A Travellerspoint blog

The Mongolia experience - part I

Getting started, crossing the desert and one happy Naadam


View our round the world itinerary on shiriandre's travel map.

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By the time we have arrived at our last Asian destination of this trip, we were happy to accept the fact that the easy way to travel in Mongolia is by an all included organized trip. Having no normal / reliable public transportation and endless distances between different sites, makes it reasonable to travel with private driver. A local guide on top of it (that cooks for you as well) is an indulgence, but after spending 3 weeks with our lovely guide Zutla (we are misspelling her and the other Mongolian name on purpose to make it easier to pronounce it properly. But anyway you try to say it – it will not sound like the original…) – we think it was the best decision ever to have her on board.

Getting started

After the 2 days delay on our arrival to Ulaan Bataar we’ve spent our first day there by quickly organizing our tour around the country:
Duration – the remaining 20 days we have left;
Direction – an elliptic loop that started south to the Gobi desert, up to the central areas, north – almost until the Russian border and back to UB just in time for our flight;
Most complicated mission - finding partners for our trip in order to share costs and enjoy the company of a larger party.
In other words, we’ve spent our only free day in UB by approaching (not to say “attacking”) any possible foreigner we’ve met and asking him to join our tour (not to say “begging him to be our friend”…). :)
By 9 pm, after wondering the streets like crazy, we were mentally exhausted but we’ve proudly gathered a big group of 7 people (almost 9 if it was up to our guest house manager), and finally we had a bite to eat for the first time that day…. (Great all you can eat Mongolian barbecue. We’ve earned it!)

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From right to left: Patrick from Switzerland, our loyal partner from the first organization stages to the last day of the trip (also known as the “Mammoth”), Wouter & Willemijn from Holland, who saved us in any every logistic-challenged situation and unfortunately left the group earlier (also known as our own private “McGuivers” from the Dutch army) and Shirley from the UK (missing Sebastian – her boyfriend from France) who were the last to join the group, but never gave us the filling that they are part of the it (also known as the honeymooners).

Getting really started

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On the next morning we’ve met our tour guides and drivers, and not less important – our 2 soviet-designed vans (7 people meant 2 cars unfortunately). Our tour would not have been the same without these friendly 4 people and unbelievable 2 vans (we are counting them almost as living creatures… after riding for 3500 km in them we got very attached….): “mama” Zutla; “yep maybe” Mongo; “Jigme, Jigme, Jigme”; “wouw” Uurna; The grey Uaz; The Austin powers.

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The 2 Uaz cars. First model made in 1965, still in use and produced (Jigme's one is 2008), with apparently no change at all from the original design. These cars can "climb" up hills with inclination of more than 45 dgrees and drive through rivers, with no problems. A true soviet-semi-wild-tank!

The Gobi

The Gobi desert was our first destination, and as such, it was the first place to witness the vast plains of this country: endless territory with no human signs of life, wondering herds of animals and no bushes/ trees (major challenge when you need to have a toilet break!). Driving away from UB the paved road ended very quickly after living the city and the land became less and less green as we moved south.
The main attractions of the Gobi desert are all around the Gurvan Shaikhan national park

Fleming cliffs (Bayanzag)

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These red cliffs are the area where many dinosaurs bones and egg fossils have been found since the 1920’s (including the ones shown in the national museum of natural history in NY). Today you can’t see much of where or how the excavations worked, but surprisingly, in a small ger nearby they show you some bones and fossils. Just like that…
This was our first major stop in the Gobi and our first “shower” (dripping water from a barrel…) too. Unfortunately, 5 minutes after our shower we were caught in a sand/dust storm, so in a minute we were covered by more dust than before the shower. We call it our sand scrub shower. :)


Ice canyon (Yolyn Am)

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In the middle of the desert there is a canyon which is deep enough so that the sun doesn’t heat its bottom. So, most of the year a part of the stream in this canyon is covered by a layer of ice. In the middle of the desert! In July! We want to import this concept to the Negev!!

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Wouter and Patrick on their heavy duty of taking pictures.

While eating dinner at our camp next to the ice canyon, a herd of yaks suddenly appeared in our vally. Things happen suddenly in Mongolia all the time…

Sand dunes (Khongoryn Els)

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Out of nowhere, a huge area of sand dunes rises up in the Gobi (most of this desert in not sandy at all). I (Shiri) spent the day there by riding a camel (2 humps!! But actually my camel’s humps looked like they had a flat tire. :() and climbing the 300 m tall dunes.
Andre unfortunately spent it in bed, suffering from what we think was a kidney stone.

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Sunrise on the sand dunes

Naadam

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Andre and friends, celebrating Naadam

Naadam is the national festival in Mongolia and we were lucky to attend it in Dalanzadgad, the capital of the south Gobi province, where we could see all the events: It consists of challenges such as horse racing for children, archery (bow and arrow) for men, women and children and wrestling (that is the national sport).

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A 10 years old girl, amazing archer!

Wrestling legend tells that one year a woman won the Naadam wrestling contest, so they changed the shirt to be opened and easier to identify woman, since wrestling is a man-only sport.

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Wrestlers being presented by their coaches

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The volture dance before the fight

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In action....

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Someone will win

The “culinary highlight” of the Naadam turned out to be what we called “the strawberry-gorgonzola ice cream”. It was supposed to be a strawberry ice-cream, but it had a strong taste of stinky/ gone bad cheese that until now we are sure it had some gorgonzola on it :) start-up!

Posted by shiriandre 14:29 Archived in Mongolia Comments (2)

Mongolia

fast post from the airport....

20 days with no communication from the outside world, 3500 km (10 out of them on paved roads) in a Russian van. 100km of horses riding. several kms of hiking. 20 songs in loop. Hot desert, sand dunes, freezing cold lakes, ice canyon, steppe, flat green areas. Gers, tents and monasteries. Only one city. Wrestling, horse race and archery.. Endless cards games, vodka, mare's milk, airag and home made dry cheese. Yaks, sheeps, goats, horses, camels, flies, falcons and eagles running free. Killing flies, butchering a goat and running away from a yak. Vulcano and moon walk.

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That's Mongolia....We've been with no Internet connection for one month, so we will put some order in the pictures and publish the full story latter....

Posted by shiriandre 19:21 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

How to fly from Beijing to Mongolia in 2 days….

General impressions from China

More than three months have passed since we have entered the huge country of China, from the well-developed (and eventually not representing other parts of the country) “backdoor” of Hong Kong.
Our general impression of this country has shifted many times during this 3 months: from being amazed of the great scenery to thinking it is good to see it now before folks of Chinese tourists destroy it; From being overwhelmed with the obvious fast economical growth of the past few years to being shocked of how gladly this so-called communist country has embraced the American brands.
There were many things we wanted to write here, many recommendations and warnings, few must “Do’s” and “Don’ts”. But the events of our last 45 hours in China have made the last strong impression, and while writing these words on the plane on the way to Mongolia, we couldn’t emphasize enough how glad we are to finally leave China. The human factor makes all the difference…

July 4th

4:20 – we wake up to go to the airport after not sleeping even a single minute due to the excitement of the next chapter ahead – Mongolia :)
5:45 – we arrive at the Beijing international airport, 2 hours before the hour of the flight. First weird event of the day – the check-in counter is closed even though the line for the check-in is getting longer by the minute and even though there are many Air-China (AC) employees around us.
6:10 - the check in starts finally… soon we will pass through the immigration and security checks and reach our gate.
7:00 - At the gate a German couple with 2 kids sits next to us and asks us if we heard about the delay of the flight to 8 pm….
7:00 to 10:00 – the pressure at the gate starts to built up: announcements that no one can understand are aired, passengers start shouting at the AC crew, demanding information about the delay, rumors start flying around. AC claims we are not flying due to wind storms in Ulaan Baatar, while Mongolian people claim they spoke with their families that say that the whether is fine there. Suddenly AC say that there is a problem with immigration…
The typical Chinese “customer service” approach is on: 60 years of a totalitarian regime resulted in customers that are used to get orders instead of full information, and officials that smile at you stupidly if they don’t understand your question and ignore you if you persist of asking a question that they can’t answer or don’t want to answer.
10:00 – we are taken to a hotel at the airport area, again with no explanations or further information.
At the hotel further rumors are starting to fly around – a French journalist that lived for 5 years in China says that AC is canceling flights to Mongolia for political reasons on a weekly basis. A German tourist guide, married to a Mongolian woman, says a similar flight was cancelled last week and the passengers waited 3 days for the next flight. We are starting to be worried…
17:00 - everybody is back at the hotel lobby. The hotel staff knows nothing, AC communicates nothing, our flight is showing as if it will take off at 8 pm, but the hotel refuses to check us out and all the passengers’ passports are deposited at the hotel (except ours. Israelis shout louder….).
19:00 - buses arrive at the hotel to pick us up for the airport. We check in but we are stopped at the immigration and are asked to go back to the hotel. Our flight still appears on the screens and we refuse to go on the bus without proper updates. We literally stood with a group of passengers in the middle of the terminal and refused to go anywhere until they bring a higher ranked manager to talk to us. Andre takes lead of the group… we think this might be the first strike in the history of the people’s republic of China. The AC guy is starting “to loose it”…
20:00 - after shouting at another AC representative (that couldn’t speak any English – this is the manger they’ve sent…) we proceed to the gate. 15 minutes later our flight is removed from the board. Again – we refuse to go back to the hotel without further info.
21:00 - we are announced that a meal will be serve to us at the gate. We receive a miniature bottle of water.
22:00 - an announcement is saying they regret to announce (some people think they said that they are glad to announce…) that our flight is cancelled. We demand to have this in writing in order to receive some compensation. On the way out we receive a document saying that the flight was delayed due to whether conditions. We argue for 30 minutes until we receive a corrected document. We know that it will never help, but at this point it is a matter of principal!
00:00 - we go to sleep.

July 5th

05:00 - wake up call. The hotel was informed the day before to prepare us for a 7:40 flight.
06:00 – we go back to sleep after realizing that no flight will be leaving soon. No one from AC bothers to contact us.
13:00 – lunch is over – no news about the flight. Some desperate people start booking alternative flights. We go to the swimming pool instead… needless to say that we never got our backpacks from AC so we go to the pool with some extra clothes we had in our small bags :)
17:10 - we receive a call in our room that dinner is served now and that we are leaving to the airport in 20 minutes. By the time we go down there is no food left and the hotel refuses to check us out again because it starts to rain and therefore the entire airport is shut-down. We are told that there are lightening storms at the airport, but at the hotel (which is located at the end of the take off runway) there is just a bit of rain… Jokes about the poor ability of AC to take off when someone farts next to the runway start running around.
19:00 - we board the buses to the terminal. Our hopes are down, just in case. We have some flashbacks :)
19:30- we have checked in for the 3rd time in 2 days… our flight shows on the screen as if it is taking off in 30 minutes.
20:00 - we arrive at the gate and are shocked to see people actually boarding the plane! Heavy rain starts. At the same gate a crowd of people from this morning’s cancelled flight is gathering. Later we hear they took off 2 hours after us and after they called the police to complain that AC is holding them as hostages at the airport!
22:00 - we finally take off… for the first time out of Israel we hear people clapping hands in the plane :)

Well, in reality it was long and frustrating (believe it or not we’ve left out many annoying details) but on the up side – we’ve met some really nice people (how many times did you board a plane when you know all the other passengers?...) and we kept saying to ourselves that we are at the best position – no organized trip waiting for us, no time pressure. Traveling for a year has its benefits!

Other general impressions

In the spirit of the lonely planet – here are some top 3 choices in china that we want to share with you 

Best street food or local non-expensive food
1. Pork dumplings, pan fried that we accidentally found in Shanghai. A big plate of delicious dumplings for less than a dollar. Best money worth and great taste.
2. Roasted pork and duck in Hong-Kong, just around the corner from our guest house. We went there 3 times in less than 5 days.
3. The food at “our friend” in Chengdu. Not far from our guest house we found a small restaurant with no name or menu in English. We were so hungry, so we just followed the owner to the kitchen and nodded ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when he pointed at different meat and vegetables. We ate there twice. We always got more food than we thought we’ll get, everything was delicious and the price was never more than 5 dollars for the 2 of us together, including beer…

So many times we had no idea what we are eating, so we can’t guaranty that we didn’t have any dog meat on the street barbecues. We can definitely promises that we didn’t chew any chicken feet.

Best beers in China
Actually as hard as Andre tried, no good beer was to be found.
In the end we were drinking the cheapest one, since they all taste the same.

Best scenery
1. Tibet. Desert valleys with snowy mountains.
2. North of Sichuan. Eventually it worth the triple road trip from Chengdu to Sichuan (see the complaints post from a while back).
3. Yangshuo. It seems so long ago, but still an amazing area.

Tiger leap gorge would have been #4. We still don’t have an answer about the difference between a gorge and a canyon, but we couldn’t leave this one out of the list.

Best in-town sight seeing
1. The Potala palace in Lhasa. Daytime or night – a beautiful building with lots of happening around it.
2. The forbidden city. No matter how you look at it – it is impressive. To think that it was still in use a hundred years back is crazy!
3. The Olympic bird’s nest and water cube. You got to be there to understand.

If Lijiang had less Chinese tourists and less souvenir shops it might have been on the list.

Funniest English spelling mistakes
1. A tourist information sign in Emeishan saying they “will help you to book a FIGHT and hotel”. We are hopping that they mean flight…
2. The waitress at the “hooters” restaurant in Chengdu (don’t get excited, we were just looking for a nice burger… Chinese girls don’t come in bra size over cup B anyway…) told us about another waitress that she is ”having a BREAST in the rest room”. When we started laughing she asked if she said something wrong or if this is an American joke. Of course there was no American at the table…
3. Menus have million mistakes – these are just few: “selfish eggplant” instead of fish-flavored eggplant; and “stiv fried” dishes all over a single menu instead of stir-fried; “Cock” instead of coke etc…

China is so full of spelling mistakes – as if they never heard of the concept of quality assurance for your work. We wish we took pictures of all the funny mistakes we saw, because we can’t even remember half of it now. At a bookstore we say that someone already published a book of these :)

Chinglish – the weirdest translations of signs
1. A warning sign saying “slip and fall carefully” instead of “be careful not to slip and fall”.
2. At the panda breeding center the sign asks to avoid pornography in front of the pandas. Seriously!
3. Thefridgerestaurant. Just like that – in one word… what they really meant is The bridge restaurant….

Chinese seem to use the google translator a lot – which leads to the weirdest phrasing ever. And again, no QA…

Funniest fake brands
1. Dengue tooth paste
2. “Just go ahead” – a slogan for sports wear “inspired” by Nike’s “Just do it”.
3. “Abibas” and “Adidies” – imitating the veeeeeeeery popular Adidas brand.

Almost on the top 3: Kpaap, with the same logo as Kappa….

China is the land of fake stuff and the land of catching up with all the western brands. Combine it with English spelling mistakes and you get the above names and many others.

Things we would have done differently, knowing what we know today
1. Go to Tibet from Chengdu instead of flying from Yunan. This could have helped us find people to travel with and reduce costs.
2. Buy things along the way instead of leaving the shopping to Beijing. Beijing’s sellers are killing any fun that could come from shopping in cheap countries – they shout at you if you dare to bargain, they grab your arm if you try to leave in the middle of bargaining and they pretend to be personally offended by the price you offer.
3. plan our visa extension stops better.

New most interesting things we’ve learnt in China
1. According to the Nanjing museum of the Japanese occupation, in WWII the Japanese withdrew from China due to the resistance of the Chinese people. No word of the massive fighting with the Americans and their allies or the 2 atom bombs.
2. According to the only English-speaking channel of the Chinese TV (CCTV9, or as we call it – “the propaganda channel”) China is almost over the financial crisis while the rest of the world might take another year to recover. G8 – this is for your information… According to the same channel, the entire world is looking up to China to learn from it how it successfully managed the swine flu epidemic.
3. Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1959. We’ve mentioned it before – but it is important to repeat it in case you’ve missed this piece of info.

Posted by shiriandre 19:15 Archived in China Comments (0)

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