With a happy quirk that only Russian bureaucrats can possibly make sense of, I boarded the train to Mongolia to be greeted by three other westerners. It seemed that as the only foreigners on board we were to be quarantined to our own carriage, in what turned out to be the nicest carriage on the train. The décor was bright and mostly new; the air was clear and there was no noise at all. Upon exploring the rest of the train, it was clear that we were given better than the rest with the other carriages being a melange of 70s brown veneer walls, smoky corridors and crowded compartments. What a shame.
At the border with Mongolia, another strange event occurred. All the other carriages disappeared, leaving our “foreign only” car by itself. With several hours to kill, we purchased cheap beer and cheaper sausages and set to making the most of a curious situation. Fortunately for us, we were blessed with blue skies and warm sun so it was very easy to while away the afternoon.
God only knows what the immigration officials were doing all this time, but after eight hours of waiting around we finally set off south. The difference was night and day. Upon arriving at Mongolia, we were given a full salute by a troop of border patrol soldiers and the officials even smiled while asking for our passports. Smiling officials? What would Russia say?
Ulaanbaatar (Or Ulan-Bator, or more simply, UB) is a big, dirty, smoggy mess of a city that in no way could ever be called pretty. Soviet style communism ensured that the majority of UB’s architecture consists of greying tenements and apartment blocks. Here and there, new buildings have emerged demonstrating Mongolia’s progress while the increasing air pollution from coal burning power plants and home fires keep things from being too developed. Despite the brown skies and broken roads, UB’s citizens are remarkably cheerful people who delight in seeing foreigners. There is also a large ex-pat community here and as such the city has a unique cosmopolitan feel that is enhanced by the mix of both Cyrillic signage and English language billboards, shop signs and menus. It’s a crazy place, but I had precious little time here and as soon as I had arrived, it was in to a van and out to the country side to see the Gobi desert.
It’s impossible to overstate how massive Mongolia is. Mongolia is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Massive and mostly empty. 50% of Mongolia’s population lives in UB, leaving the rest of the country to reside in small dusty towns dotted about and the traditional yurts, or gers for which the nomadic Mongolians are famous for.
Life in a Ger is a strange business. The fire is the centre, and the (Buddhist) shrine at the rear of the hut is the most important point. You walk clock wise. You don’t pass between the central struts (bad luck), and everything is made from dairy products. It’s surprising what you can make with milk (cow, goat, sheep, camel, horse…). Soft biscuits similar to shortbread, various cheeses and a drink called airag made from fermented mare’s milk. It tastes as you’d expect. If it isn’t dairy, then it’s meat. Traditional tea is served with chunks of goat in. When it isn’t goat tea, it’s salted tea, which against all odds is actually quite tasty.
Gers are not really destined to be rated “energy efficient” dwellings. When the central fire is going it’s a warm and cosy place, like being warm in a big tent. Which is exactly what it is. As soon as the fire goes however, the ice grabs you by the toes. I was there in autumn. I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like in the depths of a harsh winter when the mercury can plummet to -40C. Maybe that’s why Genghis headed out to conquer. Keep the blood pumping and stay warm.
For all the time in an icy ger, it felt that most of the time was spent in the back of the van. As previously stated, Mongolia is big. Really big. So it was that travelling across a country with nearly no roads was going to take a long time. It took us two days to get to our main destinations, with several hours of driving between each one. While these were impressive to witness and great photographic opportunities, the time spent bouncing around in the back of a Soviet era 4×4 camper van left a little to be desired. Now and again though, we’d encounter something uniquely Mongolian, such as a wolf hunt with the lead vehicle having a specimen lashed to the roof. Wolves are a menace to the herders’ livelihoods as, like foxes in a hen-house, they will kill whatever they can grab regardless of whether they plan to eat it or not. One morning the owners of the ger we stayed at returned to their flock to find eight dead sheep. The wolf population is steady at present but who knows how long this will last. On another occasion we startled a flock of antelope which ran alongside the van, their numbers so vast they appeared to flow across the land like water. I didn’t even know they existed in Asia.
In between epic van journeys, we rode camels,
and climbed a 120 high sand dune known as the singing dunes. They did not sing as it had rained recently (in the desert…) and so the “singing” phenomenon wouldn’t work since it relies on the sand grains vibrating en masse; something they couldn’t do when clumped together with rain water.
Then it snowed.
After just six days, I had to leave. Not using more of my 30 days is something I regret, but the train tickets were purchased so it was onwards to the south, and in to China.