Mongolia | 6 days on the Steppe
Having existed in a Soviet bubble for most of the 20th Century, Mongolia is late to the tourism industry party. But don’t let that put you off! Rugged Mongolia is an epic adventure destination where travellers can experience nomadic culture and vast, untouched landscapes.
Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia has the lowest population density of any country in the world. It is this vast emptiness that is the country’s enduring appeal. Apart from the lack of people, Mongolia really does have it all; vast steppes, rugged mountains, clear lakes and abundant wildlife. This untouched country brings travellers into a close communion with nature and the nomadic people.
We are hoping this travelogue will inspire YOU to put Mongolia on your bucket list, before the masses discover its appeal and it becomes flooded with tourists!
Although we are usually do-it-yourself travellers, renting a car in Mongolia did not appear to be the best option. Most roads are unmarked dirt roads and driving is heavily ‘off road’. There are no good up-to-date maps, very few road signs, and satellite service is patchy.
With an area of 1.6 million km², the 8 days we had allocated were barely enough to scratch the surface. To make the most of our time in Mongolia, we booked onto a private tour. Read on for tales of nomadic homestays, galloping across the steppe on famous Mongolian horses and picturesque photography.
Rolling out of Ulaanbaatar in a Jeep, we made our first stop at a local supermarket to pick up fresh supplies. It wasn’t long before the city fell away behind us and the vast steppes unfolded. Untouched landscapes sprinkled with tiny gers (traditional nomadic yurts) stretched across the horizon as herds of goats and horses grazed in the fields.
Mongolia isn’t called The Land of Blue Skies for no reason. The sun beams down upon this country approximately 255 days a year. However, we found Mongolian weather is as changeable and unpredictable as British weather is known to be.
Driving across the steppe, we experienced all four seasons in a matter of hours. Sun and blue skies turned to dark clouds, rain and a hailstorm as we crossed the sand dunes of Mongol Els, fondly known as ‘Little Gobi’. This is a 100km long, 5km wide strip of land that has a unique combination of Mongolian mountains, forests and Gobi-esque landscapes in one location
A break in the clouds allowed the sun to peek through and we took a walk to a nearby monastery, hiking up into the mountains above to experience the ruins of a second.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the sand dunes, the closest we could come to the Gobi Desert in the short length of time that we had. Of course, passing through the Little Gobi would have been incomplete without a ride on the famous Bactrian Camel, a two-humped camel native to the steppes of Central Asia.
Having fallen asleep listening to the soothing whooshes of the wind whipping across the dunes of the Little Gobi, we awoke refreshed and ready for some Mongolian culture.
The Mongolian 13th-century capital, Kharkhorin, is full of history. First stop was Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first Buddhist Monastery in Mongolia. Founded in 1586, at its peak the monastery had between 60 – 100 temples and up to 1000 monks in residence.
The monastery barely survived the Stalinist purges of 1937. Although a shadow of what it once was, thia active monastery is still a wonderful insight into the culture and history of the Mongolian people.
We also stopped off at Kharkhorin’s museum. The exhibit contains artefacts dating from the 13th and 14th centuries which were mostly recovered from the town. Small but highly impressive, the artefacts are beautifully displayed, with pottery, bronzes, coins, religious statues and stone inscriptions in addition to a comprehensive history of the city.
We found it invaluable to have a guide, as many of the artefact descriptions were written in Cyrillic with few English translations.
Fording across two rivers and ‘off-roading’ over several hills, we experienced our first nomadic home stay. Our hosts had prepared a traditional Mongolian tea – a salty, buttery, green tea made with fresh milk from their herd.
We spent the night by a campfire, watching the sun dip below the hills. We shared toasted marshmallows despite not sharing a language, and gazed up at the milky way as occasional shooting stars left bright trails across the sky.
We began the day with a visit to the the Kul-Teginii Monument and museum. The museum features large stone inscriptions and artefacts from the 6th-century Göktürk period and an interesting insight to nomadic empires.
A bumpy off-road drive led us to the Orkhon Valley. We drove almost the whole morning without seeing another vehicle, passing through flocks of goats and sheep that scurried out of the way of our Jeep.
Stumbling across a family moving their ger and herds across the fields, we watched in awe as the circular tent was constructed. Eventually we were invited to ‘help’ and rewarded with generous dollops of yak yoghurt sweetened with honey.
We continued off-road until reaching a second nomadic home stay and the first tourists we had seen since leaving Ulaanbaatar. Greeted with a thermos of Mongolian tea, we spent the evening relaxing round a campfire and partaking in some wrestling with our guide and hosts.
Of all the experiences we had in Mongolia, staying in a ger is up at the top. A traditional felt yurt, gers look like simple tents, but we were always surprised by the luxuries they contained. Most gers are fully furnished with a small wood-burning stove in the centre, providing a cosy alternative for accommodation and supporting the nomadic population.
Orkhon Valley sprawls along the banks of the Orkhon River in Central Mongolia, some 320 km west from the capital Ulaanbaatar. Once viewed as an area of strategic and religious importance, the valley and surrounding mountains were an 8th-century nomadic capital. It was out of this valley that the Mongols rode as empires fell beneath the hooves of their horses.
Horses are historically of great importance in Mongolia. Mongolians have been traversing their country on horseback for thousands of years, in fact, the Aduu horse is believed to be largely unchanged since the time of Ghenggis Khan. Half-wild, the horses are left to fend for themselves throughout the year, occasionally being used for milk or meat.
With this knowledge, we embarked upon a day’s ride across the Orkhon Valley to experience the ancient history in the most authentic way possible: horseback.
A particular highlight was Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall, Mongolia’s biggest. Twenty metres high and ten across, the water cascades into a glistening pool in the volcanic gorge below.
The volcanic activity responsible for creating the gorge into which Ulaan Tsutgalan tumbles is also responsible for the presence of natural hot springs – essential for two adventurers who hadn’t had a shower in 4 days!
In a verdant wooded area of Arkhangai, this 86°C water gushes from the northern hillside of the Khangai Mountains into stone pools. Popular with travellers and nomads alike, the springs are rumoured to have healing properties. We found this a great place to relax and unwind after hours of bumpy off-road driving.
Wanting to stay away from the tourist ger camps, we pitched our tent on a nearby hillside overlooking the hot springs. Yaks grazed next to our tent as birds of prey circled above us. The view was beautiful.
The final day of our Central Mongolia tour was spent by the shores of Ögii Nur, a freshwater lake known for the abundance of wildlife that can be found there.
Out on the lake all was silent. Occasionally, a fish would leap for flies and land with a slapping sound on the surface. The clouds reflected in the silver lake giving it the appearance of a large mirror.
We spent our final evening wild camping, putting up our tents away from any sign of civilisation. Looking across the lake at sunset, beer in hand, it felt like we were alone in this huge, untouched country.
Want more first-hand information about Mongolia? Check out our other posts here.
Interested in Ger Etiquette before your nomadic homestay? We’ve written an essential guide.
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