Arriving into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on train K23 from Beijing, my first priority was to organise a trip into the countryside.
Mongolia has always been the yardstick by which I measured my trip – when I was planning it, I’d always say, ‘when I’m in Mongolia’ or ‘that jacket would buy me X days in Mongolia’. I was beyond excited to finally be in the country, but oddly enough had no strong desire to visit any particular part of the country. I just wanted to see anything and everything, and if that included the Gobi and the North I’d be happy. If not, no dramas.
Before leaving Beijing, I connected with an Australian couple through the Lonely Planet Thorntree forums who were also planning on being in Mongolia in September and were as flexible as I was with the timeframe (in the end, we’d spend nearly a month in the country, 29 days on a 30 day visa).
They arrived from Russia the day after I arrived from Beijing, and I was relieved that we got along instantly. I hadn’t met any other Australians in quite a while, and we just got each other. We spoke to the guesthouse owner, tour organizer extraordinaire, who said he already had a Korean man and a Czech woman interested in doing an 18 – 20 day trip to the North, Central and Gobi, and if we joined up with them the trip would only cost US$37 a day. Best of all? We could leave the next day.
Considering the three of us had budgeted double this, it was too good to refuse. The tour cost would include all accommodation in ger camps (gers being the traditional Mongolian nomadic tents), 3 meals a day (vegetarian meals, since the Australian couple was vegetarian and I was more than happy to forgo my share of mutton, horse, camel and yak for three weeks), a driver and a tour assistant who would act as translator and cook and eventually good friend.
We signed up, and headed straight for the State Department Store, Ulaanbaatar’s premier shopping mall, to purchase snacks, toilet paper and other supplies we might need for three weeks in the middle of nowhere. Our biggest dilemma was how many Mars Bars we might need, whether two rolls of toilet paper per person would be enough and how long mandarins would keep before going bad.
The following morning was cool and rainy in Ulaanbaatar, and we were up early to get our crap together and meet our driver and guide.
When we’d been told that we’d be travelling in a Russian van, I pictured a Toyota Hiace or similar. Oh how wrong I was.
Looking at the van parked outside the guesthouse, I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly be roadworthy. And when we looked inside to discover one row of seats faced the opposite direction to that of travel I was dismayed. We asked if the seats could be turned round. They couldn’t.
So we sucked it up, threw our packs in the back and our bulging food bags under the seat, jumped in and went to buckle up. No seatbelts, of course. So we looked for handles to hang on to. There were none of those, either. But the roof and walls were padded. Sort of like a coffin.
And we were off, for 18 days without showers, electricity, internet and any semblance of privacy or personal space. At the time, none of us truly realised how long 18 days actually was and I had no idea that it would turn out to be the most amazing and exhausting 18 days of my entire trip so far.