I recently traveled to Mongolia for two weeks. Apparently this is strange because the top question I have received is… “But why?” One person even was so surprised that he said, “You must have already traveled a lot of places if Mongolia was next on your list to visit.”
Well, I just don’t think that’s fair but I guess it’s been in my plans long enough that I got over the idea that it might be weird.
You’ve all heard of Mongolia because of Mongolian BBQ. Fun fact: it’s not Mongolian. It was developed in Taiwan and the guy basically called it Mongolian bbq because…who knows why. Sounds cool.
Another fun fact. You’ve probably also used the word “yurt”. In Mongolia, those are called gers and that is the name I will use. Ger means home. Yurt is the Turkic word for the imprint left in the ground when a ger is moved.
Do you feel educated? Also, one last thing. Genghis Khan–the guy who established the largest land empire in history–is not really named Genghis Khan. His real name was Temujin, but when he united the Mongol nation, he was named Chinggis Khan (more or less meaning Universal Ruler). Unfortunately due to #westerners, his name to you is known as Genghis.
You can learn an awful lot about Mongolia if you spend like 47 hours riding in a small van on bumpy dirt roads across its vast countryside and have a tour guide, a Mongolian history expert, or a book about Chinggis to read along the way.
So why did I go? One of my bestie buds, Cheryl, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mongolia. She and I served at about the same time. In fact, she left the Provo Missionary Training Center for Mongolia on the same day that I left to head to the Brazil MTC. We tried to figure out if we could see each other in the airport but our flights were too far apart. I digress.
We have known each other since my freshman year of college. On our missions, my mom would copy her letters from her blog and send them to me and then send my letters to her. (What a great mom!) I was often amazed at the similarities and intrigued by the differences in our missions considering we were almost exactly on opposite sides of the world from each other. When we returned home, we were roommates and talked about our missions ALL. THE. TIME. And we both talked about going to visit each other’s missions. I’ve been back to visit mine 3 times and Cheryl had been back about 7 or 8 times (I lost count) but we’d never gone together. About a year ago, she said, “I’m going to do it. I’m taking friends.” And I signed up. Three other friends did, too, and the five of us had an incredible journey throughout Mongolia.
We contracted with a tour company, New Milestone Tours, for part of our vacation. I would definitely recommend a tour company if you are going to the Gobi. Or anywhere you want to go, really. New Milestone was great and I would recommend them, and so would Cheryl because she knows most of the people who work there!
On our first real day in the country, we had New Milestone take us to some of the key sites near the city–a giant statue of Chinggis Khan, a national park with a cool monastery and a giant rock that looks like a turtle, and beautiful mountain scenery.
We also had an amazing cultural experience with a Kazakh family. The Kazakhs are Muslim (whereas Mongolians mostly follow Tibetan Buddhism) and make up a very small percentage of the population in Mongolia. A sweet couple welcomed us to their home, fed us more than we could eat (this became a common theme of the trip), and then their grandkids played music and danced for us. AND, they showed us some of their traditional clothing and let us try it on as they taught us some dance moves. This was a beautiful and fun kick-off to the trip.
On Sunday, we went to Church, a short walk from the Chinggis Khan hotel.
And then we headed to the Gobi Desert for 6 days. It’s a very long drive to get there. And it’s even longer if your driver turns off onto a random dirt road (this, as it turned out, is kind of a thing, though–you really just need to know where you’re going) and gets lost in the literal middle of nowhere. Like, we drove for a long long time and nothing was around anywhere. And finally there was an admission that maybe we were lost. We kept driving until we came upon the most random ger with miles and miles of nothing around. And they were not home. But! They had a phone inside that worked to get a call out to figure out where we were. I wonder what that call was like, “What’s around you?” “Um…Gobi Desert? and lots of nothing.” “Ok cool. I think I know where you’re at.”
We backtracked until we got back on the main road.15-20 minutes later we found the sign that showed where we were really supposed to turn. Don’t worry, we came up with a whole game plan for how we were going to survive if we had to spend the night in the middle of nowhere. It involved fruit snacks and burning camel dung.
The Gobi Desert is vast and a lot of our days were spent driving through the desert and suddenly coming upon sweeping landscapes and impressive scenery that often looked a lot like Utah. We saw more goats, sheep, horses, and camels than we’ll ever want to see again ever.
Campy Dinosaur Park because Mongolia is full of dinosaur fossils so you have to celebrate them!
Valley of the Vulture and horseback riding
Camels! They are slow and stinky, but I still liked riding the Bactrian (two-hump) camel.
Sand Dunes–also,they sing! The sand grains make a noise as the wind blows over them and it feels like the dune is vibrating. The dune was very hard to climb. How do you actually make progress when it’s one step forward, four steps back? Not sure, but we did it. And the view!
Bayan Zag–the Flaming Cliffs
As you can see, a lot of Mongolia looks like places in Utah. Crazy, right?
We stayed in these super sweet ger camps where they give you tons of food and have hot showers and flushing toilets. I hate to give this away, but you won’t really be “roughing it” at those camps.
Our final two days in the desert, we spent with a nomad family that herds sheep and goats. It was so much fun to help herd the goats and prep them for milking. The family we stayed with are expert herders in my professional opinion. They can milk those goats so fast! We also separated the sheep from the goats, as requested, which made things feel a little Biblical. We learned to make some traditional food and “real” Mongolian bbq. And I think I liked goats before this trip but after eating everything that could be eaten of/from them, I think I’m good to limit my encounters with them for a few years.
The family was awesome, though, and we enjoyed getting to know them. Both Cheryl and our tour guide interpreted for us so we had many opportunities to share and learn.
Our second night with the family, we had a cultural performance by one of their children and some neighbor kids, I think. By neighbor, I mean, I don’t know where they came from because “neighbors” live pretty far apart there. A car showed up and they were there. They danced and sang and then asked us to do something. We had tried to think of something and did a very poor rendition of “Let it Snow!” But then… genius struck and someone mentioned we should dance to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” And we did. And I’m not sure what they thought of it, but they were recording us on their phones. So I’m sure we’re a hit somewhere in Mongolia.
We also headed over to a “neighbor’s” ger that night where many people were gathered and they played the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) for us. And then we played a finger game that’s hard to explain but was really fun because even the kids could be involved. But there were two teams and when one team lost, they had to drink fermented mare’s milk. I only had to drink it twice. It is a very special taste. Like… sour stomach taste. Yeah, I think that’s it. So glad our team mostly won.
Highlights? It was fun to be with friends for so much time. We laughed and talked and read about Chinggis Khan and laughed and talked some more. Our tour guide told us that we talked A LOT and that her groups usually don’t talk that much. We will take that as a compliment. We entertained ourselves very well.
And then, back to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. There we visited the main monastery, wandered the city, and went to an amazing cultural presentation with traditional instruments, music, dancing, and especially the Mongolian throat singing. It was delightful!
We also went to the grocery store and it was like a bunch of unsupervised children. Should we get spinach yogurt? Yes. Should we get these super sweet looking biscuits? Yes. Should we get seabuckthorn juice? Of course! Finally, Cheryl said, “It’s time to leave; we’re making weird food choices.” “Aw, mom…I just wanted to try these bbq pork nuggets, though.” “Oh, right. Yes, grab those.”
Want to buy souvenirs in Mongolia? Head over to the Mary & Martha shop. Good quality, good stuff, and they are fair and ethical.
We got to go to Church again and see lots more people Cheryl knew from her mission. It’s always so good to be with those who have so much meaning in our lives.
And then we did a crazy thing. We took an overnight train ride up to the northern border of the country to a town Cheryl served in. The train ride was kind of like Hogwarts in that it was a train full of people. But mostly sleeping on the train made my stomach sour, haha. When we got to the town, it was 4:30 am so we got a super weird pay-by-the-hour motel until it was reasonable to wake up.
We spent the day visiting many, many friends and seeing a beautiful park. And then that night, it was back on the train overnight. We can sleep when we’re dead, right?
Before we left for home, we got to go to Zaisan Hill and look out over the whole city. Beautiful. And we read the dedicatory prayer that Neal A. Maxwell gave in 1993 opening the land of Mongolia up to the preaching of the gospel. It makes me emotional when I think of the blessing of lands being opened to the gospel. What a beautiful thing.
At the end of our trip, Cheryl and I invited our friend who is Mongolian and lives in Mongolia to come over and visit. It was cool to be in her element as we met her in ours. (Fun fact: She was one of the first sister missionaries in Turkey!). And you know all that weird food we bought? Lucky for her, we didn’t eat all of it, and she was the forced-upon beneficiary.
What an amazing trip full of amazing people and amazing experiences. So are you ready to go? If so, I would definitely go with people you know and like because you’ll spend a lot of time in the car together. Glad I went with this crew.