We were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was for us to organise a tour, as we thought we were quite out of season. Our hostel, Sunpath, had several tours available and we were told we could start the day after we arrived in Ulaan Baatar, which was fantastic as it meant we could really make the most of our time here. We were up late into the night catching up with blogs, then got up early to pack for our 12 day adventure. We were joined by a Dutch man, Daniel and set off around 9am with our driver, Baggi and our tour guide, Bilguun. Daniel is good fun – he owns a restaurant in the Hague and is obsessed with Star Wars and Toy Story! He is in Mongolia for 6 weeks in total and has all the cold weather kit as he plans to visit Northern Mongolia after this trip. Baggi is very jolly and funny, but speaks only a few words of English, and is probably in his 40s. His driving skills are top notch, as we were soon to discover! Bilguun is 22, handsome and smiley, with very white teeth and speaks excellent English. He has been doing tours for 3 years now. We were very happy to find that our vehicle for the trip was the very same sort of van that took us around Olkhon Island – now we know what it is! A Pergon UAZ-452, a Russian bread loaf style van! They’re brilliant!
We stopped at a shop just outside UB to stock up on snacks and necessities – biscuits, chocolate, baby wipes, loo roll etc. We then drove on for an hour or so, before stopping at a café for lunch, a rice and lamb combination with big chunks of fat in it, to which we all gave a wide berth. At this point, poor Daniel realised he had lost his money pouch with his passport, cards and money in it! We searched the minibus, but it was nowhere to be found. Baggi phoned the shop we had been to, and fortunately an honest soul had found it, and a plan was made to get it sent via an English couple who were due to join us the next day. Very lucky indeed! As the trip went on, we began to wonder if Daniel could actually rival us in the dopiness department…
After a bit more time on the road, we arrived at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, a granite rock formation in the Gobi desert that spans several kilometres. The rocks are a rosy orange in colour, and heave up from the earth like blobby giants, sometimes round in shape, sometimes more blocky and seemingly stacked on top of one another. It is a breathtakingly beautiful, otherwordly landscape and incredibly peaceful, with no sign of civilization for miles around. It is somewhat reminiscent of scenes from Star Wars! We clambered over the rocks to get the best views, occasionally coming across whitened skulls and other bones, which lent an atmosphere of desolation. Reluctantly, we got back into the minibus and drove to a ruined temple in the same region. It is a sad fact that nearly all of the Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia were destroyed during the Soviet communist purges in the 1930s and the monks associated with them were killed. Near to this monastery there was a cave where one of the monks hid for a year. I have no idea what he would have eaten to survive; the area is so barren. We crawled into the cave – it went back about 18ft through a low tunnel and then opened out into a small round chamber where you could almost stand up. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live there for a year.
That night we stayed with our first nomadic family in one of their traditional gers. Ger is the Mongolian word for yurt. We arrived quite late, so we ate in our own ger, which was adjacent to that of the family (most have a separate ger for visitors), then headed to bed. We were quite excited to find that they kept Bactrian camels (the two-humped type), and planned to have a closer look in the morning. The beds were quite basic – usually they consist of boards across a platform with minimal cushioning and often brightly patterned covers or even carpet over the top.
The set up for gers in general is as follows: there is a stove in the centre, with a chimney that exits through a hole in the roof. They are all round, with wooden trellis walls and around seventy wooden poles that lead from the walls up to anchor around a circular piece of wood at the top. Two thick poles prop up this circle vertically. The whole structure is insulated, often with felted wool,and the outside is covered by a white canvas. The beds are arranged with the long sides against the walls, there may be up to 6 of these, but generally fewer in a family ger, and there is a small table just behind the stove. There is often a rope hanging from the centre with a heavy weight on the end, to prevent the ger from taking off in high winds! In the family gers, there are usually brightly embroidered panels or rugs on the walls and they sometimes have carpet down. The whole effect is very colourful, especially as many of the wooden struts are painted with pretty patterns as well. There isn’t very much in the way of furniture – usually just a few cupboards and a sideboard, again brightly painted.
That night, the family’s cat decided to make our ger its home, and spent the night sitting on my bed and purring and making it difficult for me to turn over. When I tried, he would impatiently pat my face! I should have pushed him off really, but it’s hard when you’re in two sleeping bags with your arms sandwiched against your sides! Even though we were in the desert, don’t be fooled – it was pretty cold out there, especially when leaving your toasty ger to go to the loo in a drop toilet a short walk away from the camp in the biting wind. We fell asleep to the sound of singing camels – they make really unusual noises!