Finally, the real adventure was about to begin. First we needed to travel west for a thousand kms from Ulaanbaatar (ULN) to Ulaistai (ULZ). By car that would take 16 hours. By plane, 1hr 45. We’d take the plane… a Hunnu Airlines 25 year-old Fokker 50.
We were to meet in the foyer at 03.00! Not a problem. In the hotel’s foyer… ready to go… we learned that the flight had been delayed by 2 hours. Grabbed our room keys back and tried for a few more minutes rest. Not really possible. We actually left the hotel at 05.15 for our re-scheduled flight now timed to take-off at 06.40.
We’d been given a total weight allowance, both checked and carry-on luggage, of no more than 15kg. With all the stuff we had to take including boots, a sleeping mat and sleeping bag, warm jackets etc, it’s little wonder that most of us were a tad over the limit. My lot weighed in at 21.2kg (46.7lbs) and cost me all of T2400, about AUD 2. Not too bad.
That snow had obviously dumped pretty heavily on the higher mountains.
Our destination was Uliastai, in the western Zavkhan aimag (the Mongolian name for province)… Lat. 47º 73’ N, Long. 96º 85’ E, Elevation: 1753 m. (5751 ft,).
Along with Khovd in the west, Uliastai is one of the oldest settlements in Mongolia. It was founded as a military garrison in 1733, during the Qing rule of Mongolia. At its busiest, it held 3,500 soldiers. For many centuries, it’s also been an important stop on the caravan routes, even into the 20th Century.
In 2012, the town’s population was 15,460 and growing. By contrast, the population of the province has been falling steadily since 1994 when it peaked at an estimated 103,850. Maybe some of the nomads are moving to a more sedentary town lifestyle.
Opened in 2002, Donoi Airport is 25km. (15.5 mi.) from the town of Uliastai.
We were met by our drivers. Their fleet of cars and the line-up of our red World Expedition duffle bags looked like an ad for Toyota. These cars would transport us across some pretty rugged country… they would need to be tough. They were all Toyota Landcruisers except for one Hilux Surf SSR X, a model we don’t have in Australia. It is, to all intents and purposes, a baby Landcruiser. Guess who got the smaller Hilux? That’s right. Me. The bonus was that only one other person was allocated to the vehicle instead of three in each of the Landcruisers.
My driver was ‘Pujee’ and my travelling companion was Michael, the only non-Australian in the group. Michael was from London and was a particularly good and interesting mate.
It was good to be finally underway on our Mongolian adventure.
To the south is the Gobi Desert, with its endless sand dunes, and to the west is the snow-capped Khangai Mountain Range. This results in a unique climate which can sustain huge livestock populations even though the annual rainfall here is only 208.5mm (8.2in).
In 2005 there were 2.1 million head of livestock in this area: 1.03m sheep, 861,000 goats, 107,000 cattle and yaks, 101,000 horses and 6,300 camels. These livestock numbers can be severely decimated when the area is hit by extra severe weather conditions.
And the climate can be severe. Out here, winter temperatures of -52.9°C (-63.2°F) have been recorded. Back in Uliastai, the hottest ever temperature was 36°C (96.8°F) in July 1999. OK we have hotter than that. BUT the coldest was -42°C (-43.6°F) in January 2000.
A typical Mongolian landscape with horses galloping across the steppe.
Did you notice… not a fence, power pole, in fact anything man-made, in sight.
Mongolia’s Big Five consist of horses, cattle and yak, sheep, goats and camels. Herdsmen use a distinctive lasso on the end of a long stick to control their animals. These herdsmen have a superstition; you must never ask one how many animals he has. If he feels he has to answer honestly, it’s believed that his animals will be cursed and that numbers will decline. Usually the question will go ignored, or if pressed, he will give an intentionally inaccurate answer.
Another question that should never be asked in Mongolia is ‘when will we arrive?’ To give an answer, it’s believed, will only bring bad luck and delay things. Again, if an answer is given, it will be purposely, wildly inaccurate.
Whenever we made a stop, I was on the look out for flowers. This one is ‘just’ a dandelion, but look at its structure! Being autumn, there weren’t many. One stop was for lunch; a bowl of tomato soup, some meat, vegetables and rice.
A real find… a lovely clump of pale blue gentian.
At around 16.00, we stopped by a stream opposite the Bor Khyarin Els (sand dunes) to set up camp. Well, the crew set up camp for us. We were at Lat. 48º 21’ N, Long. 94º 50’ E.
The name Bor Khyarin Els means “youngest sky”. This huge expanse of sand dunes stretch for over 100km (60mi.) and then merge with the Gobi Desert.
Our tents… strung out along the banks of the river – there’s plenty of space out here.
One of the drivers had brought all that camping stuff earlier by road from UB.
And there you have it… my accommodation; a tent and a folding chair. Time for a well earned beer. What else was there to do after the tents were up?
The sun was still shining but the temperature was still just above freezing.
A reminder that this is dry, harsh country. Life can be very difficult.
The seeds of new life.
This place is just right for wide angle panorama photos!
It was now time for dinner.
And for that we had spaghetti with meat, diced beetroot, spud and turnip. Dessert was a half-frozen chocolate-coated biscuit floating on a spoonful of chocolate sauce. The biscuit looked a little lonely in the bottom of the plastic soup bowl. To drink we were offered green or black tea or instant coffee. Most of us opted for green tea. Although the coffee was on the table each time we ate, I don’t think anybody had any. We Australians just won’t drink anything but really good coffee.
As dusk fell, thoughts turned to climbing into our sleeping bags and enjoying our first night under the Mongolian stars. I had paid single supplement so had a tent to myself.
Enough water was boiled to give us all “hot water bottles”; some folk had the real thing; some had aluminium water bottles; and me?… just a plain old plastic water bottle.
I was in bed… or rather, I was in my sleeping bag… by 20.00.
It wasn’t quite dark but the light was fading fast.
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