After spending a couple days cruising the potholed streets of Ulaanbaatar (UB), we signed up for a 13-day jeep tour of Mongolia through our guesthouse. The primary destinations were the Gobi desert in the south, and the Great White Lake to the west. Turned out that everything in between was just as awesome. It also turned out that “jeep” meant a Russian-built van. But this was no ordinary van. It made the A-Team’s van look like the B-Team’s Pinto.
The night and morning before departure was spent packing and getting food for the trip. The cost of the tour included breakfast and dinner, provided by the host families, but lunches and snacks were up to us. And since there was no guarantee of when we’d come across a market, and no telling what the food would be like – a few horror stories of mutton-overload were relayed – we stocked up.
The supermarket in the State Department Store carried some American brands so I was tempted to get some Kraft Mac and Cheese. But since I didn’t want to be too American, I got some Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup instead. I also got some salami which started out yummy until one day at lunch I found a clump of rat hair inside it.
Fortunately the food we were served was pretty good. Breakfasts were nearly universal – bread (or really hard breadsticks) and hot water for tea. Altho, a couple places had yummy bread crisps with sugar. The worst were these still-frozen “breadsticks” with really hard blocks of nasty cheese, served with sugar cubes.
Dinners were usually something like noodles with meat (usually mutton), rice with meat, or noodles AND rice with meat. A couple places had carrots or potatoes in the soup; some even had onions. Mongolian nomads don’t like vegetables because they require them to be stationary. The occasions when we had vegetables, there was a market or town nearby.
There were some unique Mongolia food specialities we enjoyed along the way. The first was fermented camel’s milk. As good as it sounds, it’s not. It basically tastes like carbonated sour yogurt with clumps. Another was fermented mare’s milk. This went down easy but left a sour aftertaste – not so bad… until you burped. Then you best be saying “excuse me”. The highlight was yak’s cream. Yak milk has almost twice the fat as cow’s milk. And we know that fat = flavor so you can imagine how good this stuff is.
In our group there was the two of us and three New Zealanders – Arnika, Tom and Richard. There was another group leaving the same day but only doing part of the loop. The original plan was for them to go the opposite direction as us, but there was a storm brewing in the south and the drivers wanted to go together in case of a problem – it was told that last year a group got stuck in the pass for several days.
It soon became clear that the drivers were good buddies and just wanted to travel together. They found everything funny. Our driver, Ganaa, loved to giggle a lot and the other driver, Bayraa, carried himself like a mix of Charlie Chapman and a Marx brother – he had this smart sense of physical humor. He also spoke some English. Ganaa knew things like “horse”, “go”, “good!”, “ger” and “lunch” – which we think he thought meant “eat”.
We hadn’t driven more then 20 minutes out of Ulanbaatar before our driver turned off the paved road onto a dirt track and headed south to the Gobi. This would be the last asphalt we’d see for about four days. Within 20 more minutes we stopped and hiked up a hill to take a look at the steppes. There was nothing man-made in sight. Just some tracks going off towards the horizons. And cows.
The steppes of Mongolia are easily the most remote land I have ever traveled. For the most part there were no signs, no milage markers, just a whole lot of nothing. We would drive days without seeing another sign of mankind save a few nomadic family’s ger camps, the occasional motorcycle rider and maybe a herder keeping an eye on his sheep, goats, or sometimes both. We saw a lot of huge hawks and owls in the steppe sitting on the ground. Usually birds of prey sit up in trees, but since there were no trees, they just hung out on the gownd. There were also herds of wild horses and towards the Gobi, camels.
A majority of the driving was on endless dirt tracks that seemed to go no where. When our driver thought one was too rough he’d just change to a different set or make his own. Sometimes there would be a couple of tracks, sometimes just one. Or we would turn onto a track going off in a different direction – also heading to nowhere. The first night, the drivers invited me to hangout in the van where they slept. Between them taking shots of Chinggis Khan vodka from the bottle cap, I asked how they knew where to go. The driver who spoke some English circled his head and said “compass”. Our driver laughed and threw back another capful and yelled “compass!”.
After a few nights staying with families along the way, and seeing the land get flatter and flatter the more south we went, we finally made it to the Gobi sand dunes. This is really the only “classic” desert landscape of the Gobi. It’s primarily arid grasslands with wild horses and camels – it’s just the ground that differers from the steppes. The steeps has dirt and grass, whereas the Gobi ground is just little rocks and not as much grass – but it’s not sandy like you’d think a desert would be. We arrived at lunchtime and were told the camels to take us to the dunes would be ready at three. So we cooked lunch and took a little snooze.
Being Mongolia, three quickly turned into five. And even though there were nine of us, only five camels showed up. The best part was that the drivers and the host family were totally in shock that five camels weren’t enough. Like, even though we had been all traveling together for a few days, they didn’t realize there were nine of us. So after much pointing, arguing, and discussing, they decided there would be two groups.
This turned out to be to my advantage. The primary mode of transportation for a lot of nomads is a cheap Chinese motorcycle – it also appears to be used for herding when the shepherd is feeling a bit lazy. I had noticed one such bike next to the shed by our vans and had visions of cruising around the Gobi. So as the first group was mounting up, I pointed the bike out to my driver and said I wanted to ride it. He looked around to make sure no one could hear him, as a devilish smile came to his face followed by something like, “Camels go, you ride.”
Once the first group left I walked over to the bike and asked the driver how to start it and confirmed how to shift gears. I started it up and took off down a dirt track with nothing but distant hills in front of me. This was my first time driving a motorcycle ever, let alone in the middle of Mongolia. This was quickly followed by my first motorcycle crash. Being a desert and whatnot, the tracks were quite sandy resulting in the rear wheel shimming at higher speeds. I could control it most times, but one time caught me off guard so the bike kinda slid out from under me as we went down together. Thankfully the sand softened the crash so it didn’t really hurt.
The camels came back and took the rest of us to the dunes. It was getting a bit cloudy at this point and it looked like rain was coming. By the time we were hiking up the dunes a blizzard hit. We kept hiking up as the snow started coming down. It was surreal to have the visual of a sandy desert with that cold stillness that a good snowfall brings. After about an hour and a half, we realized the camels weren’t coming back to pick us up so we started back and were met part way by our driver in the our van. We asked where the camels were and he said “No camels.” Sudden and unexplained changes of our plans became a large part of our Mongolian experience.
After a long freezing night’s sleep in the ger, we went out to see about six inches to a foot of snow on the ground. The drivers seemed anxious to get going to we packed up quickly and started north. At this point, the ground looked just like the sky – white. There was no horizon line and visibility was maybe 50 meters. There were no tracks or landmarks to influence the drivers’ “compasses”. We drove around in circles looking for about two hours until they finally found the mountains. This, however, meant we had to now go over those mountains.
We started climbing up to the pass occasionally having to reverse and try another path or stopping to dig out a stuck van – the snow in some parts was a couple feet deep. The drivers mood had changed for that day. Usually they are funny and make jokes. On this day, the replaced their jokes with more cigarettes and didn’t say much. At the top of the pass we could see over the next ridge to the steppes which had more sun than snow. After making it down from the pass, we stopped at the edge of the mountains for lunch then made our way north towards the Great White Lake.