Ulan-Bator is the biggest city in Mongolia, almost half of the entire population lives here and the city is growing rapidly. Most nomadic families come to Ulan-Bator (originally Ulanbaatar) in order to give their children the opportunity to get a higher education. Every family that moves to the city is given 400qm land to live on. However this land is not connected to the power supply system of the city making those family heating their gers – if they can afford it – with coal. Most cannot so they burn plastic bottles and rubber tiles. This way Ulan-Bator overtook Beijing as most poluted capital in 2016.
On our third day in Mongolia we went on a six days tour into the Gobi Desert. Six days without running water or electricity. Sleeping in gers and meeting nomadic families, riding camels and horses and having our breath taken away by this beautiful piece of earth.
We were joined by a German girl, Saskia and an American, named Mel. Nice, fun company, making playing cards in our cozy gers all the more fun.
The drive was usually offroad, and we soon got to know why the ceiling of the bus was well cushioned. Of course there were no seatbelts meanig whenever our driver Ketuk drove over some serious rock sand combination we would be thrown around the bus and seriously bump our heads. Sometimes so hard that when we got to more solid ground he would look around to check if we were ok. But with a look on his face like a mischievious little boy in a candy store that justhad stolen chocolate and wasn’t definitely not sorry about it. He was an amazing driver and I could only be impressed by his knowledge of the area, changing direction what seemed to be very random but always found his way.
Our tourguide Bimba had an incredible knowledge about Mongolia, the country, history, politics, nature, simply everything – on top of that she was an amazing chef. She explained to us that in Mongolia the horse is the holy animal, however unlike Indians who cherish their cows Mongolians still eat their horses.
After several hours of driving we arrived at our first ger camp and met the first nomadic family. They had a very cuddly dog and camels. Just behind the camps about 10 of those slightly comical looking animals. So different from what I have experienced so far. There was nothing around us. Just pure nature. We went into the familys ger and where introduced to the member of the family, their two daughters, one son, who was sitting in front of the television and a five months old granddaughter. I learned that day that the ger camps usually have solarpanels to get electricity for their refrigerator, television etc.. We got offered tea and biscuits and learned more about the nomadic lifestyle and Mongolias culture. How wrestling, archery and horse riding are the national sports, how they use everything from the animal they kill, the meat, the fur, bones, simply everything, so nothing is wasted. They gave us fermented camel and horse milk to try. A dangerous encouter as I didn’t want to be rude to the family but – as the Scotsman likes to point out every so often – my facial expressions are as subtle as a hammer to the face. So I had to concentrate very hard to keep them under control expecting this unfamiliar drink to taste let’s say different. To my surprise the milk wasn’t that bad. It won’t become my favourite drink but it is very refreshing, tasting similar to buttermilk, a little more sour and with a strong touch of yeast.
The toilet in those camps is fairely far away to avoid the smell as it is not a western style toilet but a hole in the ground. You make sure not to drink too much in the evening to avoid having to pee in the middle of the night. The freezing cold is another reason why you don’t want to leave the ger at night. They are heated with a little stove burning wood and dung from the animals and if the family can afford it sometimes coal. In the beginning it is very cosy and warm but when the stove is out it gets very cold eventually making you sleep with everything you took with you including two pairs of trousers, socks and hats. In the morning you usually wake up with the sun giving you the most incredible sunrises you have seen.
The next day would bring us to the Yol Valley, where the river was already frozen and the waterfall was about to freeze.
The icy wind would give you a glimps of the cold temperatures of up to -50 in winter. After a 9 km hike through the valey we arrived at our second ger camp, located near the gorge at the “Three beauties of Gobi” with a beauitful view. The ger was nice, cozy and warm and I slept very well that night. When I left the ger the next morning I opened the door to a winter wonder land. It had snowed over the night. It took my breath away, watching the sun covering the land with golden light.
When we asked our tourguide Bimba how cold it was her reply was simple: “Not that cold. Below 0, but not that cold.” I guess you just shouldn’t talke cold with someone who experiences winter with – 50 degrees…
Two hours after we had left the camp we suddenly were surrounded by sand and nothing else. Bleak landscapes with not a single bush or blade of grass making me want a penis for the first time in my life when I felt the urgent need to pee. Bimba showed me how to wrap my jacket around my waist, sit down and relieving myself without anyone seeing me or peeing myself. An accomplishment only women will understand.
We finally arrived at the Konghor sand dunes where we got the chance to go camel riding, something I’d never thought I would do.
Camels tend to chew constantly and I was wondering how long one could chew on the same grass stalk until I realised they were grinding their teeth. Mate, that is not healthy, the sound I suddenly heared gave me the same shiver down my back as if someone scratches their nails down a chalkboard…
Our ger didn’t have a stove that time and we were wondering how it would be heated, also worrying about the very thin blankets. Bimba exlained to us that we wouldn’t need neither a stove nor proper blankets as in the dunes it would be much warmer. I highly doubted that, remembering the conversation about snow not being cold. In the end we got a portable stove and some more blankets but you could read the “pussy” very clearly across her face. Despite the stove and extra blankets it got very cold and we didn’t sleep much that night. Something that goes along with a Gobi tour for sure just as the immense use of wetwipes and handsanatizer.
The fourth day brought us to a ger camp that was starting to be set up for tourists, heated by electricity from a generator, as long as that one was running. We could even charge our phones there and Bimba told us that they were planning on making this a luxury ger camp with proper western toilets and even showers. While the generator was running it was so warm that I dared to take off my clothes and put on fresh ones. Up to this point we had been wearing the same socks for four days, 24/7, day and night, to the extend that they almost got juicy. When we went for lunch that day and could smell our feet from beneath the table we knew it was time for fresh ones. As amazed we were by the space in the ger at first, Mike and I even had a double ger, it lacked peronality and cosyness. As soon as the generator went off it got freezing cold again as the gers in that camp were very badly insulated.
From that camp we went to Mars as Bimba called it. The Flaming Cliff and Bayanzag is famous for its red sand and only a few years back dinosaur eggs were found there ensuring mankind that dinaurs indeed layed eggs, which was uncertain until that day.
Our last night would bring us to a winter camp with a nomadic family that specialised in horses giving us the opportunity to ride into the sunset.
In traditional mongolian gear we got our horses and the guide sang along while we where galopping through the Gobi Desert and the sun covered the land in a golden shiny red. An incredible moment which will be one of the best memories to cherish.
This ger was the most beautiful und cozy one, with stunning carpets on the wall and an impressive stove in the middle. Bimba had told the lady from the family that we always complained about being cold so she put an extra bucket of coal into the stove until it was glowing in the dark. That night we slept in a sauna, half naked – not exaggerated – until the coal was burned down and it got cold again.
The next morning it was time to go back Ulan-Bator, to streets, proper houses, heat, a lot of traffic, noise but also soft beds and more importantly – running water. I thought at least my hands were fairly clean with the amount of wetwipes and handsanatiser I had used. But when I washed my hands that afternoon the water turned into a nice black making me wash them twice more.