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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)

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
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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)

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