Mongolia: DAY 1
It was always on my adventure bucket list to trek across the Mongolian steppes in the hoof prints of the legendary warrior and leader, Genghis Khan. On arriving at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, I realised this was about to happen.
My wife and I had organised an eight-day camping and mixed activity tour for the final two weeks of July. The itinerary was for two days in the capital city, two days mountain biking, two days hiking and two days riding on the famous Mongolian ponies – the small-legged horses that are famous for their strength and stamina.
The eve of our departure to the wilderness was spent in Ulaanbaatar. Our hotel overlooked the central Sukhbaatar Square and also offered views of the surrounding hills and mountains which we would soon venture beyond. The city sits amidst hills and mountains that are covered with single-rise settlements and traditional ger (Mongolian tents) structures. The infrastructure of the capital is adequate, if a little ragged.
The owner of Mongolian Adventures met us at our hotel the evening before heading off to the distant and remote countryside. He was our guide for the trip, along with our own tour cook, driver and cycle mechanic. The amazing skills of the chef were soon to be revealed. The same could be said of the driver given the age and size of our mobile HQ.
The minibus we were to travel in (and grow to love) was a challenge in itself. No seat belts, no aircon (and it was very warm) and a permanent aroma of petrol. The week’s supplies and six passengers were stuffed inside with our four cross bikes fixed to the roof.
Fortunately it was only an hour-and-a-half to the start point. This saw us leave the city and its rustic suburbs and head for a monument to Genghis Khan that has to be seen to be believed.
On Day 2 we were cycling 75km across grassland tracks, uphill and down steppe. As we cycled southwards in the direction of Beijing, China, the Trans-Siberian train passed en-route to Moscow, via Ulaanbaatar.
The terrain was sparse grassland and low-lying hills; we could feel the effect of altitude as we cycled at 1,700m. As we progressed, it was incredible to realise how sparsely populated this country is.Mongolia has 3mn people in an area of 1.7mn sq km.
As far as the eye could see, valley after valley and hill after hill, there was emptiness except for randomly situated gers.Families are traditionally nomadic and move to new pastures four times a year. Cattle, goats, sheep and horses grazed freely, yet all were carefully returned to domestic paddocks by nightfall. The main predator remains grey wolves and they live in the fringes of the forests that cover many of the surrounding hills. The isolation is palpable and yet the panorama that surrounds you is magnificent.
We were constantly informed of our progress and points of interest. After seven hours riding in inclement weather, including a tea break and a sumptuous lunch prepared and served in what quite simply can be described as the middle of nowhere, we found a spot on a hillside overlooking two vast plains and set up camp for the evening. Our room was a two-man tent next to our ex-Mongolian military kitchen tent.
A starter of piping hot fresh vegetable soup preceded the traditional main course of marinated lamb, vegetables and potatoes.A local cream cake rounded off this perfect meal.
The following morning was warm and calm and our ride of 45km would take us deeper into this particular central Mongolian province. There are 21 provinces in Mongolia, including the Gobi Desert.
The ride revealed expansive plains that appeared to be endless and vast skies that dwarfed everything beneath. The few gers we saw, although inhabited, were quiet, save for cattle and goats grazing as we passed. We were treated to a black Steppe eagle taking flight from a kill only 25m ahead of us; the sight of its 2m wingspan was awesome.
After a steady climb and welcome tea break, we enjoyed a 12km descent into the fringe of the Siberian taiga (pronounced ‘tiger’) region. Patchy scrub was dramatically replaced with lush terrain and the hills and valleys featured many rivers and tributaries. The nomadic Mongols do not live in these parts during the summer, preferring the cooler climes and less interference from the swarming flies, which would plague us for the remainder of our journey.
As we descended to the flood plain in this beautiful valley, we were reminded of similar natural beauty in many parts of mountainous regions of Northern Europe and America. Our mobile HQ awaited us at a quaint spot next to a rickety looking wooden bridge across the river Tuul, Mongolia’s second longest at 760km. Our chef had prepared a delicious Arrabbiata pasta dish and coleslaw. The weather was well into the 30s and the next 16km would see us follow a river along yet another stunning valley carpeted with a multitude of beautiful flowering plants, regular crossings of rivers on our bikes that resulted in a welcome dousing in the crystal clear, icy cold mountain water.
On reaching our campsite, a spot 30m above the river to minimise the intrusion of mosquitoes and flies, we feasted on a traditional Mongolian grill prepared on hot stones heated in a fire of cattle dung. This also doubled up as an effective deterrent for the evening shift of flies. We had a clear view of the challenge ahead as the mountain we would summit in two days looked across the valley to us. Let the hiking begin.
We rose at 6am after a fitful night’s sleep, interrupted by a violent storm. Breakfast included scrambled eggs and porridge laced with banana and hot coffee. This was to be a 15km undulating hike to base camp via the ridges, hills and woodland preceding the mountain. The flies were in full attendance and so was the sun. A thunderstorm 2km from our campsite drenched us completely and lasted for the next four hours. Then it was time for a body wash in the nearby stream… exhilarating to say the least. We had not seen anybody for almost two days and not one building.
Our evening meal of vegetable soup and lamb curry was rounded off with a delicious poached apple in syrup and as the flies and heavy rain descended, we retreated to our sleeping bags, oblivious of the severity of the following day’s adventure.
We woke to the sound of wind rushing through the riverside pine trees and the wafting aroma of coffee from the kitchen tent. We ate a hearty breakfast, checked our kit and headed for the foothills of the mountain known as ‘Golden Cradle’. This is the second highest peak in the central region of Mongolia at 2,600m. Our route was first through hilly meadows carpeted with an array of multi-coloured flowers and then into the low lying forests on the higher slopes. There were no prior trails and our guide led us through the dense forest and along a steep ridge below the Alpine looking plains beneath the peak. This was an eight-hour hike and the going was arduous and hot in the morning sun. As we paused for breath above the tree line, a large brown bear appeared, and held us spellbound as it watched us and then bounded away into the forest. It is rare for the bears to attack humans at this time of the year when there is abundant food in the forests.
The effect of altitude was clear as we laboured in the warm sun to the summit, but our climb was rewarded with a breathtaking view of hills and mountains in every direction as far as one could see and not one building in sight. Again, we saw nobody. This is an amazing aspect of the tour.
The descent was slow and the flies were thick and fast. We were happy to eventually find shelter in the kitchen tent and enjoy another wonderful dinner prepared by our super chef.
As the sun set over the valley, we watched as a local horseman steered four horses towards our camp to join us for the following two days riding into new territory. He had brought these horses 60km from his village and would trek with us.
The past four days’ exertions were evident as the struggle to exit the tent proved. The prospect of a five-hour ride was daunting considering how long it was since we last mounted a horse.
After a briefing from our guide, we set off heading for the wider reaches of the mighty Tuul river. For the first two hours, we walked and trotted only, due to uneven terrain and boggy marshland, then once on the open steppes it was wonderful to canter and gallop, this providing welcome relief to both horse and rider from the swarming flies. As we reached higher ground, the air was cooler and we left the flies behind.
It was impossible not to imagine the days when the hoards of Mongol warriors led by the fearsome Genghis Khan, would be charging across this land, bows and arrows in hand, to defeat yet another enemy in battle. The sound of four horses at close quarters and full gallop was in itself exhilarating.
On reaching camp, we gingerly dismounted and hobbled to the tents to try and sit down. From a scenic perspective, this was undoubtedly the most spectacular site we had chosen to set camp. The Tuul river below us flowed within a low-lying woodland and wonderful views of the distant hills and mountains around us. We were visited this evening by a local herdsman on horseback who was on the trail of a defecting calf. He drank tea with us and moved on.
I felt as though I’d been run over by a truck the next morning. Bruises in delicate places made us question whether another 40km on a horse was a good idea. A bowl of porridge and coffee, the sight of the tethered horses and early morning sun changed the mood and we broke camp then saddled up.
The final day riding found our horses moody and stubborn. Prolonged galloping was restricted and progress was slower. We crossed valleys, hills and rivers to reach our trusty van and a lunch in a low-lying meadow where we bade farewell to our Mongol horseman and his beautiful animals.
A short drive later and on the same route back to Ulaanbaatar, we reached our camp and fell into our charming ger and a real bed. At this campsite, a large ger was utilised for residents’ dining and a traditional dinner was served.
This had been a wonderful experience in the heart of Mongolia and one that challenged us both physically and mentally. It is a trip where you leave life’s little luxuries behind for a while to truly be swallowed up in the Mongolian tradition.