(This summer Andrew Killeen traveled around Mongolia with his wife and two children: Noah, 10, and Joseph, 7. In this series of posts, he shares tips and tales from their adventures. Check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 of the series.)
Having tested the waters with a day trip, we booked two further tours with our hosts at the LG Guesthouse: a two day trip to the Gobi desert, and a three day journey west as far as Lake Khovsgol.
Of course in two days we didn’t reach the real depths of the Gobi, and famous sights such as the Singing Sands, which is an eight day round trip at least. We were in an area known as “Mandalgovi”, or the “Middle Gobi”. It was however quite wild and remote enough for a family with children. I was amazed to find out that the desert really is littered with the bleached skulls of cattle, something I had thought a cliché from cartoons and westerns.
Any tour of Mongolia involves long hours of traveling, and this is particularly challenging with children. Our magic bus was an old Russian van, with padded doors and ceiling… and as we bumped across the rough terrain, we were all grateful for this protection. We occupied ourselves with games, books (as far as travel sickness would allow), and movies (as far as laptop battery would allow, which, with no recharging, was not far.) Our smartest move though was to bring an MP3 player and speaker. Once we had tired of the driver’s nomad country music (which took approximately 90 minutes), and summoned up the courage to assert our rights as paying customers, we turned the drives into one long raucous singalong. Oddly, one of my favorite memories of the whole holiday is of rattling over the sand dunes, all of us belting out “Paradise City”. I doubt the driver agrees.
The tours were well planned, with frequent stops to view interesting sights along the way, such as ovoos, the roadside shrines consisting of piles of stones. These were treated with serious reverence by our driver and guide, and we walked around them three times clockwise in the approved fashion, adding our own stones to the heap.
Most nights we spent in ger camps, but a stay with a real nomad family is an essential part of the experience. I had been advised that a bottle of vodka was an appropriate gift, and with great solemnity the patriarch got out his silver drinking bowl. We embarked on a respectful but slightly competitive drinking session in which neither of us were willing to be the first to quit, until the whole bottle was gone. This helped me enormously with sleeping on the hard ger floor, but with hindsight I would also have brought toys and clothes for the children.
Not everything went smoothly. We opted out of the camel ride, having ridden on camels before and decided it’s something you only need to do once in a lifetime. However the boys loved the horse riding on our previous trip, and we had arranged for them to have another session instead. Unfortunately though there was a failure in communication, and the camel man turned up one evening, looking most disgruntled when he realized he had no customers. Attempts to reorganize horse riding looked doomed to failure, particularly when the driver announced that there were too many mosquitoes at Lake Khovshgol, and we wouldn’t be able to go there. We stuck to our guns, and in the end the boys got their horse ride, and we got our swim in the lake.
The driver may have been curmudgeonly at times, but his expert knowledge enriched the experience. At one point we stopped at a well in the middle of the desert, where we not only refreshed ourselves with the ice cold water, but also filled a trough for the local wildlife to drink from in the summer heat.
The tours were not cheap. You can haggle up to a point, and if traveling as individuals you can secure a better deal by sharing with other parties. However as a family we really need to have our own space, and we were profoundly grateful to our guide for allowing us to take things at our own speed, and not to conform to a preset timetable. I think anybody would find the long, bumpy drives and basic accommodation exhausting, and our children were so tired they even managed to sleep in the van, despite being bounced and shaken around.
The two tours cost more than all the rest of our trip to Mongolia put together, but I would unhesitatingly recommend them, as a once-in-a-lifetime experience which will haunt your dreams for years to come. I shut my eyes and still revisit the moment when we were climbing up a rocky slope, and I looked up to see a score of eagles, circling not far above our heads… or watching a herd of horses thundering across the plain… or our guide, trying to catch a rabbit with his bare hands… or just standing under the vast blue sky, breathing in the clean, caryopteris-scented air, and cleansing my soul of the crowds and smog of Beijing.
But our Mongolian adventure was not over yet. We were returning to UB for the Naadam Festival, and this will be the subject of my next post.
Photos: Karen Killeen