16 day nomads – days 13 to 16: Central Mongolia

Day 13


It was a very cold night, Emma got Marie up at 2:30am to relight the stove. When we got back up at 6:30ish we were shocked to open the door and find wet’ish light snow falling, more surprisingly although the ground was wet it was sticking. We stepped out and looked across to the big hill we climbed the day before, it was white. Our decision to take the ger and not tent was well and truly validated.

IMG_4915We loaded the jeep up in record time, Biklar even put the heating on. The road had been poop before and it was even poop-er now after all the rain the day before. It was muddy and the puddles were huge, Biklar even gave up trying to avoid them which was a first, and for the first time the jeep got properly dirty. Since we hadn’t been up to the volcano on horses Biklar detoured on the way out of the national park and drove us up a very rocky road to a carpark from where it was a 15 minute walk up to the dormant crater. It was cold and still trying to snow and we were the first up that day.

It was quite an impressive crater, quite deep. Jumping back into the warm jeep we headed back the way we came. The main road is still being built so currently there are numerous rough, bumpy, wet and muddy tracks at either side that everyone uses. With a thin covering of snow and all the extra rain the tracks were horrible driving, even with 4WD we slid around in the mud (this is no problem in Mongolia as there aren’t really any roads to slide off – basically you’re driving through a massive field so sliding about is no problem). Water from the dirty puddles hit the windscreen repeatedly and the jeep got totally filthy.

Eventually we left the snow behind. We stopped for lunch in a restaurant that was dead, the first time we haven’t been able to picnic outside. We always make our lunch the night before and Biklar always has something with him, or bits of food from us when we’ve cooked too much or bits, like bread that he scrounged off us. He talked to the people and obviously charmed them into letting us perch on a table and have our picnic inside.

IMG_4962Shortly after we arrived in Tseterleg where we got a few provisions and had a brief internet stop before continuing on to our destination for the day Ogii Nuur (a lake). Leaving the main road behind we ploughed off down a track that took us through rolling hills and valleys. These were different to what we had seen before, they were colourful and had wheat growing in them which must have been planted and tended to by someone. Like the rest of Mongolia there were no fences round it, though unlike Central Mongolia generally where every valley seems to be home to a number of ger camps these valleys had no ger camps at all. We wondered how people knew to keep their herds of animals away from the valleys.

Climbing a hill we found a lone ger. It was just as well as Biklar was no longer sure we were on the right track, the binoculars had already been out. We called by for directions and were glad that we weren’t invited in. We’d left the bad weather behind at Tseterleg while there we had checked the weather on the internet – it was 6 degrees with a wind chill that made it feel like 3. This is supposed to be a Mongolian summer. No longer asking ourselves if we were being wussy there was no question of whether to stay in a ger or the tent – we were ger-ing, and decided our tenting days are done.

IMG_4964We were generally heading the right direction and the track was still very bumpy but the lake was really pretty when we arrived in the evening. There were several tourist ger camps round the lake but we stayed with a family in 1 of their 4 gers. It was like an ice box and we had food to make so Biklar soon had them chopping firewood for us. They even lit it for us – with a blow torch. The family’s gers were in a row and we were on the end one next to the main ger and the jeep was parked between us. Biklar had been in our ger warmed his hands up and gone out again.

Mongolians that work with tourists generally have been trained that we do have the concept of privacy so they will give you some space. Biklar usually knocks in the rare event we have the door closed. We’d noticed that he’d gone to the jeep and was sat in the back having his dinner out of a box. It was cold, we gave him some of our hot leftover pasta so at least he had something hot and told him to come in where it was warm. No matter how many beds a ger has there only ever seems to be 2 stools provided so he bought in his camp chair. Emma made him coffee.

It was one of the smallest gers we have stayed in and it happened to have 3 beds. 2 were like concrete slabs as is usual and 1 had a spring frame and was really really saggy. We had taken the concrete ones. A couple of nights Biklar has slept in the jeep when there hasn’t been a ger for him and we had only noticed this in the mornings when we got up,  because the jeep was parked away from us. We couldn’t let him sleep in the jeep when it was so cold, knowing we had paid for the ger we offered him the 3rd bed. He didn’t need asking twice and when we showed him how saggy the bed was it was ‘no problem, no problem’.

IMG_4975We shifted our bags off and he dived out to the jeep to get his bedding package (the beds in gers usually have a very thin mattress with a blanket over it and if you’re lucky, a pillow, so you bring your own bedding. When you leave it’s then ready for the next people (apart from maybe a sweep of the vinyl floor, though in our experience usually they don’t bother doing that, we have our own brush so do it ourselves when we move in). He seemed very happy sat by the fire and stoking the stove up. Of course the moment we invited him in he’s made sure we had heaps of firewood. We had already done our pick out of good pieces and made some kindling that was set aside for the morning, we can’t bear the thought of waking up to freezing cold and not being able to get some heat going. He’s no party animal and was first in bed. Marie had the job of turning the light off- disconnecting it from the car battery that had appeared as it got dark.

Day 14

We woke about 6:30am Biklar got up and lit the stove with the morning supply, well he tried to and when he failed went and got the woman from the family to come in and light it (he’s from the Gobi so maybe he’s not had much practice?). We both opened our eyes but didn’t move until it got warm. He put one of his blankets over each of our sleeping bags until it did. We realised he hadn’t got up early because he was cold, Mongolian blankets are a serious bit of kit! After breakfast and our usual bucket bath we got loaded up and went for a walk by the lake while Biklar cleaned the jeep.

IMG_4970Country family toilets are the least private affair, though they have the best ‘views from the loo’ ever! They dig a pit and put 2 planks to stand on across the pit then they build 3 walls around it, the back one usually facing camp. If you are lucky the walls might be waist height, but usually they’re mid-thigh. For some reason this family had their open side almost facing camp and directly facing a road out the front of the camp (lake side) rather place it in the vast expanse of nothing behind the camp. It made no sense to us.

As we left we went round the top of the lake, stopping for photos and at the ovoos (a pile of stone and other offerings to the gods) as we often do as Biklar usually add his own offerings of money or sweets or rocks. This one was accompanied by a reasonably fresh (flesh in tact) horse’s head. It was the first one we had seen with an animal offering that wasn’t just a skull. We travelled up and down a couple of hills and then out of nowhere hit the sealed road. Shortly after we stopped at a museum that houses two 3m high monuments, one that was raised in 732 and the other not long after, they are inscribed in Runic and Chinese script. They are Turkic (pre-Mongol empire) and the museum was good as it had been Turkish funded.

The remaining 45km to our destination of the day, Kharkorin was bliss, good seal and a warming sun. We got a couple of provisions then headed to Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first monastery in Mongolia, founded in 1586. It is enclosed in a big walled compound. The wall consists of 108 stupas. At it’s peak it had up to 1,000 monks residing there and over 60 temples. In the 1937 Stalinist purges all but three temples were destroyed, many monks being killed and others sent to Siberia. However, many statues, masks and thangkas were saved, as some were squirreled away in local residents houses.

To get into the monastery grounds is free, we had to pay to enter the temples but we got an English speaking guide to take us around which was great as it meant we could ask questions and understand properly everything we were looking at. The temples are in the Tibetan Buddhist style, this is the first time we have seen big temples in Mongolia in this style.

IMG_4990After the temples Biklar drove us up the hill opposite to show us one of the stone turtles that were once the boundary markers and protectors for the town that was once a thriving capital. On the way down the hill Biklar got a bit excited pointing at himself saying ‘man’ then pointing at Marie with us saying ‘woman?’ in reply. Then he pointed at his bits saying ‘man!’ and laughing loudly. We weren’t really sure what he was on about so were just laughing and looking confused. But parked up and he pointed us in the direction of some souvenir stalls that led to something. It was a phallic rock – of course we got there and pissed ourselves laughing, looked at the penis shaped rock that was, according to legend put there to deter frisky monks from getting off on the ‘vaginal slope’ opposite. It takes some imagination to see the vagina in the hillside and to understand why it would make you frisky but it was entertaining all the same. We got back to the jeep with many cries of laughter and Biklar’s sense of humour coming out telling us the massive penis was a representation of a ‘Mongolian Man!’.

We dropped down the hill and across a field to our accommodation for the night, we like gers with stoves so had decided to get one again. For the first time we were staying in a tourist ger camp. It was a small one on the outskirts of town but it was surrounded by a fence, had mains electric, a proper toilet block and even a shower. It was our least favourite camp, but it was also the cleanest and best insulated ger we had stayed in. We settled in and got organised for our last couple of days. The sky went black and a storm seemed to be heading our way. We prepared to hunker down but in the end it passed us with nothing more than a few drops of rain.

IMG_5054We were only a couple of kilometres from the monastery so before dinner we walked back to the monastery and took a few photos while the light was softer. When we got back we acquired a camp cat, it was easily bribed and seemed more than happy to be given a spot on one of the spare beds and fed scrambled egg. So happy, it stayed all night getting much fuss. We tried for one of the camp dogs too but it wasn’t easily bribed and would only sit at the door looking longingly at the stove. We don’t think dogs are allowed in gers as this isn’t the first time we had tried to  steal one and failed to get it over the threshold.

Day 15

As we were leaving the town the next day we got ordered by the Police to pull over, they’d closed the road. We didn’t know why but figured it might be more than a couple of minutes so we got out the jeep. 5 minutes later a convoy of 4 black SUVs went past, all with tinted windows except for the first one which seemed to have a very senior police officer in the front. It was the Mongolian president on the move. The rude bugger didn’t even stop to say hello.

IMG_5116Onwards we went, bumping along a track next to another half built main road, before turning off and heading across country once again. We were grateful for another short journey, days on end being bumped around in the jeep, sleeping on the ground and then on concrete beds was starting to take it’s toll and each bump was beginning to hurt. It was a cracker of a day though for our last full day on this adventure.

Our destination was Khongo Khan mountain. There are heaps of massive tourist ger camps around it because it is within striking distance of Ulan Bataar and also has some sand dunes (Mongol Els) and camels you can ride. Tourists without enough time to go to the Gobi come here (a surprising number of people don’t have much time and heaps of people seem to only have 8 days, in fact the guy at the guest house who we organised Biklar through said their most popular tour was 4 days!). We of course were staying with a family near to the sand dunes. Across from the side of us was one of the massive camps. We had a candle for light at night while they had a big generator and were lit up like a christmas tree.

IMG_5160We arrived at lunchtime and Biklar arranged for us to go horse riding that afternoon. It took a bit of work for him to explain the costs and that we had to pay for a guide etc but we got it sorted. As we ate lunch we watched the family trying to catch one of the horses from their herd, it took 4 people -one on a horse, one on a motorbike and two on foot, over 10 minutes to catch it. We joked it would be one of ours. Then we watched it get saddled up. Only then someone shouted to Biklar to ask if we could ride – ‘not really’ was the answer back. Mongolian horses are stocky and half wild. They have been trained to accept an approach from the front left. They are also known for being stubborn, there is a word for ‘go’ but not one for ‘stop’. But Mongolian’s practically invented horse riding and its such a big part of their culture that we had to give it a go.

Emma got the skitty horse and Marie got the one that was lying down, which reflected it’s personality perfectly. We mounted and Emma’s did a couple of turns the moment Biklar let go of it. Marie’s refused to move at all and the young lad they were sending out with us as our ‘guide’ had to lead it on a rope from his horse to get it started. Eventually he decided herding it from behind was easier. They don’t adjust your stirrups or make sure you are comfy or anything like that, they just stick you on them and off you go. Though that is what they do themselves, the difference of course being that they can ride very well. They put their kids on a horse from when they are very little and off they go learning through trial and error.

IMG_5144Our guide was a 17 year old and he could seriously ride. We use the term ‘guide’ loosely as basically all he did was occasionally point us in the right direction, make Marie’s horse actually go and make sure nothing major happened like the saddle fall off. He didn’t even stick with us the whole time, 2 of the camp dogs came with us so he took the opportunity to bath them in a stream while we went on knowing he’d be able to catch us up as he could get his horse to do some kind of super gallop. We went up into the edge of the sand dunes, Emma leading and we got them trotting, then he started herding them and we got cantering. We are both ok cantering as we have done so several times before and both managed to stay on by clinging onto the saddle.

We did something new and crossed a few streams and then we crossed one deep enough to be a river, we had to lift our feet up not to get them wet. Then our guide decided to make them go fast in a 17 year old boy kind of way by hitting them then herding them to keep them going. Turns out we can both gallop and not fall off. We got to the top of a small hill with a nice view of the mountain. A family had camels there for tourists to ride. Our ‘guide’ obviously likes the camels so we hung there for a little while glad for the break.

Then it came time for us to head back, the moment Emma turned her horse it went off galloping down the hill. Marie managed to get hers cantering but was so busy laughing at Emma speeding off down the hill she could barely ride, until Emma went out of sight. Our guide then caught Marie up and made her horse gallop down too. We all caught up with each other at the bottom of the hill while Emma got her saddle tightened. She was a bit hyper ‘did you see me go through that stream? It didn’t even slow down!’

IMG_5145Being on the slowest horse Marie was made to go first through the next stream, but Emma’s didn’t like Marie’s horse being in front and took off galloping again and the last Marie saw of Emma she was galloping off into the distance. The ‘guide’ kept herding Marie’s and it galloped halfway back but Emma was gone for dust. On hitting the sand dunes Marie’s horse puffed and panted and refused to do anything over a trot. The guide finally decided to check on Emma and rode up a big dune. She was already back at camp, Marie and the guide weren’t half way. Marie’s just refused to do anything faster than a walk for the rest of the way which was just as well really as when she got off she discovered she could barely walk. Riding way too fast when you can’t actually ride had destroyed her legs and we both paid the price for it in our shoulders the next day too.

After we’d had a rest and calmed down from being somewhat over excited, in the early evening Biklar drove us to the base of the mountain (it’s actually a small mountain range, not one mountain). There was a small monastery there, just a few small buildings and a stupa nestled in the mountain. It was very pretty in the evening sun.

Dinner was by candlelight, then we crawled into our concrete beds to rest our very weary bodies.

Day 16

We packed up for the last time and headed back to Ulan Bataar on a sealed road. We passed some nice rolling hills and stopped for lunch somewhere just outside of the city. It was pretty uneventful until we hit the city fringes. Then the road turned into chaos and Biklar turned into a maniac. We wondered if we would actually make it in one piece after all, but after what seemed to be a very very long time later we did. After we paid at the guesthouse, Biklar dropped us at the guesthouse we were staying at. He did ok out of us, he inherited all things we had bought for the trip (a bucket is very useful…) and things like tea and coffee, candles, etc that we hadn’t finished.

IMG_5200In many ways we weren’t sorry that we were back, it was long enough travelling around on bad 4WD tracks for days on end, and although worth it, it was physically quite tough.

After checking in and dumping the contents of our rucksacks everywhere in our rooftop ger we headed off to find dinner. Ulan Bataar was very different to when we left, as it was smoggy. There was no breeze but it was nicely warm. We’d failed to find decent food in Ulan Bataar the first time and we were determined to do better. We’d picked an Indian restaurant that gets really good reviews. There was a queue for a table.We were too knackered to do the rounds to look for something else so decided to wait. We got lucky and the people in the queue in front of us invited us to join them. They were 2 drivers for an overland truck tour company who had just driven from the UK and done a loop of Mongolia and were on a few days off before doing a second loop and carrying on down to ultimately reach Singapore, they were with a woman they met at their hotel. We had a very enjoyable meal – good food and great company.

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