19.08.2018 - 22.08.2018
After leaving Northern Mongolia, we moved towards Central Mongolia, the birthplace of the country with its ancient capital Kharkhorin. On the way, we ate lunch at a local family with many kids. The kids were playing outside our dining room, shouting “look at me, look at me” and laughing a lot. We treated them with some biscuits and they went away, happily chewing them. After a long drive on dirt roads, we arrived at Khorgo Uul, an extinct volcano. A 30 minute climb brought us to its crater, filled with red sand, and we walked around its rim, enjoying the view from the top. Nearby, we visited some big volcanic holes, called Yellow Dog’s Cave and Ice Cave (which did not have any more ice at this time of the year, but it is filled with ice in winters).
In the evening, we arrived at the Great White Lake and stayed at the lake shore in family guest gers. The difference between family ger camps and tourist ger camps is mainly the facilities. In the family camps, there is usually only a drop down pit toilet in the backyard, where you need to hold your breath to be able to use it. Also there is usually no shower and food is very basic. In the tourist camps, one can expect flush toilets and showers, however, not always with hot water. The price of accommodation in tourist camps is usually 3-4 times higher than in the family camps, but after several visits to pit toilets, the longing for proper toilets is stronger than the will to save. The Great White Lake is located at 2000m above sea level, so the night we spent there was cold and we needed to make fire twice during the night. In the morning, some fog was hanging around its shores, but we still decided to do a short hike around the peaks surrounding the lake. We saw seagulls eating fish at the beach and ovoos, piles of stones and rocks which are prepared to worship various deities prepared by shamanic believers.
Later on that day we drove to Tsetserleg, a town of 16’500 inhabitants, where we visited a Buddhist temple. In our guide book we read of a restaurant called Fairfield Bakery and Café, a place sounding like out of a fairytale in a land of mutton and plane rice, were there was supposed to be good burgers and other western food. The burger, which under normal circumstances would probably be described as mediocre, tasted like heaven to us. The food choice for the last days was very often reduced to either rice with mutton, noodles with mutton or dumplings with mutton (buuz). Our aversion to mutton led us to pose as vegetarians since early on our trip so that we could choose between rice with vegetables, noodles with vegetables or dumplings with vegetables, with the vegetables almost invariably being potatoes, onions, some carrots and sometimes cabbage. Spices or sauces do not seem to be part of Mongolian cuisine, making the dishes pretty bland in taste. Sometimes, a gracious restaurant owner would provide a bottle of ketchup.
After lunch we drove to the Tsenkher Hot Springs area with geothermal water coming out of forested hills. On the way we saw many eagles roaming the skies and plethora of furry little rodents which are probably prey for the former. After arrival at the hot springs the warm shower was a delight after several days of not being able to take one and the hot pools could have been even better, if not for babies splashing water on our faces all the time.
The next day we visited another Buddhist monastery which this time looked a bit more active than other temples we saw before. Monks were chanting and carrying on their ceremony when we arrived. Then we drove 3 more hours to reach the Orkhon waterfall, which presented itself beautifully after several days of rain. We have seen several people taking a dip in the small pool formed at the bottom of the waterfall. Later, we also stopped at the Orkhon river cliffs, where monks were thrown down during the communist purges in the 1930s.
Our next destination was the Gobi dessert, an 8 hour drive over dirt roads. Since this is too much to bear, we decided to break the drive and sleep one night at Arvaikheer, a small town and the aimag capital (aimag is the name for a province in Mongolia). Before we arrived in Arvaikheer, our driver took us for a spontaneous visit to a nomadic family living in the steppes. The purpose of the visit was mostly to drink airag and meet some locals. Airag is a Mongolian delicacy, fermented horse milk, which contains around 3% of alcohol. To us it tasted a bit like sour milk mixed with beer. In addition to this, we were treated with some horse cheese which to us was inedible. Our Mongolian hosts were nomads, who move every 3 months to a different location in order to provide enough grass for their livestock. An average nomadic family must have at least 300 heads of livestock (sheep, cows, horses or yaks), to be able to sustain their subsistence. Our family had horses and sheep. They also had two gers. The guest ger where we were invited had 3 beds, a small kitchenette corner, a cupboard with family photos, a small Buddhist altar, a traditional ger oven and next to it, a big pile of horse dung (apparently very good for starting and keeping fire for hours). Traditional Mongolian hospitality assumes that every traveler might need some food, drink, fuel or place to sleep. People share resources with each other and expecting a payment for it is not customary. However, we wanted to appreciate their openness to foreigners and gave their small boy a Toblerone in return for their hospitality.
At the end of the long drive, we arrived to Arvaikheer where we stayed in a small hotel. This was the first time in Mongolia that we had a private toilet and shower next to the bedroom and no midnight trips in temperatures below 10 degrees were required. On the same day there was a wedding reception happening and we saw many Mongolians dressed up nicely in traditional clothes plus one musician with the unique Mongolian horse-head fiddle, the Morin Khuur. In the morning, we left Arvaikheer to head towards the unwelcoming Gobi desert. However, Central Mongolia left us with an even stronger feeling around the uniqueness of this country, so remote and beautiful with its vast landscapes and hospitable nomadic culture.