Mongolia in my Mind
By Gener Baltazar Maulit
History & Geography teacher at Orkhon KhaSu school/
It is not easy to plan for a weekend getaway amidst the growing threat of a virus that continues to mutate and spread everywhere. It is doubly hard to push for an out of the country travel with growing restrictions and ever-changing border control and international travel advisories. But what the breathtaking countryside of Mongolia offered to us, six Filipino expatriates based in Ulaan Baatar, proved to be worth the planning and more.
It didn’t get off on the right foot. In fact, we were greeted with a sad news that we could not push through with the original plan of going to the Gobi Desert because the province is not letting vacationing people enter the south Gobi for leisure travel. This meant goodbye to personally witness that vast, arid region in southern Mongolia known for its dunes, dinosaur fossils and rare animals like wild Bactrian camels, snow leopards and Mongolian wild ass.
But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as there was another option to travel and see all the things the countryside of Mongolia has to offer. Thanks to our school principal from the Orkhon Khasu International School, Bayanjargal Lkhagvasuren, who financed the trip and our school manager Tugsjargal Jimbelee, who planned everything, we successfully embarked on a 4 days and 3 nights journey to the central part of Mongolia together with our local co-teacher Ayur and a local driver.
Chasing waterfalls in Ulaan Tsutgalan
Our adventure started on the Ulaan Tsutgalan waterfall, a majestic sight in the Orkhon River valley 495 kilometers from the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. The view is majestic, to say the least, with thunderous waterfall cascading mightily atop a 24-meter lava cliff forming a confluence of the Ulaan and the Orkhon river below.
The water is cold, but the falls itself did not disappoint, and the surroundings match what everyone thinks of the vast majority of the country – rolling steppes, endless hills dotted with willowy Pine trees and gers for tourists to relax and experience the nomadic lifestyle. Plus, there are plenty of sturdy Moris, the native horse breed of Mongolia, available for hire if one would opt for horse-back riding whilst enjoying the real wilderness.
On our first night, we rented gers to sleep and cook. The ger that we stayed in is relatively comfortable, with four single beds circling the stove in the middle used for cooking, heating and ventilation, as it is connected to a cylindrical edifice with a hole stretching up to the top of the structure.
It got colder in the middle of the night, but nobody whined as we entertained ourselves with traditional Filipino and Mongolian cuisines, bottles of local vodka and unlimited stories to warmed our hearts. It was also a special night as we celebrated Anj’s birthday, one of the Filipino teachers. Stories were shared, shots may have been fired and secrets were also whispered, but it bonded as more as individuals trying to find answers to convoluted life experiences whilst enjoying the simple living the Mongolian way.
Of monastery, monks and horse-back riding
We continued our adventure on a trip to Tuvkhun Monastery, a remote buddhist monastery smacked on the border of Ovorkhangai and Arkhangai provinces. To reach this UNESCO world cultural heritage site, we rode horses and traversed the densely forested mountain. Built around the 17th century, this monastery sits on top of the mountain and one needs to hike around 5 kilometers to reach it.
It may be a challenging climb but it is all worth it given the beautiful nature one can see once on top of the mountain and the popular temples and caves filled with history, local beliefs and spiritual sets of piled rocks that punctuate the importance of the monastery as one of Mongolia’s oldest place of worship. A famous local belief is that a small cave, known as mother’s womb, has the power to cleanse one’s body as if you are newly born if you roll around in it. One of us did just that and was all smiles after the experience.
Flora, fauna and more
We completed our 4-day trip with a bang, as we rode camels in the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai and witnessed a herd of tahki, or the wild horses of Mongolia, at the the Hustai National Park.
The sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai gave us a perfect experience to ride the two-humped Bactrian camel on a Gobi-like landscape. It was also convenient for us since local nomads offer Ger accommodation overnight, so we didn’t have to travel that long to go to the area where camel rides are offered.
After a quick lunch, we went on to visit one of Mongolia’s pride – the Hustai National Park. This was our last stop and it didn’t disappoint. The diversity of the country’s flora and fauna is very much alive here, thanks in part to Mongolia’s effort to preserve it.
In fact, the area is recognized by UNESCO for its unique biosphere reserve home to the tahki or Przewalski wild horse, eagles, marmots, long-tailed ground squirrel and even red deer. Sure enough, after few kilometers drive from the entrance, we got to see a herd of tahki running wildly down the hill as if trying to announce their majestic presence.
Overall, the trip may have been rough and bumpy, but who cares? This once in a lifetime experience gave us a glimpse of what this magnificent country has to offer and proved to be a destination worth exploring.