The Gobi is known for its incredible temperature variations, spanning from -40 to +50 degrees in winter and summer respectively. Already the difference from daytime to nighttime is quite remarkable, and we had to bring good sleeping bags.
By far not all of the Gobi is sand desert, there are also huge areas with rocks or sparse grass. It took a lot of driving to get to the Gurvansaikhan National Park, we spent six hours in the car for seven days in a row, but it was worthwhile. We got to see a lot of animals and stunning landscape, from rock formations to sand dunes with great sunsets and even one sunrise.
The roads are rather bumpy and fortunately the Mongols are not only fantastic drivers but even better mechanics. Each evening we checked into a ‘ger’, a tent of a nomadic family, and enjoyed the excellent food of our Mongolian cook. The Gobi was a fantastic experience of a wide open country with stunning sunsets, and we would have loved to spend more time in the sand dunes.
Now this is one of those places … a place which is so nice you wonder if you should share it with other people as it might get spoiled by too much tourism. Anyway. It takes a 20 hour bus ride plus three hours in a minivan to get to Hatgal on the southern lakeshore, formerly a boom town when there was still the Soviet Union and a lot of cross-border travel and trade 25 years ago. Now it is a small village and hub for excursions around the lake. Lake Khuvsgul or ‘Khövsgöl Nuur’ is – due to its depth of 262m – the second-most voluminous freshwater lake in Asia.
We, a group of seven that met in Ulan Baatar and shared the interest of a horse-riding trip at the lake, were among the last tourists for this summer season, as it was getting colder every day and temperatures got well below zero at night. We arranged for two local guides and some friendly Mongolian horses, which are usually good-natured and smaller than European ones, at least to my knowledge. None of us had a lot of riding experience, but we got along quite well.
The six-day ride got us to hot springs near the lake, traversing a lot of grassland and some forests. The air was just crystal clear and fantastic, the views were scenic, the days sunny and the nights, which we spent in our tents or in local gers (fixed comfortable tents of Mongolians), were very cold with starry skies. Pack horses carried our own food, pasta and rice with canned meat or fish, cooked over a campfire. It was just a great experience and I really got to love this remote country with its weather-beaten, heartily and friendly people.
Ulan Baatar (UB), capital of Mongolia, is home to more than a third of the country’s population of three million. The city is busy and amidst the soviet-looking houses there are a number of modern glass and steel buildings. The town was founded in 1639 as center of Lamaism, and belonging to a nomad people, moved around more than 20 times before establishing itself at the current place in 1778.
UB is the central hub for most of travelling in Mongolia, and quite a few foreigners are around. It is also known as the coldest capital in the world, and indeed already now temperatures reach towards zero at night. I will now continue my way through Mongolian steppes and endless grasslands, while Ms. Escape explores the south-east of China and then we’ll meet again.
The journey from Beijing to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital, is possible by plane or night train, but much more interesting if split up into a couple of days. Passing through China’s Inner Mongolia province, the countryside changes gradually from forests to endless grassland, and then into a dry steppe.
Language and looks change as well, and more and more signs are written in Cyrillic as a second language. Another change is that no more western faces are seen, and nothing, not even the word hotel, is written in English. The food is great. There is schnitzel and goulash!
People looked at me in a curious but friendly way when I walked through Inner Mongolia’s capital city Hohhot, and later through Erlian, the border town. Another change is the temperature, Hohhot is not hot at all, and Erlian is freezing, but sunny.
Crossing the border was slowed down by the fact that people bring enormous amounts of goods, from car parts over furniture to room decoration, from China into Mongolia. Our bus was held up by customs until after hours and long discussions the passengers stumped up some baksheesh.
Posted in China, Mongolia