We got to Mongolia early June and had booked a 3-week tour through a friend of Quentin, and opted for a mix between camping and staying in ger-tents in order to keep it as cheap as possible, and what an adventure! As we wrote our diary day-by-day, the next posts will be in the present tense.
Mongolia gave us an easy start, and we didn’t expect that this would count as a luxurious day compared to what was ahead of us. We were picked up from the airport and invited for a delicious dinner (Mongolian style Chinese hotpot). We then did some last shopping, namely gifts in the form of 3 kg of candy and dozens of matchboxes intended as gifts for the nomadic families we would visit. We had a double room in a very simple hostel and a warm shower – it would be be our last one for a while…
The morning starts early with little sleep due to packing, excitement, talking with other travellers, etc.. Before leaving the loud and polluted city of Ulanbaataar for the next three weeks, we get to know our guide (Baljir, 19, student), and driver (Tomurug, 65). We will call Baljir “Tom” on his own demand, and he explains us that Tomurug literally means “Man-Iron” in Mongolian (all Mongolian names have a signification), so for the rest of the trip our driver will be Ironman. We pack our bags and camping materials in the massive Toyota Landcruiser and set off. Boom – 1st accident: right after driving out of the parking, Ironman bumps into a Lexus. We stop in the middle of the road, Ironman gets off and 3 minutes and some money bills later we continue the ride as if nothing had happened. With the little morning traffic (important to note that each car is allowed to drive only 6 days a week), we get out of Ulaanbaataar quickly and head south towards the Gobi desert. We plunge right into the landscape that will be our common feast every day for the next week: wide wide wild green-brown countryside stretching beyond the horizon, dotted with a few bushes, some sheep, cows, horses, gers…
Twelve hours later we end up in the beautiful Eagle Valley, in the South of the Gobi desert (we covered about 800 km as the road was the only asphalt road we would see before day 19…). Plenty of horses accompany us for a little walk along the river that is still covered with ice (yes, although we’re in the desert). We have to hurry to build our tent before dawn, and Tom cooks some noodles in mutton soup – the one dish that we would eat almost every day until the end of the trip.
The first night is not a success: our “mattresses” turn out to be 2mm thick insulation sheets and the night gets extremely cold and windy. We are teeth-chattering despite wearing almost all of our clothes, and hardly get any sleep. It feels like a storm is raging outside and in the middle of the night a wind burst breaks one of the tent’s 3 supporting poles…
We brush off the sand covering all of our material and drive further into the Gobi desert. The landscape goes from rocky to sandy and several little sand tornadoes escort us along the way. We are daydreaming staring out of the window when suddenly the car goes “PIUUuuuu” and stops: electronic system down. Ironman opens the hood and stares cluelessly at all the cables. Several other jeeps stop by but none of the drivers seem to know what to do and all end up driving away with an embarassed sorry smile for us. Time passes and we already imagine ourselves stuck for the rest of the day & night, mentally going through the food stock we have (instant noodles and dried meat, not so glorious…). Some curious camels come take a look but aren’t more helpful (well, now that I think about it, fresh meat is still better than dried one… XD). Luckily, a little later another group stops, an Indian guy gets off and declares solemnly “I like cars”, cuts some cables, tapes some more together, and two minutes later our jeep is roaring again!
We drive some more time with a never-ending sand dune on our left and a brown mountain range on our right. Rebekka stares at the mountains for a while and admits that the shadow effect gives them the look of a Wagyu beef marbling…We eventually get to a group of gers (traditional nomadic yurts), where the local family is busy shaving camels with big scissors. We hop on the back of one of those massive beasts and go for a little ride to the sand dune.
It’s windy again and we decide not to risk our poor tent’s life again otherwise it wouldn’t last the entire trip: we spend the night in one of the gers. We are actually pretty excited to spend our first night in a ger and spend a lot of time analyzing everything. We fall asleep to the sound of lamenting camels, farting sheep and barking dogs, which still don’t manage to cover the snoring of Ironman.
Still in the Gobi desert, we drive through several valleys, heading north. Sometimes, we feel like we’ve just been beamed up to Mars, with plenty of strange rock formations, colors, plants (wouldn’t find that on Mars, ok…), etc… Also, the heat glowing on the horizon tricks the mind: it first looks like a remote oasis, then turns into a blurry mirror before revealing… nothing. Tintin wasn’t mad after all! As every day so far, and yes, we are getting used to it, we drive for hours and hours through the infinite landscape. We make it to the so-called Red Flaming Cliffs, a beautiful canyon where tons of fossils (including dinosaur bones and eggs) are left in the open with zero supervision.
In the evening, we camp close to the canyon to have the “flaming” view over the cliffs at sunset. Luckily, we had pushed to buy another 5L of water as our reserve was already sparse. Still, we end up cleaning our dishes by rubbing them with sand as we can’t afford wasting a drop. The overly salty meat soup doesn’t help and makes us thirstier, but we don’t have any water left. Nevertheless, we have a very nice evening: we gather a pile of tiny pieces of dead bushes and make a big fire, play cards, and gaze at the incredible sky full of stars.
Running out of water and food, we have not choice but to do some shopping in the desert: we arrive in a little “town” or rather a group of mudbrick houses and gers with a few decrepit concrete buildings left from the soviet era. The air is filled with the smell of burnt plastic – the only way trash is being “recycled”. We buy what we can: water, dry bread, expired jam and instant noodles. Otherwise, the shelves are just covered in Russian cookies and German candy.
We drive further to the Ongi Monastery. On the way, we encounter plenty of dead animals in every stage of decomposition – from entire camels with just a few pieces of meat missing below their thick fur to shiny white bones. The monastery can be described as some scattered piles of dusty bricks… All the temples were “destroyed in 1930 by the communists”, and just one has been rebuilt recently. Full of hope, we draw some “holy” water from the local well, but the lucky draw of the day includes a dead frog which apparently didn’t profit much from the water’s holiness…
Another bad surprise: our guide doesn’t know the location of the ger where we are supposed to sleep tonight. We drive further north but it is only desert 360 degrees around us as far as the eye can see. We eventually pass next to two isolated gers. It looks a bit like Luke Skywalker’s home in the middle of the desert. Ironman decides to stop, gets off and enters one of the gers as if it was his home. 20 min later he comes back saying that we are invited to stay with the nomadic family residing here. Two women welcome us in and offer us some tea that strongly tastes like sheep and feels rather greasy. The floor is covered in thick carpets and the furniture is limited to two beds, a shelf, a chest with an altar on top and a big wood oven in the middle. A while later, a Chinese motorbike stops in front of the ger and the husband makes his way in, lurching slightly right and left with the gait of someone who’s had a few glasses too much. He stares at us with curiosity with shiny amber eyes before triumphantly drawing a bottle of pineapple-fanta from his deel (traditional Mongolian dress worn by men and women alike) and offers it to his wife like we would give a bouquet of roses. He then sits down on the carpet without removing his boots covered in dung, and pulls out a big plastic bottle of beer. He fills one glass and offers it to each one of us, waiting patiently that we drink it before refilling it for the next person.
The evening goes by, the wife cooks some noodles soup with sheep meat, and we try to interact with the family with the help of Tom. When the beer is finished, the husband draws a glass bottle filled of what turns out to be distilled mare’s (female horse) milk. It tastes exactly like you imagine it would… We try to refuse it as much as possible, and according to Mongolian rules you can just dip your lips and pass the glass to the next person, but the husband won’t accept it, especially for Quentin. A few cups later, we are saved by the wife who shouts at him something that probably means “don’t you see you’ll make him sick?”. Disappointed but proud of himself, the husband takes off his boots and lays on the bed to sleep. We spend the night in the second ger that it actually very different: the younger generation occupies it, and it has a double-bed, some colorful furniture, a TV powered by a 12 volts solar battery, and even a washing machine!