Mongolia is not only about vast steppe. It is home to a few volcanoes (though not active ones), many lakes and the fifth-largest desert in the world and Asia’s largest – Gobi Desert.
After 3 days on the horseback we moved our sore butts to the car and together with our man Ganbatar we went for a road trip by his little big car driving either on the empty highways or taking totally off-road paths. We did enjoy it although we spent quite a lot of time in a car.
We stopped at some really beautiful places starting from the capital of Arkhangai Aimag (province), Tsetserleg that is picturesquely situated among several peaks and has a charming temple with 7m high statue of the Buddha overlooking the town.
From there we moved to huge 20m high granite rock standing out in the middle of a plain called Taikhar Chuluu (Taikhar Rock). The rock is said to be covered with inscriptions dating back as far as Turkic rule, followed by more in the Mongol and Tibetan languages but due to many graffiti it’s actually impossible to see them. Of course there are many legends which explain the strange presence of the rock in this place, including the belief that anyone who manages to throw a stone on the top of the rock will get rich.
Due to the bad weather we neither contemplated the rock’s presence nor tried to get rich and quickly moved on to the next stop – Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (also known as Great White Lake) that was our place to stay overnight.
The new tires and mp3 player with 100+ Mongolian hits purchased in Tsetserleg was supposed to smooth our ride. Unfortunately it started raining like crazy and the night was approaching. We stopped at some random yurt next to the road where we could prepare the food. Soon after we needed to go off –road, passing the rivers in the dark was another adventure. Once we reached the yurt camp at the lakeside, it was late at night and we immediately crawled into our sleeping bags.
Only in the early morning woken up by Ganbatar lighting the fire and smell of the pancakes that followed, we saw how beautiful the place was.
Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur – Great White Lake
This lake is a part of Khorgo – Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, placed in a stunning landscape surrounded by extinct volcanoes. It said to be formed by lava flows from a volcanic eruption many millennia ago. Some parts of its shoreline are sandy and in the summer the water is good for a swim. This crystal clear fresh lake is renowned for its fish and birdlife. The volcanic stone mounds visible at the shore are built by the Shamanists.
After spending some time at the lake we packed our stuff and drove to the Khorgo Uul (volcano). This 200m tall extinct volcano is an easy walk up and provides nice views of the lake and surrounding lava covered countryside around the crater rim.
After ‘conquering’ the volcano, we drove back to Kharkhorin stopping for the lunch at Chuluut Canyon where we were watching the eagles flying just a few meters above our heads tempted by the bread we kept throwing towards them.
We don’t regret taking 5 day tour in Central Mongolia although have to admit that horse riding part was much more beautiful experience and there is no better way to explore this amazing country and its nature than on the horseback.
Next day we went to visit the Erdene Zuu Monastery probably the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, located about 2 km from the center of Kharkhorin.
Long story short. It was founded in 1586 as Tibetan Buddhism was declared to be the state religion of Mongolia. It had between 60 and 100 temples, about 300 yurts inside the walls and at its peak up to 1000 monks in residence. The monastery went through periods of neglect and prosperity until the Stalinist purges of 1937 put it completely out of business and unknown number of monks were either killed or sent to Siberian gulags. Everything apart from three of the temples and the external wall was destroyed. But by 1944 Stalin ordered to maintain the monastery (along with Gandantegchinlen Monastery in Ulaanbaatar) as a showpiece for international visitors to prove that the communist regime allowed freedom of religion and later the temples were converted into museum. After the fall of communism in 1990, the monastery was turned over to the lamas and again became a place of worship. Today Erdene Zuu remains an active Buddhist monastery as well as a museum that is open to tourists.
It is considered to be the most important monastery in the country, though no doubt it’s a shadow of what it once was.
On the way to China through Gobi Desert
The local bus took us back to Ulaanbaatar where we booked a night in one of the guesthouses before heading to the border. It was clearly a huge disappointment for the guesthouse owner that was waiting for us on the bus station eager to sell us some overpriced trips. Since both of us have already done the desert safari somewhere else, we decided earlier to skip Gobi (at least this time) and move to China and the pushy owner only confirmed our plan.
We spent the evening having for the last time Mongolian beers and bunch of buuz (steamed dumpling filled with meat) which tasted amazing especially after the nomadic experience. Next day we took overnight train to Zamyn-Üüd, border town with China. The train route goes through Gobi Desert that covers the part of southern Mongolia stretching to northern and northwestern China. Soon after leaving Ulaanbaatar the grassy steppe turned into the semi desert.
As the train was crossing the wide open spaces of the never-ending desert, we kept staring at the beautiful colors of the sunset and white yurts far away and talking with the only foreigner in the car, German archaeologist about our Mongolian experience.
Our fellow passengers were busy playing Mongolian version of Russian card game ‘Durak’, preparing the instant soup, or smoking at the end of the car. Once the train stopped we were all meeting each other outside.
In the morning we got down at Zamyn-Üüd from where we took the bus to transport us across the border. We decided not to cross it by train as it takes much longer (more than 8 hours) mainly because of the bogie exchange that needs to be done due to the different rail gauges in Russia/ Mongolia and China.
Anyways crossing the border even by bus was pretty slow and took us a few hours as there was a huge line of buses and trucks. We were mostly outside standing on the road, trying different food being sold around and socializing with the Mongolian companions.
Once we got inside the administrative buildings, the passport control on both sides went smoothly. On the Chinese counter they have additionally a system asking for the feedback from the service received by the agent.
After pressing one of the buttons with smiley faces we entered completely different world…