24/09/2016 – 12/10/2016
The green carriers looked exactly like in the pictures. We had been looking forward to get on board of this train for such a long time, and now this moment was finally here. “Beijing – Ulaanbataar” was written on the side of every wagon in clear white letters. The Transmongolian express took us out of warm, crowded China, packed with touristic attractions and delicious food and into the cold blue skies of Mongolia with nothing but mutton as local delicacy.
The train ride lasted 27 hours, but with the entire carrier to ourselves and plenty of work to do in our photo selecions and travel planning the time flew by. By the time we were thinking of going to bed in our surprisingly comfortable “hard sleepers” we reached the border crossing. The tracks in both countries have a different width which makes the crossing rather complex. Every carrier is lifted almost two meters above the ground in order to get a different set of wheels while all the passengers stay on board. It all seems terribly inefficient but it is quite spectacular and it gives the border patrol plenty of time to stamp our passports (4 hours).
Backpacking on a small budget isn’t easy in Mongolia. The country has only a few attractions spread over thousands of kilometres with limited to no access of public transport. Outside of the cities there are only dirt road tracks which makes navigation a true challenge. The preffered choise of travel for most tourists is thus a fully guided tour or renting a car with driver. The same rule applies to both options: if more people join it gets cheaper for everyone.
So the first days were spend visiting several tour agencies and hostels looking for fellow travellers. On the end of day two we had formed a group of four to travel to the Golden Eagle Festival in the far western region of the country. Together with the driver, the Mongolian guide and her uninvited boyfriend we spend four full days shacking in an old Russian minivan. River crossings two feet deep, wild vultures, eagles and hordes of cattle on the road formed a pleasant distraction from the otherwise bare landscape. More and more we were longing for the evenings which we’d spend with local nomadic families. They welcomed us with salty milk thee and cheese in their traditional yurts and we would thank them with a bottle of wodka that swiftly earased all language barriers.
Finally we reached the festival! Something we had been looking forward to for over a year. The whole event was at risk till the last minute due to an outbreak of food and mouth disease in the region, but the government had placed the touristic value over the potential health risks so our long journey wasn’t a waste of time. Over one hundered eagle hunters gathered together in the amazing setting of the Olgii valley, all of them dressed out in full traditional costumes. Visitors were allowed to get up close to the participants who in return happily struck a pose for the pictures. During the day they competed with eachother in eagle obeyance, bow shooting and coin picking while riding a horse. All this in combination with the breathtaking scenery made it a day we will never forget. In the evening we attended a traditional Kazakh music and dance performance and were invited for a welcoming diner by our host family. It was a very kind gesture but eating with our unwashed hands out of one shared plate of meat was not very stimulating for our appetite. Luckily we could enjoy the excellent cooking skills of our guide all the other days.
We took a plane back to Ulaanbataar and immediately started our search for new travel partners to discover Central-Mongolia in the days we had left. Because our last guide her guiding skills were completely opposite to her cooking skills we decided to only pay for a rented vehicle and a driver this time and save money by cooking ourselves.
Within a day we found two perfect travel buddies, an excellent local driver and a luxurious Toyota Landcruiser. Because we’ve had enough of the long days with nothing but driving in the wilderness we set out for a more relaxed program this time. The first destination was the small Gobi Desert. We arrived here well in time to make a nice hike on a nearby hill and explore the sand dunes on a camel’s back. We woke up with sore legs the next day but it was well worth it. After a short visit to the Erdenezuu monastery where the rhythmic chanting of the Buddhist monks galmed trough the freezing air we were able to relax our stiff leggs in the steaming hot waters of the Tsenkher Hot Springs. Sharing a hot spring with three beautiful girls while it was snowing and enjoying a cold beer, yes, it was a good day.
Winter had arrived and it had made road conditions even worse. Mud and ice didn’t offer much traction for our Landcruiser, but thanks to our skilled driver we arrived safely at the Ulaan Tsutgalan Waterfal before sunset. The most famous waterfall of Mongolia didn’t disappoint, surrounded by countless of icicles and snow covered pine trees it actually looked pretty magical. We stoked a nice fire in the stove of our cozy yurt and the host family gave us extra blankets and traditional clothing to keep ourselves warm. Still, we decided to shorten the planned horsetrek ride to the nearby Eight Lakes from 3 days to 2 days. Despite the cold and the guide who used his whip way to often on the horses it was a beautiful and enjoyable two days riding trough the snow covered volcanic landscape and yellow colored pine forest.
We said goodbye to the horses and the host family, and because we had said goodbye to our driver few days earlier we had to take the public bus back to the capital. It was remarkable to see how well these big busses maneuver on dirt roads, crossing rivers and all.
Before we left the country we paid tribute to the greatest Mongolian that ever lived. The Genghis Khan Statue Complex is the biggest horse statue in the world. An elevator brings you up through the tail from where you can walk upon a viewing platform on the horse’s head. From here we enjoyed once more the bare landscapes of Mongolia, a view that would stand in sharp contrast with the skyline of our next destination: the South Korean capital with 20 million people, Seoul!