Golden Age Backpackers in Mongolia 2011
Doreen and John Berg
Mongolia, the soul of central Asia, vibrates with a haunting yearning. It’s a country of uniqueness both in people and in countryside. It’s bitterly cold in the winter and much of the country is desert, yet it has a vibrancy that catches your soul, as it most certainly did with us.
We travelled to Mongolia in October 2011 via the Trans-Siberian Mongolian Train from Moscow to Beijing, stopping at Ulanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. A beautiful sunrise had appeared over the horizon when a driver from our hostel drove us to the Khongor Guest House. Once we settled into our room with metal bunk beds, a sink without the drain and a small refrigerator tucked into a corner with a T.V. above it, we decided to go to the Amsterdam Café for coffee and apple pie for 14,500 tugriks ($12.00 CA).
One of the reasons we decided to stay at Khongor House was because we had read good reviews on their tours. We arranged to have Hurlee, an English speaking tour guide and a great cook, take us on a six day tour of the Gobi Desert along with Sumiya, our Toyota 4x4 driver. It’s actually much easier with two, albeit more expensive, but we could choose our own schedule and stop when we wished to stop.
Next morning Hurlee met us in the office, ready to travel. Since Hurlee had just finished an extensive tour, I asked her if she was tired, but she confessed, “No.” Observing how she organized our departure, I agreed that she probably wasn’t tired. I think it’s a fact of youth! Before we knew it, we were packing our bags into the back of the vehicle. Hurlee had boxes of food and cooking utensils which the workers helped bring down to the vehicle. Sumiya had a large spare petrol tank behind the back seat which he covered with a cloth before loading the boxes of food, five-gallon water bottles, a stove, sleeping bags and backpacks. We were loaded down, but Sumiya was very organized and prepared for our desert safari.
We were off on our Gobi Desert Tour by nine o’clock on October 6th, 2011, and then got caught in traffic for over an hour, trying to skirt the problem area of Ulaanbaatar. Finally free! It truly felt different once we were out of the city. The sparse rolling hills lay before us as we entered the Gobi Desert. Our daily routine was to stop for lunch in a restaurant in a small village. We had steamed dumplings filled with mutton, onion, and spices which were delectable. This was a common dish which was accompanied by salty milk tea of goat, camel, mare or cow’s milk. Sometimes we had a stir-fry of mutton, potatoes, carrots, onions and cabbage. Pork and chicken are too expensive and unavailable! We saw many large herds of sheep and goats plus smaller herds of cattle and horses. It’s interesting to see the sheep and goats together and it reminded me of the Bible stories about sheep and goats. Interestingly, the goats are the leaders and the sheep follow.
We arrived at Erdenedalai, about 300 km from UB at 5:20 p.m. and Hurlee arranged a hotel room for us, while she and Sumiya stayed with a family. This was the only night we would be housed in a hotel. Since we were traveling in the low season, the nomadic families had already moved their gers to a winter location. We enjoyed a large clean room on the second floor with four poster single beds, but no toilet facilities within the hotel except a workable sink on the deck for washing, and a toilet located 100 meters to the rear. The hotel provided us with dinner which consisted of mutton dumplings and a salad of carrots, cabbage and pickles. We were all hungry and ate heartily before returning to the hotel room for tea, which Hurlee had made in large vacuum bottles. Next morning found us washing at the outdoor sink and packing our bags to be ready for a sharp nine o’clock departure. Hurlee and Sumiya arrived before nine to share our breakfast of bread, hazelnut spread (which I have never bought but fell in love with), butter, jam and coffee. This would be our breakfast each morning on the desert.
We drove from the Middle Gobi to the South Gobi Desert. We experienced a small sand storm but it didn’t cause any problems. However, Hurlee told us of taking a tourist group in a Volkswagen van when they were caught in a sandstorm and had to hunker down in the van until morning. To be sure the Gobi is a bleak harsh place of isolation with rough bumpy jeep trails and sparse vegetation but it excites the adventurer to experience wide open spaces and silent nights.
Our second day brought us to a small village called Mandatovoo for lunch and then to our ger at three o’clock in Bayanzag. We had driven 280 km. To obtain extra income the nomadic families built one or two extra gers to rent to tourists. Our ger had six single beds around the circular perimeter. The beds were standard length with wooden slats and thin mattresses. We were the only ones in the ger so John used two mattresses for sleeping. After putting our bags into our ger we went to the family’s ger, which is expected as they like to honor their guests. We were served camel’s milk which we thought tasted somewhat like buttermilk but stronger. Each ger contained a small dung-fired stove, a small table and often a few low stools. The outhouse was located away from the gers. The tourist gers seemed better equipped for comfort for the visitors.
At four o’clock we went to see the “Flaming Cliffs”, which means rich in saxual shrubs. This area was first excavated in 1922 and is world renowned for the number of dinosaur bones and eggs. The landscape is classic desert consisting of rock, red sands, scrub, sun and emptiness. We hiked to the top of the canyon facing a stiff breeze. Hurlee took photos of us jumping in the air as we pretended to fall into the chasm.
That night, Hurlee served us sushi along with vegetables and cold sausage meat. Who could believe sushi on the desert? Another culinary delight on this tour was having fried dumplings filled with chopped beef, potato, onion and garlic topped with dill pickles. They were very good and reminded us of the empanadas we had in Columbia.
After supper we played cribbage and then walked 100 meters to the outdoor squat drop toilet. By 9:15 we were tucked into our sleeping bags, comfortable and toasty. I got up once in the night to urinate and as I squatted behind the ger, I noticed that the stars were all at the “top of the circle” with no noticeable stars on the horizon. The moon was bright like sunshine!
The next day was Saturday, October 8th and Sumiya started the fire in our ger before seven with twigs from the saxual trees. It wasn’t long before we felt the warmth of the fire. The stove pipe was red hot and Sumiya went outside to pull the cover back from the hot stove pipe. We had our usual breakfast, packed our bags into the Toyota 4x4 and then joined the family in their ger to enjoy pieces of hard curd that looked like maple fudge but had a sharp taste like parmesan cheese. Since it was very hard I was able to nibble on it all morning.
I mentioned earlier that Sumiya carried a spare fuel tank in the back of the Toyota and it was here that he siphoned diesel from it. Each time he put his mouth over the hose to siphon the fuel I’m almost certain that some diesel entered his mouth! What a procedure to top up our vehicle’s fuel tank!
We drove from Bayanzag to Khongoryn Els, which took four hours. This area is famous for high sand dunes. On the way we took photos of wild horses in the dry tundra and goats amongst the rocky outcrops of the mountainside. At one spot we stopped at a well for fresh water. Hurlee pumped while Sumiya held the large water containers. The date scribed into the cement cover of the well was 2004. It is necessary to gather water where it is available as the water quality is sometimes poor at the ger site. As we arrived in Khongoryn Els the sand dunes appeared as mountains in front of us reaching approximately 300 meters in height.
After lunch of penne pasta and mutton and peppers we decided to hike the dunes. We were not prepared and we went without water and hats! Bad idea! We were gone at least two hours and once on the sand dunes with one step forward and two back we didn’t want to turn back. The sun is warmer than one expects and by the time we got to the top we were not only exhausted but thirsty and dehydrated. There was a wind as well which created some havoc to keep ourselves anchored. It was an experience we wouldn’t have missed and we skied all the way down the slopes keeping our heels firmly pressed into the sand as we slid. We kept chastising ourselves for not bringing water and hats but we worked our way back to the ger and rested for a short time before we were ready for the pre-arranged camel ride.
As we rode on the camels it felt safe sitting on the small saddle between the two humps. We crossed over small streams and travelled along the lower dunes with no problems as the camels are sure-footed with their wide even-toed hoofs. Although we seemed high up from the ground these Bactrian camels are much shorter than the Arabian, one hump dromedary camel. When mounting or dismounting the camel one must always use the left side of the camel or they get spooked. These ornery beasts with shaggy wool coats and long black eyelashes are low maintenance and can go for one week without water and one month without food. They are extremely useful as they provide milk, meat, wool, and dung for the fires!
Before we left, Hurlee had suggested I take my winter coat even though the sun was warm since she knew as the sun reaches the horizon the air changes from warm to cold! It’s amazing how the temperature drops on the desert. I took the hood of my coat and pulled it firmly around my head as the wind blew hard against us. John didn’t have his warm clothes on and he was shaking with cold by the time we returned to our ger where they had made a fire of camel dung which we greatly appreciated as we sidled up to the hot stove to get warm.
The next day we drove to the Yolyn Am Valley which has rocky cliffs and narrow, heavily shaded canyons. Ice remains in the canyon most of the year and as we hiked we saw patches of ice from last winter. This is a popular place in the summer because it’s cool and the temperature on the desert can reach 38 degrees Celsius. While hiking in the canyon we saw pikas which are small rodents that look like miniature rabbits. There are hundreds of these little creatures running along the canyon walls or across our path as we hike along. They are tawny/grey coloured with a high-pitched whistle. The deeper into the canyon we hiked the higher the mountains and the more shadowy the valley as the sun reflected off the upper peaks. We hopped back and forth over the small creek stepping on small stones until we came to sheets of blue-veined ice hanging from the cliffs. Cypress shrubs with blue berries grow in the canyon and local people gather them and sell them for incense. They also sell
miniature camels made from yew.
It was colder on this part of the desert near the Yolyn Am Valley so we used more blankets on our beds. When we got up at six in the morning to use the toilet, it was so cold we jumped back into bed to get warm. At seven-thirty the fire was started and then we got up and held our clothes near the stove before we put them on. After breakfast, we drove to the capital of Omnogov, the largest province of Mongolia. Dalanzadgad has a new large government house with large animal statues displayed at the entrance and some streets are paved, a novelty for any town outside of Ulaanbaatar. In this town is a public bathhouse where John and I had showers for about $1.60 per person. It was a treat since we hadn’t showered for a few days.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the South Gobi Museum and although there were few displays, one caught my eye. It was a very large fur coat made from about ten fox furs hanging in a glass case which belonged to a monk who was killed by the Russians. When Russia controlled Mongolia they purged the country of Buddhist temples and monks. In 1937 there were 700 monasteries destroyed and 27,000 monks and civilians were killed. The Mongolian Prime Minister was executed in Moscow with trumped-up espionage on November 26, 1937. This day is now a public holiday and is called Mongolian Republic Day.
Travelling across the desert is not like travelling on regular roads. Our driver bumped along one pathway and then turned sharply going cross country to connect with another pathway and eventually in the distance we would see some gers which were often our place of rest for the night. It is amazing that he could recall the roadways and where to find them.
The drop toilets are fascinating and only once we didn’t have a toilet and had to use the ravine. They are usually about 100 meters away from the gers and off by themselves. The nomads place two solid boards across a five foot deep square hole in the ground which are separated just enough to squat down to go to the toilet. There are three sides of canvass or in one case, metal sheets, surrounding the hole about three feet high to give one a little privacy. However, sometimes a goat or a yak will come around to say “Hello” while you squat. If the wind is severe in the area they will tie down the sides of the toilet with wires attached to spikes driven into the ground, and occasionally the toilet has a roof and even a door to latch but this is not common.
Our sixth day on the Gobi Desert brought us to Mandalgov, the capital of Dundgov. We drove to high cliffs of white limestone formations in Tsagaan Sunraga. We walked onto the cliffs and took photos of the violet lines in the limestone. It was very pretty but I was nervous on the top rim. It reminded me of Bryce Canyon in Utah, USA.
After lunch we drove to Baga Gazryn Chuluu where granite rock formations stretch into the sky precariously. The large rounded humps look like cow pies. There are remains of a monastery that was destroyed in the 1930’s. Apparently many monks were held prisoners here and then killed.
We stayed in Baga Gazryn Chuluu for the night and there was a brilliant lightning and thunder storm during the night, which we found unusual in the dry desert. From counting the distance between the lightning and thunder we felt it was from eleven miles away until it was nearly overhead. It pelted on the roof and onto the plastic opening at the center where the stove pipe projects out. The rain leaked through near John’s bed, but not seriously. By morning we had our yummy breakfast of yoghurt and hazelnut spread on large chunks of bread. As we left our campsite we retraced a section of the road we had taken the first day. Part of the road was washed out so we took a detour which wasn’t a problem for Sumiya.
Before returning to Khongor Guest House, our driver took us to Memorial Hill, seven kilometers north of the city center, which was built by Russians to commemorate unknown soldiers and heroes from various wars. From the top you can view Buddha Park which has a gold-covered 16 meter tall Buddha in the center of the park. To reach the top of Memorial Hill we had to walk 624 steps!
This was the end of our first desert safari in Mongolia. We decided immediately that we would like to do another one so we asked both Hurlee and Sumiya if they would take us again and they both said, “Yes.”
Our next Gobi Desert Tour was a fabulous four day excursion to Central Mongolia. We stayed in family gers once again. At one ger we enjoyed helping a family’s two young boys shovel dirt into buckets and place the dirt around the perimeter of the tent while the parents laid a piece of oilcloth on the floor and attached a pipe from their stove up through the hole in the roof. This was an autumn ger of short term before they moved into the winter ger nearer the mountain.
While staying in the family ger we observed their organizational skills. Part of the end of each bed had storage bins and they had five small towels hanging above a gas washer and dryer for each member of the family. A small bucket above a cupboard held toothbrushes and toothpaste. The family members kept coming back to this ger to gather items they needed. Understandably! The two boys attended school in town and lived in dormitories during the week.
We left after breakfast and drove to Kharkhorin, the first capital of Mongolia,
established by Genghis Khan in the mid 13th Century. It remained the capital for 40 years until it was moved to Beijing when the Mongol Empire collapsed.
The Buddhists built temples in the 16th Century which were destroyed during the Stalin purge in 1937, but three remained. We visited Erdene (treasures), Zuu (100), and Khild which holds three temples and saw 108 stupas around the wall. On the hill above the temples a huge map displays the different empires – Hunnu Period, Turkic Period, and Mongol Period.
We had a glorious experience on return to our ger. An older Mongol, who played four different instruments, gave us a personal concert. He normally plays in the restaurant nearby but since we were the only guests, we asked if he would like to come to our ger and he willingly obliged. He played the flute, the horse fiddle, the harp and a violin. He also sang using different parts of his voice- nose, tongue, throat (most difficult) and chest. We bought one of his discs and have enjoyed it ever since.
The final day of our tour was to find takhi, also known as Przewalski’s horse, with a visit to Hustai National Park. This particular park distinguishes itself by implementing an eco-volunteer program in research activities of reintroduction of wild horses. This park was established in 1993 and is 100 kilometers southwest of Ulaanbaatar. There are 50,000 hectares of land and many other animals live here too, such as, wolves, deer, yaks, steppe gazelle, lynx and boar as well as many birds. As we drove into the park with our guide we were not disappointed as we soon saw Asiatic red deer on the bluffs and within half an hour we caught a glimpse of the takhi. What excitement! We took lots of photos and worked our way towards them, spotting another group of horses as well as a huge herd of deer. It was magical! John and I went further down the hill towards a gulley while the others stayed on the crest of the hill. We had to move very quietly and slowly as they spook easily. On our return to the main entrance we spotted more horses right beside the road. This was a great find as most people are lucky to view any. It was a successful and glorious day!
Before leaving Ulaanbaatar we visited the State Department Store and found the fifth floor where we bought several souvenirs to take home. We visited the National Museum and spent over two hours gleaning and understanding Mongolian culture. Genghis Khan, also written Chinggis Khaan, is well featured from the 12th -13th C. He spread Mongolian culture from sea to sea. He outlawed feuds among clans, promoted trade and communication by building an international network of postal stations, and he ordered diplomatic immunity to ambassadors.
Here are some quotes from the Law of Genghis Khan taken from the Great Yasa.
1) Do not wash clothes until they are completely worn out.
2) Don’t behave as high as a mountain. Though a mountain is high it will be climbed by animals.
3) All religions are to be respected and no preference is to be shown to any of them.
Today nearly every country accepts and promotes, at least in theory, the ideas and policies behind the ‘Great Law of Chinggis Khaan’.
As we were leaving, we reflected on our travel experiences in Mongolia. Just beyond Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s modern capital city, is found a nomadic lifestyle that is a step back in time. The peaceful, humbling desert environs with its kilometer after kilometer of desolate landscape, the wind-swept high sand dunes, the cold lonely star-lit nights, and the herds of sheep and goats gathered around the gers as the day comes to an end, will be imprinted on our minds forever. It was, as they say, an experience of a lifetime.