A Travellerspoint blog

August 2018

Mongolia - Part 4

The Gobi

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On our way to the Gobi, the landscape changed remarkably fast. Almost without us noticing, the rolling hills have disappeared and the land stretched out entirely flat before us. When hearing about the Gobi, one imagines dry, sandy landscapes as far as the eyes can see, but this area is actually mostly steppe and from afar, looks almost as green as any other place in Mongolia. Only when looking closely, one can see that the ground is mostly gravel and sand with small bushes peaking out in between. When leaving Arvaikheer, our driver also told us to say goodbye to paved roads, as there are almost none in the Gobi, and indeed it took 4½ days before we would see them again. On the way, we passed a huge herd of camels, probably 500 to 1000, that stretched out over the horizon. Sam’s lens wasn’t wide enough to capture more than a fraction and even our experienced driver said he’s never seen so many at once before.


In the afternoon, we arrived at our first stop in the Gobi, the Ongiin monastery. The monastery itself, was not much to look at, as it has been completely destroyed in the communist times and only one temple has been rebuilt amongst the ruins. The location however was very beautiful, with a scenic river bending its way through the rocky hills. Our ger camp also served a very tasty vegetable soup and, for the second time in Mongolia, delicious bread. We also learned that in Mongolia, a vegetable soup is not free of meat, it simply distinguishes itself from the more common soups that contain nothing but meat.


Our next night we spent at a family ger near Bayanzag, also known as the flaming cliffs because of its rocky cliffs in a deep red color. The colors were not so impressive that day, as thick layers of clouds hid the sunlight, but we nevertheless enjoyed the walk along the top of the cliffs. This place is world-renowned for its huge amounts of dinosaur bones and eggs, which have of course all been excavated and shipped to museums around the world, so we did not see any of that there. We went back to our ger when we saw heavy rain approaching from the south.


It was raining heavily almost all night, but luckily it stopped shortly before we left in the morning. The rain had changed the desert beyond recognition. A sea of white and purple wildflowers has appeared overnight and it gave the landscape a much more friendly face.


In the morning we made a stop at the Khavtsgait Petroglyphs, an interesting archaeological site where between five and ten thousand year old rock carvings can be discovered. It is unknown why they were created.


Afterwards, we drove to the most desert-like location in the Gobi, the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els, where we decided to spend two nights. In the evening, we climbed up the highest part of the dunes, which was incredibly strenuous. The path was very steep and we kept sliding down constantly in the soft sand, making it almost impossible to rest. Exhausted and with aching legs, we arrived at the top, 200 meters up from where we started. There, we rested and watched the beautiful setting of the sun over the dunes, followed by the rising of the full moon in the opposite direction. The way down was much quicker and much more fun, as we could joyfully run and jump down the dunes, with the sand always assuring a comfortable landing.


The next day we organized a 5-hour camel trekking through the dunes, which turned out to be a big mistake. Firstly, the camels smelt terrible. We had the hope that we would just get used to it after a while, but somehow it got even worse on the way with the camels farting and pooping all the time. Secondly, the saddles were very uncomfortable and sitting on the camels was, literally, a pain in the ass. The first two hours were ok, as we at least felt that we experience something new, but the next two hours were just agony. After four hours we decided that we cannot take it anymore and walked the rest of the way. Sitting hurt for the next 3 days.


After 2 nights at the sand dunes, we started our way back to Ulaanbaatar and thereby back to civilization. In the afternoon, we were delighted to be back on paved roads. As the drive to Ulaanbaatar would have been too much for one day, we stopped for the night in Mandalgov, the provincial capital. From there, we went to see the granite-rock formations of Baga Gazryn Chuluu, a nice location for a short hike. On the 28th of August, after 15 days in the Mongolian countryside, we came back to Ulaanbaatar, where we immediately went to our favorite Indian restaurant to fill our hunger for spiced food.


Posted by samandmarta 18:00 Archived in Mongolia Comments (1)

Mongolia - Part 3

Central Mongolia

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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.

Posted by samandmarta 18:00 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Mongolia - Part 2

Northern Mongolia

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After meeting our Mongolian driver Tuvshin, who made a very good first impression on us, we departed towards the north of Mongolia. The first day consisted of a lot of driving. Surprisingly, the further away from UB we went, the better the road became. Most likely because the roads further away were just built recently. The last hour of our drive was over a bumpy dirt road until we reached our first stop, the Amarbayasgalant monastery. Next to this monastery, we stayed in the guest ger of a local family. The ger is the traditional housing of the Mongolian nomads. It is a large, rather sturdy tent that can be constructed or deconstructed in less than a day. The center of the ger is always a wood-fire-oven for heating when it is cold. As it would get quite cold at night, our driver made a fire for us. For dinner we were served Buuz again, freshly prepared by our host family.


The next day again consisted of a long drive. For lunch we stopped at a restaurant next to the road, where the only option was, once again, Buuz. After eating this weird tasting dish for 3 days in a row we started to get a bit worried. Later we made a stop at an extinct volcano where we were very happy to move our legs a bit. After climbing on top of the volcano, we were rewarded with nice views over the wide open landscapes around it. We spent the night in a ger in the town of Mörön. Luckily, there were some proper restaurants in this town and we managed to get some Western food for dinner.


The following morning we went to Mongolia’s best spot for deer stones. These are about 4000 year old stones with paintings or carvings of stylized deer. It is not known exactly why they were made, but it is believed to be connected with burial rituals, as the people of those times believed that one’s soul would ride to heaven on a deer after death. It was a beautiful day and we got some amazing views along the way.


After the deer stones we drove a bit further north to lake Khövsgöl, the small sibling of lake Baikal. It was created around the same time by the same geological forces, but is significantly smaller than Baikal. Still, it is a very large lake, the second-largest in Mongolia, and to us it appeared far more beautiful. We chose to spend two nights there on the shore of the lake. Our camp consisted of gers, tipis and wooden cabins, of which we chose the latter. The food served in the camp was inspired by Korean food and was a welcome change from Mongolian food for us. In the afternoon, we did a walk along the shore among friendly yaks and sheep. The nights at the lake, located around 1650 meters above sea level, were pretty cold, with temperatures approaching 0 °C at night. We quickly learned that making a fire in the evening makes for a warm comfortable start of the night, but it doesn’t last very long. So at 4 to 5 in the morning, we would wake up in a very cold cabin, make another fire and go back to sleep again.


On our second day at lake Khövsgöl, our driver brought us a bit further up the lake to the start of a beautiful hike. The beginning was a bit tricky, as countless giant crickets were sunbathing on the path and started jumping around when we walked past. Luckily, this got better as we climbed higher. The higher we got, the more the views opened up over the lake and the surrounding mountains and once we reached the top after around 3 hours, the views were spectacular. We could see all the way from the north to the south end of the 136km long lake, a great spot for our packed lunch.


Before departing lake Khövsgöl the next day, we rented a kayak for an hour and enjoyed the beautiful weather and the incredibly clear and colorful lake.


After noon, we started driving back south. After Mörön, the paved road ended and we spent the next 4 hours on dirt roads, which was very tiring. Mongolians claim to have 49’250 km of highways, of which only 5’000 km are paved. Not long before sunset, we finally arrived at our ger camp for the night at Dzuun Nuur, a very remote and salty lake at an altitude of around 2000m. Despite being rather cheap, this was the nicest ger we had so far and the included dinner and breakfast was very tasty, including the best bread we ate since departing Switzerland, similar to pita bread with butter. The next morning, we left Dzuun Nuur towards the Great White Lake, thereby leaving Northern Mongolia.


Posted by samandmarta 18:00 Archived in Mongolia Comments (1)

Mongolia - Part 1

Arrival & Ulaanbaatar

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On Saturday, 11th of August, at 8:08 AM our train to Ulaanbaatar departed from Irkutsk. This was our first segment in the official Trans-Mongolian train (Train #4) and we don’t know whether it was because this train was already on route for 5 days or because it was run by the Chinese, but this train was much dirtier than our Russian trains so far. On the upside, this segment offered by far the most spectacular views of our journey. On the way to Ulan-Ude, we had beautiful views of the southern and eastern shore of Lake Baikal. After Ulan-Ude our train branched off from the Trans-Siberian track towards Mongolia. Quickly, the forests we’ve been staring at for days disappeared and vast open grasslands and hills, occasionally interrupted by a river or a lake, came into view. Only nightfall brought an end to this fascinating landscapes as we reached the Russian-Mongolian border. The border procedure took around 1½ hours on each side of the border but was entirely painless. It is a nice change from travelling by plane, that the border police and customs officers come to you, while you can just sit in your compartment and read a book. After a short night, we arrived in Ulaanbaatar on Sunday morning at 6:50.


Having a full 3 weeks in Mongolia, we took the luxury of not prearranging anything before coming here. Just the day before we booked two nights in Ulaanbaatar with an AirBnB host, to give us some time to plan our time in Mongolia. Our host Mida was a very friendly retired Mongolian woman who lives with her mom in an old apartment quite centrally in UB (as the locals call Ulaanbaatar). During our stay she prepared breakfast for us twice and cooked traditional Mongolian Buuz (dumplings with mutton meat) for lunch on the second day. On our first day we were exploring UB on foot. The city center, built around the national parliament of Mongolia and its huge statue of Chinggis Khaan, looks quite modern with many big glass skyscrapers. However, in the terrible traffic conditions one can see that this city has grown too fast for its infrastructure to catch up with.


On our second day in UB we walked through the city and stopped at many travel agencies that we have preselected for their good reviews, with the plan of comparing the offers and selecting the best one in the evening. Most agencies offered us perfectly packaged tours with personal driver and English speaking guide, unfortunately at prices that were stretching our budget a bit. Our last stop of the day was at Zaya guesthouse, where the friendly owner offered us a deal so good that we only needed 5 minutes to decide to take it. The deal included our personal driver and a 4x4 Toyota Landcruiser, all the expenses of the driver and all the expenses for the car (gas, road tolls), but no food or accommodation for us. There was a rough itinerary of bringing us to Northern Mongolia, Central Mongolia and the Gobi desert, but we had the full flexibility of deciding on the road where exactly we want to stay and how long to stay in which spot. Our driver would speak basic English and would be able to help us with organizing our accommodations and whatever else we needed. A personal guide was not included, but our Lonely Planet guidebook should be a good enough substitute for that. Already on the next morning we departed for our trip across Mongolia.

Posted by samandmarta 18:00 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Lake Baikal & Irkutsk

The world's largest lake by volume

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After 6 days of seemingly constant travelling we were extremely happy to arrive in Listvyanka, a small town directly at Lake Baikal, where we set up our base for 4 nights, meaning 4 days of not having to pack or carry around the luggage. Also, for the first time on our journey we were not stopping at a major city, but close to nature, at a place of fresh air and dramatic sunsets. Our guest house was located perfectly to experience this, with our balcony overlooking the lake. The local wildlife was shown in the form of may impressive hunting trophies spread throughout the guest house. We did not encounter much of this ourselves, we did however see the Baikal seal, the only fresh-water seal in the world and a species endemic to Lake Baikal, on our first day. We’ve mistaken it for an oddly shaped piece of driftwood at first but when it suddenly made a dive down into the depths of the lake it became clear that it was a seal. They must have big lungs as we have not seen it reappear again despite waiting for a while.


Lake Baikal is the largest (by volume), deepest and oldest lake in the world, but surprising to us tourism seemed to be very little developed in the area. Despite us staying in the most popular town at the lake, the number of tourists we saw did not even come close to the amount of guests you would find at lake Lucerne for example. The town had a very calm feeling to it and it was wonderful to relax by just strolling along the shore and looking out at the lake. On the downside, getting around was a bit difficult, as schedules were changing seemingly randomly from day to day with no one really able to tell us when the ferry from A to B is going to depart the next day.


Legend has it, that swimming in Lake Baikal increases your life expectancy by 5 years, so it was very important for Sam to take a dip in it to close the gender-gap and be able to grow as old as Marta. Not so careful planning only left the last day to do this when the weather was unfortunately worse than forecasted, but despite the 12 °C water temperature and 16 °C air temperature Sam swam for a short time in the lake and felt very energized after.


After our time in Listvyanka we spent a short time in Irkutsk. We arrived in the afternoon and had only time for a short walk through the city. Many newlyweds were taking pictures on the unfortunately slightly rainy day and brought happy memories of our own wedding to us. The next morning we left very early for our train to Mongolia that would end our Russian adventure.


Posted by samandmarta 16:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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