From Ulaanbaatar to Tsagaan Suvraga
27.04.2017 - 30.04.2017 18 °C
Our guide Oogii and our driver Amgaa (which is pronounced ‘Amra’) picked us up at our guesthouse and we headed south. We drove through many quarters full of typical soviet apartment blocks, but also through areas where the typical Mongolian gers / yurts dominated the scene.
As we reached the edges of town, it was clearly visible how quickly Ulaanbaatar is and has been growing: the town that had been laid out for 300,000 inhabitants, is now home for more than 1.3 million Mongols – almost half of its population. Consequently, there were lots of new developments and the vast steppe is converted into town.
And there’s no middle ground: the town seems to end abruptly and suddenly there’s only steppe and pretty much nothing else. Well, except here and there we saw a herd of animals. Already after the first couple of kilometers we had seen yaks, horses, sheep, goats and cattle.
As we crossed the hills surrounding Ulaanbaatar, we stopped at an ‘ovoo’ and surrounded it three times clockwise. According to Mongol traditions and shamanic beliefs, doing this and ideally also leaving with every turn a stone or donation on top of these artificial stone hills will guarantee a good journey. Let’s hope they are right…
When it was time for lunch, Amgaa just took a right turn into the steppe. He drove for a couple of hundred meters and parked the Furgon such that it blocked out the wind. We set up a table and chairs and had sandwiches and salad for lunch. It was great to have the van as protection from the wind, but we still rather ate quickly to avoid having our food covered in dust.
Driving back onto the road over the steep shoulder was no problem at all with our Furgon. Unfortunately, it then started making strange noises and it took Amgaa a couple of attempts to repair it in order to eventually give up and just unhook the four-wheel drive. That avoided the noises, but also meant that at some stage he would need to get a spare part to get the 4WD properly fixed.
We were on the road again. But after a total of 160 km, we headed off the main road and it was time to bid good bye to the advantages of asphalt roads. Pretty much unrecognizable for a foreigner like us, Amgaa suddenly turned left to take the track towards the small hamlet of Deren. Even though the track seemed not to be used too often, the ride was surprisingly smooth. Along the way, we passed a small well with lots of sheep and goats around. It was a nice view and latest by then we realized that we had left UB far behind us.
In the endless steppe, there was pretty much nothing. As far as we could see, there was not a single tree or bush. And so early in spring, the grass was just starting to grow showing just a hint of green on the otherwise brown / yellowish plains.
Once we had stopped in Deren to fill up on fuel, we headed south for another half an hour and then searched for a nice spot to stay overnight. We stopped in a slight depression out of sight of the track that we had come on. There was nothing around us, apart from a large herd of sheep and goats a couple of kilometers south of us.
Still, our presence had been discovered quickly. After just 30 minutes a nomad stopped by on his small motorbike. He was keen to have some company and found out which kind of news we brought. He was very kind and even took Max on a quick tour on his motorbike.
We learned from him, that this time of the year is very busy for the nomads with sheep having to be sheared and goats combed. He reported that prices for cashmere have gone up and he’s now getting 60,000 tögrög (i.e. 30 USD) for a kg, whereas a kg of sheep wool is only worth 500 tögrög. He was happy and seemed to be able to live well from that income.
Once he headed off, Oogii was able to continue cooking our dinner. We had a local version of fried noodles with vegetables and a bit of meat. And it tasted fabulous.
While she prepared dinner, we had already set up our tents, which was very easy. We had to only throw them and they were setup. A couple of tent pegs to attach them to the ground and to avoid that the wind is blowing them away and done.
As soon as the sun went down, the wind subsided and it got very still. But at the same time, it also got quite chilly and we were starting to put on more and more layers. It did not take long to realize that it was time to head into our tent and to go to sleep.
We slept very well in our first night in the tent. The thick sleeping bags had been a good investment and none of us got cold at night. While we recapped how well we had slept during the night, we started realizing how quickly the sun had started to heat up our tent. It was time to get up and have breakfast. Muesli, fruit and Nutella – there were no wishes left open!
We had only a short drive of 50 km for today, but within that short distance, there was much to be seen. Our favorite sight was a nomad on his small motorcycle moving his herd of camels and horses to a new pasture. According to Mongol traditions, seeing a move means good luck.
And indeed, shortly afterwards we got to see a herd of wild gazelles and a large steppe buzzard. And there were lots of small lizards around as well. It is very surprising how much life is supported by such a seemingly sparse land. Every once in a while we saw a yurt in the distance and sometimes stopped quickly to ask for directions. Somehow there was always someone around - a nomad on his motorbike or a kid herding some animals.
At noon, we had reached our spot for the night. We camped in the ‘Ikh Gazaryn Chuluu’ national park which features big granite formations known to the locals as the ‘big earth mother stones’. We found a nice place, protected between the granite rocks and with a nice view out towards the wide valley.
After lunch, we explored a bit and went for a hike. Scrambling up towards the highest spot in the area, we came across various birds, most notably a snowy owl and lots of proof of animal presence – dung, wool caught in thorny bushes and even horns.
Back at camp, we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon. While Amgaa maintained the car, he had a nomad coming over in order have a chat. Max went scrambling – both with Sam and with Oogii. There were enough climbing opportunities around us.
After excellent dinner, Sam headed off to take pictures of the sunset.
We prepared for a camp fire and even had a ranger stopping by to have a chat – after all, we’re in a national park. And we really appreciated the local culture of people stopping by for a quick chat.
The next morning, we decided to rather head South vs. East in an attempt to cut a couple of hundred kilometers from our rather busy tour program. During the 100km of tracks it took us to reach the district center in Mandalgovi, we encountered lots of camels, cattle and even gazelles. But our favorite were the herds of sheep – their tail wags so cutely when running away from us.
For lunch, we had one of the Mongolian national foods: khuushuur, a kind of fried meat pie. But we also used the stop in town for doing some shopping for meat and eggs, to get our water supply replenished and to fill up the car. Then we were ready for another stretch of tarmac that should get us more quickly to our destination than a track. Considering the amount of holes in the tarmac requiring sudden breaking and swerving, we were not quite sure, if this was really faster.
As we turned off the asphalt again, Max was delighted. He was allowed to help Amgaa drive for a couple of kilometers. Everyone had a lot of fun, but most importantly the two drivers. Still, for Max the driving was heavy work. With every bump in the road, he had to keep the steering wheel under control. It was heavy work – both physically and for his concentration.
When we saw a big group of camels next to the road, we stopped and took some pictures. There were we in our Furgon and the camels. And apart from the tracks leading through that part of the Mongolian steppe, there was nothing.
A bit later, we also saw some gazelles. Contrary to the camels, they are wild and do not belong to anyone. And they are extremely fast. Once we detected them at the horizon, they were already gone.
After a while, the landscape around us changed and there were some red rocks appearing in the distance. A bit further, we stopped to explore a little cave system. Equipped with our headlights, we walked into the absolute darkness of an underground dry river. Luckily, there were no bats down there. Usually, I don’t mind bats in caves. But when the caves are so small like this one and there’s not even enough headspace to stand up straight, then this is different.
It was just 15 minutes of driving to reach our next overnight spot. We stayed at the top of big white cliffs (‘Tsagaan Suvraga’) that had eroded at its bottom into a landscape that reminded us of the painted desert or the Badlands.
We were a couple of hundred meters away from the parking lot. A good choice, after all this marked the first time that we encountered some other tourists. In total, there were maybe ten carloads of people coming and going at various times that evening and the next morning. Most of them were fairly quiet and just admired the landscape. It’s just the Koreans which were unmistakable. To the dismay of their driver, one of them even climbed the roof of his Furgon – a good opportunity for us to keep joking about with our driver Amgaa.
While we admired the changing colors of the cliffs at sunset, he was working on fixing an issue with the right front wheel and just briefly stopped his efforts for dinner. We had the meat that Oogii had bought today and even though our palates are not really used to mutton, we liked it. It must have been after 10pm when he was finished with his repairs. We had settled into our tents already a lot earlier.
We slept way too long to get to see the sunrise. By the time we were up, also the falcons and the raven were active and we got to see some great maneuvers with one group fighting off the other.
That morning, it was a good track we were driving on. As usual, we were amazed at the ease with which Amgaa decided which of the many turns to choose. We can call ourselves lucky to have a driver with such good orientation skills.