We left off after a 250km drive from the capital Ulaanbaatar deep into central Mongolia. We pick up the story on the outskirts of Khogno Khan National Park after spending the night with a local nomad family in our own ger. Catch-up with part 1 here!
Up bright and early, with a busy day ahead. We bid farewell to our accommodating nomad family and headed to what was referred as “the mini Gobi” at Khogno Khan National Park. Sadly visiting the real deal wasn’t really an option. It simply would have taken too much time, but as the name suggests, it would do.
We made our way to another family a few miles away on the outskirts of the desert whom owned a hareem of camels; Mongolian camels naturally. The main difference being these are two humped camels and much fluffier. We were introduced to our respective camels. My particular camel was christened Blanca for her light blonde hair. Our beasts were mounted and each man let out an agonising ball-crushing moan as the camels clumsily made their ways onto their feet. We were each handed the reigns of the camel behind and slowly tugged each other along.
The hareem set off at a relaxed pace off the grasslands in single-file towards the dunes. The slow pace aloud us the time to fully absorb the contrasting surroundings. One side was carpeted by rugged mountains with low lying grassy plains scattered with life-stock, the other: lifeless pristine rolling arid desert.
After a while the guide leading the camel caravan dismounted his horse and brought the camels to kneel to give us an opportunity to explore the desert on foot. We found the biggest dune we could find to scale for a clearer panoramic view of the Gobi preview. On my travels I’ve been fortunate enough to see mountains, oceans, rain forests, volcanoes and frozen tundras…now deserts are on that list.
The trip wasn’t as long or as deep into the desert as I had hoped. Indeed it was nowhere near the scale of the real Gobi, rather just a small section of 100km or so. There was also only so much we could fit into the short time we had. However I would have liked the opportunity to get a little more intimate with a brand new landscape.
The guide led us back to his family’s collection of gers for disembarkation and a farewell to my faithful fluffy camel. It was also an opportunity to observe one of the cutest attractions in Mongolia, the nomad children. They freely roamed the area and were completely undeterred with our presence. A little girl with her Disney princess bag only addressed me when she sat in the sand with me and threw handfuls in the air. Joyous giggling as she saw mounds landing on my jacket.
It was much too hard not to give them something. I handed the adorable pig-tailed girl some milky ways (a very rare commodity for myself) as she ran with joy to hand one to her sister in amazement. They both then galloped back to their ger to show their family their new gifts.
Back on the road. We drove another 100kms or so to a town on the outskirts of emptiness. Another Western town, seemingly the last re-supply point for the entire area before the roads and the minimum amount of civilisation decreased even more. This would be the most remote we’d been for this entire trip.
There was a quick pit-stop at a former guides house where we were given a home-grown seabuck thorn brew. Soon we headed further along tracks weaving between volcanic rocks, dodging murderous bumps and for some, resisting the urge to vomit. Now we were travelling on the type of roads I had expected. We had another 100kms of this to go before our next stop as we headed of the Orkhon Valley. Travel sickness and the unrelenting pumps made it an unpleasant journey for some.
At this point, the scenery yet again began to change. The once flat grassy plains finally opened up as we made ourselves into the valley. Rivers began carving their way through some foliage in the form of trees that coated sections of the rolling mountain ranges on either side.
Just as darkness fell, we reached what would be my final destination of this trip, and my final nomad family. They had just completed building their gers as we arrived, and already had a log fire burning. After such amount of travel, all we wanted was an early night. Particularly with a big day tomorrow.
Early the next morning is when we’d truly begin to experience nomadic life. First we had to lend a helping hand to the nomad family by assisting in bringing down their ger. They would be setting them back up with the rest further down the plains. Although we were all ready and willing to help, they didn’t seem to need it. The ger came down ridiculously quickly with the efficiency of a well oiled routine.
We took the opportunity to observe the family as they used horses to haul their deconstructed homes across the river to the opposite bank. As some members of the family worked away at dismantling their home, others were preparing our horses.
Initially I was admittedly slightly apprehensive about the whole experience. Although it was truly something I wanted to do, couldn’t be missed out, it was my very first time on the back of a horse. I’m fully aware of what could go wrong. Mounting this Mongolian steed with the only protection provided being leather calf straps wasn’t too reassuring either. Not even a helmet for a first time rider.
I began cautiously. Our guide gently pulled along a Russian whom had no experience either and myself, while the more confident riders were left to roam free. After a couple of minutes, I had lost the fear and gained confidence. I told him to let me loose and let my trusty steed Stanley go wild. Fortunately for my mothers sake, despite trying to encourage my horse with calls of “CHU, CHU” fell on deaf ears. He refuse to accelerate over a relaxed walk.
We slowly made our way deeper into the valley to find the family’s flock of horses. From there we took on the role of nomadic tribes-men and assisted in herding the horses back closer to camp. There our faithful guide Tsogo had prepared a traditional Mongolian lunch for us. Nothing more than a simple stew, perfect for the tired working man. We had time to rest and enjoy the daylight shining across the landscape before we were back to riding.
Later that day, it was back on the horses, and time to head for a nearby waterfall. It was a little further away from our campsite, and the horses were still apprehensive to let loose, taking nothing more than a leisurely stroll. This gave the perfect opportunity to fantasise and act out a number of times in history and movie scenes. The spectacular changing landscapes made it easy to jump from the Wild West to the Lord of the Rings, the Good the Bad and the Ugly and Medieval British noblemen.
We tied down our horses with our nomadic guides as we sat on the edge of the waterfall and once again glared in fascination. We also had the opportunity to climb down to where the waterfall met the lake below. After some brave claims of swimming in the said lake, I couldn’t back down, despite the close to 0 temperatures. I stood by my word, stripped to the necessitates and baptised myself in the mythical Mongolian waters. After that, nothing would be as cold again.
The sun was setting, and it was time to get back to camp. I didn’t think the day could get any better, but riding into the sunset towards camp has to be a highlight. As if the horses felt the gravity of the moment, they did their part in making the moment what it was. Knowing they were headed back to camp was enough to encourage the horses to by-pass trotting and bolt straight into a thunderous gallop through the volcanic rock covered plains. A century old thrill.
I had my last night in a nomadic family’s ger as they fed us and questioned us about our lives, and much as we did theirs. That night we were much too worn out from a hard days work. I had my last chance to soak in the fascinating landscape as the sun set over one of the most amazing adventures I have ever been lucky enough to be on.