Tales from Two Weeks Trekking Mongolia
06/28/2013 - 07/10/2013
We spent two weeks trekking around Mongolia, and had an amazing time. In a country of just under 3 million people, of which almost half live in the capital of Ulan-Bator (aka "UB"), and (with the exception of Greenland) has the honor of being the largest country with the smallest population density, there are a lot of wide-open views. It was easy to see why Mongolia has the nickname of the "Land of the Blue Sky".
We took the Trans-Mongolian train (otherwise known as the K23), from Beijing to Ulan-Bator (30 hours), which was a great adventure, and probably deserves its own post. This train has only sleeper cars, a small dining car, and hot water. We passed the time reading, playing cards, chatting with fellow passengers, enjoying the scenery, and sleeping. Sunset was especially cool.
It was an interesting journey, but we were glad that we had changed our itinerary to spent more time exploring Mongolia, and less time on the train going all the way across Russia. That would have been a LOT of time on the train.
Day 0 - ARRIVE AND PREP
We had a day to get ready for our trip. We spent that day buying snacks at the "State Department Store", and trying to figure out a way to get the cash to pay the tour company (No, they wouldn't take a credit card, and No, they had forgotten to mention that when we confirmed our trip a week or so earlier). Of course, you can only take so much cash out of the ATM per day, but we managed to do a cash-out from our credit card to pay for it. Mongolian money only has denominations up to 20,000 Tugriks (about $13.82USD), we ended up with a huge stack of cash. It was a bit stressful to walk across town carrying a couple of thousand dollars to pay for the trip, but we got it done with no worries.
Of course, when booking a tour through a company (which we usually choose not to do, but sometimes have to), the written itinerary (theory) differs from what actually happens (reality). Here's the writeup from the tour company, along with our pictures and notes about how it really went.
DAY 1 - ULAANBAATAR FOR BAGA GAZRIIN CHULUU
We will start with a full day trip out to the Baga Gazriin Chuluu Ruins. A picturesque Mountain Baga Gazriin Chuluu is one of the most attractive areas of the Gobi desert. With at an elevation of 1.768m, it is located in the granite belt. The ruins of a small monastery are on the south east part of the mountain. The area has got many species of wild animals and birds, such as ibex, argali, vultures, hawks and eagles. At the ruins, there are some mineral water springs and trees a top the many beautiful rocky hills. On the way we will stop for a lunch at Zorgol Khairkhan Mountain, and then we will continue to drive to the first campsite of our trip. Once we get there, we will have free time to wander around the mountains and do some hiking. We will camp overnight in this area.
The van picked us up at 9 in the morning, and we loaded up our gear and met our guide/cook Enkhay and our driver Batra. Unfortunately, the picture we snapped only has Enkhay in the background; Batra will remain anonymous. Both turned out to be fantastic travel companions.
The van that was to be our ride for the next two weeks is a common variety around Mongolia. Originally from Russia, the UAZ-452 is pretty comfortable to ride in, and can pretty much go anywhere (as we were to learn). We also learned that the engine vents hot air into the cab at all times (no A/C), which is nice when it's cold outside, but not so nice in the middle of the Gobi. We had the windows open a lot.
Off we went, dealing with the infamously bad UB traffic on the way out of town. Once we cleared the main part of the city, Batra pulled off the asphalt road onto a dirt track. We thought this was temporary - little did we know that we wouldn't see another paved road until we headed back to UB 12 days later. Here's what it looks like from the backseat - if this makes you a bit queasy, think of how we felt...
Here's a view from our first stop - there's UB in the background, and the dirt track leading up to our first pass (marked with the ubiquitous ovoo). After we went around the cairn three times and added our rock for good luck, we continued our drive.
After a couple of hours of bumping along, we stopped next to the Zorgol Khairkhan mountain. We made a bush bio-break and then climbed around for a while while Enkhay made lunch.
- NB: Our meal (which would be repeated in various incarnations as both lunch and dinner) was a combination of pasta, mutton, and some vegetables (usually carrots, cucumber, and cabbage). Sometimes there were potatoes. Sometimes it was soup. It pretty much all tasted the same. Not bad, but the repetition started to verge on monotonous by the end of the trip.
We reached our destination mid-afternoon. There was a cave to explore, rocks to climb (and jump off of), and an abandoned monastery. We had our first encounter with the local cow mouse (zuram in mongolian). Cute!
Our first evening staying with a nomadic family in one of their gers was an interesting experience. It was bigger inside than we expected, and pretty cozy with the wall coverings, although we were all calling for the chiropractor after a night sleeping on the thin mattresses. We had a quick dinner, watched the goats getting milked (they were tied together by their heads, which made for the funny picture below), and watched our first sunset in the desert. We slept well, although the goats were LOUD!
DAY 2 - TSAGAAN SUVARGA
After having breakfast at the campsite we will drive to Tsagaan Suvarga /White Stupa/. In the afternoon, we will reach the Tsagaan Suvarga and explore to see white stupa and go for hiking around. Tsagaan Suvarga, an amazing series of cliffs, white and pink limestone rock formations taking the appearance of stalagmites up to 30 meters high. It is an excellent site for taking photography of the beautiful panoramic views. Stay overnight in family ger.
Day 2 started with the same breakfast that we would see for the remainder of the trip - bread, butter, jam, instant coffee with powdered milk, tea, and (perhaps) a thin pancake or bread dipped in egg and fried. Filling, but not so great for someone who's trying to avoid gluten (sorry Anne!).
We then set off to visit the "White Stupa". We should have realized that something was up with the quotes, since there was no actual stupa (a type of temple). These were actually very brightly colored cliffs, formed by erosion and layers of colored stones. Pretty beautiful.
What was even more exciting was the drive to the cliffs. Enkhay told us that this road was nicknamed "Crazy Mouse" after a Mongolian kids game, and it was certainly crazy. We didn't get to take any video during this section (we were too busy trying to hang on), but there were a couple of sections where we thought we were going to tip the whole van over. Luckily, we made it through intact, but it was certainly CRAZY!
Once we found our ger camp for the night (nomadic families have a tendency to move around, and Batra had his hands full trying to locate them), we met the family, which included a daughter about Leah's age. She was very nice, and we spent some time playing volleyball, soccer, hopscotch, and visiting the local camels. She showed us their baby white camel too! (BTW, camels are really loud at night!)
In the morning, we left her with a bracelet and a new hair band. Little things, but she really liked them!
DAY 3 -YOLIIN AM
After having breakfast at the family, we will start driving to Yoliin Am, which is a deep narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains of the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, covering 70 sq.kms. There is a small natural museum at the entrance of the National park which exhibits a collection of dinosaur eggs, bones, stuffed birds and snow leopard. This place is also very rich by the rare plants.
After we seeing the museum at the entrance we will drive about 10kms to get to the car parking where we leave our car there and walk a head to the ice gorge and stream for a several kms. In the winter time, the stream freezes several kms into the gorge. It remains frozen for most of the year, except late summer. We will see the ice gorge until end of the July. The ice remains usually disappear around early August.
On the way we get to the Yoliin Am we will stop for a lunch in a huge flat steppe. Once we wandering around the gorge, we will get back to our car and drive to the next family we will stay there for tonight.
Today we would go to the "ice gorge". Back in the van (we started calling it "Wally") and a couple more hours bumping around. We stopped for lunch in THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Seriously.
It was a sunny afternoon, and the gorge was a beautiful place to hike through. Unfortunately, although the description said that there would be ice until August, when we visited it was mostly all gone (we saw one or two spots remaining). Nevertheless, it was a wonderful place to explore and climb around. We saw more "cow mice" and ground squirrels. Since this area of Mongolia has so few trees, most animals nest on the ground. When walking or driving around we were constantly sending them scurrying or flying off in all directions.
That night, we met a couple of other Westerners that lived in UB and were visiting. We had a great time playing cards and hanging out with them, as well as celebrating Canada Day the next morning!
DAY4 - KHONGORIIN ELS SAND DUNES
After having breakfast, we will drive to the sand dunes called Khongoriin Els. The Khongoriin Els sand dunes lie north of the Baruunsaikhan Mountain in the northern part of the Sevrei and Zuulun Mountains. The Khongoriin Els is one of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia and they are up to 200m high, 12km wide and about 100km long. The largest dunes are at the northwest corner of the range. You can climb to the top of the sand dunes and then slide back down on the plastic bags. The views of the desert from the top are wonderful. Climbing to the top of the dunes during the sunset gives you an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding desert, to the north lies the Khongoriin River. We will stay overnight in a family ger.
It was a long drive to the Khongor sand dunes, made a bit longer by a flat tire and pitstop for a distributor cap replacement. Luckily, Batra is as good of a repair mechanic as he is a driver, and the stops were pretty quick. We had lunch in a gorgeous canyon,
and the rolled up to the sand dunes in the late afternoon.
It was very hot during the day, so we laid low until it cooled off a bit in the evening, and then hiked up the dunes to take some pictures of the sunset. It was a hard climb, but well worth it for the views.
On the way down, we learned why they call these the "Singing Dunes". As the sand moves down the hill, it generates a low rumble and vibration much like a truck or an airplane. We wish we had gotten some audio/video, but (thanks to the magic of YouTube) you can hear it here. It was pretty amazing.
DAY 5 - CLIMBING TO THE SAND DUNES
Today after breakfast, we can possibly arrange some optional camelback riding around the sand dunes before the lunch time. After having lunch at the family we will climb and hike to the top of the biggest sand dunes. We will stay overnight in a family ger tonight.
The day dawned HOT, and we grabbed a quick breakfast and went out for our camel ride before it got any hotter. Camel riding was a neat experience, although it really consisted of the camel walking around for an hour while being led by one of the local kids. However, we can validate that camels are quite tall, the humps are kind of floppy, and they do sneeze quite a bit.
After camel riding/walking, we hid in our ger for the rest of the day to stay out of the 40C degree weather (>100F!). At least it was easy to dry our laundry. When it got cooler again in the evening, we went for another adventure to the sand dunes.
We all enjoyed playing with the local dogs there too - this one had the hugest head we've ever seen!
DAY 6 - BAYANZAG ("FLAMING CLIFFS")
After having breakfast this morning, we will drive to the Bayanzag which is an important fossil finds have been made. It was given name by American paleontologist Roy Chapman who visited there in the 1920s. The area is the most famous place for finding the first discovery of dinosaur fossils. There is a picturesque saxaul forest the place is named after and colorful rocks which is brilliantly colorful. We will visit Mongolian family there and will staying overnight with their ger.
Another long day of driving to get to our next stop at the Flaming Cliffs. They had another pack (gang?) of camels there,
and we got settled into our ger and met some other other travelers before it was cool enough to go to the cliffs (did we mention that this was the desert?).
The Flaming Cliffs are well known for their beauty and for their location as one of the early dinosaur fossil finds (so Enkhay told us), but we had fun just climbing around and exploring. BUT, we were sad when we got to the little shop there and learned that they had just run out of ice cream. TEASE!
DAY 7 - ONGIIN KHIID
After having breakfast in the family at the Bayanzag, we will head off to Saikhan Ovoo which is a small village in the Middle Gobi province. The bend in the river marks, the remains of two ruined monasteries, the Barlim Khiid on the north bank and the Khutagt Khiid on the south. The monastery used to have about 500 monks and built in the late 18th century for dedicating the first visit to Mongolia by a Dalai Lama. The monastery was reopened in 1990 and current Dalai Lama visited in 1992.
When we pulled into our next location, we were ecstatic. We had been promised that the next ger camp would have a shower (it had been days since our last one), and we saw a big luxury ger camp laid out in front of us. Unfortunately, we were on the "budget" tour, and passed by the fancy place to a decidedly less fancy place. It was okay - they actually had electricity where we could recharge our camera batteries and various electronics while we took a shower (lukewarm and drippy, but it got us mostly clean...) We learned later that it was $70 per person per night at the fancy place, vs. $5 pp at the place we were at. We made it up to ourselves by walking over to the fancy place and crashing the restaurant for cold drinks and chips while using their electricity. WooHoo - rebels us.
There was also a trip to the monastery next door, but since every building had been razed by the Communists in the 1930's, and the river had all dried up. But the one reconstructed building that we visited was very interesting (although they didn't allow for pictures inside...you can use your imagination).
DAY 8 - ORKHON WATERFALL
This morning after breakfast, we will drive to the Orkhon waterfall. In the afternoon, we will arrive to the waterfall called Ulaan Tsutgalan /Orkhon Waterfall/, enjoy spectacular view of the waterfall and surrounding area, where we will have chance to take some beautiful photo shots of Orkhon Waterfall. The Orkhon river drops into 20 kms volcanic crack thus forming the 24 meter high waterfall of Ulaan Tsutgalan, highlight of the area. We are having dinner and stay overnight in a ger.
We're moving north now, heading out of the desert into the cooler, more forested areas of Mongolia. The scenery is fantastic no matter where you look, with big mixed herds of goats and sheep, bands of free-range horses, and the first yaks we've seen. These goats watched us closely as we clambered around camp.
Unfortunately, there was no water for the waterfall, so that was a bit of a bust. We had a good time playing with the local dogs (and goats), and we did get to see a smaller waterfall the next morning.
DAY 9 - TSENKHER HOT SPRINGS
We drive to Tsenkher hot spring, a sulphur spring that emerges from the ground at a sizzing 89C. Facilities include outdoor and indoor baths, showers and accommodations.
This day had the shortest description, but was by far our least favorite. The "baths" were dirty (and filled with big Mongolian men), the changing rooms were full of flies (see video), and the showers reeked of sulpher. Here's Leah's opinion of the baths:
The place that we were staying was beautiful though. About 15 minutes away from the "resort", on the banks of a pretty river, with lots of hills and horses and dogs. No end of good photo ops...
DAY 10 - WHITE LAKE AND KHORGO VOLCANO
After having breakfast at the family we stayed, we will drive to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (White lake) and Khorgo volcano. The Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is also known as White Lake in the Khangai Mountain range in central Mongolia with relatively pure fresh water. The lake is 16 km wide, about 4-10m deep with its deepest point at 28m and over 20kms in a length. It is flooded 61sq.km and the lake has pike and other fishes. Rare birds are found here as well. This volcanic lake was created thousands of years ago by lava flows from the nearby Khorgo Mountain volcano. Khorgo Mountain is an extinct volcano, which lies east of the White lake. This area has been protected since 1965, fully in 1997. Once we arrive to the White Lake, we will visiting nomadic family there and walk around the lake. We can go for fishing and swimming before the dinner. We are going to staying in a Mongolian family ger.
This was probably the longest drive day that we had. Over mountain passes and across rivers, we finally made it to Tsesterleg, the city center of the aymag (province) that we were in. A quick stop to replenish food and snacks, and we headed into the national park / protected area.
After a close call of possibly staying in the coldest/dirtiest ger we had seen so far, we switched to the next camp and crowded into the family's kitchen ger for some warm yaks milk and cookies. Once we had been properly welcomed, they showed us to our cozy and warm ger. Good thing, because we were here for two nights, and it was pretty cold (and rainy!). The White Lake area is very pretty, and we spent the afternoon climbing around and exploring the area (and playing with the local dog - sense a theme here?)
Noah and Alex even had a close encounter with a yak!
DAY 11 - CLIMBING TO THE KHORGO VOLCANO
Today after breakfast, we possibly arrange an optional horseback riding trek to the Khorgo volcano. Once we get there we will climb to a volcanic crater, the Khorgo at 2100m. From the summit there opens a splendid views over the landscape and the lake. We will ride back to the same family and stay overnight there.
Horseback riding day - and we got a good one. While the previous day had been cold and rainy, today was much warmer, although still a little cloudy. Our ride today would be 90 minutes to the crater, then a hike up, followed by lunch, and then the ride back. We got saddled up on our Mongolian horses, and set off.
We had a great time, even though we got a bit rained on during the return. Our horses were all pretty well behaved, and we even got a bit of a canter in! A very good time, but we were all walking funny by the end (sore!). We spent the evening playing soccer with the local kids, and snuggling next to the stove in the ger (a far cry from the heat of the Gobi!).
DAY 12 - KHARKHORIN
After breakfast, we will drive to Kharkhorin which was a capital city of Mongolia in 13th century for about 30 years, located in northwestern part of Uvurkhangai province of Mongolia. On the way to get to the Kharkhorin we will have a lunch on the open space of Mongolian countryside. We will drive forward to Kharkhorin after the lunch. One of the Mongolian most attractive monasteries Erdenezuu locates in Kharkhorin City. The Erdenezuu monastery is the most ancient survived Buddist monastery in Kharkhorin, Mongolia. The Erdenezuu monastery was built in 1585 by Abtai Sain Khan and the monastery was allowed to exist as a museum, the only functioning monastery was Gandan monastery in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. However after the fall of communism in Mongolia in 1990, the monastery was turned over the lamas and Erdenezuu again became a place of worship. Once we get there, we will accommodate in a town ger hostel. After having dinner in a hostel, we will have a free time hiking or wandering around the town.
Our last big day (and night). We actually got to drive on a paved road for the majority of the day, which was a very welcome change. It took us until mid-afternoon to make it to Kharkhorin, where we spent an hour visiting the monastery. Noah even got to hold a giant eagle - pretty amazing!
An early night prepared us for our final day's return to UB.
DAY 13 - ERDENEZUU MONASTERY AND DRIVE BACK TO ULAANBAATAR
After having breakfast at the hostel, we will visit Erdenezuu monastery. After visiting the monastery, we will drive back to Ulaanbaatar. On the way back to Ulaanbaatar we will stop by the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai. When we arrive to Ulaanbaatar, we will be transferred to a hostel or hotel for tonight.
This was a wonderful time. We saw (and experienced) so much, it's tough to write it all down. Suffice to say that for everything that we wrote here, there's another story (or two) behind it. Mongolia is a fantastic place - the people were all very kind and hospitable, and the landscapes are stunning. We look forward to returning to explore more of this country (but we were very happy to be out of the van!).