Here is another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards that we have received so far. This one is written by Jon Shaw and you can read more about his journey on his blog ‘Before I’m thirty’.
‘Mongolian Wilderness’ by Jon Shaw
Wow. Oh my god. Amazing. Magical. Breathtaking.
Just a few of the words I have uttered repeatedly over the last two days. This is what I came on this trip to do – and the last couple of days have shot straight up there with the absolute highlights, not just of this trip – but of my life. It’s difficult to put into words the experience of the last 48 hours but I can say I feel richer for it. Let me explain. Having arrived in Ulaanbaatar on the Vodkatrain on Sunday evening, we left Ulaanbaatar, already fairly remote in terms of the landscape and surrounding area, on Monday morning and drove 400 km into the middle of absolutely nowhere to a camp on the edge of the Gobi desert.
I can honestly say that this was the furthest I had ever been from civilisation and it really was magical. Once the city had disappeared from the horizon we found ourselves in a wilderness that was truly fascinating. There were no proper roads, no overhead power lines, no airplanes in the sky and very few other signs of life, save for the herds of sheep, horses and the occasional small camp of nomads that we passed. I think it is the only place I have every been to where the landscape around me looked exactly like it must have done centuries ago, with no signs of modern life to alter that perception.
We would be spending two nights out here, one night at a camp in the Bayangobi area, at the foot of the mountains that form the edge of the desert, and one night not far from the old capital of Kharkorin. When we arrived, after several hours of driving on roads that become less and less like roads and more like dirt tracks with the occasional tire print to suggest the best route over the plains, the first thing that struck me was the sheer remoteness and scale of the landscape – the were virtually no signs of life – or anything, for as far as the eye could see in any direction.
Although many people have joked that I must be mad to do this Trans Siberian Railway journey in the midst of winter, I honestly feel luckier to have witnessed the beauty of the snow covered vista and, what’s more, whereas in summer the camp we stayed at sees an average of 40 tourists per night, as it is low season, we were the only ones. This meant that in the whole camp there was just the three of us, the guide, the driver and the two hosts who look after the camp. Not only did that mean the sense of remoteness was heightened, it also meant that we didn’t have to succumb to the usual trappings of the tourist trail.
In summer, the various western travellers are taken to see a local nomadic family who are quite used to seeing visitors on a daily basis and I would imagine that this could feel a little staged. As we were such a small group however, we were simply taken to visit the family of the camp’s host – who apparently hadn’t had visitors from “the western world” since last August. This made it all the more special and felt like we were really seeing a piece of Mongolian life. On arrival at the camp we were shown to our ger, which was surprisingly cozy and spacious, despite the tiny door! Lunch was then served – a carrot salad, followed by mutton soup and some traditional mutton dumplings. And so began the never-ending supply of food for the day!
After lunch we were driven to the host’s family, about 30km deeper into the wilderness, and were invited in to their ger to meet the extended family and sample some more local cuisine. I don’t think I have ever met such a welcoming, hospitable and warm group of people and in the space of just a couple of hours, during which we ate, drank vodka, practiced our pigeon Mongolian with our phrase books and even went horse riding. None of us wanted to leave when it was time to go and, despite the language barrier, felt we had made a real connection with this lovely group of people. They seemed so genuinely pleased to have visitors and were keen to show us all their photos, animals, and pass round any food or drink they could lay their hands on. Speaking of which – the food. There were several ‘just smile, chew and swallow’ moments during the time we spent there and I had to grit my teeth and just do it on a few occasions.
The stories you may have heard about Mongolian delicacies are pretty much true and this was apparent right from the off as we walked in to the Ger to be met with the smell of traditional Mongolian tea – which smells not unlike baby sick. It is a concoction of sheep’s milk, boiled and with added salt, which you kind of got used to after the third or fourth cup. I had started off by trying to get rid of mine fairly quickly but I soon realised that as soon as my cup was empty it was refilled, thus leading to a tricky balance of trying to make it last a little longer to stave of the refill, while still trying to drinking before it got cold – it tasted worse when cold. I was also slightly perturbed when I was presented with the carcass of a sheep, head and all, and offered slices of various bits of it. Ick.
After a few rounds of tea and some more dumplings (horse this time!), the sons of the family were keen to show us their animals, so outside we went to look at the horses, camels and goats and I was ushered onto a horse and led around the surrounding hills for a few minutes. Now I am not the biggest fan of horses so I felt quite pleased with myself that I did this and although I was still relieved when it was over! After this it was back into the ger and time for the vodka to come out. Apparently, as I am a man, it is customary to down the shot that is offered to you three times as the head of the family passes the glass round the table. The girls got away with a few small sips but I was told it would be the height of bad manners not to neck the full shot when it was offered. Within minutes I was feeling a little tipsy but I have to say the vodka really did help to detract from the cold. Eventually it was time to leave but not before lots of photos had been taken with the family, every permutation of family members and even the animals. One son in particular had taken a real shine to me and wouldn’t let me go until we had shad numerous hugs and smiles. So lovely.
We returned to the camp just in time for sunset and dinner (more food!) and had a silly half hour playing in the snow. After dinner we were invited to the host’s ger, again something that would not happen in the peak season, to drink more vodka and sample the piece de resistance of Mongolian cuisine, Airag, or fermented mare’s milk. Having been informed by the honcho that we would only spend a few minutes there, we ended up staying for a couple of hours and, several shots of vodka later,(and yet more dumplings!) stumbled back to our ger to sleep. The fermented mare’s milk was actually quite tasty by the way – a kind of alcoholic Yakult. Tangy and a bit sour.
Yesterday morning we set off to the next location, around 80 km further away from the mountains and in the heart of the steppe, more open and flat than the previous day and even more stunning in terms of how far we could see for miles around. Along the way we stopped at a monastery and at a roadside fertility monument, the aptly named ‘penis stone’ which was positioned to point directly at ‘vagina mountain’ (honest!). After lunch we had some free time to play about in the snow and feel very childish before another beautiful sunset and dinner.
The evening was spent playing a traditional Mongolian game – using the ankle bones of sheep which you had to flick and knock into each other, a bit like table football meets jenga but with a sinister overtone. Quite fun. We went to bed fairly early and tried to sleep although, contrary to the first night, the stove in the ger kept going out so we fluctuated from toasty warm to freezing every few minutes. That was the end of our wilderness adventure as this morning we would head back to Ulaanbatar and spend most of the day driving before a final day sightseeing tomorrow and then on to the next train for 24 hours of fun getting into Russia. I would love to say that we all slept restfully and came back today feeling buzzed and refreshed however, unfortunately, last night was a bit of a tough one. With the temperature around -20c here, falling to -34c overnight, and the constant switching from very hot indoors to very cold outdoors, all three of us have come down with colds/flu type things so spent a very snotty night of coughing and nose blowing, in between trying to stoke up the stove with extra wood while trying not to get a chill in the process.
In addition to that, the two days of rather strange food and fermented dairy products had taken their toll on me and I (yet again) have got myself a dose of food poisoning. Now, on that note – the accommodation is quite basic at the camp and the ‘toilet’ was situated about 50 yards from our Ger. Having to trot across the snow in just my thermal undies and shoes at 5am when the temperature was at its lowest was not pleasant. Particularly as this was my throne: That, mixed with the numerous times I had to open the ger door and throw up into the snow made for a less than pleasant evening and journey back today. Interestingly though, I had to chuckle when at one point as I evacuated the contents of my stomach, I noticed that at that temperature, things freeze before they hit the ground. So I was amused to find little tower like sculptures of vomit outside the ger this morning as opposed to the puddles one might ordinarily expect. Well it amused me anyway.
Despite the various ailments and illnesses that landed on us yesterday, it didn’t put a damper on what has been a truly brilliant couple of days. I would love to come back here and do a proper homestay at some point – I can’t stress enough how warm and hospitable the Mongolian people are and how sad we will be to end our little Mongolian adventure tomorrow when we board the train for Russia. One of the last remaining unspoiled places on this planet surely – has been a wonderful experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone. Now where’s the bathroom again . . . .