Prior to our trip, I knew practically nothing about Mongolia. I knew it was where Genghis Khan was from and that they lived in yurts…but that was it. Matt, who is always looking for a grand adventure, was more than happy to take our chances in a new country. So, after our time in China, we headed a bit more east to the unknown country of Mongolia.
After a crazy border crossing, we arrived in Ulaan Baatar. We got to our hotel, and took a little time to relax, shower and get our bearings on Mongolia from our great host (who previously lived in USA). We quickly realized that the city didn’t hold much for us to see, but what piqued our interest was the Gobi Desert. We decided the best way to use our time would be to look for a Gobi Desert tour. We checked with 3 different companies, and finally found one that would work for us and even left the next day. Afterwards, we headed to the US Embassy to see if they would process my fingerprints for a potential job back in the States. Honestly, it was kind of a hail Mary because we really didn’t know where I could get this done. The US embassy in Mongolia is not exactly a hopping spot, and we were the only people there when we arrived. It took a while to explain what I needed, but thankfully the man working loved processing fingerprints, so he made an exception for me! Check done, yippee!
The next day we headed out for a 6-day tour in the Gobi Desert. On our trip, there was one other guest, Joel from Singapore, our tour guide Botz and our driver Togi. We started with an 8-hour ride to the Northern Gobi. So far, the scenery was what we expected – flat and dry, but also cold and windy. But it wasn’t long before we had our first “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. Like seeing a half of a furry goat leg sitting outside the restaurant. Or the dog carrying a decapitated cow’s head in its mouth like a toy – welcome to Wild Mongolia! Our first stop was the White Stupa, which used to be an ancient ocean and has special religious significance to the locals. The limestone formation was layered with pink, red, purple and yellow, creating a beautiful natural mosaic.
That night, we stayed with a nomadic family, Gertich and Ogi. Even though we couldn’t communicate very well, they seemed very sweet and happy to welcome us. Gertich made us milk tea, a traditional drink in Mongolia, and fermented cow’s milk. For dinner, they made us pasta with potatoes and dried mutton, and homemade donuts for dessert. Their gers (tented homes where they lived, similar to a yurt) were minimal but had everything they needed. The bathroom, which I assumed was just the great outdoors, was actually a giant hole dug in the dirt with 2 2×4’s slapped over top. In order to “use it”, you had to carefully stand on the planks, straddle over the hole, and pray to all the gods above that you didn’t fall in…yup, this is absolutely wild! But our ger, which was warmed by camel dung in a fire pit, was actually really cozy and we all slept great.
We woke up the next morning to sun shining in the top of our ger. We had toast and Nutella for breakfast, while the family ate the leftovers from last night, heating them up with hot milk tea. Next, we drove 3 hours to the southern province capital. We had a nice lunch in a local café and got something besides goat to eat! Southern Gobi was covered in snow, and we got to see a small glacier in the Eastern Beauty Mountains. The melting from the glacier created an icy “yellow brick road”, which we were able to skate across to get direct access to the glacier. Then, we took a walk to the Ice Canyons, which was really just a frozen river running through a canyon. Although it felt cold out, it must not have been enough to keep it totally frozen, because almost all the boys broke through the ice and had wet boots by the end of the day. At night, we got to a new ger camp where Botz made us a lovely, warm stew for dinner.
The next morning was chilly and snowy, and we were happy to be back in the warm van after a cool night of sleep. Amazingly, after a few hours’ drive, we ended up in a much warmer and sandy part of the Gobi. We arrived at these stunning but tall sand dunes, which Botz immediately started trekking up. So, we followed, not really sure where we were off to. But soon I began to understand why people hallucinate never ending sand in the desert – I seriously worried that they would never end. The wind wiping in our faces, the sand slipping each time we took a step…but we FINALLY made it to the top! We took pics, admired the view from the top of the dunes and then ran/slide back down to the bottom. That afternoon, we made it to our camp early for a camel ride, which was one of the coolest things we did in the desert! The camels seemed excited for the walk, and hopefully didn’t mind the weight. When we got back to camp, we played with the adorable, baby goats while they bleated and chewed out shoelaces.
Day 4 of our desert tour, we started our trek back towards Ulaan Baatar. Our first stop was called the Flaming Cliffs; an archeology site where a supposed T-Rex skeleton was excavated and stolen. Then we went to a destroyed temple called Ongi Monastery. It was bombed many years ago, killing all of the monks (called llamas) that lived there. A new class of llamas has now occupied the old monastery, comprised of a 2-yr. old, a 3-yr. old and their teacher. That night, we made it to our next ger camp, and met a lovely little family. They made us spaghetti for dinner, and we communicated through Botz about family life, being a nomad and living in Mongolia. Later, back in our own ger, we had a few drinks and played some Mongolian games with goat knuckles to celebrate Botz’s birthday.
Our last day in the desert started with a lot of driving. When got to our camp for the night and spent the afternoon trekking through the desert by horseback. The family we stayed with here had a young son, around 6 years old. He was clearly very interested in us guests and enjoyed being our little tour guide. He was amazing at riding the horses, probably better at 6 than we will ever be! My horse was a beautiful brown pony named Pretty, who was calm and responsive to my directions. Matt’s horse…not so much. He was pretty slow and liked to lag behind the group. After the horse ride, our group including a nice couple from Australia took an evening walk through the mountains around the camp. When we got back, the little boy asked to play tag and chase with me. Too sweet! We had a Korean BBQ for dinner, which is definitely not what Americans call Korean BBQ. It was a hearty stew with actual rocks cooked inside it to give it an “earthy” taste. But it was actually really tasty, even with goat meat! It was a great meal shared with unique and wonderful people.
After 6 days in the Gobi Desert, we had a long, final drive back to Ulaan Baatar. This trip, while definitely falling into the unexpected and wild category, was an absolute blast! At times we felt like we were in a Dothraki scene for GOT, other times we thought we were in the wild west. But all of these unique and undeniably crazy experiences from Mongolia will not be forgotten. Especially now that Matt’s life goal is to be the Ambassador to Mongolia…holy goat meat!