The bumpy roads of Mongolia
Endless steppe and swampy pastures, windy desert and untouched rocky mountains, noodle-soup and fermented horse milk, boundless horizons and crystal-clear lakes, herds of horses, yaks, goats and sheep, countless eagles and vultures, indifferent looking camels and hustling little marmots, a language you just give up upon at some point and never ending bumpy roads.
To experience Mongolia with its abundance of natural beauty you need time and patience. You have to be willing to surrender yourself to unforeseen circumstances and to distance yourself from a strict itinerary and certain expectations on what “sights” you want to see. If you manage to do that, you will most certainly be captivated by the magnificent untouched nature, which this country has to offer. In fact this is true for travelling anywhere as far as I'm concerned, but even more so in Mongolia.
Before entering Mongolia, we were quite clueless on how to travel in the least populated country in the world. (…) Then a few days before leaving Russia, we met a couple from Paris in Irkutsk, confronted with the same question and they asked us if we were keen on traveling Mongolia together. Being a bit hesitant at first and struggling with our individualistic travel mindsets, we eventually felt it would be a cool idea to share the great experiences we would have with others and apart from that individualistic budget traveling is nearly impossible in Mongolia as it turned out.
In order to really experience this magnificent country in all its complexity and many-sided facets, you can basically choose between three ways of traveling
Book a tour (quite expensive and not very appealing for individualist travelers)
Rent a 4x4 (a very new and exciting thing in Mongolia but still quite expensive, about 200€ per day)
Rent a car with a driver (the cheapest and prevalent option and a good compromise between option 1 and 2)
Having travelled daily with all means of transportation (hitchhiking, bus, train, blablacar) for 8 weeks, all three options seemed like quite a commitment for our individualistic mindsets. In the end the four of us decided to go with the third option and we got warm with the idea of being chauffeured around the country for 18 days.
Our driver, Sanja, really made the difference. He has been driving through all of Mongolia for the past 15 years and he knows his way around in the most alienated parts of the country. He spoke a few words of English, but communication often enough doesn´t need words. His humor is supreme, we had great laughs and our Mongolian vocabulary increased roughly one word per day so that after a few days we were able to greet, say Thank you and name all kinds of animals that crossed our path on the bumpy roads of Mongolia and shout out the words sun (narr) and moon (sarr) when they appeared in the morning and at night respectively. It needs to be noted that Mongolian is one of the most difficult languages that I ever tried to speak or lets say imitate and people always sound slightly angry even when they are telling a joke. Danish in comparison is a real melody and after a few days in Beijing, Chinese pronunciation in comparison seems like a peace of cake.
So this was the frame: A local driver, 18 days, and a rough itinerary of the places we wanted to visit.
It´s hard to find the right words to describe our trip in a way, that brings the experiences and events across accurately. From our European point of view, where distances are short, it seems crazy to drive 3000km with an average pace of 40 km/h on 90% bumpy roads in 18 days. If you want to visit Mongolia, you have to consider it part of the experience and that´s exactly what it was.
You drive through the endless dry desert for hours without seeing one tree let alone people, just to get stuck in a mud hole due to a dried out lake that disappears every summer and that we didn´t take notice of.
You stop at a random ger (a nomadic tent also called yurt in other places) in the middle of nowhere and you are welcomed with pure hospitality – not because we were foreign but because it is inherent in their culture. You get offered Mongolian milk tea, delicious yak yogurt, a strange tasting type of cheese and some times they even start preparing the popular and always present Mongolian noodle-soup for you, which you can´t refuse. You eat, you talk (we tried…), you assure yourself that you are driving in the right direction, you say thank you and you go your way. Mongolia is known for its hospitality and to experience the warmth and kindness of its people first hand (always maintaining a respectful distance at the same time), left a lasting impression and urged the question of how we, as Germans or Europeans, treat strangers and foreigners, when asking us for a favor, a cup of tea or let alone when knocking on our door…
You hike up a rocky mountain without any tracks only to discover that where you imagined a peak you reached a seemingly infinite plateau whose end you cannot see. Pure awe striking silence. After pausing for a minute, embracing the moment, you move on, stoked of joy.
You wake up in the desert after a windy night and you notice that your sleeping bag, your backpack, your hair, your entire tent is full of sand. You take a careful look out of the tent. The wind has silent and the first sunrays of the day are softly touching your face. Another beautiful day is about to begin.
You stop in the middle of nowhere because the day approaches its end, you set up your tent, collect wood, make a bonfire, listen to the sounds of nature around you and go to bed when the moonlight is taking control over the darkness that the disappearing sun left behind. You live by the natural rhythm of day and night.
You climb up a hill with the first sunrays of the day and you surprise three eagles sitting on a rock within a distance of three meters, who didn´t expect company this morning. They look at you equally staggered and one by one they are spreading its wings and flying away.
You watch a beautiful sunset with intense colors of red, when four horses cross the green swampy pasture just before the sun would start to disappear at the horizon. Time stops and you realize that you are witnessing pure natural beauty. You feel one with nature, while the horses have already moved on.
Your loved one sits on your lab and you stare into the crackling flames of the bonfire together, warming each other, listening to the quietness of the peaceful night. You look at each other – humbled and grateful. No words needed.
The clock turns midnight, it´s your birthday and three German/Swiss tourists, you just met a couple hours ago, secretly baked a delicious cake for you in their campervan. What a warmhearted and unexpected surprise.
It´s still your birthday and Sanja, our driver, when taking notice of the insignificant event at night, he cooks a traditional Mongolian soup for you, even though he just ate, putting in all the ingredients he had handy, including lots of love…
When traveling Mongolia, you soon realize that it is not about where you go, it´s about opening up your heart and waking up your soul to the beauty of its diverse untouched nature, the kindness of its people and the appreciation of the present moment. Isn´t that what life is about anyway?!
After our 18-day road trip through the country the four of us split ways in Mörön, the fifth largest city of the country, in the northwest of Mongolia. Our last 9 days, before we had to leave the country, we spent at the beautiful Khövsgöl Nuur, a crystal-clear lake, roughly 5 times the size of Lake Constance, with drinking water quality (also known as the little brother of the Lake Baikal in Russia). We went on a horse riding track for three days until we couldn´t sit no more, hiked across a spectacular mountain range with breathtaking views over the lake and “bathed” in the ice-cold water. A beautiful ending of an unforgettable time in a country full of natural beauty.
Being in nature for so many weeks and experiencing countless moments when Mother Earth strikes you with its pure pristine beauty, sets your soul on fire, it makes you humble, awful, thoughtful and grateful – it makes you feel you belong. You know you belong.
Bayarlalaa, Mongolia! Thank you, Mongolia!
Note 1: If you ever plan on visiting Mongolia or if you are curious to know more details, feel free to contact us with any questions. We are happy to share our experiences.
Note 2: A travel report about Mongolia would be incomplete without shedding some light on the country´s history and the significance of its geographical location to better understand the Mongolia we are experiencing today. Look out for the next blog post.