The train from the Chinese border to Ulaan Baatar passes through huge tracts of undulating hills covered with green grass. With Mongolia averaging only 1.7 people per sq. kilometer it is hard to imagine how these people produced such numbers as to conquer almost the entire Eurasian continent. Ulaan Baatar is a modern city full of all the shops and amenities one would expect from a world capital. The food here is particularly good, especially the Mongolian hot-pot, which abounds in meat. A welcome treat after a month in meat deprived China. Ulaan Baatar is by far the largest city containing about 45% of Mongolia’s 2.75 million people leaving the remainder of the people spread out over the 1,564,116 square kilometers of the country.
From the capital we headed out on a 6 day tour of central Mongolia. Our first stop was the ancient capital of Karakorum. This capital was created by Kubali khan and lasted a brief 40 years before being moved to Beijing. All that remains today is a dilapidated monastery (destroyed by the Manchurian Ming dynasty and purged by Stalin) and a small but interesting museum. Leaving this city we headed for the more remote areas of the central Mongolian steppe where we encountered beautiful scenery along our jeep ride over some very rough terrain.
Our tour had us Ger hopping over large distances through wind, hail and rain. While the weather is capricious it is also ephemeral in its inclemency. The majority of our days were sunny and cool (avg. 17 C) with dramatically lower temperatures at night (avg. 0 C). A few hours drive from Karakorum brought us to an area where a river has cut deep through the valley plain leaving behind a large canyon supporting a few deciduous trees with yellowing leaves. The only other trees out here are pines that grow oddly in only small specific areas on the surrounding hills. At the end of our journey was the nice Orkhon water fall.
The next day we drove 400 km, half over rough terrain, to White Lake. Along the way we enjoyed the shallow mountains covered in green, brown and yellow grass. A few of these mountains have reached such a height to have snow-covered peaks, but the majority in this region remains at such a shallow incline as to allow the copious goats, yaks and cows to graze on their slopes. The lake and surrounding area are beautiful especially when we were able to climb one of the nearby hills and sit in peace and watch the sun and clouds over the lake with the foggy mountains in the distance. Truly a zen moment. While in this area we also took a horse trek to a nearby extinct volcano that has clearly left its mark on the surrounding area.
Our last day before heading back to Ulaan Baatar took us to a small section of the Gobi Desert that covers most of southern Mongolia. There wasn’t much to this desert other than a few bactrian camels and sand dunes, but the interest in the landscape is that the dunes seem to be completely surrounded by thick green grass.
By far the best part of this journey was the scenery, particularly the sun sets and starry night skies. I suppose it is because there are no trees or buildings to block your view, but the sky feels much larger here than anywhere else we have been.