Destination Guide

Stephen Bailey
What if you escaped to the Mongolian steppes?
What if you escaped to the Mongolian steppes?
Stephen Bailey

Silent, endless, epic. Mongolia is a great adventure — one of those vast countries where there isn’t much besides nature.

What type of vehicles do they have in Mongolia? They travel by horse. The Mongolian nomads do anyway. And if they go by motorized vehicle, they travel by old-school, battered, rugged, Soviet-built Jeeps — quite spacious, relatively comfortable and incredibly hardy.

When I was there, each morning the driver would light a fire underneath the Jeep, because it got so cold at night that the car engine would freeze. So we’d have to do that in the morning — it’s quite dramatic when you see it for the first time — and then we’d set off.

And the driver and guide would stop every time we encountered people.

In this country of nomads, it’s just rude not stop. When you pass anybody, you stop — whether it’s somebody outside their yurts, somebody just driving past the other way, somebody on a horse — you stop, take your time and chat.

It’s a country of nomads, so when you move, you connect with the people who are also moving. The driver would ask, “We were trying to get to this place. How do we go there?”

Whoever we asked would give directions, and then the driver would draw out the directions. And honestly, they were something along the lines of “go left of the really big hill, then stay to the right of the trees, and keep going towards the sun.” Those were the directions.

Because across 99% of Mongolia, there are no roads. It’s just the open Mongolian steppe — the big open plains where you create your own path.

And that was the thrilling thing about travelling in Mongolia. There is no set route. How can there be a set route when there are no roads? The experience was getting the guide, the driver, the Soviet Jeep, and creating a flexible program around the country.

Now, Mongolia is huge country. You can’t see everything in a week. The experience really is about the journey.

Of course there are famous places to go — or they may appear famous, because you see them in guide books. But they’re not immensely popular or very visited. And they’re also huge — Lake Khuvsgul, the Gobi Desert itself, Tsenkher Hot Spring, the Khangai Mountains. There are places like these, that can be within the route, and can be part of the general plan of where you are going to go.

But in Mongolia, serendipity takes its part.

Once, when I was travelling there, we drove for about three hours in the snow. And then we got to a point in a semi-mountainous area where it was just impossible to go any further. So we had to turn around, and go three hours back the way we came. Yet it was beautiful. It was not frustrating — it was all part of the adventure. I really enjoyed it.

But of course we never made where we intended to get to, so we didn’t have somewhere to stay.

What we did was, we stopped at a ger out on the open Mongolian steppe. And the guide didn’t even knock, because it’s custom to just open the door of somebody else’s ger.

He opened and explained we were passing through, and straight away these people who’d never met us hosted us without question, with incredible hospitality. They put the fire on, made tea, made food. They passed around fermented yak milk, which is a fizzy and quite revolting warm drink that gets you drunk. I recommend trying it. If you can stomach a lot of it, fair play, because it’s not a drink that I will want to have again. But it was fantastic to be part of that.

And it was custom to all be sleeping in the same ger together. They pulled out mattresses and the family gave their beds to us, the travellers, and they slept on the floor.

It is quite a rough experience if you only like to go to five-star hotels. And if that’s you — if you’re only about five-star hotels — then I really wouldn’t recommend Mongolia. I don’t think it has any five-star properties. Mongolia is really about roughing it, going for the expedition, being out in nature, having these connections with local people.

And when you do these trips, you have to let serendipity play its course. You have to be prepared for the unpredictable.

But you don’t just stay in random people’s homes. Mongolians stay in yurts — you can also call them gers — and it’s custom that they host people passing through. But also there are various places dotted across Mongolia where they have created some service for foreign visitors. So they’ve created a more high-end and private yurt experience.

It’s still very much the same style, the same feeling, but you do get your private ger. You do get some more enhanced facilities, particularly bathroom facilities. You do have a bit more privacy, which is great — especially if you’ve got a family or are travelling as a couple.

But I really liked that there was the combination of the two — that we could be completely local for a night, and then we could be local in style, but also have that privacy.

Now, I could go on for a long time. I could tell you about camel riding in the snow in the Gobi Desert. I could tell you about meeting a shaman. I could tell you about three days spent on a horse, falling off a few times, galloping across the Mongolian steppes.

I could tell you about Flaming Cliffs and sand dunes and all the very different places that I got to experience in Mongolia.

But I’m not going to. Firstly, because I visited Mongolia in 2007. That was 14 years ago, and my memory is not brilliant. So I’m forgetting the names of some of those places, and I can’t really advise you.

And secondly, and more importantly, Mongolia is a country where everybody has their own experience. Mongolia is the land of the nomads, where you yourself can be a nomad, travel out into the wilderness, and create your own tracks.

You don’t need or want to follow the path that I travelled. You can create your own.

Story by Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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