Mongolia 09 – To The Far North

Arkhangai to Khövsgöl Aimag, Mongolia
July 2016

I’m leaving central Mongolia for the far north. It’s a couple of days bouncing on the now more than familiar hummocky tracks that serve as roads here. Along the way I transfer to another van, this time a Soviet era all terrain beast that’s got less butt pounding but more airborne action.

We pass a horse race in the middle of nowhere, part of the annual nationwide Naadam Festival. Kids line up on full sized horses and take off across the grassy moutainsides, surrounded by more horses and motorbikes, and disappear over the next hill.

The landscape is empty here, even for Mongolian standards. Towards the end of the day, we pull up to a random nomadic family, the driver asks if there’s space to stay in their tent. Discussions are had, I’m guessing a price is suggested, driver looks disinterested and begins to drive 50 metres then pretends to make a phone call (the chances of cell coverage in these parts is nil). The owner arrives at the window, the process repeats again, this time we drive only 20 metres. Eventually they send the young daughter out with an acceptable price and it’s all on.

The traditional greetings come out, offerings of horse milk tea, dried yoghurt and snuff. Outside there’s a glorious sunset throwing long shadows across the wide valley.

Inside, the TV comes on. They use small solar panels to charge a car battery into which they plug a satellite receiver and small computer monitor. It’s a set-up duplicated in tents across the steppes. We’re entertained with some Mongolian historical movie to do with a wrestling competition and the hero trying to win the most beautiful girl in town by winning the tournament. Quality action.

Breakfast time and we’re given a clear liquid which turns out to be vodka made from fermented horse milk then distilled over the fire place. Apparently finishing your glass means you want more. It took me a few to work that out. Turns out to be a good remedy for the Mongolian roads. Breakfast of champions.

The “road” north heads through more mountainous country, over some semi alpine passes and across a huge river flowing north into Russia and the mighty Baikal. We find an old shamanistic stone totem out in a valley, draped in Buddhist prayer flags and bits of yak hair for blessings on the herd. This practice dates back millenia.

Lunch is by a distinctly aromatic soda lake that smells as if the yaks have been using it for a bath. There’s no outlet, presumably only evaporation and seepage drain this, the shore is covered in a thick crust of mineral salt, the water has that weird oily feel of super-saline lakes anywhere.

We arrive in the brightly painted and mildly amusingly named town of Moron (amusing until you find out it’s pronounced mooroon), just in time for a massive thunderstorm, stay the night and swap to another Soviet van for another 12 hour bronco session.

The landscape, nature and culture change up here. There are high mountains around, more forest which slowly morphs into Siberian Taiga carpeted by deep moss. There are less nomadic tents and more log cabins spread around, some in small clearings in the forest, others out on the grassy valleys by lazy silver rivers and lakes, thin snakes of smoke trailing above from the fires within.

The long twilight works for us, it’s almost 11pm by the time we reach our destination – a small log cabin up a mountainous valley. Inside is a single room in which the whole family sleep, a wood stove set in the middle. As always, they’re incredibly friendly and hospitable. Milk tea, home made cream cheese on fresh bread, mutton soup and fresh made yoghurt come out. Superb.

Hore trek adventure into the far north awaits the next day …

Mongolia 08 – Canyons and Hot Springs

Arkhangai, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset on Flickr

The morning woke with low mist swirling around the White Lake. A cold wind whipped through reminding me of the brevity of summer in these parts. Winter is never far away. A late start allowed time for the sun to burn of the cloud, the temperature climbed twenty odd degrees in the space of an hour.

A stop to climb the dormant Khorgo Uul volcano revealed massive lava fields around extending all the way across the the lake and great views of the crater and surrounding mountains. Ground squirrels dart about amongst the lava formations at the base as opportunistic hawks circle overhead looking for a well earned meal. The steps to the summit are busy with Nadaam week holidaymakers, but the best of the scenery is found circling the crater leaving the crowd far behind. I make my way back down through the forest, thick for trees with a dense mossy carpet. It’s quiet and blissful in there.

We move on to the Chuluut Canyon, where the swollen brown river has carved a deep gorge through a deep layer of ancient lava. There’s a long ridge up above covered in pine and deep grasses and wildflowers which makes for a great hike with stunning views across the surrounding landscape. From here you can see the start of the canyon and see it snake thorough the valley below to end somewhere way off beyond the visible range. It would make for a superb rafting trip.

Up on top of the mountain is a shamanistic shrine where people have left offerings. There is a plague of flies in the forest here, I wonder how people live with it without going insane as I feel myself rapidly approaching that point with them in only a couple of short hours.

Back at camp, a fire is lit to hold the flies at bay, as the sun goes down, so do the flies.

Morning breaks hot and sunny, the wet season has moved on for the moment and we ride out into the countryside to the Tsenkher Hot Springs in a beautiful wooded valley filled with more wildflowers. When they say hot, the springs emerge at 87 degrees and are piped down to pools barely cool enough to get into.

After only 10 minutes in the pool, standing up I almost pass out now a deep shade or purple. Even stood up to my knees there’s enough sweat running off me that I might as well be in the pool. Stewing yourself up to the neck has the added advantage that it minimizes the surface area that the horse sized horseflies can bite at. Fortunately they’re not active at night and a midnight soak beneath the stars is the perfect end to the day.

Mongolia 07 – To The White Lake 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset on Flickr

The days of summer seem to have fled for now, Karakorum is an enveloped in thick cloud and horizontal rain with the temperature struggling to nudge double figures.

With the rivers in flood and anything off tarmac resembling a mud bowl, we abandon our mission to reach Tsenkher hot springs out in the mountains. Instead, we make a short stop at the regional centre of Tsetserleg where I make the climb to the shrine above Zayin Huree monastery. Visibility in the rain isn’t fantastic but it’s a nice view all the same and a welcome break for the butt from the back of the van.

Slowly the weather clears, the landscape switches to forested rocky mountains and a watery sun struggles to make it through. After passing through some impressive country we branch off the relative bliss of the sealed road and hit something resembling moguls after a busy weekend. There are low slung hatchbacks and battered 90’s station wagons attempting this in convoy. Holes big enough to swallow cars do exactly that, bemused drivers get out and look even more bemused at their stranded vehicles. As we head up over a steep rutted pass there are cars defying all design limits bouncing in both up and down the slope, sometimes even in the direction intended.

At the top of the pass, the splendour of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake) unfolds. Less white but shining steel grey silver as I arrive, the sun piercing through heavy rainclouds to light up patches of verdant slopes around the edges.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Tariat, Arkhangai, Mongolia

From our camp, I climb a small nearby peak and watch the shifting light highlight one then another aspect of this wide vista. The lake seems to disappear beyond a vast winding coastline into the grey hazy distance in one direction, distant sunlit mountains spread along the horizon in the other. The landscape seems to shift every few minutes.

Some local kids scale the near vertical wall of rock (rather than the easy grassy slope) and proceed to entertain me with renditions of favourite songs, acrobatics and various impressions of favourite monsters and animals. Eventually a holler from below sends them running, tumbling and laughing hysterically back down the slope to some distant yurt. A good end to the day. 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, Tariat, Arkhangai, Mongolia

Mongolia 06 – Mud Holes and Ancient Relics

Kharkhorin, Mongolia
July 2016

Full Photoset on Flickr

Rain has arrived and turned the road out into a set of twisted mud snakes winding across the valley floor. It seems we’re often just following the vague imprints of tyres where someone once drove before, or creating our very own new road. Cars designed for Japanese cities are slithering about and getting stuck trying to cross new streams that didn’t exist the day before. The rivers are swollen and crossing the main one brings the water almost up to the windscreen. Our driver does a great job and eventually gets us out back into semi-sealed roads by mid-afternoon on a journey that should have only taken a couple of hours.

We had intended to reach Tövkhön Khiid, a remote mountain top monastery, but considering the road there was even worse than what we had just got through, and that the van was only two wheel drive, it was consigned to the nice-idea-for-another-time bin.

Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai, Mongolia

Instead we reach Erdene Zuu monastery near to the ancient capital of Kharkhorin (Karakorum). Built in the 1500’s, it was the first monastery in Mongolia and housed at its peak over 100 temples and over 1000 monks until the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s when most of the temples were destroyed and the monks either shot or sent to Siberian gulags. The impressive walls surrounding the complex are still intact forming a huge rectangle of interlinked stupas.

Most of the few remaining temples are now museums housing relics that survived the purges by being hidden for over 50 years by locals until the end of communism when the monastery was allowed to reopen. The 4th Dalai Lama was born here in the 1570’s and one temple is dedicated to him, another Tibetan style temple is now practising again. Inside, an 8 year old monk plays with a paper aeroplane before heading out to jump in the puddles and chase birds. Normal 8 year old boy then.

It’s a seemingly meagre remains for the capital of the largest empire the world has ever known, stretching from Eastern Europe and the Middle East all the way to the Pacific, from the Siberian tundra to southern India. Ground surveys have revealed a vast area of foundations stretching out beneath the steppes from here but virtually nothing to date has been excavated.

Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai, Mongolia

Despite being mid-summer, the temperature has plummeted, the rain continues thick and heavy, so much that there is almost like a midday twilight going on. We decide to abandon ship before one becomes necessary and head west to the promise of hot springs and volcanoes.

Mongolia 05 – Horses, Waterfalls and the World’s Smallest Rabbit 

Orkhon Khürkhree, Mongolia
July 2016

Full Photoset @ Flickr

The Orkhon Khürkhree valley woke filled with swirling mist, slowly pierced and broken by the morning sun. This morning’s early start for the horse trek ended up being 11.30. You have to adjust to Mongolian time, things happen when they happen. A walk along the nearby canyon fills the time in before getting started.

The slightly psychotic Mongolian horse, don’t let the size fool you. 

Mongolian saddles are small and hard, they require a different technique to Western riding style. I’m not complaining, it was still more comfortable than yesterday’s van ride. I get my steed for the day, a short stocky mare with a bit of feist. The handlers are a bit worried that it might be too feisty for me, but for the first hour or so it’s more of a battle of wills to get it to do more than plod and go her own direction. I think she must have eventually warmed to me, we’re soon cantering and galloping across the valley, going in the direction I wanted whenever that was also the direction my horse wanted.

Mongolian horses could be said to have a vague homicidal nature about them. Never approach them from the rear, never approach them from the right for some reason, never stare them in the eye and on no accounts play poker with them over distilled fermented yak’s milk. They’re said to keep you on your toes, mostly as they start galloping and, in a effort at preserving the possibility of continuing your lineage, you raise your nether-regions off the rock-hard saddle.

Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

The goal was to reach the nearby waterfalls, the largest in Mongolia. Not huge by any normal standard but still impressive. Also very popular with Mongolians apparently as well. The water, fortunately full from recent summer rains (it only flows for a few weeks each year) plummets off the edge of a lava flow into a chasm below. Safety standards here are a little more relaxed as people either jump to the small island above the falls with their kids in tow, and clamber down the sheer cliff single handed (the other hand carrying children too small to walk). I see parents waving their small children over the waterfall, considered good luck seemingly – presumably for those that are successfully retrieved to relative safety.

Everywhere you look, the scenery is dramatic here. Mini canyons and craggy pine clad peaks, mist rising through the forests as the afternoon thunderheads build. Heavy rain knocks the afternoon’s ride on the head but clears late evening to allow a hike out in the long twilight.

I come across something surprising here. The lava flows I’d seen along the valley so far could be thousands or more years old, but across the valley I find relatively fresh lava (no more than a few hundred years old I would guess), new enough that no soil and almost no vegetation had yet developed. And seemingly it had erupted from fissures rather than volcanoes. I guess I’m readjusting my understanding of Mongolia again.

Lava flows, Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

The sun breaks through to light up the low mist at the head of the valley. As I turn to head back, I spy a pika scurrying about the lava blocks, most likely happy to use these as protection against the falcons that frequently pass overhead. Pikas look a lot like a hamster with large inverted ears. They’re actually the smallest member of the same order that includes rabbits, smaller than the palm of your hand. Possible contender for cutest small animal also looking like the progeny of a Pikachu & a hamster.

Being immensely timid creatures (understandable when you see the size of the vultures circling overhead), you need to remain stock-still and completely silent for a good 10 minutes or more. They were thought to be extinct in China, but it turned out that it was just that nobody had managed to stay quiet for that period of time.

Mongolian Pika, Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongoli

Darkness is at hand, as I hike back across the old lava flows, a brief sunset display flicks its way across the valley, the only sounds are the distant roar of the river, the braying of animals and the laughter of the family’s kids as they play football and chase goats. Mongolia life.

Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai Province, Mongolia

Mongolia 04 – A Bumpy Ride

Uvurkhangai, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset @ Flickr

Sunrise colours started a couple of hours ahead of the actual sunrise across the plains, the horizon lighting up purples and yellows over the distant mountains.

When the brilliant yellow light hits the land finally, filling it with impossibly long shadows, the wandering animals begin to stir and the first movements of the locals emerging from their gers gets the day started. Life moves slowly at the start of the day here, then progresses at a similar speed for the rest of the day. Come to think of it, the end of the day is fairly sedate too.

Mongolian steppes: the morning starts slowly, continues at the same pace during the day and ends much the same way

I go for a walk getting some photos of the herders getting the animals out to pasture and wander out on to the dunes to watch the shapes shift in the sand and the day slowly get started out on the plains.

A couple of hours drive through more wild scenery, alternating between wide open valleys, rolling hills and money mountains. Always the ubiquitous herds of horses, sheep and goats and the white gers break up the otherwise endless green expanse.

At the end of this is the small town of Khurjit, a mix of permanent gers, Siberian-style wooden houses with brightly painted roofs, and the occasional Soviet era building thrown in to the mix. This is as big as towns tend to get outside of the capital which act as a centre for supplies and services for the thousands of nomadic families that live in the region.

Khurjit. The locals were beginning to question the “Annual Road Maintennance” line on the council rates.

Khurjit also marks the end of the sealed road which is where things get a bit more lively. Rather than having a single road to follow, the road splits into several meandering threads which criss-cross and down which several cars vie with each other for pole position as they bounce and slide along the muddy tracks. The vehicles are everything from large 4×4’s to small Toyota hatchbacks and Soviet era vans. I start to feel a bit like I’m in an episode of a Mongolian version of Wacky Races.

A combination of Mongolian roads, Mongolian driving and rock hard suspension ensure you get to stay airborne for as much of the journey as possible. The last thing you hear when boarding a Mongolian bus may well be “enjoy your flight” …

Along the way we come to a cliff with a dark history. Before the second world war there were thousands of Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. During the Soviet era, Stalin ordered  the Mongolian communist government to destroy almost all the monasteries, the only survivors were the ones that managed to convert to museums. Some 30,000 monks were massacred, and at this spot alone, 100 were thrown to their deaths off the cliff top. For such a serene place of beauty, and with modern Mongolians seemingly being such gentle and spiritual people, it’s hard to imagine such a thing happening here.

The route to Orkhon Kurkhree, Övörkhangai province, Mongolia
Serene scene with a dark past

What seems like hours of butt pounding road adventures brings me to the head of Orkhon Khürkhree, a beautiful remote valley flanked by Siberian looking spruce forests and filled with a wild river tumbling it’s way towards Lake Baikal in Russia to the north. My family greet me with a bowl of fermented horse milk and dried yak yoghurt, much better than it sounds. A walk along the river is quickly abandoned as lightning strikes the nearby hillside and the skies open.

Lightning struck off the opposite bank a few minutes after this shot … time to be somewhere else in a hurry …

Late evening brings a clear in the weather, enough time to try my hand at yak milking (definitely not as easy as it sounds) and a walk out across the ancient lava fields that fill the valley to watch rainbows and sunset colours.

Home for a couple of nights …

Mongolia 03 – To the Edge of the Gobi

Mongol Els, Mongolia
July 2016

Full photoset @ Flickr

Wet season visited overnight, waking to mist and horizontal rain. Things lifted to reveal a soft green landscape around. Driving through central Mongolia, the clouds broke, sun shining in ever shifting patterns across distant mountains with gers, the traditional nomadic round white tents, scattered across this vast landscape.

The contrast with China couldn’t be more. Endless heavy industry and densely populated cities replaced with an empty land seemingly at one with its nature. Every corner unveiled more wild beauty, every moment shifted the clouds to create more unparalleled contours in this wild land.


Arriving at Mongol Ers, I reached a northern extension of the immense Gobi far to the south. The green pastures meet sand dunes, not the harsh empty desert of the south, but sand interspersed with trees and shrubs, with springs winding through the grasslands that meet the dunes.

The family ger

I stay with a family in a ger, welcoming and friendly. Herds of horses graze in the spring water, immense mixed herds of goats and sheep wander aimlessly, the occasional camel wanders past finding feed in the tough shrubs that grow here.

The sky is immense, the green intense. Everywhere I look is another photo. I can’t even begin to write the feeling of being here, but the overwhelming sense of being lost if a beautiful timeless vastness grows with every hour that I’m here.

I go to the spring fed stream and sit for a while with the herds of Asiatic horses, watching their interaction, the semi-wild herds that wander freely across the grasslands. They are owned by the nomadic families, each with their brands marking who owns what, but free to wander, mix and interact as they like.

Up to a nearby mound there’s a view over this endless vista, a camel grazes at the top paying no heed until eventually wandering up to me for close scrutiny, seemingly as curious about me as I am of it.

Mongol Els, Bulgan, Mongolia

The family organise a trek out across the dunes on camels. It’s gimmicky, but it’s still a fantastic experience. The camels seem to barely tolerate their human masters, feisty and belligerent to the last. They show their displeasure by spotting and blowing snot on anyone unfortunate to be in their path.

Back at the ger, the shadows deepen, the dramatic scenery keeps getting more dramatic. The sky unfolds a spectacle that last for hours, sunset leading to twilight that never seems to end. The vastness of land and sky grows with each minute.

After dusk, the family bring in their sheep and goat herds to their corral. I join in the action as we run in the near darkness, herding them in, heading off the splinter groups. The whole family is involved, including the tiny three-year old boy who in the midst of the throng intent on bringing down a lamb of his own. The general action is to run into the galloping mass, throw yourself into the air and attempt to rugby tackle anything you can reach, end up empty handed in the dust laughing so hard you can’t get back up  again.

The overwhelming feeling here is that people are happy and content. They live a very basic life, with minimal possessions. There is no competition with others, what they have is shared with everyone around. The children seem filled with an unbounded joy and spend the day running and laughing like there is no tomorrow. It’s infectious. I’m filled with a total feeling of happiness and contentment here.

I look back to the “developed” countries and wander what we’ve lost, and why we are so wrapped up stressing about unimportant dross that seems to fill our lives. Why we rush around working our lives to amass so much junk we never see value in, why we feel it so important to fill our lives pursuing meaningless aims and possessions when happiness can be achieved so simply, and with time left over to enjoy that happiness. My decision to abandon the trap of mortgage and career feels more right than ever.

My final thought for the day was under the wild skies slowly filling with stars while the remnants of sunset seemed to burn forever in the west over the last vestiges of the northern Gobi.

Mongolia 02 – Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Here …

July 2016
Khustain National Park, Mongolia


Photoset @ Flickr

They did really, wild horses being what Khustain National Park is all about, established to protect the takhi (Przewalski’s horse), the only remaining true wild horses left in the world (trivia: all other wild horses are actually feral and come from domesticated horses that have escaped into the wild). 

Wiped out in the wild in the 1960’s, enough remained in zoos worldwide to re-establish a handful of herds at the end of less-than-conservationally-minded communist government. My guide tells me that the horse is so integral to Mongolian culture that it became a matter of urgency to “restore the lost soul of our nation, without the takhi it was as if a limb had been removed”. Mongolians start getting a far off dreamy look and a deep slowly spreading smile when talking about horses and riding out onto the steppes – it’s infectious. 

There are now around 250 takhi in a dozen or so herds. They graze the high grasslands in the summer months and move down to water late evening. There was time to kill before hoping to see one of the herds, enough for a hike up one of the surrounding peaks.

Khustain National Park, Töv, Mongolia

On the way up marmots poke their heads out of the ground and screech, huge vultures watch from the craggy tops and launch themselves lazy into the valley below, a surprised deer gallops off across the foot slopes to somehow evaporate into a small gully. The view from the top is mesmerising. The landscape is bleak and unforgiving and, at the same time, a soft undulating greenness that stretches to every horizon. Mongolia has the ability to make you feel as if you’ve been shrunk down into a vast landscape under an impossibly huge sky.

Khustain National Park, Töv, Mongolia

Down in the valley again, a small herd of the wild horses can be seen up on the opposite treeline. I hike up slowly towards them, not wanting to spook them, but they don’t seem to pay me any attention. I stop a few hundred metres away and prop myself up against a rock, amongst the deep grass and wildflowers while grasshoppers and butterflies go about their business around me. It’s good to be in nature again after a month of industrial China.

Reassuringly, there are several foals in this one herd alone, which numbers around 19 that I can see. Hope for the continued future of these incredible animals in their natural homeland. Winters are brutal here, even spring  and autumn are harsh enough and there are wolves to contend with too. They need all the numbers they can muster to continue out here (pardon the pun).

Wil Takhi horses, Khustain National Park, Töv, Mongolia