My flatmate and great friend Audrey would be in China in July for a Master student’s project. I would go there in August for our Bachelor’s study trip. Why not meet on the way?
After figuring out how to make this work according to our visas, jobs, flight and train schedules, and whatever else we wanted and planned to do, we decided to meet the for 10 days in the beginning of August.
My train arrived in Ulaanbaatar (UB) in the morning of August, 2nd. Audrey was supposed to arrive in the evening. I said goodbye to the funny Chinese lady who shared my compartment, and walked out in direction of our hostel, ignoring the “Taxi! Taxi!” offers all along my walk. Climbing up the street to our hostel was exhausting. It is a road at 40°, but not in the geometrical sense of the number.
All day long, as I wandered around the capital city, the blazing heat slowed my pace: I had to stop every hundred of meters or so to rest and have a drink. Eventually, I made it to the city centre, wandering around the few noticeable sights on the way. Most guidebooks say Ulaanbaatar is an ugly place, don’t bother visiting. As I was there by myself, I decided to explore it in my own way. I discovered some temples hidden among modern high-rising buildings, and gers surrounded by concrete houses.
With Audrey, we had tried to figure out what we wanted to do here. An 8-day tour sounded like a good option to escape from the capital and do some horse trekking. Once there, our plans changed: there was the Danshig Naadam festival scheduled for the middle of our trip. Excited to discover traditional arts and sports, we decided to split our stay between a short horse trek, the Danshig Naadam festival then another 4-day tour.
Horse Trekking tour
Audrey and I were joined by Stella, a Dutch traveller, who had just arrived in UB. The three of us set out in a very jumpy Russian Jeep, with our young guide and our driver.
We discovered several temples and important monuments in the outskirts of UB, before heading out to the Terelj national park.
Most of the roads in Mongolia are unpaved. We discovered the Mongolian roller coaster the fun way, driving at an unreasonable speed on the cross-country tracks which are officially called roads in Mongolia. I soon discovered that my LifeStraw water bottle was great not only for filtering water, but also for less risky hydration on these very uneven roads.
Happy about these cultural discoveries, but worried about our horse trekking, we drove into the Terelj National Park in the end of the afternoon. We pressed our guide: When will we be horse riding?
He promised us that after settling down in our ger, we’d go riding with the horse-riding guide. We were very excited to go riding! Our guide equips us with kiddy-style cycling helmets, shows us the basics of riding a Mongolian horse, and off we go!
We will soon discover that our “semi-wild” horses are not wild at all. They were more like poney-club horses, used to walking with tourists on their backs, never going out of their paths. It was great for taking pictures and selfies, as they would hardly notice us giggling on their backs. As for the wildness, we did see some yaks and cows grazing along, gers with dish satellites, but that was it. We could barely set our horses to a trot, before they would lazily go walking as soon as we stopped choo-ing them. C’mon horse, choo! choo! (the Mongolian way of telling the horse to go faster). We also learnt that horses in Mongolia don’t have a name. Their owners call them by their colours. I guess just like we would do with our bikes: “Could I borrow a bike to go to the city? Sure, take the blue one!”. Change bike to horse and blue to a normal horse colour and you’ve got the picture!
Back in our camps, Stella discovered that they might be cooking a goat: she had found its head in the cooking ger. I had discovered the hide close to a fire pit, and it didn’t take us much time to find the meat on top of a ger. We had discovered the first steps of preparing a traditional Mongolian meal: blow-torched goat!
First, they empty the goat, and then they would re-fill it with the meat and coals, so that the skin would act as an oven and the meat would cook from the inside. After some cooking time where the people seemed to take care of the goat just as if it were a sick animal, the would blow-torch its fur to perfect the cooking. Voila, blow-torched goat anyone?
The second day, we really had to push our guide into letting us ride some more. It seems that there was a confusion when he was told about our tour, and took us around way too many monuments and we hardly did any of the riding they were promising on the brochure.
However, we did manage to set off for a small ride, and discovered on the way that there was a small Naadam (horse race) going on. After breakfast, we went to see the arrival of the race. We met a Kazakh man, Korean tourists in identical sports clothes, Mongol people in traditional clothes and a young Mongol who seemed to have learnt his English with gangster rap. We tried some mare’s milk, and milk products (not really cheese). The milk tasted sour, and to me it had an after-taste of leftover milk. One kind of the milk products was just like butter -soft and mild- while the other was almost impossible to bite and had the same kind of taste as the mare’s milk, only stronger.
Even though we had missed the most important Naadam festival in July, we were very lucky to be able to attend the Danshig Naadam festival, less heard of and so less touristy!
The shuttle ride to get there was quite an adventure. Information was nearly impossible to find online, the hostel didn’t know much more than us, so we had to find it on our own. Although on paved road, the hour-long drive to go to the festival was quite rough, the driver seemed to be very happy to take sharp turns to see all of us fall down on our neighbours. When we arrived, we were amazed by the size of the festival. Like Paleo, but with gers instead of tents!
We attended the Mongolian wrestling, not understanding anything but having loads of fun watching these Wonder-Women sumos. Meanwhile, a concert and dance performance were also going on with a terrible sound system. Our seat neighbours, some adorable toddler twins, started talking to us and miming a fight until a grumpy man shushed them.
Over the two days of the festival, we also discovered archery, where the participants sported a traditional outfit and sang for every arrow that had been shot, according to the precision of the archer. We also attended a horse race where the horse wasn’t allowed to gallop, tried various snacks and wandered along the attractions for families. Gers were set up about everywhere, and the few tents that were also set up seemed like they could fly off at any point. They do perfect with their gers, but don’t seem to master the more portable stuff.
Many people got around on their horses, that also allowed them to see above the crowd. Kids raced around on their tall horses, while parents dragged pushchairs behind the electric shuttle bus. The atmosphere was very friendly and fun, we enjoyed discovering Mongolian culture in this relaxed environment! In the evening, we enjoyed the contortionist show, of which we had seen the rehearsal. There were more than 200 performers, most of them being children, that seemed either bored or very serious about their role when we saw them practise.
Displeased about our fist tour, we decided to find another operator who would offer a 4 or 5 day tour, including some more horse riding. We met the amazing people of Sunpath, who managed to arrange our personal 4-day tour 2 days before departure by combining several of their longer tours for us! Plus, they were offering everything we wanted to do, and even more: camel riding in the semi-gobi, nomadic stay, horse riding and hot springs were promised to us in our 4 days getaway, for as little as $60 a day.
We visited a nomadic family in the Semi-Gobi, who welcomed us with some milk tea and cakes, then rode camels into the sand dunes. The rocking motion of our camels carried us over the calm sand dunes. In the distance, we could see the more touristy camps where full buses unloaded into the places. We were on our own.
For our first night, we stayed in a camp in Khakorin, the old capital city. In the guidebooks, they say that there’s not much no see here, and we soon realised this is because there is not much at all. We had switched groups after the camel ride, and joined travellers who were on the last days of their 12-day trip. All of them had been sick, we hoped not to catch the bug. The next day, we visited the temple in Khakorin then drove for hours to the Hot Springs. At that points, I was struggling with excruciating stomach cramps and diarrhoea. At least it was not the vomiting bug. Soaking in the Hot Springs was bliss (and don’t worry, by then, my bowels were under control). We relaxed the whole evening in the warm pools, and went back after dinner. A group of a dozen international campers had joined us, the most drunken ones causing much disturbance at night.
On our third day, we were going to stay with another nomadic family, who lived in the middle of nowhere. Most of the drive was on cross-country roads and across rivers. The camp was set up in the middle of a green valley, nothing could be seen around apart from their herds of cows and some ger camps in the distance. No trace of “modern civilisation”.
The father of the family, our guide for the ride, saddled up our horses. We were warned, they were half-wild, and this time we believed them! Once we got on them, barely saying “choo!” and the horse jump-started into a crazy gallop. Mine was the wildest, and it was impossible to stop it unless we had galloped for a while up a hill. It felt exhilarating. Albeit being pretty short, these horses were “as fast as the wind”, as they say. I had to hold my horse all the time or it would just run off until it was too tired. We also did that a lot.
Our guide lead us across a hill and behind a mountain, which was covered in dead birch trees and boulders. Up the top, the landscape was astonishing: above us, the mountains were capped with rocks in equilibrium, semi-wild horses were grazing up a slope and under us, the green valley seemed to go on forever. And it was so calm, the only noises we could hear were the wind, the beetles and our horses munching on purple flowers.
We spent the evening playing with the kids, taking pictures (they stole our cameras), showing pictures to the parents who were curious about our places, and singing songs. Before going to sleep, I stayed up for some star-gazing, and got to see a few shooting stars before the clouds came in.
On our last day, we “kidnapped” the very sweet grandmother to drive her to her place, and made our way back to UB. Audrey had to leave at 4am, and I had my train at 8am, which I eventually boarded, after some running for some missing ticket.
Our stay in Mongolia was short, we had a condensed experience about the place, and what a great feeling! We discovered an entirely different culture, where your house can be dismantled and put in a truck in about 1 hour, but which is also shifting into our Western lifestyle. Maybe in 20 years the only remaining nomadic families will be tourist industries, and hopefully we’ll have Mongolian dance scheduled along with African and Bollywood dance in arts schools!