Trans-Mongolian journal: Two days in UB and three days in the steppes

Genghis Khan on Chinggis Square in Ulan Bator.

September 11th – September 16th, 2017

Day 1: Dealing with Mongolian taxis and becoming a millionaire
We arrived in Ulan Bator, or UB as everybody calls it, at seven in the morning. When you hear the name “Mongolia”, the first thing in your head should be horses. That’s why we had booked a three day horse riding trek in Bogd Khan Uul national park outside UB, through a company called Stepperiders. They would bring us to their camp outside UB in the evening, so we had arranged to leave our backpacks in their UB office when they opened at 09:00. Before arriving, they emailed us their address in Mongolian, in order for us to have something to show a taxi driver. They also said that it should cost a maximum of 8000 MNT (approximately 3.25 USD).

Various companies were represented at the train station when we arrived, selling tours, hotel rooms and transportation services. We withdrew some money from one of the ATMs inside the station and walked out. Once we were heading in the direction of some cars that seemed like taxis, a flock of drivers suddenly appeared from nowhere. I showed them my notebook with the address to the office written, and they fought a bit between themselves to grab it. Even a lady who we thought was homeless wanted to take a look. They wanted 10 000 MNT for the 15 minute ride, which we later found out was the standard suggested price for tourists. I said that I was thinking something like 4000 MNT would be reasonable, and some of the drivers backed off and lost interest.

“Haha, yeah, 4000 rubles and I’ll drive” one of them said.
“Okay, anyone doing it for 8000 tugrik?”, I said.
“Alright, alright” one of them answered.

He loaded our luggage into his car and we drove off. We had by now gotten used to not using seat belts, so we weren’t really surprised that this car didn’t have them. This wasn’t an official taxi with a taximeter and a sign on the roof; any car in UB can be a taxi. This can be observed anywhere when walking around in UB, as you’ll see people sticking out their arm with a flat hand and palm facing downwards. This is how they do it, and it works for foreigners too, since many drivers are eager to earn a few extra bucks. What’s important no matter if they are official or not, is that you agree on a price before driving anywhere.

We learned early on that UB is quite interesting when it comes to addressing. Many streets and places do not have an address, and many buildings don’t have numbers on them. To make matters even worse, many businesses don’t have signs outside, and may have an entrance somewhere in the back of the building. To address places, locals often specify a building’s relative position to a known landmark, like “in district xx, 200 meters from yy, right behind zz”. This means that you’ll have problems finding a lot of places in UB on Google Maps, and it might take some approximations, guesswork and asking people in order to find a place. The address of Stepperiders was specified as something like “120 Minggatu building (gray office looking south after the state bank) (on the right side of the road).

The “taxi” driver stopped outside a hairdresser and asked us “okay?”. We looked around, but couldn’t see the office anywhere. We tried to explain that it didn’t look quite right, and he tried calling the number which Stepperiders had specified in an email. The number did not work, and we later found out that it was because the person he was trying to reach was at the camp and without service. The driver left the car and started asking people who were walking in the street, and people in other cars. We searched for the address in our offline Google Maps, but couldn’t find the exact address, only a place that seemed to be nearby. He said “aha, okay!” and drove off. We arrived at the new place, he asked “okay?” again. We didn’t think it was correct, so he walked inside a business and asked around. This went on several times for about 45 minutes, until we decided that we would rather find a café with WiFi and just email Stepperiders to ask how we could find them. As I didn’t have any smaller bills, I paid the driver 10 000 MNT instead of the 8000 MNT we agreed on, and he said “10 000 okay!”. At the utter disgust of my fiancé, I didn’t care enough about the $1 extra to make a scene and demand to get the change back.

After some emailing, the representative from Stepperiders met us outside a nearby supermarket, and we walked from there to their office. The first place the taxi driver wanted to drop us off turned out to be correct. They just didn’t have a sign that was readable from any more than perhaps three meters away. We left our luggage there, and walked towards the square in UB.

In the taxi, we had gotten a sense of the terrible traffic in UB. By walking along one of the main roads in the city, we got to observe it from an outside perspective. There is constant honking anywhere you go, and drivers will change lanes, back into traffic, block intersections and do other sorts of madness anywhere and at any time. You’ll see toddlers on their parents’ laps behind the wheel, of course without a seatbelt, with the parents often smoking. Drivers will roll down their windows to shout some comments at other drivers. People will honk at those who change lanes, and seconds later the same person who honked will do the exact same thing as the person he honked on. If you’re crossing the road, you’ve got to walk with confidence, but always with an eye on the car that’s heading towards you at high speed. Fun times.

We got a map and restaurant suggestions at the official tourist office right next to the square, and we walked to a restaurant called Modern Nomad to eat some Mongolian food. The mutton, noodles and fried dumplings were great. Some girls at our neighboring table giggled and stared at us, the pale foreigners eating their country’s cuisine. The waiter helped us with how to pronounce “hello” in Mongolian (“sayn bayna uu”), which is something Mongolians appreciate you saying when meeting them, even if the rest of the conversation obviously will continue in English.

State Department Store in Ulan Bator.
State Department Store.

We walked around the square and took some pictures, and later walked down Peace Avenue, which I believe is considered the main street of UB. We stumbled upon a photo store, where had various consumer and professional cameras, enormous tripods and stabilizers obviously for professional use, filters, memory cards etc. But a charger for my Nikon camera, no, of course not. Not thinking things through at all, I had left it at home, thinking that four batteries would be enough for the entire 22 day trip, and that I’d save some important space by not bringing it. I’ll always be bringing a charger hereafter, because I had almost used up all of the juice after about two weeks. After visiting the camera store, we went to the State Department Store, mostly looking at cashmere. Mongolia is known for their cashmere products, which you’ll find cheaper there than other places.

1.5 million Mongolian tugrik, which equals about 610 USD.
1.5 million Mongolian tugrik, which currently equals about 610 USD.

When the time was there, we walked towards the office of Stepperiders again. Along the way, we stopped at an ATM and became millionaires for just a brief moment, as we withdrew 1 500 000 MNT to both pay for the tour and to have some money available when returning to UB. After paying in their office, we were soon heading out of UB and to the camp of Stepperiders, in a seatbeltless car with two employees who amused us with singing Mongolian songs.

About an hour or so later, we arrived at the camp, and soon got served dinner and introduced to the ger we would be sleeping in until the next day. Gers are large, circular tent-like constructions that Mongolian nomads traditionally live in. They are also often put in the backyard of people who live in regular houses, to serve as a guest house. At the camp, we met some nice people from the US, Canada, France and Austria who were either going on a tour, had been on a tour or were there as volunteers. After too much vodka and card games, we were soon in bed in our ger.

Stars and gers on the Mongolian country-side.
Stars and gers at the Stepperiders camp.

Day 2: Riding to Bogd Khan Uul national park

Our guide moving a horse by motorcycle.
Our first guide moving a horse by motorcycle.
Our guide moving some horses at the camp.
Our first guide moving some horses by foot.

Being a bit taller than the average Mongolian, the bed was just a little bit too short for me, and the blanket was just a little bit too narrow to cover my body entirely. Mongolian nights at this time are cold. When we arrived, one of the employees at the camp made a fire in the stove inside the ger, making the place very hot. Since we prefer a cold bedroom, we thought that we would let the fire die to make it a more comfortable sleeping environment. My fiancé was warm and slept well throughout the night, but I had to resort to lying in a sort of fetal position to make the blanket cover me entirely. It helped for a while, but I didn’t really get much sleep that night.

Our semi-wild Mongolian horses.
Our semi-wild horses enjoying some time off.

After breakfast and lunch, we were heading out for our three day horseback riding tour. This was my second time riding a horse ever, while my fiancé used to own a horse and is therefore obviously quite a bit more experienced. Mongolian horses are semi-wild, as they wander freely around in the steppes most of the time, unlike the spoiled horses in Norway who are kept inside a stable at night. When we later told this fact about Norwegian horses to our second guide, he laughed and thought it was a very strange thing to do. Anyway, my horse was quite lazy, and didn’t move any more than it had to. I later had to find a stick to use as a whip (at the request of our guide) to make it move, which is something these horses are very used to. This made the horse more manageable. At one point I dropped the stick, and the horse quickly understood that I was no longer the boss, and the go sound “choo!” didn’t really make the horse move anywhere. But the very second I picked up a new stick, the horse immediately started trotting.

We rode up the mountain behind the camp and over the vast, beautiful and mostly empty steppes. It was off season, so there weren’t anyone else in our group. Our guide was a Mongolian in his thirties, with a lot of experience with horses and guiding. He was still learning English, but we could understand each other pretty well. Soon after riding over the first small mountain, we heard a lot of barking from a nomadic settlement a few hundred meters away. The protective but vicious dog came towards us while barking and generally not being a good boy. Our guide told us that he had been bitten by this particular dog before, and that its owners weren’t that friendly. He picked up some thrash from the ground in order to have something to throw at the dog in case it would attack. We kept our distance, and the dog backed off.

Mongolian nomads with a fair amount of animals.
Nomads with a fair amount of animals.

Most of the first day was spent on the mountains and steppes, but we crossed the main road at one point, heading in the direction of the national park. We took a break, giving me the chance to rest my sore groin area. I was wearing pants made for outdoor activities, and it was slightly reinforced by some rougher material in the groin and knee area. While great for other outdoor activities, this material was constantly rubbing my skin from movements against the hard, traditional Mongolian saddle. Both me and my man parts were happy for taking a break.

After about five hours since leaving the Stepperiders camp, we arrived at the camp place in Bogd Khan Uul. Our guide parked the horses for the night by tying their forefeet together, to avoid them running away. This might look a bit mean, but it is how they do it, and the horses are used to it. They happily walked around slowly and grassed around the campsite.

We didn’t know it for sure until we started the ride, but a driver came to the camp with our backpacks, with food and other supplies. We hadn’t received this piece of information before, but heard it from other attendees at the camp. It wasn’t very clear if they have a driver on every tour. For anyone booking in the future, be sure to ask if there will be a driver following with your things, as this means that you might be able to bring less items on your back while riding.

Our horseback riding guide cooking dinner for us in Bogd Khan Uul national park in Mongolia.
Our guide cooking dinner for us.

In addition to our luggage, the driver brought food, a cooking stove, tents, sleeping mats and sleeping bags for us to use. While our guide cooked dinner consisting of noodles, vegetables and mutton (of course), we set up our tent. The used tent didn’t come with plugs, so we had to improvise by sharpening some sticks and finding some heavy rocks to hold it in place. At first, it was a little bit awkward for us to just sit there and watch while he made us food. He refused any help from us, telling us to just sit back and relax. We used to doing everything ourselves while camping, so having someone else cook us food made us feel spoiled and surprisingly uncomfortable. It felt like we had booked this gentleman as a servant who was to do everything we pleased, while we just sat there and relaxed. The food was great.

Earlier that day, our guide told us that he would ask his boss to have a few days off to see his children after doing a seven day tour with other tourists. He went back home with the driver, and was replaced by a man in his early twenties, who would be our guide the next two days. Our new guide, Rentsen, told us that he originally came from a nomadic family, and that he had been riding horses since he was about five years old. He told us that he had studied software engineering, but liked working outside better than sitting in an office all day. Sounds like a great choice, to be honest, especially since he told us that being a tour guide paid better than being a programmer.

Horse under the Milky Way in Bogd Khan Uul national park in Mongolia.
Horse under the Milky Way.

While sitting there, watching the stars and chatting in darkness, we heard something we thought was a wolf or a dog howling in the distant. The sound came and went, but it was soon transformed into singing, and it was coming from the road about fifty meters from our campsite. The singing was coming from a man who was riding a horse alone in total darkness. Talk about being connected to nature!

Day 3: Visiting Manjusri Monastery and drinking horse milk with a nomadic family

The night was cold, and the sleeping bags and the mats were thin and uncomfortable. We are used to a sleeping bag that’s rated as comfortable down to -20 degrees Celsius, and -39 degrees Celsius for just surviving. This sleeping bag was probably meant for summer temperatures, and was of course too tiny to be comfortable in. I was freezing all night, despite the fact that I was wearing woolen undergarments, pants, a wool sweater, a hoodie, socks and wool socks, a warm hat and gloves. My fiancé slept well, of course, but woke up with a sore back because of the very thin sleeping mats.

The official itinerary of the three day tour to the national park said that we would visit a nomadic family on day two. The other riders at the camp told us that we should request it, or else it might not happen. We told our guide that we wanted to visit a nomadic family that day, and he said that we could absolutely do that later that day. But first, we were going to visit the Manjusri Monastery in the park, about 15 minutes from the camp site. Because the driver’s car broke down somewhere outside UB, we didn’t get going until some time after lunch.

Manjusri Monastery and an incredible view of Bogd Khan Uul national park in Mongolia.
Manjusri Monastery and an incredible view of Bogd Khan Uul national park.
Ruins in Manjusri Monastery in Bogd Khan Uul national park in Mongolia.
Ruins in Manjusri Monastery.

The Manjusri Monastery in Bogd Khan Uul was destroyed by Mongolian communists in the 1930’s, and many of the monks were executed. Today, the ruins are still there, in addition to a small museum and a Buddhist temple (built after the monastery was destroyed). We started by visiting the small museum, which was a fun few minutes. It featured a bunch of taxidermied Mongolian animals and some traditional art. The taxidermy of some of the animals wasn’t the best, and that’s always fun to look at. We were unfortunately not allowed to take pictures.

Buddhist temple in Manjusri Monastery in Bogd Khan Uul national park in Mongolia.
Buddhist temple in Manjusri Monastery.
Inside the Buddhist temple in Manjusri Monastery in Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia.
Inside the Buddhist temple in Manjusri Monastery.
Meditation cave in Manjusri Monastery in Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia.
One of several meditation caves in Manjusri Monastery.

We visited the Buddhist temple further up the hill, which was made like a traditional temple, but also with some artifacts from the monastery on display. We then walked up to the ruins of the old temple. We were surprised by how thick the concrete walls were. The view from this place was quite nice. Further up the hill, we could see some meditation “caves” which the monks used back in the days. There are no monks at the monastery today, and it’s all considered museums and recreational areas.

After the visit to the monastery, we began our ride back in the direction of the Stepperiders camp. Our guide told us that we would find a nomadic family to visit, and we would camp somewhere close to them. Along the way, we stopped a few times to take some action shots of epic and fast Mongolian horseback riding. We also stopped for a brief moment by the main road we crossed, and our guide got a bottle of fermented mare’s milk from a relative who he saw driving. He told us that he couldn’t stop drinking mare’s milk, and asked if we wanted a taste. Having heard about the horse milk before going to Mongolia, of course we wanted to taste it. It was far more sour than regular cow milk, but it wasn’t entirely undrinkable. My fiancé didn’t quite like it.

We soon rode down a mountain and saw the ger of a nomadic family and their large herd of cows, horses and goats. Our guide estimated that they probably had between 1000 and 1500 animals, and said that he didn’t know the family. When we approached the ger, our guide said “nokhoi khor” (“hold the dog”; the Mongolian equivalent of knocking the door). Their dog was fortunately chained to a pole and was standing by his tiny dog house, doing his job by barking and generally being scary. While I was still sitting on my horse, I looked at the vicious dog. The dog maintained eye contact with me, while angrily biting one of the planks of his dog house and showing his killer teeth. That’s a five star guard dog.

Outside the ger sat the maybe sixty year old man of the family. We said “sayn bayna uu”, and I was proud that he understood me and answered back. The woman of family, about the same age as the man, soon came out and invited us into their ger. We got the impression that they appreciated the visit, but that they were hard working people, eager to go back to what they were doing when we arrived.

Before going, we did some reading about etiquette when visiting a nomadic family in Mongolia. As a thanks for the hospitality they show when a stranger visits, it’s common to bring a small and useful gift, but they will not accept money. We brought a set of two wooden cups and some Norwegian caramels. The woman told us that she would give the candy to their grandchildren. When walking into a ger, common superstition say that you should not step on the doorstep. When inside, you should walk to the left side, as the right side of the ger is reserved to family members. When they offer you mare’s milk, tea, food, vodka or anything, you should always accept it and try it. It’s alright if you don’t finish it. There are many more etiquette tips online for anyone interested. Still, they all know that since you are a foreigner, you probably don’t know all their customs.

Inside the ger, we walked to the left and sat down in one of their beds. We didn’t quite expect it, but they had a TV, which was currently tuned into a Mongolian news channel. The TV was powered by a small solar panel on the roof, and got signals from a satellite dish on the ground.

Mare's milk, salty milk tea and sweets served by nomadic family in Mongolia.
Mare’s milk, salty milk tea and sweets served by the nomadic family.

Our guide and the driver chatted a bit with the hosts while the woman prepared a cups of mare’s milk, cups of suutei tsai (salty milk tea) and a basket of sweets for us. This batch of mare’s milk was slightly better than what the guide got us earlier (sorry, Rentsen), but still not quite something I would drink regularly if it had been available in Norway. I wasn’t much of a fan of the salty milk tea either, but my fiancé liked it, at least better than the mare’s milk. The homemade candy they served was also a bit unusual for my taste, being unexpectedly sour. While we tasted the milk and tea, our guide and the family talked in Mongolian and laughed, and it was obvious that they were laughing at these two silly tourists.

While we sat there, the nomadic man rolled himself a cigarette out of tobacco and a strip of newspaper. They do this of course to save some money, but damn, I can only imagine the taste and feeling in your lungs when smoking newspapers daily. If I’m going to countryside Mongolia again, I’ll bring some rolling papers, which is something they surely appreciate if they smoke.

Nomadic family milking a mare in Mongolia.
Milking a mare. Notice how thick the milk on the woman’s hands is.

It was soon time for the man and woman to go to work, and we followed them outside. They were in the process of milking some mares, and had a bunch of foals tied up. They collected the mother horse and untied the foal. The foal got to suckle for a few seconds to get the milk flowing, and the woman took over. She squeezed out more milk into a bucket, while the foal got tied up again. According to our guide, they usually get about half a liter of milk a day from one mare. During the night, the foals are allowed to suckle as much as they want. It was fun watching this process, and they sure were efficient.

Nomadic man moving a herd by motorcycle in Mongolia.
This is how you move a herd!
Our guide going fast on his horse in the Mongolian steppes.
Our guide, Rentsen, going fast. Choo! Choo!
Our guide taking it slow on his horse in the Mongolian steppes.
Our guide taking it slow.

It was approaching night, and we were soon riding off. We thanked the woman for their hospitality; the man had set off on a motorcycle to move the herd for the night. Watching the man move 1000-1500 animals with a motorcycle was great fun. The campsite wasn’t more than a few hundred meters away from the nomadic family’s ger, so we soon parked our horses for the night and set up the tents. The meal for the night was a mutton-based noodle soup, served with plastic-bottle beer. Great way to end the day!

Day 4: Going back to UB

I actually didn’t freeze that night, and slept pretty well. We ate breakfast at 9 and started our ride back to the Stepperiders camp. It wasn’t very far away, so we arrived just three hours later. At the camp, the manager asked if we, the volunteers and other participants at the camp wanted to go riding for a few more hours. We went for about 2.5 hours of more riding over a few mountains with great views. Along the way, we met two men on a motorcycle, one of them with a rifle. They were hunting marmots, our guide told us. We got to see some of their hunting, as they inspected several marmot holes. We couldn’t hear any shots fired, so I guess they didn’t have any luck. Many Mongolians love marmot, while some really don’t like it. We unfortunately didn’t get a chance to taste it.

In the three days of the tour, we got a total of about 15 hours of activity (riding, visiting the monastery, visiting the nomadic family). I think that’s probably the right amount of activity to not get too tired, although we could probably have done a lot more. Although some parts were a little bit disorganized, it was a great experience.

Late night UB traffic as seen from our hotel window.
Late night UB traffic as seen from our hotel window.

We were soon driven back to UB, where we could finally take a shower for the first time in five days. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and recovering after the riding. We were both a bit beaten up and sore after spending time on the wooden traditional saddles. I was surely a bit sore between my thighs, where the rough material on the pants had been trying to eat itself into my skin for three days, but it wasn’t as bad as I had expected on day one of the tour. I guess my skin got used to it after a while.

Day 5: Dealing with Mongolian taxis again and visiting Black Market

A few hours the next day was spent looking for a Nikon charger again. No success. We located a store which supposedly would be one of the most well-stocked photography stores in UB, Mon Nip camera shop, but it was closed. Not sure if it was just for the day, or permanently.

Since we were in Mongolia, my fiancé wanted to buy some cashmere products. We entered an official taxi (with a sign on the roof) and agreed on the price of “two thousand” (spoken and signaled with two fingers), meaning 2000 MNT. The driver quickly agreed, and we drove towards Gobi cashmere factory outlet. My fiancé said the price was suspiciously low, but I brushed it off and pointed out that we had in fact agreed on the price before driving. During the ride, we tried putting on seatbelts, which were of course disabled. The driver laughed and said what I believe was “we don’t use those in Mongolia”. Several times during the trip, he pointed to roof and said what I think was that we should only take taxis with a sign on the roof, not just any car.

When we arrived about ten minutes later, I gave the driver 2000 MNT, and he said “no no no” and entered 20 000 on his phone, claiming that he meant 20 000 when he agreed on “two”. After some more “no no no” from us, he lowered his price to 15 000. Even more “no no no” from us, and we finally agreed on 10 000, the standard price when Mongolian taxi drivers overcharge tourists. When I say agree, I mean that we gave him 10 000 and left the car. We had now learned that you should always write down the fare you agree on to avoid “misunderstandings” (read: getting overcharged).

After leaving the car, the driver started following us. He wasn’t threatening, but it rather seemed that he wanted to wait until we were finished in order to drive us back to the city center. It was still somewhat disturbing having him follow us around, pretending to look at various products in the store. We didn’t really want him to drive us back, but figured that it would be okay if we just agreed on a much lower price and got in writing this time. We did some browsing and finally bought a scarf. When it was time to go back to the city center, the driver was outside smoking with a few other taxi drivers. We asked them if they would drive us to the city center for 5000 MNT, but they of course wanted 10 000 MNT.

“Fuck it, then we’ll walk” my fiancé said, being fed up with Mongolian taxi drivers. It took an hour, but I guess we got to see some of the outskirts of UB. We also saved 30 NOK ($3.85) and my fiancé’s pride.

Another overpriced (at least per Mongolian standards) taxi ride later, we were at Naran Tuul market, better known as Black Market. This is a large open area with a bunch people selling everything: Counterfeit sunglasses, t-shirts, pants, jackets, used power tools, stoves, sofas, saddles and other riding equipment, and a lot more stuff. In the good old days, you could allegedly get a used AK-47 at this place for a reasonable price, but the only AK-47 I saw this time was a toy. 

We arrived pretty late, and many of the vendors were packing their stuff. This meant that there weren’t many people around, and we weren’t as afraid of pickpockets as we probably would have if we had arrived earlier. This is supposedly a place that is rife of pickpockets, so we left all our valuables at the hotel. That’s why we unfortunately don’t have any pictures of the market. We didn’t do much shopping, but it was fun just walking around looking. When we were leaving, we went into a little shoe shop inside a building just outside the market. The owners – a woman, a man and a girl – were visibly curious as to what we were doing there. Although I found some very reasonably priced shoes, they didn’t have any that fit my large, European feet. It sounded like that’s what they were saying, too, while giggling.

Black Market was a fun place to visit, and there are so many various things for sale. Nothing has a fixed price, so you are supposed to bargain hard. As with all markets like these, the best time to bargain is often at the end of the day, as they’ll probably want to do a few more sales although their profits might be lower. It is worth noting that the prices we saw at Black Market were actually lower than what we saw later at markets in Beijing. The reason for this is probably that Black Market is mostly frequented by locals, while the markets we visited in Beijing were mostly for tourists, allowing them to charge considerably higher prices.

Day 6: Leaving for Beijing

Early in the morning, we were ready to board our train going to Beijing. We took an official taxi (booked by the hotel) to the railway station. The taxi didn’t have a taximeter, so we had to negotiate a price again. He started with the standard 10 000 MNT, but we agreed on 6000. Always discuss the price before driving anywhere.

We soon found our Mongolian train number 4/24 heading for Beijing. We were sad to leave beautiful Mongolia, but ready for a new adventure.

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