Mongolia has been on my travel wish list for a very long time, but I FINALLY managed to tick it off a couple of months ago with a spectacular eight day road trip through the Gobi Desert and Central Mongolia. A fascinating country with hugely diverse lifestyles and scenery, from the breathtaking snowy Altai mountains, lush green National Parks, glowing red ‘Flaming Cliffs’, other-worldly ‘White Stupa’ formations and the towering sand dunes of the Gobi. Bordered by both China and Russia, Mongolia’s countryside, with its traditional Nomadic families, is a far cry from its bustling capital of Ulaanbaatar which is unapologetically hurtling forward into modern life. Many young people idolise Western culture and enjoy a consumerist society, which is clear to see in this rapidly changing city.
If you love adventure and being outdoors, it’s impossible not to fall in love with this country’s vast, remote and rugged terrain. Add traditional Nomadic families and a good handful of legendary Mongolian hospitality to the mix and you can’t go wrong!
To explore Mongolia’s countryside, most people will either hire a driver and a car or will join an organised tour/ itinerary. We decided to go through our hostel to make our lives easier and to enable us to prebook as we had a limited number of days to work with. We stayed at Danista Nomads in Ulaanbaatar and, using their website, decided which tour we liked the look of. Emailing a few weeks in advance, I booked the three of us on to the 8 day Central Mongolia & Gobi Desert tour. I didn’t need to pay anything upfront and we were free to tweak the itinerary as much as we wanted, where possible. We ended up sticking to the original itinerary and it was incredible! We opened our tour to others and were joined by two others from the hostel, which dropped the price for us from $75 a day to $60 a day.
Here’s what we got up to in the first two days of our Mongolia tour with Danista Nomads…..
After four clear, sunny days in Ulaanbaatar, we were very surprised to wake up and find SNOW! Outside the hostel, we were greeted by our driver and tour guide, and the shiny green Soviet van we would be spending most of the next week in! Loading our backpacks into the trunk, we piled into the van and set off for our first stop – Baga Gazriin Chuluu. On the way we stopped at a local market to pick up some produce for the next few lunches and dinners. I was a bit worried about food – Mongolia is known for being a bit of a vegan nightmare – LOTS of mutton, horse meat, fermented milks and cheeses making up a large portion of a Nomadic diet. Luckily our guide was especially lovely and super willing to make us some tasty food! I accompanied her around the market, helping her carry the groceries and keeping my eyes open for meal inspiration. I spotted a couple of packets of firm tofu, loads of veggie and oats – perfect! I also bought a couple of packets of mock meat with me from a surprisingly well-stocked section of an Ulaanbaatar supermarket.
Arriving at Baga Gazriin Chuluu’s rugged mountains, strange granite formations and caves, we had half an hour to explore, breaking up our first long day of driving. We also visited the ruins of an old monastery, established by “Zaya” Damdin, a famous researcher of ancient history and religion. It all looked especially pretty in the snow! We stopped off for lunch in the middle of nowhere, setting up fold out tables and chairs from the van and enjoying not being able to see anything for miles in every direction.
We arrived at our camp around 4.30pm and had our first taste of life in a Ger! The Nomadic couple who were staying in the neighbouring tent (one of whom was the local, highly respected ‘Keeper of the Land’) rushed over when we arrived, so they could get the fire burning inside our Ger to warm up our icy toes. Loading the stove with manure (yum!), we were soon feeling toasty thanks to the amazing insulation within these portable houses. Our lovely guide Oyuka cooked up a delicious tofu noodle soup for dinner, with mutton for the meat eaters.
After dinner, Oyuka taught us a traditional Mongolia game called ‘Ankle Bones’. The name gives it away, but we were still all surprised (and grossed out…) when she produced a giant bag of sheep ankle bones!! Once a sheep has been killed for meat, every part is utilised – the meat eaten, wool used for housing insulation and the ankle bones kept for this game. It also kind of represents status. Someone with a large collection of ankle bones is to be admired in Mongolian culture. The games revolves around the fact the ankle bones look slightly different from four different angles. When thrown, they either land face up, face down, on their left side or on their right side. These four sides represent four animals – horse, sheep, goat and camel and are used to calculate different points when thrown. It’s a game of luck, but it’s also used to determine a person’s character. When you throw four, the combination of animals is said to say something about your personality and future!
Our van wasn’t feeling too good after a freezing night in the snow and was refusing to start! Our driver Gamba spent the morning working hard to get it up and running again whilst we explored our surroundings and tucked into a breakfast of fruit, bread and jam. With a little help from our Nomadic hosts, the van was up and running again and we were soon back on the road. It was a longgg day of driving today, stopping for lunch and to take some photos of a herd of camels spotted on the way.
In the afternoon we stopped off at Tsagaan Suvraga, aka the White Stupa cliffs. These other-worldly formations look like something you’d see on Mars! Over millions of years, these legendary cliffs have been eroded into different coloured layers which represent different time zones. The sheer drop and stripy slopes used to be under the sea; as the water gradually disappeared, multiple layers were created. It’s pretty breathtaking!
This night we stayed with a Nomadic family in one of their Gers. The family included Grandad, Mum, Dad, their daughter and her two small children of 2 and just 10 days! All living in the one small Ger. The family were lovely – so welcoming. We all squished in and sat cross-legged on the rugs on the floor and were offered a variety of traditional Mongolian foods and drinks. This included biscuits, horse meat dumplings, fermented camel’s milk and blocks of sheep curd. Luckily I had Oyuka to politely translate that I didn’t want any of the above! This was one of my biggest worries about travelling to Mongolia as I’d read that it was very offensive to turn down any offerings, but it was completely fine and the family were probably very used to tourists saying no as they often have tour groups passing through. They laughed and had the attitude of ‘great, more for us!’.
In the evening, everyone played cards and enjoyed a few beers thanks to some super cheap two litre bottles that we picked up in the supermarket the day before. The stars were particularly special this night and I tried to capture the moment on my camera, but as with most things, it looked so much better in real life! Oyuka cooked up a fantastic meal of spicy ‘chicken’ with rice and we settled down for another night in a Ger.