September 2018
Sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia is best known for its rugged expanses, nomadic culture, the Gobi desert and of course Genghis Khan. We figured it’s not really a motor scooter sort of place so we are going on our first small group tour including a China stopover.
As the brochure says: ‘Discover the untouched desert scenery of the steppes, hike through rugged gorges, hear the hum of singing dunes, view sunset at ‘Flaming Cliffs’ and camp in Gers in the Gobi desert on this nomadic adventure.


Day 1 – Denpasar to Ulaanbaatar
Late afternoon long shadows spill over Mongolian plains that reach to the horizon. Then bathed in the setting sun Ulaanbaatar (UB) emerges from a valley. UB is the capital of Mongolia and where half of the country’s 3m plus people live, although with a nomadic history I wonder how census night might work.
Our taxi driver speaks four languages none of them English, he plays traditional music loudly and drives his rattling mud spattered car through the chaotic traffic like a rally driver, but it still takes us over an 1 hour to cover the 20kms to our downtown hotel.


Day 2 – Ulaanbaatar
We always love an itinerary that says today is a free day to explore downtown. We wander the city streets, malls and museums it’s cool, sunny and friendly. Modern hotels and malls sit beside traditional Soviet and classical architecture.
This is a city of youth with well-groomed hipsters and fashionistas filling the sidewalks and cafes. Everyone is friendly and helpful…a cafe waitress follows us through the mall to return the 50 cents we left as a tip. We chat to Irene from ‘Martha and Mary’ a local enterprise that supports the development and preservation of regional crafts. I spot a couple of snow domes and a large red apple information booth but these days it’s digital souvenirs only!
In the evening we meet and have a traditional dinner with our guide and 5 companion travellers. Melinda from Melbourne, Christine and Terry from Canberra, Tamara and Josh from Switzerland and Chuka our Mongolian guide. We have all heard the praises about amazing guides before but Chuka takes the cake, a Masters in Anthropology from Cambridge, a lecturer at the Mongolian University, a black belt in Martial Arts, terrible jokes and so passionate about Mongolia.


Day 3 – Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad
It’s midday by the time the plane roars down the runway and bumps its way through the desert thermals to Dalanzadgad (DZ) a regional centre 600km to the south of UB on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
We touch down, find our drivers, head to the ‘Gobi Oasis’ Ger camp, drop our bags and head out for our first look at the Gobi. It’s been a wet summer and the desert is surprisingly green.
We stop at a small museum and then spend the afternoon hiking in the Bearded Vulture Canyon spotting vultures and small animals and then climbing along the ridges. At dusk wild camels and horses graze by the roadside as we return to camp to relax over dinner and spend our first night in our Ger… not quite glam camping!


Day 4 – Gobi Desert
A lovely day’s driving through the Gobi, dirt tracks, desert landscapes and spectacular horizons… A loose generator nut leads to a loose fan belt, leads to overheating, leads to a broken hose clamp, leads to an impromptu stop, leads to a Gobi desert picnic, leads to a local family inviting us to their Ger, leads to overwhelming Mongolian hospitality, ahhh…serendipity always a wonderful travel companion.
We push on and stop at a small desert town, straight out of a spaghetti western. We top up on fuel and buy some tea, rice and sugar as gifts for locals who may offer us hospitality….then more horizons and bumpy desert tracks as our five hour drive turns into eight hours by the time we reach the ‘Gobi Erdene’ Ger camp. Then onto the massive dunes of Khongor a 100km ribbon of white sand that cuts the horizon, we climb the dunes and watch the sun go down. On the way back we spot more camels, horses and goats beside the road then its dinner and another night in a Ger.
Most of southern Mongolia is covered by the Gobi Desert with it’s mainly sparsely grassed steppes, some sandy desert and mountain ranges. It’s rich in wildlife and home to small groups of nomadic herders and bactrian camel breeders.


Day 5 – Gobi Desert

A fun day in the Gobi. The driver takes us cross-country to visit his friend’s Ger. He’s a local camel breeder and we spend the morning drinking sour camel’s milk and eating camel milk curds…you get used to it.
Then they round up a few camels for a ride through the desert. We do our best impression of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ despite being on the wrong camel and the wrong continent.  Just for fun and with many instructions in Mongolian I take their Chinese-made motor bike for a ride through the desert. After a delightful morning it’s back to camp for lunch. The skies are overcast and we are fortunate to experience rain in the Gobi. We settle in for an afternoon siesta and as the sun goes out we visit an oasis spring and watering hole at the foot of the sand dunes for one more beautiful sunset.


Day 6 – Khongor to Bayanzag – Gobi Desert
A wonderful morning bouncing along the desert tracks through a small valley spotting Ibex and then out across the steppes with endless horizon.
Our driver heads cross-country again to visit his brother, but when we get there the camp is gone – he can’t be found, it seems he has moved. So we drive over a couple more ridges to visit his uncle, a horse breeder. We have morning tea of fresh hot goat’s milk and goat’s milk yogurt and a traditional drink of ‘Arkhi’ distilled from fermented goat’s milk with a kick like a mule. The brother and Cathy are scanning the horizon looking for animals with their binoculars, the brother with his Russian brand and Cathy with her Leica, they swap them back and forward comparing the quality, then it turns into a game of I spy… ‘I see a goat, a horse, a camel on the distant horizon’, of course local knowledge wins. Then with more laughter and encouragement I take the motor bike for a spin around the camp with my favourite pillion.
We drive to the ‘Dream Gobi’ Lodge for a late lunch. (The lodge lists its address as: North East
In the late afternoon we drive to Bayanzag for sunset. Sixty plus million years old it’s famous for its dinosaur egg fossils and red rock formations which light up at sunset. It also has a half decent desert forest, as well as a handful of market stalls selling local crafts and stones and some small bronze artefacts spruiked as found along  the Mongolian Silk and Tea Route that passed close by. That’s enough for one day so back to camp for dinner, a few beers and another night in a Ger.


Day 7 – Gobi Desert to Mongolian Central Plains
A magnificent dawn with Batuka our driver racing us across the Gobi steppes to catch our early flight back to Ulaanbaatar (UB) as the brilliant sunrise casts long warm shadows over the undulating desert.
Touch down at UB and we are whisked out of the city to the ‘Mongol Nomadic’ Ger Camp on the Mongolian Central Plains. After a traditional lunch of fatty mutton it’s onto the Hustai National Park.
The park was established in the early 1990’s for the reintroduction of the Przewalski wild horses and includes many rare and endangered flora, birds and mammals as well as ancient neoliths. We spend the afternoon touring the park spotting horses and generally playing I spy. It’s been a long day so back to camp for our last night in a Ger.
The mobile signal in the Gobi and Central Plains is very weak but you can occasionally get one or two signal bars as you drive over a crest or climb a sand dune. And this may be enough to send a text. The guide and a staff member tell stories about how they type their message, push the send button on their old Nokias and then throw them as high as they can into the air so they can reach a stronger signal, then wait 10 minutes and repeat the process to receive a text back. The waitress suggests if I go down the drive 300 metres and stand on the mound near the gate post and wave my phone in the air I might be able to post a text to FB. It’s dark and cold as I trudge down the drive, stand on the mound and wave my phone in the air. The rest of the camp is amused at my antics and I’m wondering whether this might just be a joke she plays on travellers – then the phone pings and my FB text is posted.


Day 8 – Mongolian Central Plains
Across from the Mongol Nomadic Ger Camp we participate in a morning re-enactment of traditional nomadic life. We are always a bit cautious about such things but this is pretty good. Half a dozen locals in traditional costumes with a support team of camels, horses and yaks, explain and demonstrate the traditional nomadic way of life. Afterwards we wander the camp, ride the animals and take photos. It’s a great experience and a genuine and authentic effort by the locals.
Along the road towering over the central plains is a huge 40m high stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan on horseback. The statue is about 50 kms east of UB where according to legend a young Genghis found a golden whip by the banks of the Tuul River. Genghis, of course is a national hero and the statue is very popular with nationals. We have a nice time wandering around, nodding and smiling at locals and while they don’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for selfies as Indonesians we are regularly and enthusiastically requested by hand signals to be in family and group photos.
Back in UB we attend the Mongolian Grand Theatre for a wonderful performance of traditional music, singing and dance in a show called ‘Wonders of Mongolia’. Then it’s off for a celebratory feast with our guide and group. This is our last night in Mongolia tomorrow (Friday) we fly to China.
So farewell and thank you Chuka, our guide for such a great adventure. And thank you Mongolia for your endless horizons of desert steppes, your cosy Gers and…most of all thank you for your genuine and warm hospitality.
We visited Beijing for a few days on the way back from Mongolia. While we have separated our journal, each stands alone and they are part of one journey.


China – Beijing

We visited Beijing for a few days on the way back from Mongolia. While we have separated our journal, each stands alone and they are part of one journey.

Day 9 – Ulaan Baatar to Beijing
We fight our way through the UB traffic (1.5m people), jump on a jet and then fight our way through the Beijing traffic (22m people), the roads are full of locally made Audi, Benz, BMW and Lexus. From the airport’s androgynous voiceover to the busyness, scale and wealth of this city – ‘intimidating’ is the word that comes to mind especially after coming from the simple life on the remote steppes of Mongolia.
Then suddenly we are in a rickshaw being peddled around the ‘Hutongs’ in the old section of the city, scale and community have returned and although we are only travellers peering through the looking-glass we are somehow reassured. And then once more we are thrust back into the melee, only to gaze down on the chaos from our 15th floor hotel eyrie. China provides us with a digital detox, for while there is abundant internet it has blocked FB and most social media.


Day 10 – The Great Wall
About 100 kms north of Beijing is a restored section of China’s most iconic symbol – The Great Wall. We leave the city behind and drive through kilometres of orchards and climb through picturesque rural hills and mountains. Like most Chinese tourist destinations, The Wall’s facilities are well organised and clean. While most of the visitors are from out-of-town there is a sprinkling of westerners. Before we reach the wall, we must walk, catch a cable car which offers us a closer glimpse and then like everyone else- ‘we walk the wall’ stopping every so often to admire this remarkable testament to ancient engineering. It’s busy, but not crowded and we’re even able to find a snow jar as well as a few quiet moments here.


Day 11 – Beijing Palaces and Temples
It’s Sunday and the locals like to get out and about. A significant number have decided to join us on our small group tour to Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace. While they are places of remarkable social and historical importance and worthy of a visit, their significance and poignancy is somewhat lost in a crowd intent of taking selfies. I take the opportunity to add to my collection of selfies. https://johnandcathy.com.au/2018/07/01/the-selfie-collection/
Tomorrow we fly back to Bali so thank you Beijing for giving us a glimpse of your staggering scale and miraculous transformation into a huge contemporary city.