It’s Over! (Or, Putting the Boggie in Shingle to Boggie)

Back in Boggie: a view of the farm that Luke grew up on.
Back in Boggie: a view of the farm that Luke grew up on.

As I write this final post, the red light of the Australian outback is intensifying. There’s a storm coming through Boggabri, and it will whip the elastic branches of the gum trees into a frenzy. The kookaburras will take a break from all the laughing they were doing this afternoon, and the hares will flee into their hidey-holes. The hail will push to the ground through the heat, and we’ll all count seconds to see how close the lightning is to the farm.

So, if this post has a trace of melancholy, you’ll know why.

Let’s start by getting real deep. The result of my self-psychoanalysis is: I’ve taken so long to write this last blog post because it signals the end of this grand adventure. No revision is required from my previous post; we are indeed still “totally cool with” the trip being over. That being said, there’s a kind of sad contentedness about it. I think we are afraid that we will just slide into normal life and forget that the trip ever happened. Getting messages from our friends – all of whom are still traveling, or who live overseas – is like getting a text from a character in a dream. Surprising, surreal, and lovely.

Our re-entry into Australia was something. It’s boring to hear flight details, but it is pertinent to say that I didn’t sleep on the flight, and Luke barely did. Our friend Jason picked us up at the airport, and took us to his house in a brick-and-bitumen southern Sydney suburb. Long story short, the day’s highlights included me sitting alone in the nicely set up guest bedroom, racked with sobs because Luke had gone to the grocery store to get me fresh salad ingredients whilst I slept. You see, ever since Russia I’ve been dreaming – not just night dreaming, but daydreaming – of the produce section of an Australian grocery store. How could he, how could he, betray me by visiting this wonderland without me. It was terrible. Despite his bewildered protests on the day, it took me days to learn that it’s actually quite a nice thing for one’s husband to prepare a fresh salad for his wife while she sleeps.

But seriously, our grocery stores are AMAZING, and it’s not even like I’ve been living in rural Africa for 2 1/2 years like my cousins Kim and Doug. I remember Kim’s reports of being bewildered by American grocery stores upon her return; for me, it’s a joyous adventure. I practically skip through the aisles and literally let out gasps of delight when seeing things like perfect Mexican asparagus and $2 jars of sugar-free peanut butter. Aisles and aisles of every vegetable a body can dream of. It’s… it’s… Disneyland.

Our approach to food is an unexpected life change arising from this trip. We always wondered how our dear Hindmarshes had the self control to cook their own food for almost every meal. Now we realize that a long overland trip (such as they do on bicycles) builds self-catering into a habit and a joy. I can’t handle too much restaurant food; I like to have more control over what I eat. We even sometimes find restaurant food to be not as good as what we would would cook, and our’s isn’t covered in sugar. Luke and I now enjoy cooking together and have learned the pragmatic art of chatting whilst cleaning up.

You might notice that there are more “I”s in this post, as opposed to “we”s. Another aspect of coming home is that we have more time with other people present, and, *gasp*, have even spent hours at a time apart from one another. We miss each other, but it’s probably healthy.

We're ok! (In front of the house in Boggabri)
We’re ok! (In front of the house in Boggabri)

Speaking of Luke and I, we’ve been delighted to find that the trip has had an excellent influence on our relationship. We’ve always heard that these overland trips lead to either a rock-solid partnership or divorce. Whilst we were unsure of the outcome at certain points, we are pleased to announce that our final result seems to be the former. Of course, this stuff was not always easy. There were tears, and repetitive, deeply emotional, repetitive conversations as only we as a couple can do them. Sometimes they involved the nature of our relationship and our selves; sometimes they were deeply divisive quarrels over where to buy a blanket. In any case, souls were searched, feelings were had, lessons were learned, etc., etc.

Let’s go with the ol’ bulleted list to let you know the other things we are surprised by:

  • We have been pleasantly surprised by how much people let us talk about our trip. We thought people would be rolling their eyes and telling us to shut up already after the 14th consecutive story about our bowel movements in such-a-such country. But, really, our loved ones have been very accommodating.
  • We didn’t realize how many friends we would make on this trip. And not just acquaintances, but people we will love for as long as we remember them. We’ve got a long list of people in countries that we’ll fail to visit as often as we’d like. In addition, we spend a lot more time on our various messaging apps.
  • I was surprised that I had a sense of judgey exoticism to lose. I thought, being an anthropology student, I saw all of humanity as one entity with beautiful, subtle differences. Well, turns out that I didn’t, because as we went, I felt more and more that people are all the same. Sure, some folks wear enormous colorful headdresses. Some people sacrifice goats of an afternoon, and some people work in offices. But really, we’re all the same. We all gotta make dinner, we have to help grandma stand up from the couch, we have to pee, we all like a hot beverage on a cold afternoon. And a lot of us work in offices.
  • In a shocking twist, we are excited about working again. I feel ideologically refreshed. Luke is all reared up to start the next part of our lives, especially as he’s looking to change up the way he earns a living (working on his own property projects rather than working for clients). It helps that today isn’t really the end of the adventure. After all, we are moving to California, starting a life in a new city with new jobs, new setting, new worldview.
  • Rather more unexpected than surprising is the way that we seem to remember our trip. It’s like a delightful psychosis. We’ll be sitting around, minding our own business, when suddenly, boom, we’re looking through the leftovers of a gypsy campsite in the middle of a sparse forest in Russia. Or perhaps it will be a sudden vivid memory of a warm breeze blowing across our faces as we look out at the ocean from an ancient fortification in southern Spain. Maybe it’s a shudder as we remember sitting in our car at 5am on the Mongolian steppe, waiting for the wind to die down as Matan and Iftaq snooze in their better constructed tent. I’m making it sound like these are tandem memories. That would be super cool and kind of like a super power. But we do mention it to each other when we remember random things, which generally leads into a cascade of reminiscing.

Despite all of this misleading debriefing, you haven’t quite heard the last of me. Stay tuned for a lil’ post updating you about our beloved Pajero and the work you’ve made possible for the good people over at Jhai Coffee House.

Back to normal posting real quick

I do actually have a small amount of Vietnam still left to report upon. You last saw us in Hue, in central Vietnam, very close to the DMZ. From there we took a very short flight north to Hanoi, where we spent a few days. We took a side jaunt to Ha Long Bay for a week, and then flew out of Hanoi back to Sydney.

Working on enjoying ourselves in Hanoi.
Working on enjoying ourselves in Hanoi.

We didn’t really like Hanoi because we were just over traveling, we think. Hanoi takes Ho Chi Minh’s traffic and raises it narrower streets and more tourists. So much traffic in tight places, and absolutely no sidewalks in the central old town. Even the legendary Bia Hoi – locally brewed, living beer sold

Hanoi is super pretty, though. This is just in the middle of town.
Hanoi is super pretty, though. This is just in the middle of town.

on the street for a pittance – is not what we expected. It’s just mass brewed now, by one of four huge companies, apparently. It is still cheap, but to get it you have to sit with all of the other tourists. These things absolutely would not have bothered us if we weren’t just ready to get home. Home, to where sidewalks are wide and flat, and vehicles actually recognize the existence of traffic lights. Home, where we don’t feel like cynical jerks when we don’t LOVE ALL THE THINGS 100%.

However, Luke did get to go into a rarely-touristed geology museum in Hanoi, which he had to himself. He found it very interesting because he is one of those hot nerds. Meanwhile, I sat in a nice cafe and nursed a pooping problem.

Ha Long Bay is as beautiful as they all say it is. We stayed on the lovely Cat Ba Island instead of basing ourselves out of Haiphong City, a good decision. Cat Ba is set up for mass tourism, but we were there over Tet (Vietnam’s biggest holiday), so it was quiet and peaceful. So peaceful that we sat in a beach resort for four of our days on the island, doing very little. I know I listened to some podcasts, and Luke reports that he “doesn’t know” what he did those four days. Otherwise, we just drank in the cool ocean breeze and ordered fake Pringles from room service.

Ha Long Bay: Actually amazing
Ha Long Bay: Actually amazing

Even with all the lounging, we did all the things there were to do on the island – a hike in the tiny national park, a scooter ride covering every road on the island, a walk up to the observatory. Of course, we also booked the classic Ha Long Bay boat tour for cheap tourists. This included a fun game of “dodge the drunk Brit” in kayaks, set in stunning would-be quiet waters bordered by towering karst mountains.

Yay! Annie!
Yay! Annie!

And yet again, fate gave us Annie. There she was, just walking down the street in front of our dinner table, the day after we left our beach resort. We spent a few days together, doing our hiking, swimming, kayaking, and scootering, and she made the end of our trip joyous.

Succinct summation 

We’ve already planned our next adventures. I have literally bought some of the guidebooks, just to stave off non-travel situational depression. We don’t know a lot, but we do know a few things. There will be a motor vehicle. The trip will be long, but maybe not quite as long. We will drive out of our own Californian garage/carport/driveway/tiny carspace/goat enclosure directly into our adventure. God willing, small human(s) will be in tow, or, more accurately, safely secured in the vehicle.

And now, as I reach the end of my final post, the storm has failed to materialize. The sky is back to a silky blue, the winds have calmed, and the animals and people have relaxed. Luke and I are sitting on the couch where, 8 years ago, Luke watched a silly TV special and decided he wanted to do an epic overland trip. The deed has been done, the dream is achieved, but it’s whet our appetite for more.

An Bang tombs (near Hue, Vietnam)

Hanoi, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba Island (Vietnam)

Back to Australia 

Traversing Vietnam

I have this daydream that I defer to, when my teeth are chattering with fear on one of those awful transpacific flights that we so often subject ourselves to. I pretend that the airplane is driving on the ground instead, and that I have a whole room with a flat bed to lounge on. There’s s big window and lots of interesting things to look at as I fly along the ground. It can still be a long trip, that’s ok, even overnight, but it’s soothing, even cozy.

Well, my friends, it turns out: this is a train!

Continue reading “Traversing Vietnam”

Cambodia: Eyeballs, Temples, and a New Year

About a week ago, I found myself sitting on a lawn chair in the middle of a big white van, rocking from side to side between the clothes closet and kitchen counter. Our friend Arne was in control, speeding down the bumpy Cambodian highway, and I realised something. We have significantly relaxed since the beginning of our trip. There’s no way I would have done all that back in Belgium. 

Celebrating Jo's birthday in absentia
Celebrating Jo’s birthday in absentia

Luke got the front seat, because he’s huge and didn’t really fit in the back. So, for the week that Arne and Jenny ferried us around Cambodia, Luke sat up front while Jenny reclined on the bed and I braced myself on the spare tire whenever we braked hard.

Continue reading “Cambodia: Eyeballs, Temples, and a New Year”

Cambodian utopia and/or dystopia

Before we said goodbye to our car, we took one last joy ride, down to Si Phan Don, the 4,000 islands on the Mekong in the far south of Cambodia. There are three islands that are slightly larger and thus have some tourist infrastructure. They come in three flavours: most party, middle party, and no party. Of course, we went for the no party island (Don Khong) because we are old people and we hate fun.

As our friend Jenny would say: This is shit, no?
As our friend Jenny would say: This is shit, no?

Unfortunately, upon reaching said tranquil and peaceful island (accompanied by our friend Jocelyn, by the way) we were confronted by a Festival. People everywhere, laughing, playing carnival games, buying sizzling fish from street stalls that lined the whole island town. Too many joyful tourists to even find a free guesthouse within 500 metres of the river. Colourful, exciting longboat races on the Mekong. Terrible.

Continue reading “Cambodian utopia and/or dystopia”

Laos: All’s well that ends well

I’m choosing to think of the theft of our computers as either cosmic retribution for all of the shit that America did to Laos in the 60s and 70s, or perhaps just our fault for going to a place like Vang Vieng. In any case, our initial despair and annoyance at the loss of our two MacBook Airs has paled quite significantly – after all, we got to see the Lao justice system at work. And, we no longer have to worry about putting our computers in a safe place so that they don’t get stolen.

Continue reading “Laos: All’s well that ends well”

China is big, and other observations

I write this post from the deliciously tropical Luang Prabang, Laos. We’ve been in Laos for four days and have only just had space to breath from our non-stop driving adventures in China.

We experienced joys and frustrations on our journey through the heartland of China. Amongst the unpleasant experiences, we count the sudden and unexpected disappearance of our beloved street food egg wraps (attributed to “cultural differences”, bah), having wailing children hoisted on us for photos, and having the crap beaten out of us by tiny, vindictive Chinese masseuses. Joys include finding peanut butter, binging on said peanut butter, and having the crap beaten out of us by tiny, vindictive Chinese masseuses.

Continue reading “China is big, and other observations”

China, Part 1: Of becoming a zoo exhibition

I’ve been to China twice before. There is one observation about the country from this trip that stands out to me because I just don’t remember thinking it last time: the people are DELIGHTFUL. They are quick to laugh, they pull no airs, they are intensely inquisitive in a good-natured way. I feel safe around them. (Famous last words, etc.)

Luke tries to cook, Jerome looks bemused, and four Chinese men look on FROM THIS ANGLE. There were probably 10 others standing around our campsite at this particular moment.

But what astounds us all the most, given our globalised world, is how unbelievably curious they are about us. Granted, we are pretty interesting, sitting with the big vans pulled in a circle, orange hi-tech tents pitched in the middle, perched on small camp chairs, hair colours ranging from blonde to blue – but does that really justify 10-15 people standing inside of our campsite, silently watching us for minutes and minutes? At one point, at this particular parking lot campsite, some passing people realized they could see through a camper window into where the 5 little children were relaxing. A dozen people crowded around and craned their necks to get closer to the window.


When I was getting ready for bed at the above mentioned campsite, a couple opened my tent flap. They felt the interior lining of my tent, tested the firmness of the mattress with their palms, and watched me swallow my allergy medication. They wouldn’t have said hello if I hadn’t given a friendly Ni hao first. People who stare at us in close quarters like this seem to be surprised when they hear human language coming out of what I believe they must assume are extra-pale, mechanically advanced monkeys. They seem delighted by our sudden humanity. Embarrassment for their actions does not occur to them.

People taking pictures at Tiananmen Square, probably interested in Tine’s hair

Perhaps I can understand wanting to see the white people’s campsite. But on the supremely touristy section of the Great Wall we visited, or in the world-famous Tiananmen Square, you’d think folks would be used to Westerners. Not so. We take so many photos in a row that it becomes exhausting. Photo after photo after photo. Photos with their children, photos with their grandpa, photos with their group. We take turns, to give each other breaks. As Luke says, 20-30% of people within sight are taking photos with us or waiting in line to do so, and the rest are staring while it happens.

We used to take selfies on our phones too, like with this gas station attendant, but now we’re too tired.

When we see we’re being included in a covert selfie, we smile and flash a peace sign. One time Luke was feeling generous and really posed for a covert selfie, wrapping his arm around the shoulders of the selfie-taker. The whole group got in the photo. They turned out to be a group of people with hearing impairment (they were signing) who seemed to be out on a group excursion to the Forbidden City.


People even take photos of us from their cars. I like to take photos back.

See that phone? 

All of this changes from amusing to infuriating – like a buzzing mosquito at night – when you are trying to pack up your tent at 6:30 in the morning. Our travel companion Jenny tried to get some of her morning watchers to help with dishes; they declined.

It can be a bit scary how the old people handle the children. They just break through our protective and/or conversational circles, grab a child, and try to, I don’t know, tickle them? Pick them up? Play with them? It’s certainly not malicious or weird from their standpoint, clearly. They think the kids are delightful (which they are). But from our cultural standpoint, it is awful. The youngest, Felix, who is 3, waves is pointer finger side to side and says “no!”.

All of that said, I still think people are delightful. They mean no harm, and I really appreciate that.

Chinese skills

An example. While waiting in line at Badaling, the most touristy section of the Great Wall and a personal hell for many (more later), a middle-aged couple pushed in front of us (Jo, Luke, and I) in line. This is pretty normal, but for some reason it annoyed us. We pushed forward in front of them when we reached a strategic corner-section of line. They tried to get past again, but we put our elbows out and took up the entire physical space, hopping left and right to block them. It occurred to me that we were being asshole tourists, only to find that they were laughing and giving us a thumbs up. We had mastered Chinese line cutting skills. But the joke was on us: they still beat us to the front of the line. We saw them a few times on the wall, and we all smiled, waved, and laughed each time.

Our jolly crew

I suppose I should let you know just who our travel companions are, as they’ll likely be important characters in our stories for the next month. There are five groups total, plus our guide, Jens. There’s a Belgian family with 3 children ranging from 3-7 years old. The mother of the group, Tine, is an anthropology person like me, but she did her masters so actually got to do field work. They all speak Dutch, French, and English, and probably other stuff too. Then we have the French family, with two children, who are 7 and 9. The parents are both psych nurses, so there’s a lot in common with Jo there. Jenny and Arne are German and hilarious; Barbara and Kevan are Dutch and British, respectively, and are sensible experienced travellers. Sometimes Susan and Axel, a German couple, join us with their separate guide, a delightful fellow named Martin. Our guide, Jens, is from Chengdu. He’s 26, and thankfully he’s got an excellent sense of humour and a solid dose of resilience. Important for managing group dynamics. And then there’s us, “the Aussies” (as we’ve been dubbed).

Our group (minus a few) at Tiananmen Square. We couldn’t even get a group photo without people inserting themselves. Seriously, we don’t have a group photo without other people crouching in front. But the Chinese fellow with the maroon shirt, glasses, and backpack is Jens.

How this thing works

Our friendly campsite, no current onlookers (that we can see, the creepsters)

As for our mechanics and movements (not of the bowel variety, we’ll get to that later), things are working pretty smoothly. Each night, we have a group “conference” in which Jens lays out the plans for the next day and we democratically decide upon leaving times and optional extras. We drive each day, though we will have a couple of rest days later on. So far we’ve seen a major sight each day, including one day of taking the subway into Beijing. The rest of the group camps each night, but we’ve only joined them once because it’s a pain to set up tents. Plus, it would be unpleasant to sleep in a tent in an urban parking lot. So we go to a hotel with our guide, and with the other guide, Martin, if he’s around. Sometimes we get dinner with the two of them as well. They are cool guys and we definitely get the local flavour with them. One time, we got so local that we couldn’t find a hotel that would take foreigners at all. We did finally find one, after waiting around and eating street food.

Memories of meals past

Speaking of food, we are in heaven here. It’s a huge change from Mongolia, where mystery meat pastries and oily hot yak milk reign supreme. Our first restaurant in China actually made Luke and I intensely homesick. It looked just like a Chinese restaurant in Sydney, which makes sense, seeing as the Chinese restaurants in Sydney are often run by recent Chinese transplants. The menu, the tables, the decorations, the people, and the delicious food were all the same. The main difference was that people were smoking, despite the “no smoking” sign.

Jo gets excited about the best meal ever, skewers that the fellow hot pots for you, plus a bowl of peanut sauce to dip it all in.

We’ve also been eating whole meals from street food, or rather we just constantly eat as we go. So far we’ve had no life-threatening issues arise from this habit. However, we have, as Jo says, developed “an obsession with plumbing”. The occasion of finding a Western toilet (as opposed to the squat variety) produces jubilation amongst our little travel trio.

Miscellaneous sheep

We are, of course, enjoying the English here. Even amongst other countries where English is not prominent, China still has the most hilarious translations. Our favorite so far is “Miscellaneous sheep,” seen on a menu. “Don’t drive tiredly” and “Warm suggestion” (aka “hot tip”) aren’t bad either. There was a clothing shop called “Pet Woman” (insert cringe emoji). We thought that “Super long tunnel!” was a funny one too, until we drove in it and realised that, actually, it was quite lengthy, and thus their description was really quite accurate.

Modern Beijing

Our first glimpse of the Forbidden City (and the iconic Mao) through the smog

I remember that when my sister came back from several months at Beijing University 10 years ago, she had the “Peking cough” for months and months. The smog was oppressive then. The smog now, though, obscures the sun. It reduces road visibility like a thick San Francisco fog. It burns your eyes and your throat. Luke broke down and bought a face mask, and borrowed an inhaler from one of our travel companions.

In Shanxi provence, where we are now, it’s equally bad. Shanxi is known for it’s coal production. A local of Pingyao, in Shanxi, told us that the smog is worse in winter because the poor people burn coal to keep warm. We’re only in October. I would hate to see January, or, rather, I would have difficulty seeing January through the smog.

This is how the sun always looks. So obstructed by smog that you can look at it directly without hurting your eyes.

Daily gratitude: intact chest cavity

We also had the good luck to experience another staple of Beijing local life, the chest-crushing subway system. I understand now how crushes happen, and how they truly do kill people.

The subway stations we saw (4 or 5) were beautiful and new. There were lines on the tile to direct foot traffic, glass panelling between the platform and the tracks, uniformed “public transportation guides”, and lovely shiny new trains.

The subway crush

But none of this stopped the wave of anxious panic that swept over the crowd in the 20 seconds that a new train approached and readied to open its doors. The train arrives already full, so packed that faces are smooshed against the glass doors. The push to enter the train sounds like a swarm of locusts, the frantic shuffling of feet, rustling of people silently shoving their neighbour, and curses muttered under the breath. With 5 children in the group, I was legitimately scared. The parents of the group are, however, incredibly capable, and the children were in no real danger. In the end, one of the “public transportation guides” worked with Jens to find us a route across the subway map that didn’t require us to enter as intense of scrums. But we still pretended to fight our way on, the 15 of us, when we entered our first near-empty train. This was much more amusing than the real thing.


See? 10 bajillion people.

I think that if a communist party leader in the 1970’s was on the fence about whether or not to implement the one-child policy, they needed to have simply visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall, and this would have made up their mind. The place gives the feeling that there really are just too many people in China.

According to Jens, Chairman Mao once said that one is not a real man until he’s seen the Great Wall. Seemingly, every person in China wanting to take his advice does so at the Badaling section, as well as a significant amount of foreign tourist busloads too.

We went there because it was on the itinerary from our tour company, and we were so new to China, and we didn’t do our research in advance. This was stupid, as there were some beautiful sections of “wild wall” – as in, unrestored and less touristed – not far away. This section gave us packed lines, an expensive cable car ride, throngs of people pushing each other on the recently built stairs, and a wall that is actually a Disney-ish reconstruction perched upon a strip of land that once held the crumbled original. There was one part, in which we had to descend, narrow, steep stairs with walls on either side, people pushing from all sides – where Jo and I exchanged looks that said “F*** this, this is the worst place in the world.”

Then, there was beer. We had ascended to the wall with Jenny and Arne, the German couple with a particular fondness for this particular beverage. We all decided that the best course of action was to sit at a little kiosk on the wall and drink overpriced cans of terrible beer until the situation became fun. And it did! We snacked on weird fake pringles and a sweet, bubblegum pink “sausage” while we waited. After a while, the wall emptied out, our other friends arrived, and we had a leisurely stroll. The wall was shrouded mysteriously in a celestial cloud of coal-smog, and we snapped photos. All was well in the world.


China redeems itself with Pingyao

But all of the smog in the world couldn’t ruin Pingyao. The oldest and most authentic walled city surviving in China, Pingyao is delightful. Sure, it’s got tourists, but it’s also got lots and lots of locals. There are bustling markets outside the city walls, and beautiful buildings inside the city walls. The town is 1500 years old, and some of the buildings within are still ancient. I spent hours wandering the town by myself at night – it was alive with lanterns and sizzling street food. If a person had time for only one site in China, we would (thus far) recommend Pingyao.

But wait, there’s more

The Hanging Monastery. Not so much “hanging”, as “precariously clinging”

We’ve packed in a lot more touristing with this tour than we would have on our own. We’ve seen the amazing Hanging Monastary, perched on the side of a cliff (not the edge, the side), and which we are all quite pleased to not have died on, crushed by falling tourists from above.  Jo reckons it was engineered to withstand months, not centuries and gajillions of tourists. We’ve gone to Yungang Grottoes, famous for having lots and lots o’ Buddhas. We’ve visited the Forbidden City and the hutongs (traditional neighbourhoods) of Beijing. These two really gave me flashbacks to going there with my family over 10 years ago. It’s much tidier now, but with more smog. I got an intense flashback upon seeing a particular decorative staircase in the Forbidden City – I actually remembered my Dad reading to us about it from a book while we looked at it. I don’t remember what I learned, but I do know where I got my habit from, at least. I’ll leave the rest of the sight descriptions to the photos, below.

Erenhot, Inner Mongolia Province (China)

The Great Wall (Badaling)


Yungang Grottoes and Datong (Shanxi Province)

Hanging Monastary (Shanxi Province)

Pingyao, Shanxi Province 

Mongolia: Gobi and UB

Since our last blog post, we’ve finished up 10 fairly comatose days in Ulaanbaatar, welcomed Luke’s sister Jo to Mongolia, easily survived 4 days in the snow-covered Gobi desert, and successfully entered China with our new merry band of travellers. I’ll tell you more about China in the next post, so it doesn’t steal poor Mongolia’s spotlight. In summary, we are travelling for 27 days with a lovely Chinese guide named Jens, and 4 other groups, all Europeans travelling in huge camper vans, including 5 children under the age of 9. It’s going to be an adventure.

Gobi time!
This photo owes it’s existence to Jo. Thanks Jo!

First, let’s talk about our feelings. Jo, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in her first week of travel, has a lovely enthusiasm and energy. If it weren’t for her influence, Luke and I probably would have sat on the couch in our cozy Idre Guesthouse in UB rather than schlepping our lazy butts to the Gobi. (By the way, she’ll be riding along with us for the 4 weeks in China and a few days into Laos.) Luke is tickled to see his sister, but is otherwise, in his own words, “getting a little tired.” I’m hoping that the novelty and thrilling gastro issues of China will cure him of what I think is *temporary* ennui. As for myself, I’m stubbornly insisting on enjoying myself, as you probably would have guessed.

After about 6 days of recovering from our colds and eating french fries and toast in our UB guesthouse, our friends Matan and Iftaq returned from their little expedition to the centre of the country. We were inspired (unintentionally shamed?) into getting ourselves up to do something. Another lovely Israeli person, a girl named Ossie, joined us for a day trip to the supremely touristy Chinggis Khan statue and Terelj National Park, both about an hour outside of UB.

Chinggis is clearly disapproving of our selfie.
Chinggis disapproves of our selfie.

The Chinggis Khan statue is 8 years old. It’s a big horse with a big Chinggis on top. It was supposedly built on the place where ol’ Chinggis himself found the materials for his riding crop, so that’s a big deal. There are lots of Mongolians and foreigners alike taking selfies. That’s about it.

But actually, Chinggis Khan is a really big deal to Mongolians. Besides the whole raping and pillaging thing that we’ve all heard of, he did build a mighty empire in the 1200’s that still persists in a smaller form today. He was the first world leader, apparently, to implement what we now call diplomatic immunity. He established a country-wide postal system. He generally is someone who Mongolians seem to be super proud of. According to Lonely Planet (don’t judge me), Stalin made all Mongolians renounce their clan name (last name) during the 20’s. In the 90’s, everyone came to realise how terribly impractical it is to have a nation of people with only first names. I am going somewhere with this. So everyone was made to either find their clan name or make up a new one, and 20% of people chose Chinggis Khan’s clan name. That’s a lot of people.

Eating lunch in the freezing wind in Terelj.
Eating lunch in the freezing wind in Terelj.

As for Terelj National Park, it’s filled with ger camps. Like, dozens and dozens of little collections of friendly tourist gers. But, there is a rock shaped like a turtle. And life-size dinosaur models, which are actually to be found all over the country. This is bizarre for a country with very little other public art. But lots of dinosaur bones have been found here, so I guess that’s why people are all excitable about dinos.

In the black market - not particularly threatening. Also people totally wear these in Mongolia, even some young-ish people.
In the black market – not particularly threatening. Also people totally wear these in Mongolia, even some young-ish people.

As soon as Jo arrived on a Monday morning, we whisked her off in a “taxi” to the “Black Market”. In explanation – “taxis” in UB are just anyone with a car who stops to pick you up when you put out your hand. It’s about 50 cents, USD, per kilometre. And the “Black Market” is just the enormous market (the biggest in Asia, they say), which does have a real name, but everyone just calls it the Black Market. Jo had heard scary things about pickpockets and theft in the market, and so was a bit wary. However, we left the market with our wallets only intentionally lighter, and got a “taxi” home.

We always negotiate price in advance of getting in the car, even in sub-zero temperatures, because people are inclined to screw clueless tourists. We did so with this guy, but he was wily. He changed the price midway through the trip – he was going to charge us 10,000 instead of the standard 3,000. This is crazy pants and it made us MAD. He offered to charge us 5,000 to drop us off half way. We refused to pay, and he turned around the car, taking us back to the market. Knowing the reputation of the market, the last thing we wanted to do was go back and get roughed up by his buddies.

We seem quite fond of group selfies.
We seem quite fond of group selfies. Also this was totally safe. No safety issues at all.

We decided to exit the car in stopped traffic rather than suffer the injustice of being screwed. He put the child lock on, trapping us in, but Luke got out the front seat and let us out, and we piled out of the car (there were 4 of us in the back seat). Dude even tugged on Jo’s arm to try to keep her in. We ran across the street and started frantically power walking to safety. 3 minutes later, who do we find running after us, but driver guy. When he started to grab Luke’s bag, and Luke looked like he was going to punch someone for the first time in his life, I remembered that folks in UB like to carry knives. To Luke’s horror, I handed over 5,000. Situation defused, we went on our way. We grabbed a more ethical cab driver soon after.

This was probably not the best introduction to UB for Jo. Oops.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that Jo convinced us to promptly drive 8 hours south, into the Gobi desert, far away from the humans of UB. It turns out there are oodles of tourist destinations in the Gobi, they just aren’t signposted and roads don’t go to them. And there are no real toilets anywhere.

We did the tourist circuit in the Gobi – Yolyn Am, the glacial canyon, Khorgoryn Els, the sand dunes, and, finally, Bayanzag, the Flaming Cliffs. We stayed in gers (yurts) and rode camels. It was all very Mongolian, but the nice kind, not the scary drunk/swindling tourists kind.

The most Mongolian moment of all was the family that adopted us in Yolyn Am, as we walked through the canyon in the freezing cold. For some reason, they took a liking to us and we walked with them. Grandma was 83, but the most sprightly little thing you ever saw. She daintily hopped from rock to rock to cross streams, she scrambled up a dirt canyon wall for one of our highly orchestrated family photo shoots, and, once, leaped over a wide stream, illiciting cheers and clapping from Jo and I. She was really quite impressive. She also insisted on giving us handfuls of Mongolian candy (which Jo and I have nicknamed “camel poo”, for it’s striking likeness in shape and taste), and blocks of the typical bitter, hard sheep cheese.

One of the Ovoos
One of the Ovoos

The family didn’t speak any English, but they were seemingly in the canyon on a spiritual journey. They had also travelled far to get there. At the two ovoos (rock piles) we encountered, the family circled the piles three times, spraying milk. This is apparently an offering to the sky spirits, though I’m sure there is a much more eloquent and accurate way of describing the ritual. My anthropology professors would be disappointed. Anyway, it was a very special experience.

Get in my pocket, jerboa.
Get in my pocket, jerboa.

I should also mention that in this canyon, there are dozens and dozens of hamster-sized fluffy rodents that scamper around the rocks and across the path, and they CHIRP. I think they are called jerboas. As we walked I fantasised about getting them and putting them in all my pockets and taking them with me.

Jo made a snowman, smokin and drinkin like a real Mongolian. See below for the beautiful Gobi snow pictures.
Jo made a snowman, smokin and drinkin like a real Mongolian. See below for the beautiful Gobi snow pictures.

We got extremely lucky on our Gobi trip – the temperature dropped well below freezing (I’m getting to the lucky part), and it SNOWED. A lot of snow. Over the sand dunes, covering the plains. It was truly magical.

Magical in it’s own, not particularly magical way, was the town of Dalanzadgad. This is the largest town in the Gobi. We drove in at night, greeted by a pack of 20 wild dogs. We stayed in a hotel with no door handle to the room. When we stopped at the mechanic on the way back to UB, we sat on the concrete for 3 or 4 hours and wrapped Christmas presents. We took breaks to go to the local “public toilet”

One of my favorite photos ever. Checking out some dodgy bolts on our wishbone in Dalanzadgad.
One of my favorite photos ever. Checking out some dodgy bolts on our wishbone in Dalanzadgad.

by someone’s ger, which is of course just a whole in the ground with two pee-covered slats to stand on, just a little timber keeping you from the poopy abyss below. Luke and Jo both got walked in on, both by the opposite sex no less. Jo also interrupted a guy peeing on the toilet building, as in, outside of it. She reports that she simply avoided eye contact. But we did give out koala toys to two little kids, one of whom physically jumped up and down in excitement. Oh, memories of Dalanzadgad.

In a strange coincidence, we saw the Google Street View truck in the Gobi not once, but twice. Look out for our car the next time you pull up a street view shot of a dirt track in the Gobi desert.

Recording street view for an enormous patch of dirt that people drive across however they choose. Tracks aren't even necessary in much of the Gobi, most of it is flat enough to be a road.
Recording street view for an enormous patch of dirt that people drive across however they choose. Tracks aren’t even necessary in much of the Gobi, most of it is flat enough to be a road.

In UB, we said goodbye to many of our traveller friends. Matan and Iftaq went off to hop on the trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow. Ossie caught a flight to Ulgii to do a snowy trek in Western Mongolia. A silly guy name Tom is buying two horses and trekking, solo, east to west in northern Mongolia. Silly Tom, good luck to you. The Brits headed off to their guided tour and the Japanese girls are by now back to Tokyo. It feels like the end of a feel-good coming-of-age millennial movie that would do poorly at Sundance.

To close off this blog post, I would like to leave you with a song. We composed this while driving into UB at night, fresh off the Gobi. Please sing to the tune of Journey’s “Lights.”


When the lights go down in UB
and the smog shines on the knife fights
oh I want to go dooooown
to a ger camp
by the trash heap
whoooaaaa-oh, whoa-oh.
Dozens of dogs at nighttime

They will live on without you
without your tooouuucch
na na na na, na na


Chinggis Khan and Terelj National Park

Gobi Trip: The drive South, and Yolyn Am

The Gobi Trip: Sand Dunes and first ger camp

Gobi trip: SNOW on the road, and Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag)

Gobi Trip: Coming home, including a stop in Dalangadzad