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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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
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