To celebrate our second wedding anniversary, Ben and I decided to go to Mongolia for a long weekend. From friends who had been before (not that many people have gone), we only heard good things. Ben was excited to do some photography while I was excited to go horseback riding.
Bright and Early Start
We ended up leaving late on a Wednesday night to prepare for our 2:00AM flight (yes, 2:00AM). This is why I don’t do military time because it leads me to this mistake. Who would have a flight at 2:00AM when it’s only a two and half hour flight? Anyways, it actually worked out well because we arrived around 4:30AM on Thursday morning and our guide met us bright and early to begin our Mongolian adventure!
From the airport, we started our drive to our first destination, Hustai (Khustain Nuruu) National Park. We drove on the outskirts of the city of Ulaanbaatar to get there. While early, it was so cool driving and watching the sunrise. Right away, we noticed how pretty Mongolia was and how it was SOOO quiet compared to Beijing.
We later learned that the population of all of Mongolia is about 3 million while the population of Beijing is about 22 million. It was a welcomed change for us. 🙂
We were driving on a paved road for awhile (passing horses, goats, cows, and whatever else…but not many cars), we finally turned off onto a dirt road (how these drivers know where to turn is impressive as there really aren’t any signs indicating where to go).
Once we got off the paved road onto the dirt road, I then began to wonder where our destination would be. The dirt “road” (or maybe path would be a better word) was interesting as there were several options as to which would work best for your vehicle. If you get car sick, then this destination may not be the best place (definitely pack something for that and I found that the neck pillows help too to keep your neck more secure).
Hustai Ger Camp
The dirt path finally ended at our destination-the Hustai Ger Camp.
This would be our first experience staying in a ger (yurt). Fortunately, for us, this is more so a luxury ger camp so we had running water with toilets and showers.
This was also an awesome camp because it was the last one before you entered into the National Park.
What stood out the most to me at this ger camp was that it was empty! Well, of course, there were some other guests staying there but when we took a hike up the hills (and not too far from the camp), you could turn around in a complete circle and not see another person, home, or vehicle. It was so refreshing!
The Wild Horses!
So the main reason why we went to Hustai National Park (which is about an hour and a half west of Ulaanbaatar) was to see the Takhi, the wild horses (Przewalski’s horse). These are the only true wild horses left (although, these horses were reintroduced into the wild after they went extinct in the wild). As we drove through the park, we saw lots of horses but we were looking for specific ones-the buckskin colored ones with short manes. These Takhi actually lose their manes and tails once a year and their heads are larger than a domestic horse (more like a zebra).
An excerpt from wikipedia: Most “wild” horses today, such as the American mustang or the Australian brumby, are actually feral horses descended from domesticated animals that escaped and adapted to life in the wild. In contrast, the Przewalski’s horse has never been domesticated and remains the only true wild horse in the world today.
We stopped at one point and saw some in the distance (glad I brought my binoculars!). It wasn’t until driving to another location that we parked the car and walked to get a closer view of a trio of Takhi. You aren’t supposed to get within 200 meters of the horses, so we were sure to keep our distance as they watched us too.
The coolest part about visiting Hustai though was when we walked back to the car after seeing those three horses, we just started our drive back to camp when we saw another herd down by a water hole. That was so cool! So the trip to Hustai was a success!
Unfortunately, we also saw quite a few skulls as well. Mongolian winters can be quite harsh.
Gobi? Close Enough!
Since we arrived so early on Thursday, it made our day that much more productive. We got to nap, hike, and see Takhi. The next day, we woke up and headed towards Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which is on the east side of Ulaanbaatar.
We ended up driving through the city and getting a new driver since our current driver had to head to the Gobi desert the next day. And speaking of the Gobi, while we didn’t have time to take a flight down to see the Gobi, we did get to experience what the Gobi would be like as we left Hustai. On the opposite side of how we entered the park, we stopped to walk through the desert-like setting. That is why I found Hustai so interesting because it was just different with the rolling, desert hills. We experienced the Steppes of Mongolia.
A Trip Back in Time
Before we headed to our next ger camp in Terelj National Park, we went to the 13th Century Theme Park first. Now, this I wasn’t too sure about but since we had the time, it was suggested that we check it out (and I’m glad we did). There are six different ger areas to check out all related to things back in the 13th century (education, herding, crafts, etc.). This was Chinggis Khan’s time.
We started out by first eating in a giant ger where we got to have some fun dressing up like how they would during that time. Then we started our drive to the other camps (you had to drive from one location to the next). *Side note, if I lived and/or was visiting Mongolia, I would definitely hire a driver because driving around there is no joke. Not just the difficulty of the terrain but also it seems you just need to know where you are going on these unmarked roads.
We visited on camp where they wrote our names in Mongolian script. That was pretty neat. I also got my first horseback “ride” here…it was more so just sitting on a horse, but that worked.
They also offered us some freshly made cheese (not exactly my cup of tea).
My favorite part here is when we were visiting the education ger and then started walking down a path. When we were coming back up the path, we watched two herds of horses in the distance come together. The stallion of the one herd, started to herd his herd and this new herd together. It was so cool to watch him work and see how the other horses reacted. I could’ve stayed to watch longer…Ben was about done.
Chinggis Khan Statue
After leaving the 13th Century Park, we stopped at the famous (huge!) Chinggis Khan Statue. We learned that Mongolia’s new president (who just was elected a couple days before our arrival) owns both the 13th Century Park and the Chinggis Khan Statue complex.
It was easy to see this statue from the road and really I think that would be enough of a view but we did go inside the statue and then climbed (well, really, took an elevator) up to the top.
After that, we made our way to our next ger camp where we would spend two nights.
New Ger Camp
The drive to this new ger camp was actually quite different than the drive to the one in Hustai. This ger camp is located in Terelj National Park which is closer to Ulaanbaatar and therefore more popular (but it still seemed EXTREMELY quiet). There were definitely more people here (but nothing in comparison to Beijing), and there were more paved roads-still a bit bumpy though!
Before we arrived at the ger camp, we stopped at a cave to see where monks used to hide out. We climbed up a few boulders and then crawled inside an opening which didn’t leave much space for too many monks but I guess it kept them hidden (and warm).
After visiting there, we continued to our next ger camp (Tamir Wellness Lodge) which proved to be just as nice as the first one we stayed. It was at the end of the road, so it felt nice and secluded in-between the mountains that surrounded it. It was in such a pretty setting.
While at this ger camp, we got to do some hiking and some archery! We also explored Turtle Rock and the Aryabal Temple and visited with a local herder family.
Turtle Rock is a popular site for tourists (similar to the Chinggis Khan Statue) and like the statue, I found this was fine to just take a quick peek at and be on your way to the next thing, which for us was visiting the temple.
The temple was interesting. Despite the rainy morning we had, I’m glad we visited the temple. As you walk up, you pass by many sayings (things that you are to follow). Once we got to the top, we spun to see what number we got and that was the saying we’re supposed to practice. I got #101, and I found it to be quite fitting:
All knowledge should be diligently studies, Joyfully, as naturally as breathing. Because the aimless man, void of science and learning, Is as stupid and meaningless as an animal
After spinning to see what we needed to work on, we continued to the actual temple itself. Our guide told us that on nice days, it is quite crowded here at the temple with lots of locals coming to spin it and then pray at the temple.
Visiting with a Local Nomad Family
From the temple, we made our way to spend some time with a local nomadic family.
We had to go through a river crossing to get to their ger area. (I also saw some vehicles get stuck as well as an ox pulling a cart across it!).
It was really quite interesting learning about the herder family lifestyle. They have gers for the wintertime and then pack up and make a new home by the water for the summertime. *Spoiler alert* In the past, they would use horses and oxen to move their homes from one place to the next but nowadays, they just drive. Almost half the population now lives in the city whereas the other half still live the nomadic lifestyle.
These single room gers make up the bedroom, living room, kitchen, and family room with the “bathroom” in a hut down the way. Quite a different way of life. These modern gers are now equipped with electricity so they have phones and tvs.
Some Intense Horseback Riding
This is where I had the opportunity to really ride! It was just me and my horse guide on our ride. It was awesome!! On the first day, we rode from the herder ger camp back to the ger camp where I was staying. My Mongolian horse was small and sturdy (like a typical Mongolian horse). It was interesting watching my guide ride as he was using a Mongolian saddle which is basically like a tiny pillow for a saddle and when he goes fast, he just stands in the stirrup. I wish I was able to stand up in my saddle, but it didn’t quite work for me. Nonetheless, it was an awesome first ride in Mongolia!
We returned the next day to visit with the same family and this next ride was even better than the first. We went through the park and it was just open wilderness-me, the guide, and our horses. Simply gorgeous. Now, this ride, is what I came for. Bucket list check!
We FLEW at times and covered much ground. We also had a few stops along the way like with another herder family (although a bit awkward when you don’t speak the language and are too hot to drink the nice hot drink they offered!). I especially enjoyed when we stopped by the water to just take in the views.
Another highlight on this ride was running into two boys who were trying to herd some yak. My guide got straight to helping them. It was so cool watching them all in action (and in a way helping)! Plus, the baby yak were so cute.
Gers & Food & Animals
Mongolia is a very unique culture and one that I’m glad that we got to experience since not many people do. While I’m not a camper (or even a glamper), I am glad that we opted to stay in the ger (yurt) camps. The tourist ger camps provided us the experience of living in a ger (four single beds with a stove for a fire in the middle) while still letting us be a little more comfortable by having running water. We were scheduled to stay with a local herder family, but I am glad we opted against that (I would not have enjoyed that bathroom situation!). Anyways, by staying in the ger camps, we were able to be close to what we were doing (since these camps were 1-2 hours from downtown Ulaanbaatar). The ger has electricity and kept any bugs away (although I had no issues with bugs while there).
The food provided to us in the ger camps catered towards Westerners. At Hustai, they did buffets for breakfast and lunch and then a sit down meal for dinner. At Terelj, everything was a sit down meal. We always ate with our guide and driver which was a bit awkward sometimes with the lack of language, but worked out just fine. I think Ben liked the food more than me but I was very cautious since so many of our days involved bumpy rides.
While visiting local families, they shared the cheese they made that day which is quite different than any we are used to but I managed to choke down a couple pieces. Ben really liked the cookies they served which is like a fried dough. The food consisted of meat (usually lamb) along with noodles or potatoes.
Also, every meal was served with milk tea, which is I guess a combo of milk and tea, served hot (in the summer time). I’m not a fan of hot drinks anytime, so it wasn’t quite for me. Ben really seemed to enjoy it though!
We didn’t have the famous fermented mare’s milk that people here about and that’s ok by me. When you’re in a car on bumpy roads for quite some distance and no bathrooms near by, I opt not to try new things. 😉
Aside from the food, I loved seeing all the animals. There are probably more animals than people there. So many yak and sheep and goats and horses and cows. They just cross the roads whenever they feel like it. Our guide told us that in the morning after the families are done milking, etc. the animals, they turn them out and then the herd does their thing during the day and returns by the evening time.
There were also some camels (I would think they’re mostly in the Gobi though). We past by a couple on my first horseback ride and my guide had to call his friend because I guess they got loose.
The picture of the camel (and this also happens with some of the horses), you’ll see that they hook 2-3 of their legs together (almost like handcuffs). This is to keep the animals from running off.
A Memorable Experience
This was an amazing trip! If you find yourself in Mongolia, remember:
- The Chinese language will not help you here (as much as I wanted to utilize my language skills, I had to remember that Mongolian was the language and not Mandarin).
- Pack a neck pillow or something else to help along those bumpy roads
- Pack snacks if you are not keen on trying new food
- If you go riding, think about how intense you want the ride (I LOVED that it was just me and my guide)
- Wear layers! The weather changes so quickly from cool mornings to warmer days to some rain to sunny skies (think about sunscreen too)
- Take US Dollars (and try to have small bills on you) to pay for things/give tips.
- Think about buying some yak socks or gloves (I did and I can’t wait to try them out. My slippers are great!).
- If you have the chance to visit both Hustai and Terejl, I recommend it as they give two different feels (one more desert/grassland like and the other more mountainous but both amazing!).
TOTE: If you have the chance to travel somewhere, take the opportunity to do so!