Warning: A shit load of photos incoming!
One does not simply travel to Mongolia without going on some sort of trekking expedition. The country is the least dense in the world, a population of around 3 million gives Mongolia a density of just 1.75 per square kilometre. Outside of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, the land is mostly untouched, with vast plains, rivers, mountains and valleys just waiting to be explored by foot, horse, motorbike or car. This is the reason most people, myself included, travel here.
The Mongolians know this, and as such have set up tours which take anywhere from one day to several weeks. The tours mostly involve travelling from ger to ger (gers are the white huts) living with nomadic families and also doing some horse or camel riding, sight seeing, fishing, you name it. However, there are many tour options available, and prices can vary in a big way. Unless you have a fat wallet, touring solo isn’t really a viable option so it’s best to get a group together to split the cost of hiring a car and guide. Touring yourself is quite risky unless you are well kitted out with supplies, spare parts, satellite phone etc as when you’re in the middle of the Mongolian desert you are actually in the middle of fookin’ nowhere.
I talked to a few people about different tours, but as I was travelling solo at that point, waiting for my friend Karen to arrive from China, I decided to head west a few hours and check out that area of Mongolia in the meantime with a friend I met on the train in. We were quoted prices upwards of $500 for a 4 day basic tour out that way, so we decided to take the public bus to Kharkorin, where Chinggis Khaan established the capital back in the 13th century.
The bus leaves UB at 11am from Dragon bus station in the west of the city. It costs 17,000 Togrog, or $12NZD and includes a complimentary six hours of Mongolian music videos on loop.
The music videos are a cultural watch. Most of them involve a love story, several horses, colourful clothing and a ger or two. The scenery is great value also. I even spied an eagle flying next to the bus.
This is a shot taken at a place we stopped for a long-drop loo break. You can buy food in the restaurant. Choices include mutton, vegetables with mutton, just vegetables, mutton with noodles, mutton, mutton in soup, rice, or mutton.
As we made our way west, checking out the barren desert, we were passed a cellphone by the bus driver. On the other end of the line was a lady called Gaya, offering to pick us up from the bus station in Kharkorin to show us her guest house / ger camp. We said we’d come have a look but were making no promises. Once we got there, she met us at the bus and offered to drive us around a couple of other guest houses to give us options which was commendable. We ended up staying with her in the end anyway, and I’m glad we did; she made our next few days what they were! She spoke English and was very friendly and helpful. You can’t argue with accommodation for $8 a night with that sort of host.
Kharkorin town. From memory the population was 17,000. Below are the gers at Gaya’s Guest House.
I originally wanted to hire a motorbike the next day and explore the surrounding hills, but the weather forecast was looking like snow. We’d have to hold out to see what the weather did before making any solid plans. Not much else to do but play cards and drink vodka!
Old mate weatherman Google was right. I was actually super stoked about the weather; this is the first time in my life I’d actually been in snow apart from snowboarding on a mountain. I prodded it and played with it like a 5 year old kid.
While it snowed outside, we made plans with Gaya to get out of Kharkorin the next day when the weather cleared up. After Gaya patiently answered all our questions and made several phone calls, we came to a conclusion on what we were going to do. She was going to take us south to a friend of hers, who lived with her husband in a ger among the hills. We’d spend a night there, then ride some horses several hours further south to yet another ger-based family. We’d stay with them and ride the horses back to the first ger in the morning, where Gaya would pick us up again. Plan sorted!
Gaya also drove us around town to gather a few supplies before heading out. She was a real help. I think this is one of the benefits of not visiting a place like this in peak season; she had the time to really help us out. There is little to no English spoken in a place like this so having a local friend makes a difference! The photo above is a supermarket in Kharkorin.
The view once we got over the first hill to begin heading to our first ger.
This is Gaya. She had no qualms about tackling off road, muddy, half snowed in terrain in her Toyota Carina. When we got stuck in the mud she laughed like a maniac and hit the gas. Good value.
It took around an hour to reach Tumee and Jagaa, Gaya’s friends in the first ger. We were welcomed by smiles, cups of tea, home-made yak’s cheese and a boiled sheep’s head. Can’t ask for more than that!
This is Tumee and Jagaa’s pad. There are a couple of other ger farms a few hundred metres away but for the most part there is fuck-all happening other than probably the most free-range farm life you’ll ever come across.
Yak’s cheese. Not bad, actually. The sheep’s head below was pretty tasty, also. Apparently it’s good for your health.
This is a pretty sweet view to wake up to each morning!
I spent a fair portion of my time here playing with the baby goats / kids. They make some pretty funny noises and I’m still not sure if the noise I kept on hearing were strange sneezes or loud farts. I want one pretty bad.
The couple, much like most other nomadic families in Mongolia, shift location every three months with the season. They pack up the ger and supplies and re-install it in the new location. It sounds like a lot of work but I’m assured it’s not a big deal. Mongolians don’t really seem to get stressed about too much, actually. It’s a busy, yet pretty chilled out lifestyle.
Tumee was more than happy to accept a couple of dollars in exchange for the keys to his motorbike. I took it over the surrounding hills and checked out some of the scenery while I contemplated how busy and rushed most of our lifestyles are in comparison.
The dung above is used for powering the fire inside. Below is a photo of the inside of the ger. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t. Lunch and dinner generally consists of mutton with noodles. Vegetables aren’t really commonplace around here. As I’m told by several locals, “If it isn’t meat, it isn’t food.”
Some of the goats trying to break into a new home.
The next day Tumee saddled up our horses and we began the trek to our next ger. This was the first time I’d ridden a horse in about 15 years. With the help of Tumee and Rebecca I got the gist of it soon enough. My horse went rogue a couple of times but eventually we came to a mutual understanding and I was able to focus on the scenery and how sore my ass was getting.
As we rode the horses along the river, we came across loads of animals. Yaks, bulls, sheep, goats, horses, you name it. It’s cool to see them so free as opposed to being locked in or tied up. The horses run around in groups and talk to our ones as we go past. It was a super rad experience.
This horse ride was pretty epic. We left at around 11am and rode for around 5 hours with a stop for lunch on the way. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve done, just because it’s such a change from what I’m used to and also the scenery that accompanied the journey.
At out next ger camp we were also offered yak’s cheese and some kind of milk tea. No sheep’s head this time. Once I unpacked I took a walk around and observed the gong-ons of life in the countryside. Today some of the goats were getting shorn for cashmere.
I asked what they get for a bag (below) of cashmere when they sell it to China. The answer was 62,000 Togrog, which is about $45. Someone’s making some serious coin…
That night I slept on the floor of the ger after enjoying a hearty feed of mutton noodle soup. It wasn’t too cold as the Mongolian nomads are petty adept at keeping a fire going for a while. We got up early the next day to head back to Tumee and Jagaa’s, where Gaya the crazy taxi driver would pick us up and take us back to Kharkorin so we could get the 2pm bus back to Ulaanbaatar.
The ride back the next morning as the sun was rising. You couldn’t ask for a better day to go horse riding.
I will say one thing. I don’t know how the hell you horse people regularly do this. I feel like I’ve been a big fella’s prison play thing for the last month. Apparently you get used to it after a while but I’m yet to understand how you get used to the feeling of your tail bone being assaulted by a slide hammer. I’m headed into the Gobi desert and National Park over the next week and am going to do some camel riding there so I’ll report back on the ass situation at a later date.
In summary, these few days in Kharkorin and the surrounding area was some of the best fun I’ve had on my travels. I’ve grown up in New Zealand yet never spent a substantial amount of time on a farm. It was pretty liberating seeing animals just roaming around in their natural habitat and experiencing just a tiny slither of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle. It was also cost effective! I’ll break it down here, per person, in case you were wondering:
- Bus there and back: 34,000 MNT
- 2 nights at Gaya’s: 32,000 MNT
- Transport to ger and back: 40,000 MNT
- 1 horse for 2 days: 60,000 MNT (You need an extra one for your guide).
- 2 nights in a ger, payable to each family: 10,000 MNT x2
- 1 mutton noddle dinner: 5,000 MNT
- Other food and snacks: Depends, 20,000 MNT
All up, around 260,000 MNT, or $185 NZD for 4 days away from UB. Not too bad considering the price of an equivalent tour!
- Bring toilet paper / wet wipes
- If you don’t eat meat, pack something else
- Bring thermals, the gers can get cold at night
- Stay at Gaya’s!
- Buy enough vodka for yourself and your hosts. Sharing around a few drinks goes a long way
- Don’t wear your good pants when riding a horse. Doh