A Travellerspoint blog

Mongolia

Pleasant weather in the world’s coldest capital

Ulaanbaatar

sunny 19 °C
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It was a very bumpy approach into Ulaanbaatar and all of us were happy to have arrived. Passing through immigration was easy. In the baggage area we had to watch out a bit for the many Koreans seemingly running on autopilot, but with a bit of care we managed to avoid any direct hits.
In the arrivals hall, we were greeted by Oogii who we easily recognized by the Steppenfuchs sign. She will be our tour leader and translator in the next couple of weeks in Mongolia. Once we had passed on the best regards from our Swiss friends who had traveled with her through Mongolia last September, we headed to our Furgon, the sturdy Russian offroad vehicle (also known as UAZ-452) we’d be traveling in for the next couple of weeks.
It was already past midnight by the time we arrived at Zaya hostel. Luckily Oogii knew where it was. Arriving there alone in a taxi would have been a perfect recipe for disaster: we would never have been able to identify the featureless soviet style apartment block with a disco in the ground floor as the place to go. Once we arrived in the 3rd floor, everything was great. We had a nice room and the huge washroom was just on the other side of the floor.
The next morning, we had our breakfast in the company of the pleasant local owners of the hostel – two brothers who had spent a couple of years in Texas – and then headed out to explore the streets of Ulaanbaatar. It reportedly is the coldest capital city in the world, but even though it had been freezing when we arrived last night, it was very pleasant and warm on this sunny spring day.
In the nearby Peace Tower, we easily got some local money and then did our best to start spending it. Our first destination was the state department store. And while we had assumed it would be a glum dark soviet style store with little to offer, we were in for a big surprise: the light flooded building featured well-known brands galore – food, clothes, electronics, you name it. After we had unsuccessfully tried to buy a new computer mouse in Korea, this task proved to be extremely simple here: within less than five minutes we were the proud owners of a new HP mouse.
From the store, we walked another couple of hundred meters to a restaurant for lunch. I had picked the ‘Blanka Luna’, as it offered vegetarian and even vegan fare. As we were sure to be served more than enough meat in the next couple of weeks, that sounded just right. And indeed, the food was simply great.
As Max craved for some exercise, we picked a path back to the department store through the backyards of the apartment blocks. With not much of a detour, we passed three playgrounds, which all also featured fitness equipment. The playgrounds were relatively modern, clean and well maintained. Max was delighted – specifically after his rather disappointing experience in regards to playgrounds in South-Korea.

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We were standing in the sunshine and it was absolutely T-shirt temperature. We had followed the temperatures of Ulaanbaatar for the last couple of months and had been delighted when we saw that with our arrival the temperatures would be hiking up significantly from -11 to +2 °C per day a couple of days earlier to suddenly a pleasant -2 to +21 °C.
Before temperatures dropped in the evening, we were back at our cozy guest house, played Uno and Tantrix with some other guests and worked on our blog. There were two categories of guests at the hostel: those who did a short stopover along the Trans-Siberian Railroad on their way from Moscow to Bejing and those who were planning to explore Mongolia for an extended period of time.
As we have the luxury of being able to do both, we found lots of things to talk about with the other guests. While Yasemina from Slovenia told us about her experience in the train, Anne from Berlin recounted some tales from her trips to Mongolia.
Oogii picked us up the next morning and showed us some of the main sights in town. We started our tour at the Buddhist Gandan monastery. As we entered one of the buildings, we realized that there was just a ceremony going on at that stage. The monks were singing or reciting something and the younger monks accompanied them with the sound of conch horns, cymbals and drums. The people of faith participating in the ceremony all tried to get hold of a large blue shawl and in return passed on some donations in form of money towards the head monk.

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Once we had seen enough, we headed out and explored a bit further. We would not have recognized the wishing pole if Oogii would not have explained it to us. But that explained why there were so many people huddled around that one pole – hoping to get their wishes fulfilled.
A bit further, we entered a large building and were surprised to find inside it a 26m golden statue of a standing bodhisattva. When trying to turn some of the prayer mills inside, we realized how cold it was in the building. The metal seemed to be still at freezing temperatures. Once again, we realized how lucky we were having arrived just when real spring time temperatures were hitting town.

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Our next stop was at the newly built dinosaur museum, where some dinosaur skeletons from the many sites in the Southern Gobi Desert were on display. Not surprisingly, Max was much more fascinated by the dinosaurs vs. the temples.
From there it was just a very short drive to the main square, recently renamed after the infamous national hero Genghis Khan. The square is flanked by the parliament, the stock exchange, the main post office, the national theater and many more important buildings.

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But we were magically drawn towards the center of the square. There was some kind of tourism marketing event going on and on a small stage there were multiple groups presenting their skills: there was music, singing and dancing – a great introduction to local culture and dress. And at the same time a nice group of mostly local people standing around and watching what was going on.

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While Max loved to see the children dance, Sam and I were most impressed by a group of musicians playing the horsehead fiddle, and a Mongolian plucked zither. Either there is a Mongolian folk song that sounds a bit like Apocalyptica or they simply interpreted one of their pieces with traditional instruments.

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We could have stayed there for ages, as there were more and more groups arriving to present their skills. But eventually hunger took over and we walked a couple of blocks towards a restaurant called ‘BD’s Mongolian BBQ’. We had not been to such a fancy restaurant for quite a while. It was great fun to select various vegetables, meats and sauces and to then see them being prepared on an enormous hot plate by the chefs. They did not just grill our food, but they made a big show out of it with juggling their utensils and using a bit of fire for special effects. It was great fun and really good food!

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After so much food, we were happy to take a hike back to our place. Along the way, we could not resist to buy some classical German food at the supermarket. Getting stuff like Schokolinsen, Nutella or Apfelmus was just too tempting.
The next morning, we were picked up already for our big tour of Mongolia. Actually, due to the fact that we’re traveling very early in the season, we’ll be concentrating on the South with the Gobi Desert and a bit of the central highlands in the hopes of having reasonable temperatures.
We were looking forward to that trip very much. After all, we love nature and large empty spaces. And for sure, Mongolia should fit those criteria really well!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 09:21 Archived in Mongolia Tagged square dance music monastery capital playground cold Comments (1)

No roadsigns in the steppe

From Ulaanbaatar to Tsagaan Suvraga

sunny 18 °C
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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After excellent dinner, Sam headed off to take pictures of the sunset.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 00:05 Archived in Mongolia Tagged cliffs sheep camel nomads empty granite goats gazelle owl steppe herds Comments (1)

Changing plans

From Tsagaan Suvraga via Tsogttsetsii to Dalanzadgad

sunny 19 °C
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Riding through the Mongolian steppe, we passed the winter camp of a nomad family. They were very busy. In spring time, they are shearing their camels. It was interesting to see how they got the camels to lay down and how they cut the dense fur by hand. We were surprised how many kids in school age were around. The explanation was easy: due to the heavy workload in spring, there are two weeks of school vacation such that the kids can help at home. Usually, the kids would be in boarding school in the next town – as distances are mostly by far too much as to cover them on a daily base.

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We rode almost 100 km on nature tracks, Along the way, we passed several ovoos again and learned the quick way of asking for luck: instead of walking around it three times, three honks of the horn will do as well. And hopefully that guarantees not having an accident like one of the cars we came across in the steppe. What followed was a brief interlude of 30 km of excellent tarmac, after which we headed off onto another track. Unfortunately, that track turned out to be extremely worn and not suitable for fast traveling.

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All of us were relieved about the break we had at a small well. There were camels, cattle and two large herds of sheep and goats. The nomads were making sure that the two herd didn’t mix. Otherwise that would mean a lot of effort to separate them again into the two groups – distinguished by the color of their horns. It was lots of fun to watch the thirsty animals trying to get to the water.

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A bit further we stopped for lunch before the rattling on the bad track restarted. Eventually we reached the town of Tsogttsetsii where we got fuel and Amgaa had his tire exchanged at a small workshop.
We had covered already over 180km on partially bad tracks and were relieved that the remaining 160km would be on an asphalted toll-road. Well, we were wrong. After having driven for about 40 km on the asphalt road, we wished to go offroad onto a track. It turned out that the asphalt road was by far worse than anything we had driven on so far. A piece of acceptable asphalt was followed by large holes of more than 30cm depth that were distributed over the complete width of the road such that avoiding them was impossible. The road was absolutely destroyed by the countless trucks transporting coal, copper and gold from the mines either towards Ulaanbaatar or towards China.
After briefly assessing the situation and considering the fact that we’d need to come back on exactly that road again after having spent two days at a monastery, also dubbed ‘the world energy center’, we easily concluded that we were not keen on doing that at all. We’d rather skip that item on our tour program and spend more time at the others vs. having to endure a couple of hours of being shaken to the bones on that awful road.
Luckily, Oogii and Amgaa agreed to our proposal to head towards the center of the South-Gobi province, Dalanzadgad. As there were works going on to build a new train connection from the mines towards China, it turned out to be a bit difficult to find the turn off for the track towards the capital of the district of South-Gobi. And in the attempt of getting onto the right track, we suddenly found ourselves stuck in a river bed which seemed like a field of stones in soft sand. Even though our 4wd was still not operational, it took us just two attempts to get the Furgon unstuck and up outside of the river bed.
Soon afterwards, Amgaa had found the track towards Dalanzadgad and after a bit of driving we took a sharp right turn off the track for about a kilometer in order to find a secluded camping spot. We were protected in a small depression and had a nice view of the flats underneath us and the mountains behind. Camping in Mongolia is simply great!
And there’s one more thing that is great: seemingly there’s almost everywhere mobile reception. No matter in how remote areas we had been driving up to now, most of the time Oogii and Amgaa were able to make phone calls.

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Right next to our campsite, Max and Sam found some wildlife. A small lizard seemed to be frozen in place and even the rare Mongolian gerbil proved not to be fast enough for them to have a closer look. After everyone had a look, they released it again next to its burrow.

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It felt great to be at camp and not to be stuck in our Furgon any longer. Being in a great spot and not hearing any sound of human provenance anywhere around – that’s what we love. And as being outside in nature is the point of our travel in Mongolia and not necessarily checking one sight after the next, we felt great about our change in plans.

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The next morning, we had 130 km of track to cover in order to reach the town of Dalanzadgad – the center of the Southern Gobi district. The track was good, but we continued to be amazed at the ease with which Amgaa decided at the various forks in the road which one of the tracks to take. For us they looked all the same – none more pronounced than the other and both of them looking as if they were going roughly into the same direction.
Amgaa was driving without any GPS or even a detailed map of the area. His explanation was that driving these tracks in Mongolia requires you to have a GPS in your mind. He is able with his sense of direction, the sun and a couple of landmarks to easily find his way from A to B. And should he miss a marker such as a well, the winter camp of some nomads or a specific hill shape, we’d know that he has strayed and would go into the right direction to just get back onto his original course. Wow… We’d be lost, that’s for sure!

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We arrived in Dalanzadgad just in time for lunch and afterwards Amgaa dropped us at our hotel for the night. We had originally not foreseen to stay at any hotels during our tour, but Amgaa needed some time to get the 4wd of the Furgon fixed. He also wanted to investigate some other problems sorted, which might require getting spares delivered from Ulaanbaatar which could then only be fixed the next morning.
We were happy as well about this plot and did not mind having a place with a shower after a couple of nights of camping. The hotel Ongi Tov offered everything we needed: a clean and big bed and a bathroom, but in fact it was nothing special – well except if you’re in dire need of a toothbrush or condoms… In that case, you’d be thrilled about the excellent features of the hotel.
Exploring town in the intent of shopping at a supermarket proved to be dustier than expected. About 100m after leaving the hotel, we got caught in the middle of a small dust devil and the laboriously washed hair was dusty once again.
We soon located the supermarket and were surprised about the presence of military personnel from various countries. Seemingly an international conference was taking place in town during that week and we had been lucky to even still get a room in a hotel. A day later the town would have been cut off for tourism and we would have needed to make a large detour around it.
The remainder of the day we spent in our hotel room. Max was delighted to be allowed to watch some TV, while we enjoyed having power to recharge our electronic equipment and to use the wifi for uploading another article for the blog. The only bad news was that that evening also marked the death of our mobile phone. Let’s see if we’ll be able to get its black screen fixed in Ulaanbaatar. But for the next two weeks, we’d live without the pleasures of checking and marking our GPS position on the map, making videos and quick snapshots or simply using it to read eBooks or to let Max listen to audio stories. All of that is no disaster. After all, before this journey we had not even possessed a smartphone. Still, specifically for the long stretches of driving, we would now not be able to keep Max as easily entertained as we had imagined.
Amgaa picked us up the next day with his newly repaired Furgon. Thanks to a couple of spare parts he had especially delivered from Ulaanbaatar, the 4wd and a couple of other issues had now been fixed and we were ready to hit the road again.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 22:55 Archived in Mongolia Tagged well camping track camel dust asphalt steppe Comments (0)

Snowstorms in the desert

From Dalansadgad to Gurvan-Saikhan nuruu

all seasons in one day 8 °C
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We headed to a national park called ‚Gurvan-Saikhan Nuruu‘ (the three beautiful ridges) to see a beautiful canyon. After a couple of hundred meters of hiking into the deep cut valley, with lots of rock formations along the way that resembled various animals, we suddenly hit snow. By the time we reached the end of the canyon, we were walking on a thick layer of snow that reached from one side of the canyon to the other. And then there was a massive frozen waterfall - an amazing sight knowing that in fact we’re in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I must admit that I usually associate desert with heat, sand and lack of water – and in this case, none of those three elements proved to be true.

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For sure it was not hot. Rather the opposite: we were freezing not only due to the low temperatures, but more so because of the heavy wind. Faced by weather like that, we took a quick decision to discard the plan to camp that night and to rather check if we can find a ger / yurt to sleep in for the night.
And indeed, we were lucky: we found a great looking yurt for the night. Inside it was very comfortable and – thanks to the oven that was fired with camel dung – pleasantly warm. Fitted with four beds surrounding a low table, we had all that we needed for an enjoyable night. While we marveled at the nicely decorated construction elements of the yurt. It can be assembled of disassembled in just an hour if there are a couple of people helping together and the various parts can be easily transported even by a camel or horses – the perfect home for a family of nomads that is moving to three of four different pastures in the course of a year.
Outside it was so windy, that Max and Sam had perfect conditions to test the paper planes they’ve built. One of the two models they built, flew a couple of hundred meters! And it was not just windy, but also extremely cold, temperatures around freezing. Walking the distance from the outhouse back to our yurt against the wind proved to be quite a challenge and we were more than happy to have such a comfortable home for the night.

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The next morning did not bring any relief in regards to wind or temperatures. Rather the opposite: as we headed out of the ger camp, we found ourselves in the midst of a snowstorm in which the snow came towards us sideways.
Despite the awful weather, we wanted to explore today’s destination, the Lammergeier Canyon anyhow. All of us dressed with as many layers of clothing as we had and then we headed out. It was freezing. It did not help that most of the canyon floor was still covered by a thick layer of snow and ice, allowing the wind to chill down even further.

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We realized only after hiking into the canyon for quite a bit that coming back out was actually much worse: being cold already from the first part of the hike, now we had the wind in our face and soon felt that it was not just wind. It had picked up significant amounts of sand and we soon found ourselves spitting out the sand in regular intervals.

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All of us were more than relieved to finally make it back to the relative warmth of the car. And lucky us that we had the protection of the car: on our way back down towards the entrance gate, we got caught in a small sandstorm twisting its way up through the valley. We would not have wanted to be in that unprotected.
While the museum of the national park was not heated, it still felt extremely comfortable due to the absence of wind. We used a traditional Mongolian horoscope: by throwing four small bones, we got to count how many sheep, camels, horses and goats we rolled. Depending on the outcome, we were able to predict our future. It was fun, even though some of the predicted results left us puzzling what they actually meant. That was fun. But yes, we also toured the museum to see which animals and birds to look out for in the national park in the coming days.
Given the cold and the storm, it was not even a discussion if we should camp tonight. We all agreed that a ger would be a much better and warmer choice. So just outside the Lammergeier Canyon we headed to a small group of yurts and moved our stuff in for the night. Our plan was to have lunch and just to wait in the ger to see how the weather would develop.
Well, once again our plan did not work out: the owner of the ger was afraid to light the oven due to the heavy wind. And we were not able to light our gas stove, as somehow the gas bottle was leaking. Fortunately, we had a full thermos of hot water from this morning, which we were able to use for making hot instant soup. While we were eating, we repeatedly were afraid that the yurt would not resist the heavy wind and take off. The few times someone was opening the door, we were able to see the snow storm raging outside – with the snow coming sideways vs. from above. Eventually we realized, that the plan of staying in a yurt was not good enough for the storm we were facing.

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A couple of phone calls later, Amgaa identified a new option for us: he found a hotel room for us in the nearby town of Bayandalai. We were relieved: even if the hotel room was not heated, it would at least stand up to the wind and we’d be safe. Still, sitting in the heated car, none of us was keen to leave it and we used the excuse that Max had fallen asleep to sit there for another while until he woke up.
In the little hotel we also met another Austrian / German couple. It was fun chatting with them. They are traveling the world for six months and we had many similar experiences to chat about.
After dinner, the fierce wind finally stopped and gave Sam and Max a chance to head outside to the playground. I used the opportunity to have power available (as unfortunately the inverter we got to load our laptop via the car lighter did not work) to use the laptop and get some typing done. Even though we might not be having a possibility to upload any blog entries in the next couple of days, I still tried to stay somewhat up to date.

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The next morning we headed off towards the singing dune ‚Khongoryn els‘. The storm had stopped the night before and we had no problems on our 130km drive. Well, the track was fairly bad, but that just what you get when trying to travel the backroads of Mongolia.

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Shortly before we arrived, it starting snowing again. Amgaa found the right track without any issues such that we arrived in time for lunch at the nomads we’d be staying at for the next two nights. Uelzi and his family welcomed us in their own big yurt. As per local custom, we were offered milk tea and the snuffbox.
They had just arrived in their summer camp three days earlier, but the yurt was fully furnished and everything had his place as if it would have been there for ages. Even though we did not understand Mongolian, Oogii did an excellent job in translating what was going on for us. We learned that Uelzi’s nephew had hurt his elbow in a wrestling match with his cousin. We were able to provide him with some paracetamol and it did not take long that his face looked much more relaxed.
In the meantime, Uelzi’s wife prepared lunch for us. She cooked rice in black tea and then added dried camel meat. The soup tasted much better than expected. The only challenge was the chewy consistency of the meat that made it difficult to eat without the use of a sharp knife.

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Even though the snow storm had stopped while we were in the hosts’ yurt, it continued being very cold outside. So we spent the remainder of the day in our own yurt. We fired the oven and it got nice and cozy inside. The only notable exception was around sunset. The colors were so nice that not even the cold could keep us inside. Still, once enough photos were taken and the atmosphere absorbed, we all huddled around the oven again.

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To make sure we’re not running out of fuel for our oven, Sam and Max spent the next morning collecting camel dung. Once they had collected six big rice bags full of dung, they figured that it should be enough to last not only us until the next day.
Around lunch time, Uelzi took us on a ride with his camels. We were sitting comfortably between the two humps of the camel. That was also quite warm – contrary to the outside temperatures. The slow swinging movements of the camels took a bit of getting used to, but were very relaxing.

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To celebrate an already great day, Sam prepared Kaiserschmarrn for all of us. In retrospect eating that much Kaiserschmarrn was not a very smart idea. After all, we headed out towards the sand dunes that afternoon. And let me tell you: hiking up 200 meters of altitude on a steep sand dune is exhausting no matter what. But with a full stomach it is even more of a challenge.

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Sam had a short moment of shock when suddenly his camera was not taking any pictures. It took him a couple of minutes of shaking the camera in all directions and suddenly it worked again. It would have been a very unpleasant thought to also lose Sam’s camera just a few days after our mobile phone gave up on us. Not having any possibility at all to take pictures of the remainder of our trip to Mongolia would not have been good at all.

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It was warm enough such that we could head up the dune without shoes and just with our socks. But as we neared the top of the dune, we realized that we were not the only ones heading up there: we suddenly saw a cow up there at the top of the dune in the sand. By the time we got up to the top ourselves, it was gone. And due to the strong wind, there were no marks remaining to tell which way it had gone.

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On our way up, we were also treated to the spectacular ‘singing’ of the dunes. Actually, it was more of a humming sound, a bit similar to the noise of airplane turbines. The sound is created by the wind blowing the sand down the dunes. But we were suddenly creating it ourselves when heading up through the deep loose sand of dune. There was so much sand coming down as we moved upwards that we even felt the vibration of the sand and the associated sound. Very cool!
As the top of the dune we had a great view in all directions. Sam got a bit jealous when four motorbikers turned up and starting riding in the dunes. But the nice atmosphere at sunset compensated him.

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It was really nice in the dunes as the sun went down. But the colorful evening continued much longer and back at Uelzi’s place, Sam got some nice motives with the yurts and the camels in the last light.

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And with all the sand we had on us, we all enjoyed a bucket shower before going to bed.
We were sorry to leave the next morning, as we had truly enjoyed our stay with Uelzi and his family. And even though it had been pleasant to stay in yurts and hotels during the last couple of nights, we were looking forward to do some camping again. At least the weather forecast was favorable, so we were hoping that it would hold true.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 02:28 Archived in Mongolia Tagged snow desert canyon storm museum sand dune cold yurt Comments (0)

Something is in the air

Bayanzag via Saikhan Ovoo, Khujirt to Kharkhorin

semi-overcast 17 °C
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After nine days of traveling through Southern Mongolia, we had reached the half way point of our trip and started heading north again. We headed up a pass to cut through the mountain ridge and were rewarded with a nice view back towards the singing dune. Time to wave good bye.

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Passing through a valley we reached the northern side of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park and were driving along the mountains towards east. It was a beautiful landscape: the mountains on our right and flat lands on our left bordered by another mountain ridge in the distance.

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We could already see a difference vs. ten days earlier: the rolling steppe was much greener than before – probably to the big pleasure of the many herds of animals we passed. What looked like grass, were in fact often chives – easily noticeable by the nice aroma we got to smell every time we got out of the car. No wonder that we saw quite a couple of moves to the spring pastures.

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Unfortunately, today the Mongolian saying that seeing a move brings luck did not hold true. By the time we were ready to leave Bulgan after shopping, getting gas for the car and filling our water canister, Oogii and Amgaa had such an argument that they stopped talking to each other. We had no clue what it was about and given the tense atmosphere in the car, did not dare to ask.
Soon after that incident, we reached the flaming cliffs of Bayanzag. The landscape was spectacular and it was fun to hike around the area.

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But the area is known even more for its finds of dinosaur skeletons – the ones we had seen in the Dinosaur Museum in Ulaanbaatar. We did not find any bones, but we did find quite a lot of plants growing in the dry sand. There were signs of spring - even here in the desert!

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Max made an effort to find some dinosaur remains at our campground at the bottom of the cliffs. He was soon distracted by playing with his cars and consequently forgot about his mission. Sam did not forget about his mission though, to take nice pictures of our camp and the surrounding cliffs at sundown.

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While Oogii made excellent dinner for us, Amgaa had left to make some repairs on the car. His prediction of being back after an hour proved to be very wrong: five hours later when the sun had set already, he had still not arrived. Luckily, we had taken all our stuff for the night into our tent already. Oogii was not so lucky, so we had supplied her with surplus blankets and a sleeping pad such that she’d be able to sleep. Eventually, Amgaa arrived and Oogii was able to get her stuff after all.
We did not get any explanation for Amgaa’s absence and given that he still did not talk with Oogii, the atmosphere at breakfast was not too pleasant. We were hoping that things would improve again, but given our remote location, there was no choice anyhow.
Our first sightseeing stop of the day was in the biggest saxaul forest of Central Asia. What sounded very impressive, turned out to be not quite like the picture we had in our minds when there was talk about a forest. The saxaul trees are the only trees present in the Gobi and are prized by the nomads as excellent firewood comparable to coal. Even though the forest we visited was very old, we did not see any trees much higher than 2 meters. So in our books, we had visited an area of rather sparse bushland.

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Heading north, we passed enormous areas of a joint Mongolian / Korean project attempting to grow saxaul. The project is called the Green Wall and aims to alleviate desertification by planting saxaul on an area of 3000 hectares. While it sounds nice of the Korean government to support Mongolia, there is an expected side effect as well: Korea has a massive health issue with dust in the air and this project might help to decrease the amount of desert dust being blown from Mongolia to Korea.
What followed was a track that was probably the worst we’ve been on so far. In the area where the river Ongi disappears in the desert, large salt pans have formed. In early spring, it is still dry enough such that there is no big risk of getting stuck. Still, we were able to see many deep tracks that were proof of much more difficult conditions during the rainy summer season. The deep ruts in the track were sometimes very hard to see in advance. Amgaa was trying to detect all of them on time and break before we were hitting them. One time we were flying after all and our Furgon was suspended in the air with all wheels losing touch.

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In the early afternoon, we reached our destination for the day: the monastery of Ongi. We built up camp on the river banks, just downstream from the monastery. The spot was just great – super idyllic and peaceful. We praised the fact that we were traveling outside the major tourist season. Otherwise the place might not have been nearly as peaceful, considering the big tourist ger camp just next door. There would have been many more tourists around and all of their drivers would have parked along the river to give their vehicle a proper car wash – which is also what Amgaa did. After about three hours of work, our Furgon was shiny as new.

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Even though the ger camp was still closed for another month, for a small fee we were able to use their facilities. It felt great to have a proper shower again after a couple of days!
It was sad to visit the old monastery. It had been one of the major Buddhist monasteries of Mongolia – sometimes even compared with the Potala Palace in Lhasa. At times, up to 10,000 monks had been living here. As part of the communist activities in the 1930’s the monastery was destroyed – as most others in the country. Today, only a few ruins remain, and very few buildings have been reconstructed with a few monks trying to bring life to the place again.

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Sitting at a lookout, Sam and I got philosophical. After all, we were nearing the end of our travels: in four weeks, we’d be back at home with Sam’s family. On one hand, we’d certainly know of enough interesting places to go to fill at least another year of traveling. And we could easily go on for even longer than that. On the other hand, it also feels ok to go back home. After having been away for over a year, it also feels good to finally see friends and family again. And knowing that we’d be going home with the Trans-Siberian Railway – an idea we had already for ages – somehow sounded like a perfect end for our journey.

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Back at our camp, Oogii was already busy preparing our dinner. For me, it was time to get our laundry done. And the location next to the river was just perfect. Our clothes got cleaner than expected and it dried quickly on the grass in the sunshine.

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Once the sun was setting, Sam headed out to take some nice shots. He headed into the hills on the other side of the river. Once he successfully returned from his venture, he had not only made a couple of nice shots with his camera, but he had also found some nice crystals. By the time he was back, temperatures had fallen significantly and suddenly wading through the river was not nearly as tempting as it had been in the late afternoon.

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That evening we were not alone. Oogii and Amgaa’s boss Ure was in Ongi as well together with her client Tomm and a driver. They came over to have a beer and snacks together. Tomm was scouting Southern and Central Mongolia as a potential location to organize the 2018 GS Trophy, a BMW sponsored motorbike event with participants from all over the world. Sam was delighted and chatted the whole evening with Tomm. After all, it’s not too often that you meet someone who has participated in the Paris – Dakar motorbike race and can tell stories of his many adventures.

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The next morning, we simply enjoyed our relaxed breakfast. None of us was really keen to leave this lovely spot by the river and to exchange it for a day’s worth of driving. Eventually we managed to head off after all. All along we imagined how it would be, driving along these tracks on motorbikes instead of a Furgon.
We passed Saikhan-Ovoo, which translates to ‚the beautiful cairn ‘. We must have missed the cairn, but could not fail to notice the square kilometers of garbage on the Southern end of town. In our eyes the more appropriate name for the town should have rather focused on that. On the other hand, we did produce enough garbage ourselves on our journey and unfortunately in a country without a properly organized garbage system, it is hard to tell, where our garbage will end up – not matter how sure we’ve made that we dispose of it into official garbage containers.
Lunch was a bit earlier than usual. But as we headed into an area with heavy rain clouds, it was a good idea to eat while we’d be able to stay dry.
There was already a faint smell of rain in the air. A couple of kilometers after we headed off again, it started raining. At least we can now confidently say that we’ve experienced all kinds of weather in Mongolia – sun, sandstorm, rain and snow. Despite the weather, we briefly stopped at an ancient megalith, a so called deer (or raindeer) stone.

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The rainclouds created a very special light. And being able to sit in the car, it was actually quite pleasant. Probably it was not nearly as pleasant for the many herd animals outside. Most of them huddled together and were standing in the direction away from the wind. Only the yaks with their heavy wool seemed to be fairly unimpressed by the weather.

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We also came across lots of birds. There were cranes and geese who must have arrived recently form their winter habitats in Southern China and India. But also the local birds of prey were present – most notably an eagle who was busily eating while we watched.
Our original plan had been to stay in the valley before the spa town of Khurjit, known for its hot springs. Considering the rain storm we were in once we reached our designated camping spot, we kindly declined and all agreed that it would be a better option to stay in a yurt.

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We had a couple of errands to run in Khurjit. The town was the largest one we had been in for a while, but that is a relative statement. There were still calves feeding in the middle of main street. We soon realized that shopping was done quickly, but getting money from an ATM proved to be impossible. By the time we were done with everything, the weather was back to perfect again. There was only a slight breeze, the sun was out and there were only some few small clouds. There were no rain clouds to be seen anywhere around.

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So we changed back to the idea of camping in our tents after all. The idea was great, the execution awful. The unplanned camp so close to town sparked another disagreement of Oogii and Amgaa which resulted in Oogii getting out of the car.
Sam and I were pretty fed up with the disagreements. We asked Oogii to translate to Amgaa that we have had enough of the constant fights and that we expect both to work together. Eventually I asked for a phone and explained the situation to Ure, who we had met the day before. I asked her to explain our expectations to Amgaa.
Luckily it turned out that this was the only intervention required and that as of then, life continued normally. While it was not the warmest interaction between Oogii and Amgaa, they at least talked again. It would have been a pity having to go to the extreme of having to ask for another driver to take us for the remaining five days of our tour through Mongolia.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 18:03 Archived in Mongolia Tagged river monastery forest cliff dinosaur Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

Preparing for a long train ride

Ulaanbaatar to Naushki

sunny 27 °C
View Around the world 2016/17 on dreiumdiewelt's travel map.

Once again, we stayed at the Zaya Guesthouse. It felt like coming home again. We were greeted heartily and had to tell the stories of how our trip went. After a quick lunch, we headed straight into the shower. It felt great having a warm shower again – pure luxury after many days of doing without.
We also ran some errands. Our laundry had to be done and we needed to get our mobile phone repaired again. It only took 30 mins and our phone was as good as new. We did not feel like going out for dinner and preferred doing our shopping and staying ‘at home’ that evening.
Also the next morning we were not very keen on doing much. We had a very relaxed late breakfast and worked on the blog. After all, the last weeks of having neither a network connection nor power for the laptop had left the blog jet-lagged by almost four weeks vs. real life.
At the guest house, there were lots of really interesting people and we enjoyed exchanging stories with them about their respective trips. There were Rob and Gay from Australia who were about to head off towards five days in Mongolia before hitting the Trans-Siberian Railway towards Moscow and then Western Europe. It was fun to compare the stops they will be making along the way with our plans.
Then there were Gaёtan and Paul from France. They had bought cheap Chinese motorbikes in Western Mongolia and had spent the last four weeks riding them back to Ulaanbaatar – with only partial motorbiking experience that is. They planned to stay in Mongolia for another month before heading via China to Japan. One of them would travel for one more year and the other one would go back home.
Then there were two Irish around – Gary and his cousin Mick who planned to drive through Western Mongolia via Kazakhstan to Kirghistan. One-eyed Gary has the goal of eventually traveling to all countries of the world. But he’s not doing it the easy way of just checking countries. In fact, he had driven a Toyota Landcruiser with trailer from Magadan to Ulaanbaatar – something that several people had predicted to him as being not doable. He had so many fun stories to tell. Well, let’s be realistic: in retrospect it’s fun to hear them. I’m pretty certain that I would not have wanted to be a part in any of them myself. Bears, helicopter rides with drunken Russian pilots, getting stuck with the Landcruiser in a swelling river, etc. are only for the real adventurous and as Sam knows, I would panic way too easily than to enjoy the moment. Check out ‚1eyeonthe world‘ if you’re interested to learn more about Gary.
The next day, we ventured out after all again. We had lunch at a nice Indian restaurant (we were sure to find some vegetarian options there), explored the playgrounds of UB again. It was visibly much greener than during first visit – what difference three weeks can make!
We noticed once more how many Toyota Prius and other hybrid / e-cars were crowding the streets of UB - it felt like more than half of all cars. As most of these cars probably came from Japan as used cars, they were right hand drives. So more than half of all cars in town actually had the driver sitting in the wrong seat. After all, Mongolia is driving on the right-hand side – just like Russia or Europe is.

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In the evening, we had a last agenda item on our list: we went to a performance of the Tumen Ekh ensemble. It was a great show, combining traditional Mongolian music instruments, singing (including throat-singing), dancing and contortionists. All artists were absolute professionals and it was a pure pleasure to see them perform.
To close out the end of our great experience in Mongolia, we stopped to the Great Khan Irish Pub on the way home. As Max was tired, we did not stay very late, but still enjoyed a night out.
The last day was focused all around getting prepared for our upcoming train journey: we got our tickets printed out and our stuff packed. Sam purchased an extendable window cleaner such that he’d be able to clean the windows of the train and we got some food to keep us fed during the first 24h leg of traveling on the train. Sam made sure that he had another bottle of concentrated seabuckthorn juice – the Mongolian national drink that he had learned to appreciate during our travels through the steppe.
We had also noticed that since the repair of our mobile phone, both cameras did not work properly anymore. We tried to get the issue fixed, but to our dismay ended up with even worse of an issue with the camera than before. What a pity! Even though it’s great that the mobile works again, we had really liked to use our camera for quick shots here and there and we had used the video functionality extensively. So unfortunately, for the remaining three weeks of our travels, we would need to do without.
We got taken to the train station by car and enjoyed sitting on the platform in the sun. Temperatures had climbed up to 30 °C in the last couple of days. It’s hard to believe that just a bit over a week ago we were facing a snowstorm.

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Eventually our train pulled into the station and we headed to car 2. Our conductor Irina collected our tickets and passports and allowed us in. We had tried our Mongolian skills by greeting her ‘sain uu’ (hello), but realized a moment later that the train was already staffed with Russian personnel. It was finally time to put our little Russian to work. ‘Здравствуйте (Zdravstvuyte)’ worked fine.

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It took us a couple of minutes to figure out how the beds work and how to store all of our stuff in the compartment. Once everything had its place, Sam headed out to do some window cleaning. I had picked up that recommendation in a guidebook about the Trans-Siberian Railway and had read it out lout to Sam in the intent of getting a laugh. Instead, Sam was honestly fascinated by the idea and wanted to make all efforts possible to ensure that he’d be able to get as spotless pictures as possible from inside the train.

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The train left the station exactly on schedule. It was a very strange feeling to pull out of the station and to start rolling. After all, we were on our way home now. A last stretch of less than three weeks in Russia and then we’d be back with our families. After more than a year on the road that was somehow hard to believe and what had felt very surreal up to then, suddenly became reality.
But at the same time, it was also fascinating to be on a Russian train. We did not take long to start exploring all features of the train – most notably the samovar (i.e. the hot water boiler). It was perfect to brew ourselves a cup of tea to go with the cake we had bought back in UB. And while we had our afternoon tea, we were able to see the landscape passing by our windows.

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As sitting became too boring, we were soon standing in the aisle of the train – together with the few other guests traveling in our car. Our neighbors were from Australia and Germany and we obviously could not hesitate to compare the stops they were planning to do along the way with our plans.
From the windows, nice views of the steppe were passing by. Usually the view was undisturbed on one side, but the other side was a bit blemished by the power lines that were running along the train tracks. At first the landscape resembled very much what we had seen during our trip through Central Mongolia.

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But as we headed north, eventually we noticed more and more trees growing along the way. At first, they were only close to the rivers we passed, but after a while also the hills started to show more and more growth of trees. To Sam’s big dismay, they were mainly birch trees. It did not take long to have him sneezing continuously.

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Around 10pm we reached the Mongolian border post. A fair number of officials passed through the train cars: quarantine, customs, security and finally immigration. They took our passports and about 30 minutes later we got them back – with an exit stamp for wonderful Mongolia. We’ll be back at some stage!
Once the train finally left the station, it took over half an hour to reach the Russian border town. This time the procedure repeated, just with people dressed in different uniforms and speaking Russian instead of Mongolian. We were a bit nervous, as Russia is pretty intimidating in regards to formalities.
And in fact: the immigration officer was not happy with our visa. She asked where we had gotten them and shook her head in frustration. It took us a while to figure out that the Russian embassy in Cambodia had stuck the visa into our passports upside down, such that the machine-readable part was on the inside fold of the passport. Consequently, the lady was not able to easily scan our visa, but had to tediously type everything in. But despite her frustration, eventually she got her stamp out and stamped us into Russia.
What a relief! Despite our happiness of officially having made it to Russia, we left the celebrations for the next day. At 1:30am in the morning we just wanted to get into bed and go to sleep. Good night / Споко́йной но́чи (Spokóynoy nóchi)!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 19:34 Archived in Mongolia Tagged train dance music border preparation immigration Comments (0)

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