The Sands of Time in Mongolia

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

Day 80: Even though typhoon Nida kept us grounded in Hong Kong for a couple extra days, we are now ready and incredibly excited to be on our way to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The extremely early but direct flight takes about 5 hours and touches down while it is still morning (and with the same timezone). The airport here is quite small and we are outside the airport building in no time. We jump on a crowded bus towards downtown. Guess all the passengers of our flight are on our bus as well… 45 minutes later we are dropped in the heart of Ulaanbaatar. From there it is a 10-minute walk to our hub hostel for our Mongolian adventure, Modern Mongol Hostel.

Upon check-in, we ask the lady at the front desk for some suggestions. She recommends joining one of the sightseeing tours with a local tour partner. The good news is, the tour to the Gobi Desert is leaving tomorrow and the lady had two other guests from France interested in the tour so we could split the travel costs for the driver guide, cook, transportation accommodation and three meals per day for about 60 USD per day (7 days). The bad news is; I was planning my visit to the Chinese embassy the next day because I still need to arrange my Chinese visa. I look at the clock and realise the embassy is still open for another hour today. I decide to go for it and jump in a taxi to the embassy which is a 10-minute drive away. My heart is racing as this embassy is my last hope to go on the Trans Siberian Express from Mongolia to China, one of my top picks for this trip.

My fear increases upon arrival as there is a long line of people waiting to get in while the embassy is only open for another 40 minutes. The lines are extra long this time of the year because of Mongolian students who are applying for Chinese student visas. The line moves slow but the time passes fast. Some people behind me already give up as we get closer to noon. Ten minutes before the clock strikes twelve the security guard tells people to come back tomorrow as they will close in a few minutes. More people leave but I keep hoping for a way in. I am pretty close to the entrance gate now and hope for a miracle. As the security guard comes by a final time to tell they will now close, a handful of people ask if they can still enter and he shows mercy and let some go through. I take my chance and ask the guard if I can let through as well. I must have looked very desperate but I felt like I won the lottery when the guy pointed me out to be let through as the last person for the day.

Finally, inside the embassy, I now had to fill out that long elaborate form again but I was already happy I got in. Having my fingers crossed I walk up to the lady and hand over the form. For a moment it looks like I was going to lose my battle after all as she is hesitant not approving my application since I do not have my train ticket from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing secured yet. I explain that I just arrived and would go to the train station right after. She looks up into my desperate eyes and approves it while she makes a note on my file that I have to show my train tickets when I retrieve my passport and visa next week. I am over the moon and walk back to the hostel where Seba is settling into our dorm room. We have some lunch and make our way to the train station where we will book our train tickets to Beijing.

Everything is going smoothly until the lady at the kiosk asks for our passports to secure the seats. Here we go again, now begging this lady at the train station to accept a copy of my passport and some other personal documents while explaining my passport is now in the hands of the Chinese embassy. And without a train ticket, I would not be able to get my passport. Seba finally saves the day and convinces the supervisor to let me put a deposit on the train ticket so I could secure a seat on the popular train.

Enough begging and pleading for one day… time to explore the city and rest up for our tour tomorrow morning.

Day 81: At 8 AM we meet our French companions at the front desk and the driver/guide picks us up at the hostel for our tour. We also meet our cook who travels with us. The six of us embark on our adventure for the week with a full car of supplies and food. We were able to leave a bunch of our stuff at our hostel so we didn’t need our entire backpack. We leave the city and the paved roads behind us and soon venture on dirt roads while we make our way to Baga Gazrun Chuluu, which literally means ‘stones of small land’. Here we wander through the granite rock formations and stumble upon a sign that says ‘spring water for eyes’. I learned later on this trip that this is a reference to the ‘eye spring’ that is located here which supposed to help treat eye conditions. I clearly missed the spring.

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We overnight in a traditional ger. We learn about a few of the many traditions like, make sure you always enter the ger on the left and walk clockwise but accept items they hand you with your right hand. Just like in every culture we greet the family upon arrival and the kind lady offers us a cup of ‘airag’ that she scooped out of a blue plastic barrel. We embrace the culture and take a good sip of the fermented horse milk before we carry on to our own ger next door. Apparently, the entrance is always facing south and you are supposed to sleep with your feet towards the entrance.  

Day 83: We are slowly getting the hang of this nomadic lifestyle as we depart another ger and travel on through the desert most of the day. In the late afternoon, we end up at the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els which are located in the extreme south of the Gobi Desert. Khongoryn Els means ‘the Singing Dunes’, named after the strong sound that is heard when the dunes are collapsing like small avalanches due to the winds. We park the jeep at the bottom of the sand dunes and start the climb of our lives to the top of this massive sand dune. We take two steps up and sink one step down. After an intense climb, we make it in time for the beautiful sunset from the dunes. 

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Day 86: We make it back to Ulaanbaatar with sore bums and a great Gobi Desert experience. Upon arrival at the hostel, I immediately make my way to the embassy again to pick up my passport. An hour later I am the proud owner of a Chinese visa in my passport. From there I run to the train station to lock in my train ticket as well and we are all set!  

Day 87: I still shake out sand out of my shoes from the Gobi Desert while our new driver guide is ready to pick us up for the second trip of our Mongolian adventure. This time it is just the three of us, no french friends and no chef. The driver guide is more like just a driver and is not that talkative. We head north towards the Khovsgol Lake which is a completely different landscape and vegetation as what we got to see during our first week here. Just like the southern roads, we quickly see the roads become less well maintained and more lonely and go off-road towards the monastery of Amarbayasgalant.

This monastery is one of the three largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia and tucked far away from humanity. Upon arrival, there is this sense of serenity that comes over us. We are being welcomed by a family in one of the houses next to the monastery who provides us with food and sleeping supplies. People here live with minimal necessities and their homes are small. The common room is used for eating, spending daytime activities, and sleeping. There is a small second room for the kitchen. We take an evening walk after dinner around the Monastery and climb up to the stupa on one of the surrounding hills. It is so quiet and peaceful here, especially now we are completely disconnected from the outside world (no cellphone, no television, no social media), which is such a great and liberating feeling. 

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Day 89: We have finally reached Khovsgol where we stay for the next two days. We are staying at a cozy cabin with a fireplace so we can keep warm during the cold summer nights here. On our first night here we enjoy the traditional ‘Khorkhog’. The lamb (with bones) is cooked into a container that also contains a bunch of hot stones about the size of your fist. The heat and steam of the stones will cook the meat and makes it tender and let it fall off the bone once you eat it. It is absolutely delicious! We also connect with some other guests who are staying in the other cabins.

 The night falls over Khovsgol and the fireplace is lit to keep our cabin warm. Before I go to bed I drink a cup of hot tea and go outside. When I look up at the sky I see a thousand stars. The quiet sound with only the crackling sound of our fireplace in the back. A perfect way to conclude today.  

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Day 91: Here we are, on the road again back to Ulaanbaatar. We are driving all day long along pastures full of animals. Horses, cows, goats, sheep, and even a bunch of vultures to throw in the mix. Our driver-guide, a fifty-year-old some reserved Mongolian drives an average careful 55 kilometers per hour which makes the hours spent in the car feel like twice as long and both Seba and I wonder if it has something to do with the dozen cracks in his window shield or if he is on parole and tried to not look too suspicious. Or maybe he is very gentle with his car with all these cracks and the many bumps in the pavement. 

The radio plays an endless list of Mongolian songs and one random English song per day. Yesterday it were the Vengaboys, today it was Kesha. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s song! 

The empty road is where all my thoughts are cluttered. It is a time to reflect on this journey and what we have seen in the past four months and also what is still ahead of us. Four months of carrying my overpacked backpack (because we all make the mistake of bringing more than we need) over my burned shoulders. Wearing the same washed off shorts and worn-out shirts. Telling people the same tales but always hearing new amazing experiences. Every day is an adventure when you are moving around. Traveling around like a modern nomad from the place you just got to know in the last 24 hours to a new place you have never been and put your head to rest that night. Backpackers are nomads in a way, trying to find a new place, a new horizon, and also trying to find themselves, over and over again.  

Day 95: This is it! A moment I have been dreaming for over a decade. Today we are embarking on the Trans Siberian Express from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, a roughly 27-hour train ride. 

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