29/09/2013 - 03/10/2013
We were met at the station by the owner of the hostel we'd booked into. We'd thought it was just a nice helpful gesture but he then took us to some random hotel and not his hostel at all. He then explained how his hostel was being renovated so we could stay at his friend's hotel for the same price instead. He made out like this was a really good deal and we were getting some kind of upgrade, but just from looking around the foyer of the place (the word 'foyer' being used quite loosely) it seemed like that really wasn't the case. It would have been nice if he'd warned us in advance, so we could have had the option of staying somewhere else instead, but never mind.
We couldn't check in to our room for a while so the hostel guy took us out for a coffee. I say 'coffee', but I'm using the word quite loosely again. We went to one of the few open cafes on the main street (Peace Avenue) and he ordered us all a coffee. We were each brought a cup of hot liquid and a sachet. We assumed the sachet was coffee whitener, so I opened mine and stirred in a small amount. The hostel guy put all of his in. I had a sip of my 'coffee' and then realised why the hostel guy had used his entire sachet; the hot liquid was just water and the sachet contained a mix of coffee, whitener and sugar. Mmmm. That would be pretty gross to have at home, but to be served it in a cafe? It was pretty disappointing. The hostel guy paid, which was nice, though I can't imagine it would have cost much.
You've probably guessed that I can't remember the hostel guy's name. It's a bit annoying to keep referring to him as 'the hostel guy' - plus it sounds like it belongs in an early episode of Friends - so I'm going to call him Bob from now on.
Despite his unavailable accommodation and disappointing choice of coffee establishment, Bob seemed like a decent guy. He offered to arrange a tour for us, like he would do from his hostel usually. Ulaanbaatar (which I'll call UB) isn't that exciting a place to visit in itself, so tourists just tend to use it as a starting point for going to more interesting parts of Mongolia. So yeah, we knew we wanted to get out of the city on some kind of tour. Bob suggested a 2-day tour up to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, taking in the Genghis Khan statue on the way, then spending the night with a Mongolian family, sleeping in a ger. The next day we'd get an hour's horse riding included and then we'd get a bus back to the city. All meals would be included as well.
It was about £100 each, which seemed like a lot, especially considering how cheap things are in Mongolia generally, but I guess it wasn't too bad - you're paying for a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience so I don't actually begrudge it now. At the time he was suggesting it though, I was tired and agitated, so I did feel like he was ripping us off. Maybe he was. I don't know. We didn't really have the time to shop around, as were only in Mongolia for 4 days, so we took him up on his offer.
After enough time had passed, we headed back to the hotel to check in. It wasn't a touristy hotel, it was aimed at Mongolians, so no-one spoke English. That wasn't really an issue though; our problem with it was that it just wasn't very nice. The bathroom was pretty grimey and the shower area had a washing machine in it; the smoke detector in our room had a low battery so it kept beeping; the doors didn't open and shut very easily; there were random plates of ash everywhere (presumably ad hoc ash trays); plus the beds were really hard and uncomfortable. However, as we were so tired from the early train arrival, we crashed out for a few hours of sleep. On waking up we decided that we'd rather be staying in a hostel dorm. We'd agreed to do the tour to the National Park over the following 2 days but decided to then stay somewhere else on our return to UB.
For dinner we went to a vegetarian restaurant called Luna Blanca. That was really good - we ended up going back on our last night in UB. We then went to Cafe Amsterdam for a drink, though mostly to use the wi-fi. UB had a really impressive amount of free wi-fi but it sadly didn't include the hotel we were staying at. In the cafe we ran into David and Fiona who we'd met on the train. We were looking for a hostel to book into for our last 2 nights and they recommended the Golden Gobi where they were staying. It was just around the corner from the cafe so, as we were having some computer problems, Jamie nipped around there and booked us in.
We had an early night as we needed to get up early. In the morning we dropped our backpacks off at Golden Gobi so we didn't have to take them on the tour with us. We then went to pick up our onwards train tickets from the agency who Real Russia deal with. Weirdly we bumped into Fiona again here. We then got back to the hotel in time to meet up with Bob at 10am. He re-confirmed what we would get on the tour, plus reassured us that everyone knew that Jamie was vegetarian. We paid him our money and then got into a car with our driver for the day, who was also Bob's youngest son. He only spoke a little English, plus I don't think we found out his name. Rather than 'Bob's son,' I'll call him 'Frank'.
Frank drove us out of the city and our first stop was at a supermarket. Although our meals were included, Bob had suggested buying things like beer and chocolate. We already had some biscuits with us but we also bought some mini croissant things, some water, a bottle of wine and a bottle of vodka. The bottle of vodka was partly in case we were expected to gift our host family with something and partly because it was so cheap that it seemed wrong not to buy it.
After driving a little further we pulled over to the side of the road to see some eagles. It seemed a little random but it turned out to be a tourist attraction. You pay a small amount to get to pose with one on your arm. Jamie went first and I followed. But after I'd posed with one on my arm, the woman in charge manoeuvred me to another eagle and put it on my shoulder. It all happened pretty quickly, it was slightly surreal. Jamie then also got to pose with one on his shoulder before we set back off.
Our first proper stop of the day was at the Genghis Khan statue. It's this huge, metal, shiny thing that seemed to just appear out of nowhere. Apparently it's going to be part of a larger tourist complex that's planned. We went inside, looked around and walked up to the viewing platform between the statue's legs. There are also a couple of small museum exhibits in the building, so we looked round those as well.
Frank then drove us to some tucked-away shack for lunch. We were served some traditional Mongolian food, which was basically deep-fried mince. Despite being reassured that Jamie would get veggie stuff, he was given the same thing. He had to just empty the mince out and eat the greasy dough instead. They were alright really, though I bit into something really hard at one point, which I was told was probably bone. I have to confess that I can't categorically say what the meat was. It was conceivably beef, albeit not some prime cut, but it could just as well have been horse, to be honest. It was quite like eating a British ready meal in that sense.
To drink we were offered the choice of tea or coffee. After the terrible coffee of the previous day, Jamie opted for tea as a safer option. I risked the coffee. The tea ended up being some strange milk tea, so I was glad I went for coffee, even though the coffee came with sugar in and I really dislike sugary coffee. So yeah, not the best lunch, but OK.
After that Frank drove us to the National Park. It was a beautiful area and well worth seeing. I really enjoyed just being driven around it; The Beatles playing on the car stereo. A lot of the roads were more like dirt tracks, so pretty bumpy, but it was good fun. We stopped a couple of times to get out and take photos etc. - once at a cave and once at the Turtle Rock:
That was cool, though in retrospect I wish that we'd spent longer there, both driving around and also getting out and taking photos. I feel like my limited photos don't really capture the full beauty of the place. Plus it wasn't like we were in a rush - the only other thing we had to do that day was to go and stay with the family. It all seemed to be over quite quickly and we were then taken to a meeting point by a hotel and a river. It was as close as Frank's car could get to where the family lived. The patriarch and his young daughter came and met us and we waved goodbye to Frank.
We followed the man across a few bridges and fields until we reached the area where he lived. We were then shown into the ger where we'd be sleeping. We'd actually booked to stay in the her at Bob's hostel, which I'd been looking forward to, so I was pleased we weren't missing out on that experience. A ger's basically a big, more solid tent. They tend to have wood stoves burning in the middle and we were impressed by how toasty the ger was. We were also surprised when we saw it had a TV in it!
After being shown into the ger, the family just left us to ourselves for ages. We weren't really sure what we were meant to be doing, if anything. The mother of the family popped in briefly and gave us a bowl of homemade yoghurt each, plus a flask of hot water. No explanation as to what the hot water was for. Initially we thought it might be tea but it was definitely just hot water. I then theorised that it might be for washing the dishes. There was a sink in the ger but it didn't have taps as didn't have plumbing, it just drained out into a bucket. The water was boiling hot though, plus the flask kept it that way, so it wasn't easy to use for plate washing. We later discovered some instant coffee in the fridge, so thought maybe it was for that - we never actually knew for sure.
We were quite surprised that the family didn't seem keen to engage with us. There was a language barrier, of course, but there weren't even attempts at introductions or anything. We also weren't shown how anything worked or even where we should go to the toilet. I guess I was expecting more of an inquisitive and welcoming atmosphere where we'd all eat dinner together or sit around a fire and have a drink together. Maybe I've watched too many travel shows where things like that happen. Anyway, I did initially wonder if they'd just hosted so many people before that they were kinda jaded. But after a while it seemed more likely that we were the first people they'd hosted and they just weren't sure what to do with us.
The woman reappeared a while later to get something out of the fridge. We'd been there a few hours by this point and I really needed to know where the toilet was as the bucket under the sink was looking increasingly inviting. I tried the word 'toilet' incase it was similar in Mongolian, but that didn't trigger any flickers of recognition. I then grabbed our toilet roll and showed her that. That seemed pretty sure-fire but instead she just went and brought us more toilet roll. Jamie and I then both tried to gesticulate the word 'where' and eventually she grasped what we were wanting to know. I put my shoes and coat on and followed her out to the toilet. Well, "toilet" really, as it was a small shack built over a big pit. There were a few wooden slats for you to stand on and then you could utilise the gap between them. She left me to it and I then made my way back to the ger. It was starting to get dark and it was a bit of a walk away, though not very far and in a straight line from the gap in the fence round the family's buildings.
The lady brought us dinner soon afterwards. Dumplings. Mine were meat and Jamie's were veggie, thankfully. The meat tasted the same as the stuffing in the fried things we'd had for lunch. They were nice though. We drank our wine and played some cards, plus kept the fire going as best we could (which wasn't easy at times), then started to get ready for bed.
Now that I knew where the toilet was, I figured I should go use it again before bed. I thankfully have a small torch on a keyring, which was an incredibly useful birthday gift from my friend Cary a few years ago. I took that with me and headed out towards the toilet. It was completely pitch black outside. I stopped and looked up at the sky - the stars were just incredible. I don't think I've ever seen so many, it was breathtaking. Anyway, after my moment of awe, I walked out of the gap in the fence and started making my way to the toilet. My torch helped a little, of course, though the beam doesn't reach very far, so I had to just hope I was walking in the right direction. I knew I must be vaguely going in the right direction; I walked in a straight line from the fence and I started to see some kind of shack ahead of me, so assumed that was it. However I got there to discover it was some other shack instead. There were a couple of other shacks near it, but they weren't the right ones either. As I'd only walked there the once before and it had already been getting dark, I didn't have a good enough mental picture of what the area looked like, so didn't know where I might be in relation to the toilet. However, as it was completely pitch black, the need to wee behind a modesty-covering door seemed a little unnecessary. That should have occurred to me sooner, but still, I squatted down wherever I was and expunged my surplus liquid (had a wee). I now just needed to walk back in the same straight line I'd used to get there and I'd be back in the family's grounds. Easy, right? Well, no. Not in the dark with a limited torch and a ropey sense of direction!
I walked in what I thought was the same straight line but it took me to a fence that didn't look quite right. I followed the fence to a gap in it, but again it seemed wrong - the buildings inside didn't look like the right ones. I made my way to the ger there anyway, but no, the door was all wrong. I had no notion of where I was in relation to where I wanted to be. It was terrifying. All I could do was wander around and hope to come across something familiar. But at the same time I was scared that I might wander too far in the wrong direction and make things even worse. Plus there were cows, yaks and horses out there somewhere, so I didn't want to stumble into those. I started shouting out for Jamie, but probably not loudly enough as I was choked up from the fear. Plus I didn't want to disturb anyone else! I guess I was still hopeful I'd just find my way back. I started walking small amounts in different directions, to see which way looked most promising. I found a ditch to one side, which helped me get my bearings a little, then I miraculously found the toilet! I never thought I'd be so pleased to see it. I could then use it to navigate a straight line in the right direction and I happily found my way back. As I'd not actually been gone long (though it felt like ages at the time), Jamie had no notion that I could have gotten lost, so I tearily filled him in and cuddled into him for a while. All credit to people who live in the wilderness, but when normal bodily functions can lead to that much peril, it's not the life for me!
I slept OK, but not great. The beds weren't comfortable and once the fire went out it got pretty cold. I'm pleased we got to experience sleeping in a ger, but I was also pleased we didn't end up doing it for our entire time in Mongolia. In the morning, Jamie tried to light the fire, but it proved to be very difficult. There were only quite large chunks of wood and they didn't want to catch on fire. We tried using some old pages from a notebook of mine as kindling, but that didn't help. Eventually we gave up, hid under the duvets and waited for someone to appear so we could ask them to light the fire. A teenage boy appeared, grabbed a charger from out of a drawer and then walked back out. It was like we weren't even there.
We waited ages before the woman finally appeared and we could ask her to light the fire. She disappeared and then came back with a whole load of sticks and twigs. They were much easier to start a fire with than the big blocks of wood! The ger heated up pretty quickly then and we were able to get out of bed. The woman brought us some bread stick things as a breakfast, plus some more hot water. This time we used it to make coffee.
For our second day, Bob had promised us an hour of horse riding, any meals we were there for, plus the return bus journey. There were only 2 buses a day that ran directly back to UB - at 8am and 7pm - but there were also minibuses every 2 hours that went to a different village where you could then catch a bus to UB. We'd not agreed on any specific bus in advance, though 7pm did sound a bit too late really.
We got dressed and then went outside. There were horses around so we figured they knew about the horse riding and were getting prepared for us. We were quite relieved as we'd been feeling a little neglected. However, the dad and son suddenly rode off and took all the horses with them. We stood around outside but the whole family seemed to be ignoring us. The woman walked past a couple of times and the teenage girl went into the ger to take out some things she needed. When Bob had been pitching us the tour he'd made out like we'd be hanging out with the family and getting invited to milk the cows and stuff, but it was clear that nothing like that was going to happen.
We found Bob's phone number, which we had written down, and asked the woman to phone him for us. Jamie told him how the family didn't seem to know what was expected of them and how we'd not gotten to ride the horses yet and were just standing around. Bob then talked to the teenage girl for ages. When she hung up she told us that we'd go horse riding for an hour when her dad returned with the horses, then we'd have lunch, then we'd get the 2pm bus back. And how did she communicate all this? In English! Where was she when we were trying to find out where the toilet was? It was already 11:30, so it seemed like quite a tight timeframe, but at least we all knew what was going on now.
Everything was much better and ran smoothly after that. Maybe Bob just hadn't prepped them properly, even though he claimed that he had. The dad arrived back around 12 and then took us out horse riding. Now, I've not been on a horse since I was about 7, so I was quite nervous. I had no particular desire to ride a horse, to be honest, but as it was included in the tour price and it's seen as one of those things you're just meant to do in Mongolia, I went along with it. Thankfully the horses there are all quite small, otherwise I'm not sure I'd have done it.
When I first got up on the horse, it felt incredibly weird. I felt quite unstable and really didn't enjoy the sensation. I made this pretty obvious too, so thankfully the guy kept hold of my horse and attached it to his, so I didn't have to control it myself, I just needed to sit there and hold on. He left Jamie to control his own though, when Jamie hadn't ridden a horse since he was about 11. My horse was pretty serene, thankfully, though Jamie's seemed more agitated and disinclined to do what it was meant to. After a while the guy took control of Jamie's horse too, though not until after we'd had to wade the horses across a stream! Thankfully we didn't go faster than a walk, so it was all quite sedate and I started to enjoy it (albeit quite cautiously). A dog followed us for most of the route as well. He seemed to be running his own kind of assault course, so provided some bonus entertainment. The scenery was great as well, of course.
We followed a circular route and it lasted the full hour. I mostly didn't feel that sore when I was up on the horse, but felt it when I got off. We both walked around like cartoon cowboys for a bit.
Everything else went pretty quickly then - we were brought lunch (rice and more of that meat for me. Rice and spicy carrot for Jamie), we ate lunch, then the teenage girl took us to the bus. The minibus arrived slightly late, but we all got on, including the girl. It drove us back through the National Park, which was nice - it was good to get some more time to admire the scenery. When we arrived in the village the girl pointed us towards the bus for UB and gave us the money for the fare.
It was quite a relief to be headed back towards the city. We both agreed that it was the kind of trip that was more enjoyable in retrospect! Although it was far from perfect, it was authentic at least - not just some polished tour with a family putting on a bit of an act for the tourists.
We got back and checked in to the Golden Gobi, which was a decent place. We had a chilled-out evening and caught up on some sleep.
On our last full day in Mongolia we went to the monastery. It's the main tourist attraction in UB. It's a bit run down really, but still good to see. The giant gold statue in the main temple's pretty impressive.
The other main thing we did that day was to stock up on supplies for the train. There was an awesome supermarket near our hostel that seemed to have everything. Jamie's face was a picture when he saw the whole wall of noodle pots.
The next morning the hostel put on a minibus to the train station, free of charge, which was nice of them. We were back on the Trans-Mongolian! Just for a day and a bit this time though, so practically nothing! Our carriage was much more full this time and the average age was a lot higher. We were in a cabin with a young English couple who were really nice. The poor girl got sick during the journey though and kept throwing up. It was right at the border crossings as well, when the bathroom's locked, so the worst possible timing.
The border crossings were fine, though the whole process takes ages, the toilet's locked and you're not allowed off the train. Thankfully we'd been warned in advance so had limited our liquid consumption.
The border crossing mostly takes ages because the train wheels have to be changed for a different gauge of track. And yes they do this while you're on board. The carriages are individually lifted up on a crank and then the wheels are swapped over. It sounds more exciting than it is though - the lifting up's done so slowly you can't actually feel it.
The Chinese tracks actually seemed a bit smoother so we got a decent night's sleep before our arrival in Beijing. The scenery gets more spectacular once you're in China too, so the walkway in the carriage was just filled with people taking photos all morning.