EAGER FOR A NEW ADVENTURE, TRAVELLER NIAMH SPURR HEADED OFF INTO THE UNFAMILIAR LANDS OF MONGOLIA AND WAS DELIGHTED WITH THE PEOPLE AND THE PLACE THAT SHE DISCOVERED.
Once I had completed the usual trail around Southeast Asia, I knew I needed a new challenge, and a chance encounter in Cambodia with a girl in a tuk-tuk who had just been in Mongolia made me realise that Mongolia would be well worth a trip.
I swiftly booked flights to Guilin in China and planned to train my way to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar (UB), a mere 2,500km distance. Piece of cake, right?
Fast forward six months to the night before I left Malaysia: I had my visas, but no idea how to get to Ulaanbaatar. In fact, I was struggling to pronounce it. My plan had barely enough bones to call it a skeleton: KL to Guilin; Guilin to Beijing (30 hours by sleeper train); Beijing to UB (only another 30-hour train). Reverse and repeat. In just three weeks – it was going to be quite an adventure.
My first major issue was discovering that all the trains from Guilin to Beijing were booked for two days, leaving me stranded with no idea where to stay. Luckily, I stumbled upon the Green Forest Hostel, and then managed to book a train that left at 2am. Unluckily, however, the train had no sleeper space, so I sat on a hard seat for the bum-numbing 30-hour trip. I got off the train in Beijing in a cloud of smoke, with ankles the size of Belfast bread rolls and a smattering of sunflower seeds in my hair, and hobbled to the ticket office to see when I could get to UB.
The train I needed left at 8am the next morning, but, without paying a fortune and going via the official Trans-Mongolian operator, I could only buy a ticket to Erlain; only half way to UB. I bought it, and hoped I could upgrade my ticket on board.
Once on the train, I met two Italian girls and their Mongolian friend, Emma. Two hours later and my ticket had been upgraded and I had been invited to join the girls on their travels; I had spun the roulette wheel of travel and come out a winner.
Our first few outings were all within a two-hour radius of the chaos and traffic jams of UB (congestion that make KL traffic appear Zen-like). After bouncing out of the sprawl along the “roads,” the urban chaos rapidly melts away, leaving nothing but endless green rolling hills and blue skies. We visited the ger of Emma’s friends, and in the felt-lined tent we enjoyed a traditional lunch of tsuivan (Mongolian noodles with mutton), khuushuur (fried meat dumplings), and byaslag (Mongolian cheese), washed down with Mongolian milk tea. (The Mongolian diet favours neither the vegan nor the waistline.)
After this substantial lunch, I was tied into a deel (traditional gown) and plopped on a horse for a gallop across the planes. I had heard the saddles were wooden, but luckily mine was leather; my derriere had enough of a hard time on the train. The horses were unbelievably surefooted, which I was glad of when we shimmied down near-vertical hillsides. Both the exhilarating galloping and the views truly took my breath away.
The following day, ten of us piled into a sturdy van and headed in the direction of the Tuul River for a weekend away. After two hours of on- and off-road driving and a stop to hold some incredibly heavy vultures (with talons the size of my fingers), we paid a visit to the Museum of the Great Mongolian Empire. This museum boasts a 40-m high statue of Chinngis Khan (Genghis Khan) which, despite its height, avoids looking ostentatious thanks to the vast Mongolian landscape in the background. Next stop was another ger for a barbeque and a tall amount of Chinngis Khan Vodka, followed by rather inebriated stargazing under a perfectly clear sky. The potholed road home the next day was not what the doctor ordered.
The majority of the next week was spent with Emma’s parents in Khuijrt, in Övörkhangai Province. The simple but clean and tidy house had two rooms and no running water, with an outside toilet. The family had a cow in the garden and washed their car in the river. On arrival, we were given dumpling and noodle soup, milk tea, and airag (pronounced “eric”); the latter a beer made from horse milk that tastes like yeasty feta cheese. We also sampled some sheep’s head, and Emma provided an interesting juxtaposition: she scraped the jawbone clean while dressed head-to-toe in Burberry and Gucci, bringing the height of Western fashion to the steppes.
During our stay, we visited the elegant and ancient Erdene Zuu Monastery – the most ancient surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia – and pampered ourselves with a hot scrub in the healing waters at the health spa located on the riverbank of beside Khujirt. No matter where we went, there was so much to see in the landscape as we rushed past: herds of horses, pack animals camels and dzo, and great eagles and vultures flying overhead.
One evening, a family friend had a housewarming, another unique experience. Everyone sat around the edge of the room on benches while the centre table held a cooked sheep carcass, a tower of bread and cheese, and a barrel of airag. I was passed a piece of meat cut from the spine which I nibbled tentatively, washing it down with a yeasty, salty swing of airag. (In Mongolia, all food and drink you are passed must be tasted.) Vodka was continuously passed around while everyone sang Mongolian songs and ruddy-cheeked children bounced around until the wee hours.
Back in the capital, we visited the Gandantegchinlen Monastery and the National Museum; both recommended, with the latter having an extensive amount of material in English and offering an excellent ten-part guide to Mongolia’s history. On our final night we went to see the Tumen Ekh Song and Dance Ensemble at the State Youth and Children’s Theatre. It was the unexpected highlight of the trip; I was expecting this folkloric concert to be a bit corny, but the quality of the dancing, throat singing, music, and contortionists was fantastic.
Our train back to Beijing left at 7am and I waved a reluctant goodbye to Emma. We had shared unforgettable experiences in a remarkable country and met some incredibly kind and warm-hearted people. I left feeling that Mongolia must be one of the last places where the people possess a fundamental link to nature and share a strong sense of familial and community loyalty. The only other thing I can say is: go! Mongolia is everything you want it to be and more.
A visa is required for Mongolia, and is available before travel and at some borders, but it is best to research carefully before planning a trip. Visit www.mongoliavisa.com for more details.
Malaysia Airlines and Air China both fly direct from KL to Ulaanbaatar. Long-distance trains are available to the city from Beijing and Moscow.
There are many tour companies, and Niamh recommends an ecofriendly tour company called Ger to Ger, who work closely with the nomadic Mongolian people. Visit www.gertoger.org.
This article was written by Niamh Spurr for The Expat magazine.
Source: The Expat October 2012
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