I joined a Sunpath Mongolia tour for an 9-day, 8-night adventure through Central Mongolia and the Gobi region this September which was an adventure of a lifetime. Joined by three other travelers in my van, and several other tour groups along portions of the journey, we traveled about 2300 kilometers as we explored the changing landscapes and nomadic culture on Mongolians outside the capital city. For anyone who loves camping, natural beauty, or mutton, I would highly recommend this tour! If you’re one who prefers luxurious travel with all the comforts of home and more, I’ll warn you now that this sort of trip probably isn’t for you. Either way, my one week in Mongolia was an unforgettable adventure for both the highs and the lows I experienced.
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Transportation in Mongolia:
Our mode of transportation for our one week in Mongolia was a Soviet style van that was made around 2010, though it looks like it was made decades earlier. Accompanied by our driver and guide who sat up front, the four of us tourist sat on the two benches (which faced each other) as we drove around six hours each day.
Mongolia is a really large country and despite all our driving, we didn’t even come close to seeing the majority of it. Beyond a few highways leading to and from the capital city of Ulan Bator (or Ulan Baatar), most of the roads were dirt or weren’t really roads at all. This meant our pace was much slower than it would be if you’re road-tripping through the United States, for example, hence the large amounts of time we spent in the car.
Fortunately, the views were beautiful the entire time and there were plenty of stops each day, whether for bathroom breaks (behind any bush or dirt-mound coverage you could find), to stock up on snacks in a market, or to take photos of the wildlife of which we saw a lot. Sometimes our driver would spot a fellow driver coming another direction and stop to smoke a quick cigarette together.
During the ride, we were entertained by reading, bouncing around through all the 4-wheel driving (no seatbelts provided), and listening to the Mongolian tunes on our driver’s MP3 playlist. There were limited songs to choose from – maybe 40 or so in total – so we were all singing along to the melodies by the end.
Accommodations in Mongolia:
Our accommodations each night were gers, owned by nomads who contracted with Sunpath Mongolia to host tourists each tourism season. Generally, our nomadic hosts would have their own ger, decorated elaborately inside with most of their belongings inside. The rest of the gers typically held 4 twin-sized beds with a table or fireplace in the center. We slept in the ger with the people in our tour van and often ate breakfast and dinner inside our ger too depending on the weather (which was beginning to get quite cold).
A ger, or yurt (in Turkish language), is a circular temporary home held up by wood supports and insulated with felt between a tarp on the outside and fabric or thick carpets on the inside. On the interior, two wooden supports stood in the middle. Traditionally, you are not to walk through these posts, nor pass anything between them, walking along the outside in a clockwise direction instead.
The gers of the nomadic hosts are maintained primarily by the women, who decorate the homes with each move. Typically families move four times a year with the seasons, prioritizing good pastures for the livestock on which they rely, and keeping out of the wind in colder seasons. The left side of the ger (facing the entrance) is the woman’s domain where the kitchen supplies and food are stored. The right side is the man’s domain where gear for dealing with livestock are kept. The back of each ger holds the décor, varying in quanity from ger to ger, but typically including a shrine of sorts with religious statues, family photos, candles, and other decorations. There seemed to generally be two beds in each family ger, one on the left and one on the right side, while the gers for tourists held more beds given the lack of other furniture and equipment.
Some of the gers we stayed in as tourists had fires, but almost all of the nomadic family gers had a fire/heating system which they used to cook and to keep warm during the night. The beds were twin-sized but with wooden planks in place of a mattress, with a thin pad or blanket covering in most cases. I’d have imagined they could create some really comfortable beds with all the wool from the sheep and other animals around, but alas, they were extremely hard and made comfortable sleep rather elusive. I’m not sure how I would have fared on a longer trip but for one week in Mongolia, I managed pretty well.
Toilets came in the form of wooden stalls or wooden walls to provide some privacy as you’d squat over the holes dug deep into the ground. Try not to look down if you can avoid it! In areas with lots of flies, they could sometimes get pretty terrible to use. In luckier cases in these situations, there would be little canisters of charcoal or something similar to emit a lot of smoke and drive the flies away. In unluckier cases, you might prefer to just walk far into a field and do your business elsewhere.
Our guides made breakfast each morning which was actually quite varied. It usually included a few slices of fruit, an egg or sausage on bread/toast, coffee or tea, and some biscuits or cookies. A surprising amount of cookies and sweets were included in the regular line up.
Lunches were split between meals cooked by our guides and stops in restaurants at the market. When stopping in a restaurant, the typical choices included fried noodles with mutton, fried rice with mutton, dumpling soup or vegetable soup (with mutton), regular dumplings with mutton, or mutton with rice and some veggie salads of beets, cabbage, or carrots.
Dinners were mostly the same, but we had a nice variety of some dishes prepared by the guides like spaghetti, spicy chili, chicken fingers, and seaweed soup. In addition to all the snacks I’d brought along out of fear I’d go hungry, I did the opposite and ate enough to probably gain a pound or two. That said, by the end of the week, I was ready for some new cuisine that didn’t have goat on the menu and included a few more spices and a lot more veggies.
Most times when we’d arrive at a new camp, we’d join our nomadic hosts for milk tea (heavy on the milk, light on the tea, and sometimes salted) and a bread biscuit. In Mongolia, etiquette requires to pass things with your right hand, and to receive with either your right hand or both hands.
We also had the change to try airag, fermented milk of which we sampled both horse and camel varieties, and sheep and goat curd (which tasted like pecorino or other hard cheese but we were informed is made differently than cheese without any other additives. I was not a fan of the horse milk which had a slightly alcoholic taste (though is super low in alcohol content). The camel milk on the other hand tasted really close to sour cream though the consistency was like typical milk. For some families, in the summer, they survive mostly on this fermented milk and curd, which provides the bulk of the nutrients they need to survive.
Our Itinerary for One Week in Mongolia:
Now that I’ve given you the lay of the land, I’ll share the itinerary we followed and some of the highlights and lowlights of each day. Most days we didn’t have a clear idea of what we were doing or what was going on until we’d asked our guide several times, but it was just as well and made for even more of an adventure.
Day 1: Tsagaan Suvarga or White Stupa
We left from the hostel in the morning and after making a stop at grocery store to stock up on snacks and hand sanitizer, we were off to our first destination, the white stupa. A stupa is a dome-shaped structure built as a Buddhist shrine, and we saw them all over Mongolia, typically with blue scarves wrapped around them. The cliffs were named for their resemblance to the Buddhist stupas when seen from a distance.
Our only other major stop that day was for lunch which we made at a small restaurant with a sort of camp-cabin feel. I had fried noodles with mutton which was pretty decent. We also had our first experience with the squat potties that we’d quickly grow accustomed to on our journey. For dinner at our first ger was another fried noodle dish!
We’re enjoying the music so far, particularly a Mongolian rap song with some great English lyrics thrown in: “I want you so, I miss you so, thank you.”
Day 2: Yol Valley
Today we drove toward the East mountain of the three named “Three beauties of Gobi” in the Central Mongolia area. We stopped near a narrow valley and walked the length of it until we came to its end and were met with a large stupa and a waterfall. A short drive later and we had a 4 km trek through a beautiful valley that reminded me a bit of the Narrows hike in Zion National Park in the US.
Here we saw our first pika, which basically looks like a gerbil or mouse, as well as several huge birds which were probably hunting for said pika. After seeing some wildlife in nature, we made a final quick stop at the Natural History Museum where we saw stuffed versions of all the types of creatures found in Mongolia. Also on display were some original dinosaur bones and eggs discovered in the area which were millions of years old.
After dinner this night, we spent a good amount of time taking photos of the stars. You could see the Milky Way with the naked eye each night and it was absolutely stunning. I felt very “down to earth” going to the bathroom outside and looking up to see the constellations I could never see at home with our light pollution from the city.
Day 3: Gobi Desert
Today we made our way toward the Gobi Desert, a part of the tour I’d been most looking forward to. We arrived around mid-day and spent the next three hours in shifts, riding a camel with the camel man (as the guide called him) for an hour. This was just enough time for my butt to get sufficiently sore and my knees and ankles to be throbbing fiercely.
A note on the camel and horse animal encounters
I did partake in camel riding and horse back riding on this trip after some research into the ethicality of it and lots of questions from the group to guides about their care. I’ll should say that I only considered partaking in this because they are animals that have historically been used and domesticated by humans for travel and whose bodies can support human riders in appropriate conditions and durations. Though there is always some grey area, I felt like I could consider this if the conditions otherwise seemed appropriate, though I would not condone riding elephants or petting tigers, and would acknowledge that there are some situations where camels and horses are absolutely mistreated for the means of tourism. Some may disagree with my decision to participate in this part of the tour at all and I understand that perspective as well.
That said, the Born Free Foundation and other NGO’s have outlined the following “5 Freedoms” as a minimum standard for animal tourism:
- Food and water
- A suitable living environment
- Good health
- An opportunity to exhibit natural behavior
- Protection from fear and distress
These all seemed to be in order, and I found in general throughout Mongolia that the relationship between the Mongolian nomads and the animals was much different than most animal tourism sites I’ve encountered. For most if not all of the nomadic families, the animal heds which they protect are their livelihood. They provide their food, clothing, transportation, and income from tourism, and thus they do their upmost to take great care of each animal for everyone’s benefit.
Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA) also gives some guidelines on things to look for before riding a camel or horse. The first pertaining to camels is to check for skin issues (patchiness or baldness) or diarrhea around the tail and legs. The second is to make sure that each camel is carrying appropriate weight (maximum of 150 kg or 2 average sized individuals). These all seemed to be in order, though the camels we rode did have posts through their noses which were tied to the ropes that kept the camels in a line.
All said, I don’t think I will ever ride a camel again, though I think these camels were treated well. I don’t think they would not have experienced much of a different life if we weren’t there as they’re still used to transport goods and people in many cases when the families move. None the less, I felt like there was still some room for uncertainty and I feel very conflicted that I went for it after all the time I’ve spent blogging and researching about ethical animal encounters.
All this to say that nobody is perfect and sustainable and ethical travel is an area where we will make mistakes and have lessons to learn. I’ve certainly learned from this experience think I could have had just as enjoyable of a time just petting the camels from the ground, which I did on many other occasions. But for transparency and to let you know that I’m still learning and improving in this area too, I wanted to talk about it openly.
As for the horses, I still feel comfortable with that but respect that others may disagree. I welcome any discussion about horse-riding and the ethical aspects of this whether in the comments or an email!
Day 4: Petroglyphs and Flaming Cliffs
Today’s travels took us first to the Altai Mountain prehistoric rock carvings abound. Situated amongst unreal views are images of deer, ibex, camel, horse, hunters, carved over 5,000 years ago. We spent about an hour hiking to the top where the petroglyphs are situated and exploring the rich history I felt spoiled to see.
Later, we made our wat to Bayanzag, or the Flaming Cliffs, at sunset. This was the location where Roy Chapman, who inspired Indiana Jones’s character, did a lot of his excavation uncovering many dinosaur skeletons and bones, some of which we were told were sold (and later taken back from) Nicholas Cage.
We enjoyed dinner under the stars and stayed up drinking on this night, as some of our group that was 16 people deep to that point were splitting ways on a separate tour the following morning. I enjoyed myself quite a bit but would find drinking to be a big mistake the following day when I woke with a headache and nausea. By this point in the journey we are starting to laugh and roll our eyes when we hear songs we’ve recognized played for the 20th time.
Day 5: Hangover (And the Ongi Monastery Ruins)
To my disappointment, no fun drinking deed goes unpunished and I woke up with a hangover. I was unsuccessful in keeping breakfast down, and also had a sore throat and pounding headache that made the rest of the day bouncing along in a van rather miserable.
Around lunch, we stopped at the Ongi River and had a picnic by the water, by which point I was at least able to keep food down. From about that point on, however, my stomach was upset and I started having bathroom issues of the other variety.
I attempted to explore the Ongi Ruins where one of Mongolia’s largest monasteries and Buddhist universities once existed. Communism brought down the monastery, however, as Stalin’s regime killed huge numbers of the 1000 monks who used to live there. I was told that from the top of a big hill you could get great views that gave a sense of the immense size of the monastery. I did not make it to the top of said hill, however, and returned back to the van to continue my efforts to nap.
When we arrived to our camp for the night I was finally feeling a bit better. Just in time to try the fermented horse and camel milk called argog, and curds! My stomach showed me who was boss though (for the duration of the trip, in fact). An unfortunate look below into the toilet pit suggested that nobody had experienced a solid poop in the area for quite some time. At least I wasn’t alone.
In a very pleasant twist, we awoke in the middle of the night to find a small horse had wandered into our ger, probably to get out of the wind that was rather nippy that evening. Once I’d realized what was going on and got out of bed, he’d already made his way out of the ger. It was one of those random but lovely memories – waking to see a small horse standing in your room. Not something I’m accustomed to by any means.
Day 6: Orkhon Valley
Most of this day was spent driving to Orkhon Valley, leaving at 9 am and arrive around 6:30 with a couple stops in between. Upon entering the valley, where we began to see a lot of trees for the first time, we made a quick stop at a waterfall. Darkly, this was apparently a spot where they would throw a lot of monks off the cliff to their demise back in the day although it was a bit unclear why.
We spent two nights in this ger camp hosted by a lovely family, the husband whom was a monk who was highly respected in the community. We were lucky to have a nice fire/furnace in our ger this night and the next which helped fight off the quickly dropping temperatures. These were also the comfiest of all the beds we slept in this week.
Day 7: Horseback Riding
We had a leisurely breakfast this morning with our only major item on the itinerary being horseback riding. First, we had a one-hour ride to get accustomed to horse riding and. This was followed by a lunch break, and one member of our group choosing not to go on part two (or rather having it chosen for him). The second round was a longer two-hour ride, though both of those rides included solid stops at a beautiful waterfall and river along the way.
Our horse-riding guide was our host of our ger camp as well, an older Buddhist monk who was highly respected in his community. We spent the majority of the time walking slowly, the horses having minimal experience going faster with tourists as they typically don’t want to go any faster than the slow walk. Our guide chuckled merrily as he watched us try and fail to give our horses the commands to speed up. Or turn. Or walk at all sometimes – mine was particularly intent on eating grass though they’d spent lots of time eating before, during, and after our walks.
As soon as our guide would ride up behind us the horses would start moving along, as if they knew we had no idea how to ride a horse and had no intention of making it easier for us. I almost admire the stubbornness though, and loved seeing how each horse had its own personality. I say almost because right before we finished the first ride, one of the horses was randomly spooked and bucked, throwing poor David (a fellow traveler in my group) from his horse. David got his foot stuck in the stirrup and proceeded to be dragged around over the rocks for a bit until finally breaking free, suffering some serious cuts and bruises as well as shock. And now you see why I say he had sitting out of the second round chosen for him.
Rosa, another in our group, fell off her horse too when it got spooked by David’s horse getting spooked. Luckily, she didn’t sustain any serious injuries and got back on the horse in the afternoon. Well, a different horse, as horses can’t be ridden for a while after a rider falls off as they’re frightened to have another rider fall off as well.
Despite the drama, it was an incredible day (for me and Lisette at least, who didn’t fall off our horses!) During one of our stops as we were climbing over rocks to walk toward a waterfall, I started crying because I was just overwhelmed with the beauty of the scene and the day. Our guide would ride behind us at some points singing beautiful Mongolian songs. Other times when we stopped he would walk around on his own, finding a nice rock on which to meditate and pray.
Where I may have felt a bit uncertain with the camels, I felt very comfortable with the horses. It was clear they trusted and respected our guide, whose jolly but gentle voice was enough to encourage them onward. And believe me when I say they got to eat so much grass during our walks.
Day 8: Kharkhorin
The last day of sight-seeing took us back in the direction of Ulan Bator, stopping at Kharkhorin, which was the ancient city of Mongolia. Built by an ancestor of Chingis Khan in 1235, it was once one of the largest cities in the world. Now it is home to the Erdene-Zuu Monastery where monks of all ages live and practice. We saw several who seemed just barely in their teens or younger who were starting to learn the ways of the master Buddhist monks.
It was a beautiful city with so much history, culture, and art that I would have loved to been able to appreciate more. I did my best but my stomach had not yet recovered from the plague of diarrhea that everyone was experiencing and I spent most of the tour keeping an eye on the closest bathroom and pep-talking myself that I could make it without shitting my pants in a holy site. Ahhh travel, sometimes its rainbows and sunshine and sometimes it is anything but that. On the bright side, we had very little music today and enjoyed some silence while we were traveling. Don’t do what I did and forget your headphones, especially if you’re traveling for more than one week in Mongolia on a tour. You might go crazy with the music, and I’ve got no idea how the drivers and guides aren’t insane already doing it week after week with the same playlist.
Day 9: Drive Home
Our last day didn’t include any particular adventures but we enjoyed another lunch at a restaurant, got a last listen of our favorite Mongolian songs, and said our goodbyes to our new travel friends. I’ve never done a long, organized tour like this before but I’m so glad I finally tried it. Traveling with strangers who turn into friends is such a great experience that made all the other experiences more enjoyable for having someone to share them with.
In a country like Mongolia where it can be pretty difficult to organize such a trip on your own (if not impossible) an organized tour is great. I can recommend Sunpath Mongolia without reservation too if you ever want to take a wild trip of your own through the land of the blue skies. (Plus their hostel is super convenient to use as a launching pad for your tour). You won’t regret it and you’ll absolutely remember it for a lifetime.
THANKS FOR READING One Week in Mongolia!
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