Traveling Mongolia – part 2

After our misfortune in the Gobi desert, we came back to Ulan Bataar, where Manolo’s sister Eva was waiting for us. The original plan was that she was going to join us during the second half of our Mongolia tour. As our trip was cut short, we had to find a solution quickly, and so we decided to go on an organized tour of Central Mongolia. To cut costs, we found one more travel buddy: Gaulthier, aka “the Frenchy”.

Day 1 – camels and wild horses. After meeting our driver and our tour guide Tony, we hopped in our vehicle for the next nine days – a Russian van this time called ‘the tank’ – and started driving. After a stop at the market to buy food, loud Ulaan Bataar started disappearing, appartment blocks were replaced by green rolling hills and cars by sheep and horses running free in the infinite grasslands.  Our first day was a driving day as we had to do a nice amount of kilometers, so except for spotting some wild horses in Khustai National Park not much happened until we arrived to our ger that evening in little Gobi. Getting our stuff out of the car, the owners of the camp – an old Mongolian couple of probably 130 years old – came to greet us, and Sophie had the feeling she had already seen the couple before. This was the exact camp she had been in 5 years ago when she was in little Gobi!

After we changed our clothes – it can suddenly get chilly in Mongolia – we went for a sunset camel ride. Normally all camels are attached to each other and are walking slowly, but by the end of the tour, Manolo had managed to convince the camel guy to let us ride the camels by ourselves and to let us gallop. Figuring out how you ride a camel proved to be quite easy and we ended up racing each other back to the camp. An unforgettable experience!

 

 

Day 2 – the old capital. The next morning we visited the old capital of Mongolia, Karakorum (or Gharaghorin as Mongolians seem to pronounce it). However, not much is left of the capital – that tends to happen with cities consisting mainly of nomadic tents. After that, we had some more driving time – Mongolia is a vast country – before arriving to Orkhon Valley in the evening, where we were once again treated to an absolutely stunning night sky full of stars and the milky way.

 

6174631216_IMG_1491
Lunch with a view.

 

Day 3, 4 and 5 – horse trekking to the Eight Lakes. There is no better way to discover Mongolia than on the back of a horse. So after a morning of waiting for the horses to show up and playing cards – even when our guide spoke English, misunderstandings and communication problems are common in Mongolia – our horses arrived and we saddled up for an afternoon of riding through the infinite steppe. This time, our saddles were padded (unlike the first time we went riding and were sitting on a wooden saddle, leaving Sophie with a nice amount of bruises), and our horses were more energetic and manageable, allowing us to fully enjoy galloping through the grasslands. (Except maybe for that moment when Manolo  was thrown off his horse because he scared the poor thing by taking off his jacket – even though the horsemen warned us not to do that.) That evening we arrived to a place that was even more in the middle of nowhere than usual. After watching our guide Tony wrestle with another Mongolian, drinking vodka with the locals and Manolo trying (and succeeding!) to catch a goat, we went to sleep under a beautiful sky full of stars.

 

photo 27-08-2017 10 39 45
Manolo trying and succeeding to catch a goat.

 

The next morning, we got on our horses again, yet this time slightly less enthusiastic as our muscles and behinds were in complaining mode. The scenery changed from grasslands with some forest once in while to a more thick mountains forest with rocky paths that were difficult to climb for our horses sometimes. Luckily Mongolian saddles have a handle in the front to which you can hold on, as sometimes the horses had to jump to get passed a bigger rock or even slipped. After crossing the mountain we arrived to the Eight Lakes, a beautiful volcanic area with – you guessed it – eight lakes which is difficult to access by car. While we let the horses rest for a bit, we set up our tent (ok, Manolo set up the tent and Sophie watched) and then watched how a sheep was killed to be eaten as barbecue that night. After going for another horse ride to explore the area some more, we socialized with the family who killed the sheep drinking yak tea, trying yak butter and braiding our hair (including that of Manolo).

 

6174631216_IMG_1555
Horse trekking in Mongolia.

 

After the warm evening in the heated ger of the locals, the night in our tent was cold. The next morning we were awoken by weird noises – some kind of snoring that seemed to come from something very close by. Zipping open our tent we discovered the source of the noise: we were encircled by a group of yaks! Also, our tent and the grass were covered in ice, explaining why we had been so cold all night. Nothing a hot cup of tea couldn’t solve, though, and we got back in the saddle. We rode all morning, and arriving back to our starting point, we were sad we had to say goodbye to our horses (our butts not so much, though).

 

6174631216_IMG_1549
Camping in Mongolia. The next morning our tent was covered in ice and we were woken up by yaks making weird noises and trying to walk over our tent.
6174631216_IMG_1534
Yaks are the weirdest animals ever.

 

After a late lunch it was time for some more driving. And some more flat tires. Lucky for us most drivers in Mongolia are also mechanics and incredible efficient at changing a wheel or fixing a hole in a tire. After no time we got to enjoy the bumpy ‘roads’ again. That night we arrived to Tsenkher hot springs, where they had hot water for the first time during this trip. No need to explain that we really really enjoyed the feeling of water on our skins and finally being able to wash our hair!

 

 

Day 6 and 7 – another lake, more ice and an extinct volcano. The next morning we slept late – we were on holidays after all – and after brunch Mongolian style, we got back in the tank for – yes – some more driving on bumpy roads. A flat tire, thousands of sheep and horses crossing the road and a stop to stock up on some more veggies later we arrived to the White Lake, another beautiful lake in an gorgeous rocky volcanic setting. The rest of the evening/night we fell into our enjoyable routine of admiring the views, socializing a bit with the locals or other travelers, drinking some vodka, playing Mongolian poker and gazing at the incredible night sky.

The next day we didn’t have to go anywhere, leaving us all day to explore the area. So we hiked all the way up to the top of the volcano, watched Eva and the Frenchy crawl into a man hole (Sophie is just a bit claustrophobic and Manolo’s shoulders were too wide for the narrow hole) and climbed some rocks to reach a natural cave with a tiny glacier.

Day 8 and 9 – saying goodbye to the Frenchy and driving back.

 

6174631216_IMG_1681

Advertisements

Traveling Mongolia – part 1

As you could read in our previous post, we were a bit unfortunate in Mongolia, but that didn’t prevent us from enjoying this magnificently beautiful country. Mongolia is one of those mesmerizing countries you can drive through and look out of the window in awe for hours and hours without getting bored.

Day 1 – following Ghenghis Khan. After stocking up on lots of fruits and vegetables in Ulaan Bataar (UB) as they are crazy expensive or impossible to find outside of the capital, we headed eastwards. The moment we left the city, we were instantly hit by Mongolia’s beauty: rolling green hills, blue skies, the occasional white ger, and sheep and horses running free.

Our first stop was the massive equestrian statue of Ghenghis Khan, built in 2008 to celebrate 800 years of the foundation of the Mongolian empire. It is one of the biggest statues in the world (though smaller than Mother Russia we saw in Volgograd), and climbing to the top left us breathless – and that not only because of the nice amount of steps we did.

After this must-see stop, we set off to a less touristy destination: the Blue Lake (Kokh Nuur). It is the place where Ghenghis Khan was corronated and became the Khaan of Khans. Being a Ghenghis Khan-fan, Manolo had been dreaming of visiting this place for a while. Though the lake itself is nothing special, there is a commemorative monument with totems of Ghenghis Khan and all the Khans reigning after him, where it is difficult not to feel history come alive.

Walking distance from the lake, there was a ger camp where we stayed the night. Even though the Blue Lake is not normally visited by foreigners, it is clearly a popular holiday destination for Mongolians, as the ger camp was quite big and full of Mongolians having a good time, which meant we would get the full Mongolian experience during our first day already.

 

 

Day 2 – a visit to the belly button of the earth. The next morning, we set off to another non-standard tourist place: Mother Rock (Eej Khaad). Mongolians consider this rock to be the belly button of the earth and an important energy place. We decided to put this place on our itinerary, as you never know that some of this energy could rub off on Sophie (as she could use it).

It turned out that you could take the name Mother Rock quite literally. We weren’t sure what to expect exactly, but somehow we were all surprised to learn that Mother Rock was a stone shaped more or less like a human, dressed up with mother-like clothes. Why the Mongolians come here to worship this particular rock is a mystery to us, but the views from on top of the surrounding hills were spectacular. And as if that wasn’t enough, the sun started to go down and we got to enjoy an absolutely beautiful sunset.

 

 

Day 3 and 4 – extraterrestrial Middle Gobi. The next day we hopped in the car again, and continued South, direction the Big Gobi desert. As roads are bad and bumpy in Mongolia (when they exist), it took us three days of driving through Middle Gobi to reach the Big Gobi. Luckily, Middle Gobi is blessed with some pretty spectacular sights itself: we marveled at the big rock formations of Bagaa Gazriin Chuluu and the seemingly random but very pretty and colorful sedimentary deposits of Tsagaan Suvarga (White Stuppa).

On the way, we stopped at a ger where they were milking the horses, so we got to taste fermented horse milk and understand real Mongolian life a bit better. In the evening, we went for a sunset horse ride which took us through some beautiful Mongolian steppes and some more rocky landscapes which could have been located on some faraway planet (wormholes are a thing). Sophie regretted the horse riding quite quickly though, as the family who got us the horses only owned Mongolian saddles, which are solely made out of wood. That didn’t seem to bother our horse guide though, who was only 5 years old and was probably born on a horse.

 

6174661296_IMG_13076174661296_IMG_1402

 

Day 5 and 6 – knifes in the Big Gobi. We reached the Gobi National Park on Sophie’s birthday. After stocking up on some water and food in Dalanzagadad, the only town around in hundreds of kilometers, we entered the National Park and went for a hike in Yolyn Am Gorge. This narrow and steep gorge provides an oasis in the desert with a river and lots of greenery. Due to the high valley walls, the temperature inside the gorge is considerably lower and ice survives every year inside the valley until July. Somehow Manolo managed to smuggle a bottle of champagne inside the valley without Sophie noticing, and after cooling it down in the river, Sophie got to celebrate her birthday in style.

The next morning, after our driver lost his temper and all hell broke loose (read more about that here), we drove 200 km into the Gobi desert, to see the famous Khongoryn Els or singing sand dunes. While the Gobi desert is obviously a desert, it is not the sandy kind, but rather a dry rocky land covered with some grasses and white flowers, the Khongoryn Els are the only sandy part, with sand piled up to 300 m high, 12 km wide and 100 km long. It gives the word sand castle a new meaning. Climbing to the top of this enormous pile of sand was extremely exhausting, as the sand dunes are rather steep, and every step forwards is rewarded with the sand where you are standing on sliding downwards. We made it to the top though after a tiresome 45 minutes, after which we were rewarded with the most beautiful sunset.

 

6245848064_IMG_1436

 

Day 7 and 8 – catching our breath after too much adventure. After the sand dunes and a little hostage situation, we decided we had had enough adventure for a little bit and our driver dropped us off in Dalanzagadad, from where we took the bus to Ulaan Bataar the next day. Though we were sad to cut our trip short, we were happy to arrive to Ulaan Bataar where we could finally take a hot shower after these 8 days and wash off all the Gobi dust.

Mongolia – amazing landscapes and knifes

We wanted this trip to be full of adventures, and traveling Mongolia was definitely one big adventure. Though sadly not always the good kind of adventure… A story of knifes and extortion.

For those of you not familiar with Mongolia, traveling by yourself in Mongolia is difficult to nearly impossible. Public transport is limited to buses and minivans between ‘big’ cities*, making it impossible to visit the countryside, which is where the true beauty of Mongolia lies. Renting a car to drive around the country by yourself is also difficult. First of all, it is difficult to find a car for rent, and second, Mongolian ‘roads’ are often not much more than little bumpy dirt paths cutting through the endless steppe with of course no road signs indicating where you are or where to go. Adding on top of that the incredible emptiness and remoteness of the country and the very harsh climate (even in summer), and driving through Mongolia by yourself is like a Russian roulette of badly getting lost, running out of petrol before encountering any petrol station and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere because of a punctured tire or engine breakdown. While most Mongolians are quite friendly, helpful and hospitable people, none of those characteristics are useful if there is no living soul to be found in kilometers and kilometers.

So to see Mongolia, we were left with the option of joining an organized group tour or renting a car with an experienced Mongolian driver. As we like our independence and wanted to visit some non-standard tourist places, we chose the latter. We talked to some people, asked some price quotations to different companies, and in the end we ended up getting a driver through Travel Mongolia, a travel agency that many travelers we met recommended to us.

We met the driver the day before leaving, discussed our plans and itinerary with him (and the travel agency who was helping to translate) and took a test ride in his Toyota LandCruiser. The next morning, the driver picked us up together with two other girls we met that would join our trip. Everything seemed great, and we were excited about our trip. Sadly, that feeling wouldn’t last…

photo 16-08-2017, 11 15 09
Excited about our trip, before we had any idea of what was coming.

Fast forward to day 6 of our trip together. So far the trip had been great, we had seen lots of amazing places in beautiful Mongolia, and our travel buddies turned out to be great company. There had been some tension with our driver at times, but we thought this was because of misunderstandings due to his limited English and our non-existing Mongolian. Getting ready to visit the 300m tall sand dunes of the Gobi desert, our German travel companion Ina wanted to discuss the route we would take with our driver. Though he had seemed to like her so far, somehow he exploded (we are still wondering about the reason). The situation escalated very fast, and he started shouting things in Mongolian.

The lovely Mongolian guide of a group of Korean tourists that were staying in the same ger camp as us saw we were in a bit of a situation and offered to translate. Soon we started to understand that we had a big problem. Our driver refused to continue driving with the four of us in his car as apparently he didn’t like our two travel companions. He only wanted to continue driving with the two of us. Calling the travel agency and asking them to mediate didn’t help. Even though they told us before leaving that we could call them any moment for help with translating or anything else, that clearly turned out to be an empty promise. Explaining the situation to them, we got a lecture on how badly we were treating our driver and how disappointed they were in us instead of help.

Talking to our driver through the guide of the Koreans who was translating, we started to understand the underlying problem little by little. Apparently the agency did not tell the driver we would be four people instead of two, and he had been unhappy with this from the start. He hadn’t want to start the trip with all four of us, but when he contacted the agency, they convinced him to go with it. Of course no one told us any of this. The longer we were traveling, the grumpier the driver got with the situation, until he exploded. Confronted with an ultimatum – continuing without our travel companions or not continuing at all and losing the money of the rest of the trip (we had to prepay the whole amount) – we chose the first option as we thought the driver would be happier and the rest of the trip would be nice.

6174661296_IMG_1278
When we still had a normal, happy driver.

We informed the driver about our decision and our travel companion Nancy went to take her stuff out of the car. Apparently she closed the door of the car too strongly, after which the driver got even angrier and lost his temper completely, slapped her in the face and kicked her in the leg. She returned crying to the ger where we were getting ready to leave, and the driver followed her, taking out a knife, pointing it at her and Ina and shouting: “Where is my money? Where is my money?”. (It is surprising how people that speak very little English all of a sudden remember how to speak English using full sentences when they need something.)

After calming down the situation, we called the travel agency again, explaining them what happened. Again they were no help at all. “So if I would have taken out a knife and we would have killed each other, you wouldn’t mind?” “No, it’s your problem, not mine.”

Not wanting to lose the money of the remainder of the trip, and having Manolo’s sister join us on our trip two days later, we decided to continue our trip with the driver. What a mistake that was. After saying goodbye to Ina and Nancy, we drove into the Gobi desert 200 km, to see the Khongoryn Els or singing sand dunes and spend the night there. Randomly, we ended up in the same ger camp as the Korean tourists we met before. Their very nice guide informed about our situation, and we updated her on what happened after they left. We decided to cut our trip short after she told us the driver had been complaining about us to the owners of the ger camp and he was still very angry. Together we tried to figure out our options.

IMG_1938
Though Mongolia turned out to be a tricky mistress, it is still the most beautiful country on earth.

Our options quickly turned out to be very limited. As the agency didn’t want to help, we had to cut a deal with our driver. He proposed to drive us back to the capital Ulaan Bataar, but this would take two days and we had to keep paying for the petrol ($100). Or he could drop us off in the nearest city from which we could take a bus to the capital but this would cost us $100 (on top of all the money of the rest of the trip that we would not get refunded). His final proposition was that we would pay him $100 and he would just leave us there. All three options seemed outrageous to us, as it seems normal to us that you don’t have to keep paying for a service after the person providing the service threatens your life… As we didn’t want to spend another two days in the car with him (and we weren’t sure he would actually take us back to Ulaan Bataar and not drop us off somewhere in the middle of nowhere to ask for more money), we were forced to choose the second option. Just leaving the place and getting rid of the driver without paying was not possible, as it was impossible to find anyone who would drive us to the city, thanks to the lies the driver told everyone about us. Walking to another ger camp where no one knew us also seeemed dangerous, as chances of the driver realizing what we were doing and driving over us with his car were not small (it is difficult to hide when there are zero trees or buildings around and the terrain is completely flat, making it possible to see a person from tens of kilometers away). It became clear that we would either have to pay or we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the place. We slept very badly that night.

Still trying to come up with a better solution, the guide of the Koreans told us the next morning that they had to leave soon and that we should make sure not to be the only tourists in the ger camp, as the family owning the camp turned out to be friends of our driver. Being the only ones there together with our driver and his friends would put us in a dangerous situation where they could ask for any amount of money and there would be nothing we could do about it (law enforcement is a hollow word in a country where the closest police station is probably 200 km away, mobile phones rarely have reception and the closest neighbor lives only 3 km further if you are lucky).

Choosing our lives over our principles and money, we hopped in the car with our driver, making it seem like we would pay the extra money he wanted once we would arrive to the city 200 km further. The car ride was hell, but once we started approaching the city we sometimes had a little bit of cell phone coverage, allowing us to WhatsApp our family and ask for help. Sophie’s dad contacted the Belgian authorities while Manolo’s sister tried to contact the Spanish ones. Meanwhile we arrived to the city, and after taking our stuff out of the car, our driver started asking for his money. As if it had been planned perfectly, we then got a call from the Belgian consul in Mongolia. Our driver understood that we were not going to be extorted and held hostage without putting up a fight, and he called the agency and went to sit in his car as he knew this might take a while (maybe this wasn’t his first time playing this game?). The consul called the travel agency and tried to sort out the situation. All of a sudden they changed their attitude from ‘this is not our problem’ to ‘let’s make a deal’. After lots of phone calls back and forth between us, the consul, the travel agency and the driver, a deal was made. The driver drove away without us having to pay extra and we could finally breathe freely again.

* Note: the second largest city of Mongolia only counts 83,000 inhabitants, giving the concept of big city a new meaning.

6174661296_IMG_1308
Even though we were a bit unlucky and we saw an ugly side of Mongolia, the thing to remember from Mongolia are the very wide smiles, kindness of strangers and absolute beauty.