Mongolia Travelogue

Popular Travel Destinations

Recently Reviewed Hotels Around Mongolia

  • Zaya Hostel Hotel 63 Tserendorj Street Bld, Ulaanbaatar 8.8/10 - 43 reviews Hotel Class 3 stars 34 Rooms
  • Bayangol Hotel Chinggis Khan Avenue 05, Ulanbator 6.0/10 - 77 reviews 200 Rooms
See all Mongolia Travelogues

Mongolia 2001

  • Submitted by: Arturo M. Hilado
  • Submission Date: 06th May 2005

ONE WEEK IN MONGOLIAThis is a report on a brief trip to Mongolia, from September 8 to 17, 2001. As I arrived in late afternoon and left toward noon, I really had only one full week. This was obviously much too brief to do justice to the country but I had work schedule constraints and was unwilling to put off the trip to next year. The biggest cause for chagrin was missing out on visiting the Gobi Desert. I actually had a halfhearted plan to squeeze in three days there, but this was scuttled by changes in the domestic flight schedules just when I arrived (right when the “summer” season was shutting down and the number of flights was being reduced) which made the idea impracticable. This resulted in my having more days in Ulaan Baatar, which worked out fine as I found the city more interesting than I had expected.TRAVEL OVERVIEWI made my travel arrangements through the Ulaan Baatar tour operator Mongol Tour OK, whose website I found on the Net and which had been favorably mentioned in my Lonely Planet. (I was using the outdated 1997 LP edition, which, frankly, was of limited use by this time except as a backgrounder; the latest edition came out too late to reach my bookstore in Manila in time.) I had booked on a 5-day 4-night trip to Kharkhorin and Khovsgol Nuur, leaving the detailed itinerary up to them, and they had designed it to include the White Lake in Arkhangai. I also asked them to recommend a moderate-priced hotel in UB and they emailed me a list of hotels of a wide price range, and took care of reserving on the basis of my preferences. (They also had a Gobi 3-day proposal, but, as mentioned, that fell through.)I flew in on the Mongolian airline MIAT from Beijing arriving at 5:30 pm UB time (an hour later than Beijing). The airport was small and pretty rudimentary, but quite hassle-free, though baggage claim took a good while. (As a Filipino, I did not need a Mongolian visa, one of the few places where we still have this privilege – but, transiting Beijing airport both ways, I needed a double-entry Chinese visa even though I never left the airport.) I was met by a pretty guide, Mogi by nickname (Munkhtsetseg in full), and a very capable driver Pagi (I gave up trying to memorize his full name) in the Russian jeep which would be our amazingly sturdy vehicle for the next six days, and driven to my UB hotel, the Mika, very central, virtually just around the corner from Sukhbaatar Square. An hour later, after attending to changing money at a 24-hour (!) bank (at an exchange rate of 1095 togrogs:$1) and shopping for some supplies for the trip, Mogi brought me to a Mexican restaurant(! again – UB was full of surprises). Here, the Mongol Tour OK proprietor Sanjaa (Jigmedsanjaa in full)- young-looking, very gracious, and extremely helpful - met me over a good dinner, to which he treated, and discussed and finalized my itinerary with me, aside from dispensing loads of information about travel in Mongolia.Because of the adjustment in flight schedules, my Kharkhorin-Khovsgol trip was moved back by a day, and I had my first day free in UB, which I used for a daytrip to Terelj, with the same guide, driver, and jeep that I would have for the long trip. We got back to UB early enough for Mogi to guide me through the Natural History Museum and the Gandan monastery and then take me to an excellent traditional music-dance performance. Dinner was again free, courtesy of my pretty guide, at Khan Brau, which would be my favorite UB restaurant.It should be obvious that my first impressions of my tour-operator hosts were highly favorable; and the coming 5-day tour was to reinforce this ten times over. Aside from Mogi and Pagi, I was provided a cook, called Dogi (I know this sounds like a line from a gag book, but there it is), who rustled up some terrific, and bounteous, meals to break up our long drives, complete with frying and steaming facilities. These were usually lunches, cooked and served in the middle of sweeping open steppe landscapes; but also a couple of breakfasts served up in our gers. Dinners and other breakfasts were taken in the restaurants of ger camps, except for one night when we tented out beside a river and Dogi cooked, and another when rainy weather and a long night drive forced us to resort to a roadside “guanze”. Only Mogi spoke English, but everyone was great company, and I enjoyed our time together immensely: Dogi would chronically smother my protests over too much food with “Eat, eat, eat!”, while Pagi was hilariously obsessed with memorizing the Pilipino expressions I taught them.Good company can be quite important in travelling the Mongolian countryside. The landscape is fabulous, steppe and lakes and forest, and scenes of the pastoral nomadic lifestyle are wonderfully picturesque; but the drives are long – usually up to 8 hours in a day – and can seldom be termed relaxing: the Mongolian roads (if they can be called that!) have to be experienced to be believed: I ended the trip immensely impressed with both the staying power of Russian jeeps and the automotive skills of Mongolian drivers, in driving and in repair work. In a clutch, Pagi’s wizardry with engines was invaluable, but so was the high good humor of the whole company.Overnight accomodations were, three nights out of four, in tourist ger camps – which were all about to close down at the end of the summer season; one, in fact, was officially shut down and we only got in because the couple who ran it were good friends of Mogi. I loved the gers, and they were a godsend against the chill: evenings were invariably very cold, almost wintry. We were equipped with tents, but the one evening we tented out, I froze despite four layers of clothing and two sleeping bags. The gers were especially snug and atmospheric when the iron furnace in the middle was crackling with wood-fed fire. (These were, of course, tourist gers; but, as I found when we visited a couple of home gers, they were not all that differently furnished.) On the morning of our fifth day, we drove from Khovsgol Nuur to Moron, where I was delivered to the local airport for my flight back to UB: I was to be spared the wear and tear of the long drive back. Not so Mogi, Pagi, and Dogi, who were to drive nonstop through the night along more of those roads, to get back to UB with the jeep by the following night. My flight was in an old Russian propeller plane, but, after past trips to Uzbekistan and Georgia, I was blasé about this. (It was on this flight that I learned, two days late, of the shocking World Trade Center tragedy.) After a stop at Bulgan, we got into UB in rainy weather, and I was met by Sanjaa who drove me to Mika Hotel. I also contracted with him a day tour to Manzshir Khiid for the next day, which, despite being sans my old gang, was yet another rewarding day. I was on my own finally afterward and roamed the city center, visiting the Choljen Lama temple and indulging in a Thai dinner. But the following morning, Mogi and Pagi, unfazed by their long drive home, showed up to take me shopping, before a final farewell to Mogi; I would still see Pagi when he came the next morning to drive me to the airport for my flight out. I spent the last afternoon museum-hopping and going on a souvenir spree. ULAAN BAATAR From what I had read of the Mongolian capital, I never expected to much like UB, and was very surprised how enjoyable my time there turned out to be. Perhaps it was the cool bracing weather when I was there, which made it a pleasure to walk about. Certainly part of it was feeling comfortable among the people: I found them on the reserved side – nothing as extrovertedly friendly as in, say, Iran – but approachable and pleasant to deal with. Perhaps because I never got around to any real nightlife, I had no occasion to cope with alcohol-influenced behavior, as per guidebook warnings. The city center was, as I had expected, pretty sterile-looking, dominated by Soviet-style high-rises, many in conditions of decay; the streets are paved, but deteriorating. The center, though, is ringed with suburbs which are surprisingly picturesque: wooden-palisaded compounds enclosing mixtures of traditional white gers and wooden-walled houses that look like something out of a Siberian frontier town; occasionally, the roof of a temple would rise above the cluster. While the center is architecturally drab, I was amazed at how much there was within it that was worth exploring, at least for two or three days. The location of my hotel was perfect, in a neighborhood of embassies and a stroll from most of the attractions. (The Mika Hotel was nothing outstanding; at $30 a night, I found it overpriced by the standards of hotels in Southeast Asia or Latin America. But my room, with private facilities, tv, fridge, was spare but clean, the staff was smilingly friendly, and the price included a full, if eccentric, breakfast which varied each morning, from cold tongue and rice in milk (!) to cornflakes, yoghurt, and cake.) I needed to drive out to visit the Gandan monastery and the Black Market, and I never got to the Bogd Khan Palace; but everything else was walking distance. I was astonished at the wealth of fascinating museums – in particular, the Museum of Natural History, where I was entranced by the rooms of dinosaur exhibits, and the Zanabazar Art Museum, with its gorgeous sculptures and thankas; the Museum of Mongolian History was worthwhile as well, though it grew rather tedious. Just as rewarding was the Choljen Lama temple: I was thoroughly dazzled by the profusion of traditional arts that clogged the main temple, especially the tsam masks. (In fact, I was more impressed by this temple, or rather by its contents, than by the Gandan monastery. The latter was beautiful but inevitably paled against the memory of monasteries I had seen in Tibet.) As a bonus, several of these museums have arts and crafts shops with mouth-watering offerings. Caution is called for, though: I snapped up a beautiful coffee-table book on Mongolian sculptures at the Choljen Lama temple shop for T15000, only to find the same book at the State Department Store for T9500! (The entrance fees are reasonable, ranging from T2000 to T2400. There are exorbitant extra fees, though, for photos – T5000 at the Choljen Lama.)The central point of the city was the vast Sukhbaatar Square, where in late afternoon the young people hang out around the hero’s equestrian statue. On the streets around it are an amazing variety of international restaurants. In my time in UB, I had meals at Los Bandidos (Mexican), Sapphire (Thai), City Café (Chinese), and several times at Khan Brau (European): this last also had excellent beer. They were rather more expensive than I had expected – generally, T5-6000 for a main course and a drink; at Sapphire, where I splurged, the meal cost some T8000. (Interestingly – an indication of the surprising cosmopolitan flavor of UB – the Mexican restaurant was owned by an Indian, the Thai place by a Singaporean Chinese.) Apart from these, I noted Italian, Korean, French, Japanese, and Indian restaurants. Ironically, I never had Mongolian food in UB – I had my fill of this in the countryside. I regretted not having a taste of evening activity in UB. A young German in my hotel advised that the local discos, of which there were plenty, were not worth it; but close to my hotel was an attractive live-music bar River Sounds (with a T5000 cover), recommended by several Mongolians I spoke to; the evening I decided to try it, the featured band was not coming on until 11 pm, and I felt too tired to hang out till then. I did catch, with Mogi, the early evening performance of the Tumen Ekh ensemble at the Children’s Park pavillion: this was, of course, packed with tourists, but nonetheless the display of traditional music and dance, in gorgeous costumes, was superb: especially memorable were the throat-singers and, in an entirely different way, the contortionists.I also did a disgraceful amount of shopping – to be sure, not all of it in UB. In fact, my most prized purchases were at Kharkhorin and Manzshir Khiid, and my shopping in UB was constrained by having already spent too much. But nevertheless it was always a pleasure browsing about all the arts shops and sighing over the stuff I could not afford. As suggested earlier, it was always as well to check out the fourth floor of the State Department Store with its great range of souvenir items where the prices could well be lower for comparable items, though the artistic quality available was far higher in the museum art shops. On my last day, Mogi brought me to the Black Market, away from the city center. Contrary to impressions from my LP, I enjoyed the bustle of this sprawling market. I had no hassles and I liked the completely Mongolian untouristy character. I resisted the temptation to buy a traditional del (what would I do with it back home?), but succumbed to a khan taaz (a traditional-style jacket).DAYTRIPS FROM UBThe daytrip to Terelj was my first view of the Mongolian countryside, and the vistas of endless grassland sweeping away on all sides was entrancing. It was as well a first glimpse of the traditional Mongolian lifestyle, pastoral and to a great extent still nomadic in spirit. We were still of course in the orbit of the capital – Terelj was only some hour and a half drive away, and the road was, by Mongolian standards, a reasonably smooth drive – but already we could have been in another country. White gers dotted the grassland, usually with horses tethered outside, while flocks of sheep and goats wandered the plain. Where we passed small towns, these again had a frontier look, with woodwalled compounds and narrow lanes. The overwhelming impression was of sheer space. Adding to the pastoral flavor was the prevalence in country scenes of the traditional ger attire, especially among horsemen. (I had already seen this attire in UB, but the great majority of cityfolk had been in Western clothes.)We came into Terelj from a hilltop where I beheld my first ovoo, the pile of stones and sundry debris topped by poles fluttering blue bunting of cloth or plastic that would be a staple sight all over Mongolia: these are sacred sites that Mongolians honor by walking around them while casting their own additions to the pile. (I was shocked at seeing empty liquor bottles in the piles, thinking them a sign of careless disrespect, until I was told that these were perfectly acceptable contributions.) From this hilltop, the Terelj valley unfolded below, with the beautiful blue Tuul river winding through it. We drove over the river and through the extensive valley with lovely panoramas around us, punctuated with dramatic rock formations. I had ample time to go hiking about on my own in the area around Turtle Rock and the wooden cabins of a Children’s Village. We had our lunch at the restaurant of the Mirage tourist ger camp, picturesquely set against a background of rugged upland: I walked up there for a spectacular view. It was my first view of a ger camp, and I was enchanted with it; it was here too that I had my introduction to Tibetan food in the form of mutton dumplings (“buuz”) – before the trip was over I would have mutton coming out of my ears.Terelj was a beautiful place and at that time (it was my first stop) I rather wished I was spending an overnight there in the ger camp which had so taken my fancy. It is actually a huge national park, and I was told of attractions within it which could only be accessed on horseback. But it was also the most touristed place I would see in Mongolia: vans and jeeps full of tourists (heavily Japanese) were zipping all about, and horses and camels were on offer for tourist hire – it was here I saw my first Bactrian (double-humped) camel. We dropped in on an “art shop” ger with some lovely stuff, but at ridiculous prices ($150 for a Mongolian painting!). But the tourist pricing aside, the people were charmingly friendly. When I asked a young boy on horseback for a photo, the men standing around rushed into their shop to outfit him in a nomad hat for extra effect, chortling “Chinggis!” As we left the restaurant, the waiter rushed after us outside with the dessert he had forgotten to serve us.It was after I got back from Khovsgol Nuur that I had my other daytrip, to Manzshir Khiid, and I had braced myself for an anticlimax: the monastery was even closer to UB than Terelj (the road was the best I would experience in Mongolia), and the pristine landscapes of Arkhangai and Khovsgol were still fresh in my mind. But this would be, to my surprise, a highlight of my trip. I liked it much more than Terelj. For one thing, there was virtually no other foreigner tourist in sight; instead, there was a crowd of schoolchildren on excursion, who were delightfully friendly, eager to pose for photos (and occasionally practice their English) while their mentors smilingly looked on. But the site itself, while much smaller than Terelj, was stunningly beautiful, and the impact was more impressive. Most of all, the natural beauty was complemented by the monastery. Of course, this was a recent reconstruction, but it was attractive; and the photos on exhibit of the original, much more extensive monastery complex, and the remnant ruins around, brought home poignantly the loss of so much artistic treasure during the Communist era. There was a sense of adventurous discovery as we climbed (behind the students) higher up the hill from the museum ger below to the reconstructed monastery to the still vivid rock paintings in hillside niches farther up, while behind and below us the breathtaking panorama expanded to the horizon. On this daytrip, I had been fetched by a different guide (Mogi and company were still making their way back from Moron), a young man named Amra, the quintessential Mongol yuppie, engaging and articulate (he had grown up in Fiji and studied in India - hence, his perfect English – but had never been outside UB!). Apparently, the tour agency’s personnel were overstretched, and he had been asked to pinchhit by Sanjaa. But he was a mine of information about economics and politics – of course from a UB city boy’s perspective. He was anxious to show me a good time, and took me to lunch, not at the Manzshir Khiid tourist ger camp, but to a “classier” restaurant halfway back to UB, Undul Dov, a multistory concrete eyesore in the middle of the steppe where service, to Amra’s mortification, took ages – though the Chinese food was pretty ok. I thoroughly enjoyed the day.HARKHORINOn the first day of our 5-day excursion, we left UB at about 9:30 am and arrived at our ger camp in Kharkhorin at 6 pm. Of course, it was not nonstop driving. There were photo stops at ovoos, or when we would pass a photogenic herd of Bactrian camels or cattle mingled with yaks or the small sleek Mongolian horses drinking at a pool. We had a long lunch stop in the middle of the open steppe, in bracing cool air and sunshine, with Dogi dispensing prepacked tasty mutton fritters and coleslaw salad. About 3 pm, we detoured off the main road onto a trail through the grassland to get to an incongruous stretch of desert in the midst of the steppe, real sand dunes, where we watched a French film crew shooting Mongols in full costume, and then had great fun climbing up a high dune through soft sand into which we sank calf-deep. (A nice diversion, but of course no substitute for the real Gobi!) Best of all, we stopped at a home ger and visited with an elderly woman, her two small grandchildren, and a neighbor youth, and were offered bowls of airag, horse’s milk, which to my own surprise I discovered myself to have a taste for.Still, for all the diversions, it was a lot of driving time, and, of all the days I spent on the roads of Mongolia, this came closest to tedium. Much of it was through flat, empty plains stretching to the horizon, with less of the rolling terrain that usually lends the steppe a sense of drama. (There were occasional clusters of roadside “café gers”, which I would rather have liked to sample despite qualms about hygiene.) And it seemed that the farther we got from UB, the more the road progressively deteriorated: by early afternoon, the potholes and corrugations in the paved surface had got so bad that Pagi preferred to resort to the dusty unpaved shoulders. But after our stops at the dunes and the airag ger, the landscape became grander and turned into rolling hills as we approached Kharkhorin and the white stupa-lined walls of Erdene Zuu came into sight. We made a detour into the hills to view a sacred phallic rock, then had a quick peek into Erdene Zuu (it was already closed to visitors) – this first glimpse disappointed me: as with the Gandan temple, I could not help comparing it to the temples in Lhasa. Finally, skirting the town of Kharkhorin and passing wood-palisaded homesteads in the open steppe, we came to the Ogodai ger camp.The camp was in the process of closing down for the season (only three gers were occupied), and at first I felt let down, after the livelier Mirage camp in Terelj. But after I had got settled in my ger, I loved the place. The experience of living in a ger, with its snug comfortable appointments, the warmth from the iron furnace, the chill air from the opening in the top, made for a feeling at once homey and exotic. Outside, the open plains stretching off on all sides while the sun set on hills to the west, gave off an atmosphere of lonely exhilaration. And of course it did not hurt that off to one side were cabins with running water, flush toilets, and real hot showers! Dinner, and breakfast the next morning, were in an rustic-atmosphere wooden building, and the pleasant company of my travelmates was a nice tonic against the cold outside. Sleep was wonderful under the thick blankets even when it turned very cold after the furnace had gone out. The visit to Erdene Zuu the next morning changed drastically my impression of this most famous temple in Mongolia. We started off at the museum headquarters building. While Mogi took care of our entrance fees, I browsed the art shops and salivated over the Mongolian paintings, the silk ink paintings, the thankas and Buddhist miniatures, the weapons in beautiful sheaths. An English-speaking guide showed a group of us the stones from medieval Karakorum (the era of Chinggis Khan) with their Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese inscriptions, then led us through the cluster of main temples (now a museum), Chinese in their architecture but lavishly Tibetan-Buddhist in the interiors; there were also rooms full of thankas, wall frescoes, and sculptures from the 17th to 19th centuries. All this gave an awesome sense of the reach and richness of Mongolian history. The best was the Tibetan-style temple way across the monastery compound, the operational temple, where we watched fascinated as two robed monks blew on conch shells to call to prayers and then their fellows filed into the temple to read their scriptures. After our group of tourists had dispersed, Mogi paid for prayers for our safe journey and future prosperity, and we entered the temple to listen to the chants of the monks (most of them very young) among which our prayers were included. The ambience here was nowhere as hieratically exotic as I had witnessed in Tibet, but it was much more accessible, easier to enter into the spirit of the devotions. We exited the monastery compound through a gate in the wall opposite where we had entered, and crossed an open field to the most famous remnant of the Karakoram of the khans, the turtle rock, for the obligatory posed photo. Around here souvenir vendors had spread their wares, and I think it would be a rare tourist who will not end up bargaining for a couple of the miniatures or trinkets. (There were more vendors at the compound gates as we retraced our way.) After a return visit to an art shop at the museum center where I indulged in my splurge on a Mongolian painting, we headed for town to its public market for Mogi and Dogi to shop for food supplies for the rest of our trip- biscuits, nuts, and – what else? – mutton. Interestingly, the open space between the stalls were given over to a host of billiard tables, clearly the pasttime of choice for young men (and not a few young women): no doubt one of the blessings of creeping globalization! ARKHANGAIWe left Kharkhorin at almost noon, and, after crossing the Orkhon River, we entered the aimag (province) of Arkhangai. The first five hours on the road (including the usual hour’s lunch stop) were wonderfully scenic, much more so than the previous day, despite the roads being unsealed, rough, and rutted most of the way. We drove through rolling green country under a perfect blue sky, crossing lovely blue rivers. The birdlife was fabulous: eagles, cranes, magpies flashing their white wing patterns, and a falcon in spectacular flight; white gers dotted the expenses of steppe, and the graceful Mongolian horses were everywhere. Our lunch stop was by a marshy stream (Dogi set to cooking a full hearty meal) where a weathered-faced horseman looking for lost sheep stopped by for an amiable chat (and presented me with a great photo op). Later we rose into uplands and drove into the aimag capital of Tsetserleg, probably the most attractive town I saw in Mongolia, its clusters of wooden compounds nestled under wooded green mountains, its main avenue lined with foliage turning to fall golden colors. We stopped to view the town’s main monastery, where the temple was unfortunately locked up. The road out of Tsetserleg ran up through beautiful high mountains and gold-and-green woods but it also turned into the worst surface we had yet experienced, the jeep lurching through appallingly deep ruts. And when we came down back into the plain, with herds of yaks in view, our vehicle had to undergo its most extended repair work, Pagi spending almost an tedious hour struggling with (I think) a shock absorber – no cause for wonder after the roads we had gone through. When we resumed the drive, our luck began to progressively turn against us: showers began to overtake us, though these were sporadic, and alternated with spells of magical late-afternoon sunlight falling on the steppe; the road conditions grew worse, and the bouncing and jouncing in the jeep became less and less “fun” and increasingly a strain. Worst was the realization that we would not make it to the area of the White Lake (Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur), our objective, till well after dark; and, hastening the onset of the dark, came now steady gloomy rain. As clearly Dogi would not be able to find a spot to cook dinner, we had to resort to a roadside “guanze”, a shack seemingly in the middle of nowhere where a family ran a small restaurant doubling as a “tourist inn” – a room with a leaking roof and a wide, rather lumpy bed represented the latter. (The family themselves, though, lived in a ger adjacent.) I – and Mogi – had qualms about the food, but the mutton soup I had was surprisingly ok, and I even downed a bowl of milky tea. The damp chill notwithstanding – the roof leaks increased while we were there – the atmosphere was cosily friendly. The walls were lined with photos of famous wrestlers, and the family told amusing stories of coming to the assistance of crazy impecunious backpackers who insisted on walking from the White Lake all the way to UB! We got back on the road about 9 pm for a last gruelling couple of hours: the drizzle abated but it was now pitch dark and I did not even have the consolation of the scenery – though we did stop in the middle of what appeared to be a woodland to peer through the headlights at an eerie enormous sacred tree draped in swaths of blue wrappings.Finally, at the ungodly hour of 11 pm, by which time I had completely lost my bearings, we arrived at the ger camp of Mogi’s friends. (We had been supposed to tent out by the lake but given the late hour and the cold, she had thought to resort to her friends’ hospitality.) We arrived to find the camp officially closed down and the owners and staff gathered in a big ger for a late-night, clearly hard-drinking farewell party. It was a convivial scene, and we were prevailed by Mogi’s friends, an attractive young couple, to partake of the vodka; the husband also came over to us to engage in a social ritual involving a snuff box, in which I pretty much made an ass of myself. Thankfully, Mogi, pleading our exhaustion, got us off early, and a couple of gers were opened to accommodate us; and a staff went out of her way to get the furnace going. There was only a candle for light but I was only too eager to retire to the warmth of the bed. The next morning, I discovered that our camp (Pagi said it was called Tsolmon, but I later saw a road sign announcing “Khargo Camp”) was beautifully situated in a plain ringed with low mountains, just then enveloped in mist, though this would lift later. After breakfast prepared by Dogi in their ger, we left, unable to bid goodbye to our hosts, still asleep from the binge; but instead of heading straight to the lake, we first drove up ruggedly volcanic ground to a low volcano, Togoo Uul (according to Mogi). The road, such as it was, only reached a point beyond which Pagi led Mogi and myself up a trail to the summit for some 20 minutes; close to the top, steps were carved into the slope. There were spectacular views of the plains below, clear to the lake in the distance; at the top, we stared into the yawning mouth of the crater. After this diversion, we drove back down to the plain and on to the lake, which burst on us in full view from a rise. The sudden sight of the White Lake was so spectacular that I literally gave out a cry: this was one of the most beautiful views of water that I have seen! Its impact was all the more in that I had not expected it – unlike Khovsgol Nuur, it had not been on my target list of attractions in Mongolia before the tour operator had included it in my itinerary. I now very much regretted not having a full day by its shores, hiking about or just savoring the beauty. There were half a dozen tents pitched on the wide beach by the lake, and, though it must have been very cold there overnight, I envied them waking up to that view and air. We cavorted on the beach (itself enticing to bask on), and clambered about the black volcanic rock formations that abutted into the water. (There was an expensive ger camp to one side; Mogi told me her friends also ran a ger camp here, but it had been taken down for the end of the season.) We got back in the jeep and drove along the perimeter of the lake for some 45 minutes; it seemed that at every turn another breathtaking perspective would open up. We would stop at an imposing rock formation overlooking the lake, or at a large ovoo by the water sheltered within a tent of tall wood branches, or to snap a photo of a smiling family beside their farm cart. Always the sight of the pure glittering water was enchanting : it will remain one of the best memories of the trip. (It was probably as well I came upon it off the tourist season when we could have the illusion of having it almost to ourselves.) It was about 11 am when we turned away from the lake and, crossing a sunlit stretch of steppe (by now we had got so used to the bad roads that we no longer commented on them), rose up to the border of Khovsgol aimag, marked by another ovoo.KHOVSGOL Arkhangai looked like a hard act to top, but Khovsgol would do it – both in the beauty of the landscape and the atrocity of the roads: there seemed to be a direct proportion between the two! I had thought I was by now used to the rough travel, but the next couple of hours as we drove through !the mountains and back down to rolling country, were incredible – there were moments when I was close to feeling terror, half-expecting the jeep to tip over. (I kidded my companions that Mongolia should promote its roads as a tourist attraction in their own right, a form of “extreme sport”.) Yet, through all this the scenery was magnificent – mountains cloaked in colors of gold, russet, and evergreen, cool streams running among the trees; ger-strewn grasslands rising and falling in waves (where, as we passed encampments, large dogs would race along the speeding jeep); eagles and vultures swooping across our path. Down on the lowland, we stopped at a really idyllic small river, running clear and fast through a beautiful small wood, and sat among the smooth rocks on its bank. Soon after this, we stopped at the village of Jadgalant, where the girls shopped for more food supplies; it was a charming frontier-like community of wood houses and shops, where most of the people on the street wore dels. Beyond Jadgalant, road travel became less strenuous for a while, as we crossed another picturesque river, the Ider (which flows to Lake Baikal in Siberia), and returned to broad open steppe. We stopped for lunch in serene and empty grassland with only the occasional horseman cantering by. But after we resumed the drive, we came into mountainous country with snow-covered heights; as we climbed up over a pass, we had to crawl gingerly through vast white expanses of snowfields, the jeep threatening to skid repeatedly. The sheer variety of landscape we had gone through in one day was amazing! The rest of the afternoon, we drove through golden steppe; this far north, camels had virtually disappeared, and horses and yaks were the common sight. Toward 8 pm, with the sun still up, we arrived at the aimag capital of Moron. This struck me as rather attractive, but we only skirted the town and drove out to the open country beside the Delger River where we set up camp on its bank. It was a very nice spot, the sun setting on the river and burnishing the hills across. Here Dogi outdid herself, cooking up delicious buuz on a steamer as dark fell, and I retired into my tent very content. The night, however, was to be so freezing that sleep was difficult and uncomfortable.I was up the next morning ahead of my companions, enjoying the sharp chill while writing in my journal and watching the rising sun light up the town to the east. It was 9 am before we were done with breakfast (excellent mutton samosas) and washing up and started on the final leg to Khovsgol Nuur. This was through more rolling steppe, which I never seemed to tire of, passing a small blue lake, the white gers of herdsmen, and an occasional tent of a camping-out backpacker. We reached the entrance to the national park at noon, but it was almost another hour yet, passing by the village of Khatgal and traversing a seemingly interminable dry riverbed, before we saw below us through a scrim of woods, the vast expanse of Khovsgol Nuur. In contrast to the excited thrill I felt on seeing the White Lake, the sensation this time was more in the nature of a serene peacefulness: the juxtaposition of blue lake and green slopes was quietly lovely. Along the shore road were ger camps, some already closed down; Mogi booked us into the Nature’s Door camp where a number of travellers, mainly European, were still lodged. For the next eight hours or so, we basked in the most restful interlude of our long trip. With the warm early-afternoon sun counteracting the cold air, we picnicked on the grass overlooking the crystal clear lake waters, sunning ourselves while now and again horsemen (and one horsewoman) in del costume rode past us. About 4 pm, Pagi contracted for horses for me and himself for an hour’s ride along the lakeshore and into the woods around, with the horse owner along as guide. It was my first time on a horse since distant childhood days, and I would still be nursing backside sores when I got back home to Manila. But it was very pleasant, with beautiful views of blue waters, white pebbly beaches, and fall foliage; riding into the depths of the woods was especially lovely, and I would have liked to have time to hike there for half a day (and perhaps cope with a ride to visit a reindeer-raising community). After the ride, our new friend extended an invitation to visit his home ger some distance away; but, by the time we decided to walk there, the family had retired to another ger to nap. A grandmother hosted us, though, and again we got to sample nomad dairy delicacies brought out for us. Then it was just lazing about, taking a hot shower, reading out in front of my ger, though the sharp cold soon drove me inside. At 8, we had a high-spirited dinner in the restaurant, Western fare for once (pasta), a nice feeling with the cold outside.Nature’s Door did not have the level of amenities Ogodai had had. Though there were hot showers, toilets were pit-style, and there was no electricity; we made do with candles. (My torch had conked out and it was hassle making my way to the toilet cabin in the early morning pitch dark.) But wood for the ger furnace was more plentifully supplied and assiduously attended to than in other gers. At 5 am, a charming girl knocked to come in to get the fire going again – and to ensure I was awake: we had to have breakfast- delivered by the staff to our gers: breakfast in bed! - and make an early start back to Moron to catch my flight to UB. I felt a pang at leaving, but we were off at 7 am. The drive back was surprisingly fast – and lonely: I do not think we saw a single other person on the road for the first couple of hours. Shortly past 10, we were at the small airport, and two hours later I was on my way back to reality – the real world of terrorist attacks and economic recession. FINALLY…In UB, I arrived at my hotel to see all the national flags at half-mast at the embassies around; and I spent all that rainy afternoon glued to the tv set watching CNN’s coverage of the awful aftermath. Needless to say, the shock of the events half a world away dampened the exhilaration of the past six days. But the sobering consciousness of dark forces in the world could not negate the pleasure of experiencing all the good things to be found in one particular poor and little-known country: in its lovely landscape, its uniquely rich culture, its charming people, even the adventure of its roads. I would continue to enjoy these for the remaining time I had there, and beyond too, even if just in memories, and in hopes of being able to return – to see what I had missed (the Gobi certainly, and perhaps also the West), and also to renew the freshness of those memories.

Other travelogues by the same author: