Philip Beck was on the Moroccan camel trek with me last year. A Canadian, he took off for Mongolia a month ago. Following is his report of the experience:
Mongolian Yak Safari May 2010
In mid-May 2010 I was fortunate enough to go to one of my dream countries: Mongolia.
Yes Mongolia – the appeal of the country to me has always been the fact that I have heard there is a lot of space with deserts, rolling pastures, taiga, and mountains. I saw almost all of on the two week Gecko’s trip that I was on.
Mongolia is the world’s second largest landlocked country. It is also the least populated country by area in the world. Mongolia has two neighbours: Russia to the north & China to the south. Mongolia’s classic continental climate means it has 250 sunny days per year, cold winters & changeable summers with very dry conditions.
Ulaanbaatar (henceforth known as UB) is the country’s capital & largest centre. The population of UB is just over 1 million in a country of almost 3 million people. Just so you know 60 % of the population is under 30. UB is roughly in the centre of the country. There are regular (but certainly not daily flights to Seoul, Beijing, Moscow, & Frankfurt).
A visa for the country is required and it must be obtained in advance.
I arrived in UB and met my group at my Soviet era style hotel called Hotel Zaluuchuud. For a 3 * hotel it was very comfortable and really well located. All the rooms had huge windows that opened and nice rooms. The hotel was our UB base – we stayed here 3 separate times. The staff there made everyone feel really welcome. Our group had a get together dinner at a typical Mongolian style restaurant.
The next morning we started early for a 9:00 AM train that headed S.E. to an area called Ikh Nart Nature Reserve on the edge of the Gobi Desert. That morning in UB was a very cold, grey, windy, and snowy morning. The train journey is part of the Trans Mongolian Railway in part of the larger Trans Siberian Railway that starts in Beijing and ends in St. Petersburg or vv. For the whole route one could see herds of sheep / goats / horses & a few cattle. After a 6 hour journey with multiple stops we were met by our small bus transport / all terrain vehicle to take us the further 2 hours over tracks & dirt roads to our first Ger Camp at Ikh Nart. We arrived in sunshine and 21 °.
The trains ran very smoothly. Trains are the preferred mode of travel for a lot of people. Two cars away from us was a family travelling together and they were enjoying the ride and singing most of the way. The carriages are large & very clean. The windows opened and we were very comfortable.
At our camp at Ikh Nart we stayed in gers. Gers are the traditional housing stock in Mongolia and they are even preferred in UB wherever possible. A local ger would house an entire family with a kitchen, a stove, and a storage area. Our gers were quite spacious. They were usually set up with 2 twin beds, a small table & benches, a wash basin and a wood stove. The even had linoleum lining over the earth floor. Word of caution one really has to be careful upon entries and exits. It is very easy to scrape one’s head or hit your temple as the entries are quite low.. (think round hobbit houses). At our camp there were 13 gers. The camp also had a kitchen ger, a dining ger, a library ger, and a shower ger. Washrooms were spic & span outhouses.
Ikh Nart Reserve is at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The reserve was set up to protect Ibex and Argali sheep. We spent a full morning one day tracking the sheep and exploring the area. Of course there was lots of other desert fauna to seek out and the area had magnificent granite formations scattered all over. We were fortunate to see at least 15 Argali sheep. After a long morning in the sun and a 28 ° day we went back to our camp to the cool comfort of the library where some of us read, others learned Mongolian bone games, and the more adventurous went on an afternoon bike ride.
The ger camp had riding access to Bactrian (2 hump) camels. I can tell you that I was very keen to get on one of these as I have been in India & Morocco on Arabian (1 hump) camels so I said what the heck try something new. I can tell you honesty that these Bactrian camels are a lot more comfortable than the latter camels. Our afternoon adventure was a 1 hour drive to a former dinosaur dig area and a rock hound’s treasure chest. On the way back we stopped at some springs for some water tasting and we managed to see 5 Ibex in about 250 meters away from us.
Spring had just started in Ikh Nart. We saw a lot of different crocuses & irises. The winter of 2009 – 2010 was the coldest on record in Mongolia so we also saw a lot of dead sheep and goats around. Mongolia lost 17 % of their livestock due to malnutrition and disease brought on by a very harsh winter.
We may have had 28 ° days but the nights were very cold. It went down to 8 ° at night. We were very thankful for a polite knock at the ger door at 6:30 AM to light the stoves by a camp attendant.
On the last morning the ger camp was woken up by a herdsman and about 500 + goats and sheep that bleated and bayed and neighed and clanged bells at 4 AM. Our laughs just about drowned out the sounds. Good thing they served us breakfast early that morning.
We ate 3 hearty meals per day at the camp. Lunches were usually served hot and dinners were really great with at least 4 courses. Vegetarians were easily accommodated. We had the opportunity to purchase wine, beer, pop and extra chips or chocolate bars if we needed them.
I really appreciated the huge almost endless blue sky and fresh warm breezes scented with desert plants. I have not seen such huge and blue skies like that since my teen years in SE Alberta.
After breakfast on the last day at Ikh Nart we drove back to UB – a 7 hour drive. We got back to the city in time for some of us to check out the National Museum. www.nationalmuseum.mn
I had time to do that plus I had time go to the post office gift shop for cards. I also found a really great bookstore for a friend’s son who just happened to working a grade 7 Social Studies project on Chinggis Khan and the Mongolian empire of 1206 – 1368.
The next day was another full day. We started at 10 AM at the Gandantegghenling Monastery. This Buddhist monastery is the largest in the country and one of the few not to be completely destroyed by the Russians when Mongolia was part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Perhaps 85 - 100 monks live & study here.
We stayed her about 3 hours.
After Gandantegghenling we drove north then east to Khan Khentii Nature reserve about 150 kms from the border with Russia. We had a surprise along the way. Just 40 kms outside of UB out of nowhere appeared a gleaming 43 meter statue of Chinngis Khan: He is the hero of modern day Mongolia. His gleaming statue had him astride a horse, protected by his generals at a gate. The site will soon be part of an almost completed village for travellers to visit. You can visit on line http://www.genco-tour.mn/en. This statue will soon be for Mongolia what the Taj is for India, The Eiffel Tower for France, and the Statue of Liberty for the USA.
After a picnic lunch and out of the watchful eyes of Chinggis we went on to our second ger camp at Khan Khentii. This area is at a relatively high elevation with snow-capped mountains to the north perhaps 15 kms away. Our camp was set in the Jalman meadows about a 15 minute walk up from the bank of the Tuul River. We stayed at these gers for 3 nights. The meadows were surrounded by hills of tamarack forests. We were just a week if not days away from the greening of the hills. The tamaracks however did have really pretty small new pine cones on them. Parts of these hills were covered in blooming deciduous azalea shrubs and more irises and more crocuses. It was so beautiful. In that area the livestock did well. The horses & foals were healthy. Of course there were goats and sheep were everywhere.
A few of the activities at that ger camp were of course great walks, learning Mongolian archery techniques, and fishing. I brushed up on my archery. I signed up for a full day of horseback riding with a fellow traveller. Mongolian horses are quite a bit smaller than the horses we are used to seeing. They are fitted with smaller saddles and they do not really respond to kicks in the flanks. These horses responded well to a good whack of your reign and some nice words (of course this coaxing was in Mongolian no “giddy up” here! Our horse leader was the same local man who taught us archery. His name is Turmbree. While on the ride we learned Mongolian words for streams, nests, goats, trees, and whatever else we pointed at. In return we gave taught Tumbree the English words. When we ran out of out nests & grass to point at Tumbree started to sing. He had a really strong & melodic voice. You just knew the songs were about love of the land and songs from pastoral traditions hundreds of years old. The songs brought tears to our eyes. Tumbree took us by river banks, up hills, and we forded the Tuul river twice after Tumbree made 100 % certain that is was safe to do so. Because these horses are so small, the river was in full spring run off, and I am 6’ tall I did get wet up to my shins wet but the day was a lot of fun.
The second part of our venture in this region was the yak part of the trip. Yaks loaded down with full carts can walk about 3 to 3.5 hours. We had 3 yaks each tethered to a cart. One cart was for our portable gear, one cart was for the kitchen, and the third was for all the supplies and tools.
Our group followed they yaks for a short while then we could venture off for 6 – 7 hour hikes in the hills or stay with the yaks. We met at our temporary camp. We slept in tents and we set up a kitchen ger each day. The toilets at our camps were pit toilets with a privacy canvas. Each camp was near a river or stream, our water was boiled stream water, and food was again superb as we had our own camp-cook for the 3 full days.
This really made us feel nomadic. We really didn’t have a specific goal in mind, we just set up the ger where is was relatively flat and close enough to the river for water. We would meet horseman and herders all through the day. There were always smiles all around and everything was shared. We all enjoyed these wandering days with the yaks. The ger set up took our camp guides about 15 minutes (we assisted when we felt we would not be in the way)
Toward the end of the trip the weather took a turn for the worse. One night as the wind was howling and the rain was falling my tent roomie & I snuck up to fellow traveller’s tent & shook it for all it was worth. The ensuing laughter drowned out the storm. The last night however we knew we’d get it back. Sure enough at 2 AM they pulled the pegs out of our tent and collapsed it on top of us. It was all in good fun.
The next day we drove back to UB past the giant Chinngis again. We had enough time back in UB to clean up and take in either a last museum (some of the group was glad they went to the Winter Palace others went to the State Department store. I hunted for music so I could find a CD or two of music similar to the songs I heard from Tumbree. I had time to chat with the staff at The Zaluuchuud Hotel, show them our travel pictures, talk about the music, and share fantastic stories.
In the early evening we walked to a theatre to see this show: The Blue Sky Melody of Great Mongolia. This ensemble consists of the creative professional artists of song and dance representing the wonderful beauty of Mongolian national art. They present the special features of the Mongolian life and customs.
The Moon Stone Ensemble was formed in 2002 in UB. The mission of the ensemble is to promote and build international awareness of Mongolian folk art that dates back to ancient times and pass on the rich cultural heritage to future generations. The Moon Stone Ensemble has achieved broad local and international recognition thanks to its successful performances at a variety of cultural events.
We really enjoyed the presentation of throat singing, folk dancing, acting out interpretations of legends, a Mongolian contortionist, and a choir. We were all in awe.
Our farewell dinner was held at a local lively restaurant. We toasted each other and our great tour guide Oso with “tuktoys’ & “suktoys” with Mongolian beer & Mongolian vodka.
The next morning came to fast for my flight home via Beijing. I had to get a window seat for the UB to Beijing leg. For the most part at 35.000 feet we followed the rail line. I found it very hard to leave. I really appreciated the raw beauty of the land and the warmth of the people. I got to experience a spring all over again. We had snow and rain, hot days & stormy days; this is pretty much all what I expected of Mongolian weather.
Mongolia has raw materials the ‘modern’ world wants such as copper & coal and gold. The time to go Mongolia is now before super highways, chain stores, and chain coffee shops take over. In UB a Zara’s is being built a Burberry’s and an Armani Exchange already exist. If you do go plan on a 2012 trip That years will be 250th anniversary of Pax Mongolia. So I say tuktoy to Mongolia and thank you. I will go back.