You won’t make it. We heard this statement every time we told the Mongols our intention to hitchhike somewhere. The basis for hitchhiking in Mongolia is to have a backup plan in case you really can’t find anybody to give you a ride. So we had one. If nobody takes us, we will walk 70 kilometres to the mountain monastery on foot.
After breakfast at Gaya´s, we head towards the valley, where we hope to find the most cars, especially tourists, who pay for a trip to the Tovkhon Monastery or the Orkhon Waterfall. The first problem that a hitchhiker in Mongolia has to face is where to stand. In the local steppe, drivers are trying to find the most comfortable path by the trial-error method. If they don’t like the road they’re on, they’ll simply create a new one a few yards away. And so it happens that the road from point A to point B has eight lines and is over 200 meters wide.
A cat for lunch
The first, though only partial success, arrived soon. A French couple whom we met at breakfast took us to the back of a small truck. They are going hiking with local people, and because they knew about our plans, they gave us a lift by at least 10 kilometres. Still much closer to our destination. The wind is pleasantly blowing, but the sounds of a cat crying in a bag in front of us are not that pleasant. When the driver stops in the middle of the pasture to force his herd of sheep and goats to the right direction, he just smiles at us, points to the bag and says, “Miaaau.” We are exchanging uncertain glimpses with the French, nor do they know what the cat is for. So we just wish them to enjoy their lunch and continue on our own.
Jeep called Murphy
As for the traffic, it is not very heavy in Mongolia. As for hitchhikers, they are also a rarity. For this reason, all local people, even those who go in the opposite direction, stop. The disadvantage is that most of them ride on a motorbike or cannot find a place in the car. It does not take long until we stop another tourists. This time, a Swiss couple, Sandra and Michel, who left Europe in their Jeep Murphy, drove all the way here and continue through China to Southeast Asia. At first, it looks like they take just me, instead of the rear seats they have a bed, but finally, Sandra and I both fit to the bed and Dom sits to the front. In a weird position, we drive on a rough, stony road for four hours, after which I have almost blocked my neck and I pity Sandra, who has voluntarily undergone this. Sandra and Michel head for the waterfall, not for the monastery, so as the evening approaches, we leave to settle near the village of Bat-Ulzii, where we spend the night and continue to the monastery the next day.
Milk vodka, horse milk
First, we need to cross a river flowing between us and the village. A willing shepherd from a nearby yurt helped us with this task. He had seen us from afar, stumbled across the rocks, took my backpack, and waited for us to get to the other side. Then he seated me on a motorbike, and with his four-year-old niece, he brought us to the yurt. Dom has to come on his own. Only in the yurt we realize that our saviour is drunk and cheerfully offers us to join him.
So, for the first time, we meet the Mongolian speciality, milk vodka. It was served to us in a dirty glass, with the remains of old food still stuck to it. After a sip, we know that this won’t be our favourite drink. In order not to hurt our host’s feelings, we sip a bit more of the beverage which taste can be compared only to vomit. Fortunately, in addition to vodka, we have received sour fermented horse milk, which, despite its origins, tastes much better.
Our communication with the inhabitants of the yurt imitates a conversation between the deaf and the blind. After a while, we are able to explain where we are from and where we are going. Just before leaving, we notice that another drunkard is sleeping on the floor, but he gives little attention to us, rolls to the other side and sleeps on. However, our host doesn’t want us to leave. For a goodbye, he requires not only a hug but also a kiss. At that moment, Dom begins to feel uncomfortable too and strikes vigorously. The drunkard follows us for a dozen meters until he finally gives up. From the distance, we wave goodbye to his little niece and continue to the village.
In occasions when we don’t share a common language with the locals, we are grateful for a few international words that are used all around the world. One such word is “hotel”. Everyone we meet gladly points to the direction of the accommodation until one villager takes us there on his motorbike. The owner of the hotel shows us to the room, to our requests for a toilet she points in the direction of pit toilets in the backyard and just shakes her head when asked about the shower. We pay for the room to the motorbike man and leave to find a place where we can have dinner. In vain, everything closes at six o’clock in the evening. So the owner of the hotel offers to cook a dinner for us – a pile of meat with a pile of rice and a pile of potatoes.
It was brought to our room by her children, who then fought at the door, who would come to ask for the money. We have guessed it by hearing them repeat the word “money”. Money is probably the first foreign word that Mongols learn at school. I release them from their suffering and pay for the dinner. There is so much food that we keep the rice for breakfast.
Tourist = good money
In the morning, we are determined to leave early to increase our chances for hitchhiking, but we are betrayed by local shops where we need to buy water. They do not open until 9 am. In the meantime, we are forced to sit in the village, where the locals can’t get their eyes off us. We wonder if we should make at least a pirouette, maybe we would receive an applause.
Finally, we buy water and walk to the end of the village to wait for the first car which would take us. We don’t expect anyone to go the monastery, but perhaps somebody will take us closer to it. Once again, we are given a ride in the back of a truck. We get off at a bridge, where our paths are divided and have to decide whether we should hitchhike again (the chances that anyone will drive our way are minimal) or we walk 18 kilometres on foot.
Before we hit the road, the owner of the hotel arrives on a motorbike and demands money for the room. We realize it quite easily – she spreads her hands and screams “hotel” and “money”. We try to tell her in disbelief that we already paid for the hotel to the guy who brought us there, she saw it herself. From her gesticulation, however, we realize that there is something wrong, and if we refuse to pay it, madam will call the police. Fortunately, a car with tourists passes by with a guide that can speak English. After a moment of arguing, he tells us that the man had nothing to do with the hotel, and he accepted the money as a reward for bringing us to the hotel. I tap my forehead and don’t believe my own ears. The owner, fortunately, knows this man and calls him. We are free to go.
Fart and stink
Again, we walk through an endless steppe, past the herds of sheep, goats and cows. After a couple of kilometres, a ten-year-old girl riding a horse offers us a ride to the monastery. Only the price is again too high, so we reject with a smile and continue.
The clouds come in the afternoon and it starts to rain. We quickly build a tent as a shelter, cook lunch, and because it is still drizzling, take a nap. We are wakened up by the sound of a passing motorbike. We pack the tent and go on. In the distance, we finally see some yurts, the owner of one of them drives to us on a motorbike and offers a place to sleep. The wind rises and it looks like another rain will come soon. When the Mongol assures us that we can’t sleep at the monastery, we agree to his offer. We come to the yurt that his wife is quickly cleaning and where two children are playing around.
Inside, the fire burns and the children explore all our belongings. They play with pencils and paper we give them for a while, but then they start to be interested in the camera and mobile phones. Despite living in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, they are no strangers to smartphones. Even after dinner we can’t get rid of the kids, we’d like to go to bed, but they’re still running around, rushing through our stuff, farting and stinking. When their mom finally calls the night, it’s almost dark.
We leave early in the morning. The surrounding yurts are still asleep and the weather looks uncertainly. After about an hour it starts to drizzle and even rain. Dom didn’t sleep very good at night, the cold still troubles him, and the hike in the mud and rain isn’t helping. We are considering going back for a while, but after three hours of heavy rain, we finally reach the Tovkhon Monastery.
Temple in the mountains
The Buddhist temple is built on a hill in the middle of rocks, like most of the Buddhist buildings. The monks who live here are dependent on help from the Mongols who come to cook for them. That is why three yurts are built nearby the monastery. This means two things for us – a shelter from the constant rain and a fire to get dry.
The family inside the yurt greets us with a smile and offers the food they are just cooking. We eat the meat and vegetable noodles with our hands and return the bowl completely clean. As soon as one meal is cooked, they begin to prepare another. This is what the entire four hours we spent with them looked like. We tasted a lot of candies, tea and sweet rice with candied fruit. When the family came out of cutlery, one of the chefs took a piece of wood from which she skillfully made small spoons in a minute.
When we finally got warm, it was time to figure out what to do next. Our original plan was to get from the monastery to the waterfall and then continue by the southern road to the west. But in this rainy weather and with Dom´s cold, we have to change it. The question is how we get back to Kharkhorin. At first, we try to make arrangements with the yurt residents and ask if they could take us to the town, but they want a lot of money, and they would be willing to go there only the next day. That’s why we’re calling to Gaya and ask for a lift. The advantage is that her driver will come today, the disadvantage that it will cost the same. We don’t have a choice, the weather doesn’t seem to get better, and Dom is still coughing. So, we order the pickup and we only have to wait now. The family makes fun of us that we will have to stay there until tomorrow. We are trying to explain that everything is settled and in a few hours, we will be in Kharkhorin. But in vain.
When the phone announces that the driver is waiting for us under the hill, I’m just being a part of a manufactory for making Mongolian meat dumplings – buzzes. I started at the packing position, from which I was degraded in a while to dough making. We won´t try my dumplings, but we are happy to be stumbling down the hill. To our anger, the clouds just began to tear. The driver is waiting for us, it is too late to change our mind, we will visit the waterfall next time. Our trip didn’t work out as planned, but its change brought us another unforgettable experience.