Seeing Mongolia for the First Time

  Genghis Khan. Nomads with epic hats. Nomads who train wild eagles. Camels. Herding goats to their appropriate goat quarters before sunset. Asia's largest desert. Sand dunes. (I hiked one!)
   I've dreamt of going to Mongolia for years now. Before my backpacking trip around China I thought I would start in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, sleeping in a few yurts (or a Ger, as they call them in Mongolian) along the way before heading south to China. I didn't end up going. Four years later, last month after teaching for a year and a half in South Korea I flew from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar. I landed in a sprawling, golden and mountainous paradise, followed by a frenzy of taxi touts at the airport. Compared to the bright lights of Seoul, being in Mongolia's most populous city (or only city) I felt like I was in the countryside. I checked in at Sunpath Guesthouse (and Tours) and relaxed in the cozy house turned hostel on Peace Avenue. I was in Mongolia.
   
  After a day of exploring the country's oldest Buddhist temple (similar to Tibetan Buddhism, just a different Lama), a wander down the main road followed by dinner on a patio with new friends, a late sunset (10 p.m!) yummy Mongolian beer and dumplings with sour cream I wasn't ready for a week tour of the countryside. I wanted more city! Patio dinners and sour cream...it had been so long. It had been so long since any type of dinner before sunset, for that matter. In Korea the only meal while the sun is up is lunch, and a boiling hot pot of "hangover soup" early in the morning.
  My friend Jean woke up the next morning jet lagged, and I woke up with a sore throat and a slight fever. "Great, I'm headed to the desert today" I thought. Perfect timing. I hadn't been sick in over a year. I couldn't stop sniffling for the longest time. I'm still convinced it was my sinuses adjusting to the lack of smog. They were confused. I was confused. I'm still confused. I'm not sure what continent I'm on right now. Is the Black Sea the part which separates Europe from Asia? Was I in Asia when I arrived in Bishkek, where people shook hands and ate with forks? A lot to ponder. More world to see.

  We lucked-out with the sharpest and most appropriately named guide for our tour. A lady named Bogi. We were headed to the desert Gobi, with Bogi! We told her later that she should start her own tour company. "See the Gobi with Bogi!" #gobiwithbogi. So many options, we told her, while relaxing outside of our ger one evening as we played the ankle bone game. It's a game where you roll pieces of goats ankle bones (cleaned and meat already eaten, of course) like dice. Then you flick the bones to the matching ones. Repeat. Yes, Mongolia is so hardcore that even their leisure play involves animal carcass.
Bogi is a lovely woman from the Eastern Gobi desert, who works as a guide in the summer (tourist season May-October) while her husband takes care of their son. He then works the rest of the year, while Bogi seeks shelter from the harsh Mongolian winters in the city.

  One world for Mongolia: VAST. It's pretty vast. The epitome of vast. Vastness personified in one beautiful country. We would drive in an old Russian van through the countryside, and maybe once a day we'd see a town. One town. Every second day we'd stop in a town for lunch on the way to another Gobi site, before settling into a ger for the night. We'd play with nomad kids and have dinner in a cozy ger before an inevitable trip to an outhouse in the middle of nowhere. You haven't peed outside until you've peed in front of about a hundred goats starring at you.

  All the tour groups who travel by Russian vans with modest travel companies are a way for the nomads to earn some extra income, who host different groups almost every night during the high season. The woman in charge of the household always greeted us with a fresh bowl of goat (sometimes camel) milk, as per Mongolian custom. We rode camels, horses (the horses were more fun, but the camels so pretty) and I think my fever broke when I hiked the sand dunes after dinner on the fourth day of the tour. One day was an ancient monastery, another was a beautiful spot called the "flaming cliffs". My favourite day was walking through a valley as we approached the desert. The valley, Yol Valley, is home to these tiny little animals called "pikas", which pikachu was named after. Jean and I spotted about 30 of them before they'd run into their little holes.

  Along the way we saw the locals prepare for the annual Nadaam Festival which happens every July by racing their horses around. Some little boys even do it without a saddle. Mongolians eat mostly meat, and their "milk tea" consists of pure and fresh goat or cow's milk, and a lot of people know how to ride horses bareback. Mongolians don't mess around.

  When are you planning to visit? Personally, I feel feistier, healthier and overall more awesome since stepping foot in Genghis Khan's homeland.