It felt great to be boarding the Trans-Mongolian. I’m not sure if it was the anticipation of a new country or the start of our Trans-Siberian rail journey, a trip that has been on our bucket list for over 30 years.
The Trans-Siberian was once referred to as “the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars”. It is the longest rail line in the world, spanning 9,289km from Moscow to Vladivostok and `crossing seven time zones. The route we were taking, however, starts in Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian and passes through Mongolia before joining the traditional Trans-Siberian near Lake Baikal.
We woke to a changing landscape, the boundless sands of the Gobi desert slowly transformed into the vast Mongolian steppes. The flat grassy plains transformed again into soft rolling hills, dotted with pine forests as we neared Ulaanbaatar. The homesteads, with their Gers (yurts) and livestock that we passed infrequently at the start also became more numerous as we approached the capital.
Ulaanbaatar (UB) is a place I have always wanted to visit. I remember it from the world weather, from 40 degrees celcius in summer to minus 40 in winter!! When Pete was commissioned to design a hotel there, I was so jealous, I desperately wanted to join him on one of his visits, but sadly the project was put on hold and I didn’t get to go.
That project, that started 10 years ago, was finally finished in 2018, so we planned to stay at the hotel and catch up with Tugi (the client) and his wife for dinner.
We disembarked the train and bolted for the exit, heads down to avoid the usual hawkers peddling hostels and over priced cab journeys. We intending to grab a taxi outside the station but not a taxi in sight! We saw one across the road but as we approached he took off. A guy in a parked car asked if we needed help. We reluctantly said we were looking for a taxi. He got out to help by waving arbitrarily at cars! shortly one pulled over and after brief discussion we were in the back heading to the hotel for the equivalent of $2.00. It turns out that this is the UB system you just wave if you need a ride and someone will stop. Like a paid hitchhiking! (But we were warned not to do that at night time).
We met up with Tugi & his wife for dinner. They took us to a traditional Mongolian restaurant (Modern Nomads) a few minutes walk from the hotel. The place was full of both tourists and locals. Tugi assured us, this was good traditional Mongolian food and they ate there regularly. The food looked great, I wanted everything on the menu, but left it to our hosts to choose. We had traditional Khuushuur (like a fried pasty filled with lamb), lamb & vegetable buuz, traditional and common dumpling, and another type of stir fried lamb and vegetable dish. SO good! Pete had fortified himself for a big night, Tugi was a big vodka drinker and they had had some heavy sessions in the past. He used to say “meat for the body, vodka for the brain”. As it turned out, Tugi had made a lifestyle change and was now semi vegetarian (very difficult to do in Mongolia); and teetotal!! I think little relief swept across Pete. No vodka for tonight, just a few beers for the rest of us.
We toured around UB in the morning and checked out a few companies offering trips into the Steppes. We settled on a newish company who were able to customized a trip for us, and we could start the next morning - perfect! We booked a 6 day, 5 night trip with a private guide, staying at home stays in traditional Gers (Yurts) some on working farms. With the trip booked, we wandered back to the hotel via a mini market to get supplies for the trip (aka vodka). Given there was so much on the menu that we wanted at the restaurant the night before, we decided to return. This time we had a different kind of dumpling (lamb of course) with pumpkin purée and sour cream; twice cooked sheep’s head; and lamb shanks (are you getting the lamb theme here in Mongolia!?)
The next morning, we checked out and were picked up by our guide “Billy” and our driver Ammy in a quite luxurious mini van. Pete was a little disappointed and he had hoped we were going to get one of the heavy Russian UAZ-452 4wd van that he had seen so often.
Our final stop was the allegedly famous Turtle Rock, a rock that, from the right angle and with enough vodka looks like... a...turtle. The rock was pretty cool, and with a bit of hiking we could climb up to get a pretty good view of the valley. (Note from Pete, no it wasn’t it was just two boulders and someone’s overtly fertile imagination that we wasted 45minutes climbing)
It was dusk by the time we pulled into Khongor camp for the evening. This wasn’t an actual home stay but a Ger camp site. Billy prepared our evening meal which consisted of salad leftovers from lunch, plus some processed sausage and potatoes panfried with a piece of processed cheese melted across the top. (This set the tone for the level of gourmet dinners we were to get over the next 5 nights!) The owner of the campsite lit our fire inside our Ger and after a few vodkas to warm up (3 degrees) we retired to its toasty warmth and our sleeping bags for a comfortable nights sleep.
Sightseeing in Mongolia is all about the changing scenery, the morning was spent driving through semi arid farmland on the edge of the Gobi. Despite its harsh appearance the landscape was teaming with life, including Pika, Mongolian Gerbils and Ground squirrels along with Steppes Eagles, Golden Eagles and other Hawks. While Billy prepared lunch- spaghetti bolognese (made with processed sausage and jar of salsa). Pete and I wandered around trying to take photos of these elusive little mammals. They would dart from one burrow then disappearing down another. There were hundreds around, but we were having difficultly photographing any.
After lunch, we continued north west to Khustai National Park. This place is known as “country of wild horses”. The scenery in this park was simply stunning yet we seemed to be driving through on a mission. Billy had fallen asleep (too much pasta), and we were starting to get a little annoyed as Buzzra didn’t speak English and we were trying to get him to stop for photos. We soon discovered this park had Mamuts which we were trying to get a photo off - also quite an illusive creature, together with vultures and eagles. Great wildlife here.
We stayed the night with the Batchuluun family, a nomadic family who raised cows, sheep and horses. Like most nomadic Mongolians, they move twice a year, we were staying with them at their winter location. In a few weeks they would pack up and move to their summer camp, 10km away on the flat river plain.
While we ate the cows returned from their grazing and were patiently waiting to be milked. This was old school hand milking, I had never milked a cow before.... I think the cow is hoping I never do it again!
Once the cows were milked and calves fed, we went back into the main ger where Orlanda taught me how to make earrings from sheep’s wool, water and soap. So simple and almost stylish!
Breakfast the next morning was served in the main ger, milk tea, a soft cheese made from the first milk of the cow after giving birth, bread and jam and a plate of pan fried processed sausage (bread, jam and sausage provided by our guide).
As we left the home stay, Orlanda appeared at the door step dressed in traditional dress, with a cup of milk and a spoon and we took off she splashed milk onto the van, blessing it for a safe journey.
I have to admit this was my favourite night’s stay.
Our destination today was Ulaantsutglan, the highest waterfall in Mongolia, which would not reach until late afternoon however the scenery along the way was stunning. I had wanted a photo of the yaks and finally we managed to get up close to a large herd that didn’t run away from me. We had a picturesque lunch stop (salad sandwich with process sausage) by a small river where horses came down to drink.
This place was a hybrid ger camp cum homestay, the owners had their own ger and some horses that are used for horse rides for guests and about 4 other gers that they booked out as guest accommodation. We went to the guides communal ger to see if Billy needed a hand with dinner. He was making us a soup of veggies and a can of tuna (no processed sausage tonight). Whilst Billy was preparing the vegetables, I llooked over longingly at another guide as she lovingly made mutton buuz for her guests, commented about how lucky her guests were. Later that evening, pretty boy, Billy managed to sweet talk to the guide into offering us a few.
Breakfast the next morning was bread, jam, eggs and processed sausage. I was missing the farm stays of milk tea.
The plan the next morning was for me to go horse riding while Pete persuaded Billy and the driver to go back to the waterfall (sans rain). However when Billy said I would ride 2 hours toward our next destination rather than in a pony circle Pete decided, against better judgement, to join. We drove a short distance down the road where we met up with one of the sons from Tons sons with his horses (he had just dropped another group after their ride) Now I love horses and used to ride as a kid so I was looking forward to this. I hadn’t been on a horse in years. We saddled up and the guide lead us off for a 2 hour ride..back toward the camp. Pete immediately picked that this was not the A to B route promised but in fact the B to B fairground pony trot he dreaded, and to make matters worse we were be lead so close that his leg was continuously banging into the guides horse. Now Pete can wear his heart on his sleeve and when he is pissed off he lets you know, even if trying, but failing, I tried to enjoy it but was also disappointed that it wasn’t a ‘horse ride as promised. The guide wouldn’t drop the lead rope, he kept both our horses on a lead so we didn’t have control of our own horse. Pete finally lost it and I agreed, this 2 hour ride would last just 1 hour and we told the guide we had enough. When we got to the van Pete gave Billy a lesson on customer expectation and deliverables (Billy is actually studying Architecture). Billy sat silently in the front of the van for the remainder of the day!!
After breakfast (bread, jam, egg, pan fried processed sausage), we headed off toward the Semi-Gobi. We stopped, enroute, to visit friends of our driver, the,Oyen-tunglalag’s. He was a Vet and she was a civil engineer but had chosen the nomadic farm life when there kids all decided to work in UB. They invited us in and gave us hot yak milk, from the mornings milking, that was bubbling on the stove. We were also given yak yoghurt, which again I loved, a slightly stronger taste than cow yoghurt (unfortunately she mixed a heap of sugar into it, whilst still creamy and tasted good I would have preferred it not so sweet). This family also made their own cream. It was like clotted cream it was so thick. Supplemented by dried curd and cookies from a visiting monk. What a morning tea feast.
On leaving the family, the driver offered Pete a drive of the Russian beast. He can happily now say he has driven a Russian UAZ-452
We stopped at the ancient city Kharkhorun and visited an old monastery. Unfortunately it started to rain so we made our way back to the carpark and a nearby restaurant where we had Huushuur for lunch (a nice change from the sausage),
Our evening accommodation was to be in the semi-Gobi, a unique area where an oasis lies between the steppe and the desert. It was weird to see desert, water, green pastures in one frame. Wading wetland birds with camels! We reached the Oasis mid afternoon and went barrelling past! We kept driving, out of the semi-Gobi and back into the steppes. Apparently the family we were staying with would be there... in July, for now they were still at their winter camp, 20minutes drive away. To say Pete wasn’t happy would be a mild understatement, Billy was getting a massive lesson in customers satisfaction!!
This night we stayed at Mr Bor’s (Mr Brown) farm. Dinner, humbly prepared and served by Billy was panfried processed sausage, potatoes and tofu (even the cat that found its way into our warm ger turned its nose up at it).
Apparently the mountains that surrounds this campsite is home to many wolves. So the dogs were on duty all night protecting the sheep - I think they stopped barking around 4am - just in time for sunrise.
(Note from Pete who the &*#@ has a winter camp hard up against a mountain range, renowned for wolves, then are shocked when their sheep are attacked... Maybe if you went to the semi-Gobi, away from the mountains, you might not loose your sheep and I would not loose my sleep, oh and there is water there..idiots)
The last day of the road trip was just a haul back to UB. Pete listened to the footy, while Billy sat sheepishly wondering how he would fare on trip advisor. We soon left the off road and back onto bitumen and after brief lunch stop, rice and canned smoked fish (he had finished the sausage) we arrived UB by mid afternoon.
For a change we had booked the next two nights in an apartment. This gave us our own space, own bathroom, a washing machine and a kitchen. Pete was eager to cook up some lamb and NO carbs, or processed sausage. The apartment was fantastic. Great location, friendly host and just perfect for us. We ended up eating in both nights, we just lounged around both evenings, caught up on our blog (and work), did some washing cooked and enjoyed a bottle of red wine or two.
On Tuesday afternoon, we packed our bags and headed for the train 3km away. We knew we could walk it, but we decided to give the ‘hailing a car’ routine a go. A few cars passed before one pulled over. No problem, showed him google translate to go to the train station. I offered him 5,000 Tugrik ($2) and off we went. Easy. In the end when I gave him the 5,000 he gave me 2,000 change, wouldn’t overcharge me! Still nice people around.
This time it was a Russian train with Russian Cabin attendants that welcomed us aboard. Next stop Ulan-Ude in Russia.