Frontier with no fences

When you fly into Mongolia and see the vast plains from the airplane window you think of Genghis Khan and his tribe of warriors spilling over the hills on their speeding horses with arms raised releasing arrow after arrow. In fact, this destination is all about the unspoiled open plains, remoteness and the nomadic culture of its inhabitants.  With about 10 days to see a few different parts of the country I’m hoping to learn a little about the history, experience some of the Mongolian nomadic way of life and do some really cool things like ride two-humped camels, sleep in an authentic ger and be a spectator at the Golden Eagle tournament held once a year in the far north western part of the country. These eagles are birds of prey athletes and I can’t wait to see them in action.

We are met at the airport by Miss Chimka, our 25 year old Mongolian guide for the adventure who would be our constant companion for the next 10 days. We are overnighting in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, until our flight the next afternoon to the Gobi Desert.

Day one

Ulaanbaatar is nothing like I had imagined. There’s lots of new construction going on, both residential and commercial, so the skyline is filled with giant cranes. With all this development, there’s dirt and dust everywhere and some very rough infrastructure. It’s a city of well over a million people but the Soviets hadn’t planned on that when they were deciding on the details. They only planned for a few hundred thousand – which helps account for the constant traffic jams. Despite all of this, there are great restaurants, cool coffee shops, lots of shopping hotspots and a buzzing nightlife. I saw plenty of beautiful people, smartly dressed, walking or driving good cars and going about their day. Chinggis Khan is in view from every public building in some form of sculpture.

We are picked up from the hotel by our driver and Chimka to see one of the famous Buddhist temples of Mongolia. The population here is mainly Tibetan Buddhists, with this temple one of the few that the Soviets spared from the demolition crew. The original giant gold-plated standing Buddha went to Russia though – and stayed there. The one we saw was replaced as soon as the Soviets left Mongolia for good.

When Chimka asks us the kind of food we would like for lunch, I say traditional Mongolian food. I wasn’t disappointed; the half skull of a sheep presented to us is filled with all of the “bits” cooked and chopped into bite-size pieces. Chimka is very excited and tells us that it was a delicacy and usually reserved for special occasions. It was tasty. I just don’t think I’ll be able to find it in Australia cooked the same way. Plenty of other great dishes accompanied it including beef liver with mutton tail.

In the afternoon, we take a tour of the National Museum of Mongolia. It provides us with an understanding of the earliest history of Mongolia and what the country has been through.

After a 5pm, 90-minute flight to Gobi, we arrive in the dark for the 45-minute drive to the Three Camel Lodge. We are introduced to our ger – Mongolian “glamping”. Warm and inviting, it’s an amazing experience sleeping in these large round “tents”. There are big comfortable beds with nice down blankets and a full bathroom, but no shower as they are located up at the main lodge. It’s fantastic and really comfortable. A quick dinner is prepared for us before we head off to bed for the night.

Day two

Up at 6am and it’s cold and windy. Coffee and breakfast are ready for us at the lodge. We enjoy cereals and fruit and made-to-order omelettes along with homemade bread.

We depart early at 7:30am for Yol Valley. We hike for an hour into the valley, passing long-haired yaks and vultures in the sky among beautiful cliffs and valleys.

Stopping for lunch, we enjoy chicken roll ups and hot tea off the back of the SUV with a herd of camels. I never tire of seeing these two-humped camels as they are so distinctive. They’re nothing like the one-humped camel  – these have some personality and an extra hump.

We arrive in heavy wind at our new camp for the night at around 4:30pm. It’s cold. While the accommodation is very basic, we have our own bathroom and this time we’re in a log cabin. We visit a camel herder’s ger and meet him, his wife and two young children and are served dried goat curd. It was hard but chewy after a few minutes with a bitter and sour milky taste. I left the rest of my piece on the table somewhere when no one was looking. The dad played the two string horse head fiddle while mum cooked up some noodles for us all. The kids were always laughing and playing. We decided (or the owner of the camels decided) that we shouldn’t go on a camel ride that afternoon as it was too windy. We went back to camp and settled in for dinner of beet salad, tea and a plate of tsuivan – a Mongolian dish of homemade noodles, potatoes, onions and dried mutton.

Day three

On waking at 7am, there was no wind – it was cold but fine. After a quick breakfast, we were off, going back for the camel ride to the Singing Sand Dunes (Khongor Sands).

I loved that ride on the camels.  My two-humped camel had a soft furry back rest and a front rest with a comfortable saddle with stirrups. I could ride for days like this. It’s so much more comfortable than a horse.

The sand dunes are a beautiful sight. They look impressive but not too high…. until we see some people on top. They looked very small. It’s deceiving, but it wasn’t going to prevent me from climbing the 200m to the top. The first 50 metres were okay but the climb then became brutally hard. With a pitch of 45 degrees, my feet sunk in and I seemed to go back with each step. Head down, I pushed through and made it to the top in 45 minutes. Straddling the top, I could see both sides of the dunes. More sand dunes on one side and flat plains on the other – it was incredible. I rested for 20 minutes then ran down. Each step I took, the sand squeaked, thus the name Singing Sand Dunes. It was great fun and I was back at the base in 15 minutes.  I think I still have sand in my ears and other places.

We have a two to three-hour drive back to the Three Camel Lodge so we get on our way and say goodbye to our camels and the family. They give us a bag of goat curd for the ride. Good thing Chimka and our driver like it otherwise some camels might find some along the road.

Stopped off at a primary school on the way. We found ourselves involved in a game of touch on the playground. The local school children welcome us and I was consumed until it was time for them to go back to class. It was a very impressive and clean school with kids in uniforms with jacket and ties, a pleasant interior with tidy classrooms. The kids all wanted a picture with us and to shake our hands.

Arriving back to the lodge and after lunch, we went for a quick drive to the base of a hike to see Bronze Age petroglyphs.  We hiked for 20 minutes up a fairly steep rocky trail to a peak, which ended at a cliff top overlooking 180-degree views of the desert which was incredibly beautiful. We saw many other petroglyphs and not another person in sight.

Driving to the Flaming Cliffs after that takes us to where the first ever dinosaur eggs were found back in 1921. If the sunset is just right here, you get to see an amazing array of colour reds, oranges, pinks and shadows.

Day four

It’s an early rise for our drive to the airport for the 9am flight to Ulaanbaatar, where we check in back at the Blue Sky Hotel and Tower for two nights.

We ate lunch at a fantastic Mediterranean Italian restaurant called Veranda, and then walked around the local market and had some yak cheese, goat curd samples and some other local tastes. Everyone is so friendly. We then went to a Mongolian Song and Dance Ensemble called Tumen Ekh. It was one of the best cultural shows I’ve ever seen. There was music, dancing in fantastic costumes, singing and contortionists that rival Cirque de Soleil. Instruments I’ve never seen are played by such gifted artists along with famous Mongolian throat singing.

Day five

Up at 6:45am to meet at 8am for our drive to Khustai National Park to see some of the world’s last remaining species of wild horses. We drive into the national park and search for the horses. We found two within five minutes and then more a little bit on. We soon come upon a herd of 20 horses with glossy beautiful tan and black coats. We just sat and watched them for a while as it was a beautiful sunny day so we hiked a little further and then listened to some elk calling each other across the valley. It was so quiet, untouched and serene.

An excellent Mongolian buffet lunch is served to us at the park restaurant outside in the sunshine.

Day six

We wake at 4:30am for our three and a half hour flight to Ulgi at 6:30am. At the small airport, Chimka takes us to the VIP room. She took care of all our tickets and checked us in.

After a short drive to the temporary campsite, Nomadic sets up for the eagle festival event. A short drive from the airport and we arrive at the temporary campsite that Nomadic sets up each year for the event. About 30 gers are waiting, all borrowed from local families for us. One light bulb, grass floor, bed with mattress, coal stove and some rugs on the ground. It’s great. We feel like we’re camping but it’s very comfortable. Meals are made by the chefs in the cooking tent and tables are set up in a separate ger for eating. The camp is surrounded by mountains with a flowing river nearby, such amazing natural beauty. Portable toilets have been set up for the event and far better than any of those portable toilets you might have experienced before. Due to the cold weather, the stove managers or “stove fairies” some called them, would have a fire burning  in your ger before dinner then come again at around 12:30am in the morning to replenish the fire and then again at 5am keeping the ger at a comfortable temperature throughout the night and morning. There is no need to wake for them as they just arrive and attend to it. Beds were adequately comfortable with a comforter and a thick camel hair blanket to keep us very warm, even if it got cold in the ger.

We hiked along the river for an hour before our lunch of penne pasta with some meatballs and vegetables and a salad.

After lunch we drive to the town and went to small museum and then walked to the market and bought some airag for 1000 tugrik, the equivalent of less than an Aussie dollar. It’s fermented mare’s milk and is a staple for locals. I have to try it. It’s really not bad, although I don’t think I’ll order it anytime soon from my local Mongolian pub.

Day seven

It was a long night and I got really cold in the ger in the morning but it was warm under the covers. The staff came in during the night to stoke up the fire. The temperature registered minus five. It was cold and clear.

The temperature dropped overnight and it was very cold in the ger even with our stove being filled by the stove fairies. It was fine though as the bed and blankets kept us warm but it made it hard to get out of bed for the 7am wake up. Greeted with a temperature of minus five, a cup of hot coffee and the rising sun reflecting off the mountains made up for it.

We left at 9am for a three-hour drive to a hiking spot for lunch. Along the drive, we saw carvings of humans made from stone from the Turkic period (555-840) and we stopped to visit a local family. The locals here are still nomadic, but they look different, speak a different dialect and the ger is a different design. As always, the Mongolian people were very welcoming with tea and refreshments. I am always still amused to see these gers in such remote places with a satellite dish set up.

Another great hike with an amazing snow capped mountain awaits us. I never tire of the vistas and the wide open spaces.

Day eight

The eagle festival begins today. In its 15th year, Nomadic Expeditions CEO and founder Jalsa has brought back this ancient custom of hunting with eagles to one place for all to see in Ulgii – located in the Kazakh region of Mongolia in the far western corner of the country. It’s more mountainous and more Slavic since it’s so close to Kazakhstan. Some of the hunters are actually from there and make the journey for the event. The dress and language is different from the rest of the country.

Each year, this small country festival is drawing more people, both Mongolians and foreigners, to see these spectacular animals and the skilled hunters that accompany them. It is absolutely amazing. The sights, sounds and smells provide an overload for the senses and pictures cannot do the experience justice. Everyone is friendly and all are very interested in seeing the eagles compete. There are also other contests as well such as a camel race, a game of two horse riders trying to wrestle a “goat” carcass from each other without falling off the horse. The main event is the eagle competition, where the eagles are taken up high on a hill with their hoods on, the owner is down below on horseback and drags a fox or rabbit carcass behind them on a rope, all along calling their eagle with screeches and yelps. The hood is taken off the eagle and the time starts. The quicker the eagle sees, takes off and flies down to kill its prey, the more likely it is to win, with the fastest time coming out in front. This year, that honour went to the first ever female and she was only 13 years old.

Eagle hunting is traditionally taught by a father to his son. The skill is passed down through generations. I met one family who had a grandfather, father and son, all with their eagles. Only female eagles are used for hunting and are let go at some point, usually within 10 years – but they always come home again eventually to see their human family.

All in all, my trip to Mongolia was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. Nomadic Expeditions really made this journey what it was, especially our guide the amazing, Chimka. She made sure everything ran smoothly for us and was always there for us with whatever we desired. This trip may not be for everyone, with the cold and the “not so” luxury elements, but the experience is what makes the trip – and what an experience it was.

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