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Highlights of Central Mongolia

From Khurjit via Kharkhorin, Elsen Tasarkhai, Khustain Nuruu National Park to Ulaanbaatar

semi-overcast 13 °C
View Around the world 2016/17 on dreiumdiewelt's travel map.

We camped at a very nice place a couple of hundred meters away from town along a small stream. There were horses and sheep around and in the evening sunlight, the atmosphere was really nice. But at the same time, it was also super cold and we all headed into our tents very early.

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Overnight we had some frost, but as soon as the sun was out, it got pleasant and warm again. We had the perfect weather for today’s explorations. Our first stop was right outside Khurjit, where we passed a couple of burial mounds dating back to bronze age – round for women and square for men.

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Soon afterwards, we reached the Orkhon Valley and Karakorum, the capital of Genghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, which grew to become history’s largest continuous empire – extending from the Chinese Sea all the way to what is now Belarus and Ukraine. Today the centerpiece of the area is Erdene Zuu Monastery, Mongolia’s first Buddhist center built in 1586. Together with a couple of other highlights of the Orkhon Valley it has been declared a World Heritage Site.

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While the communists destroyed part of the buildings in the 1930s - such as the big refectory hall - only four nice temples and the surrounding wall with its stupas remained. We were impressed by the intricate artwork, the elaborate tiles and the paintings.

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Just next door to the monastery is a Museum featuring the history of the former capital Mongolian Karakorum. Today, not much of this formerly huge town remains, as it was destroyed in the 14th century by Chinese Ming troops. We got the perfect overview of the history from stone age over bronze age and obviously its prime time under Dshinggis Khan and his successor Kublai Khan. We were impressed to see that back in those times, the town had an Islamic mosque, a Chinese Buddhist temple, a Mongolian Buddhist temple and a Christian church. Seemingly, the rulers were very open to other religions and the peaceful coexistence of different beliefs was no issue. Sometimes one would wish that today’s society would be as advanced all over the world as this.

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After that excursion into history, we did our shopping in present day Kharkhorin. We liked the tiny market place and enjoyed watching how the locals came into town. Up in the air, some big birds of prey circled the area and provided another exciting pastime for us. We also stopped at a gas station. As usual, the choice was limited to 80 octane, 92 octane and diesel. Seemingly all higher grades of gas are only available in Ulaanbaatar. Our Furgon is obviously used to his gas. Sam and I just started talking what this choice of gas would mean for a modern car or motorcycle that might be traveling to Mongolia. Admittedly, we are considering to come back one day – potentially driving all the way from home.

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For the night, we stayed along the Orkhon River. Even though it was just a slight ridge that separated the valley from town, we felt like in the middle of nowhere again. There were horses and cattle grazing along the banks of the river. And the river attracted a wide range of bird life that entertained us with an exciting air show. It was warm and pleasant weather with not a single cloud in the sky. Life is good.

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From the hill above our camp, we had an excellent overview and our Furgon with the tents blended perfectly into the otherwise wild landscape. It’s no wonder that the Orkhon valley is a favorite destination for people visiting Mongolia.

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But not only the landscape was fascinating. We also loved the wildlife and specifically the birds. While we stayed at our camp, there were up to six black kites (or were they other birds of prey?) circling above us. When noticing a bit of tough mutton meat which we had tossed away after dinner, they became interested and after a couple of attempts to grab them, everything was gone. It was a very special show and could have watched them forever.

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Once it got dark, we lit a small camp fire, sat there with our beers and enjoyed being in such wonderful surroundings. And luckily enough, everybody joined the fun and the troubles of the last couple of days seemed long forgotten.

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In the middle of the night the sudden noise of a rainshower woke us. We had not expected any rain after a wonderful day with perfect weather. The next morning turned out to be freezing cold. It was overcast and very windy. Only the birds seemed undisturbed by the weather. We saw black kites again, cranes and wild geese. We had our breakfast in the wind shadow of the Furgon and were happy once we were ready to head off.

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We had only a short drive ahead of us: we drove to the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai. For all those people who do not want to take the drive to the Gobi desert, they offer a nice opportunity to see some dunes in central Mongolia. We had been to the Gobi, but considering how much we like deserts and sand and how much Max loves to play in the dunes, stopping here was our perfect plan.
At 13 °C and in a strong wind, we briefly discussed our overnight options and quickly concluded that a yurt would be by far more comfortable than our tents. We stopped at a nearby family of nomads and were lucky to hear that they still had a yurt available for us. And indeed: once again we marveled how comfortable it was in our stable and warm yurt. It was just perfect – perfectly invested 35,000 tugrik (about 13€).

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In the afternoon Sam and I headed out to the dunes despite the sandstorm. It was nice to be outside and we enjoyed having some time for ourselves (Max stayed in the yurt with Oogii playing Lego). After a day of sitting in the car and in the yurt, we had missed our fix of fresh air already. We got back just in time for dinner and for a nice colorful sunset.

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The next morning, all of us took a walk to the dunes – this time in sunny, calm weather. We felt very lucky that the weather was pleasant today. After all, we had arranged to take a horse ride in the morning and a neighbor of our family stopped by to pick us up.

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The three horses were not nearly as impressive in size as the camels had been a week earlier. In fact, Mongolian horses are smaller than many other breeds. Max got to ride together with the nomad on the leading horse. I followed on the white horse and Sam came last. It also felt very different riding a horse vs. a camel. We liked the trip we took through the dunes and back.

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As we got back around noon time, the wind had picked up again. That made the choice easy to just stay another night in our nice yurt. It also felt good being able to stay a second night in the same place and not having to pack our stuff.

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Before we got to leave the next day, our hosts invited us into their yurt. It was very clean and all things neatly arranged. They had pictures of their extended family on display and made an effort to make us feel at home. We were served milk tea and the lady prepared traditional buuz (meat filled dumplings) for us. Even though they are living a very simple life and only see their children on the weekends (as they are at school during the week), they seemed to really enjoy life. Husband and wife were constantly joking and making fun with each other. We enjoyed the atmosphere and the laughter even though we did not understand most of what was being said.

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In order to get at least an impression of the nearby mountains of Khongo Khan Uul, we took a detour the next morning. And lucky us that we decided to do so: already the lake at the east side of the dunes was worth the trip. As we got there, it lay there completely still, reflecting the dunes. What a great place! I’m sure it would be great to camp there on a calm day. But also the mountains and rocks we passed, did not fail to impress us. It seemed a bit like the Valley of the Gods minus the people.

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After more than 200 km of driving (which was quick thanks to a good asphalt road), we stopped for a quick lunch at a river. It was no big surprise that there were sheep and goats around and some birds of prey.

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In the next town, we attempted to refill our water at the communal well. Unfortunately, it was lunch break and we would have had to wait for more than an hour. So we headed on and soon reached Khustain Nuruu National Park. The park has been founded to preserve the Przewalski Horses in the wild. After having been extinct in the wild by 1970, the joint conservation efforts and breeding programs of zoos around the world allowed to reintroduce the animals in the wild.
By now roughly 300 horses live within the national park. While the rangers make sure to protect them, educate tourists to keep their distance and make sure that they are at a safe distance from regular horses (to avoid cross-breeding), the animals are really wild and on their own to support themselves even in the harshest of winters – even if that means that not all of them will survive.
When inquiring at the national park entrance, we were told that we were lucky to arrive so early in the season with hardly any tourists around. Consequently, the horses can still be found in easily accessible areas of the national park. In our case, it just took us a short drive when Amgaa spotted a herd of seven horses just on the other side of a small valley. It was great to watch them – a great sight and much different vs. seeing them in a zoo.

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A bit further on, we got a hint to take a short hike into a side valley. We did so and discovered another herd of 13 horses. Even though we were a couple of hundred meters away, the horses had immediately noticed our presence and one of them was constantly turned towards us – ready to warn the others in case of any perceived danger. We stayed away in order not to disturb them.

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But the national park is not only home to wild horses, but also to deer, marmots and a local kind of ground squirrels. We got to see all of them. While the deer were obviously most impressive in size, it was lots of fun to watch the fat marmots race across the steppe to reach their holes. Some of them did not even bother to head for their holes, but tried to hide behind some tiny shrubs – a funny sight, as they were still perfectly visible to us.

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Having seen so many animals, we were more than content that we had included a visit of Hustain National Park in our itinerary. We headed out of the park and camped in a valley that we knew already from a video we had seen several months ago: our last camp in Mongolia had been the first camp of our Swiss friends when they did their trip at the end of last year together with Oogii.
It was a very special place: a bit further up, there were several burial mounds from the bronze age. There were herds along the flanks of the hills surrounding us. At one stage, a rider on horseback passed our camp. We wondered where he had come from and where he was heading to. Even though there were a couple of winter camps of nomad families in the surrounding hills, it still seemed such remote a location that we could not help being amazed at this country and its people.
After dinner Sam and I headed on a walk to the hill next to our camp to see the sun go down. Even though the wind was fierce, we just enjoyed being outside and wanted to enjoy the beautiful landscape to the fullest. So we headed on to the small peak at the end of the valley. We only realized along the way, that it was further away than it had seemed. As we got closer we realized that the ‘goats’ we had seen on the other hill, were actually full-grown horses.

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The next day was dedicated to packing our stuff, making sure we do not forget anything that we had distributed all over the place in our Furgon. We had less than 100km to get into Ulaanbaatar and soon found ourselves back in the city – far away from the beauty of the steppe.
We truly enjoyed Mongolia and were sorry that this marked our last evening in the steppe. Mongolia left a very positive impression on us and we’re fairly sure that we’ll be back at some stage.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 18:24 Archived in Mongolia Tagged river sand wild horse monastery dunes

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