With our bags loaded in the rear of the classic Russian van that would be our transport for the next 11 days of our Mongolian Gobi Desert Tour, we stretched out across the two bench seats while our guide, Tulga, sat shotgun beside our driver, Tseylee.
After an exhaustive slog through Ulaanbaatar’s horrible traffic, we finally reached the countryside and the scenery dramatically changed. Rolling hills in every direction. White gers dotted the landscape while cows, sheep and goat roamed free.
We bounced up and down all over the bench seats (seatbelts non-existent). Even the asphalt roads were bumpy and littered with damaging potholes. We would soon discover that roads were rare, and heading off-road is the only way to truly experience the beautiful vastness that makes Mongolia so unique.
Heading east, we eventually saw our first sight appear from over a hill; the 40m high Chinggis Khan Monument. In the centre of a tourist complex still under construction, an enormous stainless steel horse with Chinggis Khan riding atop it facing east.
Inside the main building is a museum donated from a private collector of various Mongol bronze artefacts such as armour, weapons, arrow-heads, pots, utensils, and horse-riding implements. Also the world’s largest boot!
An elevator and staircase takes you up the horse’s tail and out onto a viewing platform atop the horse’s head. The panoramic views are out-of-this-world!
Onwards to Terelj National Park, which is an area of amazing rocky hill formations thinly blanketed with pine trees. There were postcard opportunities in every direction!
First stop was Turtle Rock, an interesting rock formation which (clearly) looks like a turtle from a certain angle. We scaled the rear side for a vantage point from the “turtle’s neck”.
Mongolian horses are smaller than standard horses, but still very muscular and powerful, making them excellent horses for the Mongolian warriors of a bygone era. Lakshi survived (surprisingly well it must be said) her first horse-riding experience as we trotted down the valley for an hour.
Not far from there was Aryapala Initiation & Meditation Centre. Built on a spectacular rocky hillside, it is a Buddhist temple that is no longer used for normal practice. Still, inside was a cool escape from the beating sun with walls filled with paintings of Buddhist students and decorations in a myriad of bright colours.
Outside, however, were some interesting art of what might happen if you don’t meditate enough?
That night we stayed in our first ger, which is a traditional Mongolian nomadic home, circular in shape with a shallow coned roof around a central stove. Traditionally assembled from wood and lined with animal skins, these days it ranges from tarp to some very fancy arrangements. Our ger camp sat on a steep hillside covered with wildflowers.
An exhausting and bumpy morning drive brought us west to the opposite side of Ulaanbaatar, where we stopped for a brief exploration of some small sand dunes and got friendly with a local herd along the road.
Our second night would be spent in Hustai (also Khustai or Khustain) National Park, which is a 50,620 hectare reserve to protect Mongolia’s famous wild horses, the takhi.
These horses, native only to Mongolia, are the only natural wild horses in the world. Smaller and plumper than regular horses, they are a sandy white colour, with short mane hair. Their shape actually resemble zebras, and in fact they are the only horse to have 66 chromosomes, 2 more than the standard horse’s 64.
After being considered extinct in the wild during the mid 20th century, conservationists were able to reintroduce takhi from various zoos across the world back into the wild. Hustai NP is the most famous of these reserves where they roam the Mongolian steppe, wild once more and now saved from total extinction. We ventured out safari-style in the late afternoon to catch a glimpse as they come down to the watercourses for a drink.
What an unbelievable experience.
Visited 6th and 7th August 2014.