When Sue and I were planning our Trans-Mongolian adventure, it was the ‘Mongolian’ part of the trip that excited me the most. Despite this, I didn’t really know what to expect. Here are a few Mongolian facts and tales of adventure that I learnt along the way (for Mongolian visa details and what to do when your passport is stolen, make sure you read Sue’s guest post). To book this for yourself, make sure you read my article about how to book the Trans-Siberian.
1. Genghis Khan (Chinnggis Khan) is not always considered a villain
While traditional historical accounts of Genghis Khan have portrayed him as a violent villain, to Mongolians he is a hero who united the nomadic Mongol tribes and founded the Mongolian empire (just ignore the estimated 40 million people, or 11% of the global population who he killed in the process).
While he wasn’t too tolerant of communities not succumbing to his rule, Mongolian history shows that he was however very tolerant of different religions. His newly conquered territory included people with diverse religious backgrounds including Christians, Muslims and Buddhists as well as the shamanistic belief system.
In order to communicate across his vast empire, Khan developed a mounted courier system, the Yam, which involved a series of post houses which provided a rest stop for riders every few miles. These riders carried an early form of the passport, paizi, which was a metal plaque worn around the neck providing details about the goods they could transport as well as providing tax exemptions for the riders.
2. You can put too much wood in a wood-fire heater
A traditional Mongolian home, ger, is a portable, round tent made from wood with a felt or animal skin cover. At the centre of the ger is a hearth. This fire symbolises ties with family ancestors and should only burn wood and dung – anything else is an insult to the master of the house.
Mongolian winters are cold. With the fire burning, the ger is incredibly warm, however when the fire goes out around 4am, you will wake up shivering. On our last night we were sick of the cold so we decided to fill the hearth with most of our wood in the hope that it would burn longer.
Fail. It was so hot that we had to open the door while we stood in the snow outside sweating. The fire only got hotter and I was actually worried we would accidentally burn down the ger. That night I lost sleep worrying about the heat rather than from the cold! And we still woke up freezing at 4am.
3. Ox carts are hilarious and a beautiful way to see Mongolia
Our bus stopped somewhere in the Terelj National Park just after nightfall as the snow began to fall. Our host met us with an ox cart and we gladly hopped on, anticipating the magical and romantic ride through the forest.
Before we even moved, the ox pooped. Flapping his tail and spraying it everywhere. Great start to 4 days without showers… It was pitch black and snow was being blown into our eyes and despite our layers, the icy wind was managing to sneak in. As we got used to the bumps and holding on tightly so we didn’t bounce off, it actually became exciting and it was incredibly peaceful with the only sound being the ox snorting or his owner urging him forward.
Ox carts aren’t very fast and they need breaks quite regularly. The nomadic families who live in this area are very friendly and we were welcomed into two homes for tea on our journey to our first homestay. Despite not being able to communicate very well with each other, it wasn’t awkward and we loved the chance to meet lots of different families – some with children, some men working away from home, some couples – every family was different but on the whole they were friendly and welcoming.
4. A bear does shit in the woods
We learned quickly to try to use the toilet before nightfall. I use the word ‘toilet’ loosely because you just pick a tree and settle down while the snow blows around.
There are lots of wild animals in the Terelj including endangered brown bears, boars, horses, birds and even a few rabbits and hares. These are all great to see during the daylight (we only saw horses, birds and rabbits), we didn’t want to risk getting caught by a bear in the middle of the night.
You also need to take a bag for your used toilet paper because there isn’t anywhere to dispose of it (especially not the fire in your ger), so you have to take it back to Ulaanbaatar. I recommend double zip-lock bagging it and then having a ‘scissor, paper, rock’ battle to determine who has to carry the bag for 5 days.
5. It’s great to get off the tourist trail
We liked going to a remote part of Terelj National Park far away from the tourist camps and experiencing what life is like for a modern day nomad. It is a life of contrasts. TV and solar power but no running water or toilets. You can ride a horse for hours without seeing another person and as the sun sets you will be treated to a blanket of thousands of stars brightening the nights sky.
6. The people are very friendly
Apart from one family, everyone we met in Mongolia was incredibly friendly and welcoming. We spent hours playing with the kids and going on walks and letting them show off their playground – the national park surrounding their ger.
We learnt to sew a phone cover using traditional methods. Well, we tried and then were making a mess of it so we watched as the Mum of the family made it look much more presentable. We shovelled hay into a pile… not sure what this achieved, but it was good exercise for a few hours. We practiced archery with very limited success – we won’t be a stand in for Katniss anytime soon. We ate traditional Mongolian food with each family including yaks milk, very milky tea, rice pudding, and stew. Yum!
Despite the language barrier, it was the people that we enjoyed most on our trip. My highlight was playing ankle bone with the old herder who picked us up from the bus stop on our first night while we ate delicious stew. He managed to explain the game to us and we had a great few hours playing and laughing together. Especially because Sue managed to lose every single time.
7. Mongolian scenery is spectacular
I loved the wild, peaceful scenery. Travelling by horse or ox cart is a slow mode of transport and it lets you really take in your surroundings. A lot of the other tours drive you around the park in a 4×4 – yes you cover more ground, but how much do you actually see and experience?
We spent hours quietly riding through this giant countryside, watching birds fly and trying desperately to spot a bear. The size of the park means there is a huge variety of landcapes and the weather in Mongolia seems to vary a lot over relatively short distances. We went from barren snow plains on the first day, to riding through forests, before getting to our next homestay in a forest by a small stream in the bright sunshine. This park has it all.
I would love to see more of the landscapes in Mongolia. After watching this video about Western Mongolia from my friend Natasha at Artist Explores the World, I am already planning my next trip back to Mongolia to see the eagles. Take a look and I’m sure you will feel the same!
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