Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks or more – some even up to a month! Initially, I was in disbelief – seriously, a month is a long time for one country, but it later evolved into an apologetic revelation with a regretful, “I wish I had planned a longer stay. I will come back for the Gobi desert, climb the Altai mountain range, bask at Lake Kovsgol, traverse Orkhon Valley”.
Safe to say, our experience at Terelj National Park remain one of the highlights throughout our TransSiberian adventure. Getting out of the city we passed undulating hills, plains flecked with gers and small country homes, and wild horses galloping in the distance with unrestrained freedom.
We entered the national park after an hour plus on the road. I was looking forward to the seclusion and wilderness that it promised, but entering the park, I realised that this was a favourite holiday destination for locals – there were cars parked everywhere, holiday retreats on the left and right, gers made of brick and tour buses. After Naadam, locals made a beeline here for some rest. So, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. Thankfully, Terelj NP is massive, covering 1.2million acres of land – there is enough room for everyone to have their own open-plains experience.
The park is known for the gigantic Turtle Rock formation, named for its resemblance to a turtle. There are several monasteries within the park and we visited Ariyapala monastery. The climb up to the temple was unforgiving but the view at the top was well worth it. Inside the temple Buddhist monks sat crossed legged chanting almost in silent whispers, colourful flags danced to the gentle breeze and the wind chimes played a beautiful tune.
Meeting Our Host Family
It was time to meet our host family, our four-wheel drive pulled into a small community of about five gers. Some horses grazing nearby against a mountainous backdrop. We entered into the family ger and felt immediately at home. The domed shape home was well lighted with natural light coming from the opening above, a sofa set, a tv, a few small cupboards and a small portable sink were lined neatly along its side. The centrepiece of the home as its kitchen, a wood-fire iron stove with a long chimney sticking up and out of the ger.
Our host, Chan’gkhan (I think that’s how its spelt) was a pretty young woman with plump healthy cheeks and sparkling eyes is the mother to a one-year old boy and a superb multi-tasker. She cooks all meals, milks the horses every to hours, takes care of her son and ailing father and attends to all her guests. Her husband works as a horse herder and brings guests on horse riding trips in the summer. When winter hits and the tourist dry spell arrives, her husband travels to Ulaanbaatar and works in construction.
During our stay, we were flanked with simple home cooked Mongolian meals. I had the privilege of helping and seeing how the meals were prepared. Fried meat dumplings called huushuur was my favourite. Light pastry with mutton, potato and onion filling deep fried to crunchy perfection. Huushuur is usually served with hot milk tea or a clear vegetable broth. We had man tou, a white flour fluffy steamed bread served with mutton soup.
Chan’gkhan offered us some mare’s milk, a sour fermented drink that tasted nothing like milk. I took a sip and politely declined seconds. We also had a steady selection of Mongolian tidbits – aaruul, dehydrated yak curds, hard cake-like biscuits and dried milk chips. It’s an acquired taste, I must say.
After lunch, we walked to our ger about 100 meters from the family home. There were four single beds inside the ger each covered with pretty linen. Sunlight streamed in from above illuminating the beautiful hand-painted orange beams that held the ger in place. There was a small table in the centre and that was it. I appreciated the simple spaciousness it offered. But there was no electrical plug points, no toilet, sink or shower. It dawn on me that we were in for quite a camping experience.
The toilet was about 150 meters away where the horses grazed. There was a wooden box-like shelter that I thought nothing off, until I realised that that was our only toilet! I neared the wooden box and was already overcome by the strong stench – there was only two wooden planks over a deep pit and the only thing that seemed to be having fun were the flies! I made a mental note to avoid the toilet unless for emergencies.
Besides the toilet conundrum, we had a wonderful stay. We went on horse riding trips and laughed when our horses had to stop for a wee and a poop. It wasn’t my first time riding a horse, but it was our first as a family and we enjoyed every moment of it – watching how Seth was completely drawn to every movement of the horse, patting the horse and saying, “You can do it!” and today, he sits on pillows and gallops away. Wonderful memories were made.
We watched and marvelled at the strength of Chan’gkhan as she carried out her daily task. Every two hours, she would put on knee guards and with a bucket in hand she gets down and milks the mare. She makes grunting and hissing noises to coax the mare to let down while her father steadies the animal.
Our days in Mongolia’s backcountry could not be a better introduction to the vastness and distinct culture and landscapes this country has to offer. We connected with a local family through our similarities of shared family value, our appreciation for nature and curiosity to learn about each other’s culture. Beautiful Mongolia could do with more marketing on an international stage, but somehow, I selfishly hope that Mongolia will stay a little less known because its rugged edge is what makes her special.