Greetings from Mongolia!
Finally the Trans Mongolian! This is a part of the trip that I have been so anticipating – and getting quite excited about. The Trans Siberian is a route that everyone knows, if not just by name. What many people don’t know is that you can actually start in Beijing and cross through Mongolia as one leg of it, known as the Trans Mongolian. This can be a complicated process, namely because you are trying to get information from railways in three countries, all in different languages (Russian, Mongolian and Mandarin).
Luckily, this would not just be the start of my Trans Siberian journey, it would also start my partnership with Real Russia, a company aimed at making all of this process so much easier. And they definitely were able to do so for me. More about that in the coming Trans Siberian section, because this postcard is going to be all about Mongolia.
I took the train from Beijing, a quick 28 hours including several hours at the border to change wheels. If the views from the train were any indication, Mongolia was going to live up to the hype. Upon arrival in Ulaan Baatar (or Ulon Bator depending on where you’re from, so we’ll go with UB), it started snowing, which most people lamented. But I was excited because I’ve been carrying my winter coat since Japan specifically for Mongolia. So I would have been pissed if it had been balmy.
Fun fact: Ulaan Baatar is considered the coldest capital city in the world. It is also the second most polluted (following Beijing). Much like Denver, it was mostly sunshine and blue skies deceiving you to walk out into the cold underdressed. But it wouldn’t matter all that much because I was headed to the Gobi Desert almost as quickly as I had arrived.
The hostel I stayed in (as well as all of the accommodation in UB) arranges tours of any length, to pretty much any sights. I hate group tours, but because of the disparate nature of the desert, it is really the best option. Luckily I was able to join a group of 4 on their first day. The tours cruise through the desert in old Russian vans and these things are BEASTS. There were several occasions in which everyone in the car doubted that we could go further, yet the driver never flinched.
In addition to the sights we were headed to, we would spend the evenings gir (pronounced “gear”) hunting. Which means each night we just rocked up to a family and asked to stay with them. Girs are the same as yurts and are the traditional housing of the Mongolian nomads. No one calls ahead, they just show up and Mongolian hospitality means they welcome you in.
Most of the nomads have copious amounts of livestock, which is why they move around (keep the animals fed). This is how I learned that baby goats snuggle. Just watch out for their horns.
I’ve also learned the stages of taking a picture of a goat:
Spending time with the families was full of firsts. This came in the form of trying new things like camel’s milk tea, camel and mutton, as well as riding camels and on one day, our host family had been asked by neighbors to help with a camel slaughter. We were scheduled to go for a camel ride, so they asked if a detour was alright. We had to leave our camels far from the slaughter site, otherwise they know what’s up and misbehave.
Now, attending a camel slaughter wasn’t on my list of things to do on this trip. But I do try to experience alongside the locals and especially when it comes to meat feel that if a person chooses to eat meat, they should be able to see the whole thing. Apparently it is quite rare to see as neither our guide nor our driver had ever seen one. So we went and it was of course gross. Rodrigo and I were the only ones who wanted to get close, and we both actually helped with cutting the pelt. Though the stench kept me from staying in there too long.
Aside from the family and nomadic culture and all the cute animals, the rest of the time was spent with jaws dropped at how beautiful the Gobi and surrounding area are.
I think you’ll see quite quickly why the first part of their traditional toast is to the endless blue sky…
The “White Cliffs” aren’t really cliffs at all, but in fact a former ocean or lake floor. Archaeologists say that the Gobi Desert actually used to be a large body of water and the fossils of sea life found at the White Cliffs support that theory. They’re beautiful above water too.
Trekking through the ice gorge was so beautiful, if not trepidatious. This was one of the many cases we were thoroughly impressed by the van and our driver – I would not have thought a vehicle could make it as far in as it did. At first it wasn’t clear why Alma kept calling it an ice gorge – it just seemed like your standard gorge. Then we found the areas that definitely don’t get as much sun, covered in snow and ice. Fortunately no one went through the ice and we all enjoyed the full hike. Though I had a few desert ticks try to hitch a ride back. Thankfully they were spotted before we got back in the van though.
Sand dunes are the worst to climb. So of course we were climbing the highest dunes in the country. I really can’t recommend it, mainly because, to reiterate, climbing sand dunes sucks. But the view from the bottom, middle and top are quite incredible. And it’s super fun to come down. I tried the rolling method, but got really dizzy really quickly and was finding sand for weeks. So I switched up to the run/ski down – a much better and more fun tactic.
Sunset at the “Flaming Cliffs” really illuminates (haha, get it?) where the sight gets its name. I was stunned the whole time there – from the moment the cliffs revealed themselves to the way the colors danced and changed as the sun went down.
Sunrise to sunset, Mongolia is a sight to be seen. After the tour in the desert, I spent the day in UB doing laundry and repacking, getting ready for the next leg of the Trans Sib – heading into Russia.