Our ‘On The Road Updates’ are short little memories from some of the previous tours we have run. To set the scene for this one, we were driving from Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Ulgii Aimag – Mongolia’s westernmost province on one of our research trips. Our research trips are our way of getting to explore and discover parts of Mongolia that we know and want to get to know better with the possibility of putting this knowledge into our small group and tailor-made experiences. It’s also a chance for the local Mongolian people we work with to show us the hidden side to their home. We were joined by a couple of long-term friends of EL – Ross, and John.
The following excerpt is from John. Having visited in 2009 and 2012 (I enjoyed the remoteness, the feeling of immense space, the secluded camping and the great balance between programmed experiences and the freedom to explore independently’), John decided that maybe he had time to make a final visit to Mongolia on our trip to the Altai (‘the prospect of the ‘unknown’ certainly excites me’).
We spend the night in the small settlement of Erdenekhairkhan (Jewel Mountain) which doesn’t quite live up to its name, in a small hotel which is quite comfortable from our experiences, but quite a culture shock for our Italian friends who are experiencing a Mongolian hotel for the first time. After a drink or two, however, they settled in for a warm and comfortable night. There are only six beds in the hotel – the rest have been taken off to the hospital for some elderly folk to have a week or two of respite – so Jess and Turuu sleep on the floor.
The next 180 kilometres of our journey takes us across a vast expanse of high, remote plains which become more and more arid the further we go. We see only one other vehicle on the road, no more than a dozen gers and very few livestock. Probably as numerous as the gers are small pump houses with concrete troughs for stock as there appears to be no evidence of surface water. Great excitement is aroused at one point when I think I see a pack of wolves in the distance. I am only a little disappointed to discover that they are in fact black-tailed gazelle. While widely distributed, their numbers are small and they are a rare sighting.
We are constantly fascinated by the immense range of colours in the distant bordering hills, from black through various shades of grey, brown, orange and beige to almost pure white, often mingled together in the one range. Occasionally, away to the east, are glimpses of the Khangiy River still bordered by yellow sand dunes.
We eventually cross the river on another ‘interesting’ bridge at the small town of Urgamal. The river is now quite broad and although mostly quite shallow is flowing strongly and we follow its northerly course into the Great Lake Depression to camp the night on the stony shore of Lake Khyargas, the second largest of the areas salty lakes.
Next morning sees us crossing a huge expanse of Gobi-like gravel with the spectacular permanently snow-capped peaks within the Tsambagarav Uul National Park as a backdrop. At up to 4200 metres, they give rise to a number of glaciers which can be clearly seen as we get closer. Our route eventually picks up the large river Khovd and we also pick up a couple of hitch-hikers whose motorbike has broken down. The river leads us through a steep-sided gorge before opening out onto broad river flats densely clothed in trees resplendent in late autumn colours. We again cross the Khovd where it emerges from the RAMSAR listed freshwater Lake Achit which still has many birds even this late into autumn, and head southwest towards the town of Olgiy, home of the now quite famous Eagle Festival. The people from this region, while Mongolian, are Kazaks, and we notice subtle differences in the shape of the gers –more pointed roofs – and the character of the town with many flat-roofed dwellings so typical of central Asia.