Ulaan Baatar and the plains and deserts of Central Mongolia
14.07.2009 - 28.07.2009
As our China multi-entry visas limit us to 30 days for each stay, we decided that a side trip to Mongolia would be a great experience - for the real thing as opposed to repeating my unimpressive Inner Mongolia visit of 1997...Although some of them may seem too perfect to be true, all the photos below are definitely authentic and were not taken from tourist brochures or photo-shopped! Mongolia's natural environments require no enhancement to capture the beauty of the landscapes.
However, there were a few hurdles to cross before we were able to enjoy the Mongolian plains:
- It took two attempts to lodge our visa application at the Embassy in Beijing - the first day the window closed at 11am on the dot with 20 odd people still waiting outside and after serving only about 5 people...the next day we were very early, they opened about 15 mins late, but this time we just made it to the window in time to submit our applications. Picking up was the same thing in reverse and we only just made it in time to collect our passports within the one hour opening time from 4-5pm and there were no doubt several people who missed their trains because they couldn't pick up their passports...it literally took 5-7mins for the officer to check the receipt against the passport, write down the visa number in a record book and then return the visa and passport to the person - in an hour that means only 10-12 people are able to pick up their visas each day!!!
- Within 50m of the Ulaan Baatar train station, we noticed someone trailing very closely behind us and Tara suddenly turned around to see a man trying to unstrap our tent from the back of my backpack!! He wasn't quite prepared for the many different straps holding the tent on though and especially after Tara saw him, he beat a hasty retreat!!
Our hostel obviously didn't want anyone to get the wrong impression about the city...
After UB however, everything became much more pleasant (though bumpy) as we headed out into the plains with a pair of Belgium guys from Antwerp we split the cost of our 9 day Central Mongolian tour with (one of whom has a claim to fame having appeared in the World’s Most Shocking Videos – search “naked man bull-fighting” in youtube to see what we mean – and somewhat amazingly, he’s not the only one!).
Our first stop was this small lake after about 7hrs of driving and (apart from the insect infestation) was a nice half-way break on the way to our main destination, the much bigger White Lake. Earlier, on the way here we stopped to walk around an ovoo (a Mongolian prayer mound formed by piling rocks on top of each other), where we followed the tradition of picking up a rock and after walking around the mound 3 times (in a clockwise direction), adding a rock to the pile. We also saw this old guy seemingly heading off into the middle of nowhere and wondered when he would get wherever he was going...
At the lake, there was a small hill which we climbed for the sunset view - Tara also found some time for meditation amongst the ovoos at the top (and happily without any bugs around)!
To give you an idea of what we dealt with here, look at the amount of bugs arond these guys. Tara was naturally disgusted and walked around most of the afternoon with only her eyes sticking out from under her jacket hood - the bugs hovered around in big groups and just waving your hands in front of your face would squash several...not so nice! Another aspect of this showed up in the welcome drink of fermented horse milk (Tara's first time), which inevitably contained many of these bugs floating in it - given it would be impolite to refuse the drink, perhaps mercifully we couldn't see exactly how many were actually in there...But you could feel them going down!
Mongolian gers - our accommodation for the next 10 days. And our food for the next ten days was carrots, potato, mutton, with either rice or noodles...the staple food of the nomads. No matter how it was prepared, it always tasted the same.
Our trusty "Russian-quality" van...perfectly matched against the "Mongolian-quality" roads!
White Lake Ger
After another solid full day of driving, we arrived at the beautiful White Lake and our base for the next 4 days, although we didn't stay in this ger for long, embarking on a 3 day horse-trek around the lake the next day. Thankfully no more nasty bugs.
Although a bruising trip of another kind, this was the highlight of our trip here and we saw some amazing scenery. While all of us struggled with our comfort level in the saddle for approx 7hrs/day, one of our Belgian friends, Marijan, having never ridden a horse before, had the most ground to make up. He originally didn't plan to join us, but after a night of wild vodka drinking with our driver, woke up with a big change of heart...probably to be his first and last ever horse trek of this kind!!
After arriving at our second night's camping spot sore and exhausted, we were lucky to only just have enough time to get our tents up before the heavens unleashed a massive storm on us, but when we emerged from our shelters, we were rewarded by this magnificent rainbow stretching across the horizon and the first time any of us had seen one this big completely from one end to the other.
Our final stop before finishing our 3 day trek was to see this massive extinct volcanic crater - more impressive in person, but here we are (and it was probably a good 100m down to the bottom)!
In some parts of southern and central Mongolia, it was possible to see the solar eclipse (although our photo appears to show the opposite, this is the sun being covered by the moon) of July this year at about 40% coverage, and we were fortunate to be able to sneak a glimpse of it through the clouds - somewhat ironically, although we could have tried to capture the full eclipse further south in China, the skies would no doubt have been affected by pollution, while out in the middle of Mongolia with virtually zero pollution, we woke up to cloudy skies!!
We'll let Tara do the talking here, but this was very welcome relief after 5 days without a shower...gross!!
Our next stop was at the Orkhon Khurkhree Waterfall, at an altitude well-over 2,000m, where we spent 2 nights. Our timing was once again great and after dropping our bags and invited into the family's ger for some yak milk tea, our driver said we needed to hurry and drink fast to make it to the annual Yak Festival which we had no idea was happening and couldn't believe our luck as this happened to be another highlight of our Mongolian trip. When we arrived, we were just in time to see the end of a yak race and driving beside 20 yaks being ridden against each other at full speed was incredible. At this point we didn't even know people could sit on a yak, let alone race one! But oh, was there more. Next up was a yak herding competition (with lassos), bareback riding rodeo style, and to top it all off there was a mini yak polo tournament with rudimentary mallets hacked from tree branches. But all the competitions were carried out in good spirit and all the spectators were having a great laugh - especially the chaos of trying to find the ball amongst all the yak feet in the polo! As it was a major event with Mongolians travelling from all over, there was also a television crew around interviewing the victors and a small market.
One of our most genuine experiences on this trip was our first night here which we spent in the family ger (normally we were put up in a separate tourist ger) and since everyone seemed to be in a celebratory mood (but given what we have seen on this trip, perhaps that's normal), it turned into an interesting night as the vodka consumption climbed...First, when we were getting ready for bed, there was a young boy left sleeping on one of the beds we thought we were given, but didn't know what to do about the boy or sleep on the floor. Finally, someone must have remembered the child and rescued him from us about 30mins later (to our relief)! Then, in the middle of the night, the man of the house stumbled into the ger and tried pouring himself and a friend a bowl of horse milk (I guess less alcoholic than vodka) but only succeeded in pouring it all over Stefan's backpack and the floor, which didn't combine well with the other smells of yak cheese, milk, butter, yoghurt etc in every corner of the ger (convenient for midnight snacks)! In his drunken state he also somehow noticed our poor attempt to close the roof of the ger (it was freezing at this altitude) and worried about burning the ger down, quickly pulled the cover back which was close, but not touching (we knew that much), the chimney of the stove...it was a cold night for us!
Stefan thought some horse milk might be a good nightcap after all...it wasn't!
We also had an opportunity to try our hand at milking the family’s yaks, but I guess it takes years of experience as I wasn’t able to coax one drop out – Tara was a bit more successful with the woman’s touch!
Our last stop before returning to UB was in a short section of desert, dubbed the "Mini-Gobi". On the way, our driver “suggested” that Stefan might want to help him test the depth of the water – unfortunately, for Stefan, but fortunately for us the water wasn’t so deep but the mud was…we made it safely across thanks to our Russian quality van!
We had time for a quick horse-ride in the afternoon with this Mongolian cowboy who sang songs to us and was very keen to pose for photos - he made a great subject (perhaps brought on by the fact that he was practically drunk on fermented horse milk and several times appeared to be close to slipping off his horse)!
Although a somewhat crazy angle, our guide perhaps does his best work after a few drinks - quite an artsy shot we thought, even if unintentional!
We had a few days back in UB before heading back into China, which we used largely to relax and enjoy having access to showers and more variety than potatoes, carrot and mutton!