In Search of Trees: Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur to Tosontsengel, Mongolia
Larch trees lay fallen like modern sculptures on the expansive steppes of central Mongolia. (Ikh-Uul Их-Уул, Zavkhan Завхан)
It looks like such a short drive:
From Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in Tariat, Arkhangai Province, in Mongolia’s central west, it is just 203 kilometres through the Tarvagatai Mountains to Tosontsengel, in the western province of Zavkhan. That is about three and a half hours “without traffic” – and we expected none. Plus, we had the bonus of paved roads for much of our journey.
It was my third day of bumping along in a utilitarian Russian UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) four-wheel-drive vehicle organised by Within the Frame and local guides G and Segi. It was a short-driving day, considering the overall distance we needed to cover to reach our final destination, but it was off-season, and we were constrained by the availability of ger-camps in the almost deserted countryside.
It was my fifth day of living in hastily-purchased and borrowed clothing; Air China had finally found my suitcase, but they were offering no provisions to get it to me! Fortunately, our brilliant guides had connections everywhere and – at my own expense – my belongings and I should meet up by the end of the day. Even better: we had been promised ready-access to hot showers (which might be our last for several days), so it would be good to get into camp early.
We started our morning with a short hike up Khorgo Uul, a volcano in the Tariat district in the mid-western Arkhangai Province (see: Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur), then pointed the trucks west through the steppes and forest-steppes of Mongolia.
Driving is slower when you have to give way to the regular flocks of goats and sheep that wander into the roadways. (iPhone6)
Like a wild-west wagon train, we pull over and huddle the UAZs around the lunch tent at a likely looking spot in the Tarvagatai Mountains National Park. If you are looking for a shelter, the patches of larch trees are a long walk away… (iPhone6)
Larch in the Wind
There are a few more trees at our next stop: the European larch (larix decidua) is the dominant forest species in Mongolia. With autumnal yellowed needles, the few trees standing on the open steppe are bent by the wind that blows through the passes.
The twisting, reaching, trunks are very decorative with their roughly textured bark.
European larch (Larix decidua) trees live between 100 and 350 years, so I had to wonder about the dead trunks around our stop. These trees like well-drained soil, which is why there are more of them on the slopes than on the flat.
The tree bark presents a beautiful pattern.
Grasses on the Steppes
We are in the high plateaus of the Khangai Mountain Range; sparse grasses grow, and the mountains provide a backdrop.
Yaks on the Hillside
Domestic yak (Bos grunniens) somehow manage to find grasses and sedges high up on the mountain ridges.
One of our participants takes the opportunity to fly his drone across the plateau. (iPhone6)
There is not much traffic; two men in their traditional deel coats, and no helmets, smile as they pass us.
In spite of the dusty roads, our drivers manage to keep the Russian UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) four-wheel-drive trucks spotlessly clean: …
… so clean you can see yourself in them!
View from the Truck
Closer to our destination, the road gets bumpier. Rough wooden planks serve as a bridge to the next patch of gravel.
Cabins on the Plain
There is no sense of crowding at Selenge Lodge where we are camped out for the night. Pretty little cabins are located well away from the gers, …
… and away from the greenhouses which sit empty in the winter sun.
The season is clearly finished: nothing is growing inside, and the torn sheeting flaps in the icy cold wind.
The people who look after the camp are happy to pose …
… in the brightly angling afternoon sun.
The Elder Child
In the Firelight
The light falls quickly over the camp. Surprisingly, there are still enough trees for a bonfire! We all gather around it after dinner. (iPhone6)
Mother and Child in the Firelight
Boy with a Bucket
Early next morning, the son of the owners goes about his chores.
Mongolian Sheep Dog
Woman in the Kitchen
As we prepare to leave, mum at the counter …
Father and Baby
… and dad at the back door, see us off.
And so, after a feed of Khorkhog (Xopxoг – an awful lot of mutton and offal stewed with hot stones in a pressure cooker), a hot shower and a night’s sleep, we point the UAZs ever-westward and set off on another day’s drive.
May all your roads be less bumpy!
Happy travels –