Sunrise at Moltsog Els Ger Camp
On the previous night, we had stayed up late to admire the Milky Way and capture some amateur shots of the night sky. Surprisingly, I woke up before 6 am the next morning. It was beautiful to see the sun rise beyond the horizon and light everything around it. The sky slowly turned grey and we had a brief spell of rain in the morning. On the other side, we saw a rainbow disappear into the clouds. It was a great way to start the second day of our trip.
The camp was bustling with activity in the morning. By 7 am, everyone was up and had made a beeline to the restrooms. At breakfast, the restaurant was packed to full capacity and we had to wait for 15 minutes to get a place to sit. Most of the other tour groups had left before us and we were the last to leave at 9 am. Thankfully, the rain had stopped, but the skies were still a little gloomy.
The Route to Nowhere
Boggi, our guide, had warned us about the erratic weather patterns and not-so-ideal driving conditions in Mongolia. Unlike the previous day, she said the roads would turn a little rough towards the end. We had to cover about 210 km to reach Khogno Khan National Park. Now, at the beginning, I didn’t mind the ominous clouds or at least tried not to think about how scary they looked. In Mongolia, the sky dominates everything and you can either be fascinated or terrified by it. We were still on the tarred road and although visibility had significantly dipped — I could see some semblance of a road.
A couple of hours later, we took a turn at a muddy trail. The signs weren’t very helpful because the trail had been washed away by the pouring rain. I tried not to panic, but Basil seemed to be enjoying the experience of being lost in the middle of nowhere. Boggi and Saikhna were working desperately to find a route to the camp. Rainwater had formed gushing streams — that had created deep channels in the mud. Saikhna did a wonderful job of driving in those conditions and crossing deep stream beds. We finally reached our camp half and hour later and were spellbound by the beauty of the location. It was definitely worth the effort it took to get there.
Eden Camp was nestled in the foothills of the mountains. The camp is literally located in the middle of nowhere! It was freezing when we stepped out of the vehicle, but the rain had finally stopped. There were just 5 or 6 staff servicing the camp. And since we were the first to arrive, it was nice to have the location to ourselves.
I was excited to step into our tipi tent. I spotted a frog jumping at the edge of the tent and the poor thing seemed to be a little scared of us. The skylight filled the tent with ambient light and was a smart way to utilise natural resources. There was no electricity in the tent (unlike the eating area) and we’d have to use a candle (placed in a bone candle holder) at night. Almost everything was built from a natural resource. So even the door knobs were made from rope and animal bones. It was a little creepy, but I learned to appreciate how nothing goes to waste and how ingenious the idea was. The only thing that worried me was the heating at night. Turns out, tipi tents are fantastic to trap heat inside and with a couple of blankets — the cold was bearable.
Over lunch, we bonded over stories of travel and our lives. We learned that Saikhna, our driver, used to be a national level basketball player. After quitting basketball, he started working as a physical education teacher at a local school. Like most Mongolians, he thought of making some extra money in the summer, and that’s how he (and his 4WD) started ferrying passengers on tours. Ours was the last tour before school started and he was happy to go home after nearly 3 months of travelling across Mongolia. Boggi, our guide, had grown up in the Gobi Desert, worked in the tourism industry in UB, and ran a speciality home stay back in Gobi. We were all in our thirties, with a common love of travel, and we clicked instantly.
It started raining soon after lunch and Boggi suggested that we should wait for the weather to settle, before deciding the plan for the evening. So while they rested, Basil and I spent our time walking around the camp and observing hawks circle above.
Khogno Khan National Park
By 4 pm, the sun came out from hiding and we decided to stick to the original plan of visiting Erdene Khambiin Monastery. En route we saw herds of cattle rounded up by herdsmen on motorbikes, wild dogs eat an animal carcass, and a hawk perched on top of the head of a rocky mountain formation.
Ovgon Kiid Monastery
Ovgon Kiid Monastery is brilliantly camouflaged by the rocky face of Khogno Khan Mountain and the monastery is visible only after you reach the foot of the mountain.
Erdene Khambiin Monastery
Erdene Khambiin Monastery lies at the foot of the Khogno Khan mountain and is about 5 minutes from the last point of entry for tourist vehicles. It was built in the 17th Century by Zanabazar — a Buddhist saint from the Yellow Hat Sect of Central Mongolia. This monastery was dedicated to his teacher. During the 18th century, the monastery was partly destroyed by the armies of Galdan Boshigt, a believer of the rival Red Hat Sect of Western Mongolia. The monastery came under the radar of destruction, for the second time, during the religious and political purge of the 20th Century. These days, the ageing grand daughter — a descendent of the monks and her family looks after the Erdene Khambiin Monastery.
To reach the Ovgon Monastery above, we had to climb a steep trail on the rocky side of the mountain. Fortunately it takes less than 20 minutes to reach the top.
The views from the top are spectacular. You truly begin to appreciate the expanse and diversity of Khogno National Park from up here. The natural reserve is unique because of its diverse landscape. It’s got steppes, mountains, forests, sand dunes, and even a river — beyond the dunes. To top it, the sky covers it all like a ginormous dome.
The Ovgon Monastery was roughly the same size as Erdene Khambiin Monastery (below). It was renovated by Zanabazar during the construction of Erdene Monastery. It is believed that during the battle of the two sects, monks were killed by tying them from a rope (quite similar to animal slaughter in Mongolia), after which they were castrated, and thrown off the cliff. And that’s how the mountain got its name. Khogno Khan literally translates as the sacred mountain of the castrated.
We descended from the other route and tried to soak in the last views of the scenery — including the ruins of the older monasteries. The skies had turned grey again and we had to rush to our next stop.
Elsen Tasarkhai (Mini Gobi)
We were scheduled for a short camel ride in the desert. With the weather changing and no sign of the camel herder; we chose to walk around instead. It was fantastic to look at the sun light up the steppes on the other side, whilst the clouds hovered over the sand dunes.
The Elsen Tasarkhai is also known as the ‘Mini-Gobi’. It was strange to find sand dunes in the middle of mountains and steppes. You realise how much of this landscape is shaped by the elements.
With wind picking up speed, the other tourists had left. I managed to take a shaky video (below) of the approaching clouds — that had made us cut short our moment in the desert.
That night, we saw the stunning Milky Way, over the rocky mountain formations. It was too cold to click pictures though. Sometimes, you need to desert your lens and trade it for images imprinted in your memories.