Travelling in Mongolia

From Beijing I took a really crowded train (one day and one night) to Mongolian border.  In Mongolia travelling is tougher: no transport, no bed, no food, no shower – but people are really friendly and usually invite you to their “Ger” (a round, well-insulated tent) to drink Milk-Tea and eat a kind of cheese which is hard as a rock.

I underestimated the difficulties of travelling in Mongolia, when I made a stop in the small town of “Sainshand” and wanted to try to get directly to the Gobi desert from there. It would just be 400km west from there, but after half a day of asking around, it got clear that there is no public transport going there, the only option is to rent a jeep and a driver for about 700.000 Tugrik (US$700)… I stayed in one of the worst hotels ever. $12 for a twin-room which I shared with a Japanese friend, but as we asked for a shower we just got a “No”. After two days and one night on the train from China and the border, I really wanted to wash, so I tried the tap water: I got electric shocks! Using a cut bottle I was able to avoid most of them and managed to somehow get fairly clean, only to notice that the sink was not working, and the water was instead flowing into our room… After it got clear that there is no public transport going anywhere, except for the evening train to Ulaanbataar, we decided to see the local sight “Hamriin Hiid”, a Tibetan Monestary and “Enerjii”-Center in the desert about 50km away. People go there to drop candy on a heap of stones and to raise their arms and sing a song in a special “power spot”. After that you can lie down on the ground and try to absorb the “Enerjii”, which was difficult because little children were throwing stones and teenagers where talking on their mobile phones.

So instead of going directly to the Gobi, I had to travel 600km up north to Ulaanbataar and then 600km back down again: the next adventure. After checking several bus stations with a japanese-speaking local I was told that a kind of minibus, a russian “Porgon” leaves in the morning at the so-called “Black Market” (or “Narantuul Zach”). Since most buses leave erly morning at 08:00 I went there at this time, but it was pretty empty. Asking around (no english) no-one could tell me anything, but after a while it got clear and confirmed by several people that I should just wait here. Around 10:00 someone woke up in a green Porgon. I asked him and he confirmed that he would go to “Dalanzadgad”, the main town in the Gobi. How to pronounce the word “Dalanzadgad”? Something like “Dachlanzadgad”, but more difficult. A mongolian friend trained me for two hours, but still I could only say it 50% right (as he said). The Mongolian language is incredibly difficult. It’s funny when you try to say “Thank you” in Mongolian (something like “Beirch-la-la”) and the locals just start to laugh, because it sounds so wrong to them. Anyhow – the driver said, he would leave between 12:00 and 14:00, depending on the number of people. So I went back to the guesthouse, had some breakfast and came back at 12:00. He told me we would now leave at around 16:00, so I spent a lot of time in the “Black Market”, looking at “Nike” Sneakers, clothes, military jackets, local Mongolian Boots and different types of hard cheese. I also got some good home-made fried noodles, which they said I could pick out the meat, if I want it vegetarian. I came back to the minibus at 16:00, and the it looked quite full. It has three rows with three seats each plus the front seats for the driver, but we had already about 4 people each row. Slowly, slowly, the driver started to fix his lights, which made me wonder why he didn’t do that in the last 6 hours where we were just waiting around for more passengers. He also gave his spare tire away. At around 17:00 we started: now we were 5 people each row, making for 15 passengers. The machine got started using a crank, after several attempts and some fiddling in the engine it finally started – promising! After one hour of driving we got just outside of the city and made a stop at a gas station. Again waiting… One more passenger! A fat, older man. Great, squeeze in, we got plenty of space! Money (about $30) got collected for the ride. The local girl was by now actually sitting on the lap of a local boy, and all of us got quite “close”. The guy sitting opposite of me had the great idea to sort our legs: he pulled my leg to here, next leg there, your leg here, etc, which actually created a bit more space for everyone. After 15 minutes of driving we stopped again – a flat tire. Since the driver gave away his spare tire earlier, he had to somehow catch a ride to somewhere to get a new tire. I was actually happy to finally be outside of the cities and to see the amazing landscape, so I didn’t mind it much, and had a dinner of tomatoes, cheese and bread sitting at a nearby hill and watching the endless green scenery. A thunderstorm came up, the sky turned black, wind and rain, and I had to return to the car. A few minutes later, I looked up, and saw that the sky was all pink! I jumped out of the car to see the amazing color of the sky, a rainbow in the east and a sunset under the black clouds in the west – one of the most unbelievable sceneries i have ever seen! Finally the driver came back with another tire and after 1,5 hours we continued to drive until around 23:00 when we stopped for dinner at some shacks along the road. I had my dinner already and didn’t feel like having more salty milk tea. Again they tinkered with the motor. At 01:30 we had another breakdown and another flat tire at 03:30 and 04:30. In the middle of the night, we stopped in the middle of nowhere. The “road” is not one road, but many tracks which run more or less parallel thru the desert/steppe, sometimes joining each other, sometimes running differently, like an untamed river. When you stop, there is nothing around you – just vast emptiness, space and silence. Exactly what I was longing for after being in over-crowded Japan and China. Sometimes you can see the light of another vehicle in the distance or on one of the parallel tracks. At the same time we felt not really alone or lost: other Porgon drivers stopped, they all seemed to know each other, and they helped each other fixing their engines and tires, patching up the worn-out tubes for x-th time and pumping air into them manually. When a tube was finally finished, they just left it on the side of the road. It hardly seems to matter (to them) to leave waste in that vastness, and who k nows, maybe it will be helpful for the next driver, who’s tube is in a worse condition. Finally we had a drive with no further incidents until 11:00, racing thru the more and more arid landscape. After lunch, they messed around with the motor again; at 13:30 we passed a tank-truck which came the opposite way, we stopped it and tanked by filling up water-bottles from his tank. At around 15:00 – more than 24 hours after we started – we arrived at the destination.

Dalanzadgad is not much of a town, it’s just a bunch of gers in the dust, separated by wooden board fences. Quite big actually, but without much infrastructure of any kind. I didn’t have a Guidebook – something I usually enjoy, but really regretted in Mongolia, as it is hard to communicate and get reliable information. From Dalanzadgad the only way to actually get into the Gobi Desert is to hire a jeep and a driver. No public transport whatsoever and hitchiking is not recommended as it’s easy to die if you get stuck in the desert. The jeep/driver prices were too high for me alone, so I needed to meet some people with whom I could share the costs. Luckily there is one nice place for travelers there, the “Mazaalai Ger Camp”, run by a French-Mongolian couple and on the next day in the morning I met three Italian guys who were planning to rent a jeep and driver to go exactly where I wanted to go and they let me join them on the three day trip.

The first place we visited in the desert was a “Yolyn Am”, a green valley with a little river, where ice can be found throughout most of the year. Quite green and unexpected in a desert, but very beautiful. The night we slept in the (tourist) Ger of one of the families close to the the “Singing Dunes” (“Khongoryn Eels”). The next morning I woke up early and climbed up the few hundred meters to the top of the dunes with one of the Italians. It was still nice and cool and we had a great view, but the most amazing thing happened when we were already descending. We were lucky to be at the right place at the right time: suddenly we could hear a soft humming sound, the “singing dunes”, at first I thought I can hear an airplane. It got louder and lying on the sand we could feel that the whole dune was vibrating, sticking the arms into the sand we could feel the vibrations everywhere. After a few minutes the effect started to fade and everything was back to normal. A very amazing demonstration of the theory that everything in the world is made up of nothing else but vibrations.

After the Gobi I went back to Ulaanbataar in the very efficient and nearly luxurious daily bus. It had only one breakdown and a whole seat for every passenger!

Having only a few days left, I went to the nearby area called “Terej”, where I met a really nice family and rode a horse for the first time.

Anyhow, I have no time to write more now – enjoy the pictures.

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