Outer Mongolia – a part of the world that’s really only known for its remoteness, synonymous with isolation and being on the edge of the world. So much so, it’s even become a figure of speech around the world, and probably one of only a few claims to fame for the country. There’s been the odd joke banded around by certain sections of my friends that at times have wanted to send me to Outer Mongolia – well shortly after 6.10am on Thursday, October 27th 2011, that wish was granted
Stepping onto the platform, it was cold. Snow had settled around the tracks, and the air was filled with everyone’s breath. We were supposed to be met by a representative from the UB Guesthouse, the hostel we’d booked by email in Irkutsk. It offered a free pick-up, but instead another hostel representative told us that nobody was around, admitting it was unusual.
Getting cold, we looked at a map and decided to walk to the hostel. It didn’t seem too far away, so en-masse, we threw out backpacks on and marched out of the station. We’d picked up a few more now – Daniele, from Venice in Italy, was on the train and had booked the hostel too; and Arion, from Hong Kong. For some reason, I was elected as the group leader, in charge of getting us to our final destination, and it was quite a sight to look back and see the line of backpackers stretching along the main road into Ulan Bator, marching together and following me!
Thankfully, English letters are widely used around the city, and it was nice to be able to read shop signs once again! There were even signposts helpfully pointing us in the direction of tourist sites!
Eventually, we reached a point where the map didn’t seem to tally-up with the landmarks. It took me a few minutes to work out, by the shapes of the road, where we were, before everyone followed me again and down Peace Avenue. By now, it was dawn, and the sun was rising over the mountains in the distance. We weren’t far away from the hostel when suddenly there was a shout from behind. Daniele had been stopped by Bobby, who runs the UB Guesthouse, who had all our names on pieces of paper ready to meet us off the train. She couldn’t apologise enough – she’d slept in!
We were grateful of the cars that took us and our heavy bags to the hostel, where Bobby ran over a few ground rules and told us about trips we could go on. I was only in Mongolia for a few days, so wanted to see as much as I could, and a tour of the Teralj national park and a night in a Mongolian Yurt was recommended. I signed up for $45 and booked my onward rail ticket to Beijing.
We spent the day looking around the city, taking in the parliament building complete with giant Genghis Khan (he’s everywhere!) and our group went for a Mongolian lunch on one of the main streets.
I don’t know if 10 days of bland Russian food was responsible, but it was by far the best meal I’ve had since dinner in London’s China Town the night before I left the UK.
There was a Mongolian starter of meat in pastry, then a main of chicken and mushroom stir fry with rice – it even had fresh vegetables in it, how I’d missed them! Hot, tasty, and incredibly cheap, coming in at a grand total of 4,600 Togrogs (yes, Togrogs!) so about £2.20, including a drink. To be honest, they could have charged a lot more and we’d have been more than happy, it was just nice to be able to use our tastebuds again!
Mongolian money is an interesting currency, aside from the comedy name. There’s around 2,200 Togrogs to the pound, which meant to pay for my trips and onward rail fare, I needed around a quarter of a million of them. A trip to the ATM is like playing Deal or No Deal on the screen, with various huge amounts available to withdraw.
They don’t seem to use coins here, although the guidebook mentions something called Mongos which make up Togrogs. However, it throws up the lowest value note I think I’ve ever come across: I introduce the 10 Togrog note, worth the equivalent of 2p! Talk about whether its worth the paper its printed on!
That night, inspired by the dark, clear skies the night before, we noticed there was a trip to an observatory high in the mountains above Ulan Bator. A few of us decided to go, and that’s when we first experienced Mongolian roads, and in particular, Mongolian driving. It really does seem to be every man for himself on the streets – cars don’t stop at streetlights, speed limits don’t exist, lane markings seem to be merely road decorations. Everywhere you look, someone’s just been cut-up, someone’s just pulled out into someone’s path, a pedestrian is running for their life. And everything is done with a blast of the horn. We held on as our driver overtook on blind bends and into oncoming traffic. Now, Mongolia is a sparsely populated country – for somewhere the size of western Europe, to only have two million inhabitants is quite good going, considering the vast army that must have been amassed for its conquering past. But I think I’ve worked out why: the combustion engine was invented, cars found their way to Mongolia, and now their bad driving is keeping the population down. Its some of the daftest, scariest driving I’ve ever known!
Somehow we survived the journey to the observatory, and we had a fascinating few hours looking at different stars, including the Andromeda. My favourite part was looking at Jupiter – its moons and markings, including its famous red stripes and huge spot, were clearly visible through the telescope. It’s something I’ve never seen before, and the lack of street lights and light pollution in this part of the world means you get one of the best opportunities to have a good look at the night sky.
We were up early the next morning for yet another terrifying drive out to the Teralj national park. With some overnight gear, we were heading to spend the night in a traditional Mongolian yurt, a white tent, with a nomadic family.
After about an hour and a half of being flung around the roads, we arrived in the park, and it was incredible. Snow covered mountain sides, rocks which rise out of the ground from nowhere, a view down a valley- and complete and utter silence.
There was a yell from somewhere high above me, and Daniele had climbed his way up the rocks. I took some photographs of him before following him up. The view was spectacular – snow capped mountains in the distance and valleys all around. It reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of areas around the Grand Canyon, as the rocks were of a similar colour and shape.
We sat and took in the view, and before long the entire group was up there for photographs.
We entered the yurt, and surprised to find it toasty and warm inside thanks to a wood-burning stove which was crackling away in the centre. Its surprisingly homely inside, with patterned cloth covering the walls, and five or six beds positioned around the outer edge of the tent.
The family arrived soon afterwards, and told us dinner would be ready in an hour.
A few of us ventured up the snow covered hillside on the other side of the valley, taking a seat on some tree stumps, no doubt left behind after some firewood-hunting.
After a few laughs and the odd snowball, we all fell silent. It was a weird moment – after all the hustle and bustle of Russia, trains and the madness of Ulan Bator’s roads, we now had extreme natural beauty and complete silence – a silence that doesn’t seem real, as if your ears are playing up. We probably sat for around 20 minutes, looking out and taking it in.
Lunch was stir-fried noodles, vegetables and meat – I’m not sure what sort of meat, but I’m told goat is quite popular with the locals. Whatever it was, it was quite nice!
After lunch, there was concern about how cold the yurts had got. We’d all presumed the family would keep the fires going, but apparently not.
I opened the lid on the stove, and there were just a few dying embers. Most of the group were heading to try and find a lighter, but I thought I could save the fire. I blew onto some of the ash, and found a bit that was still glowing. With a bit of paper out of my notebook, and a good handful of the dead wild grass from outside, I set about blowing and moving the items over the embers desperately trying to get them to light.
Thankfully, my male pride was left intact as suddenly there was success, and the paper and grass ignited. It was smoky at first, but with others bringing more grass and a few logs, we soon had it going again. Someone shouted ‘Willlssoooooon’, mimicking the scene out of the film Cast Away when Tom Hanks manages to make fire for the first time. With a wood-burning stove in my living room at home, I’m just used to trying to salvage a fire from glowing embers – but it got me the role of chief fire starter in both yurts for the rest of the stay!
There was a good few hours in the afternoon when we went horse riding. It was something I’ve not done for a long, long time, although I am quite good around the animals thanks to my first girlfriend having a horse. However, my sole attempt at riding her – Lulu was her name – wasn’t much of a success and instead just made Kerri and her mum laugh (Hi Maria!) However, the horses here were much smaller, and young Khana, the 16 year old son of the couple who run the camp, took Arion and I out for a ride.
It was great fun, and much easier than I remembered. Khana found it hilarious to send my horse galloping off every now and then by waving his rope around, in between using his English skills to ask us where we were from and telling us how he was studying in the city but loved the countryside. He said his family had more than 60 horses, six cows and a camel. He asked me what my horse was like in England, and I tried to explain how it was expensive back home to own one. He then met his friend who was walking up the hill, and obviously offered him a lift up to his yurt.
“Just make your way back now,” Khana said, obviously oblivious to the slight concern this put into both of us. As he disappeared over a hill, I tried to make the horse go faster. Kicking him in the ribs didn’t seem to work, but eventually I found the accelerator by shaking the reins and leaning forward. As if by magic, off he went, despite the occasional pause (too many Mongolian takeaways I think!)
We got back in one piece, and having clearly impressed with our equestrian skills, were then tasked with taking the saddles off and riding them bareback to the stables – a bony spine made for an uncomfortable few minutes!!
The night was spent huddled around a small table, swapping traveller tips, photographs and eating meat and rice by candlelight as the stove crackled away.
It was very relaxing, and before bed we all went out to gaze at the stars once again.
The next morning I was woken up by the freezing cold – the fire went out overnight -the sound of a horse munching grass next to my head, and Daniele asking if I wanted to see the sunrise. We ventured up the rocks, but it was too cold to be sitting up there for long so I headed back to bed for a few hours. After breakfast, we said goodbye to Matieu and Daniele, who were staying for two nights, and headed back to UB. We came across a young lad with an eagle and a condor at the side of the road, so we stopped for photos.
He put the eagle on my arm – it was an incredible animal. Its eyes were so alert, scanning the horizon and looking at me. Its sharp, hooked beak just a few centimetres from my head, its powerful wings outstretched. I could see and hear it breathing next to me.
There was part of me that feared it, another part that was in awe. It was amazing to be so close to such a majestic bird.
The rest of the day was spent looking at the temples at the Gandan Monastery, picking up a couple of souvenirs and buying some food for the train the following day.
Ulan Bator isn’t going to win any awards for its beauty or character, nor for its standards of driving, but Mongolia has some incredible landscapes. While its capital city is clearly polluted – a haze of smog was clearly visible hanging over the city like, well, a bad smell – its interesting to note how its locals, be them in yurts or in high-rise apartments, live happily side-by-side. Its not often you see tents squeezed inbetween offices and apartments, but that’s life here. It’s a real mix of different cultures and influences – you could be forgiven for thinking when you see some of its modern buildings that, along with the dusty setting, that you were in the Middle East. Then there’s the English everywhere, mixed in with Russian and Chinese signs, along with a bit of Korean.
It’s as if it can’t quite make up its mind where it belongs, and so goes along with a bit of everything. There is undoubtedly a lot of poverty here, but it was an exciting city to visit and I’ll always remember my night in the middle of the Mongolian countryside in a tent, riding a horse through its mountains and getting to grips with a huge eagle, thankfully before it managed to get to grips with me!
When it comes to being far away from home, you can’t get much more isolated than sleeping in a tent in the middle of a mountain range in Outer Mongolia…but tomorrow, its time to head back towards civilisation once again, and the hustle and bustle of Beijing.