Ahhh Mongolia… overlanding from China back to Ireland is epic enough but a pitstop in Mongolia makes it even sexier still. I’m writing this in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s dodgy Capital and I’ve just got back from one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever been on.
I went for 3 days into the mini-Gobi desert, to Gengis Khan’s former Capital Kharakhorum, I went horse riding, stayed with a nomadic tribe in their ger (tent) and saw a shaman being possessed by two spirits. How much did it cost me? $150. Money well spent. Here was my intinerary:
Early start in a run down car, we left our dingy hostel in the morning, where our guide and driver drove us 5 hours deep into the Mongolian wilderness.
We stopped in the middle of nowhere where someone had built a 5-pagoda Buddhist shrine on top of a hill, overlooking the desert. I started to realize just how vast this country was, and just quite how stranded we were.
After admiring the Buddhist shrines, we hop back in the vehicle and head another hour or so until we arrived at Kharakhorum. If you don’t know about this place, you kinda should. When Gengis Khan was taking over all of Asia, he declared this his Capital, stretching from Turkey, to Russia, and to Thailand.
Kharakhorum is the only spot in a dusty section of this country, nomadic herders sheppard their sheep across the huge plains. Here, we took the chance to climb a local mountain to get a proper view of this beautiful place, appreciating just where we were in the world.
Sunset was calling so we sat and watched as a young kid herded his sheep around the Erdene Zuu monastery, pray flags fluttering the wind, him flashing a smile at me with a missing tooth right bang in the centre of his mouth, too cute. The temperature soon dropped with the sun so we jogged back to our accommodation – a ger, a local Mongolian tent. Really cool experience, and a definite must.
After we settled into our gers, the evening proper was ready to begin. A local musician from the town around the castle had heard there were foreigners in town and came to ask us if we’d like to hear him playsome traditional Mongolian music. He looked older than the castle outside, but we didn’t want to get caught in some contrived tourist trap, so we politely turned him down and he left without any insistence. It dawned on me that there were next to no tourists in Kharakhorum so it was highly unlikely to be a scam, so I chased after him, asked him how much and after him quoting me 5, 000 Mongolian Togrogs ($3.80) for 1 hour, i accepted and welcomed him back to my ger. He did the traditional Mongolian throat signing, played for about one hour and if ever I felt like I was traveling, it was then.
The next hour was a genuine traveling highlight of mine.The old boy was a real entertainer, encouraging us to stand and clap and shout, he loved it every bit as much as us, he played around 10 songs, using 4 different traditional Mongolian instruments, explaining in broken English, the meaning of each one. The meanings ranged from Chenngis Khan’s crusades, to horse racing, and beautiful Mongolian women. Towards the end he demonstrated Mongolia’s most famous musical genre, throat singing. It was a croaky, horse, deep melody which in all honesty wasn’t particularly easy on the ears, but was very cool! After he finished, we shared a little vodka and he went on his way, leaving me to fall asleep in my ger, more than content with my awesome evening. So I scrambled under my blanket to escape the heat, and nodded off in no time.
I woke up around 8am freezing cold, the oven in the ger had gone out and Mongolia is one cold place! Anyway, we ate a quick local breakfast of crusty bread and awful cheese, and headed over to the most beautiful monastery in the region, the Erdene Zuu monastery in Kharakhorum. We entered the building with our heads bowed, Buddhist chanting seemingly coming from every corner, we found a discrete spot and sat down to watch the event unfold. Listening to the monks chanting we were soon noticed, called over, had a prayer said for us and left.
Still buzzing from our close encounter with the head monk, we were back in the car in a heartbeat and heading over to Genghis Khan’s monument, despite his bloodthirsty reign, and the sheer number of deaths he ordered, he’s an absolute national here in these parts. The monument proudly stated how much of the world he actually took over, that dude was one crazy guy!
A quick lunch stop, horse dumplings as usual, and we headed back into the desert. This was the main event. We were staying with a local nomadic tribe, sleeping in their ger on the floor, with the whole family beside us, I knew it would be interesting, but what happened was a once in a lifetime shot….
The family greeted us like long lost brothers, all hugs and smiles. They insisted that we tried to do a spot of horse riding with the sons, I have almost no experience with horses so politely refused them. No chance. Fast forward five minutes and I’m in the desert again, with the son holding the horse alongside and me holding on for dear life. I’m hoping for a gentle trot with the guide, but In true Asian health and safety standards, they whacked the horse with a whip and set me off alone! Great.
I’d love to say I got the hang of the horse riding, but for an hour I was in constant danger of unwillingly being thrown off the poor creature, or simple sliding off the side accidentally. Through sheer luck, neither happened, and I managed to hold some level of dignity, but when asked if I was done, after an hour or so, I jumped off before he could ask me again. “Sure buddy, that was great, let’s do it again tomorrow”. Such an empty promise, but I think he knew.
From outside the tent then, I watched the most vivid sunset I’ve ever seen in the desert, before being summoned to have dinner with the family in their ger. Now I’m sure you can guess that my Mongolian, or Russian, or Chinese for that matter, is probably on par with yours, if not worse. So conversation was a struggle, but once you’ve traveled for a while you can make do. Hand signals, animal noises, a lot of humility and before long it’s smiles, laughs and drinks. I love this lifestyle. But before long, things were about to turn for the worse….
It was a full moon our that night, and the eldest son had recently become a shaman at the tender age of 16, unheard of in the local community apparently, but a source of real pride for his parents. He was hospitable, warm and friendly with me all afternoon, but once the full moon hit it’s peak, 2 spirits had apparently possessed him and I was sitting right next to him as it happened…
After a justifiably broken night of sleep on the floor of the tent, right beside my new best buddy, the exorcised Shamen, I woke up to the sounds of pots and pounds. Momma was prepping breakfast. I couldn’t throw it down my neck fast enough, quick but polite goodbyes, and I was outta there.
Another drive deeper still into the desert again and the landscape changes so quicky. Amazing, impressive rock formations formations had appeared from nowehere, on we went further until we reached the old Ovgon Temple temples, all of which had been left unattended. Making for some gorgeous, but super creepy pics. Mongolia is gorgeous, and more than exciting, but this isn’t good for the old ticket. Feels like ‘Blair Witch’ is about to pop out at any minute.
We were due to head off, but just as we were about to leave we saw a pony completely alone in the desolate wilderness, it was limping and looking all too pathetic. We headed over the car to see what was wrong.
Our guide, Soyolo, grabbed the horse before it could bolt. He needn’t have rushed though, as the poor little thing wasn’t going to be bolting anywhere, he had been born yesterday, or two days ago max, and had been clearly been attacked by wolves just as he was born.
Luckily the dust stormed that had kicked in during our exoricism experience last night, and must have chased the wolves away before they could finish him off. What could we do? A ten second discussion, and the last day of the trip was put on hold. We’re bringing this guy back home, where he can be taken care of. So Soyolo picked the horse up, but we had no trailer and the car was full. Not to worry, we can squeeze the little guy in, so we all shuffled up, tried to calm the poor guy down, and headed back to our our nomadic family deep in the desert. As we arrived, I was thinking ‘Please no more possessions, please no more possessions, please no more possessions’ , and when they heard the car they came out to investiage. Our guide quickly explained what had happened, and he passed them the horse, they were so grateful, thanked us profusely, and endlessly, and then we head back to Ulaan Baator. I thought, now I’ve got the Shamen on my side, nothing can touch me. How wrong I was, as the next night I was being chased by a knife gang down the streets of the Capital, but that’s another story…
What a trip! Happy travels!