Mongolia: Ulan Bator and Karakorum

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Every time I travel to a new mysterious country, I try to remind myself to write about it on the spot, or as soon as possible when my mind’s still full of anecdotes and vivid images. But I never do.

So here I am, 3 months after this fabulous trip around Mongolia, and the first thing I remember is the smell at UB Guesthouse and Hostel, a smoky and spicy smell of burning incense in the dorms and a gush of cold wind coming from the open window of a decrepit balcony facing an empty backstreet. That typical smell of burning incense is now and forever associated in my mind with a moment suspended in time at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

I landed in Ulan Bator at 9am on a Friday morning and was immediately reminded of Iceland through the dark clouds and the cold, pure air that entered my lungs. I took a cab down to the city center, passing cows, fields, a few modern gers scattered on the side of the road, and quickly I was in the city center.

Ulan Bator is a lot of things at the same time. It’s not very pretty, not very modern – but that’s changing rapidly, not very noisy, not very welcoming, a bit dirty, a bit grey, a bit cold, quite small for a capital city, very strange and very different from other Asian countries I’d seen before. As I mentioned before in another post, I wasn’t very interested in exploring the Mongolian capital, so I spent one night there on my first day, and one night after returning from our trek in Central Mongolia. What I really wanted was to explore the vast wilderness of the countryside, the forests, the streams and waterfalls. I wanted to experience for myself the overwhelming emptiness of the steppe, and explore the ancient land of the Great Khan. So I rounded up a few other fellow travellers and together we set for the unknown.

I’d posted a message on the UB Couchsurfing board and Guilherme, from Portugal, got in touch with me. Marco and Valentin from Germany reached out to me just before I left Belgium, and we all met for lunch on Saturday to gather information and figure out how and where to start out trip. We met again in the evening at a Couchsurfing event, had a couple of drinks with a bunch of other travellers, exchanged contact info and went to bed around midnight to be ready for our next big day.

From the Dragon Bus Terminal in Ulan Bator on Peace Avenue, just outside the city center, we caught a van to Karakorum (Kharkhorin), ancient capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, for about 17000Tg per person. 6 hours, a toilet break, a few cookies and a stiff neck later, we arrived in the heart of the Orkhon Valley, in North-Central Mongolia, where we were to spend a couple of nights. No plans for the next week or so, just a strong desire to play it by ear and avoid expensive travel agencies, and shady, unreliable tour guides.

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Night 1: Morin Jim, recommended by Lonely Planet. It might’ve been a very nice place a while ago, but things seem to have changed quite a bit. No trace of a French owner when we got there, no electricity or water in the building where the sleeping rooms were – although they fixed that before we went to bed – and the hardest wooden beds ever. Literally, just a couple of planks and a minuscule pillow. I ended up folding my blanket twice and sleeping on it. But I was soon to find out that in Mongolia, wooden beds are either very comfortable or very hard.

Karakorum (Kharkhorin) looks like a big pile of nothing, like an abandoned village between two worlds, with grey houses and bright colorful rooftops. Most neighborhoods are surrounded by wooden fences, which gives them a very secluded look. From what I remember, Karakorum is a bit dirty, very dusty, cold at night and it looks deserted. The only thing worth stopping here is Ernede Zuu, the ruins of the Ancient Mongol Empire. When facing the walls of Ernede Zuu, it’s hard to imagine that this godforsaken place used to be, 700 years ago, one of the most important cities in the history of the Silk Road, and in the history of Mongolia.

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Night 2: Family Guesthouse, a much better choice in my opinion. They also organized a one-week tour on horseback in the steppe for us. Nice family-run guesthouse where we got to sleep in a ger, enjoy a hot meal, do some laundry and get ready for a strenuous week on horseback. Hot showers, Internet access, toilets of the sit-down kind and comfy beds, I’d definitely recommend this one.

A 4WD picked us up the next day and we embarked on dirt roads through the steppe, lakes, rivers and mountains. 6 hours of smacking my head hard on the car ceiling and sitting uncomfortably with my companions and our translator was an experience. Oh, and the jeep broke down in the middle of nowhere, so we all got to stretch our legs a bit and snap a few pics of wandering cows. The scenery we passed was well worth a few bruises and a sore back.

Night 3: We arrived at the waterfall campsite in the heart of the Orkhon Valley where we met the local family who was going to take care of us for a week. The tour guide was called Sharr and spoke absolutely no English – hand gestures only. At the very last minute, we decided to hire a translator to be able to interact with the families. I think this was probably one of the best decisions we made.

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I met a cute little girl who invited me into her ger. I took pictures of her, showed them to her and taught her ‘pretty‘ which she repeated for days. I gave her chocolate and she led me to her ger, gesturing for me to get in while holding the door for me. I suddenly found myself surrounded by the whole family, and everyone stopped talking and just stared at me. I gave all of them Belgian chocolate, which they accepted with both hands as most Asians do, and even though they didn’t speak a word of English, a silent word was passed between all of us and I understood that I was welcome there.

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That evening there was a brief shower, then a wonderful bright orange sunset over the mountains. The feeling was indescribable, the wilderness and unlimited steppe all around, the fresh, unpolluted air we breathed happily, the mountains shaping up in the distance and this light, this very bright light bathing everyone and everything. I can still picture the motorcycle lights flickering in the dark open steppe under a very bright starry night.

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Random thoughts on Mongolia from my notes while traveling:

  • Dogs barking for hours at night
  • Very chilly nights even in September
  • Khushur made of mutton, onion, fat and dough, fried together
  • Smokey smell of wood burning in gers, smell of onions and mutton cooking, a slice of northern paradise for our hungry bellies
  • The pleasure of falling asleep while listening to the fire crackling in the stove. The forgotten feeling of sleeping in a room full of people
  • Wood on the fire, that deafening silence after nightfall, owls screeching at night, noise of a motorcycle in the distance
  • The smell of salted milk tea everywhere, and the taste of mutton in the tea as they probably use the same large pan for a lot of things. Goat, yak, camel, cow, sheep milk

 

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