There are a variety of ways to explore Mongolia, therefore Nick and I have decided to do a combination. We started with a structured tour through our hostel exploring southern, central and northern Mongolia, then will trek with a non-English speaking Khazak guide through the west, and last, camp and navigate the central on our own. We began with a 16 day tour as this made economical sense and was much easier! We did not have worry about driving 10 hours a day on barely existing dirt roads, getting lost or vehicle malfunctions.
We left Ulaan Batar and headed toward the middle Gobi. Within minutes of leaving the city we got a glimpse of the true Mongolia. We saw thousands of “free range” camels, horses, goats and sheep wandering around and sleeping on the dirt path of a road. We had no idea that this would become a daily norm. We stopped for traditional handmade noodles a family restaurant (all restaurants are family restaurants it appears) then headed to the white stupa.
The white stupa (Tsagaan Suvarga) are white limestone rock formations approximately 30 m tall. This is a spiritual area for locals and reminded Nick and I of the Utah desert. Although a “tourist stop” we quickly learned that the meaning of this is the opposite of that in China. While at the white stupa we saw 2 other individuals and no one else hours prior to or after leaving the area.
After, we arrived at a family ger where we had salted camel milk tea and fermented camel milk. Little did we know that throughout our trip we’d be consuming mostly camel, yak, horse, goat, and cow dairy products. We spent the evening watching the moon rise and listening to baby camels cry for their moms’ to return from the pastures.
On the second day, we ate breakfast while listening to the goats fart, then headed to the south gobi. We hiked in Yol Valley, a protected area since 1965. This beautiful gorge is one of the few places you can see ibex in the wild. There is a small museum at the entrance where there is some interesting if not well done taxidermy of Snow Leopards, Gazelle, Ibex, Eagles and Lynx. This is the first place where we saw westerners traveling on their own via motorcycle. We walked to our ger camp and then explored the surrounding mountains. This was such a peaceful evening in the foothills of the middle beauty overlooking the emptiness of the desert. We ended the night drinking vodka with our wonderful driver Nasa (when you can’t communicate, drink).
The following day we left mid morning for the sand dunes of the Gobi. The “roads” to Khongor Eels (Khongor Sand Dunes) are quite bumpy and anyone with back issues should beware! Legend says that a queen was exiled to the mountains where she was given a huge rock mirror, then a warrior named Khongor (pronounced Hunger) rescued her, she shattered the mirror creating the sand dunes. After a 30 minute hike we reached the top for sunset, however unfortunately it was rainy and cloudy (although the locals say rain is good luck). We returned the next morning for sunrise and slightly nicer weather and the view at the top was breathtaking. We ran along the untouched ridge and could hear the static electricity from the sand sliding, making the sound of a plane mid flight. The view of the sun breaking through the clouds and the perfectly sculpted dunes will stay with me forever.
The family we stayed with while next to the dunes were extremely welcoming. Upon arrival we were greeted with snuff tobacco, salted camel milk tea, cheese curd and tobacco (to hand roll cigarettes). Their ger was decorated with photos of family, the Dalai Lama, and Naadam Festival. We met the family cat and learned how to make hand made noodles. While stretching behind our ger, a little girl named Bouyna came over to join me. Although we couldn’t communicate we had a blast and spent several hours together. It’s funny how easy it is to connect with children, there are no unspoken barriers that need to be broken. While I played with Bouyna, Nick played volleyball and Mongolian wrestled her two older brothers. The family took us on a camel ride which was a new experience, but definitely made us feel like tourists.
The next morning (as mentioned above) we returned to the dunes for a beautiful sunrise and then drove toward the flaming cliffs. On the way we stopped in a small village for lunch, although in the states this town would seem abandoned, it was alive and well. We checked out the local school and (Nick) enjoyed steamed and fried Mongolian dumplings. The flaming cliffs are one of the largest tourist attractions and we encountered a total of about 10 other tourists. The flaming cliffs are known for the world’s first discovery of dinosaur eggs in the early 1920s. Over 100 dinosaur skeletons were unearthed from this location. We stayed at a family ger nearby and watched camels drink from the watering hole, modern herders use their motorcycle to move camels to the pasture and we checked out the local Gobi trees. That night we gazed at the Milky Way while listening to the guard dogs bark all night.
Although we did not spend time with this family, the man of the ger camp showed us how he distilled goat milk to make alcohol. It is a home made distillery that distills any fermented milk. After tasting some milk alcohol, we left camp and hit the windy dirt road. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful river (although looking back, semi-polluted) to swim, bath and wash clothes. Our driver cooked us tradition Mongolian barbecue which consisted of heating rocks in a fire then placing them in a pot of onions, potatoes, carrots, water, goat meat, salt, and pepper. The pot begins to boil and you place it over the fire or burner for another hour. This was a delicious meal and enjoyed in the openness of Mongolia’s plains.
Next, we headed to the Ongi Khiid Monestary which was destroyed in the 30’s by the communists. Only the foundations of a once elaborate Buddhist complex remains. After a short drive, we arrived to the family ger, where Nick promptly lost 2 games of “the finger game” and had to drink two full bowls of fermented mares’ milk. We were called outside and Nick helped herd the goats, then we both helped with the milking. What a cool freakin’ experience! Although we only collected a bucket of milk each, while the family woman collected 5, we were covered in goat milk and smiles. We enjoyed a red sunset with a view of horses that seemed to last forever. There are few places in the world where in every direction you look, you have an unobstructed view of the horizon.