TRAVELLING IN MONGOLIA: GOLDEN GOBI
Into the Gobi
A pair of crutches lay in the sand in front of us. Behind stood an enormous cairn of stones, bedecked in scraps of blue silk that snapped in the wind.
“If people have injured their leg, they will leave their crutches here after they get better and ask for the injury never to return. High passes are holy”.
We were on our first clockwise loop of the cairn, or Ovoo in Mongolian, a mandatory stop before heading into the desert. Walking around it three times is for luck & protection on the road. Peering down the patchwork of tarmac and potholes that stretched into a dusty horizon, we were glad to comply.
This was the start of an 11 day excursion across southern Mongolia. Heading through the Middle Gobi, South Gobi & finally Naiman Nuur & Kharkhorin on our way back to Ulaanbaatar (UB). We were ready, our bags packed with all the essentials; wet wipes, loo roll… vodka.
Why get a tour in Mongolia?
Mongolia had long held a somewhat magnetic draw for us. For a long time I’d had romantic notions of galloping across the steppe, horse-trekking for days and drinking tea beneath a sea of stars. This was our opportunity and we so desperately wanted to get it right.
After considerable research, scouring the internet and the lonely planet, interrogating other travellers, and briefly considering buying a horse (a legitimate option), we opted to explore Mongolia with a tour. This is not our modus-operandi, and we deliberated a long time about whether we should be abandoning a DIY travel ethos for the seemingly extravagant option of being shuttled around the country.
It turned out to be absolutely the right decision; not necessarily because the tour was luxurious & perfect, but because I genuinely can’t see how we would have had the same experience without it.
Exploring Mongolia independently requires a considerable amount of time, planning, preparation, knowledge of the country, a Mongolian speaking contact in-country and, to be frank, a fairly decent set of survival skills. It would have been quite the stretch for us to pull off, even if we did know basic mechanics & how to skin a goat.
We’ve written more about how to choose a tour in Mongolia here, but for now, we wanted to share our experience of heading in the desert with Golden Gobi, a well reviewed & reputable tour operator run out of UB.
Guide & Chef: Zuula
Born & raised in the North of Mongolia, Zuula grew up under communism. She didn’t celebrate her birthday, or try cake until she was 12. She has a grown up daughter studying at University in UB. Her favourite thing to eat is dried meat & noodles. She became an entrepreneur after democracy, used to run a snooker hall, runs her own jewellery business and has been guiding with Golden Gobi for over 8 years. She is a fantastic cook, whipping up great breakfasts & dinners with limited ingredients. An infectious laugh & a joker, she is all kinds of wonderful.
Ogi’s family lives in Mandalgovi, the capital of Middle-Gobi region. He has a wife & a son (who plays the horse-fiddle brilliantly). Seemingly famous throughout the desert (literally everyone knew him), he has been driving for as long as Zuula has been guiding. They make a great (and hilarious) team. He has a penchant for disco music and candy-crush, and can manoeuvre his Russian van out of the trickiest of spots. There wasn’t a moment that we didn’t feel safe with Ogi behind the wheel.
Our van: Ruby
A spacious, surprisingly warm 1960’s Russian van in gunmetal grey. Ogi called it ‘King of the Bumpy Roads’. We nicknamed her ‘Ruby’ (the Russian Van).
Our Group: Epic
There were six of us in total: An Australian couple travelling the world for a year, an adventurous dutch academic between contracts, an eccentric curly-haired Italian doctor, Nick and myself.
Doing a tour is nearly always made or broken by the group of people you experience it with, and I will be the first to admit that we were extraordinarily fortunate to be travelling with the people above. Over 10 hours of driving at a time and we could talk and joke continuously. A thoughtful, intelligent, wonderfully stoic & optimistic bunch.
Though perhaps it wasn’t really luck; I’m not sure you should expect to meet anyone unlike this whilst travelling in Mongolia…
A day by day breakdown seems unnecessarily lengthy (at least 2 of the days would just be records of extensive Russian-van journeys). And to be honest, the itinerary we bought with our tour is somewhat irrelevant. The best bits of our trip weren’t really the stops that were planned; the tours around monasteries, or the visits to rock formations. The best bits were the parts in between; the unexpected blizzards, the emergency gers, the dinners with families & nomads, the cards played by firelight, over vodka & snow-chilled beers.
To that end, we’ve pulled out our top trip highlights:
The Best Bits
Unexpected Snow Drifts:
The entirety of our trip was defined by a weather warning that was announced about an hour after we left Ulaanbaatar (and that we evidently totally missed). We woke up on the first day under ger canvas, shivering in sleeping bags whilst the bravest in our number rekindled the stove. As the door swung open and Zula entered with hot coffee & breakfast, all we could see was blinding white. A foot of snow had fallen over-night.
Snow angels, snow-ball fights, blizzard walks all followed. But the real magic was in how it transformed the landscape. As we drove through the Gobi over the next 2 days, already impressive views became glorious and normal sights surreal: A herd of happy Bactrian camels huddled with their young against a backdrop of dazzling snow & cerulean blue. A sunset over the mountains turning the world burnt orange and frozen mauve.
But best of all, we could chill our vodka.
That second night we got caught in the ongoing blizzard. Anyone who has attempted to drive through thick falling snow in the dark, with headlights on, will know how impossible it is to see beyond 2 ft in front of the car, even on decent roads. To be in the same scenario off-road, in the middle of the Gobi, introduced a different scale of concern. We couldn’t find the nomad family we were meant to be staying with. But attitude is everything, and a bottle of wine was dug out, snacks opened, and a party ensued, quickly helping us make peace with the idea of sleeping in the van if we had to.
Fortunately, Ogi’s sister-in-law’s place was only a 2 hour drive away on the outskirts of a small town (back on a ‘paved’ road), and shortly after 1 am, we were crawling into sleeping bags, 8 of us shoulder to shoulder on the floor of a ger, her children sat up in bed staring at us in curiosity.
This wasn’t the last snow we’d see on the trip, and another dramatic blizzard also caught us in Naiman Nuur a week later. It turned this famously lush water plain into a snowy wonderland. Yaks facing into the storm, and horses bracing against the ice demonstrating just how hardy any creature has to be to survive here. Riding through this landscape, herding animals covered in crystals, only re-enforced our belief that actually, despite the bone-reaching cold, to see Mongolia in both sun & snow was a stroke of luck we’d never even thought to hope for.
An afternoon at the wrestling
On that first morning, the snow had coated everything; the mountains, the gers, the van, the goats. All iced in pristine white.
Getting to our next destination put both the van and Ogi’s driving skills to the test and we skidded, slid & drifted across snowy plains. By the time we arrived at Mandalgovi, the capital of middle gobi province & Ogi’s home town, the van was struggling. We were dropped off at Ogi’s parents for noodles & tea whilst he went to get it fixed. One hour turned into several, which could have been frustrating had it not become apparent that there was a wrestling tournament starting in town; the qualifying rounds for July’s Naadam festival.
As we stepped into the hall, 500 sets of eyes turned towards us. This was not a tourist hot-spot, it was a very local affair, but we were soon ushered to the stands where we could watch the events in the ring unfold.
Mongolian wrestling is, in a word, brilliant. It’s a mix between judo, a rugby scrum, sumo, and WWE style brute strength; but with Eagle dancing and considerably better outfits - Perfectly tailored bolero style jackets & silk pants in red and blue, matched with Mongolian leather boots & a velvet hat. Quite the get-up.
64 enormous men were paired off, whittled down through knock-out fights until just two remained. A process that took over 5 hours, leaving every man sweating & exhausted. Even at the quarter finals, the atmosphere in the room was electric. To be there by accident by the whim of a dodgy fan-belt was gloriously serendipitous.
Whilst we narrowly missed needing to be rescued ourselves, other groups had not been so lucky. One family of three had actually ended up sleeping in their van, totally lost & disorientated, whilst another had “fallen into a hole”, no-one was hurt, but the van wasn’t going anywhere fast.
The latter required a little bit of help, and the unfortunate driver happened to be a mate of Ogi’s. We were all a little perplexed at how a van had fallen in to a hole in a totally flat desert, but nevertheless, agreed to detour in order to lend a hand where we could.
When we came upon the van-in-a-hole, we couldn’t help but laugh. In the dizzying dark & snow, the driver had managed to come across a foundation hole for a new ger camp. As he’d driven forward, the whole van had very slowly disappeared nose first into the pit, leaving it’s back-wheels off the ground, and the whole van practically vertical.
Neat, neon-pink, hard-shell suitcases were lined up in the snow, as a group of Mongolians discussed how to lever the thing out. A hell-uva-lotta horse-power and a great-big lever turned out to be the answer. “give me a lever long enough, and I can move the world.”
Ogi later lamented that he may not be able to be friends with the driver anymore “how on earth did he find the only van size hole in a thousand km of nothing?!”
Unexpected Sand Storms:
By day 4 we finally found more convincingly ‘deserty’ desert. Sand & rocks, sand & rocks, sand & rocks. We were staying at a camel-herders camp, when a second weather warning reached us. Sand-storms. Blowing in hard from the North. Was this really happening?
We spent a rapid half an hour collecting dried camel-dung to keep the stove going over-night & then took shelter under canvas. The central point of our ger was weighed down with a massive boulder tied to a rope - tent ballast. As the wind picked up we watched it swing ominously in ever increasing circles.
Heading out into the storm to have a wee before bed was quite the most terrifying, and possibly painful experiences of the trip so far. Sand turned to needles was getting hurled at everything in sight by 100km/h winds. The vans had been parked behind whatever structures were big enough and a few camels were curled nose into the wind, eyes tight shut. These were not the conditions you’d want to take your trousers down in…
The morning dawned clear, bright & warm. Apart from 5 escapee camels & some brush-debris dusted across the camp… The storm might never have happened.
We spent the morning sprinting down the flanks of the whistling dunes, filling boots with sand. The afternoon dusting grit from eyelashes.
Cards & Vodka (cards & vodka, cards & vodka)
One of the best parts about Golden Gobi’s operating model is the way accommodation is found throughout the trip. We experienced an even mix between established tourist ger camps (a little bit fancy - i.e. the toilets had a door AND a roof), staying with nomad families who are known & contracted by Golden Gobi (authentic but pre-planned) and then simply turning up un-announced to the first nomads we came across & asking if we could stay (fantastically Mongolian).
Whenever we gave the latter a whirl we were continuously met with the same un-questioningly hospitality and a combination of:
“Yes we have space, come and have some tea”
“No, sorry we already have visitors, but come and have some tea”
“We don’t have space, but stay anyway, and come and have some tea”.
On the last occasion we tried this we were caught totally off guard with a slightly different response:
“Yes we have space, come and have some vodka”
As we filed into the ger one of the men, clad in an emerald green deal, dug out his phone and made a series of quick phone calls. Within ten minutes, four more guys in a rainbow of deels turned up astride dirt-bikes, greeting us whilst accepting a shot of vodka in turn from our host. The phone calls had been a party rallying call and we were more than happy to play our part. We fetched our stash and a pack of cards, and before long we were bunched around a low table, throwing down cards to whoops & hollers from the Mongolians.
We were playing Durak a famously popular card game across Mongolia, played with much strategy, patience & enthusiasm. A week of practice had allowed us some dignity & we kept up a good match…. But then they bought in the back-up. The maths club. Two boys, between 12 and 14 took up their cards, glanced around once, and swiftly swept the floor with us.
Aside from snow, the other theme of our trip through the Gobi was the unwavering hospitality of the Mongolians we met along the way. Whether it was beds for the night, tea to warm us up, or their front room for us to cook in, they gave what they could.
In one extreme case, this stretched as far as a lift for our eccentric Italian companion, affectionately nick-named ‘Borjack’ - Mongolian for ‘curly’. He was travelling in Mongolia as a 40th birthday present to himself; an opportunity to wander into the wild, experience isolation & the freedom that goes with it. To be fair, we think he had a pretty good time on the tour, but he made it clear he had originally wanted to attempt to travel solo, and was still keen on fitting in a few days without help which would mean ending his time with the group early.
This took a fair bit of negotiation with Zuula who, unsurprisingly, wasn’t too keen to let one of her group wander off & not return to UB with her - Wouldn’t have looked great to return with 5 tourists when she’d left with 6… But nevertheless, on our drive back towards UB, still 10 hours from the city, we pulled over to drop Borjack on the side of the road.
A battered nissan pulled over as Ogi flagged him down, a few rapid words of Mongolian letting the driver know where Borjack wanted to get to, and that was that. Borjack climbed in to the back seat, settled himself next to a startled looking child & waved from the window as they drove into the dust. We never saw him again*.
We stood by the side of the road, stunned into laughter.
Despite our initial reticence at joining a tour, we didn’t once question our decision once we were on it. In actuality, being on a tour in Mongolia is more akin to being part of a survival group, which is simultaneously reassuring and a lot more fun. Having other people around to help lift spirits & re-align attitudes was hugely important, and our group were particularly excellent at maintaining a relaxed approach to all the mis-haps, acts of god and subsequent itinerary shifts, that inevitably challenged us along the way. Traveling in Mongolia without this mind-set would likely be a bit of a stressful affair.
If you are heading to Mongolia, on a tour or otherwise, something will inevitably go wrong. But that might just be the reason you fall for the country hook, line & sinker - as we did. It is one of the wildest places we will ever have the good fortune to visit, which goes hand-in-hand with the unexpected.
Traveling through the vast expanse of steppe, mountains and desert that make up Mongolia is one of the world’s last great adventures.
*He did make it back to UB alive & well - Even in time for his flight home to Italy!
Tempted? Check out the rest of our articles on all things Mongolia below.