Hello, Weekenders! We are very happy and super excited to announce our collaboration with Travel Blogger – Patrick Kelly. From now on he will be sharing his travel experiences, adventures and stories with all of you through our blog WeekendTrivia as a Guest Writer. This is part 2 of his experiences in Mongolia.
You can read the first part of his experience in Ulaanbaatar here.
What Lies Beyond the City Limits of Ulaanbaatar
Just a few minutes’ drive outside Ulaanbaatar, it feels like you’ve stepped into another world.
Or, maybe the opposite is more accurate: you left one—the city.
Here, in the vast Mongolian steppe, the land remains largely untouched. Nature seemingly unspoiled.
That being said, modernity has crept outward.
Foreign investment has resulted in considerable growth of large-scale agriculture in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. For the most part, agriculture in Mongolia remains pretty limited. High altitude, long winters, and low precipitation restrict the growing season to just 95 – 110 days a year. In fact, only 1% of the arable land in the country is actually cultivated, with nomadic practices (namely herding) continue to be the norm.
But here, in a place sometimes called “corn country” by locals, single-crop farming is making its admittedly limited presence felt. Neatly manicured rows of rice, wheat, and – of course – corn, are maintained by small armies of workers and irrigation systems. While tractors kick up clouds of unsettled earth, blotting the otherwise cloudless, blue sky.
You’ll probably see these, looming like shadowy giants, in the distance.
However, after having passed this man-made dust storm, we’re now truly in the steppe and it’s an incredible place to experience wild Mongolia.
You may have seen a few cairns made from rocks or wood in Ulaanbaatar – Tasgany Ovoo, for instance – but on the steppe, they’re absolutely everywhere.
These are ovoos and they can range from small, barely noticeable things to grandiose structures decorated with colorful pieces of cloth that can be seen literally kilometer (or miles) away.
But what exactly is an ovoo?
Well, basically it’s a shamanistic alter. They often are found atop mountains and other high places, which makes sense because ovoos, having religious connotations, are used in worship of the land, eternal blue sky, and even some Buddhist ceremonies. Although, they more commonly are associated with Tengrism, a Central Asian folk religion.
When traveling, it’s customary to stop and circle an ovoo three times for a safe journey. Typically, rocks are then added to the pile. A person can also leave offerings like sweets, money, vodka, and other items.
If you want safe passage, but can’t stop, honking your car’s horn suffices too.
Speaking of “other items” though, you really never know what you might find at an ovoo. When I pulled over and went running up to get a shot once, I heard a loud buzzing noise. It was flies, a lot of them.
And that was because – took me a moment to notice this – the base of the ovoo was made up of rotting, partially skeletal cow heads!
Mongolia’s Jurassic Park…Well, Sort Of
A few hours more through the semi-mountainous and barren landscape takes you to Hustai National Park (also called Khustain Nuruu). And, while the border between the park itself and surrounding land isn’t really clear, it doesn’t take long to notice you are somewhere different, even by Mongolian standards.
The land has a sort of prehistoric feel to it, with large granite boulders, isolated oases, and forested mountain tops, surrounded by the seemingly endless steppe.
Exploring Hustai a bit, you might even catch a glimpse of its most iconic resident: Przewalski’s horse – the world’s last truly wild horse.
And, there was a time not so long ago, when it would’ve been nearly impossible to see this horse.
Also known as “takhi” by locals, they’re named after a Russian geographer and explorer of Central Asia, Nikolay Przhevalsky. However, the species had become extinct in the wild by the 1960s, because of hunting, agricultural expansion, and unusually harsh winters.
In 1992, some captive horses from zoos in Germany and the Czech Republic were reintroduced at Hustai National Park as part of a landmark program to reestablish a stable, wild population and preserve Mongolia’s natural heritage. Today, there are more than 350 living here.
Hustai also is home to quite a few other interesting and rare animals, ranging from grey wolves to marmots, buzzards, and red deer.
Some of the world’s largest, this particular species is related to both North American elk (large in their own right) and the extinct Irish giant deer.
Until about two decades ago, their numbers were relatively strong. In recent years, however, poaching has decimated herds across the country—their antlers command increasingly high prices as an ingredient in traditional medicine.
While no recent population surveys have been conducted, there (likely) are now fewer than 10,000 red deer in all of Mongolia.
I highly recommend spending a half-day or even a full day at Hustai. There’s just so much to see and explore.
Renting a car that can handle some legitimate off-roading or going with a guided tour service (Nomadic Journeys and Mongolia Short Tours are pretty good options) is kind of a must—the dirt roads can be quite challenging. Bring something to drink and eat too, because, aside from a couple scattered ger camps where you can arrange lunch, there really isn’t anything close by.
But that’s part of the fun!
A Mini Gobi
To conclude my first day outside Ulaanbaatar, I then decided to check out Elsen Tasarkhai (or the Mongol Els) in Uvukhangai Provice, where I’d also be spending the night.
Located 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) east of Karakorum – the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire and my next destination – the dunes here make for an incredible area to explore on foot.
Their name literally means “an isolated torn-off piece of sand” and that’s a fairly appropriate description for this small stretch of desert in the Mongolian steppe. They extend roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles, again) along the Tarna River, making them some of the biggest in Mongolia.
I cannot overstate the sheer beauty of this place. It’s a strange, yet picturesque, mix of scrubland, knee-high grass, desert, and mountains.
Walking the dunes at sunset was an experience that I’ll probably never forget. The setting sun creates a rainbow of different colors, while the absolute silence of the landscape is only broken by the haunting sound of wind blowing across the dunes themselves—making for an occasional mini sandstorm.
Pretty much in the exact geographic center of Mongolia, there’s also a strange looking mountain here, looming like some kind of long-forgotten, black pyramid.
Take your time and explore, just keep in mind wolves do frequent the wooded areas during the night.
Oh, and speaking of ancient civilizations, my next stop is the capital of Chinggis Khaan, the ancient city of Karakorum.
Thank you Patrick for sharing your many exciting and vivid experiences. We look forward to more