A couple of weeks ago we had a week off – the equivalent of the Easter break – and due to our pending Norton adventure in June, and the cost and awkwardness of non-direct flights we decided we would stay in Mongolia and explore a little on our own by hiring a car.
Day 1 – Khustai National Park – 100km
After signing all the usual paper work and checking for one final time the route on Google maps, we set off for the first time under our own steam in Mongolia. No taxi drivers to pay, no strange conversations using non verbal gestures, just us in a very nice, clean car on our own to venture wherever we wished. The car was automatic so I did a little practice, up the school driveway, into a space and then out onto the 3 lane highway that passes school. Next issue, a roundabout where we needed to go all the way round and head back the way we’d come. Problem is in Mongolia when driving, no one gives way to you, they rarely use their indicators and they obviously go to a special school of driving that teaches them that they can swap lanes as much as they like, how to squeeze into spaces that really aren’t there and to treat it all as if just playing a computer car driving program, well, that’s what it feels like anyway. The roundabout has a strange priority system on it where you have to stop and give way to traffic entering the roundabout at one point. I safely negotiated it and after another roundabout in about 5km there were no more junctions to worry about, just a fairly straight, one lane road, that looked fairly freshly tarmacked that should take us to the park. I had thought it would take at least 2 hours and all was going well for about 30km until on the edge of a little settlement the road literally ran out (sadly I never took a photo) but the tarmac just stopped and turned to gravel and mud. We must have missed a turning I said but neither of us could remember any junctions that we’d passed and were sure that when we looked on Google maps it was just one road. We stopped and asked a few people – or pointed at the Mongolian writing for Khustai Park in our Lonely Planet book. They shook heads but then a man with very limited English called his wife who did speak English so she could tell us that he thought we were on the wrong road but he didn’t know where the right one was. Along trotted a herdsmen on his horse who after being questioned said we were on the right road after all. We decided to go with it and continued along the road which was actually now just a track across mountains and along valleys.
After about half an hour we passed through another settlement and found it hard to believe that people lived in such isolated places. The snow had cleared from the mountains but the thought of living here in the depths of winter was unimaginable. We continued on and stopped for a lunch break, which was very windy and colder than we thought.
At this point we decided that we wouldn’t continue as we weren’t convinced we were on the right road, although due to the nifty little compass direction device on the rear view mirror we knew we were travelling in the right direction. We called up maps on my phone and located a road to head towards, the quickest route being to leave the track we were on and then just travel across grasslands. After 10 minutes I asked Pete to check if we were close to the road we were looking for, which is when we discovered we’d already passed the ‘road’ and it was actually just another track. We headed back to the city and enjoyed a well deserved take away for tea. We then looked on Google maps and found out that we were on the right road, the main road to the park but had at least another 50km to go so were relieved we turned around.
We headed to familiar ground this time, Terelj National Park. We have headed in this direction 5 or 6 times before but never under our own steam. We visited the magnificent Chinggis Khan on horseback statue – as amazing now as I remember it on our induction visit.
Some horse statues had been added around the foreground and we had a picnic overlooking the vast plains that surround the sight. We then headed to Turtle Rock and climbed right to the centre where people leave money and gifts as offerings to their Gods. We then headed to a 5 star hotel to enjoy a milkshake – quietest hotel I have ever been to – a bit like a deserted ship wreck. We returned to the city via another supermarket to stock up on essentials whilst we had our own wheels.
Day 3 – Bogd Khan Foothills
We stayed local on day 3, just a gentle stroll up a hill, through some forests before returning to one of our favourite restaurants for a late lunch. It was nice to have the tiniest bit of dampness in the ground under the trees and in places there was still some ice under the pine needles. It reminded us of forest walks in the UK and also gave us a great view back down over the city.
We loved having the car, it gave us a little bit of freedom, helped us to see more of the Mongolian countryside and cemented the thought that Mongolia is a beautiful, vast and harsh landscape unlike anywhere else. Even though the vastness reminds me of the Australian outback, there is something unique about Mongolia that makes it quite different.