Let’s go to Orly airport (Paris) for a long day of sightseeing. First flight to Berlin, then Berlin-Ulan Bator with a stopover in Moscow. We had to cross many security checks and, upon arrival in Mongolia, a control by thermodetection for possible carriers of influenza A.
The flight is endless but the plane of the MIAT is comfortable and the service very correct.
Arrival at 7am in Ulaanbaatar (UB). The weather is splendid. The roads that leave the airport are all broken, the traffic completely anarchic. We arrive at our hotel in the city center, a filthy hotel with the equipment of another age. After a few minutes of rest, we take the car to visit the largest Buddhist monastery in the city, then the black market (thousands of open-air booths that offer everything). We then have lunch in a trendy restaurant. Then we can visit the Museum of Natural History, with an exceptional collection of dinosaurs. Finally, we cross the Parliament Square and climb a hill to see the whole city. In the evening we have dinner in an excellent restaurant. On the menu, some Mongolian specialties, such as cow’s cheese (hard as stone), donuts stuffed with vegetables and mutton, a soup with ravioli stuffed with cheese, sheep chops. A delight, our last real and good meal before 3 weeks of adventure.
Wake up at 4:30, a quick breakfast then the departure to the airport at 5:30 am! Snow falls on the town. We are now flying to the city of Olgii, in the Altai, in the extreme west of Mongolia. We take off at 7:20 am and arrive at 9:20 am (the flight lasts 3 hours but there is an hour of jet lag). The overflight of Mongolia reveals immense landscapes; From time to time, we can see a yurt or a hamlet. We fly over the Lake Khyargas Nuur with some beautiful desert areas. At 9:30 am, the plane landed. After recovering the luggage loaded in an old van, we meet our Kazakh guide, Nurbol, and the driver, who is his uncle. We take place in an old russian 4wd trucl which will seems unbreakable afterwards. We are welcomed in the guide’s family in Olgii. They live in a small house in the suburbs of the city in very simple living conditions. Very welcoming, they offer us tea and have tons of cakes, breads, sweets, cheese. We visit in the afternoon the black market to buy ammunition for the rifle. Then we have a recreational walk up a rocky peak.
The truck is fully loaded, it’s time to move. At 15 km from the town, in the countryside, we realize that we forgot the gun. The guide calls a motorcycle taxi that will take a long time to arrive. The waiting takes place in the mountains, in the company of a farmer who comes from the village of Tsengel with his old bike that he intends to repair at Olgii. When we receive the rifle, we can keep our trip. After 3 hours of cahotic trail, we arrive at Tsengel, a borough at the end of the world, without charm. We are welcomed by a Kazakh family in which we will stay for the night. They are eagle hunters. We are lucky to be able to hold the bird at arm’s length. Still young, it will not hunt until next winter. Then, back to the village, we meet the Imam. Former journalist abroad, he became Imam for about twenty years. It is a very wise person that everyone listens religiously. He tells us some local legends, including the famous wild man of Mongolia, the Almas.
It is finally time to start the trek. The car leaves us at 10km from Tsengel. The walk of the day is 25 km long and bring us halfway to Lake Khar Nuur. The whole walk is dominated by a very strong wind. We go along the streams, cross some small rivers. In the evening, as the wind continues to blow, we decide to meet a family of the Tuvan ethnic group. It lives in her winter camp, a stone house where the living conditions are very rough. The walls are therefore made of stone, the roof made of logs. Inside, a single room. In the center, the stove, around some furniture, beds for everyone. The walls are carpeted. To the left of the old wooden door is a small pen which accommodates a few lambs. We put the sleeping bags on carpets.
At daybreak, a blizzard fell on the valley. We have to wait for a lull before starting. The storm lasts one hour and finally calms down. We can go. Walking is difficult in the wind and cold. Distances are misleading. At about 11 am, the storm began again. Impossible to continue, we find refuge in a Kazakh family for lunch. The afternoon is calmer, with a few rays of sunshine. We taste salted milk tea; We offer them to discover the coffee. They take a pod and fill a bowl of water on the fire. Then add milk and … salt … When the water boils, they drink this mixture. They do not seem to like it. They add sugar and the drink is more tasty. After this break, we resume our march towards Lake Khar Nuur. We discover it on top of a hill. It is completely frozen. We decide to climb the camp in the shelter of a hill, in the relative shelter of the wind.
After a chilly night at -5 ° C probably, when waking up, the beautiful sun and pleasant temperature. We take our time for lunch, walking today only about 20km. The weather will be favorable at the beginning of the journey. After the bridge of Godon, the wind rises again.We are close enough to Lake Dayan Nuur now. A vast expanse of grass, along a brook, will serve as a camp for the night. The night looks cold again and we decide to make a fire to warm us up and cook the soup. All, we recover from the dung that turns out to be a very correct fuel. After dinner (again and again soup with almost rotten meat and pasta). The next day we shall realize, a little late, that we have sensibly deviated from our road; Many more kilometers …
A violent wind shakes the tents this morning. A short walk brings us to Lake Dayan Nuur, completely frozen. We have deviated from our route, and make up for lost time by borrowing the 4×4. The cold is Siberian. It is now necessary to go north-west, towards the Kurgan Nuur lake, still very distant. We meet in the steppe a rider who proposes to share a meal in his camp, a few houses of stone and wood at the foot of a cliff. After a good time spent discussing, they offer us the lodging for the night. Unfortunately, we must continue to get a little ahead of our itinerary. We find refuge for the night in a Kazakh encampment. They offer us tea. The house is a large room in the center of which is the stove. A dirt wall separates a part of the room. The walls are decorated with carpets, photos, medals of merit and the Patriarch’s army. The whole family (grandparents, parents and children) goes about their occupations and household activities in perfect harmony. The Patriarch, who suffers from the reins, gives our driver a prayer. The latter will give it to his wife who has some powers to look after him. The Kazakhs, although Muslim, practice shamanism. He also gives our guide a prayer to protect us during our expedition. Tonight, at dinner, again the soup of vegetables and mutton, and also fat of mutton. As a digestive, airak, fermented mare’s milk, undrinkable.
It still snowed last night. But the snow is fast and we can leave. The wind blows very hard in these two immense plains that we have to cross. At the top of a hill are the Khurgan Nuur and Khoton Nuur lakes, bordered to the south by some trees and surrounded by high snow-capped peaks. We then cross an area of valleys, hundreds of hills where there are small lakes, torrents; The flanks of the mountains are covered with scattered forests. We get lost before finding a farm for the night, just before the snow storm. The road ahead is discussed; Our map is quite false, traced in the 70s by Russian cartographers. There is a road and a bridge to go around Lake Khoton.
We continue along Khurgan Lake. The weather is beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. The temperature remains quite cool. We take a break near the lake, next to the ruins of a city dating back to the Huns (3rd century). Then we continue our walk, up a wide river that we can not cross on foot. A swamp, big blocks of stone and an icy surface, is what awaits us. We decide to take the 4×4 to cross. The crossing is delicate. The march resumes to a camp of rangers. They captured two Cubs aged about 20 days. We have the privilege of being able to take one in our arms. Our road continues in 4×4 because another river has to be crossed. We arrive for the night in a Kazakh encampment, surrounded by wooded hills where our guide’s sister lives. We will spend a full day and two nights. This evening we are served this mutton soup that we can no longer swallow. A small yak of one week shares the yurt for the night. It’s too cold outside.
Today the presidential elections in Mongolia take place. We accompany everyone to a farm where the polling station is located, run by a family of nomads chosen by the authorities. We climb the truck of a Russian truck to cover the ten kilometers that separate us from the place in question. The path is extremely chaotic. We can cross the first river but we lie in the middle. After some checks of the engine, we manage to restart to reach the opposite shore. Some soldiers caught up with us and confiscated one of our passports. It will be necessary to go to the military post of the park to validate our passage. The region is very sensitive because the borders with Russia and China are only a few kilometers away.
We should have taken the permits to travel around the area on our flight to Olgii. Returning to the camp after the vote, our guide and a nomad riding to try to negotiate licenses with the military. Around 5 pm, we go for a walk in the neighboring forests. On our return to the camp, we had the unpleasant surprise of meeting two soldiers, including the post commander, who came by motorcycle, followed shortly by our guide. The army is asking us to immediately pay a fine of $ 50 each plus $ 25 for the guide; If we could not pay, we would be immediately taken back to Olgii’s post, which would mean the end of the journey, of course. Our guide can advance the funds. We can retrieve our passports and continue the adventure. This evening, we introduce our guests to spaghetti with tomato sauce! And also, for some of them, peaches in syrup.
We leave the Kazakh encampment which has welcomed us since last night. The hike starts under a gray sky that will not change during the day. At noon we have tea in a family. Then the road continues. Flakes fall from time to time. In the evening we set up our camp not far from the lake. This time we make rice with tomato which our guide seems to appreciate.
The night was icy. We continue our way towards the end of Lake Khoton Nuur under a mild sky. Stop in a ger for lunch with the inevitable boiled sheep dish. The local originality is to add fresh pasta in the cooking water … In the late afternoon, we reach the end of the lake. We plant our tents and plan to fish. With a wire and a lure, hard to fish anything in the river. Finally, we buy a big fish for a euro to nomads who had just caught a few minutes before. In the evening, for dinner, I prepare fried fish fillets with fried potatoes and carrots. A delight. The temperature tonight is negative, the water freezes in our cups. I’ll catch a nasty cold that will sue me for the rest of the trip …
We sympathized last night at the bivouac with a loving shepherd dog. Surely better treated with us than in his encampment, he decides to follow us for a few days. Today, we begin the return journey along the two great lakes by the north shore. The contrast is striking; To the south of the lakes, the lands are green and the sides of the wooded mountains; To the north of the lakes, they are only hills arriving and sandy and rocky lands. The day of walking is long, we must first stop at the military checkpoint to have our permits checked. We stop for lunch by the lake Khoton, in a cove of white sand. The water is clear. Then we leave before planting the heads on another white sand beach. The place is magical.
This morning, not a cloud. The mountains are reflected in the waters of Lake Khoton. The day looks calm on the weather. We are taking our time to lift the camp. On leaving, we must regretfully give our 4-legged companion to nomads who will subsequently return him to his masters. In the early afternoon, we take tea with breeders. During the break, Vincent climbed a small mountain and discovered bronze engravings at the top. We join him to make pictures of the discovery and note the GPS position. We resume our journey and cross a few minutes after an American archaeologist who lists for nine years all the prehistoric traces of human presence in the region. He knows the engravings in question. In the evening we plant our tents between Lakes Khoton and Khurgan. We learn from nomads that a bridge where we will have to pass in a few days would have collapsed but the news is not confirmed at the moment.
This morning our camp neighbors, Russian fishermen, gave us a nice present by offering us a dozen small trout fished a few minutes earlier. Another Russian bothered us a bit, but nothing serious. Completely drunk after drinking five bottles of vodka in the night, arrived as best he could on a horse. After a quarter of an hour, he left, leaving us at last alone. The weather is relatively warm, the sky cleared but still windy. The decor is mineral and austere on this north side of the lake. Not much interest. Tonight we are approaching the river Khovd, which we shall follow as far as Tsengel, the end point of our expedition.
We were not so close to the Khovd River yesterday. Today we have to travel 25 kilometers to finally see it. The bridge that was announced as destroyed is actually very damaged and threatens at any time to collapse. The driver arrives to cross the bridge not without getting some scares. The stage was rough, under a sun of lead. We crossed mineral immensities without a living soul. At noon, for a break, we organize a shooting session with Russian rifle, ca. 22. We had bought thirty balls at the black market in Olgii before we left. I succeeded 3 targets on 3 to 25 meters and 1 target on 2 to 50 meters (the second bullet went two centimeters from the target). The target in question is a small piece of white paper 6 cm by 4, glued on a cardboard, itself leaned against a rock. I have beaten everyone including the Kazakhs in this exercise and I am very proud of that.
We are awakened this morning by a very violent wind that shakes the tents and by a steady rain. We hesitate to leave this morning. Finally, around 11 am, we take advantage of a lull to bend the tents. They are damp and dirty, too bad. We have to go 15 kilometers a day for three days to get to Tsengel.
Tonight, no camping, we manage to go through a window in a Kazakh winter camp, a large wooden building. The nomads who stay there during the cold season have left for a few days to join their summer camp to the great lakes, where they will live six months in gers. We put the mattresses and duvets on the floor. Then, in the evening, we are joined by two farmers who will sell to Olgii their herd of a hundred sheep. One of them decided to go and live in Kazakhstan to rebuild his life. The sale of sheep and her ger should bring her 20,000 dollars. The Government of Kazakhstan is also providing $ 10,000 for return assistance. We go to bed early enough, exhausted.
The penultimate stage turns into the last stage. We make 18 kilometers under a radiant sun before planting the tent a few kilometers from Tsengel. Tomorrow we will go directly to Olgii where we will spend an extra night.
Quiet morning spent storing the 4×4. Then, around noon, we leave for Olgii. 4 hours of driving under a sun of lead, trying. A puncture 60 kilometers from the finish obliges us to stop. With a few rudimentary tools, the driver succeeded in unraveling and putting on a new tube. All in 30 minutes. Tonight we are back in the guide’s family where we are always tremendously welcomed. One feels almost at home. We eat a grilled sheep dish with spaghetti, potatoes and carrots. Very good and very plentiful.
We take this hot day to visit Olgii. Olgii is a town of 28000 inhabitants cut in the middle by the river Khovd. A city without charm originally built on a Soviet city structure. The suburbs concentrate small precarious houses where probably old nomads are crowded. In the streets of the city center, around the administrative buildings, small shops of all kinds enliven the city. People seem calm, the atmosphere is peaceful. Only the black market brightened the atmosphere. Life here must be very monotonous. Around 1 pm, we go to the museum of the city. One can observe the fauna of the region (notably a snow leopard and ibex), the minerals (including the Sagsai meteorite found in 1990, which seems doubtful in view of the exposed stone). On the 1st and 2nd floors there are numerous showcases featuring Kazakh history and culture in the Bayan-Olgii region. After this informative visit, we will have lunch in the best restaurant of the city. As a starter, we take a good salad of cucumber and tomatoes, as main dish of meatballs, peppers and rice. The meal costs only three euros, including drinks, and is delicious. Then we return quietly to our guide to finish the day.
We get up at five in the morning to get to Olgii airport. We arrive in Ulaanbaatar around noon where the team of Nomad Planet, the agency we have chosen to organize the trip, is waiting for us. We first join our hotel for a shower. Then we will visit the monastery of Bogd Khaan, located at the edge of the city. In this peaceful place are exhibited many statues of Buddha and other religious objects.On the evening, we will eat in town in an excellent pizzeria!
Today we reach the Terelj National Park, located 80km east of the capital. A highly touristic place that has lost its authenticity. The landscapes are made up of small wooded mountains. After lunch, we go on a horseback riding. A first for me but I manage to easily control the horse and trot. The hike lasts two hours and is very pleasant. For dinner, we organize a Mongolian barbecue. Stones are heated in the fire and placed at the bottom of a large casserole. Pieces of sheep are placed on it. Then a new row of burning stones is placed on the meat. And so on. Cooking lasts one hour. It is delicious, accompanied with rice, peppers, potatoes and turnips.
We return to Ulan Bator for our last night in Mongolia. As we leave the park, we pass the rock of the tortoise. In the capital, we decide to visit the souvenir shops around the monastery. We only find baubles for tourists. As we search through alleys, we come across a stall where only antiques are sold. I buy a nice terracotta medallion and an old furniture of yurt which must have a hundred years (25 euros only). I leave the furniture that our guide will retrieve the next day and will send me, in a few months, by container in France.
Already the return, it left for a long day of plane, with a stopover in Moscow then in Berlin. We had to take the 18:40 flight between Berlin and Paris but we decided to buy another ticket to have the flight at 14:30.