Another relaxing morning as didn’t have to leave the Khongor dunes too early as was not going to be a lot of driving. Fried bread with nutella for breakfast. Mellow drive, stopped at some stalls in the middle of nowhere desert selling rocks and quartz. Had lunch in a small town in a local ger that did dumplings. They were super tasty plus Llama got us a nice cold bottle of coke to go with them. It was the first coke of the journey. Continued on for about 45 minutes driving to the Flaming Cliffs. These big orangey-red cliffs just jutted out of the desert on all angles. Pretty cool landscape to see. Plus this is where in the 1920s they found lots of dinosaur bones, including a couple of full skeletons and the first time in the world that dinosaur eggs were found. Despite his best efforts, Jared only managed to find stones that looked like bones. Although he didn’t try the test that Llama suggested, which was to lick the bone. If it stuck to your tongue it’s bone, if not it’s rock.
We managed to have a shower that night for the first time on the trip. It was only luke warm but still very nice. We stayed in the host family’s ger that night, felt a bit bad kicking them out, especially considering there was a super strong wind that blew all evening and through the night. The family had to stay in the kitchen ger and in cars.
Despite the ferocious winds for the entire night we had pretty good sleeps. It was Llama style sushi for breakfast. Rice, cabbage, carrot rolled in seaweed; quite tasty and a bit different. Then we had a short drive to a small village. There was very much nothing going on here and we had to wonder what the people living here must do, both for fun and for work. We had horse meat for lunch, served in a deep fried style pie. It was actually quite tasty, although Tess did have a few issues eating horse. She got through most of it and our bellies didn’t seem to have any negative repercussions.
Upon leaving the village it seemed that we are now heading out of the Gobi. Things started to get a bit greener and after a couple of hours, forty minutes or so in the wrong direction, we reached the Ongi River, site of the Ongi monastery. This was the prettiest location we have stayed so far, next to the meandering river with hills all around. It’s definitely a lot colder out of the Gobi and all our winter clothes are starting to come out. We walked for 10 minutes to the Ongi monastery and on the way learnt its sad story from Llama. At one time the complex, which spanned 3 sites and had 30 or so temples, housed up to 1000 monks. It was built in the 17th century, but was unfortunately destroyed in the 1920s when communism took over in the country. As well as all the buildings and temples being destroyed 200 or so monks were executed, which really makes it a bit of a sad place. They have rebuilt one temple so far and plan to do more. We were able to check out the temple, which was very much like the Tibetan Buddhism style. There was also a Museum ger which had some interesting artifacts that had been found in the area. It would have been an awesome complex in its day and it’s horrible to think that it was man that destroyed it all. And so recently too.
Back at the ger we stayed inside to keep out of the cold wind as best we could and got extra blankets for the night. Llamas beef stew and rice also did good to help us warm up.
An early start for us today, out of the ger camp by 9am. Although, most of the tourists we have come across usually leave by that time or earlier, it is good to have a guide and driver with similar time schedules to us. It was a bit of a long drive today. We got to the town for lunch about 12.30 (beef and capsicum stir fry with rice) and then drove for a few more hours to another town where we stopped for a bit so Agi could procure brake pads for the Land Cruiser. He must have been a rally driver in previous life as he has been powering through the rough terrain all day, overtaking any vehicle we come across with ease. Pretty cool to have such a fast driver, but also a little on the bumpy and scary side at times.
As we eat up the kilometres out of the Gobi the landscape has changed a lot. The big thing has been more grass, which means more animals, more people, more gers, more roads and more towns. The only thing there has been less of is the heat. It is getting pretty cold and on the way to tonight’s camp we have even seen some snow on the hilltops. We were stoked when we arrived at camp and the first thing the host family did was get a fire going in our ger. We were then happy to get off to see the nearby Orkhon Waterfall, only 10 minutes walk, as we knew we were coming back to some snuggly warmth. The waterfall itself was quite a nice one. Not too high or wide but big enough to be worth a look. Like all things Mongolian there was not much health and safety happening and it was a little disconcerting watching the families go so close to the edge to take photos.
It was great to head back to our ger with the fire cranking. Then to help us warm up more Agi turned up with a bottle of Mongolian vodka. We had a fun evening with him, even though he does not speak much English. We were able to find out he was a childrens doctor (paediatrician, we presume), had a wife and two kids, and had lived in Korea for 5 years, amongst other things. It was a fun night.
After drinking far too much vodkas the previous night with Agi it was a bit of a slow and ill feeling start to the day. Llama’s fried luncheon and eggs struggled to go down, but at least we had the fire going to get us moving on this cold morning. The fire had gone out during the night and Tess had gotten pretty cold, but they came and re-lit it first thing, so was nice and hot before we even got out of bed.
The drive for the day wasn’t a long one but was more of what we imagined the majority of Mongolia must look like. Big river valleys with even bigger rolling hills on either side. Picture postcard stuff everywhere you look. Especially when you add in the local farmer’s gers and livestock, as well as lots of majestic eagles flying everywhere. Our stop for the night was the hot springs. The spring itself is about 70 degrees and pipes water to the various tourist ger camps in the area so that they all have their own hot pools. Even though the weather had warmed up a bit (maybe 15 degrees) and the sun was out, it was still nice to soak for a while in what was water about the same temperature as a good bath. It was especially nice considering it was the first proper hot water we had on tour, with the other showers we’ve had being tepid at best. After the soak we had a good shower as well, although Jared had to sneak into the ladies, as the men’s was not hot. Pretty silly considering the ample supply of hot water around the place.
After the soak we took a walk to the spring itself. We ran into a guide taking a big tour who was part Kiwi (although her group were Danish) so was interesting to have a chat to her. We went for a quick walk in the nearby forest and returned to Llama freaking out that we might be lost in the forest. Pretty funny considering we were only gone about an hour, but at least it shows she cares. It was a pretty quiet evening with a nice big fire and Llama staying in the ger with us, as the camp was fully booked out.
We awoke to a frozen morning, with a solid frost everywhere even on the outside of the ger. Luckily they got the fire started early and inside the ger it was toasty warm. We drove through more of the classic rolling green hills and river valleys, until we came to a larger town. It was super busy with lots of families turning up with slaughtered animals for the butchers and vegetables for the markets, as well as all manner of dairy products, from fresh milk through to dried curd. Llama did some shopping and we had a bit of a look around. From here we drove for about 100kms on a quite nice sealed road. This is the first time we have been on sealed road for more than a few hundred metres since the morning of the first day. The landscape continued on in its awesome nature, as we cruised along the river flat, with big hills on either side, some with a fresh dusting of snow. We stopped at a deep gorged rocky river before going a little further to a small town for lunch of traditional Mongolian noodles and mutton.
From there it was only 30 minutes until we reached the White Lake which is where we are staying for a couple of nights. Apart from the fact our ger is on a bit of a lean, it is an awesome location with the lake sprawling out in front of us. As the day had heated up nicely we spent the afternoon in the sun relaxing, before Llama made another noodle dish for dinner. Once the sun dropped so did the temperature but the fire in our ger was the hottest yet and we were super cozy for the evening.
We awoke to another fine day. We were meant to be going for horse-riding for four hours to a volcano, however, as we watched them get the horses ready we were put off. The horses kept bolting off and looked very skittish, so we decided horse-riding wasn’t for us, as we were already a little on the apprehensive side of things. Four out of five of a Dutch group staying at the guest camp did go on the horses and as they set off it looked pretty mellow, so maybe we would have been alright. But we were happy to go for a scenic walk around the lake which was nice and relaxing. As the wind dropped it turned out to be quite a warm day we had a great four hour walk and ate sandwiches packed by Llama on a little peninsula on the lake. It was a great spot and good to be off by ourselves for a laidback day.
When we got back to the camp we chilled out for a bit before Llama came and got us to say it was time to cook the Horhog, a traditional Mongolian meal. It had been described to us as something that sounded similar to a hangi, but it turned out to be more like a pressure cooker. They heated up some rocks in the fire and filled a pot with hot water, along with all the mutton (bones in) and vegetables. They then chucked the hot rocks in and put on the sealed lid. The whole thing was cooked in about 40 minutes, which was well quick considering how much food there was. It was a nice feed too, as the mutton was a lot more tender cooked in this way than what it usually is. It was a pretty early meal which meant an early night’s sleep, with another roaring fire to stave off the cold.
We think Llama might be running out of options for meals now, as, although she is trying to make us something different every day, today’s breakfast of bread and nutella was definitely on the plain side. Although she did bring some sweet pancakes the local family had made, but overall it was a little sweet for us for a breakfast. We wouldn’t mind double ups if it was like the nice omelettes or French toast we had on the early days.
Agi was back in great driving form today, after he slept most of yesterday, as had had a big night of drinking on our first night at White Lake. We weren’t sure who he was drinking with but he was still worse for wear the following morning and was trying to sell Jared what looked like a dead animal skin. We found out from Llama that this was a Marmot, which is another traditional Mongolian thing, where they cook the meat by putting hot stones inside the gutted animal. Luckily he fell asleep and this didn’t proceed any further later in the day. And now he is back in typically great form and we ate up the KMs, back on the sealed road heading in the direction of Ulaan Bataar. We decided that we were so close that we will head all the way back tomorrow and do one less day of the tour than expected, as there is not much planned for the next day anyway.
Today we stopped at the ancient capital Karakorum. This is the city that the son of Genghis Khan built to give the Mongolian people their first city and capital in the 13th century. The ancient city does not remain, but there is still one of the holiest monasteries in the country which is nearly as old as the city. We had a good look around the monastery and like what we had seen at Ongi, the Mongolian style of Buddhism definitely takes it roots from the Tibetan style, with very similar artworks and forms of devotion. Although this monastery was closed down during communism it didn’t meet the same level of destruction as Ongi, so there are still a number of buildings in close to their original form.
It was another ger for our last night, although this was more like a hotel ger, with a number of them on a plot of land in the town. There was also a full bathroom complex and a small restaurant area. We found out the daughter of the owners works for Khongor Tours, so it is no wonder they had a lot more of the creature comforts here than in some of the more remote places we have stayed. We had a great evening’s entertainment as a 60-year-old local put on a solo concert for us all. He spoke a bit of English too, so was able to give little introductions to what he was doing as he played various folk songs on traditional instruments like the horse fiddle, the harp and the flute. He also did a couple of songs using traditional Mongolian throat singing, which was both different and enjoyable.
A very quiet day today, just heading back to UB. Not much on the tourist perspective, apart from another lunch of traditional noodles and mutton. We definitely will be happy to get back to UB and eat some different types of food, as we really are over the chewy mutton that is just oh so common. The drive back was pretty quick, until we hit the outskirts of UB. The capital roads were awful, both rough and packed with cars. It was a slow final few KMs, and we were sad to be finished in the Mongolian wilderness, but it was kinda cool being back in a city too and moving onto the next part of our travels.
So that is it for our time in Mongolia. In particular this tour we did with Khongor Guesthouse was one of the best tours we have been on and is a highlight of the 6 months of travelling we have done so far. As mentioned earlier, Mongolia as a country is going through a massive period of change at the moment. Like so many developing countries there is a massive conflict between embracing the change or sticking to the old ways. This is even more evident once you get out of Ulaan Bataar, as the nomad farmers do things so similar to the way they have done it for 100s of years. The mining dollars will be what makes the difference as this starts to trickle down to everyone. It is hard to know if this is happening yet, as those like our guide Llama says she would like to see things remain the same. But the thing is that she wanted to get a cell phone like Tess’s android, to replace her Nokia she already has, and she likes modern fashion also. It is this contradiction that Mongolians are going to have to learn to overcome, as modernisation is inevitable, given the wealth of minerals under their lands and the force of countries like China to desire those minerals. The hope we have is that the wilderness will not be the loser in this process, nor the Mongolian people, as both are beautiful the way they are and it would be awful to see this change too much due to the influences of outsiders. Mongolia is an amazing country so hopefully it will stay that way for future generations.