Monasteries and horses, our last week in Mongolia

We had an amazing time at Gomboo’s family, so we were all very sorry to leave the family. Not in the least Gomboo who put on some very sad Mongolian songs. But we still had a week left on our tour. The next days would bring us back to Ulaanbaatar, with a couple more highlights on the way.   It seemed like the weather went along with our mood as it was gray and rainy.

Today we would first make a stop in Kharkorin, the old capital of the Chenggis Khan empire. We already visited the monastery and museum the day before we went to Gomboo’s family. So today it functioned as our lunch stop. Our destination for today was Tsetserleg, which is known for its natural hot springs. Ideal, since we had not showered while staying at the nomads. A good hot bath felt so good, despite the rotten egg smell. Like in most camps, a group of Chinese tourists arrived shortly after us. This resulted in a strange moment for Suus. She was taking pictures of squirrels around the ger, when a woman walked up the stairs in front of our ger, walked past Suus and looked inside our ger. Next thing, she sat down on the stairs next to Suus and other people started to take pictures of the both of them. All without saying or asking anything. Weird! Gerlee thought this was very funny and we couldn’t stop laughing at the story.

The next day, we drove to Mongol Els: A stretch of sand dunes much smaller and less impresive than bigger sister Khongoriin Els. We were supposed to ride a camel here. All day it had been gray and cloudy and the moment we got out of the car and started walking, it started to pour. We trained our sprinting skills to get to the car and decided to just go to the camp and leave the camel ride for what it is. A short drive through a spectacular rocky and mountainous area later, we arrived in the valley of the camp. Beautiful surroundings, but unfortunately the rain continued for the rest of the afternoon. This of course meant: Pirate bridge time!

After dinner, the sky cleared, so we could visit the temple and ruins in the area. A rivalizing group of Buddhists destroyed the monastery in 1640 and killed all the monks. So far for the idea of Buddhism being all peaceful! In the light of dawn, the impressive area showed us what we had been missing out on all day.

We then decided to rise early the next morning for sunrise. When the alarm went of the attempt was quickly aborted when we heard the rain ticking on the ger again. Too bad, but the extra hours of sleep were more than welcome. It meant that we were extra fresh for something Suus had been looking forward to since she read about it: we were going to try to spot the wild Tahki horses (better known as Prezwalski horses).

The history of the Tahki is a beautiful example of how an animal that was officially extinct in the wild, can be reintroduced. A Dutch-Mongolian collaboration made a selection of animals from horses in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark to breed a suitable and genetically strong herd. In the 90’s, 15 Tahki were released into a protected area 100 km west of Ulaanbataar: Hustai NP. Resulting in a population of 350 horses today. To accomplish this, the area is protected and the surrounding communities are involved in the protection of the horses and are included in the development of sustainable tourism. It was very special to see that nature resurrection and protection can work!

350 Horses in an area of 50.000 hectares also means that there is no guarantee that you will spot any horses. For us, we were lucky that the rain stopped right when we drove through the entrance gate of the NP. Then the spotting began! After 45 minutes of searching, Gomboo (hats off for driving on difficult terrain and spotting) spotted a small group on a distant hillside. Armed with her zoom lens, Suus tried to shoot some nice pictures. A different group of tourists stopped and we went a little closer. Officially, going off the main road is not allowed, but the other people went a little closer, and closer. So we followed them until we were only hundred meters from the wild horses. A special and impressive moment for sure! After taking hundreds of photos (a lot of them not 100% in focus though), we went back to the camp feeling blessed that we could see these special animals in such an amazing environment. I also realized that when you are not focused on spotting an animal anymore, you really start enjoying the impressive scenery. It has to be said. Even if you don’t see the Tahki, Hustai NP is still well worth a visit!

Our last day of our “official” highlights of Mongolia tour would bring us back to UB. We would stay here for one night and then go to Terelj NP. Attentive readers will have noted that we didn’t write a lot about UB yet. Most of all this is because we were too excited to tell about the Gobi and the nomads, but partly this is because UB is not really exciting. The center is that of a modern city, with a couple of big skyscrapers and a lot of Toyota Priuses filling the streets. Apparently, these cars are all second-hand import from Japan. Our first walk in the city brought us via the State department store to Beatles square. As the name indicates, this square has a statue of the Beatles in its center. We then went to the biggest square of UB: Chenggis Khan or Sukhbataar square (they are still undecided on the name) which stretches out before the parliament and is apparently a premium spot for wedding pictures, some with the whole family in a beautiful traditional outfit. Very nice to see!

As we told you in our Gobi post, Mongolia is also a country where lots of dinosaur fossils were discovered (and smuggled out of the country). In 2015, President Obama decided to return one of these smuggled fossils to its home country. A new museum was opened last year to showcase this 75% complete Tarbosaurus skeleton in all its glory. Obviously, we had to go and see this and it didn’t disappoint! If you find yourself in UB with some spare time, this would be our recommendation! After this first day, where we saw the highlights of UB, we spend most of our time in UB in a nice coffee bar called Code caffee. They had very good sandwiches and cakes and we were able to work on our blog and pictures.

Face to face with Chenggis Khan

As said before, we would be spending our last days in Terelj NP. On our way there, we were going to see the enormous statue of Chenggis Khan. This was definitely the most touristic attraction of our trip, but we both agreed that it was a must-do! This statue of the leader of the Great Mongol Empire on his horse has been erected facing (now already less) empty grasslands in front of the mountains of Terelj. An impressive sight for sure and the platform on the head of the horse really puts you face-to-face with the Khan. With this box checked off on our list, we then drove into the NP. Compared to Hustai, this is clearly aimed at visitors. Fancy lodges and hotels, ger camps everywhere and even a golf course indicated that this is a popular spot. Luckily, the nature around all the accommodations is very impressive. Our ger camp was luckily located in a quieter valley, surrounded by rocky mountains.

For Suus, who rode horses until she went to the university, the full day of horseback riding was circled in here agenda since we booked it. For me, this would be my third time on the back of a horse after 2 hours in Iceland and 3 hours at Gomboo’s. When we left, it was clear that they told that I didn’t have any experience, so they gave me the slow horse. The whole family running the ger camp came out to see how we took off. The horse riding itself was fun, but they gave us two completely different horses (that didn’t seem to like each other). I got the slow horse that didn’t really listen to my attempts to make it go faster and Suus got a horse that sometimes was not too happy about its job and tried to throw her off two or three times. A lot of “Chu”’s and slaps with the rope later, we arrived at a beautiful river where we had a quick lunch.

After following this river for some time, it was time to make our way back through the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking and made us forget our sore butts and knees for a little. After a steep descent, we reached a patch of land next to the road where the Yaks of our horse guide were grazing! With the three of us, we started to herd them back home. Luckily, we had seen from Gomboo how this had to be done. The last hour we had so much fun, making sure that all Yaks were getting back home. After a final sprint to the ger camp, we said goodbye to our horses and could rest our painful butts and knees with a beer in the sun in front of our ger. Lovely end to a fantastic day!

The next day, we went for a light hike to loosen up the sore muscles, which were better than we had expected. This hike would bring us to Turtle rock which, when watched from the right direction and with a good amount of imagination, is a rock that indeed resembles a turtle. As is often the case, the route to this rock was more impressive than the destination, with beautiful views over the area.

The next morning it was now really time to leave and get back to UB to prepare for our trip to China. Gomboo, who’s next tour got cancelled, picked us up at the ger camp and we decided to play one more game of Pirate Bridge with the four of us. A very special moment to end our trip. Around lunch, we arrived in UB and said our goodbyes to Gerlee and Gomboo. They really made our trip something unforgettable! We had to promise them that we will come back. And to be honest, I think we will! There is still so much to see and to do and in different seasons (the west with the Eagle hunters, Lake Kovsghol, Naadam, White Moon, …). Definitely a fantastic trip and awesome experiences, so Mongolia, we don’t say goodbye, but until next time!

One Reply to “Monasteries and horses, our last week in Mongolia”

  1. Greetings to you both Koen and Suus,
    As our son Charles who manages our website and instagram explmore I was drawn to check out your website and read through some of your exciting adventures that you have enjoyed so far on your trip. Your photos are stunning and really add to your written reports. You might have seen the reference to our trip of 1977 in Strangers like Angels, of the route we took back then. Often people say it must not be possible to go on such adventures these days, because of troubles in the world. But I share how indeed many are travelling right at this time, you just must be wise in choosing locations and route and remain flexible at all times as it was on our journey. Your visit in Mongolia is of real interest to us as we were assigned to work there in 1993 with our young family of four children, but government agreements with the organisation we were working for fell through at that time. We then returned to our previous location Mali in West Africa, where we lived for a total of 14 years having many adventures and local interaction. Wishing you safe travels.
    Greetings from
    Jan & Alec.

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