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 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.
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.
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.