The first challenge we faced regarding Mongolia was getting there from China. If you look at a map--but not our blog map, which you may have noticed, is kind of broken--you will see that China and Mongolia are both huge and share a very long border, but it turns out that there are not so many official land border-crossing points. (This baffled me at first, but now that I have been there, I understand--it's because Mongolia has no roads.)
Anyway, direct flights from Beijing to Mongolia's capital, Ulaan Baatar, are super expensive, and direct trains only go on Tuesday and Wednesday--not so convenient if you really want to go on a Friday or Saturday. There is an "overnight" bus from Beijing to the border, but it gets in at 3AM (ugh). There is a (real) overnight train to another city in Inner Mongolia (China's part of the Mongolian plateau), from which you can then take a six-hour bus ride to the border during the day. We were planning to do that, but when we turned up at the station in Beijing five days in advance to buy tickets, we learned that those trains were already sold out. Gah!
So we took the one daily flight that goes from Beijing to Erlian, the border town on the Chinese side. Since it was a domestic flight, it was much more affordable than a flight into Mongolia. Problems solved, eh?
Not quite. We left Beijing in lovely spring weather, but when we landed in Erlian, it was 2 degrees Celsius and snowing out. In the terminal, I made a 10-minute detour into the bathroom to change into warmer clothes...and caused us to miss the only shuttle bus into town. (Turns out that Erlian airport is not quite the busiest in China--it only gets two flights a day.)
So, Andy and I found ourselves stuck at the airport, 25 kilometers from town, surrounded by non-English-speaking airport staff whose response to our every question about buses and taxis was to giggle. Finally, someone managed to communicate to us that we should sit down and wait for 10 minutes. Two hours later, someone finally gave us a lift into town--a surreal ride through flat, flat grassland dotted with huge dinosaur statues, a tribute to the many dinosaur remains that have been found in the area.
The driver kindly dropped us at the bus station and refused to take any money from us, and we were still in plenty of time to catch the cross-border bus at 1PM, so things seemed to be looking up. We spent our last few yuan on a tasty lunch and met a great pair of Dutch travelers, Niels and Bonnie, who were heading to Mongolia on the same bus. We made so much noise talking to each other that the Chinese customs people at the border came and shushed us all twice. But they stamped us out, and Mongolia stamped us in, and hooray, we were in the little border town of Zamin Uud, Mongolia!
But the fun with transport just never ends. We all headed straight for the train station, which was a total mass of confusion, not helped at all by frequent-break-taking reservation agents and blatantly queue-jumping Mongolians. It took us an hour of shoving and fighting to get to the front of the line, only to learn that the overnight train that night to Ulaan Baatar was sold out. We were stranded again.
Thanks to Niels's persistence, we managed to score tickets for the following day, then began the round of local hotels, most of which were full or very expensive. We ended up in one of the dumpier places we've stayed on our whole trip, but at least it was cheap and the family running it was friendly. Then it was off to see the, um, sights of Zamin Uud. Which are:
A camel statue (two humps!)...
...and people playing pool on outdoor tables in the main square.
That's it! You have now seen every sight of consequence in Zamin Uud, Mongolia. So cancel that trip, you don't have to go yourself. Lucky you!
We killed 24 hours, mostly playing cards with our Dutch friends in a vaguely Soviet-feeling restaurant on the square, complete with surly waitresses in miniskirts and high-laced boots. Every few hours we ordered food like gulash and schnitzel from the Cyrillic-only menu (Andy's Russian-reading skills finally come in handy!) and marveled at how very quickly things had changed since China, just a few miles behind us.
Here we are with Bonnie and Niels that evening, finally ready to get on the train. (Note the beautiful blue sky--the weather had drastically improved.)
Mongolians really like to party, and an overnight train, we quickly learned, is as good a place as any to have a good time. Our car-mates were up until the wee hours, playing cards and talking and laughing. But they were also really nice to us. When the train rolled past this man out with his horse and his camel, they made sure to beckon me and Andy (the only tourists in that section) over to the window to see it. Our first Bactrian camel of Mongolia!
Ulaan Baatar felt SO cosmopolitan compared to Zamin Uud (and compared to anywhere else we'd go in the country over the next week). I'm pretty sure it's the only place in the country with pavement. One-quarter of all Mongolians live there (about one million people), and it's growing quickly. Super-modern new buildings are going up all over the place, like this one that manages to look like a vagina and a phallus at the same time.
Chinggis Khan (formerly known as Genghis, at least to me), was responsible for Mongolia taking over half the world a few centuries ago, and his bronze statue on the main square is appropriately girthy.
For a taste of some more traditional architecture, here is one of Mongolia's most important Buddhist sites, the Gandan monastery, looming high over the edge of downtown.
Mongolia is huge (19th biggest country in the world, but lowest population density after Greenland and the Falklands) and we only had time to visit a small chunk of it, so we chose to explore one of earth's harshest climates: the Gobi desert. (Which, our guide quickly informed us, is actually redundant, as "Gobi" means "desert" in Mongolian.)
We signed up for six-day tour, which we were quickly made to understand would involve countless hours of off-roading in an old Russian jeep, three mutton-based meals a day, and absolutely no prospect of a shower for the entire trip. Bring it on!
We had hoped to find other travelers to share the cost with us, but as it turns out, most people actually want to go even longer without a shower, and we couldn't find anyone else who wanted to do less than nine days in the Gobi. So, it would just be me, Andy, a guide, and a driver--really, enough unshowered people for one car, wouldn't you say?
We hit the road, and the road quickly ended outside of Ulaan Baatar, so we hit the dirt. Luckily, we didn't hit these big, beautiful birds--cranes, methinks? (Sabrina?) We saw them in pairs somewhat regularly in the desert.
Here is our jeep on day one, when it was still behaving pretty well. Our super-cheerful driver (the man never stopped smiling!) ended up taking the whole engine apart a few days later while we were hiking. He kept the car running quite impressively the whole time.
The Gobi really surprised us with its many varied landscapes. Some impressive rock formations on day one.
Those dark skies in the distance may mean storms are coming, but we get a rainbow, too!
Our first night in the desert was spent in the village of Erdene Dalai--"the biggest town in the province," according to our guide. This translates to a handful of houses and yurts (round, felt tents--called gers in Mongolian), a school, a few shops, and one pretty monastery in the rocky sand.
No running water anywhere in the Gobi, so toilets are all squat-style outhouses.
This is what a gas station looks like in the Gobi.
Andy really wanted to experience a sandstorm, and secretly hoped that we might get caught in one at some point. He got his wish on day two--luckily, we were near our destination and it was over by the next morning. Still, the howling wind was crazy, and sand seemed to get through every crevice in the jeep. I found the whole experience slightly less romantic than the sandstorm in The English Patient--luckily, we were not trapped in the jeep overnight like Ralph and Kristen were!
On night two, and every subsequent night of the trip, we got to sleep in a ger. Hooray! The outsides are very plain, but Mongolians like to decorate the insides with lots of bright colors. The centerpiece of every ger is the stove, which either burns wood or animal poop, depending on which fuel source is more locally available.
Sleeping in a ger was fun for novelty, but not exactly the most restful experience ever. The stoves tend to make the tent roastingly hot for a while, but then they peter out while you're sleeping so you wake up freezing. And the beds in Gobi ger camps may just be the hardest in the entire world. Five nights was definitely enough for me.
Anyway, we thought our goggles had seen the last of their action when we left the ocean behind, but we didn't realize how handy they'd be when you have to go to the outhouse during a sandstorm!
Sandstorm all calmed by sunrise the next morning. Even in low-wind conditions, though, the Gobi was still freezing.
We were still all bundled up later that morning for our visit to Bayanzag, a beautiful area of canyons where many important dinosaur remains have been discovered, including the best ones in the New York Natural History Museum!
That day, the landscape changed again as we drove south past the Gobi's largest mountain range. Suddenly, we were in rolling green hills. Well, green-ish. But it looked like Ireland after where we'd come from!
The Yol Valley was probably the prettiest destination on our Gobi tour. We hiked to a crazy frozen waterfall (while our driver was taking the car apart back at the ger camp).
Purple flowers! Moss! Life in the desert!
The area is plant-rich enough to support many herded animals (sheep, goats, cows, camels)...and horses of many colors.
I may have taken a walk over some of these hills. And I may have spun around and sang "The hills are alive...with the sound of muuuusic!" once or twice. I mean, who knows what may have happened?
The crazy nine-day tour group was at the same camp as us that night, and our guides got us together for a traditional Mongolian game night. When our guide told us we'd be playing a game called "animal ankle," we imagined some kind of crazy charades- or perhaps tag-like experience involving grabbing people's ankles. Nope. Mongolians are herders, so we probably should have known that the game would involves actual animal ankles--or at least ankle bones.
It turns out that a sheep or goat ankle bone has four distinct sides, so you can toss like a die, leading to hours of fun as you "roll" ankle bones to learn whether your playing piece (also an ankle bone) will advance along the long wall (made of, you guessed it, more ankle bones) and win the horse-race. A very popular game among Mongolians of all ages to pass time during the long winter months.
This baby girl at the ger camp was obsessed with cars. The only sound any of us ever heard come out of her mouth was a car noise, and she constantly held up her hands and begged anyone who was getting into a jeep to lift her in, too. Someone let her "drive" at the steering wheel and she was the happiest camper ever, and she screamed bloody murder when she had to get out. I see an exciting profession of cross-Gobi jeep driving in her future!
Speaking of babies, omigod, omigod, 100 baby goats!!
Yeah, we finally hit baby season somewhere. Baby camels are also cute, as are baby sheep, but they're skittish and not as willing to be snuggled by strangers as friendly baby goats!
A bit less exciting than baby goats, unless you are Andy, is this lizard.
All these animals were spotted near the sand dunes we visited after Yol Valley. We didn't make it out to Khongor, the biggest sand dunes in the Gobi, but these were good enough to climb around on for an hour while our guide rustled up some more mutton for our lunch.
After the dunes, it was finally time to ride some camels!
The verdict is in: Two-humped (Bactrian) camels are more comfortable than their one-humped (Dromedary) cousins. We actually showed the camel-owners at this ger camp our photos from riding Dromedaries in Mauritania, and they thought it was hilarious that anyone would try to balance a saddle on the top of a camel's hump like that.
Spring is shaving time for the camels, so that their owners can sell their fur to make all those lovely, expensive camel-hair coats we like in the west. I asked a shaved camel to pose next to an unshaved one for contrast, and he kindly obliged. I didn't tell him that I think he looks ridiculous, kind of like a vulture with his baldy head and neck poking out from that still-fluffy back...
How do you shave a camel, you ask? First you get it to kneel down, then you knock it over on its side and quickly hog-tie its feet. Then, usually while someone else is sitting on its head, you go to work on its nether regions with a scissor. Easy-peasy! Unfortunately, this photo is not sound-enabled, so you cannot hear this camel's screams of, um, pleasure as this process is carried out.
We were back near Bayanzag to ride the camels, and took advantage of the nonsandstormy weather that day to walk out to the dinosaur-rich rocks again. Unfortunately, we did not succeed in our mission to discover an andyandtarasaurus.
Day five. Ruined monastery in the middle of nowhere. During Soviet-friendly, communist times, Mongolia destroyed a lot of religious buildings and put a lot of monks to death. These days, its a much freer place politically and religiously.
Most of the herd animals you see grazing in the Gobi belong to someone, but there are wild black-tailed gazelles (kind of like deer), which we would spot from time to time. They run away from the jeep FAST.
Back in rather flat, pretty dry territory--broken up here by some more ruins and a bit of water, which has attracted a horseman.
Our last major stop was Baga Gazarin Chuluu, also known as "the rocks." Basically, some fun rock formations that reminded us a little bit of the pancake rocks in New Zealand.
I thought this one looked like a face and had to go honk its nose.
Nifty, water-conserving desert plant. Nice shot, Andy!
On our last day, we passed by a slightly salty lake that attracted a lot of birds. Here are some more of our crane-like friends.
That appears to be all I've got for pictures from Mongolia. We spent one more night in Ulaan Bataar (and took some much-needed showers!) and then hopped an early flight to Moscow, where we would connect to Kiev, Ukraine. We were a little bit nervous to take such a long flight on an airline (MIAT Mongolian) we'd never heard of before, but luckily they were code-sharing with a bigger, better-known airline--Russia's famously safe Aeroflot! (I jest, I jest. Aeroflot has quite a good safety record these days, and the flights were completely professional.)
While I was excited to be heading to Europe, I was definitely also sad to leave Mongolia behind. The Gobi had stunning scenery, welcoming people, and lots of fun animals to play with and ride--it was totally worth all the bumps and the dirt and the cold, cold nights to see. It was also really different from the rest of Asia in cuisine, language, and culture--in many ways it felt more akin to Russia than to China--and made an interesting bridge as we headed toward a couple of former USSR republics.
I would have loved to have seen some other parts of Mongolia--there are famous lakes, and national parks with the last of the wild horses, and plenty more Gobi that we didn't get to. I think that there will definitely be a next time.