My mild obsession with Mongolia began 16 years ago. I spent a semester studying in Moscow, Russia and visited Lake Baikal in the east with a friend from Sweden. The southern part of the lake is not far from the Mongolian border and we wanted to visit, but we didn’t have enough time. Later that year, when I returned to the states, I visited a museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There was a life sized yurt set up, complete with furniture and decorations, and I was intrigued. I’d wanted to visit ever since and the more I’ve learned, the longer I’ve wanted to stay.
The excitement of visiting a new place never fades. I couldn’t wait to leave Beijing, but the torrential downpours really put a damper on my last day there and I was afraid my flight would be delayed. I checked and checked my flight status all day: On Time. So, around 8:30 pm I left the apartment for my 2:00 am flight. I wanted to be sure I made the last airport express train and I simply didn’t mind being early. I had a cup of coffee and prepared myself for the all nighter I was about to pull. I was honestly giddy with excitement! When we took off, I smiled and let out a sight of relief- my next adventure was beginning. And I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who goes to Mongolia?” I looked around at the people on my flight. Mostly Asians, but I can’t tell who’s who or from where they may be. Chinese and Mongolian, the languages I could decipher, and there were a few westerners. I wanted to ask everyone what they were doing and why, but I didn’t. The flight takes two hours, but we arrived at 5:00 am as Ulan Bator is one hour ahead of Beijing. (China apparently does its own thing with time because Seoul is in the same time zone as Ulan Bator). I was drained, but the adrenaline was flowing. I exchanged my last American dollars, and had another cup of coffee. I didn’t want to go find my host at 6:00 am and I met a young American student, so we took a taxi to her hostel (all the people at the airport said there were no busses. I didn’t buy it, but didn’t know the way and was able to split the cost, so it was $5.00). We saw horses on the side of the road. Rolling hills all around, covered in what looks like a big green carpet. “This is going to be awesome!” I said to myself.
I made my way into the unknown and set out to find my host. His detailed directions worked and the door was open! Two of his daughters and two other travelers were there. I was exhausted but excited to see and learn but we didn’t know what to do. Yuri, a 24 year old Korean, and I, walked to a small, local restaurant attached to a grocery store and played charades while I tried to decipher the Mongolian menu to order food. Not too long after, we hiked up one of the green hills behind the ger with Kadma, the 11 year old daughter. The afternoon was thankfully uneventful as I was going on nearly 32 hours without sleep, but we stayed up late. Darkness at this latitude does not set in until past 10:00 pm and by the time we finished making dinner, getting ready for bed, and making up the sleeping area, it was well past 11:00.
Life in the Ger.
I recently became interested in the tiny home movement and am fairly certain I want one whenever I return to the United States. I feel like I’m learning to live with less and never used all the space in my house, so something small seems ideal. I feel now, however, that this ger experience is definitely helping me whittle down what “amenities” are most important! Life in the ger is tough. There is no running water, no washing machine, dryer, or dishwasher, they heat by fire, so if you light one, you’ll always smell like smoke, no showers, no toilets, no TVs or major appliances that we are accustomed to in our Western ways, and kitchen/cooking supplies are basic. Doing simple things are time consuming. Do you need to go to the bathroom? Put your boots/shoes on, walk down the hill a bit, and go outside in the wooden box. Come back and wash your hands, but if there isn’t any water left in the wash basin, take another 15 steps to the ger to get water to fill it. Walk back to put the buck down so it doesn’t get dirty by the wash basin, then go back. Getting ready for bed takes me about twenty minutes and that’s doing minimal! And, if I heat up water in the kettle to put in the wash basin, it really feels like a treat to have hot water! The ger is small and open, so there is minimal space for storage, so you better make sure that whatever you do have is very useful and versatile! I’m 100% sure that I want some small washer/dryer combo in my tiny home. I don’t need a dishwasher! Hand washing clothes is one thing, but depending on the weather, they may take forever to dry.
The girls in my Mongolian host family are smart, kind, welcoming, and beautiful. Their English is perfect and at 9, 11, and 14 years old, they are so incredibly responsible! The oldest daughter volunteers at the education center and teaches English. The 11 year old makes bread every evening for breakfast the next day, and they all help out with chores, wash their own laundry, and can travel into town and back on their own! They live without TV and all of the toys, electronics, and games that many western children are spoiled with. They are a joy to be around. I want Kadma to know that she can visit me any time in my tiny home once I return to the states and be my part time Mongolian daughter!
Ulan Bator is the capital city of Mongolia. There are about three million people who live in this wide open area comparable to the size of Alaska, and nearly half live in the city. Mongolia is known as the Blue Sky country, but the air quality is poor and there is often a haze that hangs over the city. Temperatures between day and night can be extreme, with a 40 degree difference sometimes. Many people only light fires to heat, and the main fuel source otherwise is coal, which is quite a pollutant. Seeing as I’m not big into cities and we didn’t have any real work to do at the ger, I had to get out of UB for a bit.
Walking into the unknown without a plan: Terelj National Park
The girl at the Tourist Information Center in the State Department Store in UB said to catch bus 4 at 4:00 to go to Terelj. It’s the 3rd largest national park in Mongolia and it’s just outside of UB and is a popular destination for tourists as it’s fairly close to the city. I threw a few things in my small bag, grabbed my sleeping bag, bought a few simple groceries like canned tuna, almonds, and some German “muesli biscuits,” and looked for the bus stop. Yup, there were some westerners waiting and I met a traveler from Belgium. We chatted for a while and were approached on the bus by a couple exploring from France. None of us had accommodations but had heard we may find a ger. Prices are set for the whole ger per night, so the more people you have, the cheaper it is. And there I was, walking down some dirt road through a small valley, amongst emerald green rolling hills dotted with horses and cattle, listening to people speak French, and simply gazing in awe at the scenery around me. Eventually, we found an open ger. 10,000 tugrik/person/night. With food, another 4,000. None of us had dinner and the Mongolian host was willing to whip us up some grub. It was almost 8:00 pm and I had a small meal at 2:30. I was ravenous. We’ll take it! For the equivalent of $7.00 per night, we had a place to stay with a bed (we don’t have beds in the ger in UB), and a meal. By 9:00, dinner was served, a hearty mutton soup with potatoes, carrots, glass noodles, and a typical thin fried bread. I devoured it. Finally, some food! We all chatted for a while and told our stories of why we are traveling. My new companions are from France, Belgium, and Boliva/Britian, and all speak English perfectly. The great thing is, they understand whatever French/Spanish jibberish that comes out of my mouth and I’m keeping my brain busy with all of the different languages around me. I try a few words in Mongolian with the lady here, but she speaks Russian as well. As I settle in to sleep, I can hear the horses not far from the ger, “neighing” in the night. I hope I can go riding!
My full day at the park was great and full of activity. We went up to the little mini mart to get water for our day in the hills and set off shortly after. We had plans to go horseback riding around 5:00 and in addition, I hiked around a little more to see some more scenery (sometimes I can’t get enough). Our host served us some type of noodle dish with a few veggies and lamb. We were all pretty beat so we just relaxed in the ger. I’ve been reading a lot lately and don’t really miss TV or Netflix. In fact, hadn’t thought about it until now!
There’s nothing like a full shower! That was the greatest gift to myself for my birthday! When the bus arrived from Terelj, I did stop into Wendy Cafe. I had coffee and a pastry- that was actually my gift to myself!