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Thursday 30 May 2024

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Beautifully lost in the land of blue skies

The TransMongolian railway rolls gently through the Gobi on its way to China

From a stunning horse ride in the wildly outlandish terrain to a genial dinner in stylish Ulaanbaatar, you’ll find breathtaking Mongolia stays with you forever

“He must be from Outer Mongolia!” Kevin Jackson would proclaim with stark regularity when he deemed some new boy at school didn’t quite fit in. Kevin, the sort of comrade you loved to fight with, was my ‘best friend’ throughout primary school and probably my earliest experience of ingrained judgmentalism on full display.

Juvenile xenophobic preoccupations aside, it’s probably true to say that Mongolia (the ‘Outer’ bit simply refers to that part of the territory independent of the Qing dynasty, and geographically external from China) is one of those places we just never expect to visit. A bit like Greenland, although I’m glad to say I have been to both. And when we never actually dream of ever going to a place, we seem to divorce ourselves from any notion of what it actually might be like. I know when I embarked upon my epic rail journey from Moscow to Beijing a couple of years ago, I had not even one preconceived idea in my head about what I would find in Mongolia – that recondite middle bit – despite having clear but drastically wrong views when turning similar thoughts to Siberia.

The reality was something I could never have prepared for; arriving at downtown Ulaanbaatar, or UB as the trendy locals call it, proved to be the gateway to a world of which I could previously only have dreamt. A thriving city, UB is home to some 800,000 citizens, almost 30% of the country’s entire population. Its suburbs are unlike those of most western cities, nomadic families from the countryside occupying not hi-rise urban tenements, but pockets of ger camps when Mongolia’s harsh climate decimates their livestock, rendering their centuries old wandering lifestyle unsustainable. At least these days they have somewhere to resettle.

Our guide for the duration of our stay was to be Khulan, a 24 year old resident of the capital with over five years’ experience in looking after tourists from all over the world. Proficient in Russian and English as well as her native Mongolian tongue, she was a wild child who could make herself understood in pretty much any situation. Hard working and humblingly dedicated, Khulan was passionate in her endeavours to not only make sure we had a good time, but to equip us with some grass roots knowledge of her country and her people; she was, in fact, the perfect ambassador, let alone guide.

Our 80 kilometre trek up to the Terelj National Park, courtesy of driver Michael, was as informative as it was stunning. As we passed two huge blue constructions on the main road out of the city, Khulan explained this was the black market. “It’s not how you would see the black market normally,” she reassured us, “but you can buy anything here, from a car to a ger. It’s very popular and interesting to look around.”

We also witnessed a funeral procession a few miles down the road, which to Mongolians is a sign of luck. “The person who has died leaves all the good things about his life to those of us still here,” explained Khulan. Weddings, on the other hand, are a different story: “The newly married couple are taking all the good things for themselves, so it’s not so good for everyone else!”

As the road meandered its way out of the hustle and bustle of the city, giving way to green fields and gently rising hills, the true drama of the landscape only became apparent as we entered Terelj Park itself. Huge, rocky mountains and rolling green plains conspired to create a spectacular vista that no picture or prose could ever hope to recreate in the mind of one who has not witnessed it for himself. Taking the best of the Scottish western highlands and the Middle Earth of New Zealand, this breathtaking countryside stretches over an incomprehensible land mass, reaching far into the distance, way beyond where the human eye could ever hope to see.

Once we’d settled into the camp, we were shown to our ger, which would be our home for the next couple of nights. My trusty black and red Antler suitcase looked ridiculously incongruous in this magnificently unspoilt world; it felt as if my belongings should be wrapped in a swathe of natural linen – blue, of course, to represent the sacred sky that Mongolians honour and cherish – and tied securely to my horse.

Ger living proved entirely agreeable, not least because we were fed and watered regularly in the camp’s superb restaurant. We spent our hazy, lazy days in the pleasant 25 degree sunshine riding horses, practicing archery and, embarrassingly, trying to put up our own ger, which leaned precariously to the left, threatening to last not even one night.

A highlight was a hike to the picturesque Buddhist Meditation Temple of Aryapala, nestling high on the hillside above the appropriately named Turtle Rock; from here, the view of the park is sensational.

When the time came to leave Terelj it was heartbreaking. This trip had been a series of goodbyes from the start, but always there had been the promise of the next new adventure. But here we were saying farewell not only to a place which felt inherently right, but also to great friendships which were not tethered by the bounds of language. Here were a people whose only desire was to please: they wanted to make us happy, welcome and safe. For that brief time, there was real love for one’s fellow human here, and leaving it behind was a massive wrench which left a lump in my throat.

Khulan and her 25 year old male colleague, Ganaa, continued to look after us as we spent another twenty-four hours in UB itself, visiting Sukhbaatar Square with its proud statue of Chinggis Khaan, the Mongolian Natural History Museum and the Gandan Monastery, before taking in a concert showing off the talents of the Mongolian State Dancers and Singers, collectively known as Moonstone. We then rested our heads in the Bayangol Hotel, one of UB’s finest and most western; it didn’t disappoint.

The next morning, as our 8.05 train rolled out of Ulaanbaatar station towards the Gobi, I felt a mixture of real sadness at leaving behind this beautiful country and its wonderful people, and a huge, giddy excitement at the prospect of discovering Beijing and beyond, tempered only by a little apprehension about the border crossing into that even vaster land known as China.

Visiting Asia had been one of the most rewarding experiences of my many years of traveling the globe, and a trip like this makes you hungry for more. But with a plethora of agents willing to take you on voyages of discovery throughout this vast continent, bear in mind that it’s not always wise to choose a budget operator. Wherever you select in Asia, make sure you do your research thoroughly and pick an organisation whose passion and commitment shine through; remember, it’s value and experience you want, not bargain basement.


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