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Off into the wilderness – Gurvanbulag

Mon 17 Jun ’13 – day 37   It was a good night’s sleep with the window open so that there was plenty of fresh air.  Having worked out what I didn’t need on the trip to Gurvanbulag, I packed as much as possible into my suitcase so that I wouldn’t have to cart it around.

I didn’t bother with breakfast after the two big meals yesterday and went down to check out and get a chit for my suitcase that the hotel was going to store while I was trekking around the countryside.

Everyone was down on time, so after Wednesday had loaded the mini-bus we set off around the houses (quite literally) to get on to the westbound road that would take us out of UB – traffic was pouring into the city for the start of the working week.

We passed lots of old soviet era apartment blocks which are now looking very decrepit and it took nearly an hour to finally leave the city limits.  The road surface was variable to say the least, from excellent blacktop to a gravel track where the road was being resurfaced.  Wednesday refuelled the mini-bus as garages can be few and far between.  There was lots of construction machinery in yards alongside the road which followed the railway line for a bit before that headed north and we set off to the west.

The scenery soon changed to open steppe with the grassland stretching away into the far distance where low mountain ranges reached up into the cloudy skies.  It was difficult to take a picture that did this landscape justice as it was so vast.

There was not a lot of traffic moving, but we saw herds of cattle, horses, sheep and goats just grazing without anyone in attendance.  A few gers dotted the landscape, but other than these there was no sign of human habitation.  As Ankhaa explained Mongolia is the size of Western Europe, but with a population of less than 3 million people.


We stopped for a break, so it was a chance to have stretch and use the long drop house; this is a deep hole, 10 feet or more, in the ground with a wooden building around the outside and you squat on the planks over the hole.  So pockets are emptied before entry because if anything fell down the hole there would be no chance of getting it out!!  This one was clean and there were no flies.

We drove along the A27 would you believe and stopped whenever anyone saw a photo opportunity.  At one point we whizzed past the skeleton of a dead cow.

If there are any animals in the road (there are no fences) then it would appear that the technique was to drive towards them while sounding the horn as loudly as possible; they did move, if a little slowly at times.  Ankhaa said that all these animals were owned by someone and were in effect cash on the hoof – a nomads wealth is animals.

Another stop to refuel and use the long drop.

At one point we passed a group of Mongolian motorcyclists all riding Royal Enfield’s; these were a standard bike in per WW2 Britain and are now made in India.

At around 13:00 hours Wednesday turned off the road, stopped and then it was time for lunch.  A cold salad washed down with water – very nice.

Vanessa took a photograph of the dirt track leading off into the steppe and said “I’ll tell people that’s what we travelled along”.

Although it was meant as a joke, this was exactly what happened as the mini-bus headed out into the middle of nowhere and we bounced along some very rutted tracks passing the occasional ger, but sometimes there was no sign of life for miles.  We headed in the wrong direction on a number of occasions (no sign posts on the steppe) and had to backtrack before setting of again.  At one point Wednesday had to race after a young lad on a motorbike – he couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 (there is no need for a licence on the steppe) and honking to get his attention; once the lad had stopped Wednesday asked the way and the lad set off and we followed.

Shortly after this and as our cross country excursion continued, we drove up a narrow pass and when we reached the crest between the two valleys we stopped in awe of what lay before us.  The view was immense as the valley stretched away for miles with mountains on either side and the plain in the extreme distance, maybe twenty miles away.  The air was crystal clear and once the engine had been switched off not a sound could be heard.

As we proceeded down the valley Wednesday made sudden stop and there right in front of us on the track was a steppe eagle just sat on the ground and looking around.  We tried to get a picture but as soon as we opened the door it took off and soared away – breath-taking.

At the bottom of the valley we came across signs of life as a power line stretched off into the distance, so we followed this until we eventually came across a small town were about 1000 people live.  It was quite orderly with the wooden houses laid out in rows and all the houses were surrounded by a wooden fenced area which was the back yard.  Wide dirt tracks separated the rows of houses and mechanical transport in many forms abounded.

Wood is a very prized resource as there are no trees on the steppe and so it has to be carried from the forests which are on the mountain slopes and could be anything up to 500 miles or more away.

We went into the local store to buy gifts for the lady of the ger where we would be staying – a box of chocolates in my case as Ankhaa had advised us on what were suitable presents.

Any people passing by looked at these strangers.

A grandfather arrived on an electric trike with his four grandsons perched on the two seats behind him and he gave them some money so that they could go into the shop and buy sweets.

The shop was just like any village store in the UK, selling any and everything.

Back into the mini-bus for the last (short) leg of our cross-country excursion, so out of the village up a hill and down the other side – it was a narrow very rutted dirt track and difficult to see how two vehicles would pass, but the drivers managed it.

We had arrived in a long wide river valley 1800 meters above mean sea level (AMSL), so higher than anywhere in the UK, and it had low hills on both sides.  At the western end of the valley and probably five or six miles away was another row of hills and from these two rivers flowed one on either side of the valley towards the eastern end where they joined and exited through a gap where the valley had narrowed.  So water and pasture, just the place to graze animals.


We are staying at a community ger which was erected adjacent to the ger of a nomadic herder.  First was the family’s ger, then two gers where the guests (us) sleep, followed by a ger containing the kitchen and guests dining area, then the ger where the camp organisers stay and finally two more gers for the guests; I am staying in one of these.

Each of the sleeping gers contains four (hard) wooden beds placed around the walls and the bedding is placed on top of each bed, a pillow, sheets and a quilt. The top of the ger is where the chimney from the stove normally sticks out, but as there was no stove in my ger it was open to the sky, but could be covered by pulling over a flap on the outside – I didn’t bother.

Once we had settled in Ankhaa took us to the family ger and introduced us to out hosts – Batborg and his wife Ariunaa.  On entering the ger David and I went to the left as this is the male side and the ladies went to the right as this is the female side.  The stove which also acts as a heater is in the middle of the ger and just forward of the central support and this is refuelled from the ladies side of the ger.  Just inside the door and on the right is the Mongolian equivalent of a Welsh Dresser and this is where all the cooking utensils and food is stored.  At the back of the ger is where the family possessions are stored and depending how religious the family are, this is where the icons and sacred artefacts are displayed.

We gave our gifts to Ariunaa and Vanessa had brought some coloured pens and notebooks which she gave Nonuunaa, their daughter and her two cousins (boys).  Their dad was Batborg’s brother and their ger was just a short distance away.

We were given mare’s cheese (hard) and tea (or black coffee in my case) and Ankhaa answered all our questions about ger life – it was small and compact, with none of the extraneous ‘stuff’ that we would have.  They did have a solar panel for electricity and a satellite dish for their small television and we were told that they could receive up to twenty different channels so were well informed about what was happening in the rest of their country.

Nonuunaa was a tomboy and bossed her cousins around.

Before dinner Vanessa, David and I sat on the riverbank and watched the mares and foals drinking and flicking their tails to brush away the flies – what was interesting was seeing how the dominant mare kept order.  She only had to bare her teeth for the subservient mare to back down.

Munkheresez is a teacher at the local school, but during the holiday’s acted as the camp cook and tonight had cooked a meal of buuz (mutton filled dumplings) and shredded cabbage; this is a typical local dish that could be eaten every day and was simple but very filling.  Far too many dumplings had been made but none went to waste as what was left was given to Ariunaa so that she did not have to produce a meal that evening.

Batborg had killed a lamb earlier in the day and while we were in the family ger he was cutting it up ready to be cooked; Ankhaa explained that slaughtering animals is a male task which females are not allowed to watch.  The skin had been pegged down to the side of the ger and once dry would be used to make clothing, or sold as part of the families cash crop.

There are a number of community gers run by local tour companies so that tourists (travellers) can meet nomadic families and see how they live; some of the money that we have paid to be here goes to the family and some into the local economy by employing people like Munkheresez as cooks.

The two camp organisers normally work in UB for the same firm as Ankhaa, Gailaa is the companies IT Manager and Erdenee is the transport co-ordinator, but during the summer months they move out to the steppe where they do all the work necessary to ensure the guests enjoy their stay.

After dinner we set off to see the library ger being rebuilt as it had blown in the strong winds the night before.  Library gers are provided by the government and are stocked with both Mongolian books as well as those in other languages (lots in English) with these mostly provided by NGO’s; while on the steppe Erdenee also acts as the librarian.  The library gers tend to stay in one place for about three months before being moved to another location and these are highly prized assets in a country where they believe that education is a gift from ‘God’ and the literacy rate is 98%.

It was fascinating to watch the ger being erected by the men (another of their jobs) who came from right across the valley to help, either on their motorbikes or horseback.

The circular lattice work wall was the first thing to go up and then the centre arch followed by the roof supports which run from the centre arch back down to the lattice wall.  This was then covered by a white cotton cloth which acts as the liner, then a felt insulating cover was laid on top, over this went the waterproof covering and finally the white outside covering, with everything held in place by ropes.  The door will always face south no matter where the ger is situated.


When the roofing was being put on and it became difficult to get to the top, Nonuunaa climbed up and pulled everything into place and we were told that this is normal work for the young (light) children.  She is definitely the showman and enjoyed having her photograph taken.

There was a German couple with their two young boys plus an American gent (who Ankhaa knew) and his lady companion watching all the action with us and once it was all completed we gave a round of applause while the men had a cigarette before riding back to their respective gers.

Darkness was falling as we made our way to our gers and then it was time for bed.

It took some time to drop off to sleep on the hard wooden bed, but it was so peaceful as hardly a sound could be heard.