Mongolia 3: Waterfall and Wild Horses

The third installment of our Mongolian adventure has us leaving the Great Gobi Desert and heading for the Orkhon Waterfall. Today we began one of the longest trips we have made in our Russian Van consisting of over 300 km. This does not sound like much of a trip, but what doesn’t sound like much, can sometimes be very deceiving.

Orkhon Waterfall

We start the day with a visit to the Orkhon Waterfall or Ulaan Tsutgalan in Mongolian. The waterfall is not vertically large, only dropping around 25 meters. What is fascinating is that the waterfall drops into a crack created by a volcano millions of years ago. The waterfall is spectacular when there has been a lot of rain. We have had more than the usual rainfall lately, so it is actually roaring when it makes its drop. The area around the falls is marked with local totems and herds of wild horses grazing the nearby grasslands. The images of the falls can be striking when full of water as it is now.

Baisa has arranged for us to caravan with a number of other vans on our trip to the Blue Hot Springs because there is heavy rain in the area and it has been that way for some time. Of the six vans we were to trek with only 1 showed up. We found out later that the other 5 vans, fearing the roads over the mountains and the river crossings, had decided to cut their tours short and return to UB.

We began retracing our tracks, from the waterfall back to the bridge over the river, through beautiful black and gold lava flows. We tried picking the smoothest routes, but over lava, there is just not an easy way to go. We made it back to the river and crossed with our partner. At that time, he split off to continue his tour and we were once again on our own.

The path to the hot springs was wet and muddy. Many times the existing roads were impassible and Baisa had to make his own road. He started winding through the trees and forests on the mountains we crossed. The rain continued through part of the day but around lunch, we were able to break into the clear and began crossing some of the more beautiful green meadows that were covered with wild flowers of every kind. We spent a number of hours crossing these before once again hitting more rain and more muddy roads.

Blue Hot Springs

Our goal for the day was the Tsenkher Hot Springs, a sulfur spring that emerges from the ground at a very hot 89C. The area has indoor and outdoor baths where the water is piped in for whirlpools, saunas, and showers. This was the first warm water we encountered for five days and was a huge plus for us to finally feel clean and refreshed.

That night we were invited to the Ger of our hosts to sample the fruits of the herds. The lady and her family have over 500 head of goats, horses, and yaks. She had every type of food and drink that can be manufactured from the milk of the different animals. We were going to be able to sample each and I am sure that I will not remember them all. Here are the most memorable ones for me.

My favorite was a clear Vodka made from Yak milk. It looked and tasted like any other Vodka – just made from milk rather than potatoes. The next was the basic material that was used to make the curd and cheese. I like this much better than the finished products, it was sweeter and had a cinnamon flavor. Next on my list was the curd, and fresh yogurt made from the different animal’s milk and last the fermented mare’s milk. This is a staple of the Mongolians and while a little sour was not as bad as many writers would lead you to believe. It was given to Laurel in a large bowl, she sipped and went to pass it on. Not the Mongolian way. We each got our own large bowl. It is not bad and our hosts kept offering us more of everything. Finally, Oyuna explained we could just sample and then put a bowl down. We did not have to finish each bowl.

Meeting The Nomads

The next day we left the springs and headed further north to the lake and volcano. The roads on this leg of the trip were the worst we were to encounter. I could not believe the ability of the van to cope with the mud and deep ruts. We crossed an extremely deep and fast flowing river to finally begin traveling on better roads. We came upon a beautiful valley with over a thousand horses roaming free. We stopped at the Ger of one of the owners to visit. While Oyuna stayed outside with the girls, Laurel and I were invited in to see his home and were once again given bowls of fermented mare’s milk. The owner was one of the greatest breeders of racing horses in the area and his trophies and awards were a centerpiece of his Ger. We were given quite an honor by the host when he invited both Laurel and myself to share his snuff with him. He took a beautiful miniature green onyx bottle out of a wrapping of soft leather and offered it to me. I have never had snuff before and it was quite good. I took the top which had a small spoon attached to it and even took a second portion it was so nice in flavor.

At the end of our visit, we were invited to watch as he, his wife and their children milk some of the mares. The mares are all wild horses that they find a bring in when they have the foals. The young horses are brought up to the female and allowed to drink, then the wife replaces the baby and takes some of the milk from each of the mares while he or his son keeps the foals close.

Saying our goodbyes we are back on the road and going to the volcano at the Great White Lake. The volcano has created a large lava flow that we have to once again pick our way across. The crater (called a ‘kettle’) is not large but was a nice place for photos. We head up the pass and at the top we have the lake on one side and the 3 kettles left by the volcano on the other. We head down the lakeside and crawl into our Gers dead tired and ready for a day of rest.

The Great White Lake is frozen 9 months of the year and the ice gives it the White Lake name. It is one of the homes of migrating waterfowl and is quite and peaceful. It made for a good place to wind down from the rough trip of the previous two days. One unique story is about a large rock on the shoreline. A girl was promised in marriage to an older man and rather than marry, she drowned herself in the lake. Her father paced the lake for days hoping for her return and eventually turned into the stone rock on the shoreline.

Next on our tour was the visit to Kharkhorin. This great walled city was established in the 13th century in an attempt to reunify the warring Mongolian chieftains by a Khan descendant. The attempt failed after a time but a monastery was built there in 1585 and is one of the few that survived the Russian purge of later years. Tomorrow we will conclude our trip and once again be in the capital city of UB.

This is a great trip but not one I would recommend for children. The vans do not have seatbelts and while on the rough roads, we were tossed around quite a bit and had to hang on to the sides to keep in our seats. You need to be ready for a huge dose of very rustic living, almost no running water and a lack of privacy for the entire trip. HOWEVER! while the conditions are poor much of the time, the rewards you gain far outweigh the inconveniences. The Mongolian people are warm, inviting and not like any other we have met on the road. They ask you for nothing and will share everything they have with you. The nomads of the steppes are a group we will ever forget.

As always, you can view our photographs in PHOTO GALLERIES.