Ulaanbaatar and the nature next doors

Ulaanbaatar was a breath of fresh air after almost two months in Russia, so very different from the Siberian towns and villages we had been stopping in. I can’t call it beautiful or even pretty, but it has a peculiar energy, something that’s difficult to define. It feels young and fast. Its mish-mash of exteriors combines modern glass skyscrapers with communist concrete blocks and gers, even a few European-looking buildings here and there.

The actual air wasn’t very fresh, however. The city traffic is heavy and during a walk out to Zaisan memorial at the city limit, you could almost feel your lungs turn black. When we left UB to go to the Gobi, the sky was blue enough for us to actually see the smog cloud hover above the city. A lot of the gers use coal for heating, which makes the winter air even worse, we were told.

Most of our time in UB was spent at the Naadam events or planning what to do next, but we managed to stop by the National Museum of Mongolia and the monastery Gandan Khiid, both which we’d recommend.

Sprawling as UB may be, nature is not far away. We took a day trip out to Khustain National Park to see the wild horses called takhi or Przewalski’s horse. It was a grey day with a bit of drizzle but we were rewarded with about 40 horses on the hills around us, some eyeing us cautiously, but most concentrating on food. The takhi was actually declared extinct in the wild in the 1970s, but has been successfully reintroduced in parks in Mongolia and there are now some 500+ wild horses living in the country.

We had put Gorkhi-Terelj National Park on our don’t-do-list after hearing it was a crowded tourist trap, but as our grand plans of heading on a biking adventure further west were squashed by Russian travellers booking all the train beds towards Vladivostok when we wanted them, we had to make some last minute changes or prepare to face uncomfortable visa questions. With only two days left in Mogolia, we headed for Terelj, stopping at the fairly new Genghis Khan statue nearby. The statue was big and shiny – beautiful in a way – but not as imposing as I had expected.

Terelj, on the other hand, was a positive surprise. It sure had more tourists than we had seen in Khustain or Gobi, but most of them were Mongolian, which was a fun change. We used a driver to get out there and around the main sights – a large rock shaped like a turtle and a pretty monastery with a gorgeous view – and he helped us find a guest ger with a family living in what felt like a camping area. The park was full of forests, rivers and small mountains and looked completely different from what we had seen in Khustain and the desert.

On our second day in Terelj we tested just how accurate the Mongolian statement “every car is a taxi” was. Result: Most cars aren’t taxis and if they are, they’re full. When we had been walking down the same road the day before people had stared at us, some drivers even slowing just to get a good look, but now we seemed utterly uninteresting. We finally got a ride to the main part of the park by an older couple on the back of their pick-up truck, the many bends in the road and the wind creating a bit of a roller coaster feel. It was easier the second time. We hardly got down the mountain we had used as lunch spot before a young man asked if we needed a lift to the nearby town of Nalaikh for the same rate as the bus fare. Perfect! In we went, sharing the back seat with a skinny, quiet guy in his early 20s, mutedly jerking his head to “Boys, boys, boys” playing on the radio like he would have wanted to dance his heart out, had it not been for the audience. I’ll miss Mongolia.

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