Summary of Four Weeks in Mongolia Week 22 14th September 2011
A land without fences, and thus fencing wire with which to fix things. A small population spread out in a vast land. Nomads with few large towns. Bitterly cold in Winter with permanent buildings to suit the climate.

For us, a topsy turvy land of wide flat dry valleys and mostly not so steep mountains.

A history which includes the largest empire ever established.

And an interesting road system.

Apart from what we did see we'll also remember Mongolia for what we didn't see. A large proportion of the intrusive noise of modern living in developed (we refuse to call them civilised) countries is absent. Particularly that lack of fences plus missing road furniture and advertising hoardings..

What a fascinating and interesting country.

We entered Mongolia from China in the south. Our first town on the edge of the Gobi Desert was Zamyn Ud. We followed the main road north to the capital Ulaan Bataar. Then west, north, and finally west to Tsagaannuur in the far north west corner and the Russian border. A bit over 3150 km in 30 days. Our altitude varied from around 1000m to 2450m. Temperatures from -10 degrees C to over 30.

We found very little information on how Mongolia was formed. Mostly we saw granite and sandy valley floors. A general impression of an old landscape that has been weathered and eroded such that it rolls rather than having steep mountains and valleys. The rivers are "graded" from fairly high in the mountains, Mongolia is not renowned for its waterfalls - it wouldn't be even if there was more rain. Towards the north west we've found taller, sharper, snow capped, peaks and sedimentary rocks. The Altai Mountains on the border with Russia. Perhaps the remnants of what used to cover the granite, which has been moved into the valleys, and in some cases blown away.

The vegetation is mostly grass and scrub. Heavily grazed by wondering herds which seem to be constantly on the move and never mixed up (how do they do that?). There are larch trees on north facing slopes at higher altitudes further north.

The herds are of sheep, goats, cattle, yaks, horses and camels. We haven't seen a chicken, duck or goose, since before the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. Beyond that we saw occasional glimpses of some very shy birds and wildlife. After a trip through Asia so far, where birds and wildlife have been more or less confined to parks, it was nice to see life on a larger scale.

Probably time to mention insects in general. When preparing for the trip we considered all those nasty insect born diseases we could expect to come into contact with. It must be the time of year we are traveling but we haven't really been bothered by mosquitoes or other insects. Certainly we needed the insect screens down at night and carried insect repellant with us but the insects weren't in masses and weren't overwhelming. We could also differentiate between mosquitoes that were around during the day and those that came out to play at dusk. The strategy of disease prevention by attempting to not be bitten seems to have been successful. Not so much because the locals are more aware than in days gone by and take precautions but simply the lack of insects.

In Mongolia, we expected insects associated with the herds of animals. But no. Just a few flies. We've come to the conclusion that, for us, insects are much more of a problem in Australia than places we've visited.

Apart from the capital there are a few small towns and lots of villages. As well the landscape is dotted with gers. The low population is spread out. With this, the lack of any vegetation higher than a few inches, and visibility measured in many kilometers, its difficult to not have a ger in sight when stopped.

We think gers are wonderful things (though admittedly we don't have to live in them). The round shape means they can be planted with the door away from the wind, and the wind flows around. Less of the wind noise from square structures. Round is generally stronger than square. Mathematically round gives a greater internal volume for the same surface area than square so is a bit easier to heat. And the walls are all the same distance from the heater. Its also natural for people to sit round a fire, never square a fire. We aren't sure how good the felt is as insulation but figure that if it wasn't good enough it would be made thicker, or someone would be making fibreglass gers. Importantly, they fold flat for transport. Not quite as easily as a tent but much more comfortable and liveable. Since the fire occupies the center of the ger we haven't yet figured out how the Mongolians decide which corner to put the tv in. We haven't seen any semi-detached or terraced gers.

The roads we traveled on were a mixture of sealed highways and basic jeep tracks. They can relatively easily follow the wide valley floors then follow a river valley up and over mountain ranges when necessary. We can't recall any hairpin bends, despite going up and down 1000m to get from A to B. There is very little traffic.

The jeep tracks are originally made by someone driving over open ground. When that one is "used" another is started. It means the tracks go where people want to go (which is useful in any road system). In places there is evidence of heavy equipment used to make difficult bit passable. There are also some interesting bridges. While the jeep tracks can be rough we found the formed roads rougher. 

Around Ulaan Bataar the sealed roads were so broken up that travel at any reasonable speed was bone jarring. Lengths of unsealed formed road were made of large sharp stones and were heavily potholed so we joined the locals where we could in driving on the home made roads. On the other hand tracks over sand were quite pleasant to drive on, albeit slowly. Even sand tracks can be corrugated. 

Mongolia has been hard on both vehicle and ourselves. Almost our nemesis. Fortunately we didn't experience the soft sand or mud that seemed to have inhibited or trapped other travelers, possibly because of the time of year. Possibly our route, and possibly our vehicle.

One of the major differences between our paper and digital maps from the same source is the addition of road numbers to the more recent digital map. Thus, we spent time driving on the A18, which is at times nothing more than two wheel marks in the sand. This is a road system very much in its infancy. The unrealised ambition of a Ministry of Works planner perhaps, but far from informal. It made for some interesting navigation for which we were a little unprepared but finally conquered.

The combination of changing landscape, people, animals, vegetation, roads and villages were so very different to what we are used to.

Mongolia apparently has 260 days of sunshine each year. We were fortunate that we didn't have many non sunny days. Though temperatures varied from uncomfortably hot to well below freezing. I guess we are lucky - just finished talking to an American motor cyclist who has been not far away from us the last few days and been rained on the last two mornings.

Camping was simple. We stopped when we were tired. Simply pull off the road and set up camp. A degree of freedom we crave but are relatively unused to. Occasionally people on horse or motorbike would stop but the further off the road the less likely. People were curious, but not oppressively so. There was never a hint that we shouldn't be where we were.

Like all the countries we have visited there is a litter problem. In Mongolia the empty vodka bottles are an eyesore. Most places we camped there was evidence of previous campfires and piles of rubbish left. Not on the scale of other countries, there isn't the population pressure here, but noticeable and mildly annoying. We tried not to add to it. Even found a rubbish bin at the exit border town.

Because of how we traveled and camped we found ourselves never near restaurants when we were hungry. A couple of times we went out of our way to eat something local but it was rather bland and a bit fatty so tended not to entice us for another meal. For us it would have been an aquired taste that we would have had to work hard to aquire.

This meant our encounters with Mongolians were different to other countries visited so far. Mostly when we needed directions, people who were curious, people who needed help (which we enjoyed providing) and of course when we required help. The language sounded a little aggressive to us after the more musical communication of China.

In our last few days we spent a couple of nights in Tsagaannuur camped outside and eating at the house of a Kazakh family which allowed us at least a little bit different insight.

I feel I'm struggling to put our thoughts about Mongolians into words. Perhaps its because many of them say very little and smile little but in some way are obviously hospitable and friendly. Perhaps because Mongolians and Kazakhs are so unlike any of the peoples we have previously encountered. And very unlike Australians. A huge gap. 

We are left with a general sense that there is a depth to the culture which we have inevitably missed by moving so fast in so short a time. 

Perhaps in my industrial, competitive, urban life I have become so unused to simple kindness, and the difficulty of knowing when it has strings attached, that it makes me uncomfortable. Sadly, more so than any of the previous countries, we've observed sufficient behaviour to suggest that there may be a willingness to try to make money out of the tourist (and possibly others) without the tourist being fully aware. The dollars involved were small by our standards but it taxed our definition of dishonesty which may well be different to that of some Mongolians. It did create a need to be more careful and follow the time honoured tradition for travelers of establishing cost first. Perhaps that's just an expression of the traveler's nightmare of who to trust, which has seemingly been more to the fore in Mongolia. I suspect that camping anywhere rather than talking to people first has played its part and may have subtly changed who we met. To a certain extent it meant we were approached with offers rather than us approaching people of our choosing with our needs. And maybe some of the generosity will rub off on me.

Anyway, don't read too much into the above. Sounds a bit trite but we like Mongolians and Mongolia. We've begun thinking how we can return. 

Thirty days is not sufficient for us to be able to read words written with the cyrillic alphabet. We are slowly getting used to it and will meet more of it in Russia. 

We walked around many Ovoos and observed many Mongolians doing likewise. These and Tibetan Buddhist temples, monasteries and stupas were the obvious outward signs of religious life.

It also meant that we haven't developed a sense of the regional and tribal differences which we have caught glimpses of.

The history of Mongolia that we encountered fired our imaginations. Most visible were the bronze age burial sites and the later development of empires around the Orkhon Valley. Not sure why but its a nice feeling to be driving along and stop for a chance encounter with a deer stone. Something we recognised without the lat/long of the guidebook. More modern history, including the communist era, evaded us. It was fascinating to make some connection between Mongolian and Chinese history.

Internet through the mobile phone system has been iffy and slow. No 3G, just the old Edge. And not available from some towers, particularly in the north west. Uploads of blog through ftp was painful, taking several hours for each page due to timeouts. The solution was to upload at 3am. It wasn't as expensive as I thought. An inability to relate tugrogs to units to megabytes. Too many megabytes and an inability to use them has left us with a large balance, too many even to use up on phone calls.

Our bank cards worked in the Mongolian ATMs, but we haven't needed much money. Mostly fuel and food.

Whether it was Mongolia in particular, or the rough roads of Asia in general, which were too much for our broken sub-frame we will never know, though Mongolia has been particularly rough. Either way, the sub-frame failure was nearly sufficient to signal an ignominious end to our trip.

But, here we are, cup half full, mildly inconvenienced, sharing our home with a couple of spare tyres, contemplating the rest of our journey. Obviously not as entertaining as sharing with Susanna in China but I'm sure we'll manage just as well.   

Our next country is Russia. We will drive about 4800 km in 30 days (visa limit). Easily doable, the roads are sealed and in apparently good condition most of the way. We cross the border on the 15th September. The weather is beginning to close in for Winter so we are not too sure how enjoyable it will be, but we'll try our best. Our first road in Russia is labeled M52. We doubt it is a motorway, but with some good fortune it may be a bit smoother than what we have recently become accustomed to. We'll walk round a last ovoo to give us some good luck. 

The good news is that we have both paper and gps maps for Russia. Just for fun we entered entry and exit towns for Russia into the gps and it planned the whole route. Navigation will be positively boring!

Kosh Agach and Aktash, Altai Republic, Russia Week 22 15th - 17th September 2011

Sorry, comments closed.