Yesterday I boarded the final stage of the Trans-Mongolian railway from Ulaanbaatar, and arrived in Beijing this morning. It was a beautiful train ride with good company in the form of a bunch of other travellers. The scenery changed dramatically from when we left Mongolia in the Gobi desert to waking up to mountains and (unfrozen) rivers this morning!
I have wanted to visit Mongolia ever since I read a book called Hearing Birds Fly, about a girl who went to live in the countryside for a year, and I was sad to leave it. It sounded, and is, an extraordinary place.
For centuries life has mostly been nomadic and even today it is widespread across the country. As a result, their culture is quite unlike anywhere I have been before.
The Mongolians’ hospitality is astonishing. Everywhere we went we were offered tea, and usually food of some description. Sometimes we were offered a bed for the night. Another time we arrived in a strangers home after an all night, off road mini-van ride and after a breakfast of Chai and breakfast, our hosts insisted we rested in their freshly vacated beds before continuing our journey. I just can’t imagine that happening in the UK in quite the same way.
That same mini-van ride, our seat had collapsed in the middle of the night, and at 2am, 15 of us had traipsed into a strangers’ family’s small wooden home. We woke the whole family up, but instead of being angry, we welcomed. The husband stoked the fire while the wife prepared tea and sour dough bread for each one of us. It was an extraordinary act of kindness to our eyes, and yet it seemed a normal part of life for all of the Mongolians involved.
I believe part of their incredible generosity of spirit stems from centuries lived in a cold and unforgiving climate. Both Jordi and I commented on a number of occasions how dangerous it would be to end up stranded alone in the middle of nowhere the freezing temperatures. I cannot imagine Mongolians allowing this to happen though.
Nomadic life does not lend itself to beautiful architecture as you would find across Europe. There is no need for grand buildings when a simple ger will do the job.
Of course, not everyone is a nomad in Mongolia. Over half of the 3 million population now live in it’s capital city, which leaves over one and a half million square kilometres for the other one and half million people. That’s a lot of space.
Ulaanbaatar is not particularly special. It is built for practicality, not for beauty, but the main reason I did not like Ulaanbaatar was the pollution. Never before have I been in a place where the weather forecast for the day is not rain, sun or snow, but “smoke”!
I loved Mongolia, but even I found it a relief after ten days with no toilet and no washing facilities to return to a town with such things. The countryside of Mongolia is certainly not a place to go if you cannot put up with roughing it a bit.
It is also not the cheapest place to travel, especially in off season, even if you avoid the expensive package tours that hostels provide as we did.
There is little in the way of public transport infrastructure and it can therefore be unreliable and expensive. In addition, as tourists it is difficult to get to the more remote areas without the help of a guide, and in these instances, you can end up paying for their local knowledge more than anything.
Mongolia is a truly unique place. If you want an adventure, to go somewhere wild and relatively untouched by humanity then this definitely is a place for you.