Tour Company: Selena Travel
Tour: Discover True Mongolia 2017
Guide: Bayarmaa (DB)
ULAANBAATAR- AMARBAYASGALANT MONESTRY
This morning at 8am we met Chimgee, from Selena Travel, at our guesthouse to fill in the paperwork and pay. We paid with local, USD and visa online–we obviously hadn’t budgeted properly for this! It was a fairly easy process, though the verified visa confirmation took a few tries. Chimgee reviewed the itinerary and introduced us to our lovely guide and driver. After saying goodbye to Chimgee, we headed out with DB (our guide) and Gamba (our driver). We began by driving north, via Darkhan town where we had Korean lunch because everything was still closed for Naadam. We were meant to go to a market but that was closed too, so they took us to two monuments connected by a large bridge.
One was a Buddhist pagoda and the other was a horse and rider that are part of a Mongolian myth. Both statues had great views of the cute coloured rooftops of the city.
After a drive on a long bitumen road we then turned off onto the “country roads,” which were like bumpy trails that went many directions. This is where Greg and I would have gotten seriously lost if we had chosen a self-driving option. It was a bumpy trip which would normally be fun if my neck wasn’t sore.
At 4:30pm we arrived to Amarbayasgalant where we rested until dinner in our first ger. It was reasonably comfortable, like a large tent with twin beds and thin bean filled pillows. The carpets and decor were cute.
After dinner we went for a walk/ hike up one of the hills nearby and got some stunning views. The never ending layered hills were spectacular. Looking back where we had come from, the camp was a dot in the distance. As we walked, hundreds of crickets jumped around our feet; it was quite strange and would be creepy if you were squeamish about insects. We could see horses in the distance and the many dirt tracks across the landscape. The landscape was exactly what you’d imagine for this part of Mongolia.
During our walk, we saw this insect that looked like a really fat grasshopper with a tail/stinger. We weren’t sure what exactly it was and if it was dangerous/poisonous, so we gave it a wide berth. However, we saw many of them on our walk, so we asked Gumba what it was the next time we saw one. He obviously couldn’t explain since he didn’t speak English and DB wasn’t around, so instead he decided to pick it up by its tail. I’m not sure what this was meant to communicate, but when the insect leaned in and bit his thumb, he hurled it to the ground, killing it.
We decided in that moment not to ask Gumba any more questions about the wildlife!
MONASTERY to URAN TOGOO MOUNTAIN, BULGAN
In the morning, after a very disturbed sleep thanks to the horses munching on the grass next to our ger, we drove 10-15 mins to the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, which was a beautiful Chinese-style monastery set in front of a big hill. The drive itself was picturesque, and we enjoyed passing by the nomadic Mongolians herding their sheep, cattle, horses, etc.
When we arrived at the monastery, the lamas were just arriving for their morning chants. The temple where they did this was rustic and beautifully decorated. Inside they have 1000 Buddhas and seats for the lamas (their term for monks) to sit and chant.
We sat and listened to the chanting and watched some of the younger monks mess around. The younger ones acted just like normal kids would, pushing and poking each other when they should have been chanting.
I love visiting active temples. After the chanting, a lama took us around and explained the different temples in the complex as well as the beliefs of their particular branch of Buddhism. This is where we started to see the true benefits of having a guide–DB would translate what the lama was saying, and through her we could ask any questions to the lama. It was a unique and very interesting experience, especially when he started talking about dream interpretation and everybody’s ability to see the future. We spent about 3 hours at the monastery, which included a hike up to the stupa–the eye on the stupa reminded me of Nepal.
Another awesome thing with a private tour is they don’t rush us. We can stop wherever we want for photos, take as long as we want in places, and chat to locals through our friendly guide/ translator!
After the monastery, we then headed further north towards Lake Huvsgul, but we stopped before then at a cute place surrounded by mountains and an inactive volcano. The drive was only meant to be 2hrs, so we didn’t rush and took many stops. Maybe that’s why we actually got in quite a bit later than expected! The scenery was gorgeous once again and a little greener at times. We had dinner and pretty much rested after that.
URAN TOGO VOLCANO to MOREN HUVSGUL PROVENCE
We began the day by hiking up the volcano behind where we were staying. It was a short but steep walk that had us huffing and puffing. When we got to the top the view was spectacular (thank goodness–I hate hikes without a view) and we could walk around the rim. Apparently there is normally a pool/pond in the middle but they hadn’t had much rain this year, so it was dry for us. It was a gorgeous walk and I am so glad we persisted and finished it. The walk down was quite slippery in parts. I know many of our friends would have run up it in minutes, but we are still proud of our morning adventure.
We then drove through the Khangai region, which is a stunning mountainous area. I loved seeing the herders on horses and motorbikes, the winding rivers, the locals camping everywhere, the herds of sheep, goats and horses and of course the dotted gers.
Locals taking advantage of Naadam by camping…everywhere!
Another thing that was interesting are the ovoos that travellers create. Usually, these are found in high areas, and travellers pile rocks, sticks, fabrics, special objects, and really anything they have that can be given as an offering (money, drinks, candies, etc.). There were also occasional animal skulls, such as the horse skull we saw in one today. Gumba thought it likely was a favourite horse of someone’s.
They place these objects in the piles in the hope that a wish will be granted, or that their journey will be safe. Either way, travellers walk around the pile three times, which is meant to (hopefully) ensure that their wish will be granted. Some of the ovoos are even believed to grant healing powers, and one ovoo we stopped at today had a pile of crutches and a few prosthetic limbs to attest to its healing abilities. These piles are similar to the ones we saw when we were in Tibet.
We stopped for lunch at a local place on the street where we had mutton pancakes, mutton dumplings and mutton noodle soup from the cutest family. Once again, DB our guide chatted to them and asked questions for us.
After the lunch we drove to our camp after bypassing the town. It was meant to be an 8hr drive but this time we were much earlier. Along the way, we had our first taste of mare milk. It’s horse milk that is fermented. Yes, it is alcoholic, but it would take a lot to get in any way tipsy. It’s more for helping to digest all the meat in the Mongolian diet. DB got a 2L Sprite bottle full from a woman who was selling it from the back of her van at a stop everyone seems to know about. It was very sour, and a couple of sips was more than enough!
When we arrived at camp, we rested and then had dinner. After dinner we walked 5mins to the Bronze Age deer stones and burial sites. It was a fascinating area almost as mysterious as Stonehenge. Not much is known about them except they seem to be connected to burial sites.
The stones have faces carved in them as well as many stylized deer. Many were very damaged and pretty eroded, but some were in good enough condition that you could make out the deer with their extensive ornate horns as well as faces. The site also had circular tombs marked with a pile of rocks and concentric circles of stones emanating out from them. In addition to the circular graves, there were square ones. We learnt about these in the national museum of Ulaanbaatar, so it was interesting to see them as they naturally exist throughout the landscape.
While we were viewing the stones the sun was setting which cast the best shadows. When we returned to our camp, I stood outside and watched the sky turn into a fire-orange. This was the first colourful sunset we have seen for a while. The landscape was breathtaking and the mountains rolled as far as you could see. The artist within me loved the variety of colours in the scenery from red-green-yellow-brown-grey-red-white. Just amazing. The clouds themselves were phenomenal, especially the strips of cloud that belted the entire mountain range.
Mongolia is totally about the space of its incredible, never-ending landscapes. We also loved watching the little zurams (“prairie dog” style marsupials) popping up from their holes and sprinting or bounding across the vast grassy plains.
DAY 4: DEER STONES TO LAKE HUVSGUL
This spectacular drive covered more than 150kms through green hills studded by rocks and covered in pine trees. The road into the lake was a long, bumpy, dusty one, but when you get that first view of the incredible bright blue waters it is simply breathtaking. Not to mention the roads were bordered with beautiful pink wild flowers. There were yaks everywhere, and if not for them, you’d think you were in Canada!
We drove to the lake past the shimmering turquoise water, goats, yaks, horses and people mingling on the rocky shores. On the other side of the road were pine covered mountains and ger camps. Our camp was beautifully situated on the lake, and it was also beside another smaller lake.
The temperature dropped significantly when we entered this area. The sun was hot, but the breeze was icy. We arrived in time for lunch, and after lunch Greg and I went for a walk to photograph the yaks, horses, mountains, and incredible waters. By the time we returned, it was time for dinner. The food was delicious and well presented, but unfortunately, the following day the driver and Greg, were very sick. We think it was either the food or the sauces they had laid out to accompany the meals. Their illness came the next day, however. Both Greg and Gumba felt fine until later that night.
After dinner we went for a short forest walk with DB. It was beautiful but would be better earlier in the day with the sun filtering through the trees. The temperatures were dropping quickly, so we had a fire lit in our ger. The camp also made a bonfire on the lake edge for everyone. Greg had just stated that this was his favourite spot so far because of the fires and beautiful setting; however, it was that night that Greg got sick, so his mind might have changed after that.
DAY 5: RELAXING AT THE LAKE
It was a very quiet day because Greg and the driver were both ill, so I sat in my favourite spot on the dock over the water for a while. Later, I relocated outside our ger as it was warmer, and then eventually I went to the restaurant area to start writing these blog posts. Other than changing locations, I was just enjoying the incredible view and peace. I also had to check on Greg throughout the day so couldn’t go too far. After lunch DB (our guide) and I went for a walk through the forest again, but this time we walked much further, and then cut through the woods to get to the edge. We were hoping to be able to walk back to camp along the rocky edge next to the lake, but it turned out we were high up on a cliff, so that wasn’t an option. There was, however, another trail through the forest which hugged the edge of the cliff offering spectacular views over the brightest blue water I have ever seen. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my camera, so it will just be a fond memory. The walk was brilliant and one of my highlights on the lake. I just wish Greg could have seen it.
Lake Huvsgul is 2 million years old; it is 136kms long, 36kms wide, and over 200m deep. We were at the southern tip, but if you traveled to the northern point you’d be able to pop over to Russia!
After our walk, we returned to check on the boys. Greg was feeling a little better, so I dragged him outside for fresh air and a short walk. As we walked to a small tip on the rocky edge, I told him to select a gratitude rock based on its texture. It is a rock to keep in his pocket at all times; whenever he feels it, he needs to think of something he is grateful for. It was very hard choosing, so he has 2 and I have 3 small ones. I want to always remember this trip and be grateful for the life we lead and for our awesome family and friends.
Tomorrow we pack up and leave in the morning. We will miss this stunning place but the journey must continue to even more amazing places. I LOVE Mongolia.
DAY 6: HUVSGUL TO ULZIIT KHISHIG
Written by: Greg
This morning we had breakfast, packed up, and headed out. This was my first “normal” breakfast after dealing with whatever made me sick all day yesterday, and despite a bit of indigestion, I was okay. Our driver, Gumba, was in the same boat as myself, so we were both a bit tentative with what we ate.
After breakfast, we headed out the same way we came in to the camp (there being only one route). We stopped at a small market that sold various yack wool, stone, and antler products. There were “reindeer people” there as well, so we stopped for a few pictures. We opted out of the full-on minority costume photos with the reindeer, though we did take a picture of ourselves in our normal clothes. We also didn’t shy away from taking photos of the Mongolians who were posing in costume. The best photo was of a dressed up woman sitting on the ground, likely unaware of the reindeer poop that was everywhere, taking selfies with a disinterested, captive reindeer. The reindeer themselves didn’t look like they were in top shape, though they had some impressive, hairy antlers.
From there, we returned to a small town to get some gas, water, and some drugs for the treatment of possible future stomach ailments. We then left the town, which was the last proper town we would be in for a while, and began our off-road journey to the next camp. Once again, the time estimates were off, as we were meant to be at camp for a late lunch by 2:00; however, we didn’t pull in until 3:30. The road consisted of the standard chaos of dirt paths that Gumba nevertheless divines to our end destination. One path branches off into two or three that then branch off further or return to the fold–there is never just one route, and even with this multiplicity, we still have to veer off our chosen path periodically to make way for an oncoming SUV or Russian van.
At one point we came across a road sign in the middle of nowhere that seemed very out of place, its arrows pointing vaguely towards what could be the correct path, or what could be the path that veers off in completely the wrong direction! Gumba paused there just long enough to make us nervous, but then he was off with determination. Shortly after, he stopped two different times for vans of locals who were basically lost. Then we passed a cluster of three SUVs circled up, reminiscent of something out of Breaking Bad. We kept driving and about 5 minutes later we stopped for another SUV full of tourists–the driver was sitting cross-legged in what little shade the car provided, contemplatively smoking his cigarette. Our driver joined him while they waited for the other three SUVs we just saw to find them. When the others found their lost companions, they convoyed off and we continued another 10 minutes to our camp.
My one regret was that I didn’t speak up when I saw a great photo op. I saw a complete cow skeleton a little off the road; however, we had already passed it and were really late getting to camp, so I didn’t say anything. Later when I told DB about that, she said how rare that is because animals gradually take away the individual bones to eat. Salt in the wound!
We had a good lunch at camp, but after the salad and a hearty soup, we were pretty much full when the unexpected main course of huge dumplings came out. We did our best, but Gumba and I still were not feeling 100%, and Rebecca was full after 2 dumplings, so we left a lot of food untouched. The owner was worried that we didn’t like his cooking, but DB explained to him that we were basically invalids who couldn’t stomach food. Oddly, he seemed relieved by this explanation.
After lunch, we had a quick rest and then went for a hike, communing with the goats, sheep, and stunning landscape. The serene, vast openness of the hills and valleys that surrounded our camp was a welcome change after the busy camp we just came from on the lake (spectacular though that location was).
We had a very late dinner (8:30), given how late lunch had been, and DB shared a bottle of really sweet French wine with us. Luckily, I always travel with a cork screw (After being left high and dry a couple of times in Italy, I bought a souvenir one, and it has remained in my bag ever since)–the camp didn’t have one, and Gumba was gesturing to hit the bottle until the cork popped out. We aren’t sure if he was kidding or not! Dinner consisted of more manageable portions (rice, strips of mutton, and 4 bite-sized dumplings), though neither Gumba nor myself ate our yoghurt dessert, being a bit wary of the non-pasteurized dairy.
One final note. When we went back to our ger for the night, a woman came to light our little fire for us. Unlike the previous night, she got it started first try…using a small blowtorch! However, within five minutes, the ger had transformed into an unbearable sauna. I went to brush my teeth, and when I got back Rebecca was standing outside, rosy cheeked because the ger was sweltering. I only lasted a few minutes myself before retreating outside to sit on the steps and cool down. Our driver was doing the same next door, so that was a comfort.
Our ger eventually cooled down to a less inferno-like temperature, but we still kept the door open for a while. This was apparently taken as a clear invitation for huge flies to come in and race each other around our warm ger. Rebecca had a bit of a go at them with a towel but met with little success. DB suggested that if we turn the light off and left the door open, they would leave on their own. We tried this, and things got quiet for a moment, but seeing that my phone was the only light source (I was drafting this at the time), the flies decided to dive bomb my phone and my head until we caved and turned the light back on. It’s quiet now, and I don’t see any flies. But I’m sure there are still some in here. We will see how the night goes…