The alarm chimed at 6am awaking me to the chug of the train engine and the bright Mongolia stars. Having only a handful of hours of sleep, I dragged myself out of bed, grabbed my glass cup the train provided with it’s steel handle, and strolled down the empty dim hallway as it wobbled side to side on the way to the tiny water heater. Today was the day I would finally step off the train after the 102 hour journey and step foot in Mongolia. It had started to feel like home, it was a bit sad to leave.
The train pulled into the Ulanbaatar station a little before 7am and as the last stop, everyone slowly piled off into the twilight skies, bags of stuff scattered everywhere. Porters and taxi drivers eagerly walking the outside of the train approaching everyone – ‘taxi?’ – much like landing at JFK. The hustle and bustle was a bit overwhelming for 7am so I ducked into the train station which was filled to the brim with people in every chair and lining the walls. After spotting two ATMs I chose the less flashy one, though it ended up rejecting my card, but the flashy one worked and I was set with 100,000 MNT. However much that is!
As I was fumbling on my cell phone texting a friend back in the states who’d helped sort out my hotel for the first night, a man with a ‘Golden Gobi’ sign walked over like magic! Thanks to an article on http://www.traveldroppings.com, I’d read that was the hostel to stay in because they have the best tours. I know, yes, a hostel, but they had private rooms and most importantly a shower, something I hadn’t seen in days. The little sedan we were all piled in did not have seat belts as we flew through the streets of Ulanbaatar, cars and pedestrians everywhere. About 10 minutes later and a few turns, we arrived at what looked like a back alley hotel, tucked in the corner behind a parking lot, the stucco building had a tiny sign – Golden Gobi Tours & Hostel.
Fully trusting the article and reviews online, I walked in and embraced the experience. The lady greeted me with English and told me to sit down and relax then handed me a fried egg, toast and coffee. I was feeling happier already. She showed me my room and I immediately jumped it for a shower after waiting the 5-7 min for the hot water, which for the first 5 min I was wondering if maybe didn’t exist, but persistently with hope waited patiently. It was nice to be in the creature comforts of a real toilet, one that doesn’t wobble and you don’t need to hold the walls to not fall in. A real sink with real soap and the ability to clean my whole body. In that moment I couldn’t have been more happy.
Then there was a light tap on my door – ‘the tour lady has arrived’. Time to see what options I had. Before setting off on this journey I had emailed about 10 places, read hundreds of reviews, read travel articles, pretty much did more research than I’d ever done on any country though it hadn’t resulted in any options that felt right. None of the organized tours were available while I was there, except Viator and G Adventures, which were both insanely expensive. The places I’d found online could only give me a private tour as they couldn’t arrange a group for me, which meant paying around $1,000 for the 5 days. Something that would have demolished the budget. Walking into the tour lady’s office, she immediately said she had a tour that was exactly like the one I’d been trying to setup from New York, though it had left yesterday so if I wanted to catch it, I’d have to leave in 20 minutes. The cost – $250. Sold.
Not having charged my phone, my iPad, nor having had Internet access to post my blogs or notify my friends and family I was safe and well for the last 4-5 days, I scurried to get all of that done while repacking everything and trying to dry my hair. My hope had been to spend the day in Ulanbaatar to fix my Nikon which broken when it took a nose dive on the train and catch up on everything. But alas, I’d go another 4 days without a shower, power outlet, or Internet – immediately. Eep!!
The only way to meet up with my tour group was to jump in a van with another tour that was starting today and would overlap during lunch, so off we went. A couple in their 20’s from French speaking Canada and two guys traveling together from Switzerland, also in their 20’s. They had met a few days earlier and arranged the tour together as a group, though welcomed me in pretty quickly. Both sets had been traveling for 1-2 months and were to be traveling for the next 11+ months. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of time or money at that age, but was excited for their journeys. What an adventure to spend almost a year or more wandering the globe.
After navigating the intense traffic of Ulaanbaatar, which rivaled New York City rush hour, we reached left the buildings and chaos of the city behind for long stretches of brown prairies surrounded by tree-less mountains. The 4×4 van bumped it’s way through the dirt roads and it’s unpredictable crevices, sometimes jutting off diagonally creating it’s own path to get onto another road. The desert prairies were wild and one could drive wherever they wanted, tire tracks going in all directions as only a handful of roads in Mongolia’s countryside are paved.
Shortly after a bit of bouncing and some great conversation on travel, we arrived at an enormous statue of Genghis Khan on a horse. It was towering high above the prairies and visible for miles in every direction. Our tour guide proudly told us that the statue was the tallest ‘man on a horse’ statue and made the Guinness book of world records for it. When we entered it felt more like a tourist trap than a historical site, it had been built recently and the inside had some museum like artifacts. As we climbed the 4-5 flights of stairs, going in circles, and circles until we reached the top, we walked out onto a metal staircase that was in fact the mane of the horse. Much like the Statue of Liberty, here we were in the statue and looking out on the magical expanses before us. Bummed I didn’t have my Nikon working, I was left with only my cell phone to take pictures of this glorious landscape.
The road from the museum to where we at lunch was windy and untamed, we bounced the whole way there with dust flying everywhere. In what seemed like the middle of nowhere with nothing but brown grass-less prairies around, appeared a yurt behind a fence with a wood structure behind it for livestock. Out front the men were holding down a lamb, then whack went his head. We walked inside and the groups joined, there were about 16 of us huddled around a table that by American standards would fit 4. It was low to the ground, the kind where you have to navigate around your own knees to get to your food.
The ladies had been working hard all morning to make homemade noodles with mutton for us. The noodles were ‘fried’ in a large round metal bowl, like the kind we mix cookie dough in, over a wood burning stove. As my first ‘real’ meal in Mongolia I was delighted. This beat train food any day. The group was predominantly in their 20’s, all well-travelled, and most on multi-month journey’s. None were from America – Finland, Holland, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, England, and Ireland. Besides one other woman (who was 15 years younger than me), everyone else was traveling as a couple or group of friends. The amount of food consumed at that lunch was incredible – mountains of noodles, devoured, replaced with another mountain, devoured, until our third mountain arrived, devoured.
Outside the men were still chopping the lamb, blood everywhere, the wool skin perfectly in tact and off to the side. This was their home, they had welcomed 16 strangers into their home for lunch. The wood structure to hold livestock was mostly empty as they were out to pasture for the day, roaming somewhere on the countryside with their herder. Some of the guys from the group asked if they could slaughter one of the animals during their 10-day trek to the Gobi, sure the tour leader said. This was going to be an adventure!
We bumped our way through the dirt roads and into the Terejl National Park. The roads were rough as if they had been eroded with water or snow run off for years and could easily be in a commercial for an off-road vehicle. Without seat belts or grip handles, it was all one could do to try to hang on. It was still light when we arrived at three white yurts tucked into a rocky mountain side. Next to the yurts was a wood structure with horses and cattle and around the side was a cinder block house where the family lived.
Being the first to arrive from my group, they walked me to the furthest yurt, the one they hadn’t started the fire on yet. Why did that matter? Well I had lost feeling in my toes hours ago from the deep wind chill and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get warm. It was freezing, colder than I’d probably ever been before. I had purchased overpriced wool socks and mittens from the Genghis Khan tourist trap which helped, but was not enough. It wasn’t long before they had the fire going and I was able to unbundle and actually start to function to unpack.
Inside the yurt was very basic, the floor was made of concrete that never seemed to get above freezing and was covered with the sticky contact paper like you put on the bottom of your kitchen drawers. In the center was the wood burning stove, which runs on coal, wood, or dung. In the winter, most family’s use dung primarily as it’s readily available and works rather well. Being a ‘tourist’ yurt, the outside perimeter was filled with 5 twin beds. The beds looked like American twin beds except there was no mattress, the bottom part you sleep on was solid wood with a couple small blankets on top. No pillows. Dangling above my bed were raw wires that led to a single light bulb that had been strapped to the center of the yurt. Following the wires it led to a car battery. They had a tiny rubbish bin in the corner for us and a small wood table where we would eat our meals.
It was far too cold to want to do much exploring and being alone I wasn’t sure how safe it would be, so I stayed inside the yurt trying desperately to defrost my toes. The view from the yurts were amazing – into a valley between large rocky mountains scattered with small shrubs and pine trees that had already changed brown for the winter. It was gorgeous and magical and I tried not to be annoyed that my camera was broken and took a ton of photos with my cell phone. Just before sunset my tour group arrived, they had stopped to pick up snacks and beer. The young lady from Holland who was traveling solo for almost a year, two friends from England (one was from Ireland originally) in their early 30’s one of which was traveling for 2-3 months, and an Argentinian couple who was living in Australia (she was 24, he was 31) that were traveling for 4-6 months.
After introductions and unpacking, the sun began to set and we were off on a horse ride. The horses were lower to the ground and resembled Shetland pony’s, they were stalky and furry and made for the cold winter temperatures. Bundled up for the ice age, we climbed on top of the horses and slowly strolled toward ‘Turtle Rock’. The wind was wicked and without the sun the temperatures had dropped to -20 Celsius. My cashmere scarf wrapped tightly around my face so the only thing showing was my eyes, I’d stopped feeling my toes shortly after we started and the exposed part of my shin (by exposed I mean the section with two layers of pants but no coat on top of it) were numb and beyond cold. It was difficult to focus on the joy of the horse ride bundled so tightly you could only face forward and so cold and dark. There was no taking pictures.
It took the bulk of the night for me to regain feeling in my toes, the ice cold concrete floor didn’t help. Our tour lady brought us dinner in the yurt so we didn’t have to venture out into the cold which was nice. Dinner was noodle soup with mutton and a few vegetables and something that resembled minced pies – a half circle pastry made of flour and water filled with mutton and onions and pan fried. It was delicious and filling though all I wanted was water, the dry air and all the exertion today, I was dehydrated. Hot tea was plentiful, but not being a tea drinker other options weren’t available. Eventually they brought me a bottle of water and I was set.
After dinner everyone was still energetic from the day and the conversation spilled well into the early morning, with beer and vodka and travel stories from around the globe. Above us shined the most beautiful stars in the clearest dark blue sky. Likely the most brilliant display of stars I’ve ever seen, though far too cold to stay longer than a couple minutes enjoying.