During the summer of 2016, I flew to China with my friend Charlie, and we took trains and ferries through Mongolia, Russia, Finland and Sweden before flying home. This is one of the stories from the trip…
You would be forgiven for thinking that Mongolia is tiny, because it is wedged between Russia and China. In actual fact, it’s pretty massive – something we learned first hand by driving for 15 hours and barely scratching the surface. This fancy graphic shows just how small England really is in comparison:
Although it’s huge, it’s mostly grassland. We found the odd desert, which was bizarre, as they just popped up in handy places, like at the place where we rode camels (way more on that later, camels are great). There are also animals everywhere; our driver tried to beep them off the road several times a day, but they largely ignored him, until they realised that they couldn’t face off against a several ton hunk of Toyota Prius. At this stage, they would slope off to the side with a disdainful look, and we would continue bouncing along the road at a ridiculous speed.
For every one person in the country, there are thirteen horses, meaning that almost a third of Mongolians are herders, and everything that they cooked and offered us was taken from their own hard work. This meant a lot of mutton, as the animals were worked for as long as possible before being killed, which made the meat very tough. Fermented mare’s milk was regularly offered as a welcome gift on entering a ger (Mongolian nomadic tent). Most travellers we met hated it, but I think it tasted a bit like strong beer, and if they took the word ‘fermented’ out of the name, I would drink it quite happily. This was usually presented in a conveyor belt of custom: firstly, we were offered a sweet from a bowl, then we were offered a cup of milk tea, or some of the mare’s milk, and then finally we were given some snuff, that we essentially snorted from our hands. Although alien, it was always in good spirit, and as long as we tried a little bit, the family were happy. The first family that we experienced this with were wonderful – they owned herd of camels, and were true representatives of how friendly and cheerful Mongolian people are stereotyped to be.
Now let’s talk about the camels. I generally get a bit over-excited because I love camels, so be patient. We drove a really, really long way from Ulaanbaatar on the first day, along the road that joins up most of the country. We were assured that it was in far better condition than it had been a few years back, but we were still being thrown around in the back of the car. Suddenly, we careered off the side of the road onto a barely-there track. How the driver manoeuvred the car to the correct ger, I have no idea, but twenty minutes later we arrived at the camel farm! After meeting the family and their adorable little girl, we finally got to hang out with the camels.
The one thing that was very apparent was that they were working animals. There was no cuddling or stroking or petting – they didn’t have names, and they were controlled by a nose peg. This is standard procedure for working with camels, and ensures that the camel handler has control over the animal at all times. However, from research after the trip, it is sadly very uncomfortable for the camels. This is a bit of a moral dilemma for me, because they are working animals and they are making a livelihood for the family, but if they are tugged or pulled from the peg, it is very painful for them. Something I’ll consider before riding a camel again. But, riding the camel was definitely a highlight of my trip – they’re such enormous, funny-looking creatures that I can’t help but fall in love with them! Mine was called Frank and he was very friendly!
Continuing the animal theme of the whole country, the next stop was riding horses… There was no one in sight for miles except the three gers where we were staying with a local family. It was the whole romantic thing (think galloping off across the plains, hair flying back behind me in the breeze, just as the sun dipped below the horizon!) Both of us agreed that it was definitely one of the best days of our lives.
Straight after the ride, we were invited into the main ger for a party, and one of my favourite Mongolian customs was the way they drank. These are the rules that we figured out (that could well be wrong; we didn’t speak much Mongolian!):
- If you have a drink, it’s bad luck to put it down before it’s empty
- You have to take a drink if someone offers you one
- Beer comes in 2 litre bottles and the bottle must be finished
- On every occasion possible, everyone must fill up their cups and down them in one go whilst shouting ‘cheers’ in Mongolian (‘Tulgatsgaaya!’)
The following day is a bit hazy in my mind, not from the alcohol, but because of how freezing it got at night. The sleeping bag I had definitely wasn’t warm enough, and I got pretty sick, but luckily we were just driving so it didn’t really matter. We went to Terelj National Park, where we visited the Temple of Meditation and had a go at some archery, but mostly just hung out at the camp and took in how beautiful and peaceful it was. Our time in Mongolia was winding down, and it was a perfect location to reflect on everything, especially after how busy China had been. Mongolia was one of the most idyllic, beautiful places in the trip, and even though we only saw a fraction during our few days there, its charm and cheerfulness definitely makes us want to go back and do the full sixteen day tour next time!
Have you ever been somewhere that's just empty, but beautiful landscapes? Let me know in the comments!