The road up and over the hill by the lake was in fact rather hilly, taking us through yet another little patch of forest (what’s the difference between a large wood and a small forest?), with a very interesting (read: definitely only for 4×4’s or motorbikes) road down the other side of it. Back down in the valley between the hills on the other side we rounded a corner and promptly stood on the brakes, as there was a three-foot deep ditch with a stream in in front of us. It was probably about three feet wide, with a variety of logs and planks scattered across it as temporary bridges. From the most recent-looking tracks it seemed like the only vehicles that had been using it recently were motorbikes, over one of the flimsier-looking planks of wood. We had great fun moving the logs around to try and make sure we had something sturdy enough to hold the weight of the car as we crossed, including using the waffle boards in earnest as ramps rather than just to get us out of sand or mud. Somewhere we have a video of us driving the car across; Niall behind the wheel and me directing from the other side, whilst simultaneously doing the mosquito dance as I was being eaten alive.
Over the next little hill and around the corner to the next lake and it turned out there was a lovely little monastery nestled at the base of the hills, overlooking the lake. We passed a minibus that had been driven up on a mound of earth at the front, with a guy underneath it poking around – I guess in the middle of nowhere you have to be inventive when you need to do repairs. Either that or they’d made a colossal mistake with their navigating! There was a proper little car park marked out outside the monastery, so we stopped and went for a look around. Just after we’d parked up, a people-carrier that we’d seen at the lake that morning rocked up, not nearly as muddy as us, and obviously knowing a far more direct (and more car-suitable) route from the lake. They hadn’t had the satisfaction of bridging streams with waffle boards and logs though. The monastery was the Baldan Bereeven Monastery, which the internet tells me is on the “tentative” list for World Heritage Centre listing with UNESCO. The internet also tells me (isn’t it useful?!) that “the Baldan Bereeven Monastery is a Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) Buddhist monastery located in the Baruun Jargalant River valley Ömnödelger district, Khentii Province, Mongolia. First established in 1654, the monastery grew to be one of the largest and most important in Mongolia at its height in the mid-19th century, housing up to 8000 monks. The monastery and temple complex were destroyed by Mongolia’s communist regime in 1937.” Apparently nowadays there are around 10 lamas who still live there, and from a few of the photos that are shown on the noticeboard in the carpark, a lot of work has been undertaken to get the monastery back to the state that it’s in now, after it was all but destroyed in the 1930’s. There’s a walk around the site that you can do, taking in several shrines and artefacts along the way, up into the hills behind the monastery, with some spectacular views.
As we approached the main monastery building we could hear the low and peaceful chanting of one of the lamas coming from inside the monastery. We waited for a while outside debating whether we should go in for a look and risk disturbing him, but at that point another monk appeared and ushered us inside to have a look around. The inside of the building was very sparse aside from the shrine at the centre front of the room, but hugely colourful with all the rafters and pillars brightly painted and beautifully decorated. Despite having no lights inside it wasn’t dark and gloomy for the main part, with plenty of natural light coming in through the open doors. I didn’t take too many photos inside, as although a DSLR is great for most photos, it’s not great for trying to take unobtrusive photos in a very quiet, peaceful place, even when on “quiet shutter” mode! There was another smaller temple next to the main building with a lama inside, who Niall chatted to. Again by “chatted to” I mean pointed at things and smiled and sat there quietly looking around. After lunch overlooking the lake (another set of delightful cheese and cucumber sandwiches) chatting to a French family who were on a long-term trip of Mongolia, we hit the road and headed away from the wooded hills, and back into an area of rolling hills and open plains.
Parked up on top of a gently rolling hill with plenty of time before sunset, we rigged up the awning, set up the camp shower, and then deployed the camping oven and baked ourselves a deeeee-lightful Victoria sponge cake, complete with jam (but sadly no buttercream). It was quite difficult to stop eating it and put half the cake away for the next day….. it was gooood. It was around this time that we noticed that somehow, yet again, we were missing wheel nuts. This time from the wheel that we’d taken off to check at the lake. Despite tightening the wheel nuts to above their required stated torque with a torque wrench, somehow the little buggers had still managed to wiggle themselves off. This time fortunately we’d spotted it when three had fallen off, whilst the fourth was finger tight, and the fifth was the only one with any tension left on it. Cue much swearing and annoyance. The only plus side was that we now knew we could get wheel nuts in Ulaanbaatar, and we would have to return there anyway for Niall to drop me off at the airport on my way back to the UK. At least we also knew that the car was perfectly capable of driving on the rough stuff with several missing wheel nuts by then too.
The next few days were pretty grey and rainy, and although the windscreen wipers were now re-attached to the front of the bulkhead, they still didn’t work. We had a long day driving through a couple of very isolated towns and villages, taking the opportunity to stock up on a few things, all the while heading towards a river that we knew we would have to cross somehow. Niall knew (but hadn’t told me) that it would be a ferry of some sort to get across, as the route we were following had a note on it somewhere. When we got there we discovered it was a single car-sized, flat-bottomed boat that was hand-hauled across the river on a single cable, with ramps to get on and off it. Annoyingly we definitely had to pay more than the locals do, but the little kid running it knew full well that we needed to get across. Sometimes it pays to be a foreigner, sometimes it doesn’t.
Shortly after this we got stuck. Very stuck. In fairness, it was a single rock in a singularly unhelpful place that we happened to hit at precisely the wrong angle as we were trying to go through a stream from a very, very muddy bank. Despite some digging, and a half-hearted attempt to get the waffle-boards under the back wheels we weren’t having much luck before a car full of Chinese tourists rocked up, and to their obvious delight towed us out of the stream backwards. Hilariously there was a point where someone from their car and me were both standing around taking photos – they were obviously enjoying it as much as we were. They then hammered through the stream at full pelt (their suspension and the underside of their car took an absolute beating) and off into the distance. At which point Niall drove to the edge of our newly-scouted crossing route, stopped, and decided to straighten the car for a better run-up at it. So he reversed, and then got stuck in the mud again. Being the dutiful girlfriend that I am, I did eventually walk back across the stream and help him dig to get the waffle boards under the car (after taking a load more photos of the car being stuck again). We spent the rest of the day on very, very wet roads, travelling backwards and forwards along a river trying to find a way across.
When we did eventually find a way across, we cooked the worst meal of the trip without a doubt. We’d bought frozen Mongolian beef and mutton (aka sheep tail) dumplings from the supermarket that you were supposed to steam from frozen…. Unfortunately the only way we had of cooking them was boiling from partially-defrosted. They were rank. Like little alien eggs in thick, gloopy dumpling mix (way thicker than any ravioli-type pasta, or any other dumplings I’ve eaten before!). The potato cakes were the only thing that saved it. This may even be the only meal that I have given my leftovers to Niall and he finished them. Unheard of. We hadn’t yet put up the tent for the night, and shortly after this we were joined by two young Mongolian guys on a motorbike. They were very friendly, but already three sheets to the wind after an afternoon on the vodka apparently, and were insistent that we go back to their yurts to meet their families and drink more vodka with them. Whilst it would have been great to go and see a yurt and enjoy some local hospitality, sadly neither of us are massively into drinking vodka, and we’d had a pretty long, and fairly exhausting day of digging the car out of ditches, driving through mud and really the only thing we wanted to do was put the tent up and go to sleep. Things got a bit heated as they couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t go with them, and when the larger of them picked up our long-handled shovel and started waving it around rather ferociously we decided that it was time to leave, and told them yes we would come to their yurt, as a way to get moving. Which was easier said than done considering one of them was insistent on getting in the car to show us the way. Fortunately the car was rather full, and eventually we persuaded him that standing on the outside step was not a good idea, and to go and join his friend on his motorbike. With me already (door locked) in the car, Niall jumped in and kicked Henry J into life, straight into reverse at high speed, no lights on, straight down the hill away from them before doing a high-speed J-turn and hitting the accelerator at high speed. True to the good old 300Tdi it didn’t even skip a beat, and we hammered our way (waaaaay too fast for the conditions) back the way we’d come, relying mostly on the GPS to follow the tracks that we could no longer really see in the dark. Unfortunately this meant navigating the section that we’d previously got stuck in earlier on in the day. Eventually we found a road that looked like it might bypass that section, and cross the stream/river a kilometre or so further up, so we headed that way. As we got a little closer, we thought we could see a car flashing its lights at us, and realised that there was a vehicle right where the crossing was, most likely stuck too. By the time we got there, the people carrier had unloaded an entire boot full of sacks of rice and potatoes, kicked all the people out, and had managed to bump its way across the muddiest section of the river. They were on their way back from the nearest big town with supplies, and helpfully pointed at a section of the river that they thought was more suitable for us to cross. Which we did, at a reasonable lick, and were very grateful that we had a steering guard and diff guard on the car as bumped up the opposite bank and trundled on. We ended up driving all the way back to the ferry river crossing as I was still freaking out that the guys on the motorbike would follow us (don’t underestimate the driving skills of a motorcyclist in Mongolia, even if they are very drunk!), and to our surprise joined another two cars (including the people carrier) waiting for the ferry at 1am in the morning. The driver of the first car simply got out, took off his trousers, held them above his head and waded across the river to go and wake the ferry man. Obviously a regular!
The next day we camped high up in the hills, trying to find the least windy spot in an otherwise extremely windy area. Mongolia may be mostly sunny, but it is also mostly very, very windy too, which is sub-optimal when you camp every night in a rooftop tent! On the plus side, it’s great for drying clothes quickly. After another evening of spectacular scenery and a gorgeous sunset, we started on a big loop heading in the vague direction of Ulaanbaatar to spend a couple of days slowly heading back to take me to the airport :(
The landscape dried out a little and we were back in hilly scenery with grassy valleys between. Eventually we did find a stretch of blacktop, but it was so riddled with car-sized potholes that we were pretty sure it would have been quicker (and required less concentration) to drive offroad instead. One of our campsites on this slow loop to the city was beside another river at the foot of some hills, complete with wandering cow herds. After giving Henry J a quick wash with the river water, we had great fun watching some local farmers try and separate a cow and a calf from the herd of cows, with a combination of a kid herding on horseback, and two men with a lasso. Eventually they managed it, bundled the two into the back of a small truck, and trundled off, leaving the young lad to finish herding the cattle home for the night. He came over to say hello, and with a little bit of English Niall discovered (to his joy) that he could play chess, so with cups of tea in hand, they settled down for a game of chess whilst I read my book.
We camped for two nights a little way outside Ulaanbaatar, taking the opportunity to have a day off from driving, having a lie-in and doing a little bit of walking around where we were camped. We were nestled away in some trees, up from a little track snaking its way up a valley in between some hills, but were still visited by a ranger. Once he was convinced that we knew how to make a proper fire (and put it out properly), and after taking our car registration (a fat lot of good that will have done him, seeing as it’s in Arabic), he pottered off on his motorbike again. As we were there for two nights, we decided to put up the annex to the rooftop tent, partially to help tension the upper part, partially to give us a bit of shelter if it rained (which it looked like it might) and lastly because the foot of the ladder was right next to a massive anthill. We’ve used the annex before whilst we were in Oman, but had forgotten just how much extra room it seems to give you, and makes you feel like you’re in a little travelling house rather than a tent, as all of a sudden you have an upstairs and a downstairs. The annex is great – when we want to cook, we can open up the zip that meets the back of the car, and open the stove right out into the tent (without having to go outside in the rain if it’s miserable outside).
After an epic fire-in-the-sky sunset and a good night’s sleep, we hiked up the hills to look at the shrine and the prayer flags towards the top of the hill before doing a loop on the top of the hills and heading back to the car for lunch. As Brits, one thing that we found really weird was the number of Swastikas on the posts at the shrine – not knowing a lot about Buddhist symbols, we later discovered that the symbol (called “svastika” in Sanskrit) is an ancient religious symbol, considered to be sacred and auspicious in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In Buddhism apparently it signifies auspiciousness and good fortune, and is seen on many statues, decorations, and images of Buddha.
On our last day of the trip together we drove back into Ulaanbaatur, and past the airport to make sure we knew where it was, then headed out of town on the other side to find somewhere to camp before a very early start the next morning to get me to an 8am flight. My last campsite and sunset in Mongolia did not disappoint; the faint noises of cattle in the valley below us, hills on the horizon, and another epic sunset. This is a country that I was definitely sorry to say goodbye to, and one that I would happily go back to. I was gutted that Niall got to drive west through the rest of the country, whilst I flew back to the UK for work, although I did at least see a lot of it from the air!