At what point does the hassle of getting somewhere make it not even worth trying to get there at all?
In Mongolia, most destinations are worth the effort because it’s the only way to see what the country has to offer. The country is vast, nearly the size of Alaska, and while flying is an option for about half the country’s provincial centers, it almost never gets you to the natural wonders and attractions. So unless you have a private helicopter, there is simply no other way around the long and nauseating hours on buses, cars or horseback. It’s what makes visiting Mongolia so unique but by that same virtue, a very challenging destination for some.
I personally have no idea how I made it in this country given my propensity to motion sickness and impatience for all things. I remember during Pre-Service Training, one of the trainers was telling us that her site was eight hours from the capital city and that she’d clocked in eight of these one-way trips in just a couple of months. Four round trips. 64 hours!? Naive trainee that I was, I gawked and couldn’t believe it.
How in the world do you get through those bus rides? I asked.
Well, for one, my Kindle. But also, you learn to go to your happy place.
The happy place. I thought it was all myth and legend until the last half of my service. I was making trips to Ulaanbaatar every 4-6 weeks for work, R&R, or holiday. While I’m usually a pretty good sleeper on long rides, if enough hours go by, not even sleep can save me. In those moments, it’s all about the happy place.
The happy place is a sort of meditative state. You close your eyes and try to stop thinking or alternatively, think so much you forget where you are. Aided with ear plugs, a neck pillow and a scarf around your eyes, the happy place is a place of magic. It got me through hot and sticky bus rides during the summer, a never-ending loop of Mongolian folk songs blaring through the speakers, crying babies, a dead phone, and unpleasant off-roading.
So with a solid year of happy place practice, I figured I’d be okay on a two week trip to the Gobi desert and Khuvsgul Lake this past summer.
I’d be in a moving vehicle for nine out of the fourteen days.
The trip began with the standard ride from my site to Ulaanbaatar, the main and arguably the only transit hub of the country. (Total drive time: 8 hours)
After a few R&R days in Ulaanbaatar, we took a comfortable and air-conditioned bus ride to the southernmost province of Mongolia. (10 hours)
The next day, we met our private driver and his van at 8AM to start a 3 day/2 night itinerary visiting all the major sights in the Gobi desert. We started with some canyons and hikes that were all about an hour or two apart. In the afternoon, our driver drove towards the horizon and somehow, brought us to correct ger camp in front of the Singing Dunes. (I’d say total drive time was about 8 hours)
On day two, we drove to a watering hole, a natural spring and the dunes. (2 hours)
One the way back to Dalanzadgad, we stopped by the Flaming Cliffs and also saw some ancient stone carvings. (7.5)
Back on the bus for the ride to Ulaanbaatar (10 hours)
Gobi trip: 45.5 hours of drive time for the first seven days
The Gobi, while beautiful, zapped the last reserves I had for tolerating long and bumpy rides. Thankfully, traveling up to Huvsgul Lake wasn’t nearly as arduous as going to the Gobi, thanks to my parents and their generous moolah.
The day I returned from the Gobi desert, my parents landed in Mongolia and I met them at the hotel. We spent two nights in UB seeing some sights and enjoying the food. I told my parents to load up on fruits and vegetables because come tomorrow, it would be meat and carbs for days.
The bus ride to Huvsgul aimag center in the very north of the country is an overnight 14-hour trip. Neither my parents nor I were ready for that so we flew on one of the two domestic airlines, Hunnu Air. It was comfortable, quick and offered great views of the countryside. We landed in Murun and met with my friend, Lhama, who had arranged for her friend to drive us to the lake in his car. I should have known better that it wouldn’t be a quick and painless ride on paved road all the way to our ger camp. Don’t believe the guide books, people! From Khatgal to the ger camp strip, it’s Grade-A Unpaved Mongolian Rocky Road.
The lake itself was very beautiful. Huvsgul Lake is a massive, crystal blue lake surrounded by balding mountains and evergreen forests. Mongolians even refer to it as the Ocean. My parents and I spent our days lounging in the ger or riding horses (I finally learned how to control the horse by myself!!! and even felt comfortable enough to chou the horse to a gallop). The nights were cool enough to justify a stove fire and we ate Mongolian food every meal. My mom would only eat the khushuur but my dad liked it all. Also, it was later confirmed to me that the incredibly salty tsuivan we had for dinner once is not uncommon in Huvsgul province and unfortunately, I was not a fan.
The return to UB was the same as the way we came – two hour ride in a tiny car on unpaved and paved road, 1.5 hour flight, 30 minute taxi ride to the hotel.
Huvsgul trip: 8 hours of drive/fly time for the last seven days. Not too bad given that it could’ve been 32 hours.
I enjoyed showing my parents the country and culture I’ve lived in for the last two years. And being able to show off my Mongolian and spend a week operating in three languages was a highlight as well – I felt very smart.
In summary, Mongolia is a destination that will burn through your perseverance before your wallet. You’ll have to put in a lot of tiring hours and a vomit or two, but in exchange, you will get to enjoy the sights without having to fight off swarms of other tourists. You’ll see some incredible vistas of the natural world; you will look out into the horizon and realize you’re the only human as far as the eye can see. So here’s my advice for traveling in Mongolia: bring good companions, pack anti-sickness meds, and start building that door to your happy place.
Photo credits: Kyra Lyndstrom, Caleb LaRue, Sally LaRue, Lexa Perrian, and me