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Since only a small part of Mongolia’s road network is paved and one needs some serious inside knowledge to navigate the myriad of dirt roads, travelling Mongolia on your own can be a challenge. I know people who have managed alone, but since I only had three weeks left in Mongolia after Naadam was over, I knew I had to make the most of my time there and needed that little bit of extra help from some knowledgeable local guides. That’s why I decided to suck it up and for the first time in forever, join a tour and head to southern Mongolia with a group of people.
The company I chose was Sunpath Mongolia, a hostel and tour operator located in Ulaanbaatar, which is run by a lovely and very helpful lady named Dolgmaa. It was also by far the cheapest option and promised lots of customizable tours and local experiences, which of course, is always a bonus.
In the end, five of us headed out on an eight day tour to the Gobi, a comfortably small group that found room in an old, bright blue Russian minibus. Stuffed in the back were a few changes of clothes, warm sweaters, a big supply of wet wipes and all the tents, camping gear and provisions provided by Sunpath. As we headed out of town and into the grasslands, I knew I had made a good decision.
The first thing I noticed after leaving the outskirts of polluted and noisy Ulaanbaatar, was the timelessness of the endless grassy landscapes under these puffy, white clouds. When the rumbling engine shut off next to an ovoo, a shamanistic cairn made of rocks, wood, blue pieces of fabric, bones and a fair share of vodka bottles, for the first time in several months, there was no honking, noise and yelling crowds. There was just beautiful, blissful silence.
As told, we walked around the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction, throwing three rocks of our own onto the pile and wishing for a safe journey. It is one of several Mongolian superstitions about travel, another one being the rule that one is never, ever allowed to ask how long it takes to get somewhere. Trying not to curse our bright blue ride to the Gobi, we all did our best to not give in to this urge, as we bounced and rattled our way south on potholey tracks for hours on end.
As we got further south, the engine started overheating more often due to the rising temperatures and while our tireless driver tried to cool it down again with water, I often took the chance to wander around outside a bit. The landscapes were simply stunning wherever I looked. In the evenings, we stopped and stayed with nomad families. Three or four white dots in the landscape usually suggested that a family kept an additional ger for guests and it was ok for us to go up and ask for shelter. We were fed with goat, milk, and cheese, delicious Mongolian pancakes and hearty stews. And when I wasn’t eating, I tried learning about the nomad lifestyle. I found out that mares are milked every two hours, that a stallion’s mane is always left uncut to preserve the spirit of the horse and I learned how long it takes to build a ger. When it was bedtime, I wrapped myself up in a thick sleeping bag and stretched out on one of the hard beds inside the ger, got pelted by moths trying to find a way out and fell asleep to nothing but silence.
One night, we set up tents next to the Ongiin River and were able to enjoy our only bath during an otherwise, dusty and sweaty week. We visited the Ongiin Khiid Monastery, stood on the Flaming Cliffs and climbed the Singing Dunes in the Gobi, huge sand ridges that emit a booming sound during strong winds. It took me almost an hour to climb the largest dune, a hike that almost killed me, but also provided spectacular views over the Gobi Desert. At night, I grabbed my tripod and camera and went outside to shoot the Milky Way. Since Mongolia has only 3 million inhabitants and many of them live in the capital, there is zero light pollution and I have never before seen the nebulas so pronounced and the stars so bright.
On one of our last days, we hiked in Yolyn Am, the Valley of the Vultures, and it is the Bearded Vultures that live high up in the peaks, which give the valley its name. They are always circling in the air and looking for food, but rarely come close enough for a photo. On the ground though, hundreds of gerbils populate the lush landscape and scatter in all directions as soon as they see visitors approach.
In the Terelj National Park, located only about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, I only spared Turtle Rock a passing glance and wasn’t impressed by the big tourist camps, shops and accommodations sprouting up everywhere, but enjoyed riding horses and hiking up to the Aryabal Meditation Temple. The latter is located up on one of the hillsides and along the way, visitors can spin a fortune wheel, get meditation tips and read Buddhist wisdoms on billbords such as “consider it a great fortune that you have woken up alive and healthy this morning and not ben taken by the Lord of Death” and “to overwhelm the mental afflictions one should react quickly as if a snake crawled in your lap and cut its head off instantly”. Charming.
We ended our tour, quite a bit stinkier and hairier than we started, at a gigantic, silver Genghis Khan statue. High up and staring Ghenghis in the eyes, I enjoyed my last hour of silence.