I think that when you plan a trip in Mongolia a few days before departure, and when I say plan I mean buy train tickets and leave the rest up to fate; I think you have finally become accustomed to Mongolian ways and have relaxed enough to know that this is how the best things are experienced. So that is what we did on Saturday, we boarded a train to Sainshand, on the edge of the Gobi for 10 hours, sat back and took in the views, which didn’t actually change for about 7 hours!
We booked the middle price tickets for the train a mere £14 return, a total of 22 hours on a train, we all had bunk beds in one cabin with no doors, around 50 people in a cabin, comfortable enough and a good way to get to know your neighbouring passengers who happened to be a brother and sister aged 10 and 5 who were travelling alone to Sainshand too and were being picked up at their destination. Obviously we were bemused by this and took it upon ourselves to make sure they did not injure themselves in those 10 hours, however the girl who was the oldest of the 2 was more of a grown up than any of us and seemed to be in control of the situation. We filled the hours with games and snacks and a few drinks; we were easily the noisiest in the cabin fuelled by our excitement to be leaving the city for the glorious countryside.
We arrived in the evening before dusk and within a few seconds a group of guides had found us and with our basic Mongolian negotiated a bed for the night and a guide/driver for the next day. We were taken to the usual ‘micro bus’ and told the camp was 15km away, not far at all but as usual and as expected it was not that simple, we first stopped at a petrol station, not to get petrol but for the driver to meet the other guides and exchange something in a plastic bag and to make some phone calls, next to the pump and with the engine on, 2 things we have always been told never to do. Then we headed off out of the town and into the countryside soon enough leaving the tarmac road and onto the sandy tracks, our first glimpse of Gobi-ness. After about 45mins we wondered what sort of 15kms took this much time, it turned out the next day we found out it was 43kms. Either way we were used to the bizarre-ness and took it in our stride enjoying the newness of it all, the herds of camels at dusk and the near collisions with giant haulage lorries that you come across somehow in the middle of a desert.
So the guide, who by the way I highly recommend, took us to a ger camp, by this time it was dark and we didn’t know where we were or what our surroundings looked like, my favourite by the way as it makes that first glimpse of outside the ger at dawn all the more breathtaking, which it was. We awoke at 4.30am to go and see the sunrise and to visit the Hamrin Hiid or the ‘World Energy Centre’ and it appeared that our camp was surrounded by Gobi dunes and pink dawn sky; it was as always breathtaking and will stick forever as one of those truly beautiful, humbling experiences.
We boarded the van and were driven pretty fast (as we were late) to a hill which was already busy with Mongolians all waiting for the sun to appear over the dunes, everybody was holding up their hands palms facing the sun to absorb the morning sun’s energy, so we joined them in what was stage one of our ‘Energy’ gathering tour. Following sunrise we walked around these monuments covered in years of rice, seeds and milk, all of which are offerings. These sites we visited are very important sites for Mongolians and especially Buddhists and it was an incredible experience, the next few sites were ringing of Bell, the ‘Energy centre’ itself a sacred site thought to bring energy to you, followed by the 108 caves and the Khamaryn Khiid Monastery. Strangely enough we met a Mongolian guy at the Energy Centre who despite me telling him i was English insisting on speaking to me in French, and we kept bumping into him throughout the day all the way back to UB on the train too. And later in the park an elderly man spoke German to us, both of which were quite bizarre.
We completed all of this before 7.30am and begged the guide to go back to the camp as we, I mean ‘I’ was soo hungry and no good what so ever without food in me.
After breakfast we drove to a local herders home in the desert, a Camel and goat herder and we all took turns to ride a couple of his camels, another humbling and great experience, the camel is by far the comfiest animal to ride and definitely more comfy than the van when crossing terrain. The herder then asked us into his home to drink camel milk and eat biscuits/bread; the milk was quite thick and a little bitter, like a natural yogurt and my favourite Mongolian dairy product to date. While we were drinking our milk a few other guys appeared and began sharpening knives on flint with their spit, which led our thoughts to the Mongolian desert being the perfect place to bury a bunch of foreigners, obviously this wasn’t the case and as we were leaving we saw said guy holding a live sheep with the knife in his other hand and we realised the sharpening was for ‘lunch’ we stayed and watched as the herder accompanied by our guide put the ‘sheep to sleep’, it sounds like an under-exaggeration but it really looks this way, the sheep doesn’t struggle or cry out, just goes peacefully and not a drop of blood is spilt.
On our drive back to Sainshand we stopped off at Khar Uul ‘Black Mountain, a sacred mountain which is climbed only by men, well woman can climb part of the way so the 2 guys climbed to the very top and we waited a way down where there were very friendly goats and one who was extremely vain and photogenic, he even wore a prayer scarf as a dandy.
By 11.30am we had seen all that we wished to see and there really wasn’t much else close by so we managed to move our train tickets forward a day and we spent the afternoon in Sainshand park, sheltered from the hot sun by trees and played cards. Amazing what you accomplish in a morning when we wake up at dawn.