Solo Vehicle Dependent Exploration, Travel & Adventure

Mongolia – Part I: The Wild West

How we scraped through the border to make the national Naadam festival, stumbled upon Kazakh eagle hunters, found hidden petroglyphs and met the ‘Frenchies’

Kyrgyzstan had been eclipsed by Tajikistan, in terms of hospitality and friendliness. But now we were entering Mongolia, a land famous the world over for it’s unmatched hospitality and warmth. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face as we crossed through the border, the excitement hard to contain.

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I had been looking forward to this moment from the moment we had decided to leave the UK. We were finally here! We were a little apprehensive as the Russians would only let people through until about 3.30pm (the Mongolian border closed at 5pm). On top of that it was the weekend before Mongolia’s biggest annual event, Naadam festival, so it would be closed for a few days after. The actual border crossing was a little shambolic and the officials were not much help, but eventually we made it through.

Griff’s back was hurting so I got to drive the first afternoon and we headed east towards Ulaangom and nearby Uvs Nuur (lake). The lake is large and extremely saline, with unique characteristics, and is home to many waterbirds and rare animals such as the snow leopard. It is so ecologically important it has been given UNESCO World Heritage status, another one we wanted to add to our list!

As soon as we reached the first village we were accosted by the local Kazakh nomads on motorbikes trying to show us the correct “road” which was near on impossible to see. So we accepted help from one only to be led to his yurt & invited in for tea. Griff was in agony & could barely sit so we didn’t stay. Unfortunately, contrary to the Mongolian reputation, it was to be one of very few invitations. But as we left we were led straight into a swamp, which we very nearly got stuck in. Luckily my “expert” off road skills made light of it…OK I admit it was with a heavy right foot!

We set up camp by a river early in the afternoon to give Griff’s back a rest from the bumpy road, intending on a quick dinner & early bed. But before we could even get the kettle on a friendly young Kazakh arrived on his horse. There is a huge Kazakh nomad community in the north west region living in yurts & herding their sturdy horses. They are given their own horse at a young age & develop a strong bond with it, and our new friend was definitely at one with his. No saddle, just a bit of rope for a bridle was all he needed. He left only to return shortly after with friends in tow on their “steeds” – Chinese motorbikes complete with flashing lights and speakers! After the impromptu disco, we regretfully declined an invitation to watch a local kickboxing match and we finally got to bed.

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The following day Griff’s back had not improved so we had no choice but to miss out the lakes and head south towards the much closer town of Ölgii, capital of Bayan-Ölgii aimag (province) to find a pharmacy. We had ditched the drugs we’d brought with us before reaching Uzbekistan due to known problems with the authorities there. We weren’t too worried at the time! After a mixed day of hot sun, snow, thunder (we even saw lightening hit the ground in front of us – very dramatic!) and torrential rain we were surprised to find freshly laid tarmac a few miles before we reached the town. Equally surprising were ATMs and mobile-toting, Facebooking locals, considering what we’d read about this most remote part of Mongolia. The streets were glum and completely flooded so we holed ourselves up in a basic hotel (still better than the others – friendly staff, an en-suite “bathroom” and no leaky roof) and waited out the next few days for Griff (and the weather) to improve. In the meantime I was attacked by a huge steel rolling gate and almost put myself out of action too!

Crossing through Aimags, this short pass threw up all the weather imaginable.

Crossing through Aimags, this short pass threw up all the weather imaginable.

We were worried about missing Naadam, as it was due to begin shortly. Griff’s condition had improved and with no sign of the festival in Ölgii we made our way to Khovd, the large capital of the Khovd aimag. On our journey through Altai Tavan Bogd National Park we came across one of the nomadic Kazakh eagle hunters, who continue the tradition of training golden eagles to hunt animals such as wolves and foxes for food and clothing. We also saw a family with their eagle on a post outside their ger (yurt) who allowed us to take photos for a donation. It is probably going the way that these eagles will be used more for photo opportunities than hunting as the tradition is dying out and times are getting harder for the nomads of the region.

Kazakh Eagle

Golden Eagle used by Kazakhs for hunting

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We also learned from other travellers that in fact Ölgii was not holding Naadam at all, as there had been an outbreak of “animal plague” although we had no idea which one (the bubonic plague is still prevalent in parts of Mongolia among others). As a result, the western border with Russia had been closed and Naadam had been cancelled in the area. The authorities were also restricting access into and out of the region for three weeks so we were thankful we had left already – three weeks was our total time limit in Mongolia. The car had to be disinfected by someone resembling a Ghostbuster on our way to Khovd, & we were also cleansed – mouth, feet and hands! Obviously dubious about letting someone spray a random liquid into our mouths, the official reassured us – by spraying into his friend’s mouth. We were disinfected again on entry to the city but at least we weren’t stuck in Ölgii, which was less than charismatic. Khovd was a huge improvement, with space alongside the river for free camping and a stadium.

There are three events involved in Naadam – wrestling, horse-racing and archery, but wrestling is the most popular and held in the stadium. Food, clothes and toy stalls surrounded the arena, and the stadium buzzed with excitement. I was in my element! The wrestling was colourful, with pairs of men in traditional wrestling dress – red and blue satin underpants and cropped jackets – in various degrees of hugging for ten minutes or so, before moving on to another hug elsewhere. Occasionally someone got the upper hand and a tussle ensued before the victor wrestled the loser to the ground. Winners caps were awarded, and victory eagle dances were paraded around the Mongolian standard. There are no weight classes for the wrestling so usually the larger men win. All the while the crowd roared, and although we were among the very few westerners present who clearly hadn’t quite understood the gravity of what was happening, we clapped and cheered too. The hourly changing of the guard around the standard was an added spectacle, but we assumed it was to stop the guards suffering heat exhaustion more than anything else!

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We had gotten a little bored by mid afternoon and decided to look for the horse racing and the archery. This was not as easy as you might think. After answers varying from today, tomorrow and yesterday, here, there and somewhere else, it became apparent that no-one really knew the schedule for Naadam. We got chatting to a French couple, Ivan and Katia ( who had heard the horse racing was possibly 25km out of town the following day. We teamed up to find out more, roaming around the town investigating each (false) lead. Eventually a young girl who spoke a little English asked one of the officials, and found out that the archery was the previous day. We were so disappointed!

Later that afternoon an American ex-pat told us where the horse racing would be: “Go to the airport, follow the dirt road on the right hand side of the big rock directly behind the airport for about 15km, it’s down there somewhere”. Great, that’s how you get directions in Mongolia. Roads are vague, and signposts are almost non-existent! We had been told 6, 7, 8 and 9 am for start and finish times but the American could only verify it was the next morning. A French-Canadian family in their motorhome joined the search along with Michael from Germany on his motorbike, who had camped with us the previous night by the river. So we had a Land Rover, a Land Cruiser, a Ford F250 with slide on camper and a Yamaha Tenere racing down the road to the right of the airport that evening, trying to find some clue as to where the racing would be. Once it became apparent that there were several roads, quite a few rocks, and not much else to distinguish a site, we decided the best plan would be to set up camp not too far from the airport before the usual evening thunderstorms kicked off and then wake up early to see where everyone else was going… and follow. 

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Our gamble paid off. At 6.30am we heard roaring engines and peeked out of the tent to see cars from all directions criss-crossing the landscape heading in a vague direction to the south. We decided to join in the excitement and follow, but the rest of the group stayed put and hoped to see it from the top of the rock we camped next to. We packed up and before long we were whizzing along, amongst cars with flags flying and locals on their horses. It was like the whacky races, and the excitement was contagious! A few kms along we saw the huge crowd and lines of cars marking the finish line for the race. We parked up at the end of the row, set up our chairs and waited. And waited.

While we waited some prospective buyers came to inspect our car, regardless of how many times we told them it wasn’t for sale! Doors were getting opened, bumpers were tapped, trailer flaws pointed out. It was very bizarre! Finally, a few hours later, the horses started to come into view in the distance after riding between 15km and 30km, depending on the age category of the horse. Only children aged between 5 and 12 years old can compete in the horse racing to prove the stamina of the horse and it’s willingness to race. The young jockeys rode their horses hard, dust kicking up behind them. The crowd went crazy, and the winning horse got engulfed in an adoring swell of people. It was all over in about ten minutes!

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Next on our itinerary was a visit to the cave paintings at Tsenkheriin Agui, on the edge of the Khar Us National Park. Armed with a vague map and an even vaguer guidebook (we weren’t fans of the Bradt guide we were using) we eventually came across a track that was a possible route to the cave. It was a typical Mongolian track, getting harder to follow the more we followed it, but it was worth following just for the glimpse of the rare Mongolian saiga antelope fleeing into the distance at the sound of our engine. It went like a whippet! With a little help from a local family we eventually came across the cave, way up high in the cliff face. The entrance looked small from the ground but once we climbed up to it a huge cavern opened out. We had to climb into little nooks to see the prehistoric paintings of mammoths and bird-like creatures from about 13000 BC, which was made more difficult by the thick layers of bird poo covering the rocks! We camped by the river at the base of the cave that night, along with a pair of Canadian bikers going in the opposite direction.

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The next morning we left late after doing the laundry and having an amazing outdoor shower, before the mosquitoes joined in. Water was going to get scarcer from now on as we were heading south towards the Gobi.

Our shower/washing set-up

Our shower/washing set-up

On our way south we stopped at a “roadside cafe”, i.e. someone’s house where they served up salty milky tea (which we never acquired the taste for) and some kind of beef noodle broth. It was ok, but food was not and never will be why people visit Mongolia. But places to find food are few and far between so you wolf down whatever you can get. After a long day’s driving we parked up behind some shallow road escarpments just off the track and watched owls swooping around the car.

We arrived in Altay the following day in another torrential downpour, and stopped to eat. After unsuccessfully trying to decipher the menu we settled for more Khuushuur (deep fried mutton dumplings) and buuz (steamed mutton dumplings) which is the staple for bewildered foreigners everywhere in Mongolia. Not long after, we bumped into the Frenchies and French Canadians parked up in the centre of town. Ivan and Katia were heading in the same direction as us and asked if we wanted to team up to head out into the desert and to the “secret canyon” they had been told about. Naturally we obliged and so started the Britan-Welsh celtic love affair that was Griff and Ivan. More to follow…

First night with the 'Frenchies' - cue vodka drinking 'til the small hours

First night with the ‘Frenchies’ – cue vodka drinking ’til the small hours

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