Chasing Clouds and Wild Horses in Mongolia

On any trip, we prefer doing the planning and travelling on our own. My first instinct was to figure out a way to do that in Mongolia. I don’t think it’s impossible. But you’d need to have more time, chalk out a solid itinerary, be very brave, trust your instincts, and prepare to rough it. Sadly, we had less than 10 days to explore Mongolia and it made sense to opt for a tour instead. On the net, you’d find a plethora of tour companies working with local tour operators. We zeroed in on Horseback Mongolia (a Franco-Mongol tour company) — roughly a month before our proposed tour. We didn’t have matching dates with existing tours, so had to choose a private tour package (Mongolia Express Tour) that would cover central Mongolia over a period of 6 days. We’d have a tour guide and driver throughout our adventures in the countryside.

Boggi, our tour guide, picked us from our hotel in UB around 8 am. I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman as tour guide — ready to rough it in the countryside. Seeing her helped placate my own travel anxiety and boosted my confidence. Saikna, our driver, was a cheerful, tall guy who didn’t speak a word of English. Thankfully, that didn’t stop him from joining the conversation.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery

Gandantegchinlen Monastery was our first scheduled stop for the day. The entire temple complex was built over an extended period of time — the remains of the earliest temple date as far back as 1809. During the peak of socialism, in the 1930s, many Buddhist shrines were either destroyed, desecrated, or shut down. Thousands of lamas lost their lives during this period of purging. Fortunately, Gandantegchinlen Monastery survived this dark phase in Mongolian history, but didn’t function as a spiritual site until the late 1990s.

Each temple in the complex is unique in structure and colour. In the morning, an equal number of tourists and believers had gathered around the smaller temples. Incense sticks burned in giant cauldrons in the main courtyard and filled the air with a smoky fragrance. Inside, monks prepared for the morning prayer ceremony. If you haven’t heard the chanting of buddhist monks before — it might not be very easy to appreciate that slow, deep rumbling hum. You’d have to close your eyes, be patient, and abandon your thoughts — to experience peace.

Like most Mongolian Monasteries, the Gandan Monastery also follows the Tibetan Sect of Buddhism. Having visited Dharamshala, the home of the Dalai Lama, along with numerous Tibetan Monasteries in the Himalayan region; I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic when I saw the pale external facade of Migjid Janraisig Sum. Inside, the 24 m high Migjid Janraisig statue overpowers everything else in the temple.

Rotating the prayer wheels clockwise is considered to be auspicious. Inside each prayer wheel is a coiled sutra.

Leaving the City Behind…

The distance from Ulaanbaatar to our first ger camp, in Hustai, was about 130 km and was estimated to take about two and half hours with breaks. We made our first pit stop at a local wholesale market. Our guide, Boggi, bought additional supplies for the trip and we selected gifts for the nomadic family that we’d be visiting. As we drove further away from the city limits, buildings disappeared into patches of green and the sky dominated the scenery. Our second halt was to fill gas — in the middle of nowhere.

Ovoo

An ovoo quite literally is a heap of stones with a central stick (bandaged with blue silk cloth) — pointing towards the sky. Its origins lie partly in shamanism (a mystical practice invoking the energies of the spirit world or nature) and partly in buddhism. The blue cloth is a symbol of the endless sky of Mongolia. To wish for a safe trip, we walked clockwise (thrice) around the ovoo and threw three small stones in the pile of offerings. Our humble offerings paled in comparison to some of the other interesting pilgrim offerings.


After two days of rain, the sky finally turned blue and the sun peeked from hiding. The clouds engulfed the horizon and the road disappeard beyond a point. Boggi recalled her days as a child, wanting to touch the horizon, and never making it there. I knew exactly what she meant.

Moltsog Els Ger Camp (Hustai)

We reached the Moltsog Els Ger Camp shortly before lunch. It was a bright, sunny day with a cool breeze. The camp was built in the middle of a farmland of sorts and we saw cattle grazing nearby. Boggi spotted a buzzard. It was fascinating to look at it relaxing in the afternoon sun.

Our ger was spartan and built with modern amenities. The restrooms and restaurant was located 5 minutes away from our ger. We were the first to arrive and the camp was pretty much deserted. For lunch, we had beef soup followed by rice with cooked beef. Even as a kid, I never really liked meat and followed a pseudo vegetarian diet. It was really difficult to eat the meat and I wasted most of my lunch. I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous about my next meal and the overpowering smell of the meat.

After lunch, we head outside the camp ground. Basil wanted to climb the neighbouring hill and capture the view from there. We had to make it back to the camp by 4:30 pm for our visit to Hustai National Park.

Distances are deceptive in Mongolia. Probably because there aren’t any markers or reference points to guide you. We walked along the fence — towards the hill. And the closer we thought we got, we realised: there was a lot more ground left to cover.

We spotted hoopoes and sparrows perched on the farm fence. Below, beetles tried to hide under blades of grass. The air was filled with the scent of sage. Spores stuck to our pants and shoes as waded through grass. After walking for nearly half and hour in the sun — we decided to head back to the camp.

Hustai National Park

Hustai National Park was barely 10 minutes away from our camp. The visitor centre is a good place to start your trip. A forest ranger gave us a brief introduction on the flora and fauna of the park. We also watched a documentary on the Przewalski’s horse. 

The famed Przewalski’s horse or takhi (meaning ‘spirit’ in Mongolian) was resurrected from extinction in Mongolia, when it was reintroduced from European zoos to Hustai in 1992. Takhi have an interesting history. While they were known to native Mongolians for years, they were believed (there’s some debate on that) to be first discovered by Russian explorer, Colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky in 1881. What makes Przewalski’s horse so special? It is the only true species of wild horse (not domesticated) in the world. Some scientists consider it to be a totally different species because of its chromosome count.

As our 4WD turned on the muddy roads of the park, our eyes were peeled for the takhi. Marmots were the first to appear from burrows in the grass. According to Boggi, marmot hunting is quite a popular Mongolian activity. They had some fun, at my expense, joking about marmot barbecue for dinner. If I was a marmot, I guess, I too would have preferred to scurry along instead of being discovered by humans.

The ride got more bumpy as we explored deeper. The verdant landscapes were empty and silent. It was hard to know the secrets hidden by nature. Boggi was eager to spot the takhi and tried figuring the best route or place for a sighting. It was a chase to reach a watering hole before sunset. From the backseat and with a shut window — I missed most of the action. Just when I was about to give up, we got a heads-up of a sighting ahead from another tour guide.

Ten minutes later, we saw brown specks on the rocky mountain. Boggi sprang to her feet and started climbing the mountain. It was a steep but easy climb, and yet I found myself tagging behind. On the top, the wild horse grunted, looked at us suspiciously, and continued grazing. It was a surreal moment. I realised what the fuss was about. The takhi looked stunning in their natural habitat. It was magical to just be there with them and share the same space.

The views from the top were equally breathtaking. The distant mountains had turned blue with daylight slowly receding. We spotted wild mushrooms and cacti growing naturally along the slopes of the mountain. Basil and I tried to avoid stepping on them. Even the wild flowers looked ethereal and we couldn’t get enough of them.

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Nature has a strange sense of humour. We had spent nearly an hour speeding along rocky roads with our eyes and lenses peeled for a sighting. Our efforts had paid off — on the mountain top. And when we stopped the wild horse hunt, to try and absorb the beauty around us — we were rewarded with a group of male horses strolling in a single line. We stood there in silence and admired their slow trot. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.

46 responses to “Chasing Clouds and Wild Horses in Mongolia

  1. The takhi are gorgeous. I visited Werribee Open Range Zoo, just outside Melbourne, a couple of weeks ago and they have about 6 takhi there. Of course more special to see them in Mongolia and their natural habitat but I loved them. Sadly only 1500 in the world though happily I that number is growing as they were almost extinct.

    • Absolutely agree with you! They’re gorgeous! Had the takhi not be shipped to zoos (around the world), we’d never have seen them in Mongolia. The success of the conservation/reintroduction programme made me so happy. To see animals in their natural habitat is a fantastic/overwhelming experience. 🙂 It was worth the effort!

      • For years I was very much against the idea of zoos. For various reasons I am now a big supporter of zoos*, especially open range ones like the one I mentioned earlier. They do such wonderful work.

        *with some exceptions – eg Beijing, unless you happen to be a panda.

      • I agree. I don’t like zoos either. But, sanctuaries could be the only way we could undo all the harm we’ve done. The only way to preserve the beauty of the wild.

  2. Oh what wonderful photos of the never ending expanse of sky and clouds…. and those horses !!! Seems well worth the effort. I like as well your photos of tge less dramatic but still beautiful, such as the cacti and wild mushrooms. I am definitely interested in discovering Mongolia, but who knows when…?
    Peta

    • Hi Peta! I couldn’t get over expanse of the sky. Without any buildings or mountains — the sky filled the space around us. It looked like a gigantic dome! I’ve learned to never say never! 🙂 Going to Mongolia was a dream for me and I can’t believe we made it there! Thanks much for stopping by.

    • Mongolia was on my dream list for more than two years. Our initial plan was to take the trans-siberian train. Somehow that never worked out and since Seoul is so near to Mongolia — we opted for a tour. Mongolia doesn’t disappoint! It’s stunning and beautiful and everything it promises to be! I’m so glad you enjoyed the first day of our trip. I’d love to see your pictures — whenever you make the trip! 🙂

  3. More memories come floating back to me! We tracked the takhi with less success than you had. We did see some, but they were farther away. I loved our fleeting time with the horses, but what I loved chasing even more were the clouds in your title. I simply could not get enough of the vast, green landscapes fading up into the blue skies filled with those cotton puff (and occasionally, ominously gray) clouds.

    I also remember going off on my own one afternoon to try to climb that very hill in Hustai. Just as you said, the top never seemed to arrive; each time I thought I was there, another hill rose ahead of me! Like you, I had to hightail it back to camp to meet my group for the ride into the park. Your photos of both the very big and the very small capture what I remember of this beautiful land.

    • I remember, a year ago, I was drooling at your pictures! 🙂 I really thought it was impossible for us to visit Mongolia. I’m so glad I didn’t give up and went for it! The takhi aren’t easy to spot. We’ve never had much luck with spotting animals in the wild. So I wasn’t expecting a miracle…but Boggi was fantastic! Her eye for spotting birds and animals was terrific. I absolutely LOVED the clouds! They were everywhere. I didn’t like the grey rain-bearing clouds though. 😦 Visibility was poor in the rain.

      Not making it to the hill was disappointing. We really wanted to see the view from the top. But that’s Mongolia! I’m so glad you got to relive your memories through our pictures. I know I’d like to go back someday! 🙂

  4. Like you, we are quite tour-resistant. But this sounds worthwhile and interesting. What an adventure you’re having, all that meat eating notwithstanding.

  5. Those rolling country views. Mongolia looks stunning for its nature 😍 Gas station in the middle of nowhere must have been exciting…and the camp site looks really quiet, peaceful 😂 Amazing how the National Park and the horses are so near, and those rocks too. They look like don’t mind getting up and personal. Beautiful, beautiful shots and what a good day 😊

    • Those views were so stunning, Mabel! The camp got pretty busy by evening. It can accommodate about 100 people if I’m not mistaken. When the tour groups arrive — it isn’t as much fun. Fortunately, most travellers who make it to this side aren’t boisterous. We got lucky with the horses. Basil used his new zoom lens to capture them! It was the best day of the trip…lol…

  6. Love love the beautiful openness of the land, the clouds just floating away and the endless horizon there…it seems like such a lazy pace of life, doesn’t it? I especially love that you managed to spot the takhis! I worked at a polo club before so horses have a special spot in my heart. I loved to watch them gallop across the field as they are just so beautiful to watch, I would have loved to do the same with them here.

    • I too couldn’t get enough of the openness of everything! I don’t think it is a lazy life. On the country, life is extremely hard there. The weather is harsh and unpredictable. During the course of our 6 day trip, I craved for a warm room and a nice restroom! lol…Takhi are truly beautiful. It’s not easy spotting them in the wild though. I’m so glad we could. 🙂

  7. Chasing clouds in Mongolia…what a perfect description. I’ve only spent time in Mongolia with a brief layover on a train trip I took years ago and dreamt of someday being able to ride on the Mongolian plains. It is strange, that of all your photos and descriptions, the one that really sticks with me and interests me is Ovoo. I’m curious, and your photos make me want to see this side of the country 🙂 The history of the country is fascinating in itself, and it would be something to take what I know and see the country as it is today ~ the people must be very strong in pride and culture, and I’d love to experience this.

    • In Mongolia, the sky dominates everything! And it’s hard to take your eyes away from those clouds. 🙂 The clouds can be beautiful and terrifying. Our initial plan was to take the train, I’m glad we waited (for years) and did a road trip instead. The Ovoo is an ancient shamanistic symbol and is easy to spot from far. Mongolia’s history is checkered and the people are rediscovering more about it after the nineties. They are proud of their natural resources and the beauty of the countryside! 🙂

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