The last days at the country side of Mongolia we spent at the most beautiful places. We visited the red cliffs just when the sun set, we camped next to a river on a wide open space and we slept next to a lake in a valley. The last days were the heaviest, because we all weren't feeling too well. My allergic reaction to the mosquito bites made it so that my blood couldn't flow freely anymore. But we had just started the part of our trip where there was no phone connection and no other type of transport than a horse and it would take us at least three days to get to the next village. And so we started our trip.

We walked for hours and after arriving at the lake we all just jumped in with our clothes, because we couldn't be bothered to put on our swimsuits because it was so hot. And in the evening we set up our tent and we roasted marshmallows around the bonfire. We walked through big piles of rocks and were greeted by yaks, we rode horses over steef cliffs and we were shown the best place on top of a mountain by five little nomad girls. The girls were dirty from all the sand and water and had scratches on their faces and knees. Because they didn't sit inside watching TV, since they were too busy jumping in rivers and playing hide and seek behind the animals. And then when we left, those girls just stayed there, in a country so different from what I am used to, so harsh and yet so beautiful, so uncultivated and yet so accessible for the people that live there. Far from what we'd say is the normal world. And I decided that for some it could be nightmare, but for the ones that don't mind to get dirty, it could be close to heaven on earth.

Mongolian pride

On the 29th of July we stayed at yet another family. We were welcomed into their main ger with milk tea and aaruul. While we sat there, resting from the long ride we had, the head of the family continued eating his lunch. We'd had a lot of mutton the past few days, but I couldn't seem to get used to the taste or the smell. A Mongolian man told me that it was the "number one meat" for them and the last family we stayed at was so happy for us to be there that they welcomed us with a freshly slaughtered goat's head. The plate in this family's ger didn't contain a head, but merely organs; grey, dry pieces of brain, spongy lungs and a heart that stopped beating a while ago. The head of the family asked if we wanted a piece, but it was really about that time to say no. I have eaten chicken blood, chicken toes, snake, dog saté, insect and many other things, but Mongolian mutton is really something else. The smell of it was in the beds, in the clothes, on the ground, in the air and I even got the feeling that I started smelling like it after not being able to shower for so long. And it was only going to get worse that evening.

Because we were staying at a family that was known for their well-trained camels. They had won multiple races at prestigious events and I think that outside of our ger there were at least fifty of them just walking around unleashed. It was the first time for me riding a camel and they were much bigger than I expected. The first time getting up was scary, because sitting in the middle I could only hold on to it's humps, but after it was pretty comfortable. We walked around and just as I started to trust the camels, they started playing. They'd bump into each other or walk over little hills - so that you'd get the rollercoaster-effect - or they would turn their heads to lick your hands. And then, because we weren't dirty enough already, they started sneezing on us. I was lucky, because mine would only sneeze on other people, so I think I had the most fun of all of us. 

Just before sunset we went to see the sand dunes and even though I never got to the top, the view was lovely. The wind was very strong and every step you'd take to go up, would bring you half a step down. The desert was hot - it was at around 40 degrees celsius - and we were all sweating. It felt like quicksand and it was one of the hardest things my father had ever done he said, so when we came back to our ger we fell asleep in a second.

We woke up early the next day, because we were lucky enough to be able to attend the Naadam Festival, which was held two weeks later than normal, because it was also the anniversary of the city. It's the pride of every city and it was sort of a small Olympics for traditional Mongolian sports. There were horse races, wrestlers, archers, dancers, musicians and there was a sport called shagai, which is played by flicking sheep knucklebones with your bare fingers. Everyone was wearing their traditional costume and people were very busy exchanging their snuff, which is kept in a bottle made out of certain rocks, that you're supposed to sniff when you are someone's friend. It's one of the most valuable things for Mongolians to have and I've been told that one bottle could cost you up to $15.000. I too sniffed some snuff and there's many rules to it before you can actually snuff it. I can't precisely recall them, but it meant holding the bottle with a certain hand, your other hand placed on the elbow, lifting the top and putting it back on without closing the bottle, and so on. There are many customs in Mongolia and they are really proud of their country, their history and their ancestors. They expect you to respect their customs, but respect you for not knowing about them, as long as you wish to learn. Nationalism in a friendly way; being proud of who you are and where you came from, without judging people that come from another place. 

And that night I woke up from the smell of mutton and camel in the ger. I felt dirty, I wanted to shower and for a second I wished to be home, where I could sleep in a soft bed and smell the scent of clean bedding, eat whatever I wish to eat and put on some fresh clothes. But then I look to the ceiling, which has a hole in it, for us to see the stars. The door is left open and I can hear the sounds of the camels guarding our ger and the wind playing with the sand of the desert and I realize that if I wish to visit a country that has not yet been customized to Western standards, I will have to learn about and adjust to the customs and lifestyle of Mongolia. And though we might not fully agree on the number one meat and the use of showering, we will both agree that there are many reasons for Mongolians to be proud of the country they come from. 


 Being on the road has always been the most exciting part of traveling for me. Drinking beers on the overnight train to Surat Thani, daydreaming in the bus to Laos and tanning on the boat back to Bali. It eases my mind and allows me to think of things that I normally feel too busy for. The 10-hour drive on the first day of our adventure was supposed to be a complete nightmare - that's what I've heard - but instead it was amazing. The van was a real muscle machine and drove us over bumpy pieces of land, rocks and mountains. It was a Russian van without electricity, because electricity increased the chance of defects during our trip. We were going to drive from Central Mongolia all the way to the Gobi Desert and then back up north to Karakorum and on the way there would only be a couple of small cities where we would be able to fix the car. That means that most of the time we would be in the middle of nowhere, looking out over big wide landscapes with no one to be found. Because of this we also took food with us, which the interpreter would prepare for us. Every now and then we'd stop in front of a small market square, where vendors would have a dead sheep or goat in the back of their open trunk, and buy a piece of juicy mutton leg.

The first night of our trip we spent in a ger surrounded by goats. Most of them alive, some dead and some eaten; their skin being all that was left of them. It's customary in Mongolia to leave something that is dead out in the open. And even though it was strange in the beginning and to us it would be something that is disrespectful, it is in fact the opposite. Mongolians respect the earth in a way I haven't seen anyone else do and they really try their best not to interrupt te cycle of life.  They don't wash anything in the rivers, because they believe that it's important for the river to be able to clean itself, and therefore they shouldn't pollute it. They hardly plant any trees and plants, because the earth shouldn't be destroyed. And they believe something that I wish would become a more common belief: that the earth belongs to no one, and so it belongs to everyone. You can't buy any land on the countryside, but you are free to go wherever and whenever you please, because no money is equivalent to the true freedom that Mongolians have. Their lifestyle is difficult, mostly for a girl like me that grew up in a country that we'd say is wealthier, but they are rich in a way that may actually be more fulfilling and sustainable than what I am used to. When my father asked a Mongolian girl how you could see whether someone is rich or not, she answered that you can't. They may have more animals, but they only buy as much food as they need and they don't wear expensive clothes. The nomadic lifestyle allows you to only have so many possessions, because every time you move you need to take those with you. And so they end up owning things, instead of things owning them.

And it made sense to me, because I always say that I don't need more than what fits in my bags because eventually I will leave for another country again and I will leave everything else behind. But even though I agreed with the lifestyle, I couldn't adapt so easily. Not being able to shower after a day of sweating and being touched by animals, eating mutton twice a day and sleeping on the ground was hard for me. And all the flies that were circling around my head were just annoying, but the mosquitoes made my legs swell and very soon I understood that these were the ones I was allergic to. But the landscape was pretty - valleys filled with purple flowers, the highest cliffs I've ever seen made out of red rocks - and the nights were beautiful, the black sky filled with millions of stars and the thought of the fact that our tent could at any time be surrounded by wolves made me feel like a little child; uncomfortable but excited. And that's what I'd say those days were like. Uncomfortable, but exciting, and it filled me with expectations of what was yet to come. And what's more exciting than living like a nomad, if being on the road is the most exciting part of traveling?

Gers on the roof

After waiting for 15 hours on Sheremetyevo International Airport and a 10-hour flight, my father, my brother and I arrived in the country of Genghis Khan. In the socialist period the gers of the Mongolian nomads were replaced by Soviet-like buildings and even though I had seen pictures of the city, the city was not at all what I expected it to be. Because Mongolia is an Asian country I imagined it to have a certain feeling to it; one that I can't fully explain, but one that I always experience when I am in Asian capitals. Overwhelming, cozy, lively and with a strong smell of Asian spices and nature. We drove towards the center of the city and instead of being stuck in traffic, we hardly saw any cars and it felt like as if we entered Call Of Duty's Nuke Town. We passed multiple power plants and abandoned buildings and with every breath I took I felt my lungs being polluted. The city smelled like chemical waste and later I found out that the smell came from the coal-fired power plants and the heaters that keep the gers of the citizens warm. 

We stayed at a guesthouse on a hill with gers on the roof. The rooms were spacy, but not in any way luxurious. The wallpapers were duct taped together, the beds contained bodily fluids and hairs from the previous tourists and there were random holes in the walls of the bathroom. But I came prepared, I didn't at all inspect it to be luxurious and that was actually a reason why I really wanted to go to Mongolia. To be away from Western society, to experience what it would be like to live like a nomad, or even experience a little piece of that lifestyle. So I knew that this was really just a pleasant beginning; I knew that the next coming weeks I was going to sleep on the ground and there sure wasn't going to be a bathroom in the Gobi desert. We were going to travel around in a Russian van without electricity, with a driver and an interpreter. Close to the city there are roads, but once you enter the countryside there are merely paths to show you the way. During the trip there was going to be one possibility to shower (on day 6), what meant that for the rest of the days we were going to have to soak in our own sweat. So I enjoyed the shower and it's holes in the walls and I slept like a baby on the bed that was as clean as it was soft. 

The next two days we wandered around Ulaanbataar. The mornings were cold, but during the day it would get really hot and I was able to walk around in tank tops and flipflops. The people seemed nice and humble; not many of them could speak English, but when we were lost a woman walked us all the way to the place where we had to be, just because she was scared we wouldn't be able to find it if she didn't. We visited the monastery, we had some not so tasty food and we went to see the Black Market. The market was crowded and what was interesting was that the vendors weren't pushy at all, something that you experience a lot in other Asian countries. There was sand and dust everywhere and you could buy everything from an army outfit to a horsewhip. 

We took the bus to the hotel and I had the chance to have a last look at the city before leaving for the countryside in the morning. As we drove past the lifeless buildings I thought about the people that lived there and about what would be going on behind closed doors. I felt like I didn't really find the soul of the city yet, but it did make a big impression on me. I was excited to see the countryside and I was looking forward to breathing in fresh air. And even though we all felt like that, the next morning we woke up at 9:11, while we were going to be picked up at 9:00. We packed our backpacks in less than 5 minutes and ran outside, but once we arrived there was no one there. We walked around for a little while and then a van came our way. We got in, sat down facing the trunk of the car and closed the door. This was the beginning of an adventure we'd never forget..