The road trip begins – but first the supermarket
When you say goodbye to the hubbub of Ulaanbaatar in the confines of a Furgon van the most likely scenario that will happen next is your driver and guide will stop at a supermarket on the outskirts of the city. What is a supermarket like in Mongolia? It is no different to any other supermarket and more than likely you will see many familiar brand names as well as some not so familiar ones.
One of the things that people often dive for is bottled water. Now hopefully you are traveling with a responsible tour operator who will advice you to stick to one 2 litre bottle. Plastic is a huge problem in the Mongolian wilderness and despite the vastness of the country there are still issues with people leaving litter which blights the countryside.
The other thing that is in your mind as your reading this is can you survive if you have specific dietary requirements? The immediate answer is yes but also be sure to make your tour company aware of any special needs as otherwise you could end up going hungry out there.
As mentioned previously, I’m a vegetarian and I happily survived in Mongolia for three weeks without any worries. In fact the guide on my first trip made sure of it and the portion sizes were enormous. They were so big that some is asked her to reduce them so believe me hunger isn’t a worry.
One of the other things you should think about when you’re in the supermarket is some small gifts for any host families you are going to be staying with. And this is especially so if they have kids so make a point of asking your guide about who you are likely to be meeting and certainly when it comes to the children their ages so that an appropriate gift can be purchased.
Get to know your driver and guide
With the supermarket disappearing in the rear view mirror it seems obvious that you’re going to start getting to know your fellow traveling companions. It’s perfectly normal as you’re about to spend however long away from civilization and so everyone will be curious about each other.
What I also would urge you to do is get to know your driver and guide. They are also your companions on this trip into the middle of nowhere and they also have tales to tell. Wherever I travel in this world I take interest in the people who live in the country I am visiting. You’ll find that by doing this the trip will be far more successful and you’ll get far more out of the trip than if you were to ignore them.
From both my trips that I’ve been on in Mongolia both guides and drivers have become friends and we have connected via social media so it’s certainly beneficial when it comes to a return journey as that friendship hasn’t been lost.
Another reason I would urge you to get to know them is if you’re out there photographing they could know of some good spots to get images from. Local knowledge is always a bonus when it comes to travel and landscape photography. It can save huge amounts of time and recce work in the field.
A night under the stars
As you’ve gathered so far, Mongolia is still very much a developing country. Despite the high rises in UB and the high end hotels getting a foothold the fact remains that once the capital city is left behind then don’t expect hot showers and niceties to be plentiful. In fact it’s likely you might have to go a week before seeing sight of a shower and be warned it might not necessarily be hot either!
So what’s the usual sleeping arrangements once you get out into the vastness of Mongolia? Where will you sleep if there is no cost hotel around?
Four options are usually on the cards and they each depend on the time of year.
During my first trip to Mongolia in September 2018 three different scenarios happened. The first is that you’re likely to be sleeping in a what the Mongolia’s call a ger. To most other people it’s a yurt but in Mongolia sorry it’s a ger. What’s ger? A rounded tent like structure that is entirely portable. The main internals of the ger are a wooden structure that fans out and is padded out with insulation to help you on those cold nights. In the middle is a heater and combined stove for cooking. The fuel is dried horse dung but have no fear there is absolutely no smell from it. The “fuel” is extremely good at heat retention which is why it’s used but also think that when you’re herding animals in the middle of nowhere where are you going to get your nearest supply of coal or wood?
A quick note on respectfulness is that when entering a ger always go in the door and walk to the left going round it in a clockwise fashion.
The second scenario that might happen depending on where your tour is going is that you could be sleeping in tents. Your tour company should make you aware of this scenario and will make you aware if you need to bring a sleeping bag with you. It can get cold out there at anytime of the year so be sure to come prepared for it. It’s better to be a little over-prepared than completely under-prepared and suffer a sleepless night.
Scenario number three is, if you’re lucky, you may even get to sleep in a hotel for a night! Yes, they do exist and certainly around the old city of Kharkhorin there are a couple of very nice hotels. I haven’t as yet stayed in them but as part of a recce for my photography tours in Mongolia I did get to see and can confirm that they are comfortable and modern.
Now I did mention that it depends on what time of year you’re going as to what type of accommodation you might be experiencing. In the case of the eagle hunters the group I was journeying with stayed in the eagle hunter’s clay houses. These homes are extremely comfortable and from experience it’s far better to stay in the home rather than pitch up and set up a tent or ger outside their home. It shows far more respect to your host if you stay in their house. They are welcoming you as guests so do the honourable thing and sleep in their house. Yes, it may be that you’re sleeping on the floor in your sleeping bag but if you’re traveling, or planning to, travel in Mongolia then you should know by now that things aren’t being done by numbers!
And what about those stars? Are they really that beautiful out there in the wilderness? Yes. Absolutely yes! In September 2018 the first two nights of my trip were in spent on the Steppe. A vast flat grassland south-east of UB. With no light pollution around the stars shine bright and if you’re lucky you can clearly see the milky way hanging up there in the night sky.
Those dark evenings are perfect for a little light painting of the ger or Furgon vans so don’t forget your head torch when you to go Mongolia as you won’t be using it just to get up to go the bathroom in the middle of the night. My own weapon of choice is a Prezl head torch and I’ve found it was excellent for painting things in the darkness.
Banqueting out in the wilds
Eating out in the wilds of Mongolia is a wonderful experience. No pushy waiters. No annoying music in the background just the breeze and the sound of any wildlife that happens to be around.
Your guide will also be your chef. And this is where the Mongolian experience really comes into its own. Certainly the ladies that Eternal Landscapes employs seem to be able to whip up a feast from all manner of things and some of them will even cook from scratch preparing traditional dishes for your hungry stomachs.
At breakfast you can take the usual western food that you’re likely to have requested at the supermarket when leaving UB but do try the rice dish that they make. It gives you stomach a kick start in the morning and helps set you up for the day. Certainly on some of those cold mornings I had back in March 2019 it was a welcome dish to be served up and having already had the pleasure of it a few months earlier it was a welcome addition to the table.
Lunch or dinner can again be made up of some of the typical western foods that were purchased at the supermarket. But hopefully your guide will also treat you to some of the delicious dumplings or noodles that they make called. My first guide was nicknamed super chef due to her ability to create some very fine dishes when we were out in the wilderness. Seemingly only from flour and water she would cook up the noodles or dumplings to tempt us into gaining a few extra pounds.
The last thing I want to mention is the seating arrangements as depending on the tour company will depend on what you’re likely to be getting. The tour company I stick, Eternal Landscapes, have a policy of using very low camping type seats. This is done as you would have noticed that if you’ve been inside a ger that the seats are low. It’s to get you accustomed to the Mongolian way of life and again show that you’re willing to do as they do. You’ll also notice that if a Mongolian passes your group they may well stop and chat as they can see you’re not part of the normal tourist brigade.
Ablutions – an inevitable subject
You might be wondering how you wash; clean your teeth and find your little corner when it comes to being out there in the wilderness. It’s an inevitable subject that slowly starts to permeate in the back of the van and inhibitions are soon lost. Sooner or later it has to be tackled and dealt with.
If it’s a subject that scares you into submission then Mongolia probably isn’t for you. Mongolia is about adventure and if you can’t give up some niceties for 10 days then you’d be better off elsewhere. But if you’re willing to forgo these things then you’ll do just fine.
Cleaning your teeth is easy as you can just put some water in a cup. Washing can be done using wet wipes and then disposing off them in the rubbish bag that will be carried around. Never throw them away in the landscape!
The “other” subject I will leave as it’s going to be a case of each to their own. But you’ll soon find out when you’re out there that nature waits for no one.
Return to civilization
After your journey out in the Mongolian wilderness the bright lights; heavy traffic and high rise buildings will either be a welcome sight or in some cases a sense of dread. Having been out in the vastness of the countryside different people react in different ways. For some the sense of relief of being back in civilization where they can take a hot shower and go shopping again is palpable. The urge to get back out into the rat run and normality pulls them like the piped piper.
But there will be some amongst you who will yearn for the simplicity of life in the wilderness. The fresh air and the wide open spaces. The sense of freedom away from the technological struggles of the 21st century.
I know which one I choose and it’s not the first option!
With thanks to Jess at Eternal Landscapes for opening my eyes to Mongolia.