Nature lovers and scenery searchers rejoice, there is nowhere so wild, so stunning or so friendly as Mongolia. A place that supplies four seasons in a day, mountains, lakes, valleys, gorges and where the animals are widespread but the people dispersed.
Discover a country filled with nomads, tradition and superstition; read on to discover our stories fromUlaanbaatarar, Amarbayasgalant Monastery, Uran Togoo Volcanic Crater, Lake Khovsgol, White Lake, Tsenher Hot Springs, Orkhon Waterfall, 8 Lakes, Kharkhorin, Gobi Desert, Flaming Cliffs, Khongor Sand Dune, Yol Valley, White Stupe, finishing at the Small Rock Formations and learn a little of the life changing kindness of the Mongolian people you will meet on the way.
A 22 Day Tour Into The Wilderness
It really seems quite impossible to bring together all the experiences from our time in this amazing country. The tour, with Camel Track, took us across central Mongolia, which gave us the opportunity to see the huge Lakes, pine forests, snow and grand mountainous landscapes of the North, migrating South to witness the undulating sand dunes and the scorching heat of the Gobi. As is custom in Mongolia the hospitality is incredible, we drank litres of yaks milk with Nomads and even shared a Ger with a family. We rode horses, camels and survived -12 degrees.
We travelled ever so slightly out of season, starting our tour late September. Mongolia at this time of year is much quieter than high season and the changing colours of Autumn make the landscape beautifully dynamic. What’s more, we visited many of Mongolia’s wonders without meeting another tourist, when normally there would be hundreds of Europeans, Chinese and Koreans on the paths. A trip for the unprepared this is not! But that shouldn’t scare you off, if you need any tips on how to prepare for such a wilderness adventure read our Planning and Surviving guide here:
Read on to find out about our experiences of Central Mongolia’s top historical, cultural and natural sights:
Beginning Your Trip From Ulaanbaatar (UB)
The first day of the tour is nerve racking and exciting in equal measure. We arrived in UB the day prior, gathering all of our kit and supplies and let our tour operator know which guesthouse we were staying at. Camel Track was our tour operator who we can whole heartedly recommend! Our driver Urgi was bang on time sporting a purpose built Russian touring van. We’d already spotted these bug shaped vehicles during our time around Lake Baikal and they are the fastest off-road vehicle in the country, also the easiest to repair. We made a quick stop at Camel Track HQ to meet the boss Zaya and our guide Undra before setting off, not forgetting to bless the journey as a safe one by sprinkling milk onto the tyres of the car. Undra was our master chef, translator and history teacher; she spoke amazing English and explained what we would be doing each day. Before leaving UB Undra needed to do a food shop, food needs to be replenished every 3 days, so we swang into a bustling marketplace where all kind of goods can be found. Undra gave us some fresh roasted pine nuts to try for the first time, market sellers have bags of the stuff and we spotted many Mongolian and Russian drivers munching on them during the weeks prior. Initially, we didn’t realise you had to crack the shell off but once removed there in lurked a tasty old nut. Driving from the city centre to Mongolian steppe took around 30 minutes and suddenly it’s just you, nature and more animals than you can imagine.
Preparing for Mongolia’s Roads and Dirt Tracks
To get a feel for how expansive Mongolia is we might need to quote you some data. Firstly, you will find yourself in the 18th largest country in the world inhabited by only 3.2 million people. With 1.6 million living in UB. Meaning that Mongolia is sparsely populated! We drove for a whole day and didn’t pass another vehicle until the sunset beckoned. Mongolia’s government took huge loans from the World Bank to install roads as major arteries between cities but they weren’t much use for the tour operators who use more direct dirt tracks to get between places and never is a GPS in sight. Urgi had driven these paths for 10 years and knew exactly the route to take, using mountains, valleys and forests as his guides. Even in snow and fog our driver could find these routes, pretty incredible when the rest of the world are glued to Google maps. The downsides to dirt tracks are that they are incredibly bumpy, leading the van through rivers (which is quite exciting actually) and often meandering on strange scenic routes that seem to double back on themselves. They are also littered with animals; expect to stop many times for flocks of sheep, cows, horses, yaks and camels. Livestock are plentiful in Mongolia and massively outnumber the population (90 million animals); what’s more the Nomadic people rely entirely on their animals for survival.
Our first few days were long driving ones, 9am till 6pm, covering around 340km a day. We would occasionally stop for photos and to use the ‘natural’ toilet. Otherwise expect many, often draining, hours of bumps, turns and uneven terrain. We used towels on our seats as suspension!
Advice For Staying in a Mongolian Ger
Gers, this word will be used a lot, are what many westerners consider a yurt, although in Mongolia a yurt has a completely open centre allowing for large open fires to be burnt. This is closer, in western terms, to an Indian wigwam, which is quite confusing! Staying in a ger is one of the most rewarding parts of the tour because the ger gets one close to nature, in comfort, whilst allowing you to get to know the locals and experience their hospitality. Upon arriving at a ger in the North of Mongolia your wood burner is lit, wood bucket filled up and a large flask of boiling water brought in to make hot drinks. Some have wired lighting whilst others use large car batteries to run LED strips. A place for power and wifi they are not, for these luxuries you will need to book a tourist camp. Gers range in size depending on beds but as it was low season we were normally given a 5 berth ger for the two of us, very spacious for our lowly needs. Sometimes we shared our ger with our guide and driver and even stayed in a nomadic families own ger. Some of the ger’s have decorative paint work across the timber, others were more basic. All gers have beds and mattress but not all have bedding. We used a sleeping bag at most guesthouses, and if they supplied one, a duvet too. Although some lacked any useful bedding, for these we layered up clothing, popped on the wooly hat and cocooned oneself in the bag. Most mornings started with a knock at the door and in came the host to start a fire, normally between 6 and 7am, this was very welcome on the mornings that hit minus on the mercury! Being just a twosome we made fun by walking, playing cards with vodka, reading George Saunder’s bleak social commentary and a dash of classic Russian literature. Other times we would draw, edit photos and write these guides. There weren’t many other tourists around the guesthouses and the ones that were were often Korean and didn’t speak English. Its worth noting, this was probably the biggest downside to travelling through Mongolia out of season.
As sunset loomed low on our first day of travel we approached a small settlement surrounding the monastery where local families have setup camps on their land. When you arrive at a guest house in the North the hosts welcome you to a ger and Undra would prepare us dinner, which felt like a luxury after our wild camping in Siberia. On the hill above our ger was a large stupe, a symbolic structure built in memory of a person, normally at a considerable cost. These come in all sizes and can be walked around 3 times whilst looking into the centre, don’t forget to make a wish. Some have Tibetian spinning wheels, which should be spun from right to left, poor Mark got this wrong a few times. From the stupe a beautiful sun rise and set can be watched.
The monastery itself is the second largest in the country and a training school for young Monks, or Lama’s as they’re known in Mongolia. The compound is comprised of many buildings housing Buddhist artefacts; scrolls, scripts, prints, sculptures all depicting the many Buddha’s of the religion. Young Monks were chanting together when we entered the temple. Undra asked one of the Monks to talk through the history of the monastery and we found out that it started construction in 1727 and took 10 years to make. The buildings were made using glue-less techniques and the large wooden frames still stand strong today. They even survived the Stalinist purges of the 1930s when religious leaders and their buildings were put into exile and destroyed respectively, leaving a dark shadow across the the countries religious heritage.
We found this to be both the quietist and most beautiful monastery on our tour. Its location rests in large valley with only a few buildings around; both serene, spiritual and timeless.
Uran Togoo Volcanic Crater
Our next major destination was Khovsgol lake but this was too far to reach in one day. Luckily our tour took us past an extinct volcano. We had to hike up to the summit to discover a huge crater in the centre with a small forest and grass growing inside. The volcano became extinct 9k years ago, making it the penultimate extinct volcano in the country. The trees around the volcano were turning red and yellow and a grey storm was threatening. Luckily our next guesthouse was just around the corner where we escaped some very cold weather and met some friendly Portuguese travellers who had just returned from Khovsgol lake, being from the Mediterranean they found it very cold up North, ‘winter is coming’, proclaimed by one. Time is a funny thing in Mongolia; elders would tell you that Mongols only have three times of day; morning, afternoon and evening. We would often forget this arriving for breakfast at the allotted time of 8.30am to find no one ready for breakfast! One tip, leave your overly organised self behind because Mongolia runs at a different pace and even when one ger had a clock it was running 6 hours late!
This is one of Mongolia’s crown jewels. The largest fresh water lake in the country and the sister to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, albeit with a smaller mass and depth. We discovered from our guide that Lake Baikal was actually part of Mongolia long ago but was taken by Russia in the 20th century. We arrived at the lake after a whole day of travel and found that only one of the guesthouses was still open. All the others had closed and the owners had moved back to UB for the long winter. This made our guesthouse owner all the more amazing as it was run by 67 year old lady known only to us a ‘Grandma’. She stays at Khovsgol all winter (which reaches a harsh -40) tending to her yaks and cows, milking them every morning. An incredible lady. We had two days at the lake and spent most of our time soaking up the tranquility it offers. The shoreline walks were expectedly stunning so we embarked on a wonder, with Undra in tow. Walking and talking happens so freely that before we knew it we had wondered for hours, as it turns out this was Undra’s longest ever walk! Go Undra!
The final day at Khovsgol was all geared up for the horse trek. Ali has some experience with horse riding and Mark had none. The Nomadic guide brought his horses to the camp and we mounted our steeds one by one from the left hand side of the horse. Just a few pointers for horse riding; always hold the reins, never cross the reins over themselves, tighten reins to slow the horse and use the noise ‘choo’ with a little kick of the heal to speed up the horse. Once we were strapped up and ready to go we took off down the shoreline, navigating in-land towards the mountains. It’s safe to say the visual experience of riding a horse up a mountain is one of the best things we’ve done. Every second felt like we were watching one of our grandad’s John Wayne westerns. The only ‘bum’ note was that Mark endured some intense rubbing because he sat too far backwards on his saddle, blood could be seen from his trousers! For future treks we used our towels to cushion our seats, especially when trotting or cantering. The whole trek lasted around 2.5 hours.
Arriving back at the camp we were lucky to witness Grandma’s daughter and friends changing the gers from summer to autumn. This involves taking down the entire ger, moving it and layering in more rolls of felt made from sheeps wool. They moved and re felted two gers in four hours! As evening came we dined in Grandma’s cabin where Undra had prepared a Mongolian stew, which was the perfect warming supper because the temperature dropped down low that night. We put on all our warm layers, drawstringed up the sleeping bag and kept the fire burning late. The next morning we awoke early to a strong violet sky and snow capped mountains. As we set off up the valley, snow had set heavily overnight. Mongolia definitely has four seasons in a day.
Staying With A Nomadic Family
Our next destination was White Lake, which was two days drive. Our guide had said that as the sun set that evening we would see if a Nomadic family would have us to stay. We thought that this might be a case of knocking and enquiring into whether they had space. What we learnt is that Nomadic people have open doors to all travellers. Never have we been to any place in the world where so much generosity and kindness is showed towards guests. Mongolians who are travelling across the country are welcome to enter any ger they see and can expect to be served salted cow or yaks milk tea, cows milk biscuits and fresh cream. It’s not even custom to say thank you for these provisions. The first ger we entered welcomed us to stay with their family and the mother was already preparing beef dumplings, its good luck to enter when food is about to be eaten.
The father of the house brought out a bottle of vodka and we took turns to down a shot. Finding out after that it is custom for guests to sing a song for the family, Undra and Urgi kicked off with a Mongolian classic that got the whole family singing along. Next Ali and I were up on the mike, slightly embarrassed we conferred and decided on a rendition of Silent Night, luckily Undra also knew the tune and was able to join in. Vodka bottles can’t be left unfinished so Mark did a good job in downing several shots in a row with the father. Slightly whoozy, we moved next door to another ger and played a Mongolian card game for many hours. We especially enjoyed the way locals placed their cards on the floor, choosing to slap the card down dramatically. Lady luck shone on Ali this time and she ended up winning against hardened nomadic card players.
There are many customs to consider when staying with nomadic families. We were lucky to have Undra there to translate and explain the traditions of staying with nomadic people. Firstly, it’s good manners to arrive with some gifts. A recommendation was to bring functional items like soap, pens, candles so that it what we brought, not forgetting sweets for die kinder! The entrance to a ger is the kitchen side and guests are expected to sit on the left where there is normally a bed or a sofa. Traditionally the kitchen is for women and men should stay in the furthest half where there are cabinets and sometimes a TV. Men should sit themselves further up any seats than women, sitting furthest from the ger entrance. Guests should make themselves at home and taste any food that is offered to them.
Staying with the nomadic family gave us an insight into how much they rely on their animals. Almost all the food and drink consumed comes from cows, yaks, camels, mares, and sheep. They don’t drink water only milk so nomadic people have amazingly white teeth. From the animals mentioned the mothers pasteurise, ferment, dry out the animals products to make an array of different foods. Fermented mares milk was interesting; an alcoholic yeasty milk that is very good for digestion and comes in at 12% vol, you will certainly sleep well after that! We asked whether Mongolians eat vegetables and were told not so much, Nomads believe that the animals eat the vegetables and so the Nomads eat the animals. This probably has some truth to it as all animals are organic and roam the land freely. Nomads move around up to 4 times a year depending on the needs of their animals. Each time they move they make changes to their gers and make sure their livestock are safe, especially in winter when animals can freeze to death. The saddening thing to hear is that nomadic life is shrinking with only 30% of the population choosing to live in this traditional way. We felt inspired to be more welcoming and giving to others after experiencing that these families, who have so little, share so much with complete strangers.
Journey To White Lake
It took half a days drive to reach the lake but were delayed due to another vehicles unforeseen break down on a dirt track. This is a story that will teach you how vital it is to prepare for a trip into Mongolia! 15k from the lake we approached a large military looking vehicle with 5 Mongolians and 1 European standing around it, being custom for Mongol drivers to stop and help other travellers. Urgi being inquisitive had to stop and find out what the problem was. A family from Belgian had been travelling across Russia and Mongolia in this tank like vehicle, along with them they had brought their 4 children all aged under 10. The vehicle had broken down the previous day and not a single car had passed until our tour van. The 5 people already present, were national park wardens, had been called by a local nomadic family who were concerned about the Belgiums. The park wardens weren’t able to fix the vehicle so it was just lucky that we had passed at the moment and that Urgi was experienced enough to help them.
This family were vastly underprepared for Mongolia; they had no idea how cold it would get in the evenings. The children had slept badly the night before in the cold because they were sleeping in 1 season (10 degree) sleeping bags in -12 temperatures! They didn’t have a surplus of food so luckily the nomadic family had fed them. The father new nothing of his vehicle and so Urgi had to explain some difficult truths. Firstly, the vehicle wasn’t suitable for Mongolian weather as there two types of diesel in the country, one for summer and one for winter. They had the wrong fuel for the cold weather. Secondly, their batteries were totally flat and because of the size of the vehicle not even 6 large van batteries were enough to jump start them, all Mongolian drivers carry an extra battery for cross country journeys! Further to this the vehicle was too cold to start, parts of the engine had frozen. We spent 3 hours with the local Mongolian family, whilst Urgi cleaned the starter motor and lit a fire below the vehicle to warm it though. As the day went on other vehicles stopped and lent the Belgian family there batteries but nothing could start the tank. It was starting to get dark so Undra suggested that the Mother and children come with us to White Lake and stay in the guest house, Urgi could charge their batteries there and most importantly the kids would be warm. The dad stayed with the nomadic family with strict instructions to light a fire under the vehicle and keep it burning all night. The next morning Urgi returned with charged batteries and was able to start the, pre-heated, vehicle and drive it to our guesthouse.
What worried us most is that had we not turned up the family may have got seriously ill staying in frozen vehicle, or worse. They had the wrong vehicle, wrong kit, no camp stove, no phone, no money (Undra had to lend them some) and even no food or water, which the mother had expected to be able to purchase at the guesthouse! In the end Undra had to tell the parents off for being so ignorant because everyone who had stopped had done so out of concern for the kids welfare. What’s more the parents seem to have no idea how dangerous the situation was. Fingers crossed they got back UB and sold the tank!
Terkh White Lake
Family drama aside our time at White Lake was a nice one although we lost many hours as both our driver and guide were needed to help and translate for the family. We spent our day walking along the shoreline, making sure that we were wrapped up because it was bitterly cold! We passed time by lighting a large fire in the ger and did some reading, card playing and vodka shots. We had a horse trek organised for the afternoon so Mark had to do some severe patching up of his sore bum. This involved dressings, medical tape and the best invention ever, gaffe tape. Once aboard the horses we took a path straight up the mountain behind the camp and trotted across to youngest extinct volcano in the country. Passing on the way fields of pumice stones and metamorphic rock that the horses neatly navigated.
At the base of the volcano we disembarked the horse and trekked up to the summit of 2200m, albeit a very short trek because the camp was so high above sea level. This volcano crater was epic and surrounded by scenic autumn tress and the lake in the background. On the return our horses were very slow and lazy, as a result our hands and feet were frozen in the cold weather. What’s more, our calfs and thighs were aching and as we get off the horses we pretty much collapse on the floor. In our pains, a slight concern niggles in our minds that we might not be able to finish the 3 day mountainous trek coming up in two days time! Marks bum is very sore again but its ok because we had big fire and Undra serves Mutton stew to warm us through before the inevitable early bedtime, of 9pm!
Tsenher Hot Springs
The next day is a road day, one of concrete, grit, dust and stone but the temperature has improved making the outdoors a lot more enticing. We drop the mother from the Belgian family in the nearest village so she can withdraw cash to pay back Undra and compensate Urgi for his time. This is Urgi’s day because later we visit his home town for some lunch where menu’s weren’t needed as we all try Urgi’s favourite dish. A Mongol-korean dish that tasted like hoisin but swap the duck for beef, it was delicious! Served with Kimchi, seaweed, rice, cucumbers and ubiquitous Russian potato salad. An hour before sunset we arrive at Tsenher Hot springs and it only takes 10 minutes for us to strip down and blast open a beer in the steaming hot spring baths. It’s so hot we need periodic breaks but that only makes the cold air outside more refreshing. From the baths we spot a steaming stupe in the distance so we robe up and wonder across to check it out. The ground is literally steaming and the stupe has been built above the steaming ground. It makes for a beautiful photograph. We introduce Urgi and Undra to the western card classic Shithead, which they pick up quickly. Unfortunetly for the loser a shot of vodka beckons but alcohol is no problem because we slurp on some fermented mares milk which is as alcoholic as wine!
Everyday brings something new and today it’s a waterfall. But this one is steeped in history; once called the red waterfall on account of huge battle in 20th century when the waterfall ran red with blood of two opposing forces. For tourism reasons they changed name to much friendlier Orkhon. Our ger was situated only 1km from the waterfall so we visited it a couple of times during our stay. If you do visit be sure to take the rocky path down to the base of the waterfall, which is far more scenic and features zero tourists. Most visitors just stay at the top, although at the top we bump into our friends from Portugal who were very tired and feeling the cold. They had covered huge amounts of the country in only a few days, Gobi and all. It’s great to see them again and we share stories from trips and it turns out they have some sore bums too. Our ger was run by a lovely family; the father, Baggi, turned out to be our guide for the horse trek so we would spend a lot of time with him. This was our favourite ger of the whole tour due to the beautiful hand painting on the woodwork, table and chairs with backs and the outright rarity of having a sofa, we felt like we were at home that night! We watched Okja and apply all the families duvets on top of us for another chilly night in a semi-open top ger.
Horse Trekking To 8 Lakes
We awaken excited and nervous about the coming few days. Can our bodies survive the gruelling 9 hours of riding each day? How will Marks bum fare? Will we have a naughty horse? Will a horse spook? (we keep hearing horror stories of spooked horses running free from the horse guides gaze) Our nerves are slightly settled by the Mongolian outfits, chaps and helmets making this a is lot more professional than the two previous horse rides. We pack light as our kit is bagged and strapped to an extra horse and then Undra, Baggi, Ali and I take off across the plain. The horses were very well trained; speeding up and slowing when ordered. Baggi is singing Mongolian songs to calm the horses and Undra sings too, they both have excellent voices and it adds an authentic soundtrack to the journey. Our nerves are settled quickly after the first three hours pass without any pain.
We stop for milk tea and lunch with a nomadic family and then the real test starts as we hit the mountains. The horses do a great job on the ascent and we make it to our guesthouse on a hill above one of the 8 lakes well before sunset. Here we de-robe, gortex up, and wonder into the woods down to one of the lakes we passed earlier. Oh and lest we forget, we named our horses Choco Pie on account of Ali’s brown horse and White Lightning for Mark’s. The ride up through the mountains by horseback was one of the most beautiful experiences we’ve ever had travelling. Imagine the afternoons setting light flittering through walls of trees as the path rises and meanders down as each summit reveals the next valley to come. Unforgettable.
We are awoken during the night to the hottest fire we’ve had in a ger, at the oh so convenient time of 3am. We figured that the host had lit it but it turned out Undra had been the firestarter after she had to escape from the families ger next door. It seems the father of the family had stayed up drinking vodka and chatting with his friends being not so respectful of his guest! Undra was fed up with the chatting and laughing so she came to our ger to seek refuge, starting an almighty fire in the process. We all lay awake for hours waiting for the fire to die down.
Day 2 of the 8 lakes ride took us past the remaining 5 lakes, unfortunately at the time of the year we visited one lake had already dried up. We kitted up and took off into the open plains, Wild West style. At one point Baggi slowed his horse and allowed our horses to pass his, we found out that our horses stop following Baggi speed, accelerating as they wish. Before we knew it our horses were cantering in tandem across a field; Ali, Mark and Undra all screaming as the horses sandwich in next to each other at high speed, exhilarating but scary. We passed the 5 remaining lakes discovering that they are all interconnected by underground streams. After lunch we take the mountain pass back out of the valley, which is no less beautiful but much colder this time. After navigating some tricky downward terrain we stay at a homestay at the start of the parks entrance and collapse into bed after a long days riding.
We awake to snow the next morning, Mongolia’s weather is so crazy, but this makes the return journey to Orkhon feel very different to the outward one. By day 3 we feel like hardened horse riders, cowboys even, and navigate the plains confidently, trotting at speed the whole way. The horses get excited about the homeward journey and quicken their pace further. Baggi and Undra practice their singing and dream of performing a Mongolian horse riding classic. We pass through icy rivers across the snow capped steppe arriving back to see a happy Urgi at the Orkhon camp. As we reach home Baggi tell us with covered 100km in 3 days, who needs cars we think.
In the family ger, with typical Mongolian generosity, we are served milk tea, biscuits and noodle soup, our second lunch for the day. Legs flaming from three days riding and full of food we retreat to our ger as the snow begins to fall heavily, we drink a few cans and recount the amazing few days as snow mounts around the ger. Baggi brings us coal for the burner, which burns for the next 10 hours keeping us snug the whole time.
The next morning 2 inches of snow has fallen outside and Mongolia looks like a completely different country. We decide to check out the waterfall in the snow and are followed by six playful, and probably freezing, dogs. We are told that if the sun is present in the morning the snow will disappear by lunch. We didn’t believe this but as we stop for the first point of interest for the day at Uurtiintokhoi canyon the snow has thawed. The valley is seeped in a bloody history and the river running through it is huge, 1100km long. We stop to watch mares being milked, which is happens every two hours every day! Arriving at Mongolia’s ancient capital city, Kharkhorin, in the afternoon to wonder the largest monastery and the cities museum. Here we learn about the many empires that came to form Mongolia. Discovering that Beijing was once the capital of the empire after Gengghis Khan’s grandson moved it there! We stayed in our first tourist camp that night, which was certainly our least favourite nights stay on account of the many noisy tourists that spoil Mongolia’s calm evenings.
Having ruled North for two weeks and endured the harsh cold weather we start our journey South to the Gobi desert. The landscape begins to flattern out, rock turns to dust and later to sand. We stop seeing yaks and camels become the main stay. Windows must be kept shut as the cars release huge plumes of dust as they motor across desert. The Gobi feels remote but there’s something special about it. We are traveling towards an old monastery that used to be a Buddhist teaching temple with 1000s of monks. The soviet purges all but destroyed this temple, still eighty years later the place is rubble. Aside from one temple that has been rebuilt with funding for the local community. It’s pretty sad to see such rich history destroyed. Recently, the government had paid reparations to the families of the monks who were murdered but nothing has been done to repay the cultural and religious loss to Mongolia’s Buddhist heritage. It’s a sad place, where you can’t escape the horrors that once occurred there.
We set off early the next morning and arrive at our desert camp by 1pm. We feel like we might be on a Star Wars set as the landscape is open desert with just a few gers forming a camp. Every direction is infinite sand, it’s pretty cool! (but actually very hot) As the afternoon approaches we are driven to the flaming cliffs, which we share with 100s of Koreans who are plentiful due to a national holiday. The cliffs were formed by the sea millions of years ago, just look at the photos.
Khongor Sand Dune
The next morning we are excited about the desert so we get up at 6am and wonder towards a forest recommend by a Swiss couple we met the night before. The sun’s rising and the forest looks and feels like Africa. We are followed by a sandy coloured dog, we name him Simba. Back in the van, our next stop is the much famed Khongor dunes which are some of the largest and longest in the world. It’s also a day closer to riding a camel, yippee. The next camp is run by the tour companies bosses brother, so everyone feels very at home. We spend the early evening walking towards the towering dune, having to remove socks and shoes to cross a river, only to find out the next day there is a bridge 1km up the dirt track. Still it was quite an adventure, if a little messy on the feet due to the camel turds. We managed to touch the sand before having to head back to camp before sunset. Our guide told us that many tourists have found themselves lost in small dunes near camp. With this mind we raced back to avoid being branded a lost tourist!
Next day we finally get to ride camels. This is really fun as they move very differently to horses being taller and ever so awkward in their movement. They are naturally quite cushioned animals too and move far quicker than you might expect. Mark was a silly one, not realising his camel had already stood up, he expected his camel to stand up further when he was already 6ft off the ground, they’re not Giraffes Mark! We ride camels for two hours to the base of highest part of the dunes where we said goodbye to our lanky steeds. The next challenge may be one of the toughest ever. Walking straight up a 40m dune; just think one foot forward two steps back. We were broken, almost weeping, at the top but the view of the dunes were very special and worth all the pain. Watching the Koreans squeal their way to top made us feel a bit better about our abilities too. Going down was great; we surfed, skated and rolled down to the base and then back to desert camp by van.
After the sandy highpoint, excuse the pun, of the dunes the next day had a lot to live up to. Our route was now always North towards UB and the Yol Valley is a small section of a enormous national park, which connects with the Altai mountains in Russia and Kazakstan. Yol valley was freezing cold because of the height of the mountains either side would channel cool air down. We wrapped up warm, which was lucky because within minutes it was snowing. The valley extends for 100s of km so we were only going to scratch the surface. That and it was the busiest site of the tour with all tourists entering the site at the same place.
We are told snow leopards live in the national park but you would need to adventure far into the valley to chance seeing such a rare thing. That said, upon leaving the park we did see some rare things. In a small unassuming museum at the parks road entrance were held an array of dinosaurs bones. Preserved and protected they are not, not even in glass cases! These relics were found in the valley and were approximately 70 million years in age. Undra went on to tell us that many locals have these dinosaur bones at home, they’re not that rare in the Gobi. Imagine having an actual dinosaur bone over your fireplace!
The name of this place doesn’t really sum up what you see. There is, of course, a white stupe to observe but the meat of the dish is a beautiful multi coloured rippled stone sculpture. These iridescent colours were created by moving tides millions of years ago when they were the sea bed. We visited on a grey morning and the colours were still fantastic. Mark had a bad night and a funny stomach for most of the day meaning the visit was shorter than normal. Remember if you start to feel bad in the night wake up a down a few shots of vodka to kill any bacteria. Unfortunately for Mark he was too late for this remedy and a day in bed was needed to get back to normal.
Small Rock Formations
Our last day of the trip was a sad one, so many amazing things seen and so many new experiences. The last was much better than the name makes out. A spiritual site where an old temple had been destroyed, similar story to previous religious structures. The difference was that the temple was surrounding by stunning rock formations that act as fortitude for the site and the many tourists made stone stupes that surround it. Expect some interesting craggy rocks to climb and a 10 meter deep cave that a local monk once hid in to evade the purges.
Our return to the capital meant a fair bit of travelling but the funny thing about Mongolia is that there are very few roads. Our 260km trip was guided by only two! We said our farewells to our new Mongolian friends and then took two cabs to our hostel, a booking mix up meant we had to move to a sister hostel. The room was massive and carpeted so we just laid on the floor reflecting on the life changing experiences. The Mongolia trip gave us so much time to think that we hatched quite a few plans and aspirations for the future. We want to be more open, friendly and giving and show that, like the Mongolians, living happily with less is achievable. Mongolia, you were amazing. World, you must visit Mongolia!
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