Mongolia: Steepes, Deserts & Nomads
Ulaan Baatar to Ulaan Baatar
Rolling steppe of Central Asia make way to stark desert; small nomadic ger camp pepper this vast land where camels and goats are herded on horseback, fermented mare’s milk is the tipple of choice, sand dunes are known to ‘sing’ and the first intact dinosaur eggs were found. Genghis Khan went forth from here on horseback to conquer the biggest land empire in history and, to this day, Buddhist and Animist traditions mix. In July, all over the country, people come together to compete in wrestling, archery, horse-racing and ankle bone flicking during the Naadam Festival but traditions can be witnessed throughout the year. We travel through steppe, mountain and the Gobi desert exploring the nature and culture of this fascinating, yet little known, country. Please note Nadaam Festival departures are 2 days longer, to view the Nadaam itinerary click on the link next to the date under ‘dates & prices’.
Ulaan Baatar | Khustain Nuruu National Park | Karakourm | Bayan Gobi
• 11 nights accommodation in a Ger camp
• two nights accommodation in a hotel room
• all meals
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Day 1 | Start Ulaan Baatar
Those not travelling with the group from London will join us at the hotel. The scheduled flights normally arrive early evening. People who arrive early in Ulaan Baatar can explore some of the city’s sites including UB’s main square: Sukhbaatar Square, the National Museum and the landmark State Department Store.
Day 2 | Khustain Nuruu N.P.; trek to see Przewalski's horses; overnight in ger camp
Before leaving UB we visit the Gandan Monastery, the largest functioning lamasery in Mongolia and the seat of Buddhist studies in the country. Here we may see monks praying and the 20m gold and bronze statue of Migjid Janraisig.
We then drive on the main road westwards towards Karakorum, making a detour to the Khustain Nuruu National Park, 2 hours west of Ulaan Baatar. Khustain Nuruu is famous for the re-introduction of Mongolia's wild horse. The Takhi Horse (also known as the Przewalski's horse) was once native to Mongolia and almost became extinct earlier in the 20th century. Through the efforts of several Mongolian and international organizations, these magnificent wild horses now roam in the steppes of the national park once again. We will visit the Project Information Centre and take a guided hike to see the wild horses. Tonight will be our first night staying in gers, traditional Mongolian felt tents.
Day 3 | Drive to Little Gobi Desert; visit Khogno Khan Mountain; opportunity for bird and wildlife watching
We continue our journey westwards towards Karakorum along an asphalt road, travelling at an easy pace. Today's destination, the Mongol Els or 'Little Gobi Desert' as it is known, is a unique belt of sand dunes in the steppe. Arriving at lunch, we check into a nearby ger camp before heading out to explore the surrounding region. Bactrian (two-humped) camels wander the desert dunes as horses graze on green steppe nearby - an incredible sight. We will visit nearby Mt Khogno Khan and the small temple at its base. This region is also renowned for its birdlife, including steppe eagles.. We return to camp in the late afternoon.
Day 4 | To Karakorum; visit Erdene Zuu Monastery
Today we have a short (90km) drive to the 13th century capital of the Mongol Empire - Karakorum. Karakorum was established by Ogedei Khan and remained the Mongols power base until Khublai Khan established Beijing as the capital. Erdene Zuu (Hundred Treasures) monastery was the largest Monastery in Mongolia, built in 1586 under the direction of Abtai Khan on the ruins of the ancient capital. Much of the monastery was destroyed during Stalin's purges of the 1930's, but an impressive wall with 108 stupas and a number of temples still remain. After lunch, we visit the monastery, the modern Karakorum Museum and the surrounding area
Day 5 | Morning visit to monastery; along northern edge of Gobi Desert to Arvaikheer via Shankh Monastery
We continue along the paved road to Arvaikheer, the capital of Ovorkhangai Aimag on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert. On the way we will visit the Shankh Monastery, once the home of the great Mongolian theologist Zanabazar. We should arrive at Arvaikheer during the middle of the afternoon and check in to our hotel. In the afternoon there will be time to visit the local museum, which contains nature collections, stone figures and Turkic scripts and possibly go to a local market.
Day 6 | To Bayan Gobi via Mt Ikh Bogd
Today is a long day as we head properly off the tourist route into some of the wilder parts of the Gobi Desert. After an early breakfast we start our journey and rapidly leave the tarmac behind. The landscape changes as we head deeper into the Gobi and the majestic Ikh Bogd Mountain should be visible in the distance, the highest mountain in the Gobi Altai Mountain Range. Eventually, after about 9 hours travelling (with stops) we will arrive at our Ger Camp in the wilderness. This is the longest day’s driving but is also a definite highlight of the trip as we pass through some of Mongolia’s most spectacular scenery.
Day 7 | See rock paintings; explore region of Bayan Gobi
After going over a desert pass and visiting the quartz rich ‘White Cave’ our journey continues through classic Gobi desert scenery of flat stony plains mixed with small rocky outcrops and patches of sand across the Khatan Suudal Steppe. We stop for a picnic lunch on the way, with views of Arts Bogd mountain to the north. We head off to the Kongoriin Els sand dunes and arrive there in the late afternoon.
Day 8 | Visit 'singing' sand dunes, the largest dunes in Mongolia
We have a full day to explore the sand dunes and surrounding area. The Khongoriin Els stretch for 200km and are as high as 300m in places. They are known as the 'Singing Dunes' because of the beautiful sound that resonates through the dunes on a windy day. The South Gobi has 100,000 camels, typically used by herders for transportation of their gers. We will have the opportunity today to visit a camel breeding family and get a glimpse of the way of life of the nomadic herders of these parts.
Day 9 | Travel through rocky plains of Gobi Gurvansaikhan N.P.
This morning we will drive through the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. Gobi Gurvansaikhan means 'Three Beauties of the Gobi' and this range marks the eastern end of the Gobi Altai mountain range. The park's landscape is extremely varied, with rocky and sandy desert plains, precipitous cliffs and ravines, salt pans and oases. We visit a spectacular natural sight of this region - Yolyn Am. Yolyn Am means Vulture's Mouth and is a canyon so deep and narrow that even in the height of summer winter ice can remain on the valley floor. This region is also renowned for the diversity of its wildlife and many endangered species can be found here, including Khulan, Ibex, Argali and elusive Snow leopards. We visit a local museum and explore the canyon before transferring to a nearby ger camp for dinner and overnight.
Day 10 | Hiking around the 'Flaming Cliffs' of Bayanzag
Today we have time to relax in our luxury ger camp. Either in the morning or afternoon we take a short drive to Bayanzag (70 km). Known as the Flaming cliffs, the red/ochre colour can be striking and we have the opportunity for a short hike amongst colourful sands of red, yellow and orange. Bayanzag is a world-renowned dinosaur fossil exploration site, discovered in the 1920s by Mongolian and American palaeontologists. We are free to explore the region and may even be lucky enough to spot dinosaur fossils. We later return to our ger camp.
Day 11 | Fly to Ulaan Baatar; on to Terelj National Park
We leave the Gobi Desert behind and fly back to Ulaan Baatar. Depending on what time our flight is will determine what time we get back to Ulaan Baatar. Upon arrival at Ulaan Baatar we’re picked up by our bus and drive to Terelj National Park. Though only about 60kms away, traffic is the main determining factor as to how long this journey takes.
Terelj National Park is a large protected area of green mountain meadows filled with edelweiss and other wild flowers. The contrast to the Gobi desert which we have just come from is striking and it feels like being in a different country.
Tonight we have our final night sleeping in a ger.
Day 12 | Terelj National Park; Genghis statue; Ulaan Baatar
This morning we visit the Tibetan-style Aryabala temple, a meditation centre located on a mountain side with sweeping views over the national park. As we follow the walk up to the temple there are inspirational sayings on placards every few steps. The climb to the temple is not difficult but does involve many steps and can be tiring.
We later visit the giant Genghis Khan statue at Tsonjin Bolog. Standing 40m tall, the statue depicts the Mongolian ruler astride his horse and sits atop the visitor’s centre (itself 10m tall). It is possible to climb up onto the horse’s head to get a closer look of Genghis Khan’s face.
We finally make our way back to Ulaan Baatar. This evening we have the option of attending a local song and dance performance at the National Academic Drama Theatre (US$10) before going out for our last meal.
Day 13 | Depart Ulaan Baatar
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