A brief spell of rain has resulted in water logging across the city, and off-peak traffic snarls are worse than usual. Two years on, UB or Ulaanbaatar continues to grapple with infrastructural constraints. But a few things have changed, since SK and I were here last. The venerable Chinggis Khaan International is slated to get a swanky new home in a matter of months. The main highway leading out of the city is undergoing extensive repairs, and all along it, modern apartment blocks are rising, looking astonishingly un-Soviet as they do so. The city center now has a bike share – who would’ve thought? And our US-issued mobile devices finally have data coverage in the country. This time around though, we’re headed out. East of the Capital, to be precise, past Nalaïkh – a town who’s name SK and I derive immense pleasure from – into quintessential Mongolian countryside.
After ninety minutes of driving on mostly bumpy detours, we pull up alongside a Nissan 4×4, transferring our belongings and selves to it, for a half hours worth of some serious off-roading, river crossings et al.Closer to 6 pm, as the light slowly begins to change, we pull up at Puujee‘s totally secluded and completely stunning Ger camp. After a cup of tea at the communal gazebo, SK, JB, DG and I head out into the steppe, retracing the path we came in on. We have Mersii accompanying us, who’s one of two highland canines that reside at the camp with Puujee‘s family. His mother, Balto, strayed from camp two days ago, and much to everyone’s dismay, has been missing since. Mersii leaves our side from time to time, hoping to catch a scent.Back at camp, we make acquaintances with a Dutch family, and a Silicon Valley veteran, the only other occupants of the five gers or yurts on Puujee‘s property. It doesn’t get old, a beaming Pamela informs us, and she’s already half way through her three-week stay. Niels and family are here for just under a week, and loving every bit of it. The four of us, meanwhile, only wish we could stay longer. Puujee announces dinner, and we all make our way into the mess tent for a meal of Nogootoi Shol, a staple stew of veggies and meat.Well past dinner, with several bottles of Golden Gobi to keep them going, SK, JB and DG are deep in conversation, while I go outside to investigate what the commotion is about. Balto, bless her, has found her way back to camp, and a warm welcome from Puujee and his family. The girls, meanwhile, are headed off for their evening horseback jaunt.And just like that, day one of our two-week adventure draws to a close, in the most unexpected of settings. Then, its candles out.I awake a little past 1 in the morning to answer nature’s call. Stepping outside our cozy ger, the chill is more than apparent. But even more striking is what lies above me – the milky way through my naked eye.
Hours later, with jet lag playing its part, SK, JB and I are up. Mustering up the courage, we hike up a little hill and await sunrise, which at 4:54 am is ridiculously early in this part of the world, at this time of the year. The first rays begin to light up the valley below, allowing us to appreciate even more the remoteness of our ger camp, the sheer magnificence of the steppe, and the life that springs from it each summer. We have our second night in Mongolia already booked at the Ramada in UB, and a decent enough shower awaits once we’re back in the city. But I’m eager to try the more rustic version here, and Puujee’s nephews – both of whom are spending their summer break at the camp – oblige. To heat the outhouse, they get the wood-burning stove going first, then add solar-heated water into the little tank from above. When the temperature is just so, one of the boys calls to me, “shawaa red-eey”.
Back at the gazebo, I regale my fellow campers by describing the soul enriching experience I just had, convincing at least a few of them to partake in the same. At breakfast, a more conventional western spread of scrambled eggs and fruit is followed by some highly addictive Gambir, excellent homemade preserves, and delicious sheeps milk yogurt. Plenty of flatbread is eventually consumed. Conversations flow effortlessly. And yet again, the four of us lament not having planned a longer stay.Next, we saddle up, and await our turn with Puujee, the master equestrian. Unlike Pamela, we’re all novices in the horse riding department, and our collective anxiety is palpable. But Puujee offers the least intimidating set of instructions, assuring us all the while that the stud he’s picked is entirely gentle. He gestures towards an open canvas – the most beautiful one can imagine – and there’s little else to do, but ride into it.
Goodbyes are never easy, this one even less so. Despite our short time here, we’ve managed to cement a bond with the place, and the people who shared it with us; newly acquired friends who feel like family. And that sure as hell feels very special. Headed back to urbanity, and the promise of many an exciting journey ahead, a small part of us will likely remain, reveling in the magic of the Mongolian steppe…