With only 1.8 people to every square kilometer of land, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world. To put this into perspective consider that this same area is home to three people in Australia (the central part of Australia is probably the most sparsely populated part of any inhabited continent), 35 in the United States, 141 in China, 262 in the UK, 497 in the Netherlands and 1,034 in Bangladesh.
Now consider that 45% of Mongolia’s population lives in it’s capital of Ulaan Baatar, and that excluding both the population and land area of that city, each of the country’s 1,559,411 square kilometers is home to 1.04 people. The overall average household size was 3.6 in the most recent census and is most certainly higher in rural areas, making it likely that the average nomadic family in Mongolia has exclusive access to about four square kilometers, or roughly 1000 acres, at any one time (of course this ignores the fact that some areas go unused in different seasons, particularly in winter).
If this statistics lesson doesn’t suggest to you that urbanity is not Mongolia’s drawing card, then ten minutes in Ulaan Baatar will prove to you that this is the case. The city of Ulaan Baatar (locally referred to as UB) is a town that seems to have risen from the steppe with no direction, a collection of rundown old Soviet-built flatblocks and post-Soviet industrial installments and office buildings for foreign mining companies – an odd contrast of Mongolia’s urban poor and western wealth all tucked beneath a cloud of smog that is seemingly the only blight in a country of otherwise pristine air. Thankfully UB is only an island of undesirability and unpleasantness in what is otherwise perhaps the most pleasant country we’ve visited.
The first thing one should do upon arrival in UB is make plans to get out. This is not as simple as it sounds as outside of a few arterial bitumen roads and occasional rutted paths, there are no roads at all in most of Mongolia. The only way to really see Mongolia and the Gobi desert is to either have a seriously outfitted 4WD vehicle and outstanding mechanical skills or to take a tour. We opted to book a tour with Golden Gobi Guesthouse, which is one of the cheaper options around.
We had some difficulty deciding exactly how long we wanted our tour to be – there’s not much in Mongolia that doesn’t sound appealing (UB, mines). After considering our options and available time and money, we decided on a 14 day tour including a trek through the Eight Lakes area (Naiman Nurr) and an overview of the Gobi. We were also very lucky to meet Aussies Kate and Carlos at the guest house, as they were looking into a similar tour. This helped lower the per person cost of the tour and they turned out to be really fun people to travel with.
The next morning we met our driver, Dashka, and our first guide, Lahsa. We all piled into Dashka’s Soviet-style 4WD beastvan and set off from Golden Gobi Guesthouse with Dashka and Lahsa in the front and the four of us on two rear bench seats, one located immediately behind the front seats facing the van’s rear and the other facing front. The planned itinerary for the day was to visit Hustai National Park to see Takhi, the world’s original wild horses and the species from which all other horses have descended.
On our way to Hustai we drove near our first sand dunes, relatively small scrub covered dunes that could melt away into the green hillside in the years to come. We arrived in Hustai a few hours later and spotted some Takhi only a short way into the park. The horses were a little ways off in the green rolling hills that cover this part of Mongolia, and so we climbed up to get a closer view. The horses nearest our approach watched us carefully as they ate, and as we watched something spooked the horses higher up the hill and they took to a quick gallup across the upper bowl of this valley.
At night we stopped at a family’s home and set up our tents near their gers with the rounded rocky hills in Khogno Khan Uul Nature Reserve just behind us.
We had been made aware by Golden Gobi that our guide Lahsa did not speak much English and that they would replace her early in our trip. We left camp on day two with our new guide Mungu, a lovely firecracker that we enjoyed during the tour, and headed towards the ancient city of Karakorum and the Erdene Zuu monastery.
Karakorum was once a capital of the Mongolian empire, though little remains on that city. Parts of Erdene zuu escaped Stalin’s crackdown on religion including the long outer wall topped by 108 stupas which surrounds the few remaining buildings. The remaining temples inside these walls are of a style suggesting influence from both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists, with rammed earth or stone walls – some painted a dark red common on Chinese temples and some whitewashed like the Potala – and topped with eaved tile roofs. There was also one more recent temple whose style was clearly more Tibetan and which was in active use, with Mongolian people in traditional dress sitting around the temple and monks lined up inside at their prayer tables.
After Erdene Zuu we were joined by two more on our tour- Jacopo, a charismatic Italian (redundant?) who was to be with us for the remaining thirteen days of our tour, and Darren, another Aussie who would be with us for five days before returning to UB. Both were great additions and we again felt very fortunate to be part of such a laid back and fun group – we meet plenty of other groups along the way with obvious tensions and we really had no such thing.
On the way out of Karakorum towards Tovkhon Khiid, a huge rain and hail storm came upon us. As we were driving uphill – Tovkhon Khiid is on top of a small mountain – the Russian 4WD beastvan began to slip and slide and then bogged down in the muddy path. The six of us hopped out and attempted to push the van. Those putting the most effort forth ended up slipping and sliding themselves in the mud, and Carlos also nearly found himself under the tire of a backwards-sliding beastvan but was pulled to safety by a courageous and mighty red-bearded superhero. Finally making our way uphill we soon met another Golden Gobi tour truck on the way down the hill. They warned us that our intended camping location was covered in hail and both tours retreated back down the hill in search of a nice, warm Ger to call home for the night.
We soon found a family living in the gers in a beautiful green valley and they agreed to allow all eight of us to stay. The family included a few children, the youngest of which was maybe three or four years old and quite playful and enjoyed showing off for us a bit as well. After seemingly exhausting her repertoire playing with members of our tour for an hour or two, she had actually saved her best for last. As we all sat out front of one of the gers talking, she suddenly yelled “gangnam style”, jumped from her seated position, and started into the all-too-familiar dance. This was obviously unexpected from a child of this age in this nomadic family in the middle of the Mongolian wild, and we could hardly contain ourselves.
This was our first ger experience and one of the more awkward, as we slept on the floor while the family slept on the beds by us. On nights like this, Mungu and Dashka slept in the beastvan.
The next morning the beastvan needed only Dashka’s steady hand to maneuver up the same now dry grassy slope which yesterday had required our efforts and nearly Carlos’s life, the scars of that battle clearly shown in shredded turf (which is better than shredded Carloses I guess). At the top of the road and the bottom of the forest, we set off walking through knee-deep brush towards the Tovkhon Khiid.
After walking for nearly an hour Mungu paused and, looking a bit embarrassed, admitted she was lost and could not locate the path. We climbed to the top of a hill nearby and everyone began searching out for a possible path. Eventually, a direction was decided and we continued on and, luckily found the path after a bit of wandering. The group trekked uphill till we reached the small but unique temple on the side of the mountain, a place originally built by the well-known Mongolian monk and poet Zanibazar. A monk was chanting mantras and we sat listening to his recitation for a while before heading onward up the path for a great view of the landscape.
The next stop was at the Orkhon Khurkhree waterfall, which is Mongolia ‘s tallest waterfall. This could be a bit misleading considering there are only two waterfalls in Mongolia, but this was actually a significant falls that uniquely fell into a horseshoe shaped canyon of sorts so that it seem to appear from nowhere, completely hidden from view until one was at the edge of this canyon.
Our day ended at a set of gers, called the Golden Gobi hostel (unrelated to the one we were on a tour with). The hostel was set at the top of the canyon where a river flowed below through a mostly jagged and steep rocky chasm, a very beautiful location. We were at the base of the Naiman Nuur Nature Reserve (NNNR), also known as the Eight Belly Lakes. The rest of the day was relaxing as we had time to wash clothes and ourselves in the river, then enjoy the warm sunshine.
The evening grew into a party with our group, another group and all the guides, drivers and hostel family joining in. The rubbing alcohol-like vodka and beer flowed quickly and freely and the music blared around the bonfire, and eventually the Mongolians began to sing as they seem wont to do. Everyone had a fun night.
We slowly got moving and around noon set out on our horses to begin trekking through the NNNR. None of us, save Mungu and the horse guides, were experienced horse riders and with little direction we mounted up as if riding a horse was a skill so native to and natural in Mongolia that one might become capable merely by breathing the air.
We rode through the valleys, up and down mountains and alongside lakes. The landscape was wide, open, deep green, and black volcanic rock was scattered throughout the forests, grasslands and especially along stream beds.
We stopped in at a random family’s Ger camp for more milk tea and curd and also were able to observe the process for distilling fermented milk into vodka. The distillation apparatus consists of a catch bucket hung in a vessel over the fire and a long notched wooden trough which carries the condensed distilled vodka through a seive and into a waiting small-mouthed bottle. The vodka was not too strong and while a slight taste of the milk remained, it was a very smooth and pleasant drink, and especially nice served warm on this cool afternoon.
As the sun began to drop towards the western mountain ridge, we set up tents in the middle of a wide, flat valley split by a slow moving river that fed marshy grasslands. We stayed up late, sitting around a fire chatting and nursing our sore bodies and genitals.
We sorely climbed back on our horses for the second day of horse trekking, and no sooner had we started off than a steady and drenching rain began to fall. The rain then quickly transformed into a hail storm, an unexpected and not entirely welcome development. Everyone was soaked from head to toe and struggling to stay on their horses as we traversed slippery mud and even a few thinner valleys whose floors were completely submerged under muddy rain water that hid the rutted horse or motorbike path. This is how Brett fell off his horse – the horse’s front hoof disappeared into a submerged and hidden hole in the ground and as the horse tumbled forward and then rolled onto its side, Brett luckily instinctively leaped off and took a few quick steps to get clear of the horse.
Thankfully, we made it to a set of gers and the family allowed us in. We waited until the rain slowed, and then jumped back on our wet saddles and rode off again. Fortunately, the rain held itself to a sprinkle as we continued on through streams, up and down mountainsides, alongside lakes and through the valleys. As everyone was wet and ready to stop riding, the guides kept pushing the horses to go faster. Many times our horses got to a gallop and with only one day of riding under our belts, it was at times a challenge.
The rain finally subsided and it was quite a pleasant ride through the valleys and crossing the deep streams. The lakeside riding made for spectacular scenery and distracted us from the fact that we were still wet.
We made it to the set of gers, which were by the lake and would be our shelter for the night. We said goodbye and thank you to the guides and horses as our two days of riding were completed. The afternoon was chilly, but wandering the hills and rocky lakeside was fantastic and rewarding.
Due to it being a short walk to the next sleeping location, we waited to leave untill the afternoon, hoping the incessant rain would let up. The group enjoyed relaxing and resting and the rain did thankfully let up.
Our horses had departed, replaced by two yaks and a yakman who would now carry our gear. We continued the trek on foot along the lakeside and through the marshlands and tall grasses in the valley surrounding the lakes. The walk led us to the Eighth Lake, which is the biggest lake in the NNNR.
We set up our campsite alongside the lakes edge, dragged dead wood out of the forest and made a big bonfire – much needed as the cold set in strong at night here at our new higher elevation.
Hiking along the Eighth Lake, we immediately began our ascent to the pass where we would meet Dashka and the beastvan. The walk beside the lake was pleasant as we were surrounded by mountains and hills, and our perspective out over the lake changed with each step.
When we reached the opposite end of the lake from our camp, we came upon a family taking down their gers to move. It was an interesting process to observe, as it is completed so quickly and easily, a very versatile and mobile structure.
The trek continued directly uphill from that point. The views became better and better the higher we climbed as the entire lake and surrounding mountains came into sight.
At the top of the pass we meet Dashka and packed back into our Russian beastvan, a bit relieved to not have to worry about the weather conditions and a bit disappointed that our trekking was finished.
We stopped at a family’s ger to rest and for Mungu to prepare lunch. It was a pleasant stop as we had a full ger to ourselves to just lay out and relax inside.
It was Darren’s last evening with us, so we made sure to stop at a village to buy beers to cheers farewell. Just outside the village, we stopped by a stream and set up our tents. We were not too far from Arvalkheer where Darren was to catch his ride back to UB in the morning.
We arrived in Arvalkheer, said goodbye to Darren, then headed to the public shower building to have our first shower since we left the guesthouse on Day 1. It was a well needed and enjoyable shower. We were all happy to have clean parts again.
After our shower we visited the market in town as Mungu needed to replenish our food supplies and we all needed a few basics goods. The market was set up into sections, perhaps the most expensive dairy section we’ve seen (milk and products of nak, cow, goat, camel, etc.et), a meat section (horse heads and all), a produce section and more. There were also areas where they sold ger parts and furnishings and pretty much anything you might need.
Back in the beastvan, we headed south towards the Flaming Cliffs. This was the entrance to the Gobi desert and the landscape began to change from green and lush to brown and dry.
Dashka continued to drive through the desert on unidentifiable paths. There was very little to see except dusty gravels and small brushes. There was a vastness of desert in all directions, though no dunes and sand (yet). Mungu informed us that we would find a family and stay with them for the night; however, we had spotted very few gers during the last few hours, so we were skeptical. Even moreso when we got lost amongst some tall grasses for a bit in the middle of the afternoon.
Randomly to us, Dashka and Mungu turned the vehicle abruptly and found a family’s set of gers. We were in the middle of the desert with only goats and mostly barren hills in sight. The family informed us that we were the first tourists to stay with them. It really wasn’t a surprise because I’m not sure it would be possible for someone to purposefully locate them again. The five of us slept on the floor of the ger and luckily were able to get a good night sleep despite bugs crawling all over us. We were informed by another group which we had met earlier in the travels and who had been to the Gobi, to put tissue in your ears so the bugs don’t crawl in them. We now understood their suggestion and happily obliged.
Link to our photos