I’ve been lots of places in the past, off the beaten track a few times, but Mongolia does seem to be a bit trickier than most to get things done. I don’t think it helps that we are here at the very outer edge of the tourist season, as a lot of places seem to close their doors by the start of September.
Best-laid plans go to waste, but that’s fine, as good alternatives often present themselves. We’d planned to come back from the Gobi on a flight from Dalanzadgad however it actually emerged that we’d over-estimated the time there so found our way back by bus, no great hardship.
This meant that we were able to fit in an overnight trip to Hustai National Park. Reasonably close to UB but not easily reachable by public transport, this meant taking a car and driver from UB overnight. I’d tentatively rung Sixt to enquire about self-drive car hire, but it was 50% more expensive. Excluding fuel and the slightly scary insurance situation whereby I’d be on the hook for 25% of any accident costs… Go figure.
Hustai is the home of the Preswalski’s Horse, or Takhi in Mongolian. These died out in the wild and the last examples languished in several zoos and wildlife parks around the world, however have now been re-introduced to the National Park in one of the most successful repopulations ever. 30 foals each year are now born within the Hustai herd. These are the ancestor to the modern horse and, unlike the previously domesticated “wild” horses in the UK and America are a completely different species.
The driver dropped us at a decent point within the park and we started hiking. Heading towards a wooded gully we startled a couple of resting deer who bolted, whilst no doubt swearing at us in deer language, and more concerningly, a fricking wolf. Luckily it ran in the opposite direction. Beautiful to see at slightly less close quarters I’d imagine. I was comforted by the Sarah’s confident assertions that she could “probably take” a wolf though, provided there was only one.
Our efforts were not in vain, and we found a couple of the elusive horses sheltering from the sun. A really special moment, succeeding where a lot of the other cars roving the park had failed. I’d love to upload a picture but it’s currently trapped by virtue of my broken SD card reader.
Our bed for the night was in a “guest ger” just outside the Park entrance. Hustai’s tourist lodge is expensive even by “Western” standards so the choice was a bit of a no-brainer since the guest ger was about £15 for both of us. This also meant that we got to walk/sneak into the posh compound to use their showers too. #winwin. Unfortunately the guest ger was by far the least hospitable we stayed in during our time in Mongolia, dinner comprised of a bowl of rice and milk for Sarah and a dodgy fried rice dish for me, with no drink of any description nor any breakfast- A little disappointing given that the nomads in the Gobi managed to whip up a feast with very limited resources and dozens of miles from water supplies!
We also completely failed in our quest to secure a horse ride that evening as the driver promised to sort it then completely disappeared until the next morning.
So, we hotfooted it back to UB to catch our mid-afternoon flight to the Altai Mountains… NOPE
The Mongol Factor again intervened. Due to high winds in Altai there would be no flight for 2 days. Tail between our legs, we got a taxi back to the hostel in UB and planned our next move. This was a massive disappointment as I had a great trip booked in Altai including a hike to a mountain base camp and visits to eagle hunters, stays with Kazakh herders and all sorts. Ho hum. When we discussed this with a tour guide he said it was very common around this time of year.
Luckily the next day we managed to get a full refund on the flights, sorted out some other local admin and after another brilliant Korean meal with a Mongolian friend got the info about how to get to Terelj National Park the next day.
Quite why we’d missed this out from earlier deliberations I don’t know. What a fantastic place, and one of my highlights so far. We had been very keen not to take the tourist copout taxi this time, so identified the bus required and just caught it… Just. Running down the street avec rucksac just. Arriving at Terelj village 2 hours later we turned to Lonely Planet and decided to try Bert’s, a place run by an “eccentric” Dutchman and his Mongolian wife. [Side note- It really, really grips my shit when people are described as eccentric in guidebooks. He’s a guy with a patch of land in a beautiful valley and a beautiful country with a wife and 2 great sons- Surely he’s just got life right?!?]
The trip to Bert’s was a little experimental. Lonely Planet’s instructions included crossing streams on logs and then walking along an electricity line until you reach Pole 35, etc. Along the way we collected a friend. Pete the Dog, as we called him, bizarrely seemed to live at Bert’s place. I say bizarre because he was waiting for us at the first bridge from the village 2.5km away. I’d really like to have adopted/stolen Pete/Petra as they were lovely. It was not to be.
Bert’s is well recommended. We had a brilliant 2 days there doing sod all other than relaxing, hiking and horseriding. Bert has cows and makes his own cheese, so the food is brilliant, by far the best I’ve had in Mongolia. There is also lots of it, at every meal. In total we ended up paying about £50 each for 2 nights accommodation, 6 meals and a morning’s horseriding. Bargainous. They didn’t even mind that I tried to burn the ger down one night due to my over-enthusiastic stocking of the stove and consequent flames shooting out of the chimney. Eeek.
So, it was time to bid a sad farewell to Bert and family, and some lovely relaxation time. On the way back to Terelj we managed to fit in a bit of rafting. It wasn’t quite the whitewater experience I’d envisaged and the water was seriously low, but a fun trip in any case.
The trip back to UB was good fun. We were determined to maintain the bargain basement travel of the trip out (about £1 for the 90km bus trip) and it didn’t disappoint. Our first steed was a Toyota Hiace minibus to the nearest town, which impressively fitted 23 people in at one point. We then transferred to a big bus for the final stretch, with an overall fare a wallet busting 75p each. #Thriftytimes. Sitting in a packed minibus brought back fond memories of Africa… The Hiace is an universal vehicle!
So, a final couple of nights in UB before the train to China. Thankful to be back in relative civilisation for a while, we stocked up on coffee and actual food, meeting Mongolian friend Sara for a final few drinks and a trip to a posh nightclub. Eeek.