Warning: This is a very long post. We had nothing to do at night in the ger, so Doug wrote a lot. TL;DR we woke up, found an ATM and that no one can make change, drove to the ger, ate lamb, went on a hike, ate more lamb, played cards, saw amazing stars, and went to bed.
We awoke to our first morning in Mongolia a little sore and poorly rested. It seems they had made our “queen” bed by pushing two twin beds together. Normally this isn’t a big deal, but the blanket we had to share was not really big enough for the bed which meant that in order to both be covered by it we had to alternately spend a very awkward night sleeping on the crack between mattresses.
Not ones to let that ruin the day we showered and set out to find an ATM and breakfast. We headed downstairs and out onto the streets of Ulaanbaatar. The city itself, as described by our driver, is decidedly ugly. It seems to have been mostly built while Mongolia was part of the soviet union and has maintained it’s soviet bloc charm – cinder block and concrete buildings in poor repair with brightly colored signs outside each door in Cyrillic letters. Every so often you see a traditional Ger, smoke billowing out the stove pipe, peeping through the masses of concrete.
We made our way down the street for a while, noting that it was quite cold and we were glad we had in fact brought sweaters on what is mostly a tropical 6 month trip, before we found an ATM. And, as luck has it, most Mongolian ATMs take American credit cards without issue.
Doug remembered that there was a grocery store around the corner that we could see from our hotel room and so we darted across traffic and around the corner to what is advertised as a supermarket/restaurant/bar. Upon entering, we both hoped, for the health of all Mongolians, that this was more akin to a convenience store than a grocery. There were 4 aisles in the store, one dedicated to liquor and beer, one to chips and candy, another to soda, and a final one to what anyone could actually consider groceries. The sole fruit and/or vegetable were some mealy looking apples and dried mystery fruits.
After a lot of indecisiveness about which terrible food would be best for breakfast we picked up some “breakfast cookies”, dried apricots, green plum juice (that Lynn thought was apple juice) and two large bottles of water. Lynn and I were both going to pay separately so we could break down the large bills the ATM gave us only for the cashier to be very annoyed by them and not even have enough change to break them. To be clear, these were 20,000 tughriks equivalent to a little more than a $10 bill.
We headed back to the hotel, packed up, and went downstairs to await our driver who would take us to our ger stay for the next three days. We checked out of the hotel room (where we owed 3000 tughriks for a bottle of water, and again, they couldn’t make change for 20,000) and headed off into the river of cars that seem to not have any regard for lanes, or even the fact that other cars are already occupying the spaces they would like to be. Dava, our driver, was very friendly and talkative the whole time, telling us about living in Mongolia as we drove. He also spoke excellent English, especially for having only started learning last year as we found out.
The traffic got lighter and lighter (thank God) as we headed out of town, before we turned down a dirt road and out into the country. The road become a web of four or five different dirt paths, all with giant ruts across them that Dava navigated expertly. On more than one occasion he had to honk repeatedly and slowly push through a herd of yaks that had collected in the middle of the road.
After 30 mins of Lynn and Doug both afraid they were going to get car sick we arrived at our camp in the middle of a valley and met Yadmaa and Davasuren who would be our hosts for the next few days. We were shown our ger and told to wait inside while Dava went into the main ger to get us lunch. This gave us a chance to look around and take in the ger. It was surprisingly comfy and did an excellent job of blocking out the cool wind blowing outside.
In the middle of the ger was a large black stove set up on bricks between two large orange posts that held up the tent. Connected to the posts was an orange ring with clear flaps covering it to let in light. The flaps could also be opened or closed to help control the temperature. Coming out of the center ring to the outside walls of the ger were 88 brightly colored and fancifully decorated spokes. The side walls of the ger were layers of felt and silver emblazoned fabric held up by a wood lattice. A plastic floor covered the grass underneath, and a single, very short, wooden door led to the outside that Doug kept hitting his head on. In the corner by the door was a pine cabinet with a sink and a water tank in it that served as a washing station. Four twin beds were layed out around the outside of the tent with plywood and an inch thick layer of hard felt for mattresses.
Dava returned with a tray full of lamb stew, warm salted yak’s milk, and apple tea. Lynn and I both tried the yak’s milk but decided to stick with apple tea for the rest of the meal. The lamb stew however was delicious, even to Doug who does not normally like the gaminess of lamb. We chatted with Dava who gave us a briefing of the place and what there was to do. He also let us know that our hosts speak absolutely no English, so when he left after lunch it would be all sign language with Yadmaa and Davasuren.
After lunch and we decided we were going to head off up the hills on a hike. We stopped by Yadmaa’s ger and Dava, who hadn’t left yet, helped us let them know where we were going, but not before making sure we tried Davasuren’s homemade yak butter. We spread it on some bread and ate while looking around their ger. The butter tasted more like cream than butter but that fact was a lot less interesting than the ger itself. There was the splayed body of a lamb hung up on a coat hanger by the door (it had been slaughtered the day before in preperation for our arrival), a rack of kitchen utensils on the other side (with the head of the lamb on the bottom shelf), and against the back wall in front of a large tapestry of what we assume is Ghengis Kahn, sat Yadmaa watching dish network on a small TV run off of a solar panel. There was no running water, utilities, or phone service, but they had satellite TV.
We thanked them for lunch and headed off into the hills. The hike started of quite pleasantly, Lynn had learned that all land in Mongolia is public and so you are free to pretty much roam anywhere. We had our sights set on the peak of a hill up above some pine trees that didn’t look too far away and we started off in that direction.
What surprised both Lynn and I were how many trees actually grow on the steppe. Every windward side of a hill is exactly what you would expect it to be, brown grass and rocks, kept short by the constant grazing of the cows, yaks, sheep, goats, and horses that roam freely. It actually looks a lot like Texas but with more hills. The leeward side though is completely different. Large stands of pine trees with bright yellow streaks of aspen flaming through them cover the hillside. Below the trees are a number of different wildflowers and bright green grasses.
We hiked up to the peak, having to stop quite often because it was way steeper and rockier than it looked, stopping to take pictures and admire the views along the way. Once at the top we decided to cross along the ridge line to an adjacent peak, making our way through the forest and encountering wild Mongolian horses in the process.
Reaching the second peak, we stopped to look around and again admired the views as well as a little rock shrine at the top before heading back down. On our way, we saw herds of sheep and cows chewing away on the steep hillside and a very strange looking rock pile with homemade wooden crutches leaned up against it.
Back at the bottom of the hills, we followed a green creek bed back to camp, watching a herd of yaks rolls in the grass and then hurry past us. The creek bed was a little eerie, covered in bright green grass, rocks, cow skeletons, and trash. That was another surprising and disappointing thing about the Mongolian countryside, at least in this part, there are empty beer cans everywhere.
We returned to the camp around middle afternoon and decided to read for the rest of the afternoon. Lynn lay down in bed, where of course she fell asleep, while Doug took a stool outside and read in the sun.
Davasuren showed up with dinner around 5.30. It was a lamb stir fry with rice and something like ketchup and barbecue sauce on the rice. All of it was delicious, especially after the hunger we had worked up on our hike.
After dinner, the horse trainer who works at the camp brought out the traditional Mongolian bow and arrow and he, Lynn, and I took turns shooting a goat pelt that was tanning in the sun. None of us were very good but we all put up a decent effort and on more than one occasion got to see a dried cow pie explode as an arrow hit it (which was not hard, they are literally everywhere).
With sore arms and the sun setting into a chilly night, Lynn and I returned inside the ger and Yadmaa lit a fire in our stove for us. We played rummy for a few hours, pausing every 15 minutes or so to add more wood the stove.
Around 9.30, with the last light of the sun finally gone behind the hills, we both went outside to look at more stars than we have seen in a very long time. Stretching from one horizon to the other was the MIlky Way with satelites slowly making their way across it, and a shooting star every now and then. Doug tried to take a picture of it, but just couldn’t really capture it.
With a nice sense of appreciation for how beautiful the countryside of Mongolia really is, we went back inside, threw a ton of wood into the stove and climbed into bed for the night.
Daily Walking Mileage: 8 miles
- It’s called a yurt if you are talking about Turkish nomads and a ger if they are Mongolian.
- 40% of the population of Mongolia lives in Ulaanbaatar
- At twice the size of Texas and only 2.7 million people, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world.