Going nomad in Mongolia
It's half way through day one and our old Russian van is stuck in the mud, and the snow, and it's less than 5 degrees Celsius outside.
We set off this morning from the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar, on our personalised ten day tour of the country, and already the journey has been more of an adventure than we anticipated.
Looking around us the grassy plains seem to roll on forever. We've been following a rickety road for the last 300km, which really is no more than a few tyre tracks in the grass, and have hardly seen another person all day.
With a land area approximately six times the size of New Zealand and a population of just 3 million, this is hardly surprising - Mongolia is one of the least populated nations on Earth. And as we've just discovered: one of the least convenient places to break down.
With no help coming for us, it's all hands on deck. Our driver grabs a shovel from the boot to begin digging us out, and my partner and I start collecting stones from the creek to grip the tyres.
Our guide disappears over the horizon in the hope of finding someone who can give us a tow. An hour and a half later, with a hand from a farmer and his tiny tractor, we've hauled ourselves out and are ready to set off on Take Two of our intrepid journey.
With one quarter of the population in Mongolia still living a nomadic lifestyle, there is very little permanent housing outside of the main cities and so spending a night in a ger is inevitable if you intend to travel this country. For those not familiar with the term, a ger is a large felt tent, with a wooden lattice frame that is designed to be easily put up and down, and moved from place to place.
The two options for accommodation are to pre-book a ger guesthouse or tourist camp, or to shack up with the locals. Our tour included a combination of these options, with six nights pre-booked and three nights left to wing it.
The opportunity to stay with a native family is something that many travellers strive for, but can be hard to arrange on your own, or if organised through a tour agency can feel less than authentic. In this case though, thanks to the culture of kinship and our fabulous bilingual Mongolian guide, the experience was effortless and as real as it gets.
The first night we were due to stay with a nomadic family, I was feeling a bit apprehensive. What if the family felt that we were being intrusive, or the language barrier made things all-around awkward? Once our guide had spoken to the family, explained our situation and asked if we could stay, we were welcomed inside to sit beside the roaring wood-burner, drink a cup of goat's milk tea and eat a dried yoghurt biscuit.
Immediately the hesitation I had felt melted away in wake of the warmth and hospitality of the couple and two young boys who'd let us into their home.
We spent the evening playing knucklebones (with real goat knuckles of course), sharing a meal of dried beef and noodles, and drinking glass after glass of delicious home-brewed Airag (fermented mares' milk liquor).
The following morning the children took us outside to play with and cuddle their beautifully silky new-born goats, and then the mother took great pleasure in dressing us up in her hand-made traditional dress, and posing us all over the place for photos.
By the time we were packing up the van to leave I felt a whole new type of reluctance, and was just about brought to tears when the 10-year-old son gave us his prized possession, a glass and sand artwork of the Gobi desert that he'd made himself, as a parting gift. The night had been a truly unique experience, and one that I won't forget in a hurry.
Throughout the ten day tour we covered roughly 1500km: we saw a breathtaking range of scenery including the frozen lakes and rivers of the Ohrkon Valley, volcanoes, canyons, snowy mountains, vast grassy plains, and the undulating sandy dunes of the Gobi Desert.
We rode horses and camels, herded baby goats and yaks, and spotted vultures, wild horses and hundreds of furry, little marmots. We visited world-heritage protected Buddhist monasteries, temples, and an ancient city recovered from the age of Ghengis Khan.
The highlight of our tour through Mongolia though, remains the time that we were able to spend with the open and generous people that inhabit the land. I was touched by their genuine interest in, and willingness to help others, and hope to carry that flame with me when I return to the homeland.