Mongolia: Ulaan Baatar & Ulgii

Erol, Dave and myself left Ulan-Ude early in the morning, and took the excruciating 12-hour bus journey to Ulaan Baatar, the capital city of Mongolia. The bus was packed full of people wanting to cross the border, and many seemed like this was a journey that they were familiar with. The bus felt claustrophobic, with the under seat heating set on full blast which only seemed to have two settings: on or off…The temperatures outside were so cold that the glass panes were frozen, and on the inside of the window was a thick blanket/curtain which was held permanently in place to stop us as passengers from probably freezing to death, (a slight exaggeration perhaps), but with no natural light shining in and stuck in a hot and stuffy bus, the journey seemed too long to bear.

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Stopping occasionally for a quick toilet and smoking break, our first main stop was the Russian-Mongolian border; everyone took their luggage of the bus as we queued inside the border control building. We stood for ages as one by one our bags were checked manually through security. Standing towards the back of the line, we watched as the border officials stood in their booths at passport control scrutinising everyone. It was then our turn to step up to the interrogation booth. Though no words were actually used to interrogate, they seemed to inspect our passports with meticulous detail, even scratching the visa page to make sure that it was real.

Arriving in Ulaan Baata, Erol, Dave and myself walked to our hotel for the night. After a somewhat difficult check-in due to the hotel staff not speaking any English, and us not speaking any Mongolian, we dropped our bags off, freshened up and contacted Aynabek, who was recommended to us by the couple we met in Ulan-Ude. We ate Korean food in a nearby hotel, whilst booking our flights to Ulgii in Western Mongolia where the eagle hunting adventure would hopefully begin. The next morning, our very kind hotel owner drove us to Chinggis Khaan International Airport for free, and thanked us for staying in his hotel. His kindness was lovely to see, and his delight at practising his English whilst teaching us some Mongolian was plain to see.

Queuing to check-in, we met another traveller called Jason; originally from America and based in Berlin, he had been travelling for over two years back and forth all over the world. The four of us grabbed a much needed coffee in the airport and we discovered that Jason had also planned to stay with the Eagle Hunters through Bek’s tour agency. We would only be staying a week, but Jason’s plan was to stay the month to see the whole process of staying with the eagle, gaining its trust, and then hunting with it and looking after it. It was cool to be sharing the experience with another who was genuinely excited just as much as we were for the next week ahead. We boarded our tiny propeller aeroplane, and prepared for the four and a half hour flight across to Ulgii, the capital of the province of Bayan-Ulgii. Located at the extreme West of Mongolia, the city has a population of approximately 30,000, mainly with Kazakh roots.

Arriving at Ulgii travel was truly amazing. Our tiny plane had landed and as we stepped onto the tarmac we were greeted by the epic skyline of blue sky, shining sun, desert and rocky mountains.

Jason, Erol, Dave and myself were collected from Ulgii Airport by Bek’s brother and driver Dhogi. They drove us to the centre of the small capital, where we went to a Turkish restaurant called Pamukkale to feed our hungry bellies with Turkish tea, dumplings, and koftas. It was delicious and just what we needed. After some sustenance they took us for to the Black Market as we wanted to see if we could buy any last minute warm clothing and boots to prepare us for the adventure on horseback. It was cool to look around the market which consisted of corrugated sheds put together which sold everything from real fur boots called Valenki, hats and gloves, knives and camping stoves, to various sweets and vegetables. Walking around, we even saw an outdoor pool/snooker area where there were tables upon tables of pool tables with different groups and games playing.

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Bek met us back in Pamukkale where we discussed the trip that we would be taking and the price along with what would be included such as a driver who doubled up as a translator together with a cook and a weeks supply of food for us and the families that we would be staying with. We then went to the hotel where we would all be staying for the night, and together with Jason and Erol we relaxed over a few beers and toasted our adventure which would begin the next morning.

A last minute shop the next morning around Ulgii to buy food and other essentials such as Vodka for our guest hosts and sweets for their children, Bek finally picked us up from our hotel just after lunch. We loaded the van with our four backpacks, and headed out to the village of Altai where our driver and translator Dhogi, and cook Mancu would meet us later that night.

Our three hour journey to our first family host took us through the beautiful and stunning landscape of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park; this vast mountainous park borders China and Russia with views of Kazakhstan from the highest peak in Mongolia. As we stopped to take in various views we were at some points surrounded only by desert land and high snow capped peaks. Bek even pointed out the snow-capped Kuiten Uul mountain and standing over 4300 meters it is the highest of the five peaks of Tavan Bogd Mountains (5 Saints) that gives the park its name. These mountains are considered sacred to the local Kazakhs, Tuvans, and Mongolians, and just by standing there and absorbing the breathtaking scenery we could certainly understand why.

We continued to travel through the desert and mountains without trouble – Bek explained how they didn’t need maps of the area despite roads not existing in some areas and no road signs indicating villages of directions. Despite this, due to Bek making the journey as often as he did, he knew the area well and was very knowledgable about his surroundings. We passed lakes, wild camels, herds of buffalo and yaks, and the occasional jeep coming from the other direction. As sunset approached, Bek went into his hometown shop to buy us beer which he said would help us not feel the cold as much since the sun was going down. The beer jackets were much needed, and with the radio on, we were merrily happy for the rest of the journey.

We arrived that evening, with only the vans headlights which guided our way through the darkness. We pulled up outside a wooden house and were immediately welcomed by Ardak, the famous Eagle Hunter and his family. Ushered in to the warmth of the house, we  saw the Golden Eagle sitting in the corner calmly with all the action of cooking and visitors going on around it. We sat on small stools only a meter away from where the Eagle was perched on its own stool of wood. Bek told us about Ardak’s skills and how he was taught by his father, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. The eagle lives with him literally, and he takes it out almost every day. It is a major commitment of time for a nomad that has grazing livestock to attend to.

We sat around the table which filled with homemade food such as bread, hard cheese, butter, and a sweet dish made from butter, biscuits, and horse fat. Dave was a big fan of the hard cheese which wasn’t dissimilar to Parmesan, whilst I preferred the sweet horse-fat biscuits dish which went really well the homemade bread puffs. With bowls of milky and slightly salted tea, we took in our surroundings and spoke with Ardak thanks to Bek’s translation.

We learned that the eagles used to hunt are only females, and only Golden Eagles are used to hunt in the Altai mountains. Caught and trained from a young age, the Kazakh nomads only take the young eagles out to hunt in the winter time in search of foxes, hares, wildcats and sometimes even wolves! Whilst we were eating, it was also the eagles turn to eat as well. Ardak cut the rabbit meat into pieces and washed it in water before removing the hood off the eagles eyes to let her feast. Ardak told us how the meat had to be blood-free in order for the eagle to still have her appetite the next day in order to hunt.

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Ardak lives in small community surrounded by only three other families. As members of the other families came to visit, a big plate of sheep and homemade pasta sheets was served. Fatty but delicious, it was lovely how everyone ate from the same plate, and it showed how communal it was to eat and talk together. Dhogi and Mucan arrived later that night, and after moving all of the supplies and backpacks in, we settled in for the night with bellies full. We slept in our sleeping bags side by side on rolled out mattresses with only a purring ginger cat for company, and the warmth from the dung burning stove that heated the whole house.

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The next morning we ventured out to see where we were as we had no reference since arriving in darkness. It was stunning and truly unique to anything we had experienced previously. Four wooden houses stood at a slight distance apart, and then nothing else could be seen as far as the eye could see apart from the brilliant blue sky and the Altai Mountains of Bayan-Ulgii. Tied to a pole nearby was a wild wolf which looked hungry and vicious as it circled back and forth. It was crazy how a wild wolf was just there, not far from where we were living!

After a hearty breakfast cooked by Mancun, Dave and myself together with Erol, Jason and Dhogi, mounted our horses for the day and followed Ardak and the eagle which was perched on his arm, towards the mountains. None of us (apart from Dhogi and Ardak) had any horse riding experience within the last twenty years; in a matter of minutes we quickly taught ourselves ‘steering’ the horses left, right, pulling the reigns hard to stop and small heel taps to go. Ardak on the other hand look super cool in his aviator sunglasses, long fur jacket, and amazing fox lined cowboy hat!

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We followed Ardak along the desert marshland, and up the mountains which turned from rock to snow covered rock as we rode higher and higher up the mountain side. We rode until we reached some high vantage points which overlooked the valley below. Ardak would use some binoculars to see if he could any see any rabbits or foxes below. The winter months were the best time to hunt as it was easy to spot fox tracks, and their fur which is also thick and soft. I’m not sure how he managed to spot anything – white fur on white snow seemed impossible to see! After checking with the binoculars, Ardak then removed the eagle’s hood, and would either wait for the eagle to see the prey and release her, or put the hood back on and we would ride on to the next vantage point.

Every so often we would climb of our horses and give them a rest, drinking the snow and eating the herb-smell grass. This also gave us the chance to take in the amazing views we were seeing. We were very privileged that Ardak gave us the opportunity to even hold the eagle which also gave us a perfect photo opportunity. It was so surreal to have the eagle on our arms!

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Spending half a day horse riding through the mountains with just ourselves and nature with nothing else to distract us was spectacular, it didn’t even matter that we hadn’t caught anything. We headed back to our wooden home for a well deserved late lunch. We were famished, and I think the horses needed a break from our heavy bodies.

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A couple of hours rest, Ardak and Dhogi took us ice fishing on the river running nearby their house. Dhogi was a keen fisher, and had packed his fishing rod and hooks in preparation. Wrapped up like marshmallows, we wandered over to the small river which was already stunningly half iced over, so amazing that we could see the ice crystals. Turning hand-sized stones over, we collected our shrimps which would be the bait to capture our fish. Excited to get started, Dave helped Ardak and Dhogi punch holes into the ice, setting the bait on the hooks we were good to go!

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I managed to catch a fish and was so happy I screamed and probably scared the fish away from my hole in the ice. Between Dave, Erol, Jason, and myself, we only caught one fish. Whilst Jason and I persisted to continue trying, Ardak and Dhogi pulled out a couple of fish, and Dave and Erol played on the ice, skating from side to side until the sun set behind the mountains.

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That evening as we ate another delicious meal than Mancun had prepared, we talked to Ardak and his family through Dhogi, and learnt some more about Eagle Hunting, and the traditions. Absolutely tired out from our adventure packed day, we went for a much needed sleep.

The next morning, as Ardak had been impressed with our horse riding skills, he said we would be going further today to see if we would have any luck catching something. With slightly sore bottoms from the previous day, we mounted the horses again and rode to mountains well beyond yesterdays. These mountains were much higher, and covered in so much more snow. We zig-zagged up the mountainside at various paces, the horses pausing to eat snow and grass every so often. We rode along the mountain ridges whilst Ardack looked for prey first with his binoculars, and then with the unhooded eagle. As nothing was spotted, we seemed to moved from mountain peak to mouton peak, higher and higher. The views were spectacular and overwhelmingly beautiful.

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Descending from one of the mountains, Ardack rode ahead as he seemed to have spotted something. Giving my horse a litre heel kick of encouragement, I managed to see Ardack lift the hood off the eagle, and the eagle had definitely spotted something. As the eagle began to circle round and then sharply descend, Ardack followed the eagle’s whereabouts with the binoculars towards where the eagle was heading. From a distance it looked like Ardack had spotted what the eagle had spotted. Ardack galloped so fast down the mountainside, he was beside the eagle within the minute, whilst Dhogi followed. We on the other hand could gallop down the mountain that fast…We took our time as we rode down the mountain pass towards Ardack, Dhogi was collected some sticks from nearby. The eagle had spotted a wildcat which is why Ardack had galloped down the mountain so fast; wildcats are stronger than eagles and the eagle didn’t have the sense not to realise that the wildcat could injure her just as badly. Thankfully the eagle was ok and the wildcat had crawled into its underground home. Ardack had blocked the entrance, whilst Dhogi had been collecting wood and dry grass in order for them to smoke the animal out of its hole. We stood by for seemed ages whilst they tried and unfortunately failed to coax the wildcat out. Ardak seemed disappointed but we were anything but disappointed. It was so interesting to see the different techniques Ardak would use to hunt. Plus the amazing landscape only added to the amazing experience we were having with Ardak and his family.

As the sunlight started to fade slowly, we headed slowly back up and down several mountains, meandering with the trailing path. I think our horses were just as tired as we were as they had slowed down too. Halfway back we dismounted and walked with them for a while, warming up our fingers and toes at the same time. Ardak had hung back on the mountain side, whilst leaving the eagle on the top. He took out a piece of meat and called to the eagle for her to come back to him. This call back reinforced the eagles training, and gave us a magnificent view of her flying as we watched from below. Dhogi was next to call the eagle to him, as we waved the piece of meat around for her to see. It was incredible how the call and sight of meat instantly caught her attention, and to see her soar over the mountain so gracefully was a joy to see.

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It was then our turn to perform the ‘call back’ for the eagle. We each took it in turn to wave the meat and bone so the eagle could see it and then land on the glove that we were holding. Whilst I struggled slightly with the weight of the eagle on my arm as she landed, having to use both arms to hold her up and away from my face, all three boys managed brilliantly and pushed her up and down to see her enormous wing span. The golden eagle is a uniquely special, and it is fair to say we all have a new found respect for the animals.

Riding back to the house we took the time to appreciate mountainous view and the gorgeous sunset and the ever changing colours as time passed.

That night over dinner, we thanked Ardak and his family for having us stay in their house over some bottles of vodka. He was very humble in thanking us as well, and we were all touched at how emotional he became when speaking of us leaving the next day. We drank and played cards late into the night with his family and friends, and he said that if we ever wanted to visit in the future, that we were more than welcome to do so as spring was especially beautiful and warm for them. They would also be living in their summer Ger’s (yurts) which they would be happy to share with us. Our last night with Ardak and his family, we spent talking and eating until it was time for bed.

We were due to pack up and leave Ardak’s house the following afternoon, but first Dhogi had wanted to take us all ice fishing at a place 40 minutes away, where a Kazakh friend (also called Jason) had recently had a lot of success with fishing. Some time spent collecting bait from the small river running by Ardak’s house, Dhogi then drove us to the frozen lake where Kazakh Jason gave directions as to where he caught the fish the previous day. The lake was gorgeous as it reflected the sunshine; with the intensely blue sky and mountains behind, this seemed like the most idyllic place to fish in the winter.

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With the ice broken and the ice holes made we began fishing. The ice fishing gods were on my side, and it wasn’t long before I was pulling out fish after fish after fish. Not sure how or why, but I continued until I reached ten.

Erol and Dave were catching a couple each as well but Jason wasn’t having any luck. After fishing for a few hours, us three had given up whilst Jason was continuing with Kazakh Jason, Ardak and Dhogi, who were still pulling out the Mongolian black fish. Finally Jason started catching them, and after a while they decided they had enough fish to feed all of their families.

We arrived back Ardak’s and had some lunch before packing up the van, and saying our goodbyes’. Erol, Dave and myself would be moving on to visit the next family with Dhogi and Mancun, whilst Jason’s real experience of training the eagle and gaining its trust to then carry her whilst hunting could then begin. Saying goodbye was hard, as we had a wonderful and hilarious time travelling with Jason from Ulaan Baator but I’m sure we will meet up later on during our travels and that we will keep in touch. It was an experience of a lifetime staying with Ardak and his family – their hospitality was amazing and truly inspiring, it was a really pleasure to experience their lives, culture and traditions.

Ready for the next part of our journey, Dhogi was driving us to our next family host Mana who lived in the village of Sagsai which was located 20km west of Ulgii and home to a larger number of eagle hunters. We drove another four hours to get there, and after a slight detour, and quite a dangerous van jump which all made us fall out of our seats, we arrived that night thanks to Mana’s son leading the way on his motorbike for the last hour.

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After a quick hello and introduction, we sat down around the table. Apparently we had interrupted their favourite tv show, and indian soap opera dubbed in Kazakh, and they were all glued to the small box tv. Erol, Dave and myself laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, and tried to follow what was happening with our own interpretation. When it was over, dinner was served, mutton cooked and served on a big plate with the skull as the centrepiece. All parts of the sheep was on the dish including, stomach, ears, tongue, and brain. During the meal, one of the ears was presented to me by Mana as it was tradition to feed the women around the table with the ears; I never did find out why it was tradition but not wanting to seem rude, I ate the meat and fat of the ear. Dave and Erol tried the horses stomach which everyone seemed to love, but they said it wasn’t good at all so I’m glad I didn’t try it. Also on the plate was homemade sausage which was delicious and full of flavour!

Between mouthfuls, Dhogi explained how Mana and his wife had nine children, six boys and three girls. Mana’s eldest son lived not far away but Mana’s grandson Jamble lived with them. Mana’s daughters were away at boarding school, and would be home later on in the week. The son who had shown us the way by motorbike, lived a few hours away with his wife and daughter. It was a full house of people, and lovely to see how everyone came together. Mana was in his seventies so was considered an elder and too old to be riding horses up mountains for eagle hunting, but his sons would be taking us the next day, with the two eagles that they had living in the house.

Mana’s wife bought at homemade pasta sheets to go with the meat and we sat for a while eating and drinking milky tea. In the corner of the large kitchen was a wildcat that they had caught earlier today. Mana and his son’s proceeded to skin the fur of the wildcat, and sectioning the meat to be hung and cooked at a later date, whilst the skin of the wildcat would be cleaned, dried, and then later sewn as lining for a jacket of even a hat for them.

During the skinning, Mana was collecting pieces of fat from the cat’s knees, heart, lungs, legs and back. We asked Dhogi why Mana was separating the fat and Dhogi explained that due to these nomads not having access to medicine, they melted the fat and kept it in a jar to use as an ointment to sooth aching joints or cuts. The nearest hospital was a few hours away, and even the hospital was small, with mainly a maternity unit. Anyone who was really ill had to then fly or take the 50 hour bus journey to Ulaan Baator to get treatment. The innards of the wildcat was also kept separate and would be used to feed the eagle after washing the blood off, and the wildcat’s gallbladder was also kept separate as medicine for the eagle should it ever need it. It was illuminating how every part of the the wildcat was used.

Mancu cooked us a delicious breakfast the next day and whilst we were eating, more visitors arrived: two additional eagle hunters with their eagles, and Mana’s other son (and Jamble’s dad) who would be joining us for the hunt. Spending some time getting the horses ready, we set off late morning for the rocky mountains with the three eagle hunters. It felt like we were right in the wilderness surrounded only by a few houses scattered among the open landscape, and we couldn’t wait to see how hunting with three eagles would be different to one.

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We rode slowly through the bumpy marshland, across several ice rivers and streams, and up the rocky slopes of the mountainsides. It seemed our horses were not that used to having people riding them as they only appeared to have one speed – slow. As the three eagle hunters continue far up the mountain, we ambled on slowly, with two of Mana’s sons walking with us and whipping the horses every now and again for encouragement. It may have been easier to walk like Mana’s sons rather than horse ride but I was grateful that my horse was managing to take us up the steep slopes no matter how slow he was going.

The views from the top of the mountain were definitely worth the slow climb up. It was breathtakingly beautiful as we overlooked the whole village of Sagsai and miles beyond. A lovely day with the sky blue and the sun shining and reflecting off the iced rivers, we were amazed at the sight below us.

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We spent a couple of hours up on the ridge, us admiring the view whilst the hunters were letting off their eagles one at a time to see if they could spot any prey. Unlike Ardak, these hunters didn’t use binoculars to look for prey before removing the eagles hoods. From below, Mana’s sons who had been walking with us were jeering, hitting rocks with sticks, and throwing rocks from below to scare anything that may be hiding. Watching from above, we would watch as the eagles would circle and then fly to a point further below. We were informed that there were no foxes around but that didn’t matter at all, sitting on the mountain ridge surrounded by nature as stunning as this it was hard to be disappointed.

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On the way back down, the hunters left their eagles up high and rode down to perform the call backs. Sometimes they tried just the call back, other times they had pieces of meat which they were waving around for the eagle to see, and one of the hunters had difficulty retrieving his eagle so removed a fox skin from his bag, tied it a long piece of string and rode across the mountain whipping the skin up as if it was a running rabbit or fox.

Sauntering slowly back on our horses, we arrived close to sunset back at Mana’s house where Mancu and Mana’s wife were preparing dinner, rolling out homemade pasta sheets and filling them with onion and carrots, and then rolling the pasta round like a tight swiss roll. They then boiled these whilst Mana sang us songs about love and loss whilst playing the Dombra. Watching their favourite indian soap opera on the tv, we sat down and all ate dinner together. Drinking vodka later that night, we talked until everyone was ready to go to bed.

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Our last day of eagle hunting, we left the next morning with two eagle hunters and their eagles. We travelled further this time, and after crossing the first mountain range, we moved through the valley to the next line of mountains. We were joined by two other eagle hunters who we continued up the mountain with. These mountains were much steeper and at some points we had to tie the horses below, for us to then continue up to higher ground. Riding up and and down the mountains, one eagle finally spotted a rabbit and dived down to get it. Everyone moved as quick as they could (apart from Erol, Dave and I due to our slow horses) to see what had been caught and to take the rabbit of the eagle so the rabbit could be shared amongst the four other eagles. The rabbit was cut and torn into parts and shared amongst the other eagle hunters for their own eagles. It couldn’t get any wilder if they tried, as we watched close up the eagles savagely eat the rabbit until every bit was gone.

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We continued down the mountain, and up towards another mountain range that seemed even higher. With the sun on the other side of the mountains, it started to get windy and cold yet the eagle hunters continued and persisted in their search for more. As the horses climbed higher, the side of the mountains became more dangerous for us ride on the horses backs. We walked our horses, stopping each time for the hunters to let their eagles fly to spot prey, before leaving the two eagle hunters who had joined us earlier to make our way back.

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Later that night, over Vodka and a game of Durak, we laughed and played and listened to stories told by Ardak until late. His daughters had also come for the weekend, so the house was full of life, with people bustling in and out. His other sons wife and daughter had also come for a visit, so when it came to sleeping arrangements, all floor and bed space was taken up completely. It was an emotional night, and Ardak told of the loss he had experienced, and with us leaving too he was sad to be saying goodbye to us the next day. We celebrated and thanked him and his family for their hospitality, and Erol got out the Cuban cigars and Glenfidich whiskey which he had been in his backpack since Switzerland to share around.

Waking up on our last morning in wild Mongolia, and a little sad knowing that this amazing adventure was nearly over, we enjoyed our last breakfast cooked by Mancu, before giving the family all the remaining food and sweets that we had not eaten during our weeks stay. Saying goodbye to everyone was quite emotional, and it was really endearing to see our presence affect people in such a short amount of time. We waved them goodbye from our van, which was definitely a lot lighter than our journey here, as Dhogi drove us back to the Pamukkale restaurant in Ulgii.

Back in Ulgii, we met Bek at the restaurant, and spent an hour or so catching up with him and telling him stories about our day, and also plugging back into the world of free wifi after being cut off from it all for a week. Thanking Bek for a truly out of this world experience, Dhogi and Mancu drove us to Ulgii airport where we would be taking a flight back to Ulaan Baator.

Our flight back to Ulaan Baator took longer than expected. After two hours of flying we had started to descend, and we thought we had arrived. How wrong we were, as weren’t even half way back. We had landed at another airport for a short time, dropping off passengers and picking up new ones together with their luggage. As we took off again, we were informed by cabin staff that we would be landed again within the next hour for another stop. Suddenly the plane hit turbulence with no warning from the pilot or cabin staff: the plane was rocking violently from side to side, I was being lifted from my seat due to force of the turbulence, and some women were even screaming from being so afraid. I turned to look at Dave and Erol  who both genuinely looked panicky – trying to stay calm in such an environment especially with people screaming out wasn’t even remotely possible. As the turbulence died down, we were relieved that we were still alive, and came to the conclusion that the small propeller plane could not deal with the winds created…a normal jet plane would have breezed through the turbulence without a problem! We set down again, and got off the plane for a small breather, before boarding the flight one more time for the last and final stop.

We arrived in Ulaan Baator that evening, and spent some time in the airport coffee shop sorting out accommodation for our last night in Mongolia. Erol had found a CouchSurfer that he was staying with, whilst we had found a hotel that was fairly near the airport so that we could return the following day to catch our flight to China. We caught a taxi with Erol, and arranged two drop-off points as our hotel was on the way to Erol’s CouchSurfer. It was sad and weird to be saying goodbye to Erol after travelling with him for a couple of weeks, the time seemed much longer however as we had managed to pack so many things into such a short amount of time. Who knew we would meet a stranger and stay travelling with them for so long? It was a pleasure to meet Erol, such a cool and funny guy, and a great person to travel with. He would be continuing his travels for the next year also so it was possible that we would bump into each other again. We hugged goodbye at our hotel, and left him to continue on his own adventure, whilst we continued on with us in China.

 

 

 

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