17 days around north and central Mongolia
Trip Start Jul 20, 2004
207Trip End Jul 20, 2014
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Mongolia means the land of blue sky.
We arrived in Ulan Bataar in on a crisp Monday morning. After taking up residence at the Golden Gobi hostel near state department store, I went around guesthouses to find like minded people for a tour of north and central Mongolia. At UB guesthouse, I met Emma from England and we decided to travel together until July 14th. Our idea was to take public buses wherever possible and either join a group or form a group for the leg of the journey that was not covered by public transport. We stoked up on food in UB, where the supermarkets are filled with delicacies from Germany and Russia including delicious bread and cheese. The rift between countryside and city is so big that food stores in Ulaanbaatar offer German jam, butter from New Zealand, cheese from Russia, mustard from Czech Republic, and juice from Poland (these are just examples), but virtually no products of Mongolian origin besides yogurt, bread and sausage. Mongolia lacks the technical means to produce and transport dairy products in winter; with temperatures below -30 C (-22 F) milk and cheese have to be heated rather than to be cooled! As a consequence, relying on imported foodstuff without access to local resources is an expensive endeavor for the average city dweller and shoestring traveller stretching the budget to its limits.
Our first stop was Erdenet, which we reached by bus from UB. The city was founded around 1975 and lives and dies with the copper mining industry. It has distinctively Eastern European character with Stalinist buildings and decrepit apartment blocks.
The next day, we went to the minibus station to get a ride to Moron. After the Russian minibus was filled to the rim with about 18 people and luggage we finally left. We had to pay 25000Tugrugs, 7000 more than Mongolians pay. Though the Russian vans are sturdy, they are prone to overheating which happened quit often along the way. After 18 hours, we made it Moron where we could not find a place to stay, so at 4am, we went out of town and parked the car and went to sleep in the van until about 8:30am. The driver has promised us to take us to Lake Khovsgol for 10000Tugrugs. Known as "The Dark Blue Pearl", Lake Khovsgol is Mongolia's largest and deepest lake. Located in the northernmost province, it is the largest tributary stream of Lake Baikal in Russia. Lake Khovsgol is 136 km long,36 km wide, 262 metres deep and is located at an altitude of 1645 m above sea level and is frozen from January until April or May. It's the second largest fresh water lake in Central Asia. It's inhabited by nine species of fish including the Siberian grayling and lenok. Fishing and sport fishing are becoming popular in the lake area. The Fauna and Flora, and the Tsatan, an ethnic group practicing reindeer breeding, are the main attractions for tourist. A ferryboat operates between Khatgal and Khanh, two towns on the southern and northern shores of the lake that is within the boundaries of the Khovsgol National Park.
At Lake Khovsgol, we stayed at Bond Lake guesthouse which is run by Bayarlai who used to work for Nature's Door, another guesthouse. Guest can either camp, stay in gers or stay in one of the two rooms. Bayarlai and his team are wonderful. Him and his wife speak English and two of the wait staff speak English. We organized a 4 day horse trek with them and got to meet our guide Monti and the horses the day before. The first 2 days of the trek we went along the lake with camping near the lake. We visited the reindeer herders who kept the reindeer on leashes and sold their souvenirs. It was too touristy for me and I spent the 30 minutes at the place admiring the reindeers and brushing their winter coat off. From there, we went over a mountain pass into the forested area from where it would take us 2 days to go back to Khovsgol. This part was my favorite part and looking back now, I would have skipped the lake part altogether and only ride in the unspoilt and beautiful mountains. The lake is dotted with tourist camps and, therefore, did not appeal to me at all. But the mountain trek was magnificent. I was happy there. The camping spots were beautiful, we always camped near streams so we had water for washing and cooking and for the horses. For breakfast, we had coffee and bread with nutella. For lunch, we had canned fish, cheese and salami, cucumber and bread. For dinner, we cooked instant noodles with green peppers. It was delicious.
After 4 days with perfect weather, we returned to Bond Lake guesthouse and after having settled in, the area was inundated with heavy rain which leaked through the roof of the guesthouse (but our room stayed mostly dry). We stayed two days at the guest house while I explored the surrounding area and Bayarlai tried to organize a vehicle that would us take to White Lake and Tsetserleg. After having found 4 more travellers, Laura and Leonora from England and Gabriel and Steffi from Switzerland, who were cycling around Mongolia, we negotiated our fare and left for Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake). The lake is located in Arkhangai Province, a 10 hour ride from Khovsgol. We got to the lake at about midnight and had to look for accommodation. the first tourist camp charged $30 per person for a ger; too expensive for all of us. The next camp was a small family camp with about 5 gers and the people there were happy to accommodate us. Gab and Steffi slept in their tent and we four went into the ger. It was cold but the family made a fire in the stove and it got hot were fast. One of the family members told us there was Nadaam at the village of Tariat. Leonora and I decided to take the van as I wanted to hike back the 10km and also did not want to pay 5000Tugrug for the horse. This was our first exposure to Nadaam.
The Nadaam festival, or eriyn gurvan nadaam, is the biggest festival of the year for Mongolians. Usually occurring in July, it runs for two or three days in all parts of the country and highlights the greatest athletes in horse racing, archery, and wrestling: Mongolia's most popular sports. Women participate in all but the wrestling category. The word Nadaam means game or competition in Mongolian.
In Tariat, it was the last day of Nadaam which wrestling being the only sport to be seen in the arena. The horse races were outside of town but we got to see the young winners parading in circles in the arena. People ate lots of Huushur, fried mutton dumplings, ice cream and drank their favorite drink, airag. It was good to see Nadaam on a small scale as it was possible to walk around and watch people and animals from close distance. I decided to hike back to camp and traversed volcanic landscapes without noticing that I am walking below the extinct Khorgo Uul volcano. I realized that I missed the volcano when I reached high ground and circled a huge ovoo three times. From the high point, I had a great view of the lake and the mountains. I loved White lake and would have spent 1 week there, hiking and horseback riding around the lake and into the mountains. Compared to Lake Khovsgol, White Lake offered better scenery and more tranquility. It was my kind of place, a happy place for me. We only stayed two days as we had to make our way to Tsetserleg since the van had to be in UB on the 10th.
We got to Tsetserleg in the late afternoon. During the drive, Leonora discovered that she had left her bag which included passport, diary and train tickets to China at the ger. We went to the Fairfield cafe, run by and English couple and with the help of the owner who speaks Mongolian, Leonora found another driver and car and went straight back to White Lake for another 6 hour ride. We stayed at the Bulgan hotel and migrated daily to the Fairfield which had European food and pastries. We got to the town just in time for the 2 day Nadaam festival. Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia. We got there around 11am on a dreary and cold day. After scouting the area to find a place to stay, we ended up at the Orkhon River guesthouse where we got a room with 4 beds. There was a shower and an appalling outdoor toilet. But the girls who took care of the place were sweet and we got the room for 3000Tugrugs. We went to the container market for lunch and stuffed ourselves on buzz and fried noodles. This town looks so desolate that it is hard to believe that this was the ancient capital of Mongolia. It is also hard to believe that there is no running water in town. Our girls had to carry the water from some kind of waggon that delivers it into town. I instantly wanted to go back to Tsetserleg. The next day, we went to Erdene Zuu Monastery which was destroyed during the communist purges in the 1930 and now awaits resurrection. The temple complex includes a museum, several gift shops and the Erdene Zuu Endeavour School.
I am loosing my concentration now and have to finish quickly. The next day, Emma went back to UB and I rented a horse and went up into the hills to have a quit and relaxing day. On the 14th, I went back to UB and decided that I don't want to head our again. I had no clean clothes anymore and I was not in the mood of packing up my bags again for another trip. I am not sad that I haven't seen more parts of Mongolia; i can always come back. But I think I am getting a bit tired of touring around from ger to ger. I want to stay for a while at one place. I am not sure where and when this will happen, though. I am heading back to China on the 17th and then plan on going to Tibet where I hope to meet up with my friend Fii. Its been 2 years of travelling now and 6 months in Asia. I need a place like Yangshou again where I can just chill out for 2 weeks. We'll see what I can find.
Where I stayed