16.08.2015 - 22.08.2015
Mongolia...the land of hawks, Ger's, nomads and a vast landscape.
UlaanBaatar on the other hand lists none of these features. It is, in the most polite manner i can muster, a kip. When one Google's Mongolia they are greeted with images of nature, wonder, beauty and awe. Rolling into the city on the train, one it greeted with run-down, rather dilapidated structures. Shanty towns that emanate should poverty, it's as if I entered a Trocaire advert. Vehicles that are in desperate need of repair...and in some cases, a peaceful let go to the car graveyard. Streets that could indeed be maintained and cleaned better, and people, who appear to just be unclean in life. I'm sorry to be so negative, but it's the most shocking of sights to come into. It was not expected by any means.
Once you disembark the train, the sheer volume of people that approach you offering taxis, tours, accommodation and all shorts, would be enough to put you in a bad mood. But sure, it's not the only country you'll experience this behaviour. We got a taxi to our hostel, which cost all of five euro. Upon arrival of our hotel, which was called Sunpath, I was convinced this was the end. The outside of the building was similar to that one would associate with the film Taken or the film Hostel; a run down apartment building in much need of attention and a decent paint job. But then when you enter the hostel, my God it's like you've entered a new world. It's clean, there's plenty of facilities such as shower, bathroom, laundry, kitchen (with free breakfast comprising of bread, butter, jam, tea and coffee...ain't going to put hairs on your chest but hey, free is free). The WiFi is class, and the meeting area is great. Everyone just gets talking to each other. Also, the rooms are great, with large comfy beds and a locker for everyone with plenty of power sockets. It's a winning hostel if ever one is torn on where to stay.
So, as has to be done, we ventured out into the city, because you know what they say, never judge a book by it's cover. We just wandered around the city with no particular aim in sight. It's a fairly navigable city because there are quite a lot of distinct landmarks one can use. The square is pretty nice, with a mighty government building catching anyone's eye in the area. Here, there is a lot of construction with a dozen or so high rise towers being built. Continuing south, we ventured towards the park, with it's somewhat green and grey colour in abundance throughout, it was as if it was balancing precariously on a beam between life and death. It's like the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were found eating the apple. Walking through, one will be surprised to see that there is an amusement situated within the park. It's actually not too shabby looking, with a roller-coaster and all having been built. Needless to say we didn't venture towards it. The rest of the city isn't much to boast about. There are few temples about the place, but going to the finest one of them all involves going through the shanty town, and call me old-fashioned, but seeing but going through a neighbourhood of poverty and desperation somewhat ruins the experience. There is the main department store, which has some nice offers and a good selection of various clothes, electronics and so forth. Something I have to recommend here, is that if you are hungover or wanting to try a kebab, there is a place called German Donar that serves an immense kebab! I mean it was what you wanted for in every manner, and is easy on the wallet too in my opinion. If at the junction facing the store, waiting to cross the road, turn left, and walk down the street for maybe 300 metres, and it will be on your left!
So at this point, I probably have you wondering why on Gods earth should I visit Mongolia, and I don't blame ya. But fear not, there is more to this country then what meets the dusty, crowded, dirty eye of the capital. The secret lies beyond the city....far beyond the city. It's all about the tours lads and lassies. Now, I ain't one for doing tours. All the walking, talking and exchanging of information that I won't remember coupled with the time restraints just isn't my thing. That rule is thrown out the window here. So there are plenty of tours on-line, ranging anywhere from 3 days, to 28 days. The prices ranging from 200 dollars to 4,000 dollars. Take from that what you will :P After hours of checking the net, we came to the conclusion that the hostel offers the best deal and value for money. So I highly recommend that you save yourself the time and effort and pick a hostel tour. We only had six days, so our options were very limited...as was our price bracket. The tours all vary in sights and activities; each depending on what memories one would like to take home from the experience. The option we went for was the three day, two night tour, which involved going to the semi-Gobi, riding camels and staying with a nomad family on day one. The second day, one goes to the ancient capital city, horse riding and a night with a different nomad family. The third day you visit a park to see wild horses as well as have time to hike the rocky mountains that surround where you are staying.
The first morning, we were greeted by our tour guide, a lovely girl named Crystal, and our driver Badgeka. We soon realised that it was just the two us accompanied by our guide and driver for the next three days. But sure feic it! :P So we departed from the hostel and within five minutes you experience the driving world of UlaanBaatar....and by God what a world it is. First off, seatbelts are a no. They just ain't worn. Secondly, the rules of the road...gone! Driving a two lane road...sure enough that will become a six lane road. Lights and police control the situation...pah!! It's a game of live or die and honestly, how more people don't lose is beyond me. I couldn't give a bigger pat on the back to our driver! Driving out of the city, we all get to know each other, have a laugh and all that. We stop for lunch and are given a dish involving lamb, rice, ketchup and salad. Needless to say it was dam good! In addition, the table is given a thermal canister of boiling water (something your going to have to get used to having) and some milk. All in all, a good hearty meal. We get back on the road, and the scenery that forms in front of you is almost majestic. The mountains rise up and start to surround your line of sight for what seems like forever. Then suddenly, we turn left off the road and are making our way to the Semi-Gobi and nomad family in which we will be staying with. The desert is pretty cool, with dunes and all that coming into sight. There are mountains and various rock outcrops as well as pockets of other nomad families. We first head to our place of stay. It's pretty neat, with four Ger's, a car, bikes, dogs, horses, cows and just simple life, reflected back at you.
When we arrive, we are brought into the main Ger and given a sweet each, as well as horse milk. This concoction is one I just couldn't stomach. The taste is actually vile, but supposedly drink enough, and you'll get drunk! I couldn't touch it after that first gracious sip...and being Irish and turning down a form of liquid that can intoxicate you, is saying something :P We were given free time to wander in which we went and explored the lands; including going and climbing the rock outcrop and hiking the mountain nearby, which provided great views. Upon our arrival back to camp, we went and rode our camels through the dunes, and it was class! An hour later we were back and food was served. We ate in our own Ger with our guide, and the food..by God it was amazing. It was a lamb that was slaughtered that morning and heated in a bowl with potatoes, carrots, spices and hot rocks. The meat was so tender, and the ribs...well needless to say the taste of the spices blended within still sits on my tongue. After eating, we were fairly knackered but the Ger is cold!! In fairness, one is out in the open plain of wilderness. So a fire was made for us and that helped the situation, coupled with getting cozy in our sleeping bags. Granted the beds are the best, or really that soft in any manner, they do the job! We awoke to our guide bringing us breakfast, which firstly consisted of bread and what seemed like a pudding spread (it's actually very nice), and was then followed with a bowl of rice pudding!! It was a bowl of rice and milk and sugar over. Now I dunno about any of you, but for the Irish, that's a dessert and to be having it for breakfast was just aces!! And it was amazing taste! Just what we needed to start the day. I should mention here that the toilet situation is somewhat...unique. It involves a ten foot deep hole, with two planks on either side so one can stand comfortably, and a metal panel that hides all shame and the feeling of disgust and despair that overcomes you when nature makes her call.
The second day entailed us leaving at 9 am, and venturing towards the ancient capital city of Mongolia; Karkurin. It's a long drive but a mighty experience. The road to the site is so poor at one section, that it makes any pot-hole filled road I've encountered in Ireland seem like chedder cheese, in comparison to the grand canyon sized craters that enrich it! It's a game of swerve and dodge (reminded me of the film Dodgeball, whereby if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball..in this case pot-hole). How in ever, sometimes swerving isn't enough, and one just has to literally go off the road and drive along the dirt road alongside that has been formed as a result of numerous drivers driving off-road in an attempt to be on a flat (somewhat flat) surface. It's like a rally car experience..it's actually amazing, and such a laugh.
Arriving at the city, we visited the museum, in which we learnt all the history about the wars, Khankis Khan and the city itself. We then visited the site of the ancient capital itself, and were the community was housed. It's impressive, with three temples; past, present and future, being of particular interest. The tour of the site didn't take long, but was enjoyable. Afterwards, we went for lunch and engulfed the same food as the previous day; which heard no complaints from us! The site and tour is good, but more time is definitely spent getting to and from the place, as opposed to the site itself. So I would highly suggest not to make a two day trip out of it, as there just isn't enough to see, and one day is more then enough. The return journey is just as entertaining, driving wise, and once again, we ventured off road towards our new nomad family; who are situated in the middle of a plain land, up in the mountains...a truly beautiful and scenic position.
We arrive to the family home rather late, but upon arrival, we were greeted and brought into the main Ger. We were given hot water, dry milk and sugar (which I must recommend you break into a small piece cause it's actually horrible in taste), and sheep's butter with mini home made bread rolls which, when coupled together, tastes amazing, and just like profiteroles. I could easily have eaten the entire portion that was given to us, but our guide told us that it is a platter that is good for stomach as it cleans it...and I can tell you I was not having any cleaning happening to my plumbing knowing that the hole in the ground would await me! Any who, we left, went to our Gers, and shortly after we were given dinner, which was noodles with carrots, potatoes and mutton. It was truly delicious; a dish so simple yet so effective. After dinner, we were invited into the main Ger again, where we were welcomed by numerous other guests, including members of the army. We weren't intimidated or anything, sure they started asking us about the Irish army and it's similarities and differences to that of the Mongolian; it was a great atmosphere. So much so, that a bottle of vodka was brought out and it's a custom for the owner to pass a shot to each guest, through three rounds. A custom we gladly accepted :P We didn't stay too long, but we got more comfortable with our surroundings began to play football and games with their kids, and arm wrestling with the adults. At first, because it's a completely new way of life, there's a fear of insulting the family and/or their customs and traditions. With this family, we were so welcomed and made feel at home, we managed to settle very quick and found that once you do, your involved more within the group, and it's a great feeling to have. Before retiring to bed, we asked for a fire to be lit. Naturally, they lit a fire in our Ger, but furthermore, we were each given a traditional nomad jacket to get the heat in us! Mind you, they are incredible and so warm. It was such an honour to be given this attire and somewhat feel that one has become truly immersed in the nomadic world.
The next morning, breakfast was once again rice pudding (no complaints), but this time round, we were given pancakes...or at least this fried stuff that can only be best described as pancakes. It was delicious once again. After this, we went horse riding for an hour. Needless to say, the horses are tiny. There is no size comparison with those we have back home, and sure enough, I felt like a giant riding a donkey..not a horse. Sure enough though, we trekked around the plains for an hour, but on the return leg of the journey, we were given free rein of the horses and galloped back to the site. It was a great experience to be able to be your own person and just gallop through the plains of Mongolia in the mountains. How often can someone say they did that ay? Afterwards, we were given time to do as we pleased, in which we used to go for a hike up one the near mountain slopes. Returning to the site, we had lunch, which was the same as dinner the night before. Once finished, we packed up and headed on back to the city. I must say, the second family are so gracious and welcoming, I can't say a bad word about them. Their hospitality would be hard to rival!
On the drive back, we were all in a great mood and sang songs, got knowing each other a bit deeper, and sure enough we learnt some Mongolian. Now I wouldn't know the exact spelling, but in terms of pronunciation and sounding, I would spell like;
San-ban-o ; which means hello to any stranger
San-o ; means hello but would be used with people who you are familiar and better accustomed with
Bire-clah; means thank you
Bire-teh; means goodbye
Team ; means yes
Zaagar ; means your welcome
Ooogee ; means no
The last two days of our stay we relaxed, caught up on our blogs, messages and discussions with family and friends. Sure enough, a night of drinking entailed and good fun was had, as well as good memories made. While I come across as rather harsh towards UlaanBaatar, I cannot do the same to Mongolia. There is such an abundance of life and nature outside the city, that one cannot fault it. There is plenty more to see and do, including national parks, waterfalls, the Gobi and more. It's all out there, but the main point being "out"...out of the city. The three day tour was enough for us, it allowed us to see the country and experience life as a nomad. Sure what more could I want from the country..it's all about getting the experiences that cannot be gotten in any other country. So do I say visit Mongolia, yes, of course! How long and what to do there is completely up to the individual. Just be sure to try the lamb!!