In September last year, Stephen Kasiewicz spent 5 days in Mongolia with us, exploring the two national parks which sit either side of Ulaanbaatar – Khustai and Terelj. As a former journalist for Scotland’s popular ‘The Press and Journal’ newspaper, Stephen was eager to write a piece on his time in Mongolia with Goyo Travel, which he describes as “one of the best tours I have ever been on”. You can check out his descriptive story (with some Glaswegian slang) below:
“Goats farting. Horses neighing. Cows mooing. Dogs barking. I’m moving more towards old man than Old MacDonald, as it’s 5am and I’m bursting. The need for a Lillian Gish is pressing. Aside from the cacophony of unfamiliar and slightly unsettling noises, there is little urge to wriggle out of the snug sleeping bag. It’s a short walk to the toilet, but it’s freezing outside, and I don’t want to get dressed. I hold it in. The bathroom dilemma persists for another couple of hours until I finally relent and burst into action – thankfully without bursting my bladder.
An overnight stay in a Ger – an ingeniously designed nomadic home – can cause some unique bathroom issues. Tiptoeing past the 500 strong herd of goats, acknowledging the four lonely horses and observing the disinterested cows grazing in the dim sunlight, I sit down on the makeshift bog. It’s nothing more than a plastic toilet seat with a modest strip of green tarpaulin for privacy. It looks like a luxury for the tourists, the hole in the ground barely concealing some dubious deposits below.
The sun is blinding, the foreboding sky shaped by a swirl of clouds, with a stark red beacon looming on the horizon. I’m still bleary-eyed but startled and entranced by this magnificent backdrop. Pondering the consternation above; a torrent of fury brewing while those unsuspecting below complete more mundane tasks. Four little Gers, with other white dots specked around in the distance as if gently stroked from a painter’s brush, confirm a few humans inhabit this peaceful place. Otherwise, the landscape is endless, an untouched panorama of stillness.
It turns out the dogs were trying to fend off a predatory wolf who was stalking a night-time snack in Khustai Nuruu National Park. Their cries summoning help, as the goats expressed anxiety in an altogether different way. The sounds and smells of the country permeate a magical four-day tour in a destination which enticed me from childhood.
It began in a place which provided my favourite quiz question as a little boy. What is the capital of Outer Mongolia? I waited patiently for it on Mastermind. When the late, great Magnus Magnusson finally brought it up I bristled with excitement. It was the only one I could answer in an otherwise perplexing general knowledge round. Poring over an atlas in my bedroom in the north of Glasgow it seemed an otherworldly location. It was certainly not somewhere I would ever set foot in – until now.
Ulan Bator (Ulaanbaatar) was not quite what I imagined as a naïve youngster. In September 2018 it’s an improbably hectic place. The only real city in a vast nation of nothingness. It houses the government, all the universities, major businesses and everything else of any importance. It’s the traffic that makes the first impression. There are around 400,000 vehicles in a population of just over 1.3 million with all of them seemingly heading towards the city centre. The construction of new roads and motorways, including one to the airport, is immediately noticeable. UB city holds almost half of Mongolia’s entire population, and all its lunatic drivers. Swaying and sashaying in and out of lanes like dodgems, one bespectacled older chap summed up the chaos. Determined to turn into a space no bigger than the distance between two digits, he remained resolute despite a bus missing him by the width of an eyelash. He shook his head and honked his horn as around 30 vehicles stuck behind groaned at yet another unnecessary hold up. Even the local English language newspaper, The UB Post, bemoaned the situation. Stating that traffic was a major concern for the coldest capital in the world, it also pinpointed air pollution as a worrisome phenomenon in a city which constituted just 0.4% of the country’s land mass.
Thankfully after one night in the slightly faded Ulaanbaatar Hotel, my lively guide Shuree and expert driver Miigaa were quickly on hand to speed me out of the madness. Without being unfair to a rapidly developing city which is clearly on the ascent, Ulaanbaatar is probably not the first destination on the agenda for most travellers in Mongolia. Goyo Travel’s exciting itinerary promised escape in an altogether different setting. An unspoiled canvas awaited, animals roaming uninhibited in their natural habitat and the placidity of a slower tempo of life, UB city being an anomaly in a sparsely populated land.
One figure is omnipresent throughout: the fearless leader of the great Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan. The airport is named after him, statues of the 13th Century leader are placed prominently, and he stares out blankly from the local bank notes. It is hard to avoid his image. Genghis is everywhere. The eternal ruler adorns vodka bottles and energy drinks but putting his face on ashtrays only for smokers to stub out their cigarettes on his mighty moustache was a step too far. Shuree wondered what new merchandise the ferocious warrior will be plastered on next – I joked a toilet seat cover, but thankfully she knew it was just poor humour.
Rather than bombard with facts, statistics and reams of history, Shuree was lightly informative, never overbearing and more importantly really good fun. Tours can sometimes turn into homework exercises – there is always too much to remember and it can lead to an unwanted headache. This one was refreshingly different. As we reached the Khustai mountains she mistakenly said political victims – rather than leaders – had been taken on tours to show off the majesty of the country by its government. I could not help but laugh and although Shuree apologised, while also in fits of laughter, it set the tone for the trip.
The park is known for its wild horses, but it was unlikely we would see them in Autumn. Our eagle-eyed driver spotted a stallion and three mares galloping around high in the hills. As Shuree averted my attention to them I mistook her pronunciation of stallion for a former Soviet leader and suggested he was back for the political victims. It was inappropriate, and very silly on my part given Mongolia’s recent history, but to her credit we both started giggling again.
She suggested there was something in the positive energy between us which beckoned the horses from our binoculars to beside us on the roadside. Or perhaps they were just thirsty. They sauntered down to drink a patch of melting snow, but were close enough to observe, the male fixing his gaze on us sternly as he protected the females. No one else was around, and we watched in quiet awe, spellbound. From watching horses, I was plonked on the back of one as we soon reached our home for the night. With all the skill of a toddler stumbling over their first steps, I rocked back on forth on the unfortunate nag. Old Genghis would have saved the horse and put me out of my misery as the poor beast was saddled with carrying my fat posterior around.
Our homestay hosts, a Khustai park ranger and his wife, watched from outside their ger with familiar amusement, as I hindered rather than helped to round up the gaggle of flatulent goats; bucks butting heads, females marked for breeding being chased and strays lagging idly at the back of the pack. It left a clear picture of life largely unsullied by the pervading influence of technology which dominates our daily routines. Although in saying that a satellite dish was attached to one of the portable homes and everyone had mobile phones.
In one of the surprisingly spacious Gers, which also doubled as a kitchen, our cordial hosts served slow cooked tender beef and vegetables – although I almost tricked a couple of older Australian travellers into thinking it was horse’s head. This was not a gruesome scene from The Godfather, just more facetious tomfoolery. The food was hearty, filling and followed up by the park ranger offering us some traditional welcoming snuff that packed a wasabi like punch in the nostrils. The evening promised another attack on the senses with the memorable arrangement of animal audio and the morning bathroom puzzler. We were on the road again quickly the next day, invading the territory of inquisitive marmots who bobbed up and down from little holes in the ground like trench watchmen on the lookout for enemies. Clearly it was a one-sided conflict as Shuree said they were delicious, even showing me a picture of a poor little blighter on the grill. A poisonous snake also wriggled into view which I took as a warning to scarper.
The drive passing through hills and rocks stacked like creatures from long forgotten ancient times led to another of Mongolia’s vast areas of natural beauty: the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. A slow, unsteady crawl up the distinctly shaped Turtle rock formation followed. A sloth would have made better time around the crevices and cracks between the stones, but it was worth it. Sightlines across the empty vastness, which stretched for over a thousand miles, were the reward for the tottery stumble uphill. Nearby, more physical exertion was in store on the walk up to the spiritual charms of the Aryabal Meditation Temple. The 108 stone stairs, leading to the same number of small stupas, was lined with Buddhist teachings. One message (translated into English) which resonated strongly read: ‘Do not use your precious human body to just digest and urine’. A timely piece of advice noted and heeded.
Dinner by candlelight in a more upscale Ger complex was memorable for an electricity shortage and the enchanting traditional game of knucklebone. Shuree had played it since childhood and tried to teach the silly old Scotsman without much luck. Throwing and catching a sheep ankle bone and a small metal chain at the same time proved too much for this old cove, while a horse race without the saddle was far more manageable. Depending on what position the bones fell when thrown like dice – sheep, horse, camel or goat – it decided the fortune of the player. Unfortunately, the message which accompanied my throw outlined a future of success leading to suicide. It was hopefully lost in translation, but it seemed my time might be up anyway. Genghis was calling. His booming voice piercing the hills and steppes like a war cry summoning everyone from around the country into action, even those just passing through. It turned out to be a rather oblivious Korean tourist belting out an unwelcome song in the fields that echoed round the camp. Inattentive cows munched grass nearby as they somehow ignored the unwanted crooning. Regardless, training of sorts for a stint in the Mongol army awaited. First up archery. After mastering the fine art of properly holding the bow and arrow I let fly and eventually hit the animal skin target while a deafened cow obscured the bullseye. Shuree and Miigaa encouraged me to take aim anyway, but thankfully I was off the mark and the big Bessie ambled off unscathed. Next, more horseback practice. A befuddled colt was called into action at another nomadic house on the way to meet Genghis himself.
As I wobbled up and down like a neophyte jockey the task ahead seemed insurmountable. A friendly local and his wife served up some dried milk delicacies with the dairy stored in a hefty bag fit for an entire Mongol infantry. It offered sustenance before the grand meeting. He was waiting. Around 34 miles east of Ulan Bator near the River Tuul, the fearsome leader was proudly in position clad entirely in silver. Standing 131-feet-tall, clutching his golden whip on his sturdy steed and with an almighty snarl on his face. It was now or never. Onwards into battle, I donned a suit of green armour, gripped a sharp weapon and rose up to meet the man himself. We went nose to nose and I somehow survived. The delusion was quickly punctured when I caught a glimpse of my reflection; a pale figure in fancy dress wandering around like a walloper while waving a replica sword. The chance to pose in traditional Mongolian costume was too tempting to decline. It was fantastic fun and while Shuree took a series of memorable pictures I paused to contemplate from the apex of the monument. You can ascend through the horse’s chest and neck to face the main man then turn around and absorb a wondrous vista, largely unaltered by time or the curse of human activity.
After the make-believe showdown Genghis offered no farewell, his glare fixed and unnerving, infiltrating every part of his everlasting kingdom. It marked the final few hours in Mongolia as UB welcomed us with the belch of smoky engines and traffic at a constant standstill. Of course, Ulaanbaatar’s main square, Sukhbaatar, featured a final send off from Genghis in stone, and the State Department store a cornucopia of artworks and cultural artefacts for travellers on all budgets. I bought two little postcards depicting Gers and horses, indissolubly linked, while reflecting on an unforgettable voyage, my pampered buttocks soothed on a Western style toilet in The Ulaanbaatar Hotel with no accompanying noises to be heard.”