Why go to Mongolia? Where is Mongolia? Is it part of China? These were the questions I had last spring when trying to plan a family holiday for mid-August. I wanted the four of us – myself, husband, daughter (age nine) and son (age seven) — to spend some time together before school started and after our hectic weeks of summer camp and family visits in the US. The problem was that most of Asia would be in rainy season then.
It turns out that summer is the peak season in Mongolia, a landlocked country sandwiched between China and Russia, famously known as the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan. Not to be confused with Inner Mongolia, a Chinese autonomous region, Outer Mongolia is a sovereign nation. The population is around three million, half of whom live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. The majority of the other half are still nomads spread throughout the country living in gers and herding horses, camels, cattle, sheep and goats.
There are direct flights daily from Hong Kong to Ulaanbaatar, often referred to as UB. I perused some itineraries online and chose a travel agent based in Mongolia (Goyo Travel) who would design a custom trip for us at a very reasonable price. As is my norm when planning travel, I then proceeded to read about the many sights, regions, foods and customs so that I could collaborate with the travel agent to make sure this trip would be right for my family.
I quickly realized that in ten days there was no way to see all of the many things that sounded so interesting in different regions of the country. So, I struck from the list Lake Khovsgol in the north, the Orkhon Valley in the center and the “land of the eagle hunters” in the far west.
Top priorities for this trip would be:
- getting a bit of cultural immersion by staying in gers and eating local food
- experiencing adventures like climbing, hiking, rafting, and riding
- enjoying the wilderness including the only remaining truly wild horses in the world
We flew to UB on a Friday, met our guide for the first half of our trip, dropped our things at our hotel and headed out to dinner. Khorkhog was the main item in our first night’s feast. This sort of lamb stew is made by adding hot rocks into the pot with the meat, potatoes and carrots. It’s a local barbeque favorite. We also sampled other traditional dishes including steamed lamb dumplings called buuz and fried lamb dumplings called khuushuur.
After dinner we had a chance to walk around the main square in the center of the city. Sükhbaatar Square, named after the war hero who secured the country’s independence from China in 1921, has his statue at the center. The Parliament House to the north has large bronze statues of Chinggis Khaan and three of his generals decorating the front of the marble building. It is flanked by a range of interesting buildings including the Cultural Palace, Opera House and Stock Exchange. The area has a very east-meets-west and old-meets-new vibe. Some buildings have a Chinese influence, others are very Soviet-style and the new Blue Sky building adds a touch of modern glamour.
The next morning we boarded our Russian-made van that would be our transport through Terelj National Park in the Khan Khentii Mountains for the next three days. First stop — Turtle Rock, a large rock formation that we climbed from the back up to the neck. The climb was fun, not too challenging and afforded us amazing views of the surrounding landscape. Next we were off to the nearby Aryabal Temple, where we got a bit of Mongolian Buddhist flavor and more exercise with an uphill path followed by 108 steps up to the temple — with another reward of gorgeous views. But the real excitement came on our way to lunch. We were headed to eat with a local family. Due to the rains in the previous few days, there were several points along our 14km journey where our van proved to be the perfect transport through muddy tracks and across small streams.
Upon our arrival, we had our first introduction to a ger. Ger is the Mongolian word, but outside of Mongolia this is more commonly known by its Russian name, yurt. A ger is a round tent consisting of wooden construction, felt insulation and waterproof cover. They are surprisingly spacious inside. Our gracious host invited us in to sit at a small table with stools near the center and served us a dish of noodles, mutton and vegetables with milk tea to drink. It was all quite tasty and even the kids ate well.
After lunch we headed out for a horseback ride through the grassy valley. Mongolian horses are much shorter than anything we had ridden before. That makes it a bit easier to mount and a bit more comfortable for the kids. But for us tall adults, our short stirrups put our knees up quite high. It takes a bit of getting used to! The horses were fairly tame but for safety the kids’ horses were kept on leads, allowing us parents to relax a bit and feel pretty comfortable with the adventure. After a couple hours on horseback we were ready to return to the comfort of our Russian van and head off to our ger camp.
The ger camp was surprisingly nice, with running water in the bathrooms and an electric lightbulb inside. The wood burning stove at the center turned out to be a necessity as the warm day turned into a very cool night. After some time to run around outside, play with the ger camp’s dog and even a little badminton, we were well fed with a tasty dinner and we all slept comfortably.
Day three lead to a bump in the road — or more accurately a muddy hole in the road. We were staying near the Gunjin (Princess) Temple with the intention of driving to a spot nearby and hiking a couple of kilometers into the woods to see the ruins of this temple that was mostly destroyed during the communist years. But after a rainy night, the dirt road had many sections of deep muddy puddles. Our experienced driver took us as far as he felt comfortable and then pulled off the road to park the van and we begin our hike. Getting stuck in the mud in an area without cellular service or frequent traffic could have been a real problem, so despite the distance that was added to our hike, we were on board with his decision.
We were expecting adventure and we sure got it. Our hike turned out to be seven kilometers each way. Luckily we had plenty of water and snacks. We set off through a range of puddles and mud, accepting the likely ruin of our sneakers. It was beautiful wilderness. We returned to the ger camp only slightly worse for wear and gladly paid for the washing service for our mud-soaked shoes. They came back practically as good as new and dried overnight next to the stove in our ger.
After a shower, we made use of our down time by trying out some archery. We certainly did not prove to be expert marksmen with a very tight, traditional bow, but we enjoyed taking part in another Mongolian cultural tradition.
Day four began with a rafting trip down the Tuul River. More of a shallow stream most of the way, we had a great time paddling and attempting to steer our rubber raft over rocks and around bends. Turns out we were even more adept paddlers than expected as we concluded our planned three-hour trip about a half hour early, even with some nice stops to take in the scenery along the way. Our rafting journey took us towards the Chingiis Khaan statue just outside of UB. This enormous stainless steel statue is in the Guinness World Record Book. At 40 meters high it is the largest equestrian statue in the world. We had lunch in the complex, explored the small museum to learn about this most famous Mongolian and climbed the steps up to the horse’s mane to get a view of the surrounding river and hills.
After a couple hours’ drive we were back in UB and ready to take in a shower and a show. The Tumen Ekh performance was a fun introduction to Mongolian song and dance, including throat singing, which was quite amazing to see in person.
The next morning we headed to the airport for an early flight to Dalanzadgad. This was the start of the focal point of the trip — the Gobi Desert! Our first stop was exploring Yolyn Am on horseback and foot. Translated in English to Vulture Valley, the name did not do justice to this beautiful small gorge with a stream running through it. The stream is frozen about 80% of the year, but there was no ice to be found in mid-August. From there we had quite a long desert drive to our first homestay of the trip.
We arrived and met the family, happy to find that they had kids similar ages to ours. With the translation help of our guide, the kids played a local game using sheep ankle bones. The ger we stayed in was actually quite nice and decently appointed. This family had their own ger, a kitchen ger, and even a bathroom facility with running water. This was luxury for the Gobi.
For me the highlight of the trip was the dune climbing we did that evening. Just before sunset we headed to Khongoryn Els, a range of dunes stretching for 100 kilometers, some as high as 200 meters. Our guide took us to what was obviously the most popular climbing spot, judging from the number of tourists. Despite being the only crowds we had seen, there was certainly plenty of space. The 200 meters didn’t sound so bad, until we started the climb. Every step was followed by a bit of a backslide. But the hour of tiring battle to stay on top of the sand resulted in a triumphant summit with phenomenal views all around, not to mention some nice family photos. The best was still to come as we began our descent. We moved a little ways further on the peak of the dunes to get to an unspoiled stretch of sand. The first few steps down were nerve wracking, but once we got going it was absolutely amazing to zig zag down the dunes, almost gliding through the soft sand. Stopping along the way to look back up at where we had come from, our foot prints were the only ones in sight.
After a great dinner and good night’s sleep we headed out in the morning for our first ride on Bactrian camels. Having ridden dromedaries (one humped camels) on our India travels last winter, we were excited to try out their two humped cousins. The saddle is really more of a rug sitting snugly between the humps, with saddles dangling. Much like our horseback rides, we found riding camels to be pretty uncomfortable but still a fun adventure. The kids had a great time running around some nearby small dunes at the mid-point of our 2two-hour ride. And our guide showed them how to catch the small desert lizards that scurried about from time to time.
Our afternoon was spent on a short excursion to a nearby desert oasis. We brought our host family’s kids along with us to the Seruun spring, which billed itself as one of the nine wonders of the province. In addition to seeing the native saxsual trees, which seem out of place in a desert, we spent about an hour playing in the mud before returning to watch the milking of our hosts’ herd of sheep and goats. We decided not to try our hand at the milking but we did cuddle a baby goat.
Our final day in the Gobi took us to two famous sites — the Khavtsgait petroglyphs and Bayanzag, also known as the Flaming Cliffs. The “walk up a rocky outcrop” as described by our itinerary turned out to be a fairly steep climb on a path of loose stones. However, as we reached these carvings at the top of the hill, dating back as early as 3000BC, we had no question that it was worth the effort. We added on a stop at a nearby organic farm. We were amazed at how successful these people were at farming in the desert. One of the farming families actually invited us in to their ger to sample their tomatoes, cucumbers and pickles. We happily bought a bag of tomatoes and jar of pickles to take with us for later.
After lunch we headed to see the huge shelves of red rock and sand known as the Flaming Cliffs. This important paleontological site was where dinosaur eggs were first discovered in 1922, along with skeletal remains of over 100 dinosaurs. We enjoyed wandering around and taking in the views here, as well as some more lizard catching.
We spent our last night in the Gobi at a very upscale ger camp not too far from the airport. We definitely enjoyed the luxury of a bar, basketball court, air-conditioned gers and hot showers, but it didn’t quite feel like authentic Mongolia. The veggies we had bought earlier in the day turned into a nice evening snack along with beer and vodka shared with other guests of the ger camp.
After seeing the sunrise the next morning before boarding our early flight to return to UB, we were sure that nothing could compare to our Gobi experiences. From the UB airport we headed west to Khustai National Park. We arrived in time for lunch at our second homestay of the trip. The family was very welcoming, fed us a hearty meal, and then took us out for our third and final horseback ride of the trip. This one included crossing some streams and galloping as well as the gentle trotting we had experienced previously. Our hosts showed us how they distill vodka from yogurt and how they dry yogurt to make hard curd that can be easily stored for long periods of time. But this was also our most rustic experience — well water was put in cisterns that could be used for washing up. This was the only part of the trip where we decided to stick to bottled water for brushing our teeth! And the “facilities” was really a toilet seat atop a plastic cylinder set above a few feet deep hole in the ground — this surrounded on three sides by a plastic sheet held in place by a rebar structure. The uncovered side faced out into the fields, where of course there was no one to watch us but the field mice and domesticated herds.
As evening approached, we headed out with another family in search of the Przewalski horses, known locally as Takhi. As luck would have it, the man of the house (…er…ger) was a park ranger. He knew exactly where to take us to find these free roaming horses. We saw some marmots along our drive as well. When we reached the right area, we went exploring on foot. Sure enough, we found three different small groups of these beautiful horses. There are over 200 Takhi in the park today, due to a successful government effort to save this dwindling population.
Our final day was spent back in Ulaanbaatar. A quick visit to the small dinosaur museum, a nice lunch with a view of Sükhbaatar Square, and a little shopping capped off our trip nicely. We came home with a souvenir each — cashmere scarves for the ladies, a cashmere hat for my son and felt slippers for my husband.
We all had a great time in Mongolia. It was definitely ten days well spent. Maybe someday we will even go back to get to those areas that we couldn’t fit into this trip. Although for now, I have had enough mutton to last awhile!