You’ve seen the insanity that was our two days in Hong Kong last month… and now here’s what we followed that up with.
I think we felt like we’d slowed down mentally and emotionally when we reached Ulaanbaatar because it was just a slower city than Hong Kong, but we really didn’t. It wasn’t until several days into a trip to the Gobi desert that we realised how exhausted we had made ourselves. That’s reflective of our personalities, though– I don’t admit to myself that a To-Do list is too long until I’ve spent all day working through tasks 1-7 with 10 left to go; M. has to be delirious with a fever of 102 before he admits that he’s sick. Maybe next holiday we’ll try to do something that tunes us into our emotions and energy levels.
Anyway. Here’s what we did in Mongolia for just under two weeks:
Day 0: Arrive in Ulaanbaatar from Hong Kong at midnight.
Our hostel (UB Guesthouse) arranged for an airport pickup for us, which we paid USD$25 for later in our stay. For a middle of the night pickup in a country that doesn’t speak much English, it was worth the money.
Day 1: Book 6-day Gobi desert tour through guesthouse, explore Ulaanbaatar, get money exchanged and find our bearings.
You should probably take two days to do this. We were dead tired by the end of all this. Luckily the manager of UB Guesthouse, Bobbie, is lovely and immediately put us at ease, then helped us choose a tour. This made the rest of the day so much more relaxed because we knew we had everything sorted for the next 6 days.
While exploring Ulaanbaatar, which is quite a decent walking city with most big attractions within 20-30-minutes walking distance, we saw:
- Ghengis Khan’s statue in Chinggis Khan Square
- State Department Store
- Choijin Lama Museum and Temple
- Beatles Square
- And many, many places in between – we tried to soak in as much Ulaanbaatar as possible by walking everywhere all day.
Day 2: Start of Gobi Desert tour; we began by shopping for snacks and groceries with the cook and driver, then left the city.
We drove all morning, then stopped for lunch by some stunning hills. Our guide took us to see some rock formations in the afternoon and we visited the ruins of a monastery nearby.
We stayed the night in a ger with a family (essentially a Mongolian Airbnb), who let us help them milk their goats in the evening.
Day 3: Hike in Ice Valley
It was a cool day by the time we drove through a town and in towards Ice Valley. The lighting wasn’t ideal for photos, but it gave a nice mist to our experience seeing the ice shelf in the middle of a beautiful park.
We stayed the night with another family, who got our little wood-/dung-burning stove going merrily once the sun went down.
Day 4: Sand Dunes
We started getting to proper desert by the middle of the day and the weather was getting hot. We stopped at our ger stay in the afternoon and rode their camels for about an hour in the hot sun.
After the camel ride then dinner came the sand dunes. We had NO idea what we were in for– 45 minutes of climbing basically straight up a slippery sand dune and then sliding back down again. The hike was intense but the view of a double rainbow and stunning sunset at the top was completely worth our climb. It was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen.
Day 5: Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs)
This was a stunning sight on another very hot day. Dinosaur bones were found in this area almost a hundred years ago; when we visited, it was just such a gorgeous contrast between the blue of the sky and the orangey-red of the cliffs
We stayed the night in a tourist park, which was hilariously cheesy (their kitchen building was shaped like a giant turtle) and allowed us the relief of a shower and a sneaky load of shower-laundry. Half the sand dunes went down the drain in the shower!
Day 6: Tsagan Suvarga (what our guide called the Grand Canyon and we called the Painted Desert)
This was M.’s absolute favourite. We spent time wandering around the top and then ventured down to the base of the cliffs to see the colours up close.
We also stayed in one of our favourite ger stays of the trip, with a family of camel herders. Their daughter was about 14 and a lovely host who ended up joining a group of international travellers in a game of volleyball at dusk.
Day 7: Driving day.
We opted to cut our tour short by a day, which meant that we had one day of driving for 9 hours instead of two days of 4-5 hour drives. This didn’t cut out any sights and allowed us to do a full two days in the Gorhi-Terelj National Park.
By the time we got back to the hostel it was about 7:00pm. Luckily the State Department Store (a huge department store and grocery store) is open until 10:00pm so we were still able to get some supplies for the next day.
We were up packing our backpacks for the camping trip until about midnight. Again, we are not the slowest nor the smartest travellers.
Day 7: Ulaanbaatar to Gorhi-Terelj National Park.
According to the guidebook, a bus leaves from Ulaanbaatar to Terelj at 12:00pm and 4:00pm daily. Luckily we woke up early to go to the tourist office in the State Department Store to ask, because it turned out that the midday bus does not exist. We were relieved to have the extra four hours to pack and relax a bit, and since the sun didn’t ever set until about 11:00pm it wasn’t such a big deal to get to the park later.
At 3:30pm we were waiting outside the bus stop– we’d been warned that it might leave early but it came on the dot of 4:00pm. We spent about 2 hours in the bus, then got off at Turtle Rock, explored, and made our camp near Turtle Rock for the night.
Day 8: Gorhi-Terelj National Park.
We had a leisurely morning and then ventured with three new traveller friends to a campsite closer to the entrance of the park by hitchhiking with a kindly tour driver who took all 5 of us. After fording a stream to get to our desired campsite, we spent a relaxed evening getting to know our new friends and taking in the (somewhat isolated) nature in Terelj. We drank two big bottles of vodka between our group and retired to bed late.
Day 9: Return to Ulaanbaatar and search for souvenirs.
Sadly, we again had to wake up early to get ourselves back to Ulaanbaatar. Neither of us tend to be able to commit to any souvenirs until the very last minute, so we had to get back to buy things for our family and friends and get ourselves sorted out for our flights the next morning.
Thank goodness for Mary and Martha, a fair trade shop selling souvenirs made by local artisans. Between the State Department Store grocery area (where we bought several different types of vodka and some little food items) and Mary and Martha, we spent almost all of our remaining tugrik on lovely things for our families and friends.
Another excellent move on our part was to book a private room instead of a dorm in the hostel for our last night. It gave us some privacy and space to haul out all our stuff and rearrange it all to allow for plane travel. As usual, we didn’t get to sleep until about 1:00am (though we managed to sneak in a few large beers with dinner at a Japanese restaurant in between our shopping and packing).
Day 10: Early morning flights to Australia and Berlin.
My flight to Hong Kong (followed by Melbourne about 7 hours later) left at 7:40am and M.’s flight to Berlin left at 10:20, so we headed to the airport far earlier than we should have (traffic in Ulaanbaatar is crazy-unpredictable) and spent some time drinking coffee and watching the EuroCup final in the airport.
And just like that, our incredible trip to Mongolia was over… and now we start planning for our next big adventure.