- Melbourne (Australia)
- Number of travelers
- 2 people
- Trip duration
- 28 days
- 24 days
- 3 days
- 3 days
- Hong Kong (China)
- 4 days
- Ulan Bator (Mongolia)
- 2 days
- Khovd (Mongolia)
- 1 days
- Olgii (Mongolia)
- 2 days
- Ulgii (Mongolia)
- 1 days
- Büren (Mongolia)
- 1 days
- Bayan (Mongolia)
- 1 days
- Tsenkher (Mongolia)
- 2 days
- Kharkhorin (Mongolia)
- 2 days
- Tsagaan (Mongolia)
- 2 days
- Khongor (Mongolia)
- 1 days
- Dalanzadgad (Mongolia)
- 1 days
- Mandalgov (Mongolia)
Trip package (and costs)
- Total spent, incl:
- 2100 $USD
- Day 1. Melbourne to Hong Kong
- Day 2-4. Hong Kong
- Day 4. Hong Kong to Ulan Bator/Ulaanbataar (Mongolia)
- Day 5-28. Round Mongolia Safari with Dream Mongolia
- Day 28. Ulaanbataar to Beijing Trans Mongolian train
- Posted on
- October 18, 2015
Trip dates: 24 July – 20 August 2015.
From: Melbourne (Australia) to Hong Kong (China), Ulan Bator, Khovd, Olgii, Ulgii, Büren, Bayan, Khorgo, Tsenkher, Kharkhorin, Tsaagan, Khongor, Dalanzadgad, Mandalgov (Mongolia)
Travelers: 2 adults
Trip review: 5****
Hong Kong (China)
Hong Kong is like Times Square, but with water and a little more refined.
For a start, we went to a restaurant called Ah Yat, which was a bit extravagant with rather mediocre food, but had the most fantastic view over Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island. Then we spent a good couple of hours ascending the Island on the “mid level escalators”. It was great! Built in 1993 these escalators are over 800m long and climb 135m in elevation up the busy residential and business districts that make up Victoria Peak. There are also a couple of tram routes on Hong Kong Island and the trams are pretty cool. They are double-deckers and really skinny, so look like they should just topple over, or disappear between buildings in a Harry Potteresque way. We caught one back to the ferry port instead after visiting Man Mo temple, one of the oldest temples in Hong Kong. We finished the day with the most enormous oyster I have ever seen (Japanese, so you’ve got to wonder about the radioactivity!) at the Sheraton’s Oyster and Wine Bar overlooking the harbour, followed by a walk along the Avenue of Stars and entertained by the “Symphony of Lights“.
Hong Kong is a great city and we enjoyed this little hiatus.
Ulan Bator/Ulaanbataar (Mongolia)
Our Mongolian trip was scheduled by a traveling company, Dream Mongolia. Having arrived in Ulaanbataar we were met by Doogii (the 28 year manager of the company), had a quick dinner, a look around the main square and then back to the airport to fly out to the west of Mongolia to a dusty town called Khovd.
Ulan Bator is quite a big town with a lot of new apartments and skyscrapers, with the odd ger (Mongolian nomadic house tent) spattered in between. The main square is a large open space surrounded by some attractive buildings. The Parliament House is an imposing and considering it was built during the Communist period, quite attractive too. In the centre of the square children (and adults) could hire toy cars and bicycles to ride around the square. It was obviously a popular outing for families.
We spent a good couple of hours in the National Museum, which was excellent. Essentially the museum outlines the history of Mongolia from the Stone Age, through its heyday when the empire reached from the Great Wall of China to Hungary and including Korea, Japan and Russia under Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan, through the periods of Chinese occupation and Communism through to the start of the present democracy starting in 1990. There were also beautiful displays of all the traditional costumes of the twenty or so ethnic groups and some of their unique musical instruments.
We then visited one of the most important temple complexes in Mongolia, the Gandan Khiid, which was built in the early nineteenth century and was one of the few temples to more or less survive the destruction of the Communist regime. It now supports over six hundred monks and is a lively centre of Buddhism in Ulaanbaatar.
Our final stop was the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khaan, which is now a museum. It needs restoration, but the outside is still beautiful and it houses some really interesting artefacts from the last king of Mongolia’s home, both personal and religious.
Khovd, Olgii, Ulgii (Mongolia)
Unfortunately we had a fair delay for our flight to Khovd, which made for a very long day and we didn’t get to our hotel room in Khovd until 2am, exhausted!
The next day was equally long and exhausting! We had a long drive to a border town, called Olgii. It is in the Kazakh region of Mongolia, on the border with Russia and to go further you need a border permit. Fortunately our very experienced driver, Chuka, had a Kazakh mate who facilitated the process, so it only took 4 hours! Most Mongolians don’t speak Kazakh and most Kazakhs don’t speak Mongolian, so it could be tricky without the local guide! We were lucky to have a local Kazakh guide, Erka, who helped with translating from Kazakh to Mongolian and offered to stay a night with his family. They were unbelievably generous to us, utter strangers, with no expectation of anything in return. Most of their staple food revolved around the livestock that they herd (sheep, cows, yaks, goats and horses). They also drink a lot of tea, which is very milky with a bit of salt and buttery cream. The added salt is not actually noticeable. We also got to watch them milk their horses! They use horse milk to make a special milk based alcoholic drink, which they drink like beer.
Büren, Bayan (Mongolia)
Another long drive with a couple of stops, including the town of Khovd to restock on food and water, and Lake Har Us, which is the third biggest lake in Mongolia and a nature reserve. The reason for coming to this remote place was Khoit Tsenkher cave that has several Palaeolithic cave paintings of animals including lions and elephants, which no longer live in Mongolia, trees and archers.
By evening we arrived at our first ger camp, which was described as a “countryside hotel”. Ger essentially means home in Mongolian, and a significant proportion of Mongolians living in the towns and cities still live in gers rather than brick buildings. All gers have a similar basic structure with supporting posts joined by a wooden lattice with five, seven or nine segments. The roof has wooden spokes radiating out from a central opening, which acts as ventilation and also an opening for the centrally located fire/oven. Outside the lattice walls is felt insulation made predominantly from wool and the outer layer is always a tightly woven cotton, waterproof, white canvas. The inside usually is decorated quite individually with pictures of the family, sometimes painted with Mongolian geometric designs and nearly always with at least one beautiful woollen wall hanging. On the right as you walk in is usually the area for kitchen stuff, then one or two single beds with very colourful and decorative bedding. Each single bed can sleep at least two adults, with various additional members often sleeping on the floor. At the back of the ger is often a small alter, in front of which is the table around which all tea drinking, discussions, eating, socialising etc occurs. The central oven acts as both heating for the ger and a cooking appliance. It is often fueled by dried cow or camel dung (the easiest to collect), and you often see the females of the family out and about collecting the dried dung. It is completely inoffensive, efficient and very abundant! Each of the ethnic groups have subtle variations to their gers and decor, but the basic structure is similar.
It turned out that the owner of the ger camp is the “mayor” of the local town and he offered to show us some local, relatively unknown petroglyphs from the same time period, Paleolithic, as the cave paintings we already saw. They were amazing. The general theme was of goats, deer, reindeer and archers, all engraved in an almost modern abstract way. We felt so privileged to see something so special and so relatively unknown. We were also persuaded to walk barefoot around one area used as a winter shelter for the sheep and goats “to get a special foot massage” from the droppings. I am not convinced that we got so much benefit from that, but you have to go with the flow!
Later at lunch, we were asked if we would like to take a detour to nearby town and meet one of Mongolia’s most famous and respected throat singers. This is a very special and traditional form of Mongolian singing, which sounds a little like a didgeridoo. It is a very moving and somehow evocative, and not something I had heard of before we started researching Mongolia. The performance left us all with tears streaming down our cheeks! It was such an unexpected and special experience.
Finally we got to our next location and set up camp, next to the enormous Lake Durgun surrounded by sand. It honestly could have been by the sea. We couldn’t see to the other side and there were even waves. We decided to have a swim to cool off (it was in the 30s all day today) and freshen up. The Mongolians generally can’t swim and are quite scared of being in the water, but it was fun for us.
Next day we were we’re out to next location, called Lake Ereen (the Lake of Many Colours), camped in an oasis, where we climbed a 100m sand dune, which nearly killed us. It was a case of one step forward and two steps back for the majority of it, in glorious, hot sunshine. The view of the sand dunes surrounding a reed lake, the oasis on the other side, vast Steppe and distant mountains were spectacular.
The following day was a bit of an epic car journey, broken up by a walk through some cold water springs, known for their healing properties. The different areas from where the water emerged are purported to have healing properties for different organs. So I concentrated on the one for eyes with the hope to having “20/20” vision by the time we get home! At the top of the valley we rested under the “energetic tree” and just took in the scenery.
The following day was spent driving on probably the worst roads we’d ever driven on! We were heading back from the western, less touristy, provinces. The government embarked on a massive road building venture here, which will make a huge difference to the transportation and infrastructure of the region, but currently meant the roads worse than usual. The greatest irony was that we actually had to pay to go on the worst road in Mongolia! However, we ended up in and idyllic camping spot by Lake Terkhiin Tsagaan, which is 16km by 6 km. There is a lovely legend, apparently believed by Mongolians, that the earth split and the water started to gush through the crack, threatening to drown an old lady. Fortunately she had a devoted and strong son, who saved her by chopping off the top of a local mountain to plug the hole. Thus creating the lake and the island in the centre (the top of the mountain visible above the water).
The main highlight of our stay was climbing an extinct volcano called Khorgo Volcanic Mountain, which was a fairly gentle climb of two hundred metres to view an impressive crater and we had gentle meander around the crater edge.
At the evening we had a surprise, blow torched marmot! Marmot (also known as Prairie Dog) is a cat sized rodent, that live everywhere in the grasslands. They have quite long golden, fluffy hair and are pretty cute. They live in little burrows and are fairly timid and scamper for their burrows as soon as they hear or see anything. They stand upright on their back feet a little like meerkats looking for potential danger and run in a very inefficient and relatively slow manner. They are also a delicacy in Mongolia and reputed to have healing properties for the internal organs. They have to be shot clean in the head for the traditional method of cooking, which involves placing all edible bits (including sweet meats) in to the body cavity with red hot stones. Then with the body cavity completely airtight, the outside is “roasted”, usually with a blow torch for about an hour. Marmots are very fatty, presumably to survive the harsh winters and the fat is particularly prized. The meat is quite gamey, but not unpleasant. I’m very glad we were given the opportunity to to try the local delicacy and would certainly eat it if presented with it again.
One more day, interspersed with the usual bumpy roads. We stopped off at a ger selling airag and experienced our first taste. Airag is essentially fermented horses milk, which produces a low alcohol content drink drunk like beer. It is found everywhere in the country, but is generally only sold on the “open black market” from gers rather than shops or bars etc. The mares are suckled for a few minutes by their foals and then milked by the family. On average they yield about 100ml per session, but will be milked up to every two hours during daylight hours from spring to winter. The milk from several mares are combined and then left open to air to naturally ferment in a big barrel in the ger. Over the next 24 hours the milk is stirred up to five hundred times and it is then ready to drink. It generally keeps unrefrigerated for a couple of days and then starts to become a bit sour! It is a strange taste and something I think takes a while to develop a taste for, but at least we tried it. We also tried some Mongolian vodka, which is distilled milk and on this particular occasion cows milk, although the Mongolians will make it from the milk of any of their herds. It is clear, like vodka, but has a much lower alcohol content and to my taste is a lot smoother. It was actually very palatable!
We then stopped in the centre of Arkhangai and visited the local “black market”. It is not really a black market now, but all open air markets derived this name during communism and the name has stuck. The markets follow the general trend of markets all over the world, selling everything you may need from general bits and bobs, clothes and hardware to groceries, fruit and veg and of course meat. The fruit and veg is generally very underrepresented in Mongolia, as they don’t traditionally grow anything being nomadic herders, but they do import limited produce from Russia and China. However dairy products are their staple, particularly in summer. Interestingly they produce very little cheese, but make great yoghurt, multiple types of butter, cream and curd. We tried probably our favourite curd, made solely in this province and called Khuruud, which means finger in Mongolian describing the shape of the block. This particular curd is soft and quite sweet, with an almost a fudge-like taste.
The curd comes in a multitude of forms from soft like a ricotta, to teeth breaking hard. The softer the fresher it has to be eaten, the hardest curd will last for years and is an essential standby for long hard winters, when there may be little else to eat. The curd is made by separating the curd from the whey after boiling the milk, then drying it either in the open air or over the oven. Sometimes sugar is added, as can be many other products. Every family prepares their curd in a slightly different way and will use different types of milk, creating different tastes and textures. On the whole, I prefer the softer curds, but these are the least available as they are only edible for about 24 hours.
Following our culinary morning we had a beautiful, if bumpy, drive through a gorgeous grassland of wild flowers, of all sorts of colours, shapes and sizes. We also passed a number of Steppe Eagles, vultures and a lonesome Golden Eagle. Mongolia has a fantastic population of raptors, which is presumably due to a low human and high animal population.
By the evening we settled in to another, bigger and even more comfortable, ger camp with a couple of pools filled with hot spring water from the local Tsenkher Hot springs, which are located about five hundred meters from the camp.
By mid morning we had reached Kharkhorin, the capital of Mongolia for 40 years before it was temporarily moved to Beijing at the end of the 13th century. It has a torrid history having been destroyed sequentially by the Manchurians, then Stalin during the Russian occupation. However between these two episodes, in the 16th century an enormous Buddhist monastery was built within the walls called Erdene Zuu Kild. In its heyday, the monastery complex consisted of sixty-two temples, five hundred other buildings and gers with over a thousand monks. We were lucky to visit during a special ceremony with the head monk leading a service with singing from the Sutra. The temple in which the ceremony took place was one of the remaining original temples and was absolutely packed with followers, all singing along with the head monk, who was incredibly charismatic. The remaining complex was interesting too, with a number of pieces of religious art and some striking architecture.
The Kharkhorin museum is a new museum, small but really well done with multimedia displays and a good description of the history of Mongolia. There was a seven minute three dimensional video of a tomb of a dignitary found about forty kilometres from the town. It was fascinating and really brought the subsequent artefact exhibition to life.
After a gentle walk up a hill to look at a memorial of the history of the Mongolian empire, past and present, we watched a fantastic traditional music group. They were excellent and we were treated to some more throat singing as well as both long (the use of long held notes) and short song (the type of singing we are more used to), and a range of traditional instruments including the murin kurr (horse head fiddle). There was also a short performance by a young girl of about twelve who performed a contortionist routine. She was amazingly strong and graceful, as well as flexible. It was a great performance, especially as once again it was unexpected.
Next day we moved on to the Orkhon Waterfall. It marks the halfway point of the Orkhon River, the longest Mongolia’s river that runs about 1120kms. The waterfall was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions about twenty thousand years ago and cascades from a height of twenty-two metres.
Tsaagan, Khongor (Mongolia)
It was again quite amazing to watch the change in the environment as we drove the 300km to the Gobi, changing from lush green to semi-arid, with the grass becoming more sparse, the flowers changing and the soil becoming increasingly sandy.
The weather last night got worse, with a howling gale and intermittent torrential rain. But in true Mongolian style changed over the course of our day’s drive, actually pretty quickly. The local attraction is an interesting Buddhist temple complex (Ongi Temple) built in the mid 18th century and almost completely destroyed during the Soviet occupation. In its peak there were about a thousand monks (lamas), but the number is now reduced to about ten. Some monks who were child novices during the destruction of the temples, rebuilt one post-democracy and we were fortunate enough to watch the head monk leading a “singing” meditation with some very young novices in it.
The following day we drove another 300km from the mid Gobi to the south Gobi with the landscape changing again. Probably stupidly, I expected the Gobi to be really sandy, but in fact it is semi-arid with caramel coloured sandy soil, but a fair covering of grass. The overall effect is that the ground appears a light green, but with a surprising and diffuse sprinkling of flowers. In one area, just as we entered the south Gobi, there was an area of succulent trees. The trunks were thick and wizened, with thin spindly but quite long “leaves”. The trees can grow up to four meters in height, with roots up to ten meters deep.
Soon after we arrived at the “Flaming cliffs” (Bayanzag), which are terracotta red cliff faces eroded by time to create interesting shapes and escarpments. It reminded me of a combination of Kings Canyon (Australia) and Cappadocia (Turkey).
Next were the Khongor sand dunes. At a hundred metres in height the giant sand dunes stretch some 180 kms. Strangely, in front of the dunes the land is pretty flat and green, but behind them are mountains. It is a striking and unusual panorama. We had our daily workout climbing the biggest sand dune and enjoyed the late afternoon sun from the top, before running down. The Bactrian (two humped) camels were in abundance here. They have such gorgeous faces and move with such lazy ease.
Dalanzadgad, Mandalgov (Mongolia)
Next day we popped in to Dalanzadgad, the main provincial town (aimag). Essentially all the main provincial towns have a small museum outlining the history of the province, the local ethnic groups and showing off artefacts from the area. This particular area is famous for its dinosaur bones and so there were a number of excellent examples of bones and fossils found in the area.
We then headed off for a long trip to Mandalgov, stopping off at the amazing natural wonder of the “White Stupor” (Tsagaan Suvarga), a mud, sand mineral mix creating a rock-like formation 60m high and 100m long, which due to the mineral deposits has lots of layers of colours and due to the elements and erosion has interesting and quite dramatic shapes and escarpments.
After a comfortable night in a hotel, without hot water as the boiler had burst, in Mandalgov we headed off to Ulaanbaatar, our final destination. We took a bit of a detour to see a granite formation (Baga Gazariin Chuluu) in the middle of the Steppe and some old temple ruins. Most of the old temples were destroyed during the communist period, but many are now being restored or rebuilt.
Well, that’s it. We traveled around 4500km through Mongolia and it was marvelous! Next destination – Beijing and then, Japan.
- Hong Kong (China) to Ulan Bator (Mongolia): The flight from Hong Kong went smoothly. A fantastic efficiency in Hong Kong is that they have free hotel shuttle buses running every 12 minutes to the main train station, where you can then check-in for the airport hence avoiding the queues and mayhem in the airport!
- Round Mongolia Safari with Dream Mongolia
- From Ulaanbaatar to Beijin: a four berth cabin in the trans-Mongolian train