Choosing a travel destination can be a rash decision. It can be on a whim. Simply seeing a photograph and having that feeling: “I want to be there, I want to be in that moment”.
After reading a blogger’s experience of the Trans-Siberian, I made a quick decision. I instantly felt that I wanted to experience as much of that journey as I possibly could. Including Mongolia.
A decision made without research, without thought of practicalities. I knew that I would make this trip possible; the images from that blogger’s trip fuelled my need. Two weeks before leaving our home country we watched Joanna Lumley on her Trans-Siberian train journey. This confirmed we had made the right decision and we were in for an experience.
Little did I know what the hours of research, money and even more research would turn into. The challenge of obtaining 3 visas each, and eventually a trip that only fuelled my need to explore more.
Starting in the neighbouring country
Our Trans-Siberian journey began in Beijing, however, we began our China adventure 2 weeks before in the Hunan Province.
Those two weeks in China proved challenging. Having struggled with the inability to speak Chinese, ending up lost and confused often, and a frequent apprehension over the contents of the food.
I was simply surviving on McDonald’s chips, their cherry pies, bowls of oats for each meal and questionably flavoured noodles. Eventually, we found reprieve in Beijing. Where I was able to find a Vegan Buddhist restaurant and even found peanut butter in a Walmart. We also discovered the power of a good bakery. Concerned I would starve again in Mongolia, all I knew about the Mongolian diet was that they ate meat. A lot of meat.
This very hungry, IBS and food intolerance suffering, vegan and animal lover was expecting the worst from the next destination. If I didn’t find an occasionally westernised China an easy place to be, how was I to cope or eat in Mongolia?
Little did I know, these two countries couldn’t be more opposite. Not researching the country almost at all, I had very little preconceived notions on who the people were and how they lived.
Arriving in Ulaan Baatar
Disembarking off the Trans-Siberian train at Ulaan Baatar train station, hit with a colder temperature, surrounded by patched up roads and older cars. I suddenly had no idea what to expect. There was no incessant honking of horns, no one yelling at you for whatever reason, no one cooking stomach churning food on the street and hardly anyone smoking and littering.
Along the platform we were being greeted by hostel owners advertising their accommodation, then when saying you already had somewhere, gave you a city map and wished you a great visit to Mongolia. The hostel owner was kind enough, as it seemed most of them were, to pick us up from the station. The manic amount of traffic, only explained as ‘too many people to the city, too soon’ provided a bumpy ride along unrepaired roads, thankfully, though, they are more inclined to follow road laws than in our previous country.
Their capital city, the only city, seems in a constant state of development.
Ulaan Baatar still houses many soviet era buildings, which are in stark contrast to the new contemporary buildings now dotting the skyline. The roads are not wide enough to account for the surge of people and the vehicles they bring with them. If one does not live in an apartment or house, there are designated areas for the Nomads families and their Gers. More families are bringing their children to the city for their education, and rather than not see them for several months of the year, they pack up and move to the city.
Down a pot hole filled dirt driveway, behind a ramshackle fence sat a building, our hostel. With different height steps for stairs, only one shower with hot water available and a view from our window of Gers and a landfill, it was a place we planned to call home for the next six days.
However, as always with backpacking style travel, plans change. We found ourselves on a 3-day tour with a French/Portuguese couple and their 3-year-old daughter and another woman who could only be described as the definition of grumpy.
I was reminded anytime I felt like snapping at said grumpy person, by the calmer one in our travelling duo, to not let it get to me. No one can ruin this experience, only myself and the way I react to it.
On our first day of our tour, we discovered that it would have been very difficult to do this alone. With very little cars littering the landscapes and single roads, hitchhiking (a concept we are still yet to try) seemed difficult, as there were few cars. No bus or train system was in existence in the far reaches of the country. Walking was out of the question if we wanted to go further than our untrained legs could take us. Instead, we were packed into a van and were bouncing along the road toward the huge Ghengis Khan statue.
Putting our full trust in our driver, who not only could drive and miss all the larger potholes, but also point out hawks flying in the sky or a kind of deer that loves to race across the road in front of cars. Sitting near the front, trying to not let my usual car sickness get the better of me, whilst also flinching at every swerve around a wayward unfenced animal or monstrous pothole, I came to enjoy our long car journeys.
Never taking it as an opportunity to sleep or rest, but to be continuously enthralled by the sprawling landscape. Mongolia proved to have a diverse landscape, another thing I was not expecting. In one day of 6 hours driving, we came from the traffic-laden city to green covered hills, through desert and tussock.
The Mongolians proved another opposition to their neighbours. They had such respect and love for their animals. Although I did learn, they think cats possess bad luck, hence we only saw one. Luckily this one was loved by a small girl whose family owned a restaurant. She was more than happy to smile for a photograph showing off her cat for me.
On our long drives, we only saw the occasional fence. All animals were free to roam, including onto the road. Our quick acting driver always slowed right down and manoeuvred the vehicle around the animals, so as to not disturb them.
Our first night saw us staying with a nomadic family near sand dunes, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I would never be able to pinpoint the location on a map, all I could tell you is that it was far from the road, in the Nomads spring location and that their nearest neighbours had many camels.
Camel ride to the dunes
Our late arrival meant that the planned camel ride took over our dinner time and we were all left starving until 11 pm.
After sharing warmed goats milk, where, for politeness I pretended to drink then give to Jacob, seeing as he enjoyed it more than I ever could. We ventured out to meet our form of two-humped transport.
The Nomads second oldest daughter led a camel, following after her dad and their nomadic neighbour who were leading the others. Not wanting to sit on a camel and have a sore arse for a fortnight to come and I don’t agree with making animals work, I opted to be a walking photographer. Taking our travelling companions camera, I provided them with photos of their toddler on a camel with her mother.
Only climbing on a camel to cross a muddy stream for 22 seconds, Jacob captured some video evidence of the event.
After visiting the sand dunes and watching the late sunset over the diverse landscape. We geared up again for the long trek back to our home for the night. Luckily, for my tired walking legs, I was able to hitch a ride in another tour groups van. They were staying with the camel-owning nomads nearby.
A Family Evening
As I returned so much earlier than the others, the mother of the family invited me into the large family tent to enjoy the warmth of the fire. I was lucky enough to witness an evening in the life of the family.
The youngest girl was thoroughly enjoying her soap opera TV program that curiously involved lots of singing. Using a satellite and solar panels, the parents obviously did not want to deny their children some luxuries of the 21st century. Although, we were all denied the wonder of a flushing toilet.
Here I was, miles away from any town or city, unable to speak to my host. With her 6-year-old girl singing and dancing around her families Ger. Her two-year-old boy constantly going outside of the Ger to be on the lookout for his dad. Coming back whining when he still couldn’t see him. I witnessed the nighttime milking of the goats. Now I know just how fresh the warmed milk that we were offered upon our arrival was.
Laughter, the only common language
Whilst we were waiting for our dinner to be cooked, we asked a question regarding a family portrait. Our host pointed to her oldest daughter and her grandson and the guide translated who they were for us. She then pointed to the picture of a baby and mimed him whinging and whining. We needed no translation to figure that it was her youngest son. The one who had just thrown a tantrum whilst eating his noodle dinner. Although there was no language we all had in common apart from laughter.
After eating our meal prepared by our guides of mutton stew, and a specially prepared vegan dinner for me. We retired for the night to our rock hard beds and sleeping bags.
Waking up to goats
Our second day on our tour saw us waking at dawn, freezing our arses off in our sleeping bags. The Ger had lost all its remaining heat through the night. The guest Ger’s actually serve as a home and shelter for the animals in the winter, therefore they were not as insulated as the families Ger.
Ducking through the small door, we were greeted by all the families’ goats surrounding the area. All home to watch us use the outdoor hole of a toilet and to see us off their land.
Surrounded by unfenced animals
When I asked our guides how the farmers identify their animals. With no fences, surely the animals would intermingle with other flocks and get lost. She answered saying that not only do they have colour markings using paint, but that the nomads know their animals. Although I had trouble believing this at first. After seeing the care and attention the animals received from their farmers, I came to the conclusion that the nomads know and really care for their flock. The animals had the option to leave, with no fence holding them back. But they chose to stay with the family who provide them with shelter, milking, food, and water. I would hope that the animals enjoy the freedom their lifestyle provides.
To me, this was a stark contrast to our experience with how many animals were treated in China. They were often seen caged up on the side of the road for days or even weeks. Until someone decided that the bird, fish and yes, even one cat, looked good enough to eat. Then their short horrible life was snuffed out only to be replaced by another poor creature.
Although I choose to never eat meat or any product from an animal, Jacob is the opposite. Knowing I cannot change someone’s (especially his) mind, I try to keep my views mostly to myself. I encourage people to make sure that the animal they are eating at least enjoyed some level of freedom in their lives.
After another long and bumpy car journey, we visited the old capital of Karakorum, then a rather benign lake where we would spend our second night in another Ger. This time a much warmer evening with our own fire. Our third day saw us visiting Hustai National park, the origin of the Tahki horses. They had been reintroduced after near extinction. Our driver pointed out many of the unique animals that inhabit Hustai. Having a keen eye for the wildlife, he pointed out shadows on the hills that we swore were rocks. But, upon zooming in on my long lens, they were, in fact, the infamous horses. After driving some more, the horses had ventured lower and we were able to get relatively close.
Our guides struggled with the translation from Mongolian to English for a bird he spotted. Eventually, after much miming and explanation, it was a hawk. It was the first Mongolian word we had learnt. Now we always point out a hawk using our taught Mongolian word.
We arrived back into the capital to enjoy some city sightseeing days before departing the beautiful, kind country for Russia.
Hesitant about joining a tour, feeling that we may not necessarily see the real Mongolia, but rather only the parts they wanted to show you. We were pleasantly surprised by how honest and genuine the tour felt. Seeing what daily life was like for the nomads, becoming nomadic ourselves. And also enjoying a few days of disconnect from the world we know. It was also the best I had eaten since Thailand, thanks to the guides vegan cooking!
It was by no means a glamorous tour, with no showers or way to bathe, the only actual toilets being few and far between, but mostly a hole in the ground with a breezy shack, balancing on two planks of wood, hoping beyond hope you would not fall in. Thankfully all I lost down the hole was a whole roll of toilet paper. The most adventurous being the side of the road behind the van, hoping that the nomads currently herding their animals couldn’t see you, but knowing they probably could.
I thought I would struggle in Mongolia, hence only allowing 6 days in this country I knew absolutely nothing about. Not only expecting struggle with the usual like language but especially the food and culture shock. With the reintroduction of Buddhism, veganism and vegetarianism had become popular with the Mongolians. Our guides explained the shift in their culture, especially for the younger generations, was more health orientated. Eating less mutton and more vegetables was a much welcome concept for me to accept.
Mongolia was such an unexpected surprise of a great country to us, we now try to travel with no previous expectations of a country.
We used Danista’s hostel and tours. I recommend to book 1 nights accommodation in the hostel and use that night to plan the tour with the owner. There are often other people staying there wanting to tour, the more in the group the cheaper it is for all. Our particular tour for 5 people was $65USD a night.
The owner is very kind and accommodating. The hostel does not have dorm rooms but is very good value for money.
For more information and for tour options, see Indy-Guide to plan your own trip to Mongolia.
A version of this article is also published there.
We were not paid or offered any service in exchange for this post. Everything is our own and true opinion. We travelled in May 2016.