Quickly pulling on my boots, coat and hat I ducked out of the small door of the family’s ger we were sharing for the night in hopes of finding the toilet. In the winter, in the wilds of the Mongolian countryside, it can get pretty damn cold. -40C are not unheard of and though it wasn’t that cold tonight I still needed thermals on under my trousers and the quicker the pee the better! My first problem was attempting to avoid the family’s herd of goats who were nearby, shinning the torch ahead the reflections of dozens of eyes shone back in the darkness. The next was to try to locate the ‘toilet’ itself. I say toilet it was really just a hole, with a couple of planks of wood on top and some boards around the side, to protect your bare bum from the sand or wind! After successfully finding my target I picked my way back to the outline of the ger and briefly looked up at the sky. Never, since sleeping in the back of the car in the Australian bush had I seen stars so bright and never in the northern hemisphere. Without a light for miles around in ever direction the sky was awash with silver specs and then one shot across the sky…yeh I know its cheesy but I saw a shooting star in the Gobi desert and I had a ‘wow’ moment…
But how did we end up in the most sparsely populated corner of one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world peeing in a hole while star-gazing? Well to be specific in a beast of a grey soviet era, 4WD van with a lactose intolerant Brit, called Matt, a camel wool clad German, called Neli, our beautiful Mongolian guide Oagie and our comb-over sporting driver Ishkar! Our seven-day tour to the Gobi desert was arranged so quickly we only thought it was six…Knowing there would be no showers, no internet and very little electricity for the next week we set off leaving the tarmac roads and the buildings of Ulaanbaatar behind.
Sometimes the reality of a place surpasses all the expectations you had for it. Did I think staying with a nomadic family would be facinating…yes, riding camels through a desert be beautiful…yes, was sleeping in a ger (yurt in Russian) a long-established bucket list event…yes, but I don’t think I comprehended how vast and breathtaking the Mongolian landscape would be. Imagine in the distance a craggy snow-capped mountain range running along the horizon, in front of this a series of yellow sand dunes undulate, while eagles, with a two meter wing span, circle overhead…oh and there isn’t a person or car in sight in any direction for hundreds of meters. Everywhere you look there’s another breathtaking vista; the Mongolian countryside really is too photogenic and trying to capture its beauty became a constant challenge.
Apart from staring at the epic views out of the van window and continually feeling like we were in some Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones style fantasy movie we were able to get a glimpse into the lives of nomadic families in this region of Mongolia, their unique customs and culture. From the outside the felt, wood and canvas gers are plain and simple, but as you go inside they are brightly coloured, the supporting poles and furniture painted with symbolic patterns for the prosperity of the couple. There are also far to many customs to remember: only entering the ger with your right foot (to enter with your left meant you wanted to kill the someone!), only take and receive things with your right hand, don’t squat, don’t put your finger in the bowl you are eating or drinking from as its like you are sticking your finger in your hosts eye! Thank goodness we had a translator to help us decipher all the rules of this nomadic community. The food with the families too was interesting, though limited. Diary products, meat (usually fatty mutton), carrots, potatoes and cabbage made up the majority of what we ate, the excitement lay in how much allergic Matt could eat before feeling sick! I didn’t think I would ever eat camel meat, camel milk vodka and camel yogurt all in the same evening but hey you don’t stay in a ger in the Gobi desert every day (we of course tried the horse milk vodka and cow milk vodka to compare…camel wins!). Oh and as the title suggests, on our last night we did eat potatoes and lumps of meat, plus strips of wheat noodles out of a bucket, with our hands.
The animal life we encountered was very special too. Gazelles would run along side the van and we saw vultures eating their prey, while almost stepping on Mongolian rabbits. And we rode camels, two-humped, big camels to be precise. In fact we rounded up a herd of camels while on our camels and took them to the well for water…I’m not sure how effective we were, i think the camel farmer did most of the work, but we were definitely there! Also as we were riding it began to snow…while we were in the desert…riding camels?!? And just so everyone knows goats do the most amazing farts, so explosive that they usually are knocked of balance with the projectile power of a gun. Sorry to lower the tone but we just had to share this discovery!
Staring up at the sand dunes of the Gobi desert they did look inviting and when we stopped by the ‘singing dune’ standing at 300 meters and were asked whether we wanted to climb, I thought ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ Well lets just say I don’t need to climb another, it was like running through treacle sinking sand, except you were running with your arms as well as your legs! Luckily the view from the top was amazing: sand dunes spreading in every direction out to the snowy mountains beyond. Rowling back down the dunes was more fun and as the sand we had dislodged began to cascade down, like a mini avalanche, we understood why it was called ‘singing’. The noise was unbelievably loud, like a helicopter was flying close by or spirits of the Gobi were shouting from within the dunes and continues for minutes after we reached the bottom.
The trip had taken us bumping and rocking down roads which weren’t roads to remote corners of the landscape and it felt like we had an authentic experience, sleeping on the floor of families gers, eating and drinking with them. We were lucky enough not to see another tourist our whole time away, even in the dusty towns we stopped at. I think we were lucky. Every guide-book and website we read before coming to Mongolia said not to come in March, as it was the worst month, still cold, with animals thin after the harsh winter months. But it meant we were here at the quietest time, as the experience just wouldn’t have been the same if we were walking around in these empty landscapes with dozens of other tourists…and I think this Gobi tour would be busy in the summer months.
Either way it had been so memorable. Our last morning, after sleeping nine people in a small ger on the frozen ground, we woke up to the snowy mountains and the sons of the family practising their traditional wrestling in front of the horses the family owned… you can’t get much more Mongolian than that! Though I have to admit getting back to a proper bed and a shower after our time in the wilderness was heavenly.
Next time hitching and horses