The train pulled in to Ulaanbaatar bang on time, to the second, (13:50) how that’s possible I don’t know, but it worked. All through that morning since we had woken from our comfortable nights sleep, we had noticed that the temperature had dropped considerably outside so we were starting to get a bit cold. The clothes we have left if our backpacks are quite unsuitable for anything lower than about 21 degrees celcius and so with plenty of layers on we entered into this new somewhat ugly -from first impressions- city. Through the agency which we had booked the train tickets with in Beijing, we had a free transfer from the station and one night accommodation booked at the very comfortable ‘Miami’ hotel. We didn’t have much time to get comfortable though as we had a 4pm appointment with ‘Ger to Ger’ a Community based nomadic travel agency based somewhere in the city, and after quick showers we headed off looking for the office. Mongolia uses the Cyrillic alphabet similar to that of Russia but the way the streets were named left us baffled, however once we’d found the ‘State Department Store’ (and ran in to buy some warmer clothes) we navigated the streets easily to the appointment.
After the meeting we were pretty tired but quite excited after learning what the trip entailed, (we had booked over the internet a month or so earlier but not had much chance to look into it in great detail) and learning some basic language and customery rituals. We met up for a goodbye drink with our excellent cabin buddies Peter and Tanya before getting a very good nights sleep. We were to be at the bus station at 7.30am the next morning to catch a local bus out westwards to the Bulgan province.
The bus station was bustling with local people who wore the most amazing clothes, long brightly coloured silk overcoats with large patterns and cowboy hats! The bus ride was pretty comfortable too, even during the bit where we had to leave the road (as it was being repaired) and travel in the field next to it for about half an hour. Apart from us two, we were to be joined by an American couple, Jeff and Maggie who were on their honeymoon. From our bus stop we were transferred into a minibus and left the road completely, driving at high speed through dirt tracks running through endless, fenceless fields. The trip entailed us staying for three nights with three different nomadic families and we were to travel by horse between each family after staying the night. Our first stop was with a young family who were just so friendly and nice, they had two adorable children who we played with outside our very cool ‘Ger’. The family had many horses, goats and cows and we sat with them for a while talking (through the use of books which we had with English and Mongolian in it) it was polite to ask questions like “Are you having a good summer?” or “Are your goats fat?” which they nodded to enthusiastically. In the middle of the Ger was a stove which we stoked with dried horse (or cow or goat) dung and began to ferment some horse milk to make vodka, while that was brewing we headed out for a short ride on the horses. The scenery was just incredible, an enourmous blue sky which seemed to go on forever hung high above us constarsting with the rich green of the fields and m0untains in the distance, animals grazed all around us, we passed through a small stream and headed up the hill to an old statue for a great view of the surroundings. It was so, so quiet. We just stood there in silence saying “amazing” every two minutes. Returning from the ride, our backsides already staring to ache from the uncomfortable and notorious ‘Mongolian (wooden) saddle. We gingerly sat down to enjoy the vodka and some very bizarre looking food, sort of dried cheese or something with some cream. Some of it was quite good. Before dark we helped to round up the goats for milking (Silke did a good job) before letting them all loose again, then they let the dogs loose so that they could protect the animals from wolves in the night, the goats seemed to like headbutting our Ger as we dozed off to sleep.
We slept so well, even though the two of us were cramped onto a small single bed, all of that fresh air was just so good. Sadly we had to leave our first family and we set off towards Ger number two, a three hour ride away. By now it was boiling hot and the amazing landscape became drier and more desert like. Upon reaching them, we went through the same ritual as meeting the first family “Are your goats fat etc?” before heading off into the huge sand dunes that we now found ourselves by. By now we were all suffering badly from the saddles and we were glad it wasn’t far. Once there we picked berries from the trees for the family. That night after some excellent goulash we kicked a football around and watched a horse being milked, and enjoyed another superb sunset before sleeping well again.
The next day we dreaded how far we would have to ride, but it was no more than an hour, we did quite a bit of galloping which helped – that was amazing, racing through those fields, it was real freedom! The final family were older again and lived in a hut rather than a Ger they had two older children who studied so communicating with them was a little easier. We were to go out for a walk to a lake but this time not by horse (Yes!), but by “Machine”. The “Machine” was an old blue van which we sat in the back of as we trundled throught he fields up to their ‘winter camp’ in the hills, and from there we embarked on a good ramble for a few hours, enjoying the views, the local plants etc and even encounterd a snake, it slithered off though without any trouble! The lake was tiny and not really the highlight of the walk, the bizarre temples in the middle of nowhere were the coolest part. On our return to winter camp, the “Machine” we were told was broken, so we had to walk back, that was enjoyable too though as the sun began to set, giving the whole landscape a beautiful blue and pink shade as our shadows grew longer behind us.
Next morning after breakfast we were picked up by two men in a 4×4, and after a customery shot of vodka, we left heading for the centre point of the whole of Mongolia. Not long after leaving the house they stopped the car turned around to face us and opened a can of beer with big grins on their faces handing us plastic cups, we decided it was better if we drank then they would drink less, as one of them was driving us!
Finally after a great visit to the monument and the centre of Mongolia, a few beers, and a taxi ride back to Ulaanbaatar (the bus was full) we were back to real life, we were exhausted but had to change hotels as the ‘Miami’ included in our package was way too expensive for us, so we moved to the very homely Golden Gobi hotel where we would spend the next two nights. Our last day in UB we spent wandering around the suprisingly pleasant town centre looking at a few museums and Chengis Khan momuments before relaxing in the warm summer afternoon sunshine with a cold beer to reflect on our adventure through the wilderness. What a life they lead, just so simple, hard work, but simple family life, out there in the middle of nowhere with all of their animals, amazing.
The following day, we gathered some supplies and headed to the railway station to catch our train to Moscow. When the train pulled in we were happy to find Jens, a friendly sensible 20 year old Danish lad in our carriage and the 4th berth empty, so we had plenty of room to relax, we were also happy to find our ‘provodnitse’ or stewardess for the trip was a fiery bright red-haired woman who was very stern yet frinedly. We were happy, and looked forward to 4 days of rest and relaxation.
The 4 days passed much quicker than we imagined. The shorter than expected, but rutheless security checks at the Russian border, the huge crystal clear water of Lake Baikal, the fun of jumping on and off the train at random stations to buy supplies, the cheerful trolley lady from the restaurant car, then endless villages and rows of trees in the Russian countryside, the reading and swapping of books and stories with Jens, the chess games, the vodka, not to mention the drunk russians who got on in Omsk all added up to a very pleasant and quite unforgettable journey. The time was also good just to sit, look out of the window and reflect on what has been a quite unforgettable year, a journey like no other that will stay with us for the rest of our lives, it was also a good opportunity to prepare ourselves for reality, going back to work and real life, and look forward to meeting friends and family again.
In Moscow, the smoke from the fires had lifted so we had a really nice day for our arrival. The hostel we were at was nice and we arrived just in time for their ‘Summer party’ to which we were all invited. It was a good laugh and provided me with the perfect opportunity to get rid of my extra Mongolian money, swapping it for Euros with a couple of Dutch dentists heading in the opposite direction. Next morning we were out early amongst the reformed smoke to take a city tour, which pretty much showed us all we had wanted to see of Moscow, but we still had a few more days there so took our time in wandering this great, huge city. It’ fine architecture, amazing underground metro system, the kremlin, St. Basils cathedral, which really does make you feel like you are in a fairytale (one to come back to in winter when it’s covered in snow).
Following our pleasant stay in Moscow, we left by train on the 17th August, making our way north to Riga (Latvia) on yet another night train. One day and one night was enough time to enjoy the kind of quiet toy town that is Riga, lots of stunning architecture, beautiful people, cafes and restaurants and some pretty good shops too. We eagerly disgarded some of our more ‘well travelled’ clothing (rags) for some new stuff – oh the joy of shopping! Next morning (19th) we headed out from Riga in the rain by bus to Vilnius (Lithuania) the lush green farming land and quaint wooden huts looking more and more like Germany and home. Vilnius is also a very pleasant town where we decided to indulge in some good food and wine in a nice restaurant, this was after all to be our last night out on the road. Our final resting place was a really good hostel with just six clean double rooms and breakfast (in bed) included. It felt like a fitting finale to a brilliant year.
From midday on the 20th August until 5pm on Saturday the 21st August 2010 we took a number of trains, travelling first from Vilnius to Warsaw in Poland, then a night train from Poland to some really unpronouncable town from where we crossed the border on a packed two carriage train into Germany. From there it was a series of short distance trains of which Silke had worked out all the timetables amazingly so that we never had to wait for more than two minutes before the connecting train. And then as if by magic “Nachster halt Günzburg” (next stop Günzburg) was announced. Ironically we hadn’t noticed how close we actually were and so had to scramble to get off the train with all our bags – we’d never missed a stop or a train, bus or plane up to that point so that would have been very embarassing.
There on the platform waiting to greet us was Franz and Mary (Silkes parents) it was great to see them again, happily we rode the short journey from the station back to their home where we are now. It feels odd to be static, but it has been nice to get rested and prepare for our ‘real lives’ again, we’ve just sat around, read a lot, met with various friends and family members to begin re-telling our adventures, and we’ve eaten a lot too – I’ve already put back on half of what weight I’d lost. Tomorrow we fly home to England, miraculously we seem to have already found ourselves a nice fully furnished flat in a nice part of town and our jobs will be waiting for us. The next chapter of our lives is about to begin.
And so there it is, the end of our journey around the world, 367 days, 23 countries and numerous (I will calculate one day) kilometers travelled. We’ve seen so much, learnt so much, met so many people and had such a great time. Now I feel we should say something profound but at the moment that escapes me, except maybe to say that “The world is a fine place full of so much beauty and mystery, when you travel things happen on a day to day basis that never fail to excite or amaze, you feel alive. This world IS a wonderful place (the news only talks of the bad stuff) and life is very short, you should see it for yourself”.
Love and peace, Mike and Silke.
Ps, Thanks so very much to everyone whom we have met on this journey, to friends, random strangers, and especially those who’ve let us stay with them – Uncle Ian and Naomi, Kier Jade Theo and Xavier, Anna and Steve, Bryan and Tara.