Ulaanbataar: Coldest capital in the world, apparently. My experience would prove this to be patently incorrect, although I acknowledge that there’s probably quite a bit of seasonal variance. Before we go any further, I can confirm that, for the large part, it is also a giant shithole.
My faithful travel buddy Sarah didn’t let me down, meeting as promised at the train station and then helping me find the hostel up the road. After dumping bags we engineered a meeting with Vicky at a local cafe and set out to see what UB had to offer. After coffee and cake, naturally.
Whilst this is normally travel blog bollocks, UB really is a city of contrasts. The newly-arrived mineral wealth is clear to see with the skyscrapers and luxury shops, whilst back at ground level smoky buses and a variety of battered cars honk and jostle for position. Just minutes out of the centre and you’re back into nomad-land, with tents, horses and endless countryside.
The Mongolians do love to beep when driving. It’s probably similar to echo-location with bats, I imagine. But bloody annoying.
And so, suitably refreshed, we wandered around some of UB’s highlights. To be fair, it’s not a city you need to spend long in. We visited a Buddhist monastery, the very good National Museum, and also had a good piss-about on a 3 person bike around Sukhbaatar Square. A good day, and arrangements were also made for horse trekking the next day.
We went with Steppe Riders, who seem to get well-deserved good reviews. The only negative I’d raise is a slight lack of organisation- not a problem with most stuff but running out of water on the trek and at camp wasn’t really on. Their ‘base’ ger camp isn’t far out of UB but right in the middle of some lovely countryside. We’d booked a 4 day trek, with the first day being a familiarisation ride around the camp in order to get used to Mongolian horses. They are semi-wild, so a bit harder to handle than “Western” horses- Although slightly shorter, ergo less far to fall. Bonus!
After a few basic do’s and dont’s, and the commands “Chu!” (Go!) and “Hoosh!” (Stop!) we set off. Resplendent in our best riding clothes, obviously. You can see one of the guides, Dudu (A contraction of his considerably more-difficult Mongolian name) in the background. He was by far the funniest member of staff, an 18 year old lad who was generally to be found doing stupid stuff in the name of comedy. I didn’t manage to capture it on camera, but he was also an amazing horseman and entertained us on rides by passing us standing on the saddle, hanging off the side and generally goofing around.
Straight into countryside, past herds of cattle, the occasional gopher and mile after mile of pristine grassland. I find the attitude to land here incredible, basically there are no fences and no ownership as such, people just use the land as they need for their livestock, who roam freely until herded back. It’s partly the luxury of space but also a good measure of the generous Mongolian psyche that this is how it is.
After our familiarisation ride we returned to camp for the evening meal, and then chat, singing (even some throat singing from the Mongolian contingent) and some frantic card-playing action between the guides and the cook. I tried to work out the game, but became lost very quickly. It seemed quite intense.
The next day we encountered the true nature of Mongolian time, namely that it’s an incredibly fluid concept. We had expected to leave for the horse trek in the morning, but actually didn’t end up leaving until 2pm. Which was fine- A chilled out morning in a beautiful setting is never a problem! We chatted with our guide, who like everyone else here has an interesting life- He’s studied abroad and speaks great English, and amongst his talents is the occasional newsreading appearance on local TV! He’s also a thoroughly nice chap, relinquishing his giant coat to me in my time of later need.
The trek to our first camp site was meant to be about 3 hours, however again Mongolian time intervened and it took about 5 hours until my first health disaster of the trip struck…
Yep. A month into my travels and the first major health hiccup. I think it’s an inevitability of constant travel, new food, water and activity that you will get frequently ill on holiday, but it does tend to pick the worst moments.
When I was collected from the train station Sarah (Or Patient Zero, as she will be known from now on) had a cold, which as expected I caught very swiftly. Some discussion in UB led us to the conclusion that it would probably pass, and actually it’s better to be ill in nice countryside, so we went on the trek anyway.
Unfortunately it seems the cold hit me rather harder than expected, and had combined with the slight chest infection I’ve been nursing since before leaving the UK to strike me down with double ANGER! I had been struggling slightly on the later stages of the ride, a combination of dehydration and not being able to breathe quite as easily as normal. As well as, obviously, being bounced around the Mongolian countryside on a crazy nag.
I’ve done an expedition first aid course in the past and so am pretty clued up on trekking problems. It felt a bit like altitude sickness but frequent checks of my altimeter showed that we still weren’t really very high up so I cautiously plodded on. Until the point that actually, I recognised a very bad symptom so quickly stopped and dismounted the horse, rather than falling off it.
Camp was moved to our location, and I caught a lift back to the main ger camp with the cook. It’s fair to say that a night in a small tent wouldn’t have done me much good. I’d picked up some antibiotics in the UK in the event my chest got worse, so was able to start the course straight away. A couple of paracetamol, some water and some time lying down improved matters massively.
And so, onto the art of serendipity, the happy mistake.
I woke in the morning in camp feeling marginally better, and had some breakfast with the new arrivals off for a 10-day trek (Not sure they quite knew what they were letting themselves in for!). Mongolian time intervened again, lunch was produced around midday, and I gloomily contemplated a boring day. Well, a boring day in a great location, but on my tod and with a dwindling Kindle library. Basically, I’m crap being ill and actually resting- As soon as there’s a glimmer of recovery I need to get amongst it again.
So I decided to join the group heading out that afternoon for a short circular ride, the guides were fine with this and I think I’d have gone stir crazy otherwise. I ended up turning back to camp after an hour, accompanied by Dudu the guide.
And you know what? There began my absolute highlight of the trip so far. Watching the thunderstorms erupt over the other side of the valley, over the vast steppe. Seeing the cloudbursts and adjusting our route to avoid the rain. Then just the two of us, out in the middle of it, on horses that love to run.
On the whole, the group trekking tends to be just walking with the occasional trot, to make sure everyone’s keeping up. However, I was out with the crazy horseman, it was just the two of us, and why the hell not? He made sure I was alright, gave a dangerous grin and in seconds we were galloping across the wide open steppe back towards camp, whooping and hollering to keep the horses going. Pure exhilaration, illness forgotten and just the thrill of trying to stay on a semi-wild bonkers animal remaining.
Unfortunately they develop a taste for the gallop, so the remainder of the ride was spent trying to restrain the beast from taking off into the scenery again. Hooooooooooooosh.
En route back we came across a group of people rounding up horses and having problems with a few, Dudu assisted whilst I nonchalantly piloted my horse around proceedings trying to look like I knew what I was doing.
So, the happy mistake. Glory from ashes. Back to UB before the next adventure. Well, once the car arrived many hours later. Mongol time.