It was a long day.
Long, bumpy, and noisy.
I’ve said it before: Cross-country travel in Mongolia is not for the faint-hearted – or for those who are weak of bladder! The Russian UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) four-wheel-drive vehicles that are tough enough to negotiate the matrix of mud, rocks, dirt and potholes that pass for a road network across the expansive steppes of Western Mongolia are not designed for passenger comfort.
We – a small group of photography enthusiasts organised by Within the Frame and managed by local guides G and Segi – were on our fourth day driving west from Ulaanbaatar (see: Gandantegchinlen Monastery). Our ultimate destination, the annual Golden Eagle Festival in the far-western province of Bayan-Ulgii Province was still a few driving-days away. In theory, we were driving so that we could immerse ourselves in the local landscape and culture. In practice, we saw the land from the windows of our 4x4s and mostly stopped well away from any settlements: our evening camps were dictated by the few accommodations open as the tourist season waned, and our lunch- and “comfort-breaks” took place wherever we happened to be.
I spent a lot of years on the Canadian prairies, so I have an affection for open plains with dustings of snow and mountains in the distance. I reflected on those days of driving across the winter wheat fields as I sat watching the steppes bounce past outside my UAZ window. The difference was that the prairie highways were smooth and straight; Mongolian roads pitch worse than a bad-tempered camel or a small boat in a storm.
We had been warned: it would be a long drive from our ger camp at Tosontsengel to our “hotel” on the shores Khyargas Lake.
And it was…
… with its own unique beauty.
It was dark before we reached our hotel – which was possibly just as well! The old Russian building (called by one French blogger “an ancient Soviet (Internment?) Camp”) looked like a high school, but lacked internal plumbing or any other creature comforts. The toilets were holes over pits at the petrol station next door, and the washing station was a walk in the other direction, at the cold-water tank. I thanked my lucky stars for my headlamp: otherwise, I would have had no chance of negotiating the rocky, obstacle-laden paths in the dark.
As chance would have it, the one person in our group who saw a mouse is deathly afraid of them. She was persuaded that mice don’t climb stairs, and that she’d be safe on the second floor. Those of us on the ground floor tucked into our beds with hard and lumpy horsehair mattresses and crunchy barley-filled pillows, and took our chances with the mice.
Still, it was warm.
May all your roads be less bumpy!