In Mongolia, a Surprise at Every Steppe

A 21-day road trip along its lakes, volcanoes and the surreal Siberian taiga helps shed preconceived images of the land.  
Mongolia
From the surreal steppes of east Mongolia to the Siberian taiga in the north, each day aboard the customised overlanding vehicle, christened Xara, leads to an adventure.

An endless expanse of azure blue stretched in front of me as our boat cut across the waters of Khövsgöl Nuur (nuur means ‘lake’ in Mongolian), the Blue Pearl of Mongolia. Arctic herring gulls furiously flew overhead, disturbed by our intrusion into their territory, a rocky island full of cormorants, gulls and other water birds. There was alpine greenery all around. My mind struggled to recalibrate the preconceived picture of Mongolia I held. Where were the green steppes and barren slopes? Where were the wild horses? And the gentle rolling hills?

Spread over 2,760 square kilometres, Mongolia’s second largest freshwater lake looks less like a lake and more like the sea, ringed by mountains sporting either denuded slopes or lush Siberian larch. Meandering through the glorious steppes of eastern and central Mongolia over two weeks and 2,000 kilometres, I had arrived as far as the Siberian taiga on the northern edge of the country, near the Russian border. It was the farthest point on the journey before I circled back to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, over another week. This was turning out to be the ultimate road trip—isn’t it one of the greatest joys of travelling long distances by road, I wondered, to see the landscape change and feel a visceral change within?

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Four years ago, I spent nearly a month in Mongolia traversing its desolate hinterlands, occasionally on tarmac but mostly on far more exciting dirt tracks. Travelling in a huge overlanding truck—it could seat over 25 people and was kitted with large glass windows and two sunroofs—our motley bunch of about 20 travellers from around the world was shepherded around by two expert skippers and two Mongolian guides. Starting from the dreary Ulaanbaatar, we were on a circular route through the central and northern parts of Mongolia that included stops at the town of Kharkhorin, the erstwhile capital of the Mongol empire; the diverse and stunning Orkhon Valley, the dormant Khorgo volcano, ancient monasteries of Erdene Zuu and Amarbayasgalant, and lake Khövsgöl among others.

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A boat ride on lake Khövsgöl, Mongolia’s second largest, involves spotting hundreds of waterbirds perched on surrounding cliffs.

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Tourist camps of gers, similar to the shelters of nomads in the Mongolian countryside, are common stay options for travelers. This camp by the shores of Ogii Lake looks particularly lovely on a moonlit night.

 

Carrying food, water, kitchen and camping equipment, and personal belongings, we were on the road for three days before we pitched our first camp at the Orkhon Valley. Low-lying pine-covered hills and endless pastures surrounded our campsite beside the Orkhon River. It felt incredible to spend a few days on the road without being bothered by the availability of boarding and lodging. We zipped by gorgeous, secluded locales by day and spent nights in ger camps pitched in unbelievably scenic locations, like beside the Zuun Nuur, a remote saltwater lake surrounded by rolling hills, or by the banks of the Delger Mörön river at the outskirts of an otherwise dull town. It was one of the first things that struck me about Mongolia: eye-popping beauty was as pervasive as the air we breathed. That kind of access to pristine nature was astonishing, a novelty to me, being only used to the long chases and hardships warranted by any pursuit of wilderness in India.

Companions make or break a road trip, and by joining a group tour, I’d signed off the luxury of choosing my fellow travellers. Thankfully, my group was a lively, well-travelled bunch from Europe and Australia. On the long road, several days were spent playing an addictive dice game called Yahtzee that a British traveller had brought along; nights spent around bonfires under starry skies brought us closer.

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Mongolia is a montage of endearing, colourful sights: Statues at the Amarbayasgalant Monastery (top left); a little girl on holiday with her family looking to escape Ulaanbaatar’s pollution (top right); and the 108 stupas along Erdene Zuu Monastery’s gate near Kharkhorin (bottom).

Being in a tight group of foreigners meant local interaction was hard to come by. Here, I found that identifying as an Indian in Mongolia brought me a bit of that serendipitous exchange I was craving. At Kharkhorin—the Mongol empire between the 13th and 14th centuries now reduced to a smattering of few blockhouses with colourful roofs—a young girl was thrilled to meet me atop a hillock. I was waiting to watch a mesmerising sunset over the Orkhon River, Mongolia’s longest, meandering through fertile pastures. She recounted her fond experience of learning from volunteering Indian teachers. Later, an older man fishing on the riverbanks below shared with me his experience of visiting Delhi in 1989. He enjoyed it but also found it too crowded for his liking. Coming from a land as gorgeous and expansive as Mongolia, how could he not? A few days later, intrigued by my dark skin, a burly Mongolian man dressed in a deel (the traditional kaftan-like Mongolian outfit) invited me to take a picture looking like a dwarf next to his lofty self, amid a nameless stretch of steppes.

As a writer and a curious traveller, I take some pride in furiously researching the destination beforehand and digging for stories. But in Mongolia, I was strangely unencumbered by the specifics of the place. I felt like a kite tied to the truck, drifting in a cheery daze, one day to the next, one pasture to the other, lost in immense natural beauty. The raison d’être of the long Mongolian road trip became enjoying the present. I let the road be my teacher and guide.

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The road also became my classroom in understanding Mongolia’s complex past. On the very first day out of Ulaanbaatar, we drove to the crumbling ruins of Khar Balgas, a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere that was once a 10th-century fortress belonging to the Uighur empire. The next day we were on our way to Erdene Zuu, the earliest surviving Mongol Buddhist monastery, built in 1585. It was decently preserved despite waves of attacks and destruction over centuries: some temples had survived, as had a fence wall with 108 stupas. I learnt that these, along with Kharkhorin, several prehistoric sites, and other sites belonging to ethnic groups who inhabited this region, are all part of the Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that acknowledges the rich cultural legacy of the Orkhon River’s fertile valley as the cradle of nomadic civilisation.

On a rainy afternoon soon after, I chanced upon a rather unexpected sight. Mongolia is not a place I’d associated with a gorgeous cascade. But there I was, standing at the edge of a sudden chasm in the meadows, with the Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall tumbling almost 70 feet down the cliff into a huge pool, flowing out to merge with the nearby Orkhon River.

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The rim of the crater at Khorgo (top left), an extinct volcano in Arkhangai province, affords stunning views; If you’re invited to a nomadic family’s ger (top right), request for airag or kumis: fermented mare’s milk and a beloved local liquor; Long summer days on the road prove ideal for games of UNO (bottom left); Ulaan Tsutgalan, or Orkhon waterfall (bottom right), is a popular picnic spot between July and August.

In Mongolia, I quickly learnt to accept quirky detours as part of the charm. On our way up north, we stumbled upon the Khorgo, an extinct volcano hulking at 7,250 feet. Part of Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, it overlooks the sprawling Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, surrounded by a large black lava field from its eruptions. Battered by punishing winds, I stood on the crater’s rim, grinning at the sudden fulfillment of a longstanding dream. I had pegged Italy or Indonesia as the place I’d first witness a volcano but Mongolia had unwittingly delivered. Three days later, I noticed a curious collection of 15 carved, milestone-shaped rocks in the empty grasslands, at a site called Uushglin Uvur in Khövsgöl province. I learnt they were Deer Stones, and were thousands of years old. Strange and ancient, these granite or greenstone megaliths featured flying reindeer and other mysterious carvings, 900 of which are found across Siberia and Mongolia, but whose purpose or origin is still not accurately known.

We reached Khövsgöl Nuur the same evening, and spent two days soaking in the changed landscape. On the six-day drive back, scenes from the trip raced through my mind on our way back to Ulaanbaatar. It was Mongolia’s lakes that stood out sharply, with fascinating names like Ogii, Zuun, Terkhiin Tsagaan, and Khövsgöl. I wasn’t expecting to see any; it dawned upon me that I knew almost nothing about this country. And if there’s one expectation I’ve had from any trip then on, it is that of being surprised.

The truck rattled along mountain passes and pastures, and my mind drifted. If there was one thing that made my heart flutter every time, it was the sight of the Mongolians galloping on their horses. To someone who has given up the idea of a permanent home and has spent the last four years in hotels, guesthouses, tents, and on couches of friends and family, I felt a kinship with the nomads of Mongolia. Perhaps it was fitting that the first stamp on my brand new passport was Mongolian. After all, the journey may be long-winded, but in the end the road always gets us to the right place.

Essentials

There are no direct flights between India and Ulaanbaatar. Flights from Delhi and Mumbai require at least one layover at Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, or Peking.

Indians require a tourist visa to visit Mongolia. The visa form can be downloaded at consul.mn and submitted along with relevant documents at the Embassy of Mongolia in Delhi. The visa is free and takes 3-4 working days to be processed.

The writer undertook the 21-day overlanding trip with Dragoman Travel (www.dragoman.com; from $2,900/Rs2,02,700, including accommodation, transport, food and detour expenses from Ulaanbaatar and back).

  • Neelima Vallangi is an itinerant freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys purposefully getting lost in the mountains and going to faraway corners where Google Maps fail. She tweets as @i_wanderingsoul.

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