Published on October 13th, 20129
A Month in Mongolia – Chapter 1: The Gobi
Goodness, it’s now been nearly 5 weeks since I returned from a month’s frolic amid Mongolia’s Chinggis Khaan sandbox. And “sandbox” couldn’t be a more apt word to describe the week I spent in the v.a.s.t. Gobi desert.
Then there was another 14 nights in the wilds of western Mongolia – shivering on the frigid floors of unheated gers with little more than my fleece cap, gloves, and a single (filthy!) pair of wool socks to keep me warm.
And finally, 10 days recovering from such physical trials (the longest and most grueling – but also the most incredible – in my 30+ years of traveling the globe) wallowing in Ulaanbaatar’s divine creature-comforts of indoor plumbing, hot showers, and menus deliciously expanded beyond grizzled mutton and yak milk.
Adventuresome tales so bountiful, it’s difficult to know where to begin. But begin I finally shall, now that I’m happily settled into the newest chapter in my nomadic life: the enchanting Dalat, Vietnam.
For starters, I shall tackle the legendary Gobi. An iconic beacon for many an adventuresome dreamer. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d never have imagined that I’d ever set foot in such a wild and mysteriously remote spot on the globe. Ah but encamped here in Southeast Asia – such dreams have happily now come within reach.
First, the practical details (i.e. it seems heretofore I’ve been somewhat remiss in offering my dear TL followers some of the more nattery, pragmatic particulars – like rubles ‘n such – of my adventures). To me, in hindsight these loom as but acky details incidental to the glory of experiencing the thrill of exploring yet another new land. Nonetheless, no doubt such minutia is critical to we wanderlusts on a shoestring travel budget, and thus…
|Mongolia Itinerary: August 6th – September 9th (34 days)
A week in the Gobi, 2 weeks trekking by horseback, foot and jeep in the wilds of western Mongolia (the Altai mountains), and a week to recover in Ulaanbatar, Mongolia’s capital city.
Airfare: Not cheap. I first flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Chiang Mai, Thailand for 5 days (airfare: $300 rt. – admittedly an expense unrelated to playing in the Mongolian sandbox, but necessary as I wanted to quick check it out as a possible resettle upon my return from Mongolia). Then HCMC to Ulaanbaatar (via Beijing) for $800 rt., and finally, a cool $500 rt. from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii in western Mongolia. Total airfare, a breathtaking, $1,600 – and we’re talking I’m already based here in Southeast Asia!
The Gobi: Impossible to do independently (due to the vastness, not to mention lack of roads, water, etc.), I opted to gather together a small group of like-minded Gobi-bound travelers via a simple shout-out in the handy-dandy Lonely Planet (of guidebook fame) Thorn Tree travel forums (highly recommended for any and all questions one might have about virtually ANY corner of the globe).
Within 48 hrs. of my forum post, we had a merry band of 5 intrepids (amazingly, all LASSES!) eager to take on a “Girls Do the Gobi” quest. A wildly eclectic and international bunch, there was Jolly (an actress from NYC), Amanda (a fellow EFL teach from the U.S. teaching in South Korea), along with a pair of lasses who in turn had “met” via the LP forums to share an adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Russia to Beijing (Lisa from the U.S. and Edna from Mexico).
After days and DAYS of online research (Googling every possible Gobi option known-to-man), we settled on organizing our own Gobi tour (the TL happily did most the research, natch) through Lotus House, a Ulaanbaatar hostel and more importantly, a non-profit dot org running a school for disadvantaged Mongolian youngsters. The itinerary proved pretty much the same as most any other option, but it was priced among the cheapest, and moreover – it was nice to know that our rubles were going to a good cause.
Lotus House (actually sub-contracted with Khongor Tours) 7 day Gobi Tour (including 4WD Russian van, all petrol, meals, accommodations (in traditional gers), a (most excellent, non-English speaking) male driver, and a (likewise excellent and happily English-speaking, not to mention supremely talented cook) female guide: $60 per day x 7 days = $420 pp.
Note that the “traditional gers” lodging noted above became a personal vendetta for me, as in my mind-numbing digital research I’d learned that many of the Gobi tour companies used “tourist ger camps” for their tours, and suffice… there was no way in he!! I was going to settle for a “Disneyfied” version of my Gobi dreams. Nosireee, no less than a dozen emails to ‘n fro Mongolia were required til I was satisfied that our group’s sleeps would be in authentic, family-occupied gers else we’d settle instead for camping under the Gobi stars.
Western Mongolia Tour: Likewise, there was no way I could possibly head out into the wilds of the Altai mountains in western Mongolia on my own, so… By some miracle, I stumbled across a company (Back to Bek Tours) offering a most extraordinary 2 week horseback/jeep trek including staying with a nomadic Eagle Hunter and his family (see, repeat – no not miss – the BBC’s Eagle Hunters YouTube video), and… Amazingly they had a small group of 4 (coincidentally likewise Americans) heading out precisely on my favored travel dates (August 15 – 29) that I could join for… a mere $750 for the whole tour!
Miscellany Expenses and Travel Tips:
Mongolian visa: Gratis (or incidentally cheap as I recall), but more importantly, available for Americans as an easy-peasy 30 day VOA (Visa On Arrival) at the Ulaanbaatar airport.
Airport Transfers: The Chinggis Khaan International Airport (ULN) is a goodly distance from Ulaanbaatar’s city center – more than 18 km, so expect to pay (after a smidge of negotiation) about 20,000 MNT (Tugriks) – about $15. Furthermore, traffic in Ulaanbaatar is uh, seriously gridlocked (to put it mildly), so the 11 mile transfer can take up to 2 HOURS!
Ulaanbaatar Accommodations: There are a myriad of cheap hostels in Mongolia’s capital city, most all conveniently located, if a bit dodgy for the money (about $15/nt. for a shared dorm). Lotus House proved among the more comfy, but alas they neglected to record/lost my reservation for the night I returned from western Mongolia, and I was forced out onto the street to find an alternate abode. Which is why… I (lamentably) happen to know that many of the other accommodations in Ulaanbaatar range from seriously dodgy to dubiously acceptable – even at the higher ($50) end of the frugal traveler scale.
It might have been that the Mongol Rally was wrapping up that particular week, but suffice, advance (and reconfirmed) reservations are highly recommended in Ulaabaatar.
Eventually, I did stumble upon a great little economy hotel for just $20/nt. with orgasmic hot water, (well hey – you too, might well find it orgasmic had you been without indoor plumbing for nearly three weeks!), reliable wiifi, and the most friendly staff (indeed, they gave me PRESENTS the day I checked out!)
But enough of the dreary details – onward to a visual potpourri of my week’s aimless wander amid the vast Gobi desert:
First, a (now traditional) pic of my toes in situ – atop the Khongor Els (Dunes) in the heart of the Gobi. The dunes are 180 km long, 20 km wide, and tower some 800 meters high! (well o.k. truth-be-known, I only managed to make it half-way up, but still…)
Note the wee solar panel. Most every – even the most remote – ger had one. It powered a single light bulb for an hour or 2 each evening. (And if there was a smidge of spare “juice” leftover, we gleefully used it to recharge our camera batteries.)
For a full collection of my Mongolia pics, head on over to my Flickr Mongolia Album