A Travellerspoint blog

I cant feel my toes!

Journeys through a frozen Mongolia.

-36 °C

We have only good news to report on our second attempt at boarding our Beijing-Mongolia train! We managed to arrive 1.5hrs early, eat some delicious McDonalds and even be directed to the wrong platform… twice, but we made it! Ahh the wee hours of Tuesday morning saw us standing at a nearly empty platform boarding our train to Mongolia, okay maybe not wee hours but 0730 feels damn early when the sun is only just rising to a -8 degree morning.
We boarded the train, found our room and settled in for our 32hr train trip only to realise we were two-thirds of our entire carriage; our only neighbour, in the cabin next door being a fellow traveler from Oklahoma USA who was on a similar route to us. The rest of the day saw us enjoying a few beers and chatting about our travel experiences and next destinations. It was too good to be true; we kept waiting for another passenger to board and be 'seated' within our cabin but as luck would have it we had the luxury of the entire cabin to ourselves the entire journey.


At around 2000hrs our passports were collected, our train stopped and we were all directed off onto a vacant and freezing cold platform only to turn around and see the train chugging off into the distance. This left a few of us with some panicked expressions. Not able to get an english explanation out of any of the attendants we were pointed into a building to proceed through somewhat of a customs area, (it looked exactly like an airport customs area), except none of our documents were checked or bags scanned. We followed some signs that lead us to the only store that was open, apparently a "duty free" store. The store however resembled more of a supermarket than a duty free shop (I’m not sure what the tax would be on a lone apple or potato) so we did some snacks 'n' drink shopping and walked away with some nibbles, cheap Vodka and of course beer.

Our wait in the train terminal ended up being 3 and a bit hours, apparently this was the stop where they change the Bogies (wheels) of all the train carriages, (Mongolia and China have different train track widths), and hence why the train had abandoned us at the vacant train station.
By the time the train made its slow departure it was well past 12am and we still hadn't received our passports. Slightly worried we began looking around only to be greeted by some stern faced Mongols, torches in hand checking every ceiling cavity and room for any smuggled goods. Once they had thoroughly checked our room our passports were handed back with a smile and a thank you - very strange.

Still awake from the excitement of the stop, the train guards and the whole experience we downed a few beers and vodkas and tried to get some sleep, in our cabin all to ourselves. I'm not exactly sure why I couldn't sleep, I was dog tired but as I lay awake I could see out the window to the moonlit Mongolian landscape – the sky was crisp and clear a thousand miles away from the pollution of Beijing; I could see the stars and the white snow covered ground and every now and then some orange sparks from the coal burner that heated our carriage would flash by leaving a trail of orange. It was mesmerising.
Eventually the gentle rocking of the train was enough to put me sound asleep and I was not woken till 0900hrs by the sound of a dog barking and a still train. I looked out the window to see a completely snow covered landscape dotted by the occasional cow or horse. I thought to myself "Shit yea this looks way better than China!"
Although we were still a few hours away from Ulaanbaatar I could already feel the excitement building, everything outside looked so surreal, like nothing I had ever seen before. Houses looked unique, people were dressed differently and every house had a collection of dogs roaming the yards. All this was complimented by a vast barren landscape of rolling hills.


We arrived in Ulaanbaatar greeted by a mild -20 degree afternoon, just cold enough to make my nose hairs freeze. Our hostel offered to pick us up from the station for free and take us to our WW2 era apartment/hostel. I say apartment, because once again we were the only 2 people there and were lucky enough to have the entire 3 bedroom floor to ourselves.
The hostel was hmm… rustic to put it politely, the rooms were old and musty and the floors were uneven to the point where walking in a straight line was a mission, (ok that’s probably a little extreme but they were uneven). Our hostel didn't have a reception, we were just handed the key to the apartment and instructed "call if problem" which was a problem in itself as the phone didn't work and nor did the free wifi, which we later learnt didn't work because the bill hadn't been paid.
Completely severed from all communication we decided to go for a walk, find some food and have a look around. As luck would have it we were located directly opposite to the State department store; a store that is mentioned on nearly every hostel website, blog, Mongolia travel brochure and forum. The store turned out the be the Mongolian budget version of Myer or David Jones with an added supermarket. I picked up myself a pair of budget mink fur lined thermals, some cheap beer and snacks for less than 20 dollars… bargain.

Before we set out on a journey we were convinced would bring certain death by freezing, I decided I should try my skills at snowboarding - something I have wanted to do for a long time. Our American friend was also keen to check out a Mongolian ski resort. Unfortunately that morning Renee had become I'll, so it ended up being just myself and Travis who trekked out to Sky Resort Mongolia.
The resort was actually really well presented and pretty much empty, we were sharing the entire resort with maybe 30 people. Being complete novices and not having a single clue about what accessories we would need for the slopes we opted to only hire our boards and boots (receiving some strange looks from the counter staff). I was dressed in some track pants and my jacket and travis had some tailor made cashmere trousers. We definitely didn't look the part. We booted up and hit the slopes, only to realise we didn't know which slope was the beginner slope, the staff member who served us happened to be walking by so I beckoned her over and signalled as best I could small slope. She pointed to a chair lift, looked me directly in the eye and said in perfect English "Be careful". I laughed. Travis and I spent the rest of the day falling over and looking like idiots - a great first day of snowboarding.


Originally Renee and I had planned and booked a 6day/6night winter tour of the Terelj national park hosted by the nomadic families that live there. Upon our arrival in Ulaanbaatar we quickly came to the conclusion that this amount of time in the cold might be a little too much for us to handle… We were right. Instead we opted for a 3day/3night tour with a company that brandishes the slogan "Epic Nomad Centred Eco Adventures". Basically you spend time out in the wilderness with real nomadic families, free from any guides or transfers. On paper it sounds awesome, in reality it’s a bare bones, deep-end encounter of the way the nomadic families live and function - an overall awesome experience!

Our itinerary was over 3 days and 3 nights, each day trekking from one families ger to the next. A ger, meaning "home", is a portable wooden framed/felt covered dwelling traditionally used by Mongolian nomads. Arriving by bus to Terelj national park at around 5pm we were greeted by our first nomadic family and embarked on our journey to their ger by a mild 7km horseback ride. Whilst not a long journey by any means it was freezing to the point of almost unbearable - this short journey was however only a taste of things to come.
Our first night in a ger was spent with mum, dad, son, mother’s brother, 4 baby goats and an overly affectionate cat. We played ankle bone games ate some freshly slaughtered meat and learnt a new card game before retiring to the sound of a crackling fire.


The next morning saw us up and ready for the day at around 0900hrs, I gave the man of the ger a hand to heard his goats into the field and collect the baby goats for feeding.
As we packed our bags and readied ourselves for our 15km horse ride to the next family, we were motioned that it was "brrrrrrrrrr" outside and "jeep warm". Disillusioned from sitting in the toasty warm ger and probably feeling a little macho we were adamant that horseback would be far more interesting and a more involving experience.
With our horses packed, thermals donned and milk tea finished we set off on our 3hr journey.


At first it was super exciting; there we were riding horses through large white capped mountains, bare forests and snow covered ground. It was a sight to behold. The beauty however was short lived as the chill of the -36 degree air started to set in around 1hr into our journey. First it starts with your little toe feeling slightly numb and cold it then spreads to the rest of your toes and feet, followed by a burning sensation in your hands and face… the cold gets in everywhere. Even with fur lined boots, double wool socks, 2 pairs of leg thermals, top thermals, long sleeve shirt, fleecy hooded jumper, down jacket, ski gloves, scarf, beanie and both hoods on, nothing could stop the cold. It’s safe to say at the 1.5hr point in our journey we were both the coldest we had EVER been.


Thoughts of frost bitten toes kept running through my head as I battled to keep myself from shaking so violently that I might fall off the horse. I looked back at Renee whose face was covered in ice (from her breath freezing on her face) so thick that she could barely see through her eye lashes – she looked absolutely miserable. I glanced over to our guide who just looked as though it was just a tad cold; I’m not sure how they do it as he was wearing similar layers to us yet didn't seem at all fazed by the cold.
Both Renee and I kept trying to ask how far it was, the best answer we could get was a rough signaling and some broken words that sounded like "bit more". Every time we would get to a crest we both expected to see a ger in the distance yet our hopes were shattered every time, each time greeted by more rolling hills and a winding road that seemed to go on forever. It was pure torture.


About 30 minutes from our next ger camp a frozen Renee had decided enough was enough and dismounted her horse to walk it the rest of the distance; I battled on thinking that if I got off now I’d most likely fall off as my legs were probably frozen solid. Our guide who had been silent for close to an hour suddenly pointed to a silhouetted building through the trees and said "ger ger". Never have I felt so relieved to see a large felt tent. With only a few hundred metres to go we had one more hurdle in the form of a large frozen river, which spooked the horses. Renee had to practically drag her horse across the ice and mine received a good belting from the guide as he tried to motivate the semi wild beast over the crossing.

As we approached the ger we were greeted by the family and ushered off our horses, (very stiffly I must add), and invited into the ger where we were served dumplings in hot salty milk tea – it’s actually quite nice despite how it sounds. After thawing out for some time we gave the family a hand herding their yak and cattle into their pens and fed the baby calf, goats and sheep before settling down for the night.
Our host for the night was Mr Bold a giant of a man, an ex-state Mongolian wrestler who had earned the "Lion Title" for his time as a competitor and his wife who made tradition Mongolian garments. We ate some lamb and dough stew and were made to try on some traditional garments so we could "click amazing photos" then hit the sack.

We pretty much had the ger to ourselves apart from Mr Bold who also also slept there to keep watch over the fire. Unfortunately for us Mr Bold was a heavy sleeper, so heavy that the sub-zero temperatures would not wake him from his slumber. At around 11pm I woke to a ger that was approaching freezing temperatures; not even realising the fire had long gone out I fell back asleep only to wake an hour later near on frozen. I donned my thermals, track pants, beanie, scarf, down jacket and 2 pairs of socks and tried to go back to sleep. I figured if Mr Bold had not re-lit the fire it was not cold enough. I struggled to keep warm for the next 2-3hours assuming the foetal position and covering myself with as much sleeping bag as I could, this didn't work one bit. I called out to Renee to see if the extra blanket that she had accepted earlier in the night was helping, she too was just as cold as I was. I got up and looked for some extra bedding, as I was searching I realised that the bottle of water that I had next to my bed had frozen so had the left over tea in the cups on the table. It was DAMN cold. I think it might have been the complaining of both Renee and myself that woke Mr Bold, but at some stage he got up lit a cigarette, made himself some tea (which he slurped rather loudly for 2am) and re-lit the fire. Ahhh sweet warmth! He also threw a blanket over me after he lit the fire.

The morning was spent with Mr Bolds wife teaching Renee how to make "Mongolian button for national dress" while I explored the scenery outside. We ate our breakfast bread and then pack the ox-cart for our 5km journey to the next ger, this time a much more pleasant experience as we had blankets to keep us warm.


Our next ger was with a younger family and their 4 year old son, we spent the evening relaxing, taking pics of the night sky and went to bed around 9pm to a toasty warm ger (that was kept lit the entire night). The original plan for our return was to take on ox-cart at 0630 to the nearby town to catch the bus back to Ulaanbaatar for 0800. The family however had a different idea and asked us if we would rather catch a "machine" with them to the town at 9am, meaning we would then catch the 10am bus back instead. Not feeling like braving the dark and cold at such horrid hours we opted for the machine ride into town. The machine which was actually a small truck with a horse on the back didn't arrive till 1130 and the entire family including sisters, brothers, sons, daughters and grandparents loaded into and onto the truck and we set off for the town. I ended up sitting in the back with the horse. Around 20mins after we left a car pulled up next to us and 6 people including us loaded into it for the 1.5hr ride into town.



Our original itinerary would have had us catching a bus specifically dedicated to travelling the Terelj - Ulaanbaatar route however due to our change of schedule we had no option but to catch a public bus. Now, I thought that SE Asia could cram people onto a bus but as it would have it the Mongolians do it ten times better. The bus was so crammed that our bags had to be put onto peoples laps so more people could fit in the aisle. It was worse than sardines in a tin.


This bus was also a bus that we were unfamiliar with; the UB-Terelj bus had 2 stops, a stop that was 800m from our hostel and the stop in Terelj. The public bus had many stops, none of which we knew, as we approached the city we started to wonder if we would find our way back to the hostel. The bus attendant didn't speak english and didn't understand the only stop we knew, luckily a girl on the bus knew some English and was kind enough to tell the attendant where we wanted to go. If the random girl hadn't helped us we would have ended up 20kms away from where we needed to be instead we had a short 1km walk to our hostel, phew!

So now, as I sit here finishing off this entry enjoying a beer, cheese, crackers and feeling freshly showered, I feel super happy that I don't have to live in or deal with the freezing temperatures and rustic charm of the nomadic lifestyle. Ahh what a spoilt life we both have!
Our next stop Russia! See you all in the mother land!


Posted by Joel-Renee 07:10 Archived in Mongolia Tagged mongolia terelj ger ulaanbaatar ulan_bator trans_mongolian Comments (6)

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