Many backpackers do choose the same route (hey, they all read the same guide book…). Therefore, it is no wonder that I kept bumping into the same few people more than once. And it’s always nice to see a friendly and familiar face when arriving in a new hostel. Ulan-Bator was no exception to this experience. During the train ride to this city I bumped into two couples sitting in the compartment next to me. Since I knew them from back in Irkutsk, I decided to go to the same hostel as they were. This was a perfect decision, since I met there yet another couple I knew from back when I was in Siberia.
The hostel we stayed in Ulan-Bator is a perfectly streamlined and organized backpacker place. Their staff picked us up at the train station, checked us in, served breakfast and then provided us with some in-depth information about tours available. Getting this info was actually done by having to sit as a small random group of four to six people in the manager’s office. Some of these backpackers did require special amendments to their trip: Two Frenchmen wanted an extra day in the desert for hiking, an American guy required a tour guide – and a bunch of Dutch (or Belgium) guys were very eager to complain even before their trip started.
Fortunately I was sitting next to Jo, Jon, Jason and Ania (from Wales, England, New Zealand and Poland respectively) when the nine day tour through the Gobi desert was outlined to us. From all the people in the hostel these were the perfect mates to spend nine days. So the decision to book this tour was made very quickly and the five of us set off later that day to stock up food and water for the tour.
Through the tour briefing, we had been given the advice to shop for fruit, chocolate, cheese, water and toilet paper. This was good advice, since the food during the trip consisted mostly of mutton in any variety and shape. We had mutton milk for breakfast, mutton dumplings for lunch (“make sure you suck the dumplings first to get all of the juice”), mutton ragout for dinner – being served with tea and a big splash of mutton milk. One of the notable alternative drinks was Airag, which is fermented horse milk which I found to be tasting a bit like very liquid Tsatsiki. Therefore, getting supplemental food from our stocked items became an essential survival exercise after most meals.
We stayed overnight in mongolian gers provided from local families. These round tents were quite comfortable, albeit having usually a very small door frame into which I bumped my head more than once. On the second night, when we were arriving in our ger, we found a pot of soup boiling on the stove. We discovered to our shock that the soup contained an entire sheep head. First, we were told that this was foreseen as our dinner. A Mongolian girl (she wanted to be called “Nature”, because her Mongolian name was too complicated to pronounce for foreigners) started to enumerate various parts of the head – for example the eyes – which are allegedly delicacies that we were supposed to try and taste. Luckily, we later found out that she made a practical joke – this was the dog’s food cooking on the stove in our ger.
Another notable experience during this trip would be the routine of needing to go to the toilet. On the first day out in the desert we spotted – in some village – local men walking on the street, then suddenly stopping for a pee – continuing to walk their way casually after having finished. We were partly amazed and partly disgusted by looking at these events unfolding next to us.
However, after a couple of days out in the desert we did exactly as the Mongolians do: Pee whenever you need to, no matter where you are – as long as you know the direction of the wind. “Big business” was an entirely different matter. All gers had a kind of a makeshift squat toilet and by the end of the trip, we were all quite skilled in kneeling down, holding our pants in one hand while the other hand held the toilet paper. At night, some of us would light the squat toilet by using a torch lamp held in the mouth. But bending down on top of two squeaky wooden logs while trying to keep a balance and target the hole “six feet under” is definitely not an exercise for old men. I found myself constantly holding to the door to avoid falling backwards in the sewage – while squeezing the roll of toilet paper in between my knees. Therefore, the words “pee” and “poo” were a constant subject at any time throughout the day, where we exchanged the best strategies for happy pooing.
Each day during our 2000km trip, we would discover different landscapes. This was definitely unexpected to me, since the definition of desert meant to me sandy landscape. This is not the case for the Gobi Desert, where we would spot various rock formations, sand dunes, pine tree forests, swamp areas and canyons. This was absolutely “stunning” (pronounce this with a Nottingham accent) and I ended up taking a monthly load of pictures during this trip. At night, a walk around the ger proved to be spectactular, since the desert sky is very clear and heeps of stars were visible. Actually, I felt like I have never been able to see this many stars in a night sky.
Our driver was a very nice chap called “the doctor”. Other tour drivers would wait for him when they have a car problem, since they trust his skills. Moreover, he navigates as good as a GPS device. We actually had to wait for another (posh Australian) tour group which was lost in the desert and for which the doctor had to provide directions to the next point of interest. Unfortunately, “the doctor” didn’t speak much English, but we figured out that after nine days with us in the desert, he would return home to his wife and four kids for just one night. We spotted him this morning, picking up another group of people leaving on a tour for 14 days.
Sadly, the trip is over as I am writing this. We all arrived back in Ulan-Bator, quite hungry for “real” food (aka: Burgers, Pizzas and Coca Cola). And we were also looking forward for a much needed shower to wash out the sand which we’ve got during our trip. I had loads of fun with Jo, Jon, Ania and Jason during the past nine days. We’ve spent evenings sitting on hills watching sunsets and drinking screwdriver, playing cards, emptying a weeks stock of beer in one night only and listening to some weird music (Jo’s O.C. soundtrack was actually quite acceptable). I truly hope that we’ll meet again.