Last year around this time my boyfriend and I sealed the deal in a field surrounded by friends and family in an epic weekend celebration. A few days later we scurried back to work and decided to save for a big honeymoon adventure. The ideas floated around for many months until we landed on a destination that felt right. Mongolia.
Why Mongolia? Why not! Work has already taken me to a lot of unsuspecting places. Somehow I’ve found myself here, here, and here, but Mongolia? Nope, I couldn’t even dream that one up. This alone is enough reason to visit, right?
Here’s more on our epic vacation I like to call, Honeymoongolia 2016:
We flew 14 hours direct from Boston to Beijing with Hainan Airlines. Two words: coconut juice. Don’t miss it. We spent the night near the Beijing Railway Station and departed the next morning for a 28-hour journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
It was long and boring and beautiful. We watched cities disappear and turn to open land, sprinkled with gers and horses. Don’t forget your Cup of Noodles though. Despite an expensive dining cart, breakfast at sunrise and stealing a few first glances at Mongolia’s countryside over tea was something out of a dream, or it was jet-lag.
We stretched our legs over a day and a half in the capital city, Ulan Bator, before flying two-hours to Olgii. Our plane made an unexpected stop to drop a few people off, as I’ve read happens from time to time.
After meeting Bek, who helped plan our trip, of Back to Bek Travel, and dining on what people say is the only “good restaurant” for tourists in Olgii (Pumakkale), we departed with our driver, cook, and tour guide, Khala Jonekey, to the Altai Mountains. It’s a place where Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan all come together. When the road stopped after six hours, we spent some time with a Tuvanian nomadic family and slept overnight in one of their gers. I drank fermented mare’s milk, ate their cheese and reveled in their butter. I'm pretty sure they mostly consume dairy so naturally I was in heaven. We used their horses and camel for a few days to reach base camp and hike. When we got there, I could hear water running down Potanin Glacier. We left by horse early the next morning to reach the bottom of Malchin Peak and then hiked more than 4,000 meters to the top, where the air was thin and the snow was crisp.
When it was time to descend back down, the Tuvanian guide suggested we slide down the snow. It was faster and I have to venture a guess he also knew it would be way more fun. And it was. I had this wild uncontrollable laughter I only get when riding roller coasters. It ended quickly though. The sounds of melting snow beneath the surface grew louder the further we descended. Riding an avalanche wasn't part of the plan.
We returned the way we came, but not before spending some time with a nomadic eagle hunting family. The grandmother invited us into the family’s ger where we ate lamb together by a small light on a buggy evening outside the small town of Sagsai. Our driver, Mr. Muso, listened to the radio, while Khala and Jon talked about eating customs, and I got lost in thought about how people live. It reminded me why I'm studying journalism not just to learn how to write and tell stories better, but because I like observing people and how they live.
Before flying back to the capital, we shared a final meal with Khala and remarked on how fortunate we were to travel with good people. It was in part due to Bek, who does not get enough praise online for his company, but it was mostly because of Khala. The pictures are beautiful no doubt, but they won’t be able to capture the long talks with her from Kazakh Mongolian life to the dating scene in Olgii. We were lucky to be with good people and to have Khala as our guide.
We returned to Ulan Bator in a daze and spent the next few days trying not to believe that the best was behind us. I read that the capital was a place not worth exploring, and I get it. Compared to snow-capped mountains, camels, horses, and the vast expanse of open land that begs life contemplation - it is no comparison. But a city in a nomadic country that holds some highly coveted natural resources was interesting in itself. Buildings stood half finished, high-end retail stores catered to new mining wealth, and gers sprawled around the outskirts housing people with big city dreams.
Between some fun dining experiences, namely a hidden North Korean restaurant, and shopping for Mongolian cashmere, we took a day trip to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park to see a man on a horse (not just any man, Ghenghis Khan, and not just any horse statue, the largest in the world!). We even journeyed to a Budhhist monastery sitting atop some beautiful hills lined with wildflowers. A nun gave me a little chocolate before eating one herself, and it made me all giddy with delight. By then I was just running high on life.
Every turn was a surprise which left me with this continuous feeling of gratitude. One thing became evidently clear in those two weeks (and six years), I have found someone in life who I want to share these wild adventures with.
Stay tuned because I haven’t even scratched the surface of Beijing yet.