Our best organised group travel so far

Another must-do for us in Mongolia was a trip to the Gobi desert. We could have winged it, but for ease and to make sure we see all the different sights we booked a tour with Khongor guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. We chose the 7 day Gobi and Terelj NP tour but cut off the last day since we had been there on a daytrip with a friend before going to the nomads.

Our guide introduced herself at breakfast and once our driver had loaded our luggage in the back of his Soviet era minivan we were off. We were joined by two medical students from South Korea.

Our trusty old Soviet steed

On our way out of town we stopped for a last stock up in a supermarket where our guide bought all the food for the next few days and we re-supplied ourselves with snacks. The van was surprisingly comfortable, and with two free seats there was plenty of space for the four of us. Probably partially due to the age and lack of power we drove along at a very leisurely and tourist friendly pace. We were impressed by the scenery of snow covered mountains on both sides with the odd ger and quite a few animal herds of different sizes.

Parts of the Bala Gazriin Chuluu formation

Roughly two and a half hours later we stopped for lunch at a simple but nice roadside rest place. Not long afterwards we turned off the smooth tarmac onto a non-descript track. This was the last time on tarmac for two days 😦

Instead we had a strong deja vu of our driving in Namibia thanks to the copious amounts of ‘wash board’ or corrugated roads. And they were the flat sections! On top of that we drove across countless crossing tracks, river beds, ditches and over bumps.

The first sight of our tour was the Baga Gazriin Chuluu ‘little ground rock’; a fairly big area of rocks and hills; including the highest point of the middle gobi area. Once upon a time there had been two tiny monasteries nestled between some big rocks until the Soviets decided to tear them down and sadly kill the monks. We had some time to walk around and enjoy the scenery but due to the icy wind we were happy to be back in the warm van after half an hour. Had it been warmer we would have felt rushed but at this time of year it was about enough. From the car park it was only another 8km to the ger camp for the night. Because the tourist season was coming to an end, the family had already taken down half of their gers ready for storage. 

Beds for those who feel hot

We discovered that there seemed to be a lack of burnable dung in our accommodation so when we saw more of it during our evening walk Matthias ran back to get a container and out of habit we started collecting whatever we found. We even managed to draft in our Korean friends. Soon we had enough material to ensure a warm night.

Our tour guide Tegi was also our chef and cooked us very tasty tsuivan for dinner followed by tea and coffee. A short while later we all went to bed as we were all tired and we had to get up early.

The next day was the longest drive of all (not in terms of distance but of time). Today’s destination were the well-known flaming cliffs. Apart from a short stretch before and after the village we had lunch in, all of the 380 km were on bumpy and bone rattling off-road tracks. We stopped a few times along the way to sort our bones out and stretch our legs before the next section. There are at least 4 tourist camps near the cliffs so during peak season things must get really busy, but at this time of year most gers were empty. Before we got there we drove past some vast fenced in fields with small bushes in them. Tegi explained that people grow saxaul trees there before replanting them in other areas. These trees have roots up to 30m long so they are perfect for growing in deserts and play an important role in stopping desertification and securing soil.

Zoë and her sauxall tree

Tegi had given us the choice when we wanted to see the cliffs. Considering it was late afternoon already we decided to go there straight away to catch some good photography light. The cliffs consist of red sandstone and the setting sun really sets them on fire. Worn and carved by strong winds and sand they show beautiful features such as camel shaped outcrops, holes and others. It was here where in the 1920s the first dinosaur skeletons were found in Mongolia by an American archeologist. This place is especially famous for the finding of petrified dinosaur eggs. Excavations are still ongoing in different areas. Most of the fossils have been moved to the U.S. but there are enough left the fill a dinosaur museum in Ulaanbaatar.

Cliffs set on fire by the sunset

Sadly, we arrived at the cliffs a little early for the sunset but the views were awesome nonetheless. If it had not been for the strong and icy wind we would have hung around longer. That night we were very happy to see we had wood to burn instead of dung. Used by nomads if there are no trees around, dense dung is difficult to light; especially if still damp inside. This is quite difficult to judge from the outside and if the fire is too small, dense dung never burns properly but only smokes. We also got treated to a superb night sky with thousands of stars plus the milky way. Combining our friend’s tripod with our DSLR we managed to get some fairly decent shots. It was also a very cold night and therefore we went back into the ger soon and spent some more time chatting in the warmth.

One of our attempts in star photography

Next day’s’ drive was a lot shorter which meant a later awakening and departure. By now we had also gotten used to Tegi’s breakfasts which were better than what we had in our last two hostels in Ub. We only had to endure 180km (all off road) which was very much welcomed after yesterday’s torture. From the cliffs we had seen a long chain of big, rocky and snow covered mountains and we had been told that today we would drive over them. From the distance they seemed impassable unless on foot and it turned out they were (at least that section). There are three mountain ranges in this part of the Gobi and they are called western, middle and eastern beauty. The namesake story goes about a man who loved three beautiful women. When he had to go to war, the beloved ones climbed up three different mountains to weep and wait for him though he never returned.

The snow-capped middle beauty

The route to the other side of the middle beauty was surprisingly long; we had to go basically all the way around the west side. Our first stop was in a small village ten minutes drive away, where we stopped a public bath house for showers. The water had to be heated up in a wood-fired boiler and because we turned up early wasn’t really hot yet. Further down the bumpy tracks we saw many nomads watering their herds at wells along the way. Our driver stopped for a quick break next to a wandering herd of camels. One of them was very photogenic and gave us a long photo session before eventually rejoining the others. 

Two camels

Soon afterwards we hit the mountains and followed a dry river bed up a valley. Zoë spotted a group of ibex fleeing from our rattling Soviet van up the side of a mountain. Soon the other side came into view and our descent began. In the far distant there was another snow capped mountain range and before it, at the bottom of a wide valley, was a long sand dune. Tegi explained that this was the biggest sand dune in the country. It was 120km long and up to 20km wide. The view was beautiful but limited by haze. Our Korean friends were getting hungry and kept asking our guide about lunch but she told them that today was buddha’s birthday and a fasting day in Mongolia. She must have forgotten about this when she gave us breakfast but she still claimed not having eaten anything herself. It was not until 5 minutes and many shocked enquiries later that she revealed it as a jest and that we would be having lunch soon.

Our first river in the desert

We arrived at our ger camp soon after leaving the mountains and found it empty since the owners had gone to get the camels for us. Unfortunately they were a long way away so we had some time for relaxation, lunch and a walk to the nearby river. We decided to go to and up the dunes the same day and despite the camp being only about half a kilometer away from the dunes, we boarded the van for a short drive to a car park from which we could climb up the side of the highest part of the dunes. 

Ted preparing for his camel ride

Following Tegi’s advice, we left our shoes behind. We didn’t fancy spending the next days shedding sand from our socks and therefore embarked on the climb barefoot. Unfortunately we had to climb it from the leeward side which at this time of day was already in the shade. The sand was soft but very loose and we got very cold feet from sinking in and sliding down with every step. Matthias won the race to the top with Zoë close behind. It took us about 45 min including breaks to climb the 300m. The view from the top was beautiful and totally worth the effort. We also greatly enjoyed warming our feet in the warm sand on the sunny side. 

I’m on top of the world, hey!

Ted felt quite lofty at the top

While we went for a walk along the ridge line, our Korean friends reached the top as well and it was time for some selfies and a well-earned ‘Gipfelbier’ or summit beer. Zoë set off a ‘sandvalanche’ which surprisingly grew bigger and bigger and even kept going after it reached the bottom. The whole dune started to vibrate and produced a low frequency humming sound. Sitting on top all this was both mesmerizing and creepy. After about an hour it started to cool down so we decided to return to our tour guide and the van. Running down the steep slope was great fun and much more enjoyable than the climb. We had to be wary though about the more solid areas where sand was so compact that our feet did not sink in as expected.

Zoë reflecting on the great dune landscape

Shortly after we all made it back to our minibus, three other cars turned up and eight other tourists started the slog up the sand wall. Unlike us, they all kept their shoes on and we wondered how long it would take them to get rid of all the sand afterwards.

Tegi revealed to us that plans had changed and we would be riding camels while she went ahead to prepare our dinner. It was our first time on two-humped camels. Unlike horses, camel saddles only consisted of a carpet with stirrups attached and no other belts or straps to attach them to the animal. Our four camels were attached to the saddle of the next leading one and the front one was lead by a nomad women. Like us, the camels did not seem to be particularly content with this arrangement but eventually complied. The guide led us back along the track to the dune car park before turning around and walking back along the dunes. It was a nice experience but we would rather have done it in a nicer place with more space (longer ropes) for the camels.

How many camels can you see?

Thanks to the lovely scenery and the fun activities this was by far our most favourite day of the tour. Our fourth day saw us again driving quite a long distance but this time a fairly big proportion of that was on smooth tarmac roads. Again we stopped at a village for lunch before following the road to Gobi Gurvansaikhan national park. Here many mountains form a beautiful canyon scenery. One end of this narrows down to a gorge with a stream running through it. Due to high cliffs around it, it remains covered by ice until the summer. This year was quite hot and thus all the ice had melted by July. There was ice all along the central and narrow part but we assumed it was only from the recent frosty nights. There was also plenty of snow for a good snow ball battle on the way into the canyon. This rugged area is home to a population of lammergeiers. We saw a few big birds circling above but we think only one of them was one of these majestic and bone-breaking vultures.

Inside the icey canyon

Again Tegi had changed plans and instead of walking we got to ride up the valley on horseback. Our horses were smaller than the ones in the Eight Lakes NP and skinnier. Zoë’s horse was lame and despite Matthias’s saddle being adjusted as much as possible, the stirrups were way too short. In short, we did not enjoy this riding outing and would have rather walked the few kilometers.

Following this, we drove back a few kilometers to our camp for the night. There were gers and a few actual buildings with a basketball pitch and an outdoor gym. Before dinner we spent about an hour playing basketball (once we managed to locate the ball) in which our guide beat all of us.

On our penultimate day we spend a lot of time on the road again. This day’s sight was a white stupa which turned out to be a rock formation rather than a buddhist building. It got its name from the fact it resembles a stupa when approaching it from the north east. We drove to the top and enjoyed picturesque views overlooking the surrounding plain. Wind and rain have done a good job eroding the rock depositing colourful heaps of gravel and sand around the bottom. 

Stripy foot hills around the white stupa

Millions of years ago this area was the bottom of a sea and different time periods are still visible in form of coloured stripes. After a while walking up, down and around the white stupa we were taken to our last ger for both the trip and our time in Mongolia. It turned out to be our best ger so far with spring mattress beds and a stove with a stone lining to store heat during the night. Shortly after our arrival we were invited to the family ger for tea with camel milk (a first for us). Sadly we missed the promised camel milking because of the sun set. Since it was our last dinner together Tegi cooked a special Mongolian dish called Khorkhog. Chunks of meat are cooked under and in between hot stones together with a little water. To be honest, we didn’t think the stones made it taste much different. This evening, Tegi and our driver ate with us. We sat around a big bowl with about 4-5kg of meat and bones and a plate of vegetable (maybe 400g). It was a very sociable meal and we managed to devour almost all of it.

On our last day we got treated to a shower in a town along the way before the long and monotonous drive back to Ulaanbaatar. Our Korean friends had another day and went to see the Chinggis Khan statue and Terelj national park so sadly we had to say good bye. We had arranged to get picked up by another driver in a small town near the new airport roughly an hour south of the capital. This swap worked seamless and soon we were back in our hostel.

The next day we spent shopping in Ub and sorting out various things. In the evening we treated ourselves to a Mongolian cultural show. It included the famous throat singing, the horse-headed fiddle and traditional dancing. This was a worthy end to the great and fantastic time we had in this exciting country, but by this point we were looking forward to experiencing China.

Living with Mongolian Nomads

Our workaway with Mongolian Nomads got off to a rocky start. We had arranged for our driver to collect us at 7pm and take us to his family’s homestay in Ulanbataar, before leaving early the next morning. This was all arranged through a third party via Facebook. So when we recieved a message the day we were supposed to be collected saying the homestay had family visiting, we started to worry. After a few messages we sorted out that we would stay at the driver’s apartment for the night. Our driver’s brother arrived just before 8pm and we were on our way. The apartment was large but sparsely furnished, and although we got our own room we were sharing a single mattress. It wasn’t the best nights sleep but is was ok. More worryingly, we waited a couple of hours for breakfast and around 11am it arrived. It seems that Mongolians eat large portions of everything and Matthias munched his way through five of the six eggs before it was time to leave. Our driver’s brother continually asked for all of the money for driving us to and from the nomads but we stuck to our principles and paid only half (just in case we were stranded in the middle of nowhere with no ride home). 

Finally on our way to our workaway we were expecting a long journey of around 6 hours. Despite several stops for the driver to tighten a bolt in the bonnet, we made it in just three. The last town we drove through was Baganuur which appeared to exist purely for a ginormous hole in the ground otherwise known as a pit mine. After the town we crossed the river and set off along a river valley across mud, rock and sandy tracks. It was a bumpy ride and at times quite uncomfortable. 

The emptiness of the steppe

Eventually, we pulled up at two gers with another two just a few hundred meters away. We were ushered inside to meet our hosts and a few of their friends and of course drink some milk tea. Mongolian milk tea is made of roughly half milk and half tea with salt added to taste; something we were both going to need to get used to. It was Sunday, and so there were quite a few visitors including our hosts granddaughter who spoke great English. This at least helped us find out that we would be helping with milking and that grandma Mika was the boss. We would be staying in Mika’s home for at least the first night and then would have to see what would happen as Mika was due to move back to the city to a nice warm apartment instead of spending the freezing winter in a ger. 

The party ger

Once all the visitors were gone the ger was pretty quiet and we were finding out about our charades abilities. At first it was really difficult to work out anything useful or communicate anything about us but we slowly got some things across. Our first nomadic meal was a yummy tsuivan – fried noodles with carrots, meat and potatoes, seasoned with Maggi. It is probably the most commonly served dish in Mongolia and never fails to fill you up. Stuffed, we made up our double sofa bed and got our sleeping bags out to Mika’s disapproval. She insisted on also giving us a handmade blanket stuffed with sheep’s wool that weighed us down to the bed. We were in bed by 7pm and had been promised an early start the next day. 

Our home for ten days

Day 1

Around 6:30am Mika got up and started to make a fire. We got up fairly quickly and drank some tea. Mika kept presenting us with more food to eat and soon the table was covered in bread, biscuits, cookies and jam. We ate enough and then set off to start work. The cows are brought home by a herder on a motorbike. They were moved into the enclosure and the calves were let out individually from a neighbouring enclosure where they have spent the night. Once the calves found their mothers they were left to suckle for a minute before being led away on a rope and tied to the fence. The cows hindlegs were tied together to prevent them kicking but most of them were so good natured that they didn’t even try. All the milking is done by hand into a pail and then the milk is collected in a large canister. We were really impressed by the speed and skill of the herders when they were milking and although we both had a few attempts we were well below par. Once the miking is done, the calf was released and ran back to mum. This seemed to work surprisingly well and was a big contrast to the factory style farming in Europe. At the end of milking around 90l of milk from 60 cows were taken to the nearest ger. 

The lovely mongolian cows amd calves

During milking we helped tying up and releasing calves which was pretty tough and required some strength. The calves ranged in weights from 60kg to 300kg and some of them were really keen to be at the milk bar. Sometimes it took two people to move them away and tie them up. Another inevitable job was shovelling up the cow poo to keep the milking pen clean. This task only came to an end when the pen was empty, but on their way out the cows lightened their load and made a little more work for us. With the pen empty we followed Mika’s lead and cleared up the poo around the gates, throwing it all onto a large pile. 

Zoë shovelling in her borrowed Mongolian costume (deel)

Since we showed some ability in shovelling poo Mika decided our next job would be to clean the pasture by constructing a large poo tower. First we made a circle on the ground and then built walls with the round cowpats. The rest was thrown into the centre. It was a surprisingly satisfying job as we could see the difference we were making. Mika also explained that the cowpats stop the grass from growing. Mongolia is so dry that cowpats dry to hard discs and take years to disintegrate leaving a patch of bare ground behind. The cowpats are only good to burn once they are dried but not crumbling and if wood is easy to get the nomads tend to leave the cowpats on the field. With plenty of shovelling done we were ushered back to the ger for lunch. We had some bread and jam and then went back out to work. 

Midafternoon one of the herders came by and picked up Matthias with a motorbike. They collected a barrel from an island in the river and went back to the herder’s ger. In the ger the real work was starting. The milk was heated on the stove before being poured into a machine. The machine was a hand-powered centrifuge and turned at a constant speed. Inside the milk is separated into milk and cream and these came out of different spouts. This is hard monotonous work and separating the 80l of milk takes about 2 hours. Seperating the milk required the correct and more importantly constant speed of about 60rpm. Matthias and one of the herders took turns at this so that they could have a break and cool down away from the roasting hot stove. The next step in processing was to make yogurt from the milk. The milk was warmed and mixed with a starter culture before being stored in a large barrel in the warm ger. We both had a bowl of yogurt and it was delicious. 

Separating the milk and cream

We returned to Mika’s ger to find dinner was being prepared. Tonight it was a yummy noodle soup with carrots, potatoes and beetroot. Most of the cooking is done in a huge pan on the stove and this seemed to mean giant portions for both of us. Thankfully we were both hungry after all that work. We thought that was the work done for the day but Mika had another idea. At 6:30pm we went out to collect wood for the fire from the trees along the river. It was already cooling down outside but we kept busy breaking branches and admiring the sunset. We walked back to our ger and lit a candle as it was already dark. We stayed up for a little while talking about our travels and Mongolia but by 8pm we were in bed and falling asleep. 

Day 2

Our second morning was pretty much the same as the first day. Thanks to our hand milking skills we decided just to go with cleaning the pen, tying up calves and letting cows out of the enclosure. We learned that, unlike us, the herders have their breakfast after the milking is finished. Like yesterday today was quite frosty with a cold wind. Matthias had gotten an extra furry cashmere jacket to wear while Zoë recieved Mika’s spare deel (long traditional Mongolian overcoat). It proved to be very versatile and warm. 

Once the milk was collected and the cows on their way to their grazing grounds we moved onto cowpat shovelling and building for two hours before being ushered back to the ger for lunch. Mika is quite a workaholic and despite her 70 years has still plenty of energy. She kept working for another hour leaving us wondering what would happen. After some leftovers warmed up in milky tea (typical Mongolian style) we headed over to the herders to help with the milk processing. This was basically a two-person-job with one turning the crank and the other pouring in milk on the top. Occasionally a third person is required to lift heavy milk jugs or give the cranker a break. Zoë helped with the lifting but played with the cat and the baby of one of the herder women. After a while we managed to escape the hot ger and go back to clearing up the shit near the herder’s gers. Today we learned that after some time in the barrels the yoghurt gets heated up again to kill the bacteria and filtered through a cheese cloth to be then left to dry. Another while later this gets then hand pressed into forms. The cheese is then left to dry outside. That was also the time when flocks of magpies started to hang around only waiting for the right moment to snatch some of the fruits of hard labour.

Matthias all a blur as he spins the crank to separate the milk and cream

We spent about an hour and a half shoveling before we decided to call it a day and head back. Mika was slightly upset because she called and waved at us earlier to come for food but we had completely missed her. Today’s dinner included rice instead of noodles but was otherwise the same. Before settling down for the night we had to do our daily water run and collect wood for the oven. Our host also had a past-time in collecting waste water in a big bucket and pouring it down one of the countless mouseholes nearby.

Getting water from the river

We were both really tired after all this work so we went to bed early after only a short chat despite our hosts slight disapproval.

Day 3

As with most farming, our days were a little repetitive. We were totally up to speed on the milking routine and starting to get quite accomplished at calf wrangling and poo scooping. Matthias was sent to do some cow herding too which he was pretty good at. Our new task for the day was to dismantle some the old piles of dung which had been hardened by months of the Mongolian sun and and wind. To do this easily we would have used a pick axe but given that we only had shovels, it took a lot more effort. After a couple of hours of breaking up rock hard soil and spreading it across the open ground it was time for lunch. Lunch was fairly simple and then it was time for milk processing. This time we brought the cream back to Mika’s ger for her to process further. But first we had dinner which was Hoshod, very similar to pasties but made with dough and mutton. They were much tastier than the ones we had eaten in restuarants.

Mika had a little task for us before the sun set. We set out with a shovel and a Mongolian wheelbarrow otherwise known as a large metal bowl with a long string attached. We reached one of the piles of old dung filled the bowl and then dragged it 800m away to fill a hole. This seemed utterly pointless to us and we really struggled to understand why we were using a bowl on a string instead of a cart or wheelbarrow. It seems the Mongolian way is simple, traditional and also slightly more complicated at times than it need be. 

Ted’s got the cream from 4 days of milking

After washing up Mika started to heat the 15l of cream on the stove. It takes quite a while to come to the boil and we all got a little distracted. Before we knew it the cream was rising rapidly and it was a race to get it off the stove. Sadly we were too slow finding a place to put the round bottomed pan and something to lift it, so we ended up with cream all over the stove, surround and floor. This would be easy to clean up in a kitchen but in a ger it was a little tricky. The cream burnt on the stove filling the ger with smoke and then seeped through the wood surround and poured out of the bottom. Once the clean up was finished we all needed a cup of tea which we also managed to neglect and let boil over. At 9:30pm it was defintely time for bed. 
Day 4 

Following the cream disaster we were awoken in a smokey ger as the stove got fired up. Mika gestured to us that it was too early to get up and later explained that it we went to milking to early we would be sat around without enough work to do. Either way we did as we were told and arrived to the cow pen an hour later than the day before. By this time there was plenty to clear up and one of the herders was missing. The previous day it had been his job to let out the calves and clear up the calf pen. Since he wasn’t there Matthias took over letting the calves out to the calls of neg (one), hoyor (two) and goro (three), while Zoë cleared up the extremely dirty calf pen. Milking took a little longer with only two milkers most of the time so afterwards it was already time for a big lunch of beef noodle soup. Our breaks were getting longer and longer, probably because Mika was worried that we were getting worn out and worked too much. In actual fact we were happy being busy and bored in the ger during the breaks. We took the initiative and went to find something to do. Matthias had decided to fix the base of the milk separating machine as it was mounted on a rocking creaking crate. It was so wobbly that the cranker (or somebody else) needed to stabilise it in order to avoid the milk spilling out the top. He asked for nails but none of the men showed any desire to fix anything until it completely fell apart even if it would make their lives easier. Instead he found an old ger door and some screws so that he could attach two diagonal bracings. Once done the crate no longer rocked and the herders seemed quite shocked and amazed that it could be fixed so easily. Matthias very helpfully started to do the milk processing and found that he was doing all the work while the herders relaxed. On the plus side the workout startedto pay of andcthe work was quite a bit easier than on the first day (also partially due to the stabilised box). Seeing this we decided to start another cowpat tower instead and enjoy the warm sunshine. Mika was very surprised and quite pleased when she saw the second pile the next day.

Our cowpat tower

Day 5

We woke up to be told to stay in bed for a while longer again. Already wide awake and raring to go we stayed in bed for less than an hour before we got up for breakfast. We went milking again and saw how they mark their calves to prevent them being stolen. It was a little brutal to cut a slit in the ear with scissors but understandable since animal stealing is very common in Mongolia. With a population of just 4 million (1.3 million im Ulanbataar) and a livestock population of 60 million it’s surprising that stealing is a problem. We found out from Mika’s granddaughter that when Mika lived closer to the city one of her favourite cows was stolen. She searched everywhere for her and sadly found her head and udder on the hillside. After this Mika moved further away from the city to where she lives now. After milking we were sent for lunch, mainly because the herders wanted to fix the cheese ger which was falling down at the back. They had brought new panels and wooden wall structures the day before, but to change them he whole ger needed to be dismantled and reassembeled. This meant removing the felt insulation, taking out the roof supports and then taking out the old panels. It was quite interesting to see from a distance how the ger was fixed together and how simple it’s construction is. Once the ger was finished it was time for more milk processing and then a stranger turned up. At first we didn’t know who he was but it later turned out that he had bought a sheep and was here for collection. some of the herders had selected a sheep for slaughter. We were advised by the workaway organiser that the women and children do not normally see slaughters and despite the guys best efforts we watched. It may seem morbid to watch but it is part of thier lifestyle and actually very different to in the western world. We were expecting them to cut the sheep’s throat but instead they made a fist sized hole below it’s ribs. One of the men reached in and tugged on the aorta. The sheep died pretty swiftly and there was no blood to be seen. The sheep was skinned skillfully and butchered without any care for cuts of meat. Later the herders brought over a large pan full of stewed kidneys, heart, liver, intestines and a blood sausage. Despite everyone saying how delicious it all was Zoë didn’t fancy trying any so Matthias had to at least taste something. It wasn’t bad but very basic. 

The arrival of a container to store Mika’s gers during the winter

Day 6

The next morning we went milking and shovelling again before being invited into the herders for breakfast. They offered us tea, stewed offal and some fried dough. Cold offal covered in hot milk tea was a little too unappetising. It seems there is nothing in Mongolia that hot milk tea can’t improve. After breakfast the family turned up for the day which meant that the party ger was going to be fixed so that the door would finally close. Mika’s family all live in the city and her son is head of a large electrical company. They visit each weekend and offer Mika a shower and bring supplies. In return she cooks a Mongolian feast for the whole family. Matthias was sent to help with the milk processing while Zoë peeled a mountain of potatoes, chipped and fried them. The banquet consisted of three hour boiled mutton ribs and bones, glass noodles and then dumplings. Mika’s son distributed the meat starting with us first as guests and ending with the children. The noodles were prepared with chips, cucumber, tomato, pak choi and mutton; an interesting combination. The dumplings were a fairly big undertaking. The mutton was chopped very small, mixed with onions and then wrapped into dough with a hole at the top. These were steamed for around 20 minutes before everyone dived into them as though they hadn’t already eaten two courses. The leftover dough was rolled out covered in oil and then rolled into a tube befoee being steamed and chopped into noodles for tsuivan the next day. The family left just as the snow began to fall outside. 

The youngest smiliest nomad

Day 7

We woke up to a totally white steppe with snow drifts outside the gers and it was fairly chilly. We were told to stay in bed and managed to for around an hour. We were expecting to go milking but also wondering if it would happen given the weather. Soon our question was answered and we were destined to spend our day staying in the warm ger reading and chatting. We appreciated a day off but felt quite lazy considering that we were here to work. One drama during the day was that we were unable to get into the party ger which meant Mika could not access the freezer. Without getting to the freezer, we had a Mongolian disaster… not enough meat for dinner. From somewhere Mika found about 600g of meat but told us the meal was bad because she would normally use at least 1200g. Meat in Mongolia is as much as a staple as mik and both are dirt cheap. We honestly didn’t mind a low meat meal and we were already looking forward to ordering vegetarian or white meat dishes in the Indian restuarant in Ulanbataar. Later our translator left too and we were back to charades and keeping warm. 

Our ger in the snow

Day 8

Uitse and Angkha our herder friends

Our final full work day wasn’t really much of a work day at all. Outside the snow still lay thick on the ground and it was pretty cold. We spent the morning relaxing and reading since there was little else to do. Then Mika decided Matthias should clear the snow and ice from the party ger so that it dries out and is ready to be stored sooner. Due to her age Mika now spends the winters in an apartment in the nearest town Baganuur but couldnot leave until both gers weredismantled and stored in the container. The clearing would have been easier with the right tools but all Matthias had was a long wooden pole with a dustpan attached and a shorthandled broom. While Matthias was freezing outside Zoë was given the job of rolling out dough, covering it butter and then rolling and twisiting it. Once twisted (like wringing it out) the dough was squashed back together before being rollled into a circle and deep fried. This made lovely layered bread/pastry to go along with the soup for lunch. Once Matthias was finished we all sat down to a yummy lunch. For the afternoon we read a little more before going on a walk and collecting some firewood. When we got back Mika asked for some more water so we went off to the river picking up the herders cannisters on the way. Getting water is hard work in the snow and we felt the herders were being pretty lazy since they only live 400m away from the river. Anyway we did our part so everyone had enough water. Back at Mika’s we tucked into another bowl of soup each and tried to call our driver for the next day. The two brothers are totally useless and wanted to collect us in the evening despite the fact we are paying them to get us and assumed we would be back in Ulanbataar in time for some shopping. After a lot if hassle we worked out they should pick us up at around 1pm but we would have to wait and see if they kept to this. It also turned out that they had told the nomads that we were staying for 2 weeks instead of 10 days so Mika got quite a surprise when we said we were going to Ulanbataar the next day. We were starting to think we should have got the bus and a taxi from Baganuur. Either way we would find out soon enough. 

A snowy drive along the valley

After 10 days of not showering or changing clothes we were ready for a nice hot shower and a bit of variety in our food. We had really enjoyed learning the ways of the Mongolian nomads and getting to know Mika and her extended family. We may not have been able to speak to each other due to the language barrier, but we had still worked together and laughed together. We are very glad we took this oppotunity and honoured that Mika thinks we make better Mongolians that the ones that live in the city. Who knows we might even see Mika again if she comes to visit our home. 

Horsetrek

One of our must-dos in Mongolia was horse riding, mainly as a way to get more in touch with the real traditional Mongolia. We had met a few other travellers who had bought horses and done independant horse treks for weeks through the Mongolian countryside. But after hearing their stories of horses running away or struggling to cross rivers that were too deep we decided an organised horse trek would be better for us, especially since neither of us have loads of riding experience. We looked into a few tour companies but in the end opted to arrange our tour through Gaya’s guesthouse (thanks for the tip Gillian and Howard). Our tour was from Kharkhorin to the eight lakes area and the Orhkon Valley.

Out into the beautiful countryside

Kharkhorin was Ghengis Khans capital of Mongolia just 350km south west of Ulanbataar. The bus journey takes around 6 hours and again we had the same DVD of Mongolian music for the duration. Most of the journey went smoothly but we were unlucky enough to be seated close to a boy who suffered from motion sickness and vomited down the central ailse of the bus and then said nothing to the driver. Thankfully it wasn’t too much further before we arrived and were collected by Gaya. Gaya’s guesthouse is homely and we had the choice between a traditional ger or a room in the main house. We opted for a little bit of creature comforts in the house before our horse trek. That evening we met a lot of people and our trekking partners for the next 5 days.

Ted on the doorstep of his new ger

The horse trekking route included a drive to the Orkhon waterfall, where we met our horses and rode to our camp for the night. The 3 hour drive from Kharkhorin to Orkhon waterfall was half on tarmac and half off-road. We were pretty surprised when our driver happily drove his estate car through some fairly deep rivers and over piles of volcanic rock. The scenery was interesting with something new to see around every bend. The Orkhon valley is a wide valley with worn volcano-shaped mountains, old lava flows and a snaking river. Along the way we saw lots of yaks, sheep, goats and cows and every now and again a ger or tourist camp. At the horse guide’s camp there were a few horses saddled up ready to go but due to the addition of 3 more people to our tour we had lunch and waited in the sunshine for the other horses to be rounded up and brought to the ger.


The horses tethered and waiting patiently

The Orkhon river

Mongolian horses are shortlegged and stocky like ponies rather than thoroughbreds. They are very versatile and tough, capable of walking long distances or speeding along at full pelt for a long time. Either way they have the attitude and stubborness to match their environment. The horses spend their time between work roaming free and can sometimes take a little convincing that their free time is over for a while. All of our horses were saddled up with what Mongolians call western-style saddles. To us they were more of a hybrid western-Mongolian saddle which took a little getting used to. The Mongolians guides rode with traditional wooden saddles which are very short, upright and fairly high above the horse. They also rode sitting to one side and then the other to make it a little easier on their derières. Once we were all ready and the packhorses loaded up, we set off.


Matthias and his trusty steed

Ted and his friend Alan the adventurer

Our first ride took us up along the valley and the first challenge we encountered was crossing a couple of rivers. The first large river was the point where 4 of the horses decided the grass was not greener on the other side. After about 15 minutes our Mongolian guide had to come back and shoo the horses across the river. Thankfully that was the hardest river crossing and at the next the horses were a little more responsive. Unfortunately, we happened to see a lone horse saddled up and walking along the valley with us and our guide had to leave us and catch the horse. He returned it to the group of riders behind us who were in the process of searching for a mobile phone. This delayed us by an hour and we spent the rest of the ride racing the setting sun. It was a tough ride mainly because the horses have a strong herd instinct and a healthy fear of Mongolians. This meant that every time one horse galloped the rest started too or when a Mongolian rode up behind you your horse set off at speed, sometimes in a different direction to the others.


Three hours of riding later we arrived at our camp with very little daylight left and fairly battered behinds. The ger was a welcome shelter from the wind and once the fire was going it was toasty. Our all inclusive tour included dinner from the nomads in the camp and we tucked into Tsuivan (noodles with beef and vegetables). Our riding companions had opted for the self catering option and despite the tiring ride had to prepare dinner.


One of the prettier gers

Our first nights stay in a ger was both extremely hot and pretty cold as the fire wood burns so fast that you need to be adding wood every 45 minutes to keep the fire alive. In the morning we packed up and set off to reach the next camp. Surprisingly our route took us across some of the lava flows and up a fairly large hill. The horses were fantastic at navigating the difficult terrain and even recovered from the occassional stumble. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride up or down the hill but the views were stunning with the larch forest in autumnal colours. After 4 hours riding we stopped for lunch but unfortunately our guide had stayed behind to help his sister with her pack horse (with a different group) and we only had Mongolian speaking guides. Our best attempts to ask and mime for cups to drink out of only achieved a smile and nod which was a little frustrating. Our guide finally turned up around 4pm and finally we had some tea to drink and rehydrate us.


Our camp for the night was an even larger ger so both of us got or own beds and a little more space to stretch our achy muscles. It was perched on a hill overlooking the first of the eight lakes and we had plenty of time to walk around the lake and admire the views. Our dinner was mutton with rice, potatoes and carrots which was very yummy. We were starting to wonder how we were going to eat all of the food Gaya had provided us with especially since we discovered that our noodles, potatoes and vegetables had been packed into a different pack horse and suddenly appeared halfway through the trek.


The first lake finally!

Zoë’s very tired horse coming home last

The next morning we set off around the lake and along another valley. We passed another of the eight lakes and after an hour and a half of riding made it to the third and final lake we would be seeing. We stopped for a break and hiked up the hill to get an even better view. Sadly it was a really windy day so we didn’t stop for very long before we had to mount our horses and ride on. We slowly walked back to the ger we had slept in the night before but almost everyone on our group had some kind of problem with their horse or saddle. Zoë’s saddle started to come loose and one of the guides had to stop and tighten it. The worst mishap was to our Romanian friend who was daydreaming as her horse rode her into a low hanging horizontal branch. 

Thankfully she wasn’t hurt as the branch snapped and she fell from her horse. At this point we all thought we would definitely be safer wearing hats but there weren’t any on offer. We all made it safely back although Zoë’s horse plodded along at the back for the last 500m and only just made it up the hill. After lunch we set off back to the previous camp. This meant going back along the valley and over the mountain we had crossed two days previously. We were a little apprehensive at the thought of going down some quite steep gravel slopes but we had to trust our horses. Zoë’s horse was quite creative about which path to follow and often made it’s own way through the trees and over large rocks. This was quite amusing as all the other horses blindly followed it and had more of a challenge than on the actual path. Running down some of the steepest sections was pretty scary so we all breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the valley. Around 30 minutes later we arrived at our first camp again and got out of the freezing cold wind for the night. Matthias volunteered to get water for the horse guides and was back out in the cold to find the river. He found the river around 1km away through a dense forest which made the water cart fairly useless. We were all wondering where on earth he had got to when he finally came in the door sweaty and cold. Thankfully we had the fire on and our ger was nice and cosy. We really enjoyed the company of our fellow riders and we were all still wondering where the waterfall was that we were meant to see on the first day.


Ted on the beach

Matthias admiring the view

Orkhon waterfall in all its glory

The following day we found out that we were riding back to the ger camp where our drivers had dropped us off and from there we would walk to the waterfall. It was a pretty cold day and Zoë had picked up a cold and fever. We knew we had about 3 hours of riding to do which was managable but in the bracing wind it wasn’t going to be very enjoyable. Two and a half cold hours later we arrived at the ger and our horses seemed keen to be loose again. We were invited in for tea and soup which was very welcome. Then we were shown to our ger for the night and our guide pointed the way to the waterfall which was somewhere between 200m and 1km away. We all set off for a walk to the waterfall which was probably 1km away. We hadn’t expected the valley floor to open into a huge canyon all of a sudden and so we walked along the edge until we found the waterfall. We walked down a rocky path into the canyon and along the river until we reached a large deep pool with a fairly sizeable waterfall. Then we decided to view it from above before we set off back to the ger to make dinner. We had noodles and sauce before our guide turned up with a yummy vegetable soup. We were even happier in the morning when our guides brought some freshly fried bread for breakfast. Then we set off in the car back to Kharkhorin, which our speedy driver managed in just over two hours.


Our great group and guide Ma


Back in Kharkhorin we had a few days to relax and see the sights. Most people come to see the Erdene zuu monastery and museum. We had a look around and were impressed by the detailed artwork but sad that much of the monastery was destroyed by the communists. We also walked up the hill to see one of the four stone turtles and also the phallic rock. Sightseeing done we had to recuperate before our next adventure. We had just two days back in Ulanbaatar before we set off on our workaway adventure. We signed up to workaway to meet some local people and reduce our costs. We wrote to a couple of hosts via the website (workaway.com) but only recieved one reply. We managed to arrange ten days living with nomads in the east of Mongolia and book a driver but the rest was set to be a surprise.


Ulanbatar and chinese visa

We met another German backpacker on the bus who stayed in a different hostel, but since it was the same way we all got the bus together and helped her to find her accommodation before getting to ours.

Our hostel was basically a converted flat with one dorm and two double bedrooms, a very small kitchen and a bathroom. Our room was toasty and small but alright. We were both starving after a day on the bus and thus headed out to grab a bite. After a few days of rather simple food we were excited to find the street around the corner lined with Korean restaurants promising long-missed meals full of flavour. 
We only had one full day in the caital before getting on a bus to Kharkhorin so there were busy times ahead. The most important point on our list was applying for our Chinese visas. The visa office in Ulanbataar is open for applications 9:30 – 12:30 Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It opens again in the afternoon for collection. While preparing our application we heard that it was always very busy and only a limited number of people were allowed in each day so we decided to get up at 6 am in order to be at the front of the queue. When we got there at 6:45 we joined the foreigners line behind a French couple and an Australian traveller. The Mongolian queue was slightly longer but still not busy. This was partially due to the fact is was out of season. At least we had some nice people to talk to while waiting. It turned out the Australian girl was a vet and had been riding around the north and west of Mongolia on her two horses for four weeks.

Requirements for a Chinese tourist visa a quite tight. Beside the four-page application form (plus a two page appendix if you apply in a different country) there is a list of other documents required. You need a booking confirmation for at least the first three nights, a travel itinerary, a passport photo, proof of health (travel) insurance as well as proof of in and outward flights. Particularly the last point gave us quite a hard time. Because the direct train to Beijing only goes three times a week and not on the days we needed it.  In order to fit all our activities into the 30 day Mongolian visa we had decided to fly to the Chinese capital. That was the inward part sorted. Our plan was to leave the country by train to Hanoi in north Vietnam but it emerged that there are two trains involved. One in China gets you within about five kilometers of the border. The Vietnamese train picks you up on the other side. While we could book most Vietnamese trains online, tickets for the train leading to the border could only be purchased at a train station within the country. Therefore this did not work in terms of our visa. Most people solve this problem by going to a travel agency (air market) in Ulanbaatar and get them to reserve flights in and out of China and obtain a confirmation. Since we only arrived in the city the evening before, we did not have time for this. After spending hours at looking at different options online and reading smallprint about cancellation fees we booked some outward flights on Expedia.com who offer 24 hour free cancellation for flights. 

Armed with all our paperwork we were anxiously waiting to get into the Chinese embassy. Both queues had grown quite a bit (especially the Mongolian line). When the doors finally opened a woman came out and asked all foreigners for a Mongolian residence card. Only three people had one and where given a ticket with a number. Then she announced that they were upgrading their software and due to this no foreigners without a residence card could apply for visa. This could last anywhere between one week and a month i.e. nobody knew how long. 

We were shocked and gobsmacked. All the hours invested in getting the paperwork and planning our travelling in China had been wasted and we had been thrown all the way back to square one.

In order to console ourselves and since we still hadn’t eaten anything we decided to go to a Korean bakery a few blocks away for breakfast with our new friends. The bakery called Tous le Jours was amazing. They offer a huge range of sweet and savoury pastries, breads and other baked goods as well as great hot drinks at reasonable prices. 

By the end of our breakfast we were all in good spirits again. We spent most of the rest of the day going to Ulanbataars black market to buy warm clothes for the upcoming nights in gers during our horse riding trip and for our volunteering.  Stalls on this market sell literally everything apart from food (separate market outside) and cars. You can buy every type of clothing and homeware equipment you could ever want at very cheap prices. We bought camel wool socks for 3000 Tugruk (1€) and wool leggings for 12000 each.  Matthias got a windproof jacket while Zoë settled for a super thick fleece and gloves and finally found a replacement for her broken pair of sunglasses.
We also decided not to try again with our Chinese visa (at least not in Mongolia) and not to extend our stay in Mongolia. Extending Zoë’s visa would have been easy but Matthias got his visa on arrival (only a stamp instead of a proper visa) and we could not work out if that was extendable or not.

Back in the hostel we looked up flight connections from Beijing (we still had a flight booked) as well as visa regulations in the surrounding countries. In the end we agreed to go to Japan next. Flights to Tokyo were cheap and we can both stay there without a visa for up to 90 days (woohoo no more visa worries for a while).

The next morning we got our local sim card before boarding the bus to Kharkhorin ready for the real Mongolia.

Ulanude

The final city on our transiberian adventure was set to be Ulan-Ude. Ulan-Ude is a city east of lake Baikal and is the largest Buryat city. Our stopover was mainly planned to visit the centre of Buddhism in Russia. Other than this Ulan-Ude has a few Buryat restuarants and a momument to Lenin (what a surprise). The monument is fairly monumental, as it is a bronze head weighing in at 42 tonnes, aptly placed in the centre of Communist square. 

The worlds biggest Lenin head

We enjoyed trying the Buryat cuisine a lot more than visiting a giant Lenin head (the biggest in the world). The Buryats are just one of the many different people in Russia and to be honest they are more Mongolian in appearance than Russian. Their traditional food is also welcomely different to the rest of Russia with more spices and a few specialities including Buuza (giant meat dumplings).  Eating Buuza is a little challenging as they are full of meat juice which can squirt all over if you take a bite before slurping it out of the hole in the top. 

A forest of prayer shawls

Our main destination was Involginsky Datsan, the buddhist temple not far from Ulan-Ude. Getting there involves two minibuses but is fairly easy as the drivers know exactly where tourists are going and will point you in the right direction. Once at the temple there are two options; wander around the grounds and open temples alone or take a guided tour. We opted for a guided tour with a fantastic English speaking guide. We paid 500 rubles together and this included a full 90 minute tour and free prayer shawl. 

The current main temple with guarding stupas

Our tour group consisted of two Russian ladies, a small group of Germans and their interpreter. Our guide spoke both English and Russian and was thrilled that Zoë came from England as she doesn’t meet many English people and loves the queen. We started our tour at the Buddhist university where up to 60 students learn medicine, prayer, tantra and lots of other subjects. Our guide showed us the stupa and the greenhouse which holds a tree directly descended from the tree Siddartha Gutama sat under when he achieved enlightenment. Aside from this we visited several temples dedicated to different buddhist deities including one called the White Tara who resembles Catherine the second of Russia (one of the Tsarinas who allowed Buddhists to practice freely in Russia. The temples are all beautifully painted and covered in rich materials representing the colours of the Buddhist religion; white, yellow, red, green and blue. 

Budhist prayer wheels

Probably the most famous tale from this monastery is about the twelfth chief lama of Russia who was the most senior buddhist when Stalin came to power. He predicted the religious opression that was to come and renounced his title urging Russian buddhists to flee Russia. Unfortunately many did not and were placed into Gulags where they lost their lives. The tweflth lama opted to go underground and meditate asking to be brought back to the surface after 35 and 75 years. Impatience meant he was first exhumed after 33 years and found to be in the meditating position. After 75 years he was looked at again and remarkably seemed to be in exactly the same condition as before despite never being embalmed. Today he is brought out on special holidays and has been declared to be still living and conscious. Apparently his body is still warm (between 18 and 34 degrees celcius) and his hair and nails are still growing. Its possible to receive his blessing for a small donation of 250 rubles. Whether or not you believe this it still makes for an interesting story. 

Ted feeling budhist

Back in Ulan-Ude and with more knowledge of Buddhism we only had one more night in Russia. The next day we got the bus from Ulan-Ue to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The bus ride was far too long to be fun. The journey had some very nice scenery but 10 hours on a coach and two hours at the border made for a pretty long day. When we finally got off the bus we found ourselves in a fairly smoggy very busy Ulanbaator and still had to negotiate our way from the bus station to the city centre.