28 August – 3 September, 2017
We knew that this trip was going to be great, but this time it was so much more than we expected! We drove more than 2.000km across five provinces, including the epic Gobi Desert. The journey of a life-time tossed us in one adventure after the other. The way was mainly off-road, luckily I brought pills for travel sickness. Never have I been this excited to share our experience! I apologize in advance about the lengthiness of this post, I just did not want to leave anything out 😅
We booked our trip through our hotel “Sunpath Guesthouse” in Ulaanbaatar. The hotel manager, Doljmaa is in charge and she has an ability to make things happen! It was her, who first told us about the phenomenon of “Mongolian Time”, which we experienced throughout our time in Mongolia. It basically means that Mongolians don’t like to agree on exact times or have negative thoughts about the journey as this could attract bad spirits (according to old beliefs). We noticed this frequently when they said “arrival around lunch-time”, this could be anywhere between 12:00 and 16:00 o’clock 😂
Day one – Finally on our way!
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park & Genghis Kahn Statue
Filled with anticipation we prepared our bags that morning. We had no idea what to expect so we packed for everything!
We met our guide “Mono”, short for a name that is impossible to pronounce, at the reception. Mono was our guide only for the first day. He has been incredibly informative, especially regarding Mongolian history, which I asked him many questions about.
We met our driver “Bata” downstairs at the car, he does not speak English but has proven to be exceptionally reliable. Most incredible is that he doesn’t need a GPS! He has more than 16 years of experience as tourist-driver and knew every road by heart! Road being the strong word😆. Our transport and home for most of the day was Bata’s “Russian Van”.
The four-by-four van, a UAZ-452 was produced in Russia (hence the name). The van looks like a can on wheels but it is the perfect vehicle to take on tough terrain and the Gobi-desert!
When we left Ulaanbaatar the landscape changed immediately from the hustle-bustle city area to vast green plains with horses and livestock. The initially paved road was pretty decent with the occasional pothole. It took us a mere two hours to get to the Genghis Kahn Statue.
The statue, only finished in 2008, is the largest equestrian-statue in the world. Genghis Kahn supposedly found his golden whip here, which is said to bring luck for battle. The building hosts a small but interesting museum showing the life and history of Mongolians.
Most intriguing, to me personally, is a map of the world in the second exhibition hall. The map depicts the Mongolian advance under Genghis Kahn. In its hay-day the Mongolian-Empire stretched from Europe’s Krakow, to Africa’s Cairo and Asia’s Jakarta. To see this on a map, you realize just how immense this really is! The museum was a mind-opener for us regarding Mongolian history. It also prompted me to buy the book “The secret history of the Mongols”. We went up to the top of the statue to have an amazing view of the surrounding area.
After our visit to the statue we continued our journey east to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Upon our arrival at camp, we were received with a lovely lunch, before we hiked to the nearby Buddhist monastery. We both knew very little about Buddhism, but our guide Mono explained us the basics. The Aryaval monastry lies halfway a mountain overlooking the valley below. After reaching the summit of the elephant-shaped stairs we spinned all 108 prayer-wheels for good fortune and enjoyed the mesmerizing view of the landscape under the setting sun. The perfect place for meditation!
On our way back to camp we came across a dog, that looked as if he was going to attack me, only to stop 20cm before my feet to roll-over and wait to be petted as a puppy😂 At camp we got settled in our very own “ger”. Because of the cold night we lit the oven, which gave up at around 4am, leaving us cold till morning😂.
A “ger” is basically a traditional round-shape portable yurt used by nomads in Mongolia. What ever you do, don’t call it a tent! It’s one of the few ways to insult a nomad.
Day two – Gobi here we come! White Stupa Rock formation
Rarely have I been happier to see the sun than that morning! It was a crisp -2 degrees and the sun did its work to warm us up. Mono prepared an amazing breakfast for us. We ate fruit-salad with yoghurt and amazing gambir (flat-bread) with strawberry jam, yummy!!
We drove back to Ulaanbaatar, to swap guides. Here we met “Puujee”, a local guide from the south-west of the Gobi. She has turned out to be a very good and friendly guide with great cooking skills!
We drove for many hours, seeing few cars and a lot of cattle. On-route we realized just how scarcely populated this country is, we barely saw anything but livestock, which didn’t seem to be owned by anyone. The cattle does not care for the approaching cars and won’t move til your less than 20cm away (to the amusement of our loudly honking jolly driver).
We arrived at the White Stupa rock formation just before sunset. This natural wonder is proof that the Gobi was once a seabed. The bright red and deep yellow formations are an amazing sight. We went for a stroll by the cliffs to enjoy the view before making our way to camp. Here we had our first encounter with a real nomadic family. It was a wonderful experience to see how Nomads live, always on the move, and always hospitable! After settling into our new ger, we gazed at the beautiful clear night sky. As the camp was extremely remote, the stars were exceptionally clear!
Day three – The Vultures of Yol Canyon
After a short breakfast we hit the road to our next destination. We drove for hours (again), only to stop for lunch at a “Sum-centre”. A sum-centre is a town with around 2.000-15.000 people that functions as a counties capital. After another couple of hours off-road driving we arrived at Yol Canyon. The canyon is named after a rare vulture that resides here. The canyon has steep, rocky cliffs and a winding river stream. The National Park is also home to one of my favorite animals, the snow-leopard!
We walked through the canyon constantly crossing the winding mountain stream, in search of wild animals. High above us we saw many vultures soaring in the wind (probably thinking we were easy pickings). We did not find the illusive snow-leopard, but did see rare Ibex (wild type of goat), yacks and many “Pikas” (a small cute-looking rodent). We enjoyed the rugged landscape as we hiked and climbed our way down the canyon floor. We also visited the small museum at the entrance. Only a hundred meter from the entrance of the park was our camp, where we had our own 6-bed ger. Plenty of space! Puujee prepared us a delicious vegetarian soup in the evening.
Day four – Khongoryn Els Sand-dunes, camel-riding and drinking with Yondong
It was going to be a busy day, so we got up around 6am. Half-awake we had a small breakfast and packed our bags before heading on our way. We drove almost 200km on unbearable hilly “roads”. If it wasn’t for my travel sickness pills and Bata’s driving I would surely have been a goner!
Upon our arrival at camp, we were warmly welcomed with sniff-tobacco, goat milk and a home-made pastry by the nomad family of Yondong. The family also has one of the cutest dogs in the world!
Little later, in 40 degree heat, we rode camels into the arid surroundings with him. With only the three of us in front of huge sand dunes and rugged mountains we rode for a while. Amazing experience!
When we returned, Puujee prepared us Khuushuur, a local dish which resembles flat fried dumplings. Delicious!
After our early dinner we made our way to the biggest sand dune I have ever seen. We were to walk up this beast and watch the sunset from on-top. It took no more than 20 meters to realize this was going to be an immense challenge! Two steps forward, one step back! It took ages to make any progress… Do not let the pictures fool you, the climb was horrible! Never in my life have I climbed such a steep mountain of sand! But we did not give up like many others and we made it all the way to the top. Completely wasted but proud, our efforts were rewarded with a brief but stunning sunset. After a while some rain-showers forced us to go back down the dune to the car.
Instead of breaking down from exhaust and calling it a night, we thought it would be nice to give Yondong a bottle of Vodka to show our appreciation of his hospitality. Shortly after we were having one after the other round of Vodka, alcoholic Mares Milk and beer. It turned out to be one of those amazing and funny evenings. The whole night jokes went back and forth. We would have been lost without Puujee’s translating😂
My name “Timo” means “Yes” in Mongolian, so as you might imagine it came up every two seconds😂 Quickly after they nicknamed me Temüjin, after the great Genghis Kahn and made fun of my hairy legs😂 All of us laughed till tears as Yondong pretended to burn my hair with a cigarette-lighter🤣
Mongolians are incredibly friendly and fun people to be around, never have I seen so many smiling, kind and helpful people.
Day five – The Flaming Cliffs
We woke up to different weather conditions. Instead of the 40 degrees of yesterday it was now a chilly 15 degrees. We sat outside, enjoyed the stunning views and had breakfast with some curious goats before we broke camp.
After five days of not-showering, without running water and mostly horror toilets, it was finally time for a shower! After a couple of hours of driving, in a small sum-centre we took a long overdue shower! Rejuvenated from the shower and a small lunch at “the happy ger” in town we continued our journey. In the afternoon, during heavy rain showers we arrived at the Sunpath tourist camp. These gers had soft comfy beds and were exceptionally clean.
The camp is only five minutes from the Flaming Cliffs. We waited for the rain to stop before visiting this amazing place. The area is well know because of the first ever dinosaur egg-find in the 1920’s. Until then people didn’t know they came from eggs! The cliffs themselves are a stunning vibrant red color and offer beautiful views of the surroundings. We walked around for a bit, enjoying the view, when a group of people waved us over. When we arrived their guide showed us four rocks that he found at the cliff. Upon closer inspection they turned out to be dino-eggs! We were even allowed to hold them, an amazing experience to have something like that in your hands! After this unique experience we headed back to camp and finished the day off with a lovely dinner.
Day six – Ongi Monastery
We woke up to perfect weather and had breakfast before we went on our way. We drove for hours on the worst roads yet, forcing me to double my travel sickness pill dose. Luckily they took effect and we made it to lunch. Puujee prepared an amazing picnic for us on the banks of Gobi’s biggest river. After lunch we went to the ruins of the Ongi Monastery. It was completely destroyed under Mongolia’s communist reign. More than 800 temples were destroyed and the monks killed, imprisoned or enlisted in the army. The site itself nowadays hosts a small museum and a new temple. From the top of the hill you can still see that this place was as big as a town and you can easily imagine the 1.200 monks that used to live here.
After our visit we made our way to camp at another nomad family. This particular family specializes in Mares Milk (fermented horse milk). They milk the horses every two hours, making it an exhausting full-time job. After the customary greeting, (almost mandatory) sniff-tobacco and Mares Milk, we had dinner. Shortly after the goats were also milked, and Bata and Puujee both helped out. In the evening Puujee, Anna-Lena and I played card games and talked about Mongolian history before heading to bed. The night was tormented by storm, with hail, lightning, rain and wind battering on our ger. Seems like it is the best place to be when lightning strikes on top of a hill with a stove as a lightning rod😂. At night a desert rat took us by surprise as it ran through our ger, little sleep but interesting night😉
Day seven – Karakorum and Erdene Zuu Monastery
We woke up early, packed and had breakfast before we were shown how the family makes their own Vodka from Mares Milk. We said our goodbyes and hit the road, as 180 km of daunting off-road lay ahead of us. A couple of hours in, we came across this picture-perfect green valley with yacks and vultures were we took a break and enjoyed the view. At lunch-time we arrived in Kharkhorin (former Karakorum, Mongolia’s ancient capital under Genghis Kahn, which was completely destroyed by the Ming dynasty). We had lunch here and headed for the Erdene Zuu Monastery in town. This huge complex is surrounded by 108 stupas. We walked around and Puujee, herself Buddhist, explained all about the religion and its customs. The main temple is beautifully decorated and looks old (even though it was only rebuilt recently, using stones of the old capital city). We strolled around for a bit before getting back in the van. We drove some more, until we arrived at the next nomad family. When we arrived we basically jumped straight on a horse and went up the nearby hill. Here we had a beautiful view of the valley. During the ride I couldn’t help but laugh every time (which was often) the horse farted loudly😂. We rode for about an hour before we got back to camp. This time we had dinner Mongolian style! The family and guides prepared an amazing Mongolian Barbecue with mutton, carrots and potatoes. It was delicious! The barbecue is nothing like we are used to, for starters there is no actual barbecue grill. Instead they use a stove inside or outside of the ger. They put a big bowl on the fire and gradually add meat, carrot and hot stones. The hot stones make the meat exceptionally tender. We all sat together and had a couple of beers before ending the night.
Day eight – a long drive home!
Our last day started as all the others, we packed, had breakfast and jumped in the van. As we did not have anything planned but the drive back (280 km on-road😁), we took our time and had a nice lunch half-way. In the early afternoon we arrived safely at our guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. We said goodbye and thanked our reliable guide and driver before checking-in.
After being assigned a room we sat down and pondered about all the beautiful things we had seen this week. We have found this vast country absolutely stunning! We’ve met nothing but friendly people on our way. Their hospitality and smiles are famous for a reason. It is also a country where off-road can be much more comfortable than on-road driving. We’ve had all types of weather on the way, ranging from 40 degrees soaring heat, to freezing -2 degrees and from sunshine to crazy hail! We had seen all sorts of landscapes, from vast green plains to high mountains and from grasslands to sandy deserts. We ate and drunk with real nomads, rode camels across the desert, climbed the biggest dune ever, held real dinosaur eggs and so much more! This has been an amazing adventure we will not soon forget!