Mongolia: The charming wilderness

by - February 04, 2019

"Let's go to Gobi Desert." with that one simple sentence, Ave of Eudaimonic 48 and I booked our tickets and planned our Mongolian trip on July 2018. This post is the first part of a series about this trip, which focuses on the overview, what you can expect upon visiting Mongolia, and some travel tips.

We chose Sunpath Mongolia tour upon reading great reviews on Trip Advisor. For a 6-day small-group tour, they offered a budget option for 360 USD and tourist-style option for around 1000 USD. "What's the budget option like," I asked cautiously, "Is it basic toilet or just a hole in the ground, is bathroom a bucket of water; is there any hot water? Is it possible to have a shower everyday?"

The answer is no. No running water, just a sink. We got a little nervous. No shower for 6 days? NO running water? Nevertheless... we are young and cheapo. Smelling like armpits but save 600 USD?! Bring it on!

Armed with wet tissues and courage, we made our way to Ulaanbaatar, Ave through land from Russia, me through the sky from Tokyo. The temperature was at pleasant low 20s Celcius, a refuge from hot and humid Tokyo. In this post, I'll share snippets of our experiences once we drove away the city in this post, while saving Ulaanbaatar for another post.

Untouched landscape

Once out of the city, immediately we're surrounded by the vast, vast landscape. In the middle of nowhere, on the big wide earth. Green pastures towards the city, gradually turning brown towards the desert.

With the occasional traffic jam.

And occasional stops to say hi to the friendly locals.

The Russian van

Our ride: an extremely bumpy but so-called reliable Russian van with natural ventilation (read: no AC). Every day involved several hours of long bumpy rides, with the driver just steered off the sealed roads and out into nowhere.

On day three, our Russian van broke down in the middle of the desert. Our tour guide was completely professional and calm that we felt no worries. We filled the time by peeing, talking, and playing charades. Other drivers of similar vans stopped by to help us, even though they're all from different tour operators; so we got to chat with other tourists in their vans too. Lots of mid-aged Australians!

After about 1.5 hour, all was well again and we rode off to the next destination.

Wait... did I say pee? Yes, no problem, just ask the driver to stop. If you're lucky you'll find some bush that provides modesty. If not, just hide behind the car. No one will look. You're in the middle of nowhere.

It is surprising how quickly the act of squatting, removing your pants and excreting waste in the middle of mother nature, right beside the left back wheel of our van, in the pleasant breeze, toilet rolls in hand, became so natural.

Definitely a more pleasant experience than one of our many Mongolian lonely outhouses.

The outhouses

An outhouse = a little wooden shack; either with or without a door, and a hole where you would do your business. It usually has wooden floor planks as flooring.

The kind of outhouse I like would have a deep hole, so deep it just disappears into comfortable blackness, no door but partially covered by a half-fence, no flies, and acceptable smell. Thank goodness we bought perfumed toilet rolls, so we could bury our noses into it while doing the business.

Nomad ger stay

The absolute highlight of the trip is nomad ger stay.

We have our own private ger, 5 or 6 beds arranged around the circumference like this. The tour provides us with sleeping bags to put on top of the bed. It was cozy and comfortable; we had no trouble sleeping at night. 

This is our host lighting up the fireplace. Our driver sorta hung out in our ger too, reading his novel.

We typically already reached our ger stay around 4-5 pm. The day then ended with slow, tranquil nights, chats during dinners while watching sunsets like this.

And waking up to this.

The animals of Mongolia

Since our nomad hosts are herders, every day we got up close and personal to these guys. 

Goats are ubiquitous in the desert. Camels are plenty. Usually the families have dogs. Horses are important animals in Mongolia; and we saw more of them in the greener areas. We didn't see any live chickens.

Travel tips

  • The best way to enjoy Mongolia is to go in a tour; the poor infrastructure of the country made it difficult to DIY, even for the most seasoned travelers. Our tour was for small groups (actually, only 3 of us!) with a driver and guide included. The larger your group, the cheaper. Our guide was awesome, she did the cooking for our delicious breakfasts and dinners, and spoke perfect English. It is also possible to do your own private tour and customize your trip. 
  • Yes it is possible to go budget if you research properly for a local Mongolian tour (the international ones from Google search usually were priced exorbitantly), and choose nomad ger instead of tourist camp option. The price difference was overwhelming, I'm guessing because running water and electricity is such a luxury in the desert. Bring your own head torch and power bank with huge capacity. Find ways to recharge your camera / bring extra batteries.
  • The non-showering for days was actually manageable, because of the pleasant cool and dry weather during summer. Arm yourselves with plenty of wet tissues to clean yourself. You'll be surprised with how dirty your feet and hands are!
  • Summer is the best time to visit Mongolia because of the great weather, there is also the famous Nadaam festival (which we sadly missed!). Yes it did get hot during daytime in the desert, but at night quickly the weather cools down. I imagine snowy Mongolia would be breathtakingly beautiful too, but beware that during winter the temperature could go down up to a bitter -30°C, and many ger camps will be closed.
  • One week was a rather short time to explore this huge country, so we only had time to cover Gobi Desert. If you could, set aside at least 2 weeks to sufficiently explore wider areas.
  • Expect that you'll need to be in the car for long hours everyday. Everyday we would ride from around 9am - 5pm, with breaks along the way. Even so, we felt the trip was slow, chill, with plenty of time. Enjoy the ride, it's a huge part of the experience. 

Our trip was truly an escape: simplicity, closeness to the breathtaking nature, stillness and quiet moments. 

Stay tuned for the next post about the natural attractions we saw in Gobi desert.

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