The Gobi Desert • Terelj National Park
OUR TRIP: Hiking • laughing, • camel riding • laughing • horseback riding • laughing • story telling laughing • sundowners
MONGOIA: Wide open • rugged • frontier • sparsely populated • unspoiled • big sky
MONGOLIANS: welcoming • warm • funny • hearty
When people ask me what is the one thing I enjoyed most about Mongolia, I only have one answer… the people. I don’t mean the Mongolian people; the six other sojourners – Jane, Girvan, Peter, Robin, John and Kim. When I first shook hands with each of them and introduced myself, we were all so formal and polite. “Hi. My name is Kristen. I’m an architect.” etc. etc. Then at the first dinner or lunch, we would have some more polite sharing of conversation about where we live or what we do for work. Shortly after those first few days, the walls begin to break down and pretty soon, nothing is sacred. Everyone and everything is open for discussion. You start poking fun at each other, laughing at people’s personality quirks, borrowing toothpaste and toilet paper. I knew I was hooked when I would wake up and look forward to breakfast not for the food, but for the company and the laughter. The eight of us laughed and laughed and laughed.
Mongolia is beautiful and I really enjoyed the hiking and biking. Being a pretty sedentary person (especially compared to Robin’s 100%), I truly appreciated being encouraged by Jane, Girvan and Peter to keep trying with hiking and biking. Living at about 12 feet above sea level, the elevation and altitude kicked my butt! The team effort by all to enjoy the scenic beauty and the many splendors of Mongolia really made the trip so memorable for me. My own eyes saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets and amazing rock formations, but it was fabulous to be with 7 other people who would point out the wonderful things their pair of eyes saw as well.
What was so special about Mongolia? The hugeness, so huge you could see the curvature of the earth, hiking around petroglyphs that should be in a museum, haggling over the price of a dinosaur egg (?!) at the Flaming Cliffs, spectacular Moab-like monument valleys, galloping across the steppe on a Mongolian horse so fast you can’t help but thrill! Oh, and of course there was the goat’s head soaking in a pan in one of the Ger tents. And yet who would think you could gain weight in Mongolia?!? Somehow I managed to enjoy the food too much! But most of all, it was so much fun to travel in a group of strangers who became friends, each of us with different abilities, where everyone could challenge themselves, or not, and come together in the evening to share stories. It was a fantastic trip, with seamless transitions in a country of stark transitions. I miss the wide open, blue sky and clean air, and feeling the centuries-old earth beneath my feet…
The two of us had been cycling the dirt and grass track across the Southern Gobi Desert, under a dark blue sky, for about two hours when far on the rolling horizon we spotted a rapidly moving dot heading in our direction. As we rode forward and the dot moved towards us we could make out a Mongolian herder on horseback, adeptly and swiftly commanding his horse around moving herd of goats and sheep towards a lone watering hole surrounded by miles and miles of sparse grassland with only the occasional Ger (traditional round canvas tent). When we finally reached the watering hole we realized that the herder was no more than a six year old boy, all alone, responsible for 30-40 livestock and handling horse and herd as if a 30 year old man.
The scene epitomized our trip and what has always captured my imagination about Mongolia including the wild and expansive country, the fiercely proud, independent and capable Mongolian (young and old) and the ability to travel in this vast country feeling like the only tourist for miles and miles. From 5-star meals at the Tuul River Lodge, long and exhausting hikes and rides in some of the most beautiful scenery this world has to offer, to German logistical precision and our personal masseuse, this was an unforgettable trip with the perfect balance of pampering and pushing my own physical limits. Although I could find myself totally alone in my enjoyment of Mongolia, what made it more special was coming together or sharing some of the excursions with our motley crew of eight sojourners. From the serious chats to rib splitting jokes and laughter, we bonded closely for what may very well be friendships for life. Thank you Mongolia and thank you to the trip organizers and trip mates for making my 50th birthday special and memorable beyond my wildest expectations.
When traveling I love experiencing cultures different than my own, the countryside of Mongolia fulfilled that for me. As we were pedaling toward our destination of the Princess Palace, our guide and our driver picked up a local nomad (is that an oxymoron?) who asked for a ride to check on his herd which was near the palace. When dropping him off at his ger he invited us in. His wife served us tea and the most delicious yogurt I have ever tasted. We met 2 of his 3 sons and his father-in-law (a man with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen). They have 30 cows and 3 working dogs. The family moves 5-6 times a year, it takes only 30 minutes to set up their ger. (I know people who can’t setup a pop-up tent in that amount of time.) In the winter the kids stay with grandpa in Ulaanbaatar so that they can attend school. Their ger was almost identical to ours at the ger camps (orange and all) except theirs was personalized – family photos, certificate of achievement for math for oldest son, other personal items and of course the family ger cat. The pleasure of this unexpected visit with this family, with nothing commercial or tourist related was definitely my number 1 highlight. Changes are happening to this country as the rest of the world moves towards it. I hope this lifestyle of the Mongolian countryside continues unchanged for a long time.
No. 2 highlight was Ickybod.
I have one unanswered question about Mongolia – who owns the market on orange paint?
I had fun in Mongolia because I never stopped laughing, the friends I made on this trip I feel like l`ve known my whole life. I wish we all lived closer, but we are spread out all over the country. Global Sojourns doesn`t tell you that it will be very sad when you have to say goodbye. I loved being in a country where I could not wrap my mind around how different their lives are from ours, the responsibility of a six year old child on horseback watching over a family`s entire flock of sheep and goats.Crossing a river at the same time as a family on moving day, all of their possessions and their Ger stacked on a cart being pulled by a Yak, followed by the herds of animals all headed to their traditional summer camp.
Having a Mongolian herder on horseback go galloping past John, Robin, Peter and me to show us how much faster his horse is than out mountain bikes is an image and symbol I will never forget. Another moment I will not forget is standing in a giant Ger looking a map of the Gobi Desertand Peter Macy saying to me: “We will ride 75 kilometers on these rental mountain bikes that don`t fit us to the Sand Dunes that we are going to visit today and the van and everybody else will catch up to us. How hard can it be, its all flat or rolling terrain and the wind will be at our backs?
At moments like this the theme song to Gilligan`s Island plays in my head especially the part about “just a three hour tour.” Then I hear myself say: “Sure Peter that sounds like a good idea.” Hours later when we are hunkered down in a sand storm hoping that the van will find us I hear that theme song again. On this particular outing we came across a Mongolian family on a motorcycle, the husband, child and the wife on the back caring a very large pickaxe all wearing desert appropriate clothing. I remarked to Peter that she probably uses the pickaxe to bury tourists who meet their end riding mountain bikes in the desert wearing only lycra shorts and short s leeve jerseys. Well the van did find us just as the storm really intensified and we headed to a Ger camp for lunch and from there to the Flaming Cliffs for a beautiful hike and quiet sunset- the storm spent. We all sat on the edge of a cliff enjoying a beer, my new friends and I laughing and talking sharing stories of the day.