Distances in Mongolia are great and the road infrastructure is scarce.
We did drive on a highway or two – two lanes. Max speed about 80. Generally our highway driving speed was about 60 to 70 kms per hour. We had a supremely competent driver and felt safe with him. The rest of the roads – the ones we spent most of the time lurching along – were dusty or muddy tracks stretching across the vast grasslands and steppes. There was very little in the way of signing. I think in Mongolia you either know where you’re going, have a good GPS, or are hopelessly lost. Our driver knew where he was going. We met a few people who’s drivers had been hopelessly lost.
Our most exciting off road ordeal was when the van’s back end slid off the road and we were hung up at a very improbable angle for staying upright. We calmly got out – which was tricky due to the angle – and stayed out of the way while Thauga and some helpful local people piled rocks in the hole and shovelled under the high wheel etc. Eventually some French fellows came along with a winch and they made short work of towing our van back onto firm ground.
The scenery in the area we explored was hilly grasslands with rocky outcrops, to small rocky gorges and mini mountains, to flat – really flat – steppe, to sand-dunned desert.
We toured for several days – sometimes driving for up to five hours to get to a landform of interest. We’d drive for hours without seeing another vehicle, then suddenly arrive at a dusty end of the road and there’d be several vehicles disgorging tourists to scamper around and look at whatever the day’s point of interest was. We always managed to walk further and stay longer than the crowds of giggling, primping, selfie-taking Korean groups so we’re able to enjoy the natural beauty of these places. It was clear that we were on the tour group loop.
At night we stayed in ger camps. These were all much the same. Four or five rows of gers – what most of us call yurts, a wash house – some nicer than others, some with hotter water than others, and a pleasant central dining hall. The menus were standard without much variety. Fatty tough mutton with noodles, fatty tough mutton with rice, fatty tough mutton-potato-carrot stew. The starter salads were delicious. The meals were made bearable with good cold Mongolian beer.
The sights were lovely. Fantastic rock formations, deep canyons, red cliffs. We enjoyed our walks and the scenery at these places, but found the grind of the long daily drives a bit tedious. We’d all have preferred a longer horse ride but we’re excited about our camel excursion.
Ah the camels. They are odd looking creatures with their two humps, but we found them to be very pleasantly behaved. We sat on made to purpose rugs tossed up between the humps, stirrups were attached to the rugs with rope. Quite comfortable when wearing appropriate padding in the appropriate places. A bit scratchy and hard without.
Unfortunately the location of our ride was in a boring stretch of steppe, near the enticing beautiful dunes. Our camel boy was a shy youngster completely fixated on his cell phone. For our second day, our dear driver Thauga agreed to join us to provide guidance and entertainment. The second day’s ride was better than the first but there was no convincing anyone that the utter boredom of riding in a 2 or 4 hour circle around a camp was more than we could cope with. It was deeply disappointing. The idea was not really to go for a ride, but to get the requisite number of selfies and be happy.
We all enjoyed our visit to Mongolia despite the tour being too canned for our taste. The people are friendly. The country is untrammelled, wild, open, beautiful. Tourism is a new industry here and I think in time it will develop to the point that there can be a bit more variety in the offerings. For now we reconcile some disappointment with the enjoyment of seeing a glorious cornier of the world that we would not have had access to on our own.