It has never crossed my mind that deserts could be grassy. It also never crossed my mind that seven days may not be long enough to cover a trip to Mongolia. Not until months after purchasing the non-date-changeable flight tickets, then finding myself in the surprisingly verdant fields of Gobi.
Thanks to Instagram-induced FOMO and the default millennial impulse to travel, the decision was made to check out the relatively elusive country of Mongolia together with a friend. It fit the criteria of being a destination in Asia that a) we’ve never been to and b) neither have majority of our peers, because is it not a millennial’s duty to perpetuate the FOMO cycle?
Is it as nomadic as it seems? Will we only eat meat? Is it true that they can navigate solely by memory? Along with learning that it was common to have summer rain in the Mongolian desert, and thus the green pastures, the trip debunked our many backward perceptions.
Still nomads, last we checked
Besides the capital of Ulaanbaatar and other smaller cities, most Mongolians on the open field do stay wherever they choose to pitch tent. And yes, they keep to their tradition of offering you Suutei tsai, a shall we say, distinct milk tea that will put you off all milk tea for a while.
Constipation is a dated myth
After reading about the allegedly meat-heavy Mongol diet, a dried fruit and nut snack pack naturally took priority on packing list. A preventive measure we barely needed, seeing that vegetables make up a third of every meal.
The superpower is real
Seated in the backseat of our guide’s jeep, the view outside looked identical regardless of the turns we took. There was nothing particularly distinctive about the vast plains, yet our driver never hesitated to reconsider his course. I did ask for the trick behind the superpower of unguided navigation, only to receive the same answer I’m sure countless others did before me:
“We grew up here, so we know.”
It was like playing a game of spot the difference. Believe me, everytime I noticed the driver checking out the window, I did the same with houndlike reflexes. All futile attempts to spot which giveaway feature he was looking out for. No doubt he recognised the completely uninhibited horizon by heart, and here I am with friends who still don’t remember how to get to my house.
You have no choice but to be a tourist, if you don’t have the luxury of time. Which, unless you’re considering a pilgrimage of sorts, or worse yet, a career on Instagram alone, is most of us. Like most travellers of this generation who prefer to go by their own schedule, tours are an ancient practice. Pre-planning research included a desperate search for trips that did not include a guide. But with uncharted territory (on google maps), it was impossible.
Even drivers-only alternatives were bound by itineraries. Plus, the flexibility of the middleman-less transaction also came with the lack of a refund policy. To see as much as we possibly could meant that the all-inclusive package that included flights of under two hours, versus a drive of days which we couldn’t afford, was the better choice. It also meant tourist ger camps with nice heated showers as opposed to roughing it out on the open road with wet wipes, and a touch-and-go encounter with some destinations.
When we were brought to the sand piles they called sand dunes at Gobi, I fleetingly understood how tourists feel when they hike Singapore’s Mount Faber under 20 minutes (yes foreign devils, we call our hills mountains!). It was the price paid for convenience. The real sand dunes would take days of driving to reach.
Apart from the minor dupe, everything else was breathtaking. The sunset at Bayanzag, or flaming cliffs, loyally put up a spectacle, before humbly disappearing into the horizon after completing its job. Khovsgol lake in particular, broke the mold of Mongolia we had in our head. Abundant forestry set against a vast serene expanse, completely transparent as you dip your feet in.
A week also means you would still be able to squeeze in a jaunt to Gorkhi Terelj National Park. A short drive from the capital, it is doable to plan sights like the 40 metre tall Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue and natural phenomena Turtle Rock into your last day. This we managed on a driver-only arrangement after a request to the tour operator.
While sojourning multiple points of interests within seven days brought great satisfaction, there is no perfect itinerary. In fact, what made the experience truly unique is the aspect we first sought to avoid—our guides. All born and bred Mongolian, it was fascinating to hear about the country and their lives from an indigenous perspective.
In adequate English, Sara revealed that being a tour guide was simply a part-time job. She was back to being a teacher once the school holidays were over. Her husband, our driver, a military man from Tibet. Both gracefully aged, we slowly saw how showing us around was not only a way of earning income, but a way for the couple to spend time together on a visit back to hometown.
Even the designated driver engaged for the final day was a jolly young man who had no qualms sharing about his life and asking about ours despite being only fluent in his native language. The memory of the broken conversation shared via google translate is one that further enriched and wonderfully concluded our trip. The relationships fostered from all our interactions became a pocket of time of our lives we allowed the other into in exchange, and that set the greatest cornerstone of the week we traded with the lands of Mongolia.