Last Days of Mongolia


This was it. The last night camping in the freezing cold, last night photos of the Gobi Desert, last pot of buckwheat cooked on my camping stove.

Last cuddle under two puffy sleeping bags. Last morning sunlight through the thin tent walls. Last warmth, last hot cup of coffee.

Patrick Watson played on my little speaker for the last time as the sunrays warmed my face. Last kiss in the morning sunlight.

I listened to the wind and the piano, thought about where I was… somewhere in the Gobi Desert, and I felt like my life was just a fantasy, or a novel. But it was so real.

You see, it’s not just Mongolia. I’ve been living like this for almost 12 years, sometimes more intense, sometimes less, sometimes stopping to play the job game or to write a blog, sometimes backpacking for months, or years, living on a boat, in a car, a hammock, wherever. I wrote out the details of this past month just to give you an example of how you can travel with little money, but the best part of the experience is something that I could never describe or explain in words or pictures.

I looked back at this last adventure- meeting Felix, hitching from Russia to Ulaanbaatar, hitching to Lake Khuvsgul, getting invited to yurts, homes and apartments; adopting a kid and a dog for a night, camping in a snowstorm. Being taken into a family, riding a horse and a motorcycle, climbing a sacred mountain, sleeping in a family yurt. The dead sheep van, the overnight train, camping in Ulaanbaatar; hitching a ride to and from Gorkhi Terelj National Park, camping in the boulders, feeding camels, meeting friends. Hitching to the Gobi, camping in the Khongor Sand Dunes; the wind, the cold, the sand, the stars, the sunrise on the frozen lake. Seeing ice fields in the Yolin Am Canyon, Mukhar Shivert and White Stupa. All of this for roughly $300 :).

But you could never buy such an adventure because the best and most important part of it is priceless- it was Felix, it was Uncle, Buddy, Thunder, Javkhlan, Gorkhi Terelj driver friend, and everyone else whose name we can’t pronounce or remember :). It was every smile and every laugh, every deep conversation we had, every wordless act of kindness from a stranger. Every trade-free interaction made on a true human to human level, that made us not just think, but truly feel and understand that we are all one human family. That’s what money can never buy.

We packed up our tent for the last time, walked back onto the road by 2pm, and hitched a lift to Mandalgovi. We were picked up by a poor family with a 4-year-old girl. We gave her some stickers and she was so happy :).

We caught three more lifts, ran out of gas in the last ride but pushed the car to a petrol station and made it to Ulaanbaatar by 10pm. We took a local bus ($0.20) to a hostel ($8) and spent the night there. In the morning, I took off to the Dragon Bus Station. I took a bus from Ulaanbaatar to Altanbulag ($6.30), which is the town at the main border of Mongolia and Russia. I got out of the bus, walked to the border and then asked someone to give me a lift to Russia. You cannot cross the border by foot, so it is a standard procedure that drivers ask for money to bring people across. I paid 100 rubles (about $1.50).

I had no idea where I would sleep that night and this time I was alone, it was about -25°C outside, and it was dark by the time we crossed the border. Lucky for me, there were three ladies in this vehicle and one of them offered me accommodation just across the border for 150 rubles (less than $3). The accommodation was the floor of a grandma and grandpa’s old soviet apartment, but it was warm and they even gave me some sweet milk tea and a homemade pastry.

I slept well and left their apartment early in the morning; walked to a café, had breakfast ($2.50), then walked to the main highway to hitch a lift towards Irkutsk (560km away).

I walked down the road for almost two hours before someone stopped. A small truck pulled over and a nice little man gave me a lift all the way to the outskirts of Irkutsk. From there, I found a local bus to the city center and then walked to the apartment I was renting. I paid rent the next day and told the landlord that I’ll move out in one month.

Then I finished the climate change book, finished this blog, and told my friends I was leaving.

A wave of emotions ran through me, a bit of sadness. I sat and thought for a while.
It was something about the cold.

-35° in Irkutsk. About the same in Ulaanbaatar. Plus wind. Interesting fact, Fahrenheit and Celsius meet at -40°.

I thought about our winter camping experience. I got to feel the cold. The real, down-to-the-bone cold, the kind you can’t escape when all you have for shelter is a tent. It was harsh sometimes. But for me, it was all just play pretend. Sleep in a tent when it’s -20°, sure, but I have 3 warm jackets, 2 sleeping bags and a cute Canadian guy to keep me warm :). Too cold? Pay $4 to sleep in a yurt, no problem, then go back to your warm apartment.

But some people can’t pay $4 because they don’t have $4. I saw many homeless people in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, searching for food in frozen trash bins, sleeping on the street, begging for money, in a place where it gets down to -40 degrees. I think it’s hard to understand how cold that is unless you feel it for yourself. And it’s hard to imagine what living in real poverty is like, but poverty in the world’s coldest cities is on a whole other level.

Ulaanbaatar hosts almost half of Mongolia’s population, about 20% of which has arrived in the last 3 decades. Many people have immigrated to Ulaanbaatar after natural disasters, like cold spells called dzud, wiped out their herd animals and destroyed their nomadic lifestyle. These cold spells kill millions of herd animals and have been getting more frequent in recent years. Once such a disaster occurs, the people have little choice but to pick up their yurt and move to Ulaanbaatar in search for work [Source].

Imagine growing up as a simple sheep herder, then having your herd and your lifestyle destroyed, being forced to move to an overcrowded, extremely polluted city ghetto, not being able to cope, or to find a job. You’re destroyed psychologically. There’s no social support, no help from the city dwellers. One day you find a bottle of vodka or some petrol to sniff. Escape, feel warmth, feel better. Next thing you know, you’re out on the street. No pity, no warmth, no food in the trash.

Next time you see such a person, remember that it could have been you. Had you been born in the wrong country, to the wrong family, had you stumbled upon the wrong situation.

Had you just been that unlucky.

Day 26: White Stupa, Mongolia


Day 26: Our Mongolian adventure was coming to an end. My 30 day tourist visa was soon to expire so I had to get to the Russian-Mongolian border asap. I could have extended the visa in Ulaanbaatar, but I felt like I left too much unfinished business back in Irkutsk, Russia (where I was living). -Pay rent, finish proofreading my friend’s book on climate change, work on my blog, help out Syberia Top (the guys I hike with), TVP and TROM, if they needed anything. I also wanted to move out of my flat in Irkutsk and onto Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal to work on my book. So there was one part of me that wanted to drop everything and keep on adventuring- extend the visa or go further down to China with Felix, then Japan, Korea, wherever, but the other part of me was telling me that I should be a responsible adult :) and finish my unfinished business in Russia.

At this point, I still had $3,000 or so of savings left (from the last job I had, almost 2 years ago on Hawaii), and that was enough for me to live on Earth without a job for at least another 6 months, so my decisions about where to go or what to do were based purely on what I wanted to do, not on what would make money.

So, we planned two hitchhiking days to get from Dalanzadgad to Ulaanbaatar, which is about a 600km drive. We got so confident hitchhiking through Mongolia that we didn’t even get out onto the road until about 2pm, even though it got dark at about 6pm. We had flashlights and winter camping gear with us, so starting so late was not as stupid as it sounds… maybe just lazy :)

The first car that drove by stopped and offered us a lift. It was a couple from Ulaanbaatar who knew a tiny bit of English. They told us that they were heading to Mandalgovi, which is halfway between Dalanzadgad and Ulaanbaatar (basically, exactly where we wanted to go), but they were also planning to see a place called “White Stupa” on the way. They asked if we wanted to join them. As always, we had no idea what this place was or where it was located, but we were excited about another unexpected adventure, so we said yes.

After about an hour drive on the main road, we turned onto a dirt road going east. We drove for about an hour and a half before it was clear that we were lost. The couple had never been to White Stupa before and it was really difficult to navigate around these dirt roads. Every road looked exactly the same and, of course, there were no markers. Just imagine a massive field/desert- nothing but small grass and shrubs, and random dirt roads heading in every direction. Eventually, we ran into a yurt and another vehicle that helped us out with directions. After about 3 hours of driving, we finally found it-

It was a pretty cool looking place. Not exactly white, more tan, pink and purple. But very interesting sedimentary rock formations clearly caused by water and weather erosion. The couple didn’t speak enough English to tell us about this place, but we assumed that this was another sacred place for the locals since there was an ovoo (shrine) there.

Later on, I found out that White Stupa is also known as Tsagaan Suvraga; it used to be a big sea and it is common to find sea fossils and shells in the area. The rock formations are millions of years old, 60 meters tall and 400 meters long. When it rains heavily, the rock walls look like a giant waterfall. There are also 2 caves nearby, called Khevtee and Bosoo agui (Lie and Stand Cave), where there are many bats.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see these caves on our free hitchhiking tour :) But we did get lunch! This couple even shared a meal and salty milk tea with us. They had fire-roasted marmot for lunch, which was quite fatty but delicious.

If you want to find White Stupa on your own, you can try following a GPS.

Don’t forget to bring lots of extra water and gas in case you get lost on these roads.
*If you ever do get lost or stranded driving around any desert, a word of advice I can give you is don’t leave your car. Don’t forget, it’s easy for a helicopter to spot a stranded car, not so easy to spot a little person. And always carry water!


After lunch, we drove back to the paved road and up towards Mandalgovi.

It got dark while we were in the car and we didn’t know where we would sleep that night. We didn’t want to go directly into Mandalgovi because we wanted to camp for the last time and we didn’t want to wander around a city in the dark. So we asked the couple to stop the car on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, before reaching Mandalgovi. They were a bit confused about this, but we tried to explain that we were camping. I’m not sure they really understood, but we just laughed and told them we would be alright.

We walked off the road, about a kilometer into the desert and found a perfect flat spot for our tent. Pitched it, cooked dinner, admired the stars.

Total expenses of day 26:

$4- speaker (this was a long story that I won’t get into, but I had to pay $4 to get my own portable speaker back because I forgot it in a yurt in the desert).

$0.50- dehydrated soy meat (great camping product).



Total expenses so far of 26 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):

Day 25: Mukhar Shivert Canyon


The wind picked up and wrestled up the tent all night again, but in the morning, we woke up to this-

We cooked hot breakfast and got ready to hike through the rest of the canyon. It was a fantastic hike- more ice fields, streams and rocky walls. We spotted a wild ibex and some beautiful birds. The entire hike through the Yolin Am Canyon would be quite safe in a dry summer period or mid-winter, but in November there were a few places where we had to walk over precariously thin ice and climb some small rock walls to avoid exposed rivers.

We hiked 4-5 km through the canyon before we reached a dirt road that lead to an extremely windy valley. The wind was so strong that we could barely hear each other speak. According to the map, we needed to walk another 10km or so down this road to reach the main road that went back to Dalanzadgad. Lucky for us, there were a couple of cars in this valley and one of them stopped to give us a lift.

It was another family. They didn’t speak much English, but after about a 20 minute drive, we understood that they weren’t going back to the main road, but to another canyon.
“Cool!”, we thought, “another extra cherry on the pie” :)

This other canyon was called “Mukhar Shivert”, it was much smaller than Yolin Am and had a dead end, but was a spectacular sight as well. It was like a big trench with tall vertical walls and a floorbed of slick, glassy blue ice. At the dead end, there was a big frozen waterfall.

We hadn’t heard about this canyon until we got there, and we probably wouldn’t have found out about it if we didn’t randomly hitchhike to it. I couldn’t even find it on any map. But if you want to check it out, it’s not that hard to find-

If you zoom into mapsme (which works offline), you can see the Yolin Am Canyon Trail from the end of the Yolin Am road (where the parking lot is). Follow that trail from the Yolin Am parking lot all the way through the canyon. After about 12 km, you will walk out of the canyon and onto a dirt road in a big open valley. There will be a fork in the road. You will need to make a left (going west), towards the Yolin Am road. When you reach another fork in the road, take it south to the dead end. At that dead end you will find a parking lot and a clear trail into the Mukhar Shivert Canyon. It seems that locals come here a lot on the weekends, so you probably won’t be alone.

Or, of course, you can go the other way around if you don’t want to go through the whole Yolin Am Trail. Just make sure you have some kind of GPS or compass so you don’t get lost on the dirt roads.

On this map, Mukhar Shivert is the marker to the left. The right marker is the Yolin Am Canyon. I’ve marked the Yolin Am trail in blue and the dirt roads in brown.
*There are more dirt roads than that and this map is not 100% accurate.

It took us about an hour and a half to walk through Mukhar Shivert Canyon, make lunch, and then get back out onto the dirt road again. There were plenty of families in Mukhar Shivert, so it wasn’t hard to hitch another lift back to Dalanzadgad. The first car on the road stopped and drove us all the way there :)

We spent one more night in Baatar’s yurt ($4) and got ready to hitch back to Ulaanbaatar the next day.

Total expenses of day 25:
$4 yurt
$2 food
$1 shower
$7.50 handmade local artwork (for my parents)

Total expenses so far of 25 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):

*Some photos taken by Felix

Day 24: Yolin Am Canyon


Day 24: We bought two big bottles of water ($1) and hit the road from Dalanzadgad to the Yolin Am Canyon. The canyon is located just south of the road that runs between Dalanzadgad and Bayandalai, and since we now knew that that road was paved and had plenty of traffic on it, we assumed that hitching to the canyon wouldn’t be too difficult. We had our winter camping gear and enough food and water for several more days, just in case we got stuck.

We had our thumbs out on the main road by about 1pm. A couple of cars stopped and were confused about what we were doing. They offered us a lift for a large sum of money. We declined the offer and kept on hitching. About 10 minutes later, we got the perfect lift- a local family was driving all the way to the canyon and offered us a free ride! We squeezed in the back seat with two little kids.

The drive to Yolin Am was spectacular. We drove into the mountains off the paved road and down into the canyon. The rock walls grew taller as road got narrower until eventually…we ran into a parking lot. There were a lot more people in Yolin Am than we expected, but they were basically all local families.

The first thing we did was climb a small hill at the entrance of the park, where we spotted some Mongolian yaks.

Then we slid back down the mountain and into the canyon. It was a fascinating sight- a flowing river quickly turned into smooth glassy ice shaded by brown eroded rock walls. A few small waterfalls stood still, frozen down the side of these ancient cliffs.

We lost sight of all other people after about a 20 minute walk into the canyon. The deeper we walked, the narrower the passageway got. Some of the trek was quite slippery and a bit sketchy since we didn’t know how thick the ice was and there was no choice but to slide over it. About 8 km into the canyon trail, we noticed another climbable mountain. Of course, we couldn’t resist checking out the view of Yolin Am from the top.​

The sun was going down as we were climbing back down the mountain and I started to think about those wolves again. Baatar told us that the face of a missing Chinese man was found in these mountains, the rest was eaten. And this place really looked like wolf territory. I felt safe with Felix close by, but pretty scared as soon as he walked 3 or 4 meters away from me. There’s no way a lone wolf would attack the two of us… but me, alone? Probably not… and who knows if that story is even true… But the thought is hard to get out of your head when you’re standing in a grey and black canyon, your flashlight barely works because of the cold, and your mind starts seeing moving shadows.

We decided to camp just below that mountain, where there was a big enough piece of flat ground next to the frozen river. This is what the spot looked like in the morning-

It got very cold at night, just as we expected, but Felix still wanted to take some night photos of the canyon. I was terrified of roaming around wolf territory in the middle of the night, but I wasn’t going to let him go alone. We put on every piece of clothing we had, grabbed a stick, some gasoline and a lighter (wolf-protection kit :D), and then wandered back into the narrow part of the canyon in pitch black.

My body shook and trembled as I slipped slowly down the river of ice. I think it was a combination of cold and fear. I stopped shaking when we lit the stick on fire. Fire has been protecting humans from other animals for hundreds of thousands of years- even before we, homo sapiens, were a species! And here it was, protecting me from wolves :) Fascinating! :D

Then Felix found a narrow gorge that he wanted to photo. He asked me to stand still in it, holding the firestick. I went into this rocky little gully, a good 5 meters away from Felix and the camera- stick on fire- all good. “Stay, don’t move, it’ll be a good shot. Wolves don’t hunt humans anyway. And I have fire!”

I stood still. 5 seconds… 10 seconds. The fire carved patterns… 15 seconds. Mysterious shapes and movements… 20 seconds. The canyon, the rocks, the creepy bushes, flickering fire… 22. Something moving! 23. There it was! A WOLF! 24. And the fire went OUT! It’s pitch black!

“DON’T MOVE!” yelled Felix.

The exposure was 30 seconds.
Fuck. 5,4,3,2,1. I ran away as soon as Felix gave me the go, grabbed a flashlight, looked around. No wolf, just a bush :).

Even though I was cold and terrified that night, I was also captivated by the entire situation. There was something about that canyon, perhaps all the emotions that ran through me, the adrenaline and the beauty of the ice and cold, that made me gain a much deeper love and appreciation for winter. Not just for the snow and snowboarding like before, but for everything- icicles and frozen flowers, the sound of water rushing beneath ice, every precious snowflake, every frozen stream. Winter is filled with unique and wild beauty.

Perhaps it was Felix too. Coming from Canada, he absolutely loved winter. He was happy to camp even in -30 degree weather. When he got cold, he would simply go for a run. Easy as that. He made me understand that there’s nothing scary or uncomfortable about winter camping (as long as you have the right gear). And he always had a smile on his face :).

That’s the thing about traveling- more than anything else, it’s about the people you meet. And the best thing that you can do is learn from these people; learn how to love the stuff that everybody else hates, like camping in -30 degrees :D

Total expenses of day 24:
$1 (water)

Total expenses so far of 24 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):

*Some photos taken by Felix

Days 22-23: Frozen Lake in the Gobi Desert


We found the Ger camp in the dark and asked for one of the yurts ($6). It was really cozy since the yurt was heated with a wood fire, and it felt so great to finally be out of the wind, cold and sand. There was so much sand everywhere! From our hair to our clothes, to our food bag, and every small crevice of everything!

We changed clothes and tried to brush off as much sand as possible, then cooked dinner and warmed up by the fire. In the morning, we drove over to the frozen lake by the dunes to watch the sunrise.

It’s truly incredible that even after almost 12 years of traveling, the Earth continues to surprise me with its beauty. A frozen lake in the desert and ice streams between mounds of grassy sandhills standing in front of 20 meter high sand dunes- who ever knew that that even existed? :D

We drove back to the yurt after sunrise and noticed some unhappy camels.

The ropes tied to their nose piercings were so short that they couldn’t lift their heads when they were standing up.

We also heard that one of the camels in the Ger camp was attacked and eaten by a wolf.
I wonder if that camel was tied up as well…

Of course, someone by the yurt came out and asked if we wanted to ride these camels. Neither Felix or I would ever want to contribute to the abuse or exploitation of animals, so we kindly said no, but I also thought about the reason that this situation exists in the first place..

Some camels are tied up and given the minimum that they need to live on, waiting for tourists to come around and ride them. This happens because it’s the easiest way for locals to make money. It’s all a part of the money game. And the problem is intensified by over-tourism, which is what inundates the Gobi Desert in the summertime. You can try to teach the locals all you want about why you should treat camels better, but the truth is, if you don’t remove the reason that abuse exists in the first place, you will have little chance of doing anything but patch work to improve the situation. This goes for all animals, forests, coral reef systems, and basically everything on Earth that’s suffering from human exploitation.

So, if you pay for a packaged deal, someone will most likely pick you up from Ulaanbaatar, drive you to the desert, show you all the most popular spots, and take you on a camel ride. You have no control over how the camel you paid to ride is being treated. If you say no to the camel ride, you still already pre-paid for the environment that keeps the camel pierced to a two foot rope.

…Then we hit the road back to Dalanzadgad.

We stayed in Baatar’s yurt one more night ($4), ate some khuushuur ($1), and found the public shower ($1). It was so nice to finally get the rest of the sand off our bodies :). We weren’t sure where we would go next; we thought about camping in the Yolin Am Canyon or the mountains by Dalanzadgad, but Baatar freaked us out a bit with all of his wolf stories. Apparently there are a lot of wolves in the Gobi.

Next thing you know, we hear a knock on our yurt and in comes a tall happy French guy named Bryan. We immediately bonded with our Mongolian travel stories and he invited us to the yurt next door.

In Bryan’s yurt there was also a Filipino guy who was riding a motorbike around Mongolia on his own- in November! Both Bryan and Zach were struggling a bit with the cold. Bryan slept alone in a tent, and sometimes had to stay up all night collecting horse poop to keep a fire going and not freeze to death. Zach would sometimes lose feeling in this hands while riding his bike in -20° or so. Both were really interesting people. Bryan actually managed to sort-of hitch through the desert. He met an Argentinian couple who had been traveling for six months on only $1,000, and they managed to bargain a cheap ride from from Bayandalai to the desert. I think they were dropped off there and then roamed around on their own for 10 or so days.

That’s the thing about traveling “off season”, you get to meet real travelers, not just tourists on vacation. Bryan started traveling when he was 15 and had some crazy stories. I can’t repeat them all but you can check out his site if you know French ;)

These guys also gave us some good advice about the canyon- they said, “DO IT!” :) They told us that it was very beautiful and that you should not be afraid of wolves because in Mongolia, there are only lone wolves, and a lone wolf would never attack a grown human, let alone two humans together.

So we packed up our stuff and got ready to hitch to the canyon in the morning.


Total expenses of Days 22-23 in Mongolia: $12.00
$10- yurt (2 nights)
$1- shower
$1- khuushuur (meet dumpling)

*We cooked almost all of our meals on a camping stove

Total expenses so far of 23 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):

Day 21: Camping in the Gobi Desert


After a stunning drive through the Gobi Desert, we arrived in a Ger camp by the Khongor Sand Dunes.

We had a quick bite to eat from our own stash of groceries and then asked Baatar to drop us off at the base of the highest dunes.

From there, we slowly made our way up a massive sand hill with all of our camping gear.

It was a tough climb. Every two steps up, you slipped one step down the sand.

Once in the dunes, we were entirely mesmerized by the views of the infinite sand.

Just stop and breathe. There’s nothing but stillness and silence. A sea of waves in a snapshot.

I’m locked in a millisecond.

We walked around for an hour or two before we found this camping spot-

It was ideal not only because of the epic views, but because there was a little bit of protection from the wind.

Lucky for us, the wind was still quite weak when we were setting up the tent. Especially because one of the segments in our tent pole broke. Fortunately, Felix is a responsible traveler and had a repair kit with him (even though it was my tent) :). I’ve never even carried a first aid kit.

So we fixed the tent and filled a couple of plastic bags with sand to peg it down. Then as soon as we threw our bags in the tent, the wind picked up like no tomorrow and it got very cold.

We put on all of our clothes, grabbed a bottle of vodka, and made our way up to the highest sand dune for sunset.

Yeah vodka really does warm you up when it’s too cold to be outside :D

After sunset we cooked dinner inside the tent and tried to work up the courage to go back outside to look at the stars. It must have been around -15°C, but with the wind it felt like -30°.

Two more shots and we were out the door.

I walked up a sand dune to have a moment alone.

And there I was. All alone. Small Sasha, on top of a big sand dune, on a big plateau on top of a big chunk of land we like to call “Mongolia”, on little Earth, orbiting around our little star. One of hundreds of billions of little stars in our little galaxy- one of hundreds of billions of galaxies…

And all I see is shiny dust.

I walk up to the edge of the dunes. I look out- there it is, eternity at my feet.

Just like my friend Manu used to say, “in the desert, you don’t have to look up to see the stars, just look straight ahead and you will see them all around you.”

I didn’t think that my camera was capable of taking decent night photos with the kit lens (and clearly, I don’t have any money for another lens :)), but Felix taught me a bit about night photography. The first three shots were taken with my camera, the last one was Felix’s.

I also don’t really know how to organize or edit photos either :D
I tried to edit the last one to give you an idea of what the stars look like in the desert, but I don’t have the RAW file or much patience. So just keep in mind that the view was much better than the photos :)

Most people would have HATED it though! :D It was super cold, windy as hell, and there was sand EVERYWHERE! We could barely sleep at night because the wind was so nuts that it sounded like the tent was going to rip in half at any moment. It actually scared me. Felix even woke up in the middle of the night and was convinced that the tent had actually collapsed. It didn’t really, but the wind was so strong that half of the tent was directly on top of us. We also weren’t able to block the top bit of the tent where sand was coming in, so we had to cover our faces all night and just accept the sand…

There are really few people in the world that you can share such precious moments with and still have a smile on your face :) That’s why I chose to travel with Felix ;)

We woke up to a clean slate- no footprints anywhere. Some of the dunes had changed shape a bit and our tent was buried under about a foot of sand on one side.

We watched the sunrise, took a nap, cooked breakfast and hot coffee, then walked around the dunes and made this little birthday photo for my aunt :)

It says, “happy birthday, Masha!”

We watched the sunset one more time, then rolled off the edge of the highest dune and ran to the Ger camp. We felt like kinder in a giant sandbox.

Isn’t that what life’s all about anyway? :)

Total expenses of Day 21 in Mongolia:

Total expenses so far of 21 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):


Days 19-20: Hitchhike to the Gobi


While we were in Ulaanbaatar, Javkhlan showed Felix and me some photos of his trip to the Khongor Sand Dunes in the Gobi. These dunes are one of Mongolia’s biggest attractions, so they weren’t originally on our “to-do” list, but after seeing such beautiful pictures, we decided that it would be worth the trip.

The problem with these dunes was that you need a 4WD to get to them, and this, of course, can get quite expensive. People usually hire a car with a driver for $60-100 per day, but our budget was about $10 per day.

We thought about hitchhiking from Dalanzadgad (the city just outside of the desert) to the dunes, but we were worried about getting stuck for a long period of time in the cold (like -20°) and running out of water. The only roads we saw on the maps were dirt roads and we thought that barely any people would be on them in November.

So for safety reasons, we decided to give in and rent a vehicle + driver (renting just the vehicle seemed difficult and just as expensive, if even possible).

The next thing we had in mind was to find other travelers to split the cost of the vehicle. We posted about this on the Mongolian travel forum on Facebook, but nobody replied except for a few Mongolians that wanted to sell us tours. One of these guys, whose name was Baatar, offered us a fair price and accommodation in Dalanzadgad for only $4/night.

We agreed on the accommodation (which was a yurt) and wrote down his phone number, but didn’t make any plans with him in regards to the tour. We decided to first go down to Dalanzadgad to see if we can find more travelers there, and see if we can find a better deal from there.

We left Ulaanbaatar a little bit late and didn’t start hitchhiking until about 2pm. We weren’t exactly sure how to hitch from the city without people asking us for money (because anyone with a car in Ulaanbaatar can morph into a cab driver at any given moment), so we took the public bus as far out of the city as we could, and got off by the airport. From there, we walked down the road going south, and stopped a couple of cars that quickly morphed into cabs. Eventually, we paid one of these cabs to drive us a couple more kilometers out of the city.

It was already getting late so I was sure that we wouldn’t even get halfway to the Gobi that day, but since we had a tent and winter camping gear, it wasn’t a big deal for us to sleep anywhere, whether in the desert or on the side of the highway.

Little did we know, we got two rides straight away. One took us an hour in the right direction, the other one brought us to the doorstep of the Gobi :D

The second ride was another one of those super lucky events- a man in a brand new Landcruiser stopped and offered us a lift. This man was driving at about 200 km/hr., and planned on going to Tsogt-Ovoo, which was 460km in the right direction and just 120km from where we were hoping to get to in two days of hitchhiking (Dalanzadgad).

This man knew a tiny bit of English and was super nice, he even gave us bottled water and candy. It kind of felt like we were his little kids :)

We got off in Tsogt-Ovoo right before sunset. We could have easily caught another lift to Dalanzadgad, but in that case we would have arrived there in the dark. One of the few rules I try to keep when traveling is to not arrive in an unfamiliar city in a poor country in the dark, with all of your stuff. You’re kind of asking for trouble if you do that.

So we looked for a hotel in the tiny village of Tsogt-Ovoo. We walked around in circles for about a half hour before we found the hotel, since it wasn’t so obvious, and then decided to camp when we found out that the cost of the room was $8. Eight dollars was a bit much for our daily budget.

We bought a big bottle of water and walked down the road, away from the village. After a kilometer or so, we took a right onto the flat grassy field and pitched our tent 200 or so meters from the road.

It was another cold, but spectacular starlit night. We cooked dinner, then warmed up under our big puffy sleeping bags. This is what the spot looked like in the morning-

After breakfast and coffee, we had a visitor :). This random little guy drove over to us on his motorcycle, didn’t say a word, just observed us, rolled a cigarette, had a smoke, sat there for a while, and then left when we started packing up our tent. I gave him some of the candy we got from papa driver :).

We walked back onto the road and caught a lift that drove us all the way to Dalanzadgad. There, our mission was to find other travelers and to find out about the cost of renting a vehicle.

We walked around the city for a few hours, didn’t see any tourists. Found out where the Gobi drivers were supposed to hang out, didn’t find any drivers. Went into the tourist information center and found out that their price for a 4WD was higher than Baatar’s. And then eventually, Baatar’s wife found us as we were walking around the city, and brought us back to her yurt! I guess we weren’t too hard to spot since we were like the only white people in the city :). We had no idea she was even looking for us, but she came up to us on the street and showed us the Facebook conversation she was having with Felix. I guess they really didn’t want to let us slip since tourism was so scarce in November…

At that point, we basically caved in and decided to pay Baatar to drive us to the dunes. We agreed on $200 for 3 days in the desert, so it was $100/each. Biggest expense by far in all of Mongolia, but definitely worth it.

We paid for the tour and stocked up on more groceries. Then we spent the night in the yurt and took off for the Gobi in the morning.

It turns out that we (and mapsme) were wrong about some of the dirt roads. There’s actually a paved road and a lot of cars driving between Dalanzadgad and Bayandalai (83km). So if you’re looking for a cheap way to get to the Gobi, I would suggest having a look for a driver in Bayandalai (or even trying to hitch to the desert from there).

The ride to the dunes was pretty amazing. We drove through beautiful fields of nothing, towards sand, small hills and mountain ranges, sprinkled with snow and herds of sheep and camels. We saw some ibex and black-tailed gazelle on the way as well.

The dunes were stunning. I would love to see them in the summertime after a rainstorm, when the grass in front of them is green. Or in the spring, when the Gobi blooms.


Total expenses of Days 19-20 in Mongolia:

$1.00 taxi & bus
$4.00 yurt
$15.00 food (groceries + local eatery that I didn’t mention)
$100.00 4WD to the Gobi
= 120.00

Total expenses so far of 20 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):


Days 16-18: Perks of Couchsurfing


Remember the guy that picked us up hitchhiking from Ulaanbaatar and drove us an hour out of his way so that we could camp in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park? Well, he promised to come back for us and drive us all the way back to Ulaanbaatar for free as well :)

So we packed up our tent and walked back down to the road where he said he will meet us, and surprise surprise- he actually came! Picked us up with a nice smile and drove us back to Ulaanbaatar for free. This means that he spent 3 or more hours of his day just helping us out. And- even crazier- on the way back, he stopped in a Khuushuur House and bought US a bunch of khuushuurs (meat pastries)! We tried to pay for them, but he didn’t let us!

And these were the best khuushuurs we had in all of Mongolia. Khuushuur is like Russian chiburekk (if you know what that is) or an empanada with different spices. Basically minced meat with onions and spices, wrapped in fried dough. The ones in this Khuushuur House (which was just a tiny little shack on the side of the road) were super fresh. And super tasty ;)

A tourist bus would never stop in a shack like this…

Sadly, we couldn’t communicate much with our friend, since he didn’t know English or Russian, and we don’t know Mongolian. But we understood that he said he was a shaman and he drank a lot of vodka the night before.

He dropped us off in Ulaanbaatar city center, where we found an Airbnb for $5. This was kind of a funny night too. The Airbnb host was an interesting girl named Ulegma, she was originally from Ulaanbaatar but lived in Holland and Greece for a long time, and just recently came back to Mongolia. She was reconnecting with some old friends and they were just getting hammered :D Her friends were super funny and they all knew both Russian and English very well! They even sang Russian songs to me :D And on top of the very nice hospitality, Ulegma made an amazing dinner for us and her friend gave us a giant beer. In many countries, you would pay double the price of our entire stay, just for the beer.

Total expenses of Day 16 in Mongolia:
$5.00 (this includes transportation, accommodation, food and beer)- Thank you to the wonderful people we’ve met!


The next day we had to deal with visas again. We would have left Ulaanbaatar right after all the paperwork was finished, but a couchsurfing friend of mine texted me saying he was back in Ulaanbaatar.

This guy’s name is Javkhlan and he’s pretty badass :D He likes to travel around on a dirt bike, so that if he sees an interesting looking place (like the top of a mountain or sand dune), he can just drive there. No road needed!  Talking to him really made me want to get into dirt biking…

Javkhlan’s from Ulaanbaatar but lived in Japan and Ireland for a while, and has also traveled extensively. So he looks Mongolia, but sounds Irish :) He stayed in my place in Irkutsk about a year ago, when he was traveling through Russia.

That’s really what couchsurfing is all about- meeting such interesting people and connecting with them on a true human to human level. No trades, no money involved, just people helping each other out and learning from each other. I would say that couchsurfing is one of the best tools that any real traveler can (and should) use.

So we spent the night in his super nice (huge) apartment in Zaisan, cooked dinner and shared some drinks and stories. He even had two spare bedrooms for guests! (When he stayed with me in Irkutsk, he had to sleep on the floor of my shitty old cockroachie studio apartment :)).

Javkhlan said that he had some friends who were building a climbing wall and a zipline in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and invited us to join him to check it out the next day.

These fun activities were located in an incredible spot, just down the hill from where we camped 2 nights before.

We even got to ride some quads :D

And Javkhlan cooked up some awesome Mongolian BBQ

We spent one more night at Javkhlan’s and then hit the road to the Gobi Desert the next day.

Big thanks to Javkhlan for everything! You’re an awesome dude :)


Total expenses of Days 17-18 in Mongolia:

$13.00 groceries

Total expenses so far of 18 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):


Day 15: Gorkhi-Terelj National Park


We took it easy in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Woke up late, made a fire, cooked some food. Then we wandered around the curved yellow hills and gigantic boulders.

Since this national park is very close to Ulaanbaatar, and is very beautiful, it is a crazy tourist destination. There are dozens of Ger camps every few hundred meters or so along the road, and everybody is obsessed with one rock, “Turtle Rock”. I don’t really know why, since all of the other big boulders are equally (if not more) impressive.

…PROBABLY because this “Turtle Rock” is advertised as a “must see” location.


Pretty stupid reason to admire one rock over the other, don’t you think? :D

Look, this is what “Turtle Rock” looks like:

(Picture from Wikipedia)

And these are two random unnamed rocks that we found somewhere in this park:

Why is Turtle Rock cooler than random unnamed rock?

Luckily it was off season when we were there (November) so most Ger camps were closed and the park was pretty empty. We wandered away from the road and the Ger camps anyway, to check out the natural beauty of the park. We walked off trail, to the highest hilltop we could see. And we found this spot:

I think it’s better than “Turtle Rock” but nobody knows about it.

We also ran into a camel family and fed them some grass :D

I love this baby camel, he looks like Sid from Ice Age :D

We watched the sunset from the top of a hill and spent one more night camping between the giant boulders.

Total expenses of Day 15: $0

Total expenses so far of 15 days in Mongolia (including the price of getting to Mongolia):


*Night photos (and a couple of the other ones) by Felix