|Terelj National Park is approximately 55km away from the capital and it was here that we were due to spend a couple of nights camping in the wilderness.
On the way there we stopped at one of the many piles of stones covered in Tibetan prayer flags, which appear all over the place by the side of the road. These grow in size as drivers throw 3 items (usually stones) in to the centre and walk round 3 times – this is for good luck for the onward journey.
Then we stopped for lunch at ‘turtle’ rock and took a stroll to a local monastery (see photos). At 1600m the area is a lot cooler than the city centre and the alpine scenery is magnificent, although tourism has really taken off here and some of the tourist developments really are hard on the eyes. For instance some of the Ger camps have concrete car parks, ugly electricity poles and even discos at night.
However we camped away from these, but to get to our camp site meant crossing quite a large river. But the drivers in their trusty Russian 4-wheel drive vans were confident they could make it. So across the river we went and the first van made it all of half way before it got stuck and the engine filled up with water and stopped! The other drivers seemed unconcerned and in fact just laughed. Later we realized why they were so unconcerned as these vehicles really are quite incredible – when stuck the driver just gets out his cloth, accesses the engine in between the two front seat, starts to mop up the water and then tries the engine again (even with the exhaust still totally submerged in water!). Usually they start back up and off they go again, however this time this did not seem to be working, so the next driver tried another line across the river and made it without any problems and then promptly gave the stuck vehicle a tow. While we were crossing some rather dumb tourists with their local guide tried crossing in the same place in their normal Ford car – needless to say they came a cropper and we promptly had to tow them out as well! The rest of the evening was taken up with eating, drinking and getting to know the group around the well constructed camp fire.
The next day we awoke to some rather dark clouds. Despite this, it was Shaun’s birthday so we decided to make the most of it. So together with some other members of the group, we hired some horses and a couple of guides and went off on a horse ride. However before the horse ride we were invited in to the family Ger for some tea and biscuits (well essentially hot milk with the slightest tint of tea and cheesy curd biscuits) which I quickly past to Peter to drink and Shaun quickly passed his biscuits for Kate to eat. The mother of the family then promptly sang happy birthday in Mongolian for Shaun and then a rendition of a local song. The Gers are slightly different from the Yurts we stayed in in Kyrgyzstan, in that they have raised floors with lino and the side wooden supports are straight (they were steam bent in Kyrgyzstan) which meant that they did not have such a high ceiling level. The whole place also smelt of dairy which wasn’t the nicest!
Shaun yet again seemed to get the best (and liveliest) horse and he had a great time cantering and galloping in the wide open plains, whilst my horse had to be towed by the guide! However it was great to be out in the countryside and although it started to rain quite heavily on the way back the scenery was fantastic. We arrived back drenched at our campsite and in fact the rain got heavier and heavier and went on for most of the afternoon, so the for the rest of Shaun’s birthday we played board games in our tent! The rain did eventually relent and the boys (and Martine) then made a camp fire and we spent the rest of the evening sitting round the fire eating and drinking whilst the drivers went off to find a safe place to cross the river.
The next morning we awoke to find the river level had increased dramatically and was dangerously close to overtopping the banks and coming into our tents . The driver’s confidence the night before had quickly changed and it was no longer safe to cross the river where we were. So we quickly packed up the camp and set off down the valley in our trusty Russian vehicles to find another crossing. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing as the journey back was great and we got to see a lot more of this dramatic scenery. This was in fact a strictly protected area so there were no garish tourist Ger camps just local ones and lots of greenery as far as the eye could see. After finding some locals who safely saw us traverse the river we could see a statue in the distance. As we got closer the scale of the statue soon became apparent – it was massive and of course it was of the hero again – Ghengis.
Then it was back to Ulaan Bataar for some more good western food and drinks and a well needed hot shower.