Loads of driving. Ironman, our driver, seems convinced 35km/h is an optimal speed, but we get frustrated to see other cars passing us at double the speed. We kill time by playing battleship and other paper-pencil games when its not too bumpy. At first, we are still in the desert, and witness what feels like a supernatural bridge between heaven and earth: dark and wide sand tornadoes reaching for the skies while right above them some thick clouds pour down a column of water, both connecting a hundred meters aboveground.
The further we drive, the greener it gets. Horses get fatter and their ribs become less visible. Eventually, we notice the first trees we’ve seen since leaving Korea. We arrive in Orkhon Valley in what is considered Central Mongolia and are stunned by the beautiful views over the river that carved its way through the dark volcanic stone landscape. We set camp next to a little waterfall and have some surprisingly delicious kimchi instant noodles while watching a Mongolian family picknicking and fishing in the river.
Leaving our beautiful camping place, we pass some 4-5000 year old tombstones named “deer stones” after the deers carved on their surface. We also give a ride to a old woman that is hitch-hiking from her ger to the next village. She’s wearing a beautiful shiny dark green silk deel with flowers stitched all over it. Her pearl earrings, jewelry in her hair and a ring that matches its deel don’t give the impression that she has just been herding sheep earlier today.
We arrive in Kharkhorin, Mongolia’s capital city in the times of the great Genghis Khan. Nothing is left from those times, but we visit the colorful Erdene Zuu monastery that has an impressive surrounding wall made of white stupas. It is probably one of the oldest structures in Mongolia (built in the 16th century), as the nomadic lifestyle that has been the Mongolian way of life since forever meant that stone structures weren’t needed.
Our shopping once more proves to be difficult: half of the shop is filled with candy and alcohol, the other half is perished canned and “fresh” food – which means rotten carrots and some old green onions. The shopping list we had excitedly prepared is pretty useless as there is almost nothing we had intended to buy and we are supposedly in one of Mongolia’s bigger cities.
We put our tent at a riverside a bit outside of the city, and some men offer to catch some fish for us. We happily agree and shortly after they come back with 2 massive fish, still shaking in the plastic bag. We were first too naïve thinking that they would just do it for fun, but they want money and we bargain for a long time. The fish are huge so we grill one on the fire and try to make a soup with the second one. The only condiments we have are salt and a bit of curry powder we bought in japan, so we will see tomorrow whether it’s edible or not…
The fish soup actually tastes pretty nice. Even Ironman shows his approval by saying with his deep Dark Vador voice: “Ah, I have the feeling I just ate some meat. This is good”. After those philosophical words we hit the road again going North-West to Khorgo Volcano National Park. Ironman starts in turtle mode as usual, but suddenly a jeep passes us and he gears up, driving up to 70km/h! Whoop whoop! Anyway, about 6 hours later we make it to the volcano and climb up the last four hundred meters on foot (good to be walking once again after sitting so long). The view is absolutely stunning from the top. We can overview thousands of green trees growing on black lava stone, with the silvery lake (Tsagaan Nuur – white lake) shining in the background.
The lake and the surroundings all look really beautiful, but there’s just one problem: gazillions of flies! They luckily don’t bite having to walk through clouds of insects isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience. Again, change of plans: ger stay instead of camping. Rebekka is very excited because she might finally get some sleep… but that was without considering Ironman’s snoring.
The next morning, we start late for once and visit some nearby caves that the volcano’s eruption has formed long ago. We drive along the lake and pick a random spot for the tent (that’s the freedom you have in Mongolia). As it is only the middle of the afternoon and our driver refuses to go further because it’s not according to the plan, we go look for a river to fetch water and visit a nomadic family living nearby. They invite us into their ger and welcome us with some delicious yak-yogurt. They then try to feed us some arog, a kind of rotten cookie made out of jogurt and alcohol that has been dried over the past year and that would probably take another year to eat because it’s harder than a stone.
Later on, the son and father herd their sheep nearby our tent and stop for a bit to chat. The boy is 11 and proudly says that he knows how to drive the big Chinese-made motorcycle – quite common for the kids on the countryside. For dinner, there’s noodle soup with dried meat again, which Ironman comments as “real Mongolian taste”, not knowing that we’ve added some chicken stock to make it tastier.