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A few weeks ago, I came to the realization that we have spent more than a year and a half in the Gulf and have still not visited many of the countries in the region. Obviously there are some places to which we will not be planning a trip anytime soon, but others, such as Bahrain and Kuwait are close, safe, and perfectly reasonable tourist destinations.

Sheikh Saad Airport Like No Place Else

We haven’t heard great things about Kuwait as a fun place to visit, but we didn’t let that stop us. Less than a two hour flight away, this was the perfect destination for a day trip and there is enough to do in almost any destination to fill one day. Or so we thought.

The Good:  Kuwait City is not like what you read on the internet. The vibe was similar to Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Muscat, or many of the other cities in the region. If you google travel to Kuwait City, you will question if you have any business going there, however if you talk to people who have been recently, they will tell you not to stress about a trip to Kuwait City.

The Bad:  There is really not a lot to do in Kuwait City. We visited on Friday, which probably didn’t do us many favors, but still, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. 

So what did we do in this low key city? We visited the famous Souk Al-Mubarakiya, which is truly one of the best souks that I have ever visited and probably the high point of the tourist attractions. We also walked in the corniche and visited the Kuwait Towers.   

The Corniche, Kuwait City

When noon rolled around, as one does in May in the Middle East, we made a beeline for the shopping mall to get out of the sun and the heat for a few hours. The Avenues turned out to be an awesome mall – I’m a mall aficionado being from New Jersey and living in Dubai – the two shopping mall capitals of the world. I kid, kind of… Anyway, it was pretty brilliantly designed to look like you were walking outdoors, even featuring breeze and natural light. These are really cool features in one of the hottest and most humid cities on Earth. I wish Dubai would take these cues so I could pretend to be outside all summer.

After the mall, we tried to go to the Kuwait Science Center, but after a miscommunication with our driver we got returned to the airport two hours ahead of schedule. This wasn’t really ideal as KWI is really a hole in the wall airport – it seems to have just one gate and a handful of flights each day, but sometime you have to roll with unexpected changes in plans, so we rolled into the only restaurant at the airport, Chili’s, for bottomless chips and water – Kuwait is a completely dry country. 

Late last night we returned to Dubai, glad to have had the opportunity to visit Kuwait, but also thankful to be home. 

[This post was initially drafted on April 9, 2015. I lost track of posting it, then, after the recent earthquake left Kathmandu in ruins, it felt strange and eerie to me to publish this post. In hindsight, I am so glad we took the time to see some of these historic sites once more.]

As it neared midnight Dubai time, I found myself sandwiched between a sleeping Kai and a movie-tranced Chris in the skies just north of Karachi. We had just spent the day in Kathmandu re-visiting one of our last pre-Kai trips with Kai. It was a somewhat serendipitous event.

It all started early the previous morning when we landed in Kathmandu on a Bhutan Airlines flight from Paro. After clearing customs and storing our bags for the day we entered the bustling and chaotic environment of the Kathmandu airport. After getting vibes from a few taxi drivers that we were about to get swindled, we finally settled on a $4 fare to the nearby Hyatt hotel where we trusted that they could book us a fixed price driver in a car with seat belts for the day.    Our first stop in Kathmandu was in the northwest corner of the city at the Monkey Temple. After urging Kai up a hundred or so steps we were finally able to hang out and see the monkeys and the great view. Or so we thought. As we have found in Dubai, people felt that it is perfectly acceptable to take photos of Kai. Some asked for pictures of themselves with Kai or for pictures of their kids with Kai. Others just snapped away at our family photos taking duplicates of whatever Chris and I were shooting. It is strange to say the least.

Digression//  This was a huge problem for us on the Great Wall of China. Kai had her photo taken by strangers hundreds if not thousands of times, to the point that it completely freaked her out – which is saying a lot because she has her fair share of being accosted by cameras in Dubai as well. We had trouble making forward progress along the wall because of Kai’s pseudo-celebrity status. //Digression

We quickly decided to leave the Monkey Temple to head for Thamel, a backpacker neighborhood where people often stay when they are getting ready to head out for a trek. It seemed like fate that our driver happened to let us out in front of a pizza joint called Fire and Ice. We had eaten there on our previous trip to Kathmandu, I think on a recommendation from Lonely Planet, and it seemed natural that we should eat there again considering that we happened to find it. After a few pizzas we headed back out on the town only to quickly discover that roving through Kathmandu’s backpacker zone with a three year old was not ideal. (I know everyone is NOT surprised except for me.) There isn’t anything specific wrong with it except that due to the traffic, erratic pedestrians, and uneven pavement, I felt that we should carry her the entire time. She weighs in at 35lbs, which isn’t ridiculous, but when you overlay her weight, the temperature, and our desire to stay in the Thamel neighborhood, the needle clearly points to bail. 

After a quick walk around, we made our way to Durbar Square.

Durbar Square, as expected, was also full of life. We made our way through the complex, recalling the sites that we had visited on our last trip. After getting our fill of temples and religious sites, we made our way to a street market where Chris fiercely negotiated for a pair of peacock shaped gate handles. We don’t have a gate, but Chris has been talking about a fence for ages, so you never know. 

I’m so glad that we had this opportunity to revisit Kathmandu, and I am excited that Kai even seems to remember a lot of it. I hope that the people in Nepal are able to rebuild quickly and overcome the massive destruction that they faced following the earthquake last month. 

For the final day of our trip, we headed back to Ulaanbaatar to soak in some of the sights, chill out a bit, and tackle the car rental return process.

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After checking into our hotel and cleaning out the car, we headed off to Sixt to return the car. Again, there were mega inspections including another trip to the mechanic for a once over. Finally we got the car settled up and headed back toward Chinggis Khan Square which seemed to be the epicenter of the touristy neighborhood. Before visiting the sights, we grabbed a bite to eat at a Korean restaurant, because everyone eats Korean food in Mongolia, right?

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As we set out from the Korean joint, we realized that we had a problem. Kai’s Bob stroller had a flat tire. Unbelievable. Bob has been all over the world and has logged literally thousands of miles running with no issues. I guess that was par for the course. We limped Bob back to our hotel, dreading pushing him through both the Beijing and Dubai airports the next day and dreading even more the idea of checking him and having an energetic toddler on autopilot through two airports.

We decided to ask the hotel concierge if he could help us get it fixed. Two hours and five dollars later and we were back in business! Another example of fantastic customer service in Mongolia! Again and again I was amazed by the level of service in Mongolia, sure there were challenges like with the rental car company, but on the whole, Mongolia was a great place to visit.

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After bumming around Ulaanbaatar for the rest of the day, we got prepared for a long journey back to Dubai in the morning. All in all it was a successful trip and Chris and I both agreed that it was our favorite in a long time. We got to see a beautiful landscape, tons of animals, and feel a sense of adventure as we navigated this country with almost no paved roads. I think it will be hard for us to top our trip to Mongolia!

The next leg of our journey took us back to Ulaanbaatar for a night where we regrouped, recharged, and did some shopping for souvenirs. Cashmere is the thing to bring home from Mongolia and Chris found a great cashmere hat for himself. Ultimately I decided that even the finest and most trendy cashmere shops in Ulaanbaatar did not have a sweater that I like better than the ones that I already own; I guess that’s a good problem to have.

After spending some time in Ulaanbaatar, we headed back out of town to spend the night in another yurt. This one was the king of all yurts with a huge living area, a marble bathroom complete with hot and cold running water, a small kitchen area, and, most important of all, heat!

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It is hard to imagine that this wide open view from our yurt is just an hour drive from downtown Ulaanbaatar. Even though the capital city is home to about half of Mongolia’s population, it still has fewer than 1.5 million residents. The terrain of Mongolia varied vastly from the tree covered hills northeast of Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi in the south, and finally the hilly and treeless steppe to the west of Ulaanbaatar.

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We did a bit of hiking out near out yurt, as much hiking as an almost three year old can do anyway, and spent the rest of the day just enjoying the middle of nowhere.

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Amazingly, the HS Khaan Resort may have had the highest service level of any hotel that I have ever stayed at. The staff easily outnumbered the guests and we had all of our meals prepared by a French-trained Japanese chef; he did such a fantastic job that we even ordered an extra entree as dessert! For any aspiring Mongolia tourists, this place is definitely a must stay.

We set out early yesterday morning from Terelj, headed about 650 kilometers south to Three Camel Lodge, which is a bit northwest of Dalanzagad in the Gobi Desert. After about 90 minutes of driving, we stopped in the first of three towns that we expected to see along the way to get some bread, water, and a few snacks. Yes, that’s right, just three towns in more than 400 miles. No joke. And they were tiny towns with just the basic necessities. It reminded me a bit of Alaska or the Australian outback.

The first two hours of our journey were on dirt roads, constantly checking the GPS to make sure we were on course. With Chris as the driver, me as the navigator, and Kai with the ultimate powers from the backseat, we were lucky to easily find the paved road that we were seeking for the middle few hours of our drive, finally finishing off the last two hours on a dirt road from Dalanzagad to Three Camel Lodge.

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Along the way we saw many animals; horses, cows, and more two hump wumps than Kai could count. We saw a golden eagle, pikas, marmots, ermines, and even a fox, but strikingly few people. Deep into the Gobi, Chris slammed on the brakes “Brit get the camera! I hope the zoom lens is on! Wild cat up ahead!” We are still debating if it was a lynx kitten or a baby snow leopard. Thankfully, this furry feline was tame!

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After a full day of driving, covering hundreds of miles, I have concluded that Mongolia is indeed vast and it is most certainly empty. We knew that it was the least densely populated country in the world, but that doesn’t hold much meaning until you visit several province capital cities that are smaller than Dawson City, Yukon. It is pretty remarkable.

The Gobi Desert is much different than our desert in Dubai. We are accustomed to Lawrence of Arabia style sand dunes and suffocating humidity, but this is a flat, dry desert covered in low grass and brush with some occasional tumbleweed blowing by.

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We spent last night in a yurt in the Gobi, which was a pretty remarkable experience. The temperature dipped quite low after the sun set, but the yurt had excellent insulation and a wood stove to keep us warm. Our yurt had the special distinction of being a double yurt with a bathroom and flushing toilet in the smaller side.

After a night in the Gobi, we are excited to see the Flaming Cliffs tomorrow, and maybe some petroglyphs and dinosaur eggs too!

Our second day in Mongolia began with a trip to the local tire repair shop. In reality, I think it was the local fix everything shop; there was also a boat under repair. It really wasn’t much of a shop at all, it was a concrete building with rustic looking wooden doors, a few yurts in the yard for the proprietor and his family to live in, and a junk yard dog thrown in for good measure.

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When the tire was fixed, we headed back to our hotel to put it on the car. Kai supervised.

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Nervous about a less than awesome tire patch, we headed out on a day of adventures to test it out before our long drive to Dalanzagad and Three Camels Lodge tomorrow. In the morning we visited Turtle Rock and a meditation temple before deciding to ditch the touristy stuff and explore some more remote areas.

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Shortly after heading off-road, Kai did her requisite road trip puke in the car. Chris cleaned the Kai while I cleaned the car. And we both prayed that she had nothing left in her tummy to throw up again.

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We drove for several hours through nothingness. Over hills, through valleys, past yaks, cows, horses, and yurts. At one point today we even saw a two hump wump, um, camel. After nearly three hours of driving we had almost completed a semi-circle drive from one main road to another, when our path ended.

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Disappointed, and having exhausted all other alternatives, we turned around to drive back the way we came hoping that we would make it before sunset. Just before dark, we pulled into our hotel only to have the day finished off with projectile vomiting all over the lobby of the hotel. Kai seems to be more prone to motion sickness than most people, I am better than most at puke cleanup.

A few weeks ago Chris and I were inspired to buy plane tickets to Mongolia for the upcoming Eid holiday. Before doing much research, we took the plunge and bought the tickets deciding that we would figure out the details later. Our initial searches on the Internet told us that Mongolia might be a difficult country to travel in, but we were undeterred and forged ahead with our plans.

Fast forward to a few days ago when we hopped on a plane bound for Beijing, still with very few plans for Mongolia, still hoping that we would figure it all out when we arrived. Yesterday we visited the Great Wall of China and then caught an early morning flight to Ulaanbaatar. Less than a day into our trip to Mongolia, I can already tell that this is going to be an adventure.

My initial impression of Mongolia is that it is only for the most laid back fly by the seat of their pants travelers. After an ordeal lasting more than three hours we finally got our rental car. It involved Chris heavily editing an absurd car rental contract, a trip to the local mechanic to have the under side of the car inspected, and Chris walking out of the car rental office once with the intention of abandoning that plan. If there had been more than one car rental car company, then we probably wouldn’t have complied with all that nonsense, but Google wasn’t turning up any other legitimate options.

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Finally we headed out of town in a big Nissan SUV making a pit stop at a grocery store along the way. Surprisingly, the random grocery store that we found was far better than most in Dubai!

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After stocking up on bread, peanut butter, fruit, water, and UHT milk, we left Ulaanbaatar for Terelj where we will spend out first two nights. Within ten kilometers of the capital city, things began to change.

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And we even saw our first two humped camel!

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The going was slow, in part due to erratic traffic patterns and in part due to the quality of the road, but we made it to our hotel without even getting lost

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…only to realize that there was air GUSHING out of one of our back tires!

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The adventure has begun!