I got back from the Mongolian countryside around 5pm this last Sunday. It’s taken a few days to catch up on things and to let the trip settle in my mind and think about how to describe one of the best experiences of my life.
This will obviously take more than one post. Probably a dozen or more. I shot over 3000 images in 14 days. Fortunately, I also kept a journal. I’ll post some of the sketches from it after I get home and can scan them.
Where to begin? First, this was to be my very own “Nomadic Journey”. Instead of my previous trips where I was really focussed on seeing wildlife and had set itineraries, this time I wanted to get out into the deep countryside and see what Mongolia had to show me. My particular interest this trip was, as mentioned in previous posts, to learn more about the Mongol horses and the herders who breed, ride and race them. I also hoped to find a couple of local naadams to attend.
I had the same excellent guide/driver, Khatnaa, who I traveled with for the first nine days of my AFC Flag Expedition last year. But nstead of the Mitsubishi SUV that survived the hail storm we’d gotten caught in, he had acquired a new Toyota Land Cruiser Prado just a month ago, so we’d really be traveling in style.
In addition, since this was a tent camping trip, Soyoloo joined us as the cook. She proved to be a superb professional and a lot of fun as well. Watching her taught me quite a bit about what it takes to keep people well and safely fed in remote locations. Not to mention keeping track of the water supply.
What all this means is that we had the freedom to travel where we wished and camp where we wanted. I’m totally spoiled now. Mongolia really is the greatest camping destination.
The ger camps require advance reservations since they only keep food on hand for the guests they expect to have and it’s not possible for anyone to “run to the store” to get more food for unexpected guests since the closest shop could be over 40km away.
I spent some time chatting with Jan Wigsten from Nomadic Journeys the day before departure. He observed that people come to Mongolia with a list of places they want to see, often based on a guidebook driving tour, and that by doing so completely miss the point of one of the things that makes traveling in Mongolia so special. This country isn’t really about places, as spectacular as the landscapes are, it’s about people and their connections. The places end up being kind of a bonus.
I mentally filed that away and ended up with a number of compelling reasons to recall it over the next two weeks.
We left Ulaanbaatar around 10am the morning of July 10, the first day of the national Naadam holiday, heading south towards Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve. We spent our first night camped near a bend in the Tuul Gol, a little southwest of Hustai National Park.
The next day, we stopped for lunch at Zorgol Uul, a sacred mountain. On the backside, away from the road, was a sheltered area with trees festooned with khadags, the blue ceremonial scarves. A pretty special place for a meal, to be sure.
While we were eating, two steppe squirrels suddenly appeared, rearing up on their hind legs and pushing at each other with their front paws and then tumbling around on the ground. Naadam squirrel wrestling!
A short time later I spotted two chasing each other. Naadam squirrel racing! We didn’t miss Naadam after all.
Arriving at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Khatnaa drove up and back down a small canyon looking for a camping spot. Here’s what he found…
We spent three nights in the reserve.
Next post: Where’d the argali and ibex go? Could we find Yanjmaa again, who made the wonderful boortz soup for us last year? And an amazing encounter with the world’s largest vulture.
In the meantime, I’m off to Hustai National Park the day after tomorrow for two nights to see the takhi in the summertime.