it’s ready, we leave when everyone is here, buses leave when everyone that wants to go has gotten on. The train out was the only thing on time in Mongolia and I wonder if that’s just because it’s run by the Chinese!
Another point of note is that you can be miles from civilisation. Light is powered by car batteries, to turn it off one just takes the clamp off the battery node. Once done the darkness is total, go outside and look up until your neck hurts. Because you will, for the night sky is fantastic. Until you’ve seen the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the other you haven’t seen a good night sky. I think about just how insignificant we really are.
I should mention costs because Mongolia is the cheapest place I’ve been to so far. There’s a good reason for this, it’s quite a poor country. Day one, I get lunch at a roadside cafe, I get a taxi about four miles to central Ulaanbaatar (shared with an American) and I get dinner in a middle-range (but fancy for Ulaanbaatar) restaurant. Total cost of that is seventeen thousand five hundred tugrig, it sounds a lot but it works out to six pounds. The tour however, is not quite so cheap. I take a million out of the ATM (I know – but the exchange rate is two thousand, eight hundred and ninety-five to one!), most of that goes on the tour although to be fair I probably spent ninety per cent of my time in Mongolia on the tour. For this reason, the total costs are a little unfair, but it’s really the only way to see outside the capital city.
As you may remember, I succumbed to a thriller, Gone Girl. I finished it in Russia but forgot to write about it in that blog! It’s good, very good. In fact, I’d say it has the second best characterisation of any book I’ve ever read, second only to The Beach by Alex Garland (the film was an adaptation of this book but the film was rubbish). The only downside is the ending is a little bit of a damp squib, although it does leave the door open for a sequel…
So, with most of my time on the tour I feel I should tell you about it. To this day, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Some aspects of the tour were great, some, well, weren’t! On the downside, the food was indifferent. One evening, after spending ten hours of that day on the road and having not eaten for seven of those hours, we were given one bowl of soup for dinner. I felt that took the piss a little. Did I mention we travelled for ten hours that day? Yes, twice in fact I believe. Unfortunately, everywhere is so far that every day is at least six hours on the road. If only the Mongolians had heard of infrastructure! But, the straw the broke the camel’s back (how appropriate is that phrase for this blog?!), came when we were at the dunes. We are to head for the highest dune at six and climb it to see the sunset. In typical Mongolian fashion, six comes and goes, then we have dinner… Eventually we’re off and have fifteen minutes to climb this dune. Has anyone ever climbed a dune? Good lord, I thought my heart was going to explode as the goat’s had earlier just of its own accord. Anyway, long story slightly shorter, we only miss the bloody sunset!
But the tour wasn’t all bad. It was a great experience and a good group with great people. We saw some interesting things even if it took days to reach them, but that gave me chance to learn some card and memory games! At one point, crossing the Gobi Desert, looking out of the window and listening to Jeremy by Pearl Jam, I nearly got that Lake Baikal feeling back, but not quite. Below is a picture of our group, good times, although I’m unsure as to why Alexander has his arm around me and not his wife!
Strawbs – written 13 October 2016, published 15 October 2016
Sukhbaatar Square, yeah that’s Genghis…
The Brits and the guide in a random cave
Hungover as hell when I took this the morning after
Tiring work this camel business…