The name ‘Mongolia’ has always stirred up visions of the untamed and exotic- the warlord Genghis Khan, camels wandering in the Gobi Desert and wild horses galloping across the steppes. Even today, Mongolia seems like the end of the earth for many European Over landers. As a travel destination Mongolia remains relatively new, having only opened its borders to tourism with the arrival of democracy in 1990. The real Mongolian experience is to be found beyond its towns and cities where you will find the country`s immense wilderness, unobstructed by fences or private land. Our last few nights in the Mongolian bush just beyond the Chinese border with a starlit sky above us, was perfect. And I must agree, Mongolia remains one of the most pristine and unspoiled regions of the world. Mongolia has centuries of tradition of respect for nature and it also has the oldest nature reserve in the world. Mongolia spreads across 1.5 million sq. km of the Central Asian plateau. Around 40% of the population lives in the capital Ulan Bataar. Then another 40% of the people live in the country herding livestock in the extensive pasturelands. However, the centuries-old nomadic lifestyle is coming under pressure from climate change and urbanisation. Mongolia has an extreme climate, with a temperature range from minus -50C in winter to plus 40C in summer. Ulan Bataar is the coldest capital city in the world with an average yearly temperature of 3 degrees Celsius. Mountains dominate two-thirds of the country. But did it meet our expectations? Yes, it did. The bitumen roads are full of potholes; the main tracks are badly corrugated and not maintained since Genghis Khan was in charge. Europeans must think this is off road as they fly over the corrugated tracks! These are car-destroying roads. Hence you see many tourist cars limping into Ulan Bataar with broken springs, shock absorbers, sway bars, damaged tyres and broken chassis. However, venture off road away from the main tourist tracks and the bitumen roads and the going is much better and much more exciting and smoother. Mainly follow wheel tracks or no tracks at all and just use the GPS. You need a good GPS and way points. In my view, as part of a world trip, Mongolia must be included in your trip.
BORDER TO AMARBAYASGALANT KHID MONASTRY
We arrived at 6pm and this is the time that the border closes, hence we had to park our truck in front of the gate and stayed the night. Mixing with vodka drinking Mongolians and Russians, do I have to say more? We were warned by others on the web to prepare for an 8-hour saga getting all the papers right to leave Russia and then enter Mongolia. During the night, 3 Mongolians jumped the cue in front of us. I assume they weren`t happy that we parked in the car-lane as we were supposed to be in the truck lane. Two hours to clear Russian Customs and one hour to clear Mongolian officials was all it took for us to enter Mongolia. That day we only drove 80km to visit one of the four bow and arrow factories in North Mongolia. This factory only produces 40 sets a year as it takes around 3 months to manufacture one set. While we were watching, the locals told us that tomorrow Naadam would be celebrated in the town and today at 3pm there was a performance for the local population to start the festivities. We were also told that tomorrow the big horse race was on and the wrestling. If we wanted to stay we could sleep with a local family. So, we decided to stay. This day and the night before became unforgettable. We were introduced to the villagers and invited to the horserace (18km), wrestling matches and the archery. In the local community hall, we were invited for a performance of dance, song and the Mongolian throat singing. They gave us a camp spot behind the house of the village elder and we were made at home. We were the only foreigners in the village.
It seemed like we had won the jackpot. Our trip into Mongolia started off with being bogged a few times and sliding side-ways down tracks, all to get to the famous Amarbayasgalant Khid Monastery. The trip started well on a bitumen road and then we had to turn off the road and we soon found that the storms last night had left their marks. Once we arrived at the Monastery, the rain had become torrential. The monastery is located at the foot of Burenkhaan mountain. Amarbaysgalant or “monastery of tranquil felicity”, is one of the largest and most important monasteries in Mongolia. Built between 1727 and 1736 with more than 40 temples in honour of Zanabazar, it is one of the very few monasteries to have partly escaped the destruction of 1937 by the looting communists. The rain did not stop and one storm after another started. The whole place became clogged, hence we decided to stay the night. By 4pm the sun came out, but we could hear thunder all around us. The place was a mess with many cars bogged, and two of the Ger Camps we drove past were under water. It was a matter of staying mobile and once we found a high spot we parked and that was the spot for the night. Early morning, we decided to leave and have a look to see if we could get back to the main road (only 35km away), wishing I was driving my Patrol instead of a 7500kg truck. In fact, it would have been the easiest of tracks to drive in the dry but water on black soil changes everything.
Ulan Bataar the capital city of Mongolia where 50% of the Mongolian population lives. Driving into Ulan Bataar was not as bad as we were told it would be. Traffic is horrendous, and it is a matter of push and push more, but nothing worse than Central Africa.
We did however have torrential rain and the whole city centre was flooded making it very difficult to work out where the pot holes were. And some are quite deep! We needed to pick up our Carnet de Passage, organize our China visa now we have all paperwork that is required. We were told that we would not get our visa until Monday 16 July. We had hoped to get this in a few days.
But as the man politely said, “Your country does not issue Dutch visas very fast to our citizens either”. I suppose tit for tat. But we wanted to visit the Nadaam Festival. It means we must now leave Ulan Bataar a little later. We are told the festivities in Ulan Bataar, (UB as the locals call it) are the most colourful in the country. The Naadam festival is a thrilling three-day sporting event that has been held for centuries and features the “three sport games of men”, horse racing, archery and wrestling. We will try and visit all three plus the opening ceremony. During the week we also visited the town of Ulan Baatar. This is the capital and largest city of Mongolia. Located in the north central part of the country, the city lies at an elevation of about 1,310 meters (4,300ft) in a valley on the Tuul River. We visited Sukhbaatar Square with its Parliament House and Opera House, Gandan Monastery and Zaisan Hill so we could get a good view of Ulan Baatar
Horse racing: The most impressive spectacle is surely the horse racing. The horses cover different distances according to their age. Azarga (stallions) 28km, Ikh nas (horses more than 5 years old) 30km, Soyolon (5-year old’s) 25km, Khyazaalan (4-year old’s) 22km, Shudlen (3-year old’s) 20km and Daaga (colts to 2 years old) 15km. There are no limits on the number of horses participating; usually 200-600 horses in each race. The five winning horses are honoured with a cup of mare`s milk (airag) on their neck. The race had a few casualties, 2 horses died, and 16 jockeys fell off their horse. One horse died right in front of us only 200 meters from the finishing line, leaving its 9-year-old jockey devastated not wanting to leave his dead horse.
Wrestling: Hundreds of wrestlers fight in the stadium. The wrestling area is unrestricted; there are no weight-classes and the one who touches the ground with any part of the body, other than the feet, has lost. The winner continues to the next round. At the beginning of the third, fifth and seventh rounds of the match, the trainers sing praises to the wrestlers of their group. The winning wrestler imitated the flight of an eagle, swinging his arms around and touches the muscles of his legs with his hands. The loser must stand under the wings of the proud winner. We found the game not as exciting and some matches take up to 30 minutes.
Archery: Mongols are almost born with the archery skills, an integral part of the nomads` lifestyle. From the very childhood such qualities as perfect eyesight, measurement, patience and strength are nourished to develop a good archer. Mongolian bows are very tight, so it requires pure strength to stretch it out. The team, first beating out all cylinders qualifies for the next round with the number of targets sharply reduced. The last round involves only three cylinders. During the tournament, judges stand on two sides next to the target. Each time, an archer prepares for a shot, they would start slowly the so called Uukhai song. As soon as the arrow hits the target, the song’s melody changes and an experienced archer immediately knows how many cylinders were hit.
The name ‘Mongolia’ has always stirred up visions of the untamed and exotic- the warlord Genghis Khan, camels wandering in the Gobi Desert and wild horses galloping across the Steppes. Even today, Mongolia seems like the end of the earth. We travelled east and outside Ulan Baatar we began to wonder if you had not stepped into another century, rather than another country. The extensive grasslands of the steppes covering the centre and eastern part of the land with a 360° view are the heart of Mongolia. The south is the domain of the Gobi Desert (extending down to China) with large sand dune areas and canyons in Eastern Gobi, the “dinosaur graveyard”. Mongolia is one of the highest countries in the world, with an average elevation of 1,580m (5,180ft). During our stay in Mongolia we crossed the country from East to West and North to South. Including the track to China and ventured off along dirt tracks into the Gobi Desert
Late that afternoon we found one of those perfect campsites overlooking part of the Gobi Desert. We enjoyed dinner, watching the satellites come over and a thousand stars. Today was a day we required navigation equipment as the tracks were everywhere and no road signs to be seen.
At Around 11pm out of no-where three tourists walked into camp (2 English and 1 French) and they were lost! We were parked at least 1km from a faint track we followed but they had seen our lights. Amazing! They had a Mongolian guide and had been driving in circles for 12 hours looking for a Ger camp. Just imagine if you had paid a lot of money for a remote desert tour and your guide got you lost! They had no GPS-Satellite phone and no food on board. We woke up to dark clouds and it did not take long before torrential rain hit the area. This is the Gobi Desert! It turned out to be day of bad corrugations, mud, water-crossings and a bit of slip sliding and not a lot of progress. The wind was howling, and we needed a spot out of the wind, so we descended a sandy cliff only to become bogged in soft sand! A bit of work with the shovel and the Max Trax and this problem was fixed. We decided to drive back up the sand dune and camp up on top with a magnificent view. The night sky gave us a light show all around us and we were wondering what tomorrow would bring. One thing was for sure the company of Callum and Michelle was superb. And we also realized that this was the first time we travelled with another car since we left Australia. Next was Yolyn AM in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. Yolyn AM (also called Vulture Gorge) and the creek remain frozen nearly all year round. Ice remains in the gorge year-round and builds up to several meters in thickness throughout the winter.
Once we returned from the 5km walk, we set up camp in the gorge for the night and watched vultures and eagles circle above us. It soon became very cold at night at 2450meters, but the camp fire kept us warm till around 11pm. Next was the area of the Khongoryn Els but before we arrived we had experienced lots of mud, torrential rain, thunder, and sleet. Khongoryn Els is an area that stretches over 180km from the North West to the South East, like the dunes in Namibia (Sossusvlei).
They belong to the largest moving sand bodies in the world. We found a perfect camp spot at the foot of the highest dune, which had a permanent spring which creates a green wetland around the area. Tomorrow we continue our journey through the Gobi Desert. After 8 days we are still in the Gobi Desert, but we are now moving North towards the town of Arvaikheer. We decided to use compass and GPS to cross the mountains from the sand dunes towards the town of Bulgan. We really were over all the tourist tracks and the horrible corrugations. The route we took was perfect and gave us some spectacular views as we crossed over the mountains. In Bulgan it took a while before we found the water pump, and we had a fright as the fuel station was out of diesel! The Gobi Desert is a vast zone of desert and desert steppe covering almost 30% of the Mongolian territory and north-eastern China. The desert stretches about 4,830km along both sides of the Chinese border. The Gobi Desert is often imagined as a lifeless desert, similar to African deserts. Most of the Gobi Desert is a land of steppes and many camel breeders inhabit this zone rich in wildlife and vegetation. It has herds of Bactrian camels (with two humps), wild horses and donkeys, as well as leopards, mountain sheep and ibexes.
There is a great variety within the Gobi Desert, from wildlife parks and mountains to canyons with dramatic rock faces. Climate is extreme with +40° in summer and -40° in winter and very little precipitation. But this did not apply to this year when Mongolia experienced one of its wettest summers ever. We woke up the next morning to dark grey skies and before long, the rain was pelting down again! Finding the tourist track to the Flaming Cliffs was easy and we parked (camped) right on top of the cliffs. The Flaming Cliffs became the flaming windy cliffs, but fair is fair, it was a nice. We had a visit from the local goats and around 7pm the wind died down and it was then a perfect evening. Today we are tracking along the same route as Ron Moon did in 2010. He spent the night along this track and nicknamed it Boggy Hole Camp! As we drove down the escarpment, it looked like one big inland sea, and it did not take long before we started to slip and slide and decided to find our own way instead of the track on the map. By midday the sun came out and by around 1pm we were back in the dry country. we travelled cross country all day to get out of the Gobi Desert and just before dark we spotted the bitumen road 60km north of Aikenveer. We set up camp on top of the mountain, looking forward, to the black top.
How disappointing this was, the road was potholed and when we turned left towards Tetserleg after the toll gate, we were driving to the birthplace of Ghengis Khan and I am sure that was when the road was built! An absolute shocker and we were looking for every opportunity to go next to the road and onto the grass. At last we arrived in Tetserleg and no visit is complete without visiting Fairfield House, an over-lander meeting spot run by two Aussies. Good Food, good company WIFI to catch up on mails and internet. We needed repairs to be done on the truck and before we knew it, it was nearly dark. Hence, we decided to camp 5km out of Tetserleg on the river. As we arrived at the river, Murray his wife and the kids, were having a BBQ so we decided to join them, and it turned into a perfect night, listening to the stories they had about Mongolia. Next morning, we woke up to blue sky and a wonderful view into the gorge. It was hard to leave this place but as we had spent too much time in the Gobi Desert (bogged 7 times) we needed to move on. Nice lunch at Fairfield Cafe in Tetserleg and off to the Hot Springs only 27km away, but it took us 2 hours in yet again torrential rain and thunder. We arrived late afternoon set up camp next to the resort and for 10USD p/p were allowed in the Tsenkher Hot Springs. We relaxed at the Tsenkher Hot Spring, where the water flows out of the ground at sizzling 89 degrees Celsius. But it did not take long before we called it Mongolia`s version of Disney Land. Cars everywhere, resorts, live performance and cold beer, (which we enjoyed), but in fact we stayed a little too long! We bush camped 1km from the resort and had to walk back in the dark, resulting into some mishaps, including landing in a heap of cow shit! It was also the last night with Callum and Michelle, so we enjoyed their company with beer and Gin and Tonic.
Next, we ventured into western Mongolia while Callum and Michelle returned towards Ulan Bataar. The area around the Tsenker Hot Springs that the Mongolians call ‘the paradise of the horse herders’ for its lush grasses and open valleys. The next day we spent another perfect day in a beautiful valley surrounded by pine trees at the bottom of a gorge. The following days we spend at Tjerkhinn Tsagaan Nuur a perfect place to relax and do nothing.
We passed an extinct volcano in Khorgo National park. On the way a visit to picturesque River Chuluut /Canyon/ and Taikhar Rock, a 25 meters high, mysterious steep-sided pinnacle of granite. Lake Tjerkhiin Tsagaan is 20km long and was formed by a dam of lava flows from volcanic eruption. Here was our turning point as we had to be on the border with China on August 9 and we still had to do a car service in Ulan Bataar. Unfortunately, the one other highlight we wanted to visit but did not get to, was Lake Khuvsgul. It is Mongolia’s largest lake and the largest tributary stream of Lake Baikal into neighbouring Siberia. The deepest lake in Central Asia and the world’s 14th largest source of fresh water, Lake Khuvsgul is 1645m above sea level and frozen from December till.
We also missed out on visiting a family of the nomadic Tsaatan (reindeer breeders) who have decendents in both Alaska and northern Siberia. This journey to China is not only costing us a lot of money but due to inflexibility and the Chinese rules and regulations, we are very much on a tight schedule; let`s hope it is worth it. Much of the parts of Mongolia are grassland, home to Mongolia’s famed takhi horses, which Genghis Khan used so successfully in his wars of conquest.
Until the 20th century Mongolia was twice its present size and included a large chunk of Siberia and Inner Mongolia (now controlled by China). We ran out of time, so we never visited the far west of Mongolia, but by all accounts, this area is very nice and has trees and looks a little like Switzerland. Its highest mountains are in the far west. The Mongol Altai Nuruu are permanently snow-capped, and their highest peak, Tavanbogd Mountain (4,370m/14,350ft), has a magnificent glacier that towers over Mongolia, Russia and China. Between the peaks are stark deserts where rain almost never falls. The lowest point, Khuch Lake, in the east, lies at 560m (1,820ft). Mongolia is dotted with about 4,000 lakes, one of which is Lake Huvsgul, which contains 2% of the world’s fresh water; and rivers where fishing is abundant. On our way back to Ulan Bataar after an early start, we headed to Mongolia’s earliest capital, Kharkhorin or otherwise known as Karakorum. This ancient capital was created by the son of Ghengis Khan, Ogedai. Trust me you know it once you arrive into this town as the roads are from the same era. Absolutely Shocking! That afternoon we visited Erdene Zuu, the first Buddhist Monastery in Mongolia. Next, the ancient ruins of Karakorum. The drive through the Orkhon valley was fantastic. Late that night we set up camp just before lun lun. The following day we drove through the Khustain National Park. This park in famed for the wild horse (Takhi), and with the re-introduction project now boasts more than 200 tahki. Late that night we arrived at the Oasis happy to see Callum and Michelle once more. Early start to get the Truck serviced and fix the broken 4WD.
ULAN BATAAR TO CHINA BORDER
70 km East from Ulan Bataar, is Gorkhi Tereli National Park and we bush camped on the Terelj river bank. This is a spectacular valley with eroded rock formations, and pine-covered mountains and grasslands. Park wildlife includes brown bears but we didn`t see any. It was time to get to the Chinese border. The weather was still rainy and quite cool. The first 250 km was some of the best bitumen we have seen in Mongolia. Then came about 175 km of good off-road dirt; no corrugations but mud, holes, bumpy and sandy tracks. Around 40 km before Bayand Ukaa we were back on the black top and it was again some of the best bitumen in Mongolia. This continued for around 90Km.
From here, we were back to goat tracks but still no corrugations. This continued for around 119 km until we arrived in Zamyn-Uud. The population of Zamyn-Uud is around 12000 and I am sure they all are taxi drivers, ferrying people from Mongolia across the border and back. We camped next to the fuel station, so we could witness what happens here in the morning just before the gate opens. Unbelievable! Fist fights, arguments, bribery and even taxis driving in to each other. Total chaos! No one seems to care about police or army. Hence, we decided to join this mayhem with our truck; at least we are big with a huge bull bar hopefully demanding some respect. Suddenly we found ourselves first in the line with some help from the police and the army. This was at 8am and by 10.30am, we at last found some-one who spoke English. By this time, we were already in front of the exit gate to China. But alas! We did not have the paperwork we required for China and to exit Mongolia! We thought by our vehicle blocking traffic things may go faster. But this was not to be! We now also had an issue with the lady who had to stamp our pink form allowing passage to China. She slept in! By now it was 11.45am and at 12noon the border closes for 3 hours! Anyway, after many calls she appeared, collected our money and off we went into China. 6 weeks in Mongolia were now behind us
When you visit Mongolia there are two highlights we recommend.
Visit during the Nadaam Festival. During July, Nadaam is held all around Mongolia. We were very lucky to have been to two small villages and we were invited by the locals to camp next to their house
Visit Mongolia in winter. By all accounts it is spectacular. Combine this with the Ice festival in Harbin (China)
BAYARTAI FROM MONGOLIA & WELCOME TO THE PEOPLES` REPUBLIC OF CHINA
You know the song – “What a difference a day makes”. Well we found ourselves singing “What a difference 100 meters makes”. From sandy tracks and potholed bitumen to perfect bitumen. Customs was well organized and only one hour later we were all done and met our guide (minder). The local police man turned up and handed us our China License and another official handed us our China number plate. Our car was checked over (No meat, fresh vegetables, milk or eggs). Photos were taken of us and the truck, and off we went on a perfect bitumen road.