Day five was another long day of driving (8am to 4pm) with a stop for lunch in the middle of the desert in a building which just happened to be shaped as a turtle!
After a lunch of vegetable fried rice, we were back in the van and off to visit the famous Flaming Cliffs. Also known as ‘Bayanzag’, these red sandstone cliffs are famous for the discovery of a huge number of dinosaur fossils, including the first discovery of dinosaur eggs.
We arrived at our camp in the late afternoon which was an actual guesthouse camp, rather than staying with a family, which we had done until this point. The camp had about eight tents and was situated right on the river, underneath a small hill, surrounded by mountains – very picturesque! There was also a communal castle-style building which we used to cook the dinner in on portable hobs. We spent the evening inside, avoiding the chilly winds, playing cards until late into the night. Introducing Oyuka, our driver Gamba and another local driver to some English drinking games, we managed to get everyone rather drunk!!
We had a lazy start to day six, not leaving until around 10am due to everyone (except me!) being really hungover. We drove to the ancient city of Khar Khorin, stopping at the Ongi Monastery ruins on the way. The Ongi Monastery is a small, active monastery which was built on the ruins of a monastery complex that was formerly one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia, founded in 1760. There wasn’t much to see, but it was nice to stretch our legs!
Today was another major driving day – the only problem with Mongolia is that everything is so far away!! Especially when you are trying to squeeze a lot of the highlights into eight days… Gary was suffering particularly badly with his hangover, so Gamba let him drive the van for a bit to take his mind off it! He did pretty well navigating the very bumpy desert ‘roads’…
We reached Khar Khorin late afternoon and settled into another guesthouse Ger camp which had a shower block (yay running water!) and a communal dining area. Khar Khorin is found in the upper valley of the Orkhon River which is included within the ‘Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape’, a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. It’s also home to ruins of the ancient town of Karakorum which was once the capital of the Mongolian Empire. Most people visit to see the Erdene Zuu Monastery and the famous phallic rock, said to improve fertility if you touch it! More on that below…
In the morning, we visited the famous Erdene Zuu Monastery, the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. We attended the monks’ morning prayers and were given a small sachet of green Juniper powder which is supposed to bring good luck when burnt, along with smelling lovely. We also visited the nearby ‘penis stone’ which was originally placed outside the monastery to stop the monks straying from their celibacy – I’m not sure exactly how this stone was supposed to do that! It’s now an important symbol of fertility, which people visit when they want to have a baby or are struggling to conceive. According to locals, it’s quite successful!
We spent the rest of the afternoon driving to our camp situated right on the Ugii Lake, one of the biggest lakes in Mongolia. We had a couple of hours to enjoy the lake before dark, so some of us chilled in the tent whilst others took a walk or enjoyed a book next to the water with a cup of tea to keep warm. The family we stayed with had dogs, cats and a very friendly hand-reared goat, so I spent most of my evening giving head scratches!
Day eight was our last day on the tour, so was mostly spent driving us back to Ulaanbaatar. We stopped on the way, at the Khustain Nuruu National park (also known as the Hustai National park). This specially protected area stretches through the Khentii mountains and is home to multiple families of Takhi horses, the last species of wild horse. The park aims to conserve and protect historical sites within the park as well as reintroduce and rebuild a sustainable population of wild horses. There’s a small museum on site which has lots of information about the horses and other wildlife found in the park. We then drove through to spot some of the horses scattered throughout the mountains. We were also lucky enough to see a wild deer, which we are told very rarely happens on drives through the park!
It took FOREVER to get back to Ulaanbaatar thanks to the horrendous city traffic, but we were eventually dropped back at the hostel around 8pm. It was a great tour and we all enjoyed our eight days exploring the Mongolian wilderness! We did all think that it was too much driving, in too short of a time. That couldn’t be helped as none of us had more than eight days to do the tour and our budget didn’t actually allow for a longer trip. However, I would definitely recommend a trip of 10 days or more, so you can enjoy the scenery on foot more and not from the back of a van! It’s not like normal car journeys either – the ‘roads’ are not really roads, so you are constantly bouncing around which actually really takes it out of you.
I would definitely recommend Danista Nomads if you are looking for somewhere to stay in Ulaanbaatar, or for someone to help organise a trip. The manager Jagaa is beyond helpful, and the most laid back hotel manager I’ve ever come across! He went out of his way to help us out, including advertising our tour in the hostel so we could gather some more people together, to lower the price. He was very casual with payments and let us pay whenever we wanted – with the tour we paid afterwards which was great. He also made sure our guide Oyuka knew two of us were vegan, so she knew to buy veggie meals for us.
Our driver Gamba was great – he didn’t speak any English but that didn’t stop him making jokes at every opportunity. He always had a smile on his face, even when he managed to slice a chunk of his finger out with a hatchet! Ouch. Our guide Oyuka made our trip extra special. Alongside being knowledgeable about Mongolian history and the places we visited, she was also a lot of fun, had a great sense of humour and maybe most importantly, cooked up some incredible vegan dinners! She powered through looking after us, even when she didn’t feel 100%, and her laid back attitude made it feel like we were hanging out with a long time friend, rather than a paid guide. Thanks for a great trip guys!
Check out Danista Nomads’ website here.
Alternatively, Indy Guide is a website with a large collection of local tour operators, guides and drivers in Central Asia & Mongolia.