Going Off the Beaten Path in Mongolia
Okay. So the title of this post is a bit tongue and cheek. Some travellers riding the Trans-Mongolian railway might hop off in Ulan Bator for a few days. A few of them may even go to the ancient capital, Karakorum, to visit the large monastery there. Even so, Mongolia doesn’t exactly have a well-known tourist trail. In the very literal sense, it doesn’t have many roads or trails at all.
Still, after doing a week-long loop of the Gobi desert and beyond, with a van and driver organised by my hostel in UB, I have the urge to go somewhere even more remote. But where, and how would I get there, were questions I first had to answer. Outside of Ulan Bator, Karakorum, and camp sites in a few national parks, there aren’t any places to stay overnight. One of the downsides to taking the road less traveled.
Eavesdropping will get you everywhere as it turns out, or at the least, it will get you to the northernmost border of Mongolia. Sitting at one of the hostel’s computers in Ulan Bator, I overheard someone talking about a Peace Corps volunteer who was trying to arrange homestays to bring a bit more income to a few Mongolian families he knew. I asked for more information, and found myself, a few days later, alone on the train to Selenge. The host family picked me up at the train station, and before we drove to the countryside where their ger was located, they pointed out the nearest town. It was in Russia. Peering into the distance, I could even make out an onion-dome church.
One lonely ger on the horizon. This is my home for three nights, alongside my Mongolian host family.
No place I’ve ever been feels as wide or as empty as Mongolia. The surrounding countryside in Selenge is a large expanse of flat lands, with the occasional tree, and low-slung hills rising in the distance in Russia.
Here is the inside of the ger, with its traditional, brightly-painted cupboards and beds.
And of course, what house tour is complete without viewing the facilities? Yes, that little corner of wood slabs perched above the hole in the ground serves as the family toilet. And yes, the three small boys in the family would follow me out to the toilet and laughingly mimic the way I squatted.
Much of daily life in Mongolia revolves around caring for the livestock. The baby goats, who liked to curl up in the shadow of the ger, were kinda adorable.
Calves crowd around for a family portrait. Or for the big basin of water. Whatever.
On one of the days, the men of the family gather together to do some sheep shearing.
Even the smallest children help by collecting the fleece. This little boy decides he’s my best friend for the duration of my stay, and whenever he’s free from his chores, he follows me around like a mischevious shadow.
During their free time, the little boys like to play Shagai, a Mongolian game that uses ankle bones from sheep. The Shagai are rolled on the floor, like dice, and depending on which side they land on, they are identified as a horse, camel, sheep, or goat. There are actually several games, such as “horse racing” or “camel birthing” that can be played with Shagai.
In the evenings, the sun would lower behind the hills, a gentle, rose-gold flame lighting the sky, followed by darkness. Night in Selenge is a pure, deep black. There are no towns or cities near the ger, no florescence from urban lights, just thousands of stars and a shy crescent moon. Silence covers us like a blanket.