Traffic coming out of Ulaanbaatar was slow. There is only one road leading out towards the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and everyone seemed to be on it. Our driver spoke little English and we speak zero Mongolian, so we had no choice but to observe the ways of the Mongolian streets as we dawdled along.
An assortment of cars seemed to surround us, with not a motorcycle in sight. Some cars were European, while a great many were Toyotas from Japan. This meant that those cars had their steering wheel on the left, even though everyone drove on the right. There didn’t seem to be any lane discipline either and with the poor surfacing of the roads (in dire need of repair) this made for a slow but entertaining drive.
Finally, we reached the front of the queue to see the cause of the traffic – a fair was in town and everyone was looking for parking. Once we passed this, we collected speed. It took us 90 minutes to leave town and another 30 minutes to the edge of the National Park, where we said goodbye to our driver and changed into a 4WD.
Puje, our host, spoke English and was able to explain everything to us, although it quickly became self-evident as to why the 4WD was needed. He followed the tracks in the sand, swirling around streams or crossing straight through them, and then sped up over mounds of mud and across the valley to the camp.
We were now 60km north of Ulaanbaatar, with six gers, six people (4 staff and 2 other guests) and the open Mongolian wilderness for company. Anu, Naraa and Tehur greeted us as we clambered out of the vehicle and showed us to our ger, perched the highest on the hillside.
From the outside, the ger looked like a plain white, round tent with a low roof – inside, through the elaborately painted wooden door, we found its walls to be lined with thick wool behind wooden lattice and its ceiling lined with cotton sheets. It had with four single beds, painted in bright orange with intricate, traditional designs, dark wooden floor boards and a cosy wood burner in the centre. A small hole at the top let in light and a fire was burning to keep us warm.
Of the six gers, three were for guests, one for dining, one for cooking and one for the staff. There was also a pavilion, a toilet, an open shower and a sauna. The toilet was located down a small path on the edge of camp, near to the shower block and sauna. It was a compost toilet but used a nicely presented wooden frame. A shower needed to be scheduled as they had to heat up the water by log fire.
We relaxed in our ger until it was time to head to the dining ger for supper – a delicious, traditional noodle soup (vegetarian for me and lamb for the others). This was washed down with water from the well. We were accompanied by the other two guests and Puje, with whom we scheduled our plans for the following day.
The alarm on my phone woke us at 2:50am. In the dark, we followed the path down to the dining ger, where we donned our helmets and chaps and had a quick cup of tea. We took the horses, with Puje and Tehur in the lead, through the valley, between the trees and up a hill. We reached the top in time to see the skyline morph from purple to orange to gold as the sun rose and showed us the roaming hills of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in all their glory. It was spectacular!
Tehur started a fire to keep us warm. With the light of the day, we could see the wildflowers blooming in the crevasses of rocks or amongst the sparse patches of grass. On the steepest part of the decent, we got down from our Mongolian saddles to safely lead the horses through the loose forest floor.
Back at camp, we sat in the pavilion and gorged on homemade muesli and yak yoghurt, scrambled eggs and fried bread with jam and yak cream. Afterwards, we tried to get close up photographs of the one-day-old yak. Although there was a small stable for the horses, they seemed to congregate at the stream at the foot of the hill with the free roaming yaks and cattle. The birds kept the tempo and tiny ground squirrels entertained us by diving in and out of little holes in the ground. Then we climbed up the steep and rocky hill behind camp, spotted with mountain goats, to see the view into the next valley.
After lunch, we hopped back on the horses. This time we were accompanied by the other guests. Tehur showed us his horsemanship, often standing on his saddle while riding or flipping over to one side, touching the ground with his feet and then springing back into a seated position. Together, we galloped through the low valley – the now hot breeze blowing in our faces. I felt free and wild.
Then it was time to say our goodbyes. A different driver came to collect us and take us back to the city. We were in awe as he managed to navigate the streams, rocks and tracks in his 2WD Prius.
Price: US$75 per person for one night, including vegetarian-friendly dinner, breakfast and lunch.
Activities: the stay included a horse riding trek during the day but we opted for an additional horse ride at sunrise (US$30 each).
Transport: we organised for Dream Adventure to collect us from Ulaanbaatar Railway Station and return us to the city centre the following day. This cost an additional US$10 per person each way.
Visa: Dream Adventure was able to help us with a letter of invitation for Mongolia, confirming our reservation. We used this when applying for our Mongolian visas.
Travel advice: make sure you bring enough cash (either in tögrög or US$) as you won’t find a cash machine in the national park! We weren’t expecting the cost of the additional horse ride and barely scrapped through with the cash we had on us! Luckily, my dad had been to a local cash machine at the station.
Photo: Dream Adventure camp in the picturesque Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia