We take up the story once again with our protagonists aboard the overnight train to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. Due to being on the “shoulder”of buddy season, we were lucky enough to have a4-berth cabin to ourselves, so we stretched out to watch the scenery of northern China hurry past our static window.I’m realising, at this point, that I may need to ration my use of superlatives, so I’ll leave the photos to do the talking.
The highlight of my journey was meeting someone from Luxembourg – a lifelong ambition. It turns out that they are not familiar with the British sense of humour for, when I asked him how the remaining four inhabitants pod Luxembourg were coping in his absence, he simply looked nonplussed.
It turns out that the gauge of the Mongolian railways is wider than that of its Chinese and in order to continue our journey we had to change the wheel settings of every single carriage – a noisy, jolting process of roughly two and a half hours!
Morning sunshine found gaps in the curtains that weren’t there and roused us from slumber. We stumbled, bleary-eyed to the restaurant car to found it worryingly absent. A grunt and a thumb-jerk from a morose guard suggested it might be in the other direction. And, lo and behold, a few carriages in the other direction, there it was. But not the same restaurant car’s during the night, add some stage during the jolting, the Chinese car had been switched out to be replaced by a Mongolian one. I feasted my eyes before feasting my stomach!As the train rolled into Ulaanbaatar, ominous clouds chased away the morning’s sunshine. We were met on the platform by our guide and rushed off to a cabaret showcasing Mongolian music and dance (oh, and a contortionist who could sit on her own head). We emerged from the show to find the streets covered in snow!
The following morning we set out for the central sands of Mongolia. Through the window the circle of life whizzed past: lambs and foals ran between their mothers’ legs while nearby, a relative who had not quite survived the harsh winter lay motionless.
I asked our guide whether Mongolian children used the slopes for tobogganing during the winter months. His reply will stay with me for a long time. “The life of a nomad is tough. The children don’t know about having fun.”
Suddenly, large dunes give into view on the horizon and we were informed of our imminent camel ride.
Having dismounted and waited a few minutes for our posteriors to regain feeling, we headed to a ger (mongolian yurt) camp for the night.
The following day had interesting but non-anecdote-worthy activities in Kharakhorum, former capital of Genghis Khan’s empire and key point on the silk road. Thrashing our guide at pool in front of a partisan audience was, shamefully, one of my favourite moments.
That night brought what from within the ger felt like a hurricane but we awoke once more to clear, blue skies and made our way to Hustai National Park, a nature reserve famous for the Przewalski horse, a very rare, wild horse that is actually a predecessor to the modern horse.
En route we saw plenty of marmots (that, we were informed, are delicious when barbecued!) and found great hilarity in shouting “Alan!” at them. (Click here for amusing explanation.)
It seems fortune was smiling on us; many people drive to Hustai and never see a wild horse but we were practically overrun by them. And of course, wild horses couldn’t have kept me from making a video of them. Hehe.That evening we were to stay with a nomadic family. The only problem was we didn’t know exactly where they were! Cue driving across fields seemingly at random on the hunt for our accommodation!
The search was, however, more than worthwhile. The views were spectacular, the home-cooked food hearty and we found time to bring in the sheep and round up some stay cattle on horseback before hitting the hay.
In summary, Mongolia is a country of stark beauty, open-hearted people (special thanks to our guide, Hausa,for making the experience so special) and a proximity to Mother Nature that is very humbling.