The light is so bright it penetrates my eyelids and tugs me sharply away from sleep. It’s a pure, saturating kind of light, and it could only come from Mongolian skies. I lean down from my train bunk to peer out the dusty window, and sure enough there’s a vast, pinkish wilderness flitting by: the Gobi desert.
Journey of discovery
It’s been a fascinating rail journey so far. We started by whizzing through the suburbs of Beijing only to be swallowed by the vastness of China – terraced tea plantations, lakes and mountains. We passed countless small settlements seemingly moored in the middle of nowhere. First we’d see a collective of squat, derelict, single-roomed brick cottages, and then a uniform block of ultra-modern condos or bungalows, steadfast in the shade of a power station chimney. These places seem to be evidence of the ways life is changing for rural communities in China.
I was astounded by the number of wind turbines, hundreds of them perched atop jagged hills, tumbling and tumbling against a purple sky. Chinese script emblazoned on low brick walls, rugged, isolated roads where trucks ground purposefully forward, their wheels churning dust into the gathering twilight, their destination a mystery.
Such was the landscape before we reached the Mongolian border. When we got there we disembarked to an eerily silent, half built border control building. Inside a shop sold a jumble of mismatched items: fresh peaches, dust covered children’s toys, shelf upon shelf of vodka as well as some unnamed alcohol with pickled snakes coiled inside it. A woman caused a queue at the counter by buying three baskets of shopping, leading Matt to speculate whether she’d come to the Mongolian border at 2am to do her weekly shop of random souvenirs and dodgy vodka.
Once we’d finally cleared two rounds of border police I passed out under my warm train-issue blanket.
Gaping at the Gobi
Now I have my nose pressed to the glass, already amazed by this place. We’re passing through vast ochre coloured plains with spare sprigs of greenery, punctuated by squat white yurts, and every so often, a hulking camel. Falcons scythe the air, herds of skittish deer spill into the desert, spooked by the train. Little huddles of horses gleam in the sunlight, a tiny foal or two frolicking in their midst. Flamboyant hoopoes flap their striped wings in times to the chug of the train. We pass a tiny village where three small children play basketball in front of a cracked, turquoise painted house. Black and white cranes sit on little hillocks. A team of vultures is hunched together like moody teenagers. As we pass one of them launches from the ground and spreads a pair of grandiose wings.
Desert gives way to steppe grassland. A Mongolian man astride a horse chases a group of brown white and black goats. Huge herds of cows return our gaze from the distant plains. There’s something glorious about this endless space, shades of green upon shades of green stretching to meet the lucidity of the blue sky, clouds so distinct they look like you could bounce off them.
Gearing up for a ger
We’ve been on the train for over 24 hours, but it almost feels sad getting off, having enjoyed such splendid views. We alight at Ulan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital and a city in flux. Small red roofed houses and clusters of gers populate the outer reaches of the city. Towards the centre are more modern glass and steel structures, their sheen veiled in desert-dust, as well as plenty of construction sites. Sunpath Hostel has sent a driver for us, and we take a hair-raising trip through the city to what looks like a derelict building from the outside, all peeling paint and stern steel doors. Appearances are deceptive though – inside it’s a light, clean space with a thick carpet and weary travellers sprawled on comfy sofas.
Despite being a country famous for meat, there are a number of highly rated vegan restaurants here and I manage to persuade Matt that since I’ll be forced to eat meat for the next few days (when we’ll be staying at a ger camp), I should be allowed to gorge on veggies tonight. It works out well as we discover the excellent Luna Blanca. I have a broth full of traditional-style vegetable dumplings, finished with spoonfuls of fresh coriander. Matt has spinach stir fried with sesame, chili and garlic.
Mongolian valley life
Fully dosed up on vitamins we’re feeling well and truly ready for our trek into the Darkhid Valley. We’re booked in for a two night stay with Stone Horse Mongolia. We streak out of the city and along a bumpy dirt path, sending herds of cattle scattering. After 90 minutes we pull up abruptly to a ger camp, surrounded by rugged green hills. One of the guests, a happy Geordie, is perched on a tiny stool with a mug of milk tea and a smile. One of our Mongolian hosts, Davasuren, appears clutching plates of omelette and bread for us. This is the first of a number of hearty meals we enjoy at the camp, because she is an excellent cook. Mutton is the main staple but she knows many different ways to prepare it – in juicy dumplings, stewed with carrot and potato, in a noodle soup.
This has to be one of the most blissful spots we could have discovered in the world. Views are spectacular: look one way and there’s a herd of goats climbing a hillside, look the other and there’s an eagle soaring. There’s barely a noise apart from dogs barking at night to ward off the wolves that pick off the occasional unlucky herd member. At this time of year the day lasts an obscenely long time – 4am to 10pm, and even when the sun goes down the sky never darkens beyond indigo blue. When it does, the liberal scattering of stars is mesmerising. There’s nothing to think about other than when Davasuren will bring your next meal. Each morning we’re greeted by a silky smooth dog with lovely green eyes and a fluffy pup at her heels. At night she sits and guards our ger, but she’s obedient enough never to come inside, even when she’s salivating over the aroma of mutton.
The gers are cosy and comfortable, especially when the woodburners are lit at night. The only mishap occurs on our first night at 3am. I’m rolling over in bed when I hear a creaking noise, and suddenly the whole bed collapses beneath me. I wonder about whether I’ve been over indulging on the good Thai food. In the morning I see a cheery Davasuren approaching with our breakfast and gulp. I scurry after her into the ger, having memorised the Mongolian word for sorry, and do a rather farcical and overly dramatic mime to explain what’s happened. Luckily she takes it with good humour and by the evening it’s all fixed again. I swear my dinner portions were a bit smaller afterwards though…
Proving we’re not herdsmen
We spend our time hiking in the surrounding area, once up a hill overlooking the camp, once along a woodland stream. Fat little marmots shimmy into their burrows as we’re passing. On one hike I get spooked by a large bull coming towards us and craning his neck to make a weird hooting noise which reverberates back off the surrounding slopes. But it soon becomes clear he is just summoning his harem of cows who trot dutifully after him. These animals are used to roaming freely and don’t even seem to notice when there’s a human in their midst.
Whilst life for us is simple and pleasurable during our stay, I’m not playing down the challenges our hosts must face on a daily basis. They rise incredibly early and spend huge amounts of time working – tending, herding and milking the animals, cooking, taking care of the gers. They face new challenges as Mongolia modernises – in the past all land was free to roam, now newly wealthy city-dwellers are buying it and fencing it off, reducing space for traditional herders. Winters are harsh and punishing, all the gers have to be moved into bosom of the nearby hills to shelter from the elements.
One afternoon Davasuren brings us a bow and arrow and sets us the challenge of knocking down two plastic bottles placed a few metres away. None of us manage it. The following afternoon, despite never having ridden a horse before, I find myself on the back of one, loping along behind Yadmaa. He is a very commanding presence on his steed, utterly at home and able to control both mine and Matt’s horses with a twitch of the tether. First he takes us to see a shrine built by the local shaman. Then we head off to herd goats, chasing them down as they bleat and shake their tails before us. I’m trying to pretend I feel confident so my horse doesn’t sense my nervousness. But maybe it can, and wants to have a little fun, since it walks me straight into a tree branch. My hat falls off and I drop the reigns and have to be rescued by one of the shepherds. Yadmaa laughs and I can only imagine what he’s making of this ridiculous, ungainly, bed-breaking tourist.
Yadmaa’s work is never done. Next he takes us to his good pasture, into which four renegade goats have sneaked and are chowing down on the lush grass. The land is fenced off, inaccessible to our horses (god knows how the goats got in there), and whilst Yadmaa bellows at them and our horses shuffle menacingly, the goats just stare us out and move deeper into the pasture. Yadmaa gives a resigned shrug and shakes his head.
We spend a good 20 minutes herding stubborn cows. This involves moving at some speed, and I surprise myself by managing to grip hard and keep my balance. I realise being on horseback is actually pretty awesome, but more than anything my respect for people who can fire an arrow straight whilst galloping along on one of these things is even greater, having tried and failed to do either with any flair or talent.
An abrupt thunderstorm brings our horseback outing to an end (to the relief of my aching buttocks). As our clothes hang out to dry, I take my binoculars outside and spend our last evening here watching a pair of eagles soaring over the valley. I lose myself in this act: where they fly I fly, and I’m sure I’ve found a sacred place here in the velvety green wilderness.
We booked our Trans-Siberian train tickets through Real Russia. After making initial contact we were assigned an agent (Tanya), who booked our tickets, advised us on visas and other practicalities, and was on hand to answer our questions (like the confusion around train times being in Moscow time rather than local time – she translated them for us). We found their service to be really good, but if you’re on a real budget we’ve heard since being on the road you can do the journey more cheaply by turning up and buying at the ticket office. You’ll need to feel confident about reading Russian timetables/communicating in Russian.
We flew to Beijing from Bangkok and picked up the Trans-Siberian there from the main railway station. We had to collect our tickets from a travel agent in Beijing but Real Russia gave us detailed instructions on how to find it (and other people who were UK-based had their tickets posted to them directly).
We booked our ger stay at short notice with Stone Horse. We simply submitted a contact form through their website and they emailed us back straight away. Brilliant service from them, they were on hand via email/Skype whenever we had a question. Their staff are friendly and efficient, especially the lovely driver Dava (not sure how you spell it!). They will pick you up from the station or your hostel and drop you off again.
We learnt the hard way with our crispy noses and jacket potato heads that the Mongolian sun is VERY strong. Bring sunblock and a hat. I am guessing this is true of any time of year because the skies are so clear.