As we pulled into the station in UB, as the locals call it, we scanned the crowds on the platform for the face of our friend Naomi, who I had worked for previously in Mozambique. Naomi, her husband Eric and their two teenage sons would be our gracious hosts and guides for the too-short time we were in Mongolia. [I can’t believe it but we didn’t even get a picture of us all….too busy nattering!].
I finally picked Naomi out of the crowd and rushed (as much as a 20 kg bag allows) over for a hug – it was so good to see someone we knew!!
A quick turnaround at their place and we were joined by two small girls, half Mongolian half French, who would be accompanying Eric, myself and Lauren to a camp out in the hills. Unfortunately, Naomi had to work. The three girls kept up a constant chatter for the next 24 hours. It was nice for Lauren to have someone to talk to other than me, and a break for me to not be the only recipient of her chatter.
We drove about an hour and a half out of UB, to get to the camp, which consisted of a few Gers on the banks of a river and surrounded by horses, cows and goats. The ger was surprisingly roomy inside and the girls took delight in teaching us some of the rules of ger living – always enter with the right foot, stepping over (not on) the threshold, never walk between the two minor poles supporting the roof, always walk a particular way round the major main pole…. they took even greater delight in pointing out when we did something wrong.
Dinner was somewhat rustic, mutton with potatoes and carrots and pasta, but tasty and edible. Funnily enough, Eric (who is French) was the only one of us to eat all his mutton fat and gristle. The (half) Mongolian girls and the tourists left a little pile of gristle by the side.
After dinner the girls played with the kids of the owner, a mish mash of languages, ages and genders that seemed to gel into some kind of cohesive game.
The next day, the others went horse riding.
I was so jealous, my teenage self would have given just about anything for the opportunity to go horse riding across the hills of Mongolia – across rivers and up hills, no path required. I just couldn’t risk hurting my back (I had surgery on it a decade ago, its never been right since) so instead waved them off and settled down by the river with my kindle for a couple of hours of peace.
Lauren returned full of excitement and stories of how they crossed a river saw Yaks and other animals and how the guides at one point hopped off their horses for a ten minute nap. Not strictly required on a two hour ride I would have thought, but there you go.
Looking around, you really get the impression of a country comfortable with its traditions – gers are everywhere and even when there are brick buildings, they also have gers. Apparently families often sleep in the gers in winter (and it gets seriously cold here, like minus 30) as they are warmer than the ‘modern’ houses. Young children sit on horseback as if they are part of the horse. We saw one boy, probably about Lauren’s age, astride a horse, leading 4 or 5 others by leads, while typing on his mobile.
The scenery was stunning, even this close to UB. Of course, with more time we could have gone further, more remote, and that would have been incredible. But thanks to Eric we at least got a flavour for what it would be like – the country is huge, scantily populated, and still retains a lot of nomadic culture.
After packing up and thanking the owner of the camp (the only word we learned in Mongolia was thank you, and even that was complicated) we visited the enormous monument to Ghengis Khan, who is still revered in the country. The monument is huge, brash and hideous, but certainly a sight worth seeing. We decided we didn’t feel the need to pay the entrance fee and climb up to the top of his horses ‘mane’ like the droves of other tourists and chose lunch instead.
After lunch we visited a Buddhist monastery and meditation centre. To reach it we had to walk up a steep incline, surrounded on both sides by some distinctly odd and dark sayings… trying to figure out what they meant gave us a good excuse to take a breather as we wound our way up the mountainside, and then across a rickety suspension bridge.
And my personal favourite………
The views from the top were incredible, but my lungs soon protested when I tried to enter the temple – the air was thick with incense and my pneumonia-weakened lungs (that still hadn’t recovered from the climb) insisted I wait outside while Eric and the girls explored. I sat in the shade and contemplated the view.
Back in UB that night we had a bath (I don’t think I have had an actual bath in a year!) which was lovely after a night on a train then a night in a ger, followed by a yummy dinner (Indian! Yay! Although there was mutton tikka which we left to Eric).
All too soon the next day it was time to pack up (after another bath this time in the master bathroom, complete with coloured lights, bubbles and ‘massage effects’ ) and head to the station.
We just managed to squeeze in a coffee and lunch and a quick trip to a souvenir shop for our Mongolian ‘swag’ before boarding a distinctly less luxurious train than the one we arrived on.
We had barely two days in Mongolia, and while we packed plenty in thanks to Eric’s willingness to play tour guide, it was difficult to get much more than a superficial impression. Just crossing on the train we were struck by how much more colourful and individual houses were than in China. People definitely smiled more (although I wouldn’t say they were ‘smily’). The economy is clearly doing well (huge amounts of mining) and there are new buildings and cars in UB. It is also clearly a country shaped by the need to appease the two huge neighbours it is squeezed between. I would love to explore further but for now, we say goodbye to this fascinating country, thanks a million to Naomi and Eric, and head off on our next leg – all the way without stopping, five days on a train, to Moscow.