Mongolia and Gobi Desert had always been on my bucket list, perhaps from reading OneStep4Ward Mongolia posts way back, or just wanting to see the vast desert lands, or wanting to feel the freedom of horse galloping like what once “My Fair Princess” had portrayed when I was younger. The ger camps, local shamanism, custom and etiquettes always fascinates me.
At then, Beyond Expedition dropped a promo code for Mongolia – this is it! Time to go~
Visiting Beyond Expedition Ger camp near Khatib
I was invited to their Ger camp setup near Khatib, for a pre-trip briefing. I met with Scott who briefed on what to expect and prepare for the trip. He said -20 degrees is possible. GG, why did I choose winter. But overpacking is better than underpacking – he advised. I had quite a headache on what to buy also since I already had some winter wear from before, but I didn’t want to overspend too much. YET, I am so afraid of losing my toes, fingers, ears to the winter frost.
Interestingly, Scott commented that most Singaporeans preferred to go on the Reindeer tour than the Gobi Desert. Probably because the idea of “desert” is related to “hot” and us Singaporeans just hate being in a hot climate.
Actually, I was expecting a tour group for this trip. But it ended up as my solo trip! Honestly – a little bit of social awkwardness worries me, so I was hoping there would be someone else to fill up the gaps of silence lol when needed (especially when visiting the nomad families)! But I was already 1-foot in already, no backing out, just need to take plane and see where it goes.
A week later, I set off to airport myself, lugging 4 bags (paid 100 USD for 1 extra checked in baggage ><!), and I was on my way to Mongolia.
Reaching Ulaanbaatar and Meeting Baara’s family
Reached Ulaanbaatar airport finally – I waited near the “Lost and Found” corner before finally meeting Baara and his family. There was a jam on his drive to the airport. Baara was also sending off his brother-in-law (BIL) and niece who were both heading to Busan to meet their wife for a vacation.
Baara and his BIL first took me to change money at the airport, and then to purchase a sim card next at Mobi Telcom. The sim card cost only 1000MNT for 9 GB – which is like SGD$0.40?!! Btw, it was on a promo. I didn’t have smaller notes also, only 20,000 MNT notes, and telco salesperson didn’t have any neither. Baara’s brother-in-law dished out a note and paid for me. Oh my! Then Baara wouldn’t take my money after I finally had smaller changes, saying it was a gift. >< Felt so paiseh~ but so very grateful.
We were back at the departure gate to send off his BIL and little niece. They kissed each other on the cheeks and said goodbyes. A culture-clash moment: where would you in Singapore see someone kissing his in-law family ~ like no way! Even just between grown-up siblings and parents in the same family…like no too right? In a way, I envied their interactions as it was display of pure affection for each other.
With Baara, his mother, and little nephew, we started the journey to the UB city. The jam in the city was so crazy – we were stuck in the jam for like 2-3 hours and I nodded off in the front seat. Baara dropped off his mother and nephew around 3pm, and we finally reached for “lunch” at 4pm. I wasn’t exactly hungry due to in-flight meals, but I thought Baara should be famished!
Afterwards, we returned to the jam while driving to our hotel, Toyoko Inn. We sighted the hotel just right in front of us. Think: “so close, yet so far“~
Funnily, Baara planned out our timing while in the jam: 6.20pm right now, so 7pm we meet at lobby to walk to State Department Store.
So, 6.20pm becomes 6.30pm, becomes 6.45pm and we were still in the jam queue, only inching forward from time to time. He kept jokingly reminding me how much time till 7pm left for me to refresh in the hotel~
State Department Store
We walked to State Department Store later after 7.20pm (pls choose walking over driving in UB). This is indeed a good spot for any general purchases and souvenirs: ie sports wear, luxurious cosmetics, cashmere, souvenirs, stationeries. There was also a supermarket at the first floor.
Baara recommended some gifts items for the families that we would be visiting. So I bought some packets of fruit juices and candies. Mongolia actually had a good amount of imported products, and I could recognise some snack brands already: (eg Haribo, Milka, etc). I was hoping whatever I painstakingly lugged from Singapore would be more exclusive so that they had a chance to try something different. Ie: Wang Wang biscuit, Wether’s sweets, and Ammeltz Yoko-Yoko. (They have Salonpas patch here in Mongolia! Lol~)
We headed for dinner around 8pm. Yes yes, quite a short break between lunch and dinner. We crossed the street to a nearby restaurant. Baara and I had the same dish: dumplings in milk tea. There was also rice in the soup as well. Very hearty meal!
Next morning, I met my guide (Unuruu) and driver (Erka). After we bade goodbyes to Baara at the lobby, we set off in handsome russian minivan – patched with military camo style. It was a long drive out of the city, and we first reached a town to have our lunch. Unuruu helped me with deciphering the menu and got my order.
I was all but focused on that 1 task: the TOILET! YES! There was a nice toilet in the restaurant! I guess it wasn’t so bad as long as you could last yourself until the next meal stop or the next town.
Tsagaan Suvarga – White Stupa
Next, we reached the White Stupa after our lunch stop. Over here, the sun was slightly setting and the horizon was looking on in beautifully pink-purple hues.
The White Stupa was actually once the floorbed of an ocean. Whatever happened to the ocean, no idea. But the natural white limestone rock formation left behind was strikingly beautiful. The colors on the stupas were also dabbed with some pink/red hues, which I guessed were from some deep sea mineral or algae? Can’t help thinking – Where are the sea creature fossils? Maybe they became part of the sand?
We also sighted a fox that bounced into the White Stupa!
Unuruu boasted that they had book the entire place just for me! Hahahah – well yes! No photobombers!
A misadventure and first night in a ger
While we still had daylight, we decided to take a shortcut. That began our first misadventure – our minivan got stuck in a downward slope and we couldn’t roll out of it. Erka was trying hard to maneuver the van out of the slope, and we jerked violently forward and backward in the our seats. Apparently some part of the van broke. He then got into his working clothes and boots, and was trying to repair the van.
Soon after, the daylight was all gone and total darkness fell. Erka made a phone call to the ger family for help. The houseman arrived shortly, and soon after, the van was pulled out of that downward slope. We were finally on our way to the family’s ger.
At the family’s ger – they served camel’s milk, curd snacks and homemade pastries, which are really interesting flavors since it was my first time trying.
Unuruu busied herself with cooking our first dinner – ramen with salad!
After dinner, Erka dished out a vodka he had brought. Unuruu told me that he missed his friend here, as he hadn’t a chance to visit him ever since covid hits. It was the first time he returned to Gobi Desert since then.
Vodka is a respected drink here in Mongolian culture. Unuruu said, if I could drink 3 shots it would be really nice. Because, Mongolians like the number 3, which brings the following meaning:
1, for the happiness we bring when we are born
2, for the suffering while we are alive
3, for when we leave, we shall leave with happiness
But she also advised me not to force myself if I couldn’t. Hehe, I managed to finish more than 3 hahaha. The houseman actually preferred beer over vodka, so he was drinking beer instead of vodka. He also served me a couple of beers as well. (So I drank quite a lot actually hahah).
The family also served us homemade noodles, and boiled lamb ribs! Non-stop feasting! Erka was slicing out the meat with a knife and then passing the meat around by hand. (Regretfully – didn’t take photos here). I have to keep reminding myself to use right-hand to receive anything.
Unuruu was extremely excited to teach them our celebratory “yam-seng” toast that we do back in Singapore – she had learnt it from the “2-sisters” group that happened just before my trip. Everyone held their toast, whether was it with a vodka shot glass, or a glass of beer, or a bowl of camel milk tea, and we started the “yammmmm~seng” loudly into the night.
Erka asked (through Unuruu) what did I do for work, then commenting that I looked like a trainer hahaha~ (My muscular look comes from my puffy jacket leh…). Btw, he doesn’t speak English, so Unuruu had to translate in between.
Night photography – first try at our ger camp – I haven’t (never) been practicing lol so, couldn’t get the correct settings for milky way. Fret not! We’ve got some more nights to go~
That night I shared the ger with Unuruu and Erka – she had also asked in case I felt uncomfortable with it. But if Erka were with us, he could help keep the fireplace burning in the night. The houselady had told her that ours had a better fireplace and it would really be warm in the night – but Unuruu didn’t have much confidence in it.
Before we slept, Unuruu guided me on how to layout my sleeping bag, the fleece blanket, and all the extra blankets provided by the family, so to keep in maximum warmth, and keep out the coldness. There is a technique…please follow the technique.
Later in the night, I woke up feeling cooked alive – it was like a hot sauna. I scrambled out of the sleeping bag and mountains of blankets, and removed all extra layers of clothes. The same with Unuruu, and she even had 2 sleeping bags layered together, lol~!
Do not doubt the houselady’s fireplace!
After breakfast, the houseman and houselady were ready to begin their day – the houseman was going to herd the camels, and the houselady was going to milk the camels.
We visited their camel farm, and watched the houselady milking the camel while standing on a one-legged pose to hold the bucket – she actually has to do that for one-hour…wow.
We tried to get friendly with the camels – but still had to stay cautious just in case they get aggressive. I have no idea what to expect if that happened. Maybe a kick to send me back to Singapore~
Camels are really cute – they have these large intelligent eyes and they would stare intently as if they could see through you. Unuruu shared that camel are actually a combination of all 12 zodiac animals. I was googling on this, but couldn’t find much details. Instead, I found this interesting mongolian folktale of Camel vs Mouse.
We left the family soon after and set off for our next stop. But first again, lunch at the next town. I got something like a shepherd’s pie – ie: mashed potato on top of the (mutton or beef?)
Mongolian’s meal serving was really huge. I tried but couldn’t finished all the carbs – I had to leave behind some rice which was very wasteful – 粒粒皆辛苦 (every grain of rice is the hardwork of farmers).
Yoliin Am – Ice Valley
We reached Yoliin Am next, Yol – meaning Bearded Vulture. Here in this valley we could do some wild animal sighting: ibex, bearded vultures, goats etc. Unuruu said there might be a snow leopard too (woah~). Please come with good waterproof hiking shoes, as this place gets filled with snow and ice, with part of the river turning into ice as well.
I actually came with snow boots. While they are good with thick snow and ice, but the grip for hiking was much less suitable – plus I bought like 1-size too big, lol.
Btw, horse riding was in the plan, but the horse herder was uncontactable, likely due to the start of winter season.
Spotted bearded vultures:
Then she found a spot of river that has good hard ice and here began the fun. She wanted to make funny poses, as she always had normal poses – so she shall have ’em:
And my turn…hahaha trying backward stroke here
Then a b-boy pose…hmmm~
Then she started to pluck off huge slabs of ice, wanting to do karate with them:
Next my turn (couldn’t stop laughing afterwards, it was so silly hahahaha):
Hahahaha it was so much fun with Unuruu!
Some part of the path, we had no choice but to walk on slippery ice. I was having a lot of near-slipping moments lol. But we found a way: Don’t walk. Just slide your feet or waddle like a penguin. Unuruu started calling me a penguin afterwards hahah!
Here, Unuruu wanted to try an icicle – 😀 I was worried she might set off an avalanche the moment she broke the icicle.
She really tried it out!! Yummy she says~
We were about one hour deep in the valley – and then we shall be heading out the same way. We spotted a lone human hiking in as well, and she said to me, “See, wild human here”. Hahahaha
For our last bit of fun, she chose a nice slab of ice for our driver! He had better accept it because it was worth 2 hours of hiking!
So Unuruu clutched that big slab of ice under her arm as we walked out. Along the way, she was also picking up thrown away bottles – really sweet of her!
Some last few poses as we headed out!
Spotted an Ibex! Unuruu first spotted it by its horn shape against the sky background – otherwise it would be hard to spot it as it camouflages against the mountain. It was also staring back at us.
On the journey back to the car, we were chatting and I’d learnt that she also watched Huan Zhu Ge Ge (My Fair Princess) when she was younger, and it was many mongolian’s favourite drama as well. Omg…my favourite childhood drama too!! I had re-watched some episodes ever since I had grown up (maybe in 2014~) and those action scenes were so outdated that it was like 100x comedic! Hahahah, I guess for entertainment fulfillment, one should try a re-run of those episodes. We nearly forgot to watch where we were going as we were engrossed in chatting, and took on a trickier path – luckily it wasn’t a too hard detour.
Reaching our van – time to hand Erka the gift xD:
Can’t stop laughing at this… Erka was really looking and admiring that slab of ice given by Unuruu before smashing it xD.
2nd family’s ger stay
We reached the family’s ger for our second night. Here, Erka’s interactions with the houseman was so hilarious:
Houseman: holds something in his fist with a red-looking-cap exposed, beckons Erka to take it.
Erka: expecting the snuff bottle, took it. Turns out to be a rubber duck with a red beak. He lunged at the houseman
Round 2: Next after passing bananas around…
Erka: holds out a banana in his fist to the houseman
Houseman: took it, it was only the banana skin
Lol, these 2 dudes are so funny…Clumsy me
Alas, finally a half successful night shot at milky way. Hmm, I guess need to stitch a few more shots to get the entire milky way in.
The night, Erka slept in the family ger while Unuruu and I had the ger to ourselves – since they had the same fireplace as the previous ger, supposedly it should be as warm as the previous night before. It felt like a ger-sauna, so we had to open the door and wait for the ger cooled down before we slept.
Later in the middle of the night, I woke up feeling super cold, perhaps due to all the fuel being used up! I actually felt overly-confident because of last night sauna, that I didn’t use the extra blanket, didn’t have my fleece jacket near me, and didn’t layout the fleece blanket correctly. Opps. But I was so sleepy-reluctant to get up and fix everything that I just huddled my sleeping bag all the way until the morning.
Unuruu and Erka learnt of my predicament the next morning, and they chided me for not reaching out as Erka could have helped me with the fireplace. Hmm~ I guessed coming from a self-independent background it was hard for me to ask people for help, let alone wake up a sleeping person from their dream. As far as I wasn’t in much danger or so I felt. But you could really sense their disappointment though when I didn’t ask them for help.
Let’s continue in the next post!