Trans Siberian Railway: Mongolian Excursion

Life has been very busy the past few months so sorry for the disappearance. I do promise I will finish these Trans Siberian posts at some point.

For this post, I’m going to talk about my time in Mongolia. I had visited Mongolia before in 2011 for a month as part of a study abroad trip and knew that I wanted to come back. Mongolia is probably the most beautiful place I’ve visited. This rugged, mutton-filled, semi-nomadic country is definitely worth a visit. My friend and I knew that we wanted to spend a good chunk of time in Mongolia and ultimately decided on 16 days but could’ve stayed for longer.

We planned our entire Trans Siberian trip to make sure that we would be in Mongolia for its national festival, Naadam which took place from July 11-13 with local celebrations going on all over Mongolia before July 11.  Naadam is a traditional festival in Mongolia where people compete in wrestling, archery, and horse racing. We also knew that we wanted to spend a good chunk of time outside of Ulaanbaatar. We ended up booking a 10 day excursion through a friend’s contact. My friend lived in Ulaanbaatar for a year and connected me with a travel company that he knew to be trustworthy. Most other people we encountered though, booked excursions through their hostels. It seemed like it was pretty easy to book excursions pretty last minute as well. Prices of course will vary depending on how big your group is. Bigger groups are cheaper and if you’re willing, you could book excursions with other travelers. My friend and I decided to book an excursion with just the two of us, which ended up being quite pricey. Mongolia has gotten a lot more tourist friendly since when I was first there in 2011 but it’s still difficult to get around the country. At minimum, you will need a driver to take you wherever you want to go. We ended up having a very nice couple who served as our guides as well as our driver and cook. The price of our tour included everything except for things like souvenirs.

My friend and I spent a night in Ulaanbaatar and were off on our excursion the next morning. If you’re planning on traveling in Mongolia, and going outside of Ulaanbaatar, be prepared to rough it a little. My friend and I are very used to camping and knew that we would mostly be sleeping in tents. We had very little access to running water and indoor plumbing. I think during the entire 10 days, we both showered once. Also, if you’re traveling in Mongolia be sure to set aside a lot of time for actual travel time. We had entire days of driving to get from one place to the next. The road system is still being developed in Mongolia so while there were a lot more paved roads than when I visited in 2011, expect a good amount of dirt roads. Like I mentioned before, it’s not the easiest country to travel around but the tourism industry that now exists makes it possible to get where you want to go given sufficient time (and money of course). Keep in mind too, Mongolia is historically a nomadic country and time doesn’t quite work the way it does in the U.S. Don’t expect things to be prompt or on time by any means. So if you only have a limited time in Mongolia, give yourself sufficient time in between and during your plans in case of delays or miscommunication.

When my friend and I were planning our trip to Mongolia we knew that we wanted to 1. Be there for Naadam and 2. Spend time outside of Ulaanbaatar. Those were basically our only criteria. We basically gave our tour contact freedom to come up with whatever itinerary she thought would be best. We ended up having an incredible time and were very happy with what we did during our 10 day excursion. If we had more time in Mongolia, I would’ve definitely wanted to see other parts of Mongolia and probably would’ve done a lot more research to see exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. Given our limited time though, we were open for anything. We traveled around central Mongolia during our 10 days. Our itinerary is below with added details:

Day 1: July 01. Arrive in Ulaanbaatar where we checked into UB Guesthouse where we would be staying for one night before we began our excursion. We also picked up any last minute things we needed for our excursion at the State Department Store (more on this in a later post).

Day 2: July 02. Drive from Ulaanbaatar to Ugii Lake. We arrived at Ugii lake in the evening where we set up camp, ate dinner, and had a relaxing evening. Since Mongolia is pretty far north and we traveled there during the summer time, the sun didn’t set until very late, which was something I had never experienced before. I think while in Mongolia, I only saw the stars a couple of times since I was usually sleeping by the time the stars finally did come out.
Day 3: July 03. A leisure day at Ugii lake. My friend and I spent the day walking and exploring the area around the lake. We also took a swim in the lake which was pretty great especially since it was a pretty hot day and we had no sun cover. There were other visitors at the lake camping out but we were the only foreigners. In fact, our entire 10 day excursion we didn’t encounter anything but local tourists until day 7.

 

Day 4: July 04. Drive from Ugii lake to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur/ Great White Lake & Khorgo extinct volcanic via Tsetserleg town. This was a VERY long driving day. We stopped in Tsetserleg town for lunch but drove the rest of the day. We didn’t get to our destination until the evening. We ended up staying in a ger for two nights.

 

Day 5: July 05. A leisure dat at Khorgo & Terkh National Park. We hiked up Khorgo volcanic crater to see the extinct volcano. We walked around Great White Lake and went on a long walk/hike.

 

Day 6: July 06. Drive from Khorgo & Terkh National Park to Tsenkher Hot springs  via Tsetserleg town. Another driving day. We stopped in Tsetserleg town again for lunch and arrived Tsenkher Hot Springs. There are a number of places where you can go to experience the hot springs. We just went to the first place we encountered. My friend and I soaked in the hot springs, then we got dinner. After that, we drove around to find a place to pitch our tent to sleep for the night. We ended up in a really beautiful and big field.

 

Day 7: July 07. Drive from Tsenkher Hot springs to Karakorum town. This was a shorter drive. On the way, we were super lucky to see the start of a horse race which we were told was very rare since horse races start far from the finish lines away from towns. We also saw the end of a different horse race on our drive. We got to Karakorum where we would be staying in a ger. My friend and I also walked to see Erdene Zuu Monastery, a monastery we had visited during our trip to Mongolia in 2011.

 

Day 8: July 08. A local naadam day at Karakorum town. The entire time of our excursion we hadn’t seen any foreigners until today. They were easy to spot with their khakis, “trekking” gear, and big lense cameras. Needless to say, we were a bit annoyed since these groups were a bit obnoxious. Besides that, this was a really awesome day where we were able to check out all the different naadam events. We saw several horse races finish, wrestling matches, and archery competitions. Besides those three events, there’s also the ankle bone game which was also really cool to watch. If you are in Mongolia during or around Naadam, I highly recommend going to a local event. While the main events are in Ulaanbaatar, I found the local Naadam day in Karakorum to be a lot more fun and intimate. You’re actually able to see the events up close compared to the ones in Ulaanbaatar.

 

Day 9: July 09. Drive from Karakorum to the Bayan Gobi Sand Dunes (also known as the little Gobi). Visit Hustai National Park to watch Takhi/Wild horse. We drove to the sand dunes where my friend and I were able to explore some of the sand dunes and play in the sand. We also were able to ride camels and horses. Something that I had done when I was in Mongolia in 2011 and it’s super touristy but I was super excited to have the chance to do it again. Afterwards, we drove to Hustai National Park. We arrived around 5 or 6 p.m. which was a little late but actually the perfect time to spot the wild horses. A lot of the different herds come down to water at this time when the sun is setting and its cooler. A lot of tourists had left at this point too so we actually saw a lot of horses and had very few company around us which was pretty awesome. We were on a high after seeing the horses (which are the last wild horses on the planet). We set up camp at the nearby sand dunes for the night. This night got darker than the other nights and I saw some really great sky and the milky way that night. So overall, a really good day.
Day 10: July 10. Drive back to Ulaanbaatar. We drove back to Ulaanbaatar where we had brunch and said goodbye to our very awesome guides. We were pretty excited to be around running water again and were finally able to take much needed showers. As well as much needed internet time to inform people that we were still alive.
Our remaining 6 days were spent in Ulaanbaatar which I will write about in the next post where we celebrated Naadam in Ulaanbaatar.
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