October 2013

Mongolia: Ulaan Bataar and Into the Gobi

Following our train journey out from Pyongyang to Beijing, we overnighted in a hotel not far from the airport and left the next morning to Ulaan Bataar (UB) capital of Mongolia.

A former work colleague of mine, Greg Goldhawk, is now Canada’s Ambassador to Mongolia and he kindly offered us a place to stay at his modest official residence in the dowtown core. It was great to enjoy his, and his wife Sharon’s, hospitality during our days in UB.

By late September, Mongolia is already starting to get cold. Windy morning temperatures of below freezing in UB sugggested heading further north and into higher altitude might not be advisable. So instead of heading to the mountains of Uvs aimag (the Mongolian term for a province or state) in the far west of the country near the border of Kazakhstan, which had been the initial plan, we decided to head south, deep into the Gobi.

We booked our route through Tseren tours whose sub logo”Off the Map Adventures” is very accurate.

There is a striking juxtaposition between driving through gridlock and the constant traffic jams inside UB and the rest of the country. The route to the south starts close to the airport. Ten or fifteen minutes of easier movement and shortly later, just as you get beyond the edge of town you are in the wilderness with almost no other vehicles in sight. There are the occasional buildings over the next thirty minutes. Then you are in the genuine remote grasslands of Mongolia.

Isolated yet stark primeval places on earth still exist. Among Tibetan nomads in Qinghai and the Changthang, Canadian Inuit in the High Arctic, some very isolated estancias in Patagonia, farms on the edge of the desert in Australia, Tuareg encampments deep in the Sahara, are places fundamentally defined by isolation, resilience and remoteness. The Gobi in southern Mongolia and those who live there are yet another expression of this phenomenon. Throughout our days we would go long distances on unimproved tracks with either no signs of habitation or only an occasional ger (the Mongolian term for a yurt) encampment visible in the distance.

Late in the afternoon or just around dark, we would stop at what appeared to be a random encampment. Our guide would go in and speak for a few minutes, and then we were usually given a place to stay. There would usually be a separate ger for us to sleep, and the family ger, where we would be served some fermented mare’s milk and be given a simple dinner. The families that hosted us were invariably polite, low-key and hospitable. None spoke any English or French.

Our route south of Ulaan Bataar took us the the aimags of Dundgov and Omnogov. Even though we were heading south at the end of September and beginning of October, night-time temperatures still were well below freezing. Highlights included the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag, which became famous in the 1920’s for the rich number of dinosaur bones and eggs found in the area.  Another highlight was Khongoryn Els, among the most spectacular and dramatic sand dunes found in Mongolia.  The largest dunes are more than 300 metres high and it is a fairly tough slog slithering up the sand dunes to the top. We spent two nights in a ger encampment at the base of the sand dunes.  It took well over 1 1/2 hours to get to the top. The trip down took less than fifteen minutes. Khongoryn Els was the only place on our trip outside of UB where we met any other travelers. Sitting in the ger in the afternoon with the door open and the sight of Bactrian camels just outside with the backdrop of sand dunes was most enjoyable.

The other highlights were Yolyn Am and Dugany Am, mountain areas with great opportunities for hiking. The initial entry into Dugany Am from the south went through a high gorge that at its narrowest was barely wide enough to allow the jeep to get through. We hiked in the mountains over a couple of days, based in a ger encampment at the northern edge of Dugany Am. The final day we drove to Omnogov’s aimag capital of Dalanzadgad. Like all of the the few towns and villages we passed during our journey, Dalanzagad was stark with a limited amount of commercial activity. It lacks the globalized dynamic of the bustling capital of Ulaan Bataar. It is little wonder, therefore, that the capital continues to attract rural Mongolians. Almost one half of Mongolia’s population in this vast country, now reside in the capital.

Mongolia is a great and amazing country. Unlike controlled North Korea, it beckons the adventurous traveler to explore the place on whatever terms you wish.  Check it out….