Mongolia – Orkhon valley

Similarly named to an island we just spent destroying our sense of what is the right way to drive a car and mostly our livers for a week, if you haven’t read the Olkhon Island adventures with Korandovod…please do so now. It’s really for your entertainment…not mine.

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About a day drive from the city…its too long to type Ulaanbaatar and too hard, too many “a’s” so from now on we will refer to it as the city. Plus it makes sense to call it that since all the other places in Mongolia are just little villages compared to THE city.

Orkhon valley itself is a beautiful place, it has the Orkhon river and waterfalls…so thats nice. On the way to the valley you can stop by Kharkhorin, which is located next to the site of the now destroyed ancient city of Karakorum. But the valley and waterfall themselves are located away from Kharkhorin, depending on the road you take either 3 or 6 hours away.

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Driving out of Ulaanbaatar…sorry, the city, can drive mad even a Buddhist monk. The city has one main avenue through which it seems ALL of the cars come to hang out, because not much actual driving happens. Unfortunately for us Kharkhorin is to the west of the city and “Oasis” is all the way east. That means we have to cross it getting out and then getting back in.

After the brain melting traffic we finally got on the open road and Hyein got a craving for kimchi pancakes. Usually, I’m able to dissuade her…not today.

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What the hell am i worried about we got the kimchi, the flour and as it turns out all the cooking equipment with us. Find a place to safe pull of the road and park and just like the Mongols, set up instant picnic. Gently breeze, smell of frying kimchi, passing cars and green steppe all around. The road is paved, we just had a shower this morning and feeling absolutely good about ourselves. This is nice. Check out how spanking clean is Hodori.

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Overlanding is not about the final destination, most of the time the point we pick as the “final” destination turns out to be much less interesting than the journey. Today is no different, this is the first time we see camels in the “wild”. They belong to someone of course, by “wild” i mean not in a zoo or a park.

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They sort of look like big llamas and their face has something of a sloth in it, probably the widely spaced eyes and a very crazy look to them.

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We saw a little ger nearby and ask for permission to look at the animals, the guy waived us towards the camels with a smile. I’m not sure if he smiled because he was genuinely happy to see us or because he knew the camels would deal with the intruders in their own slimy way. I’ve personally never seen a camel spitting but they do shake their head and their saliva goes everywhere…i think ill pass.

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Duuudee..camels, now sand? Are you going to the dessert? No this is just Mongolia…you can have camels and sand dunes right next to the greenest steppe, rivers and horses.

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This is the Mongol Els (aka Mongol Sands), GPS coordinates 47.34935, 1036837.

In size they are not that impressive, but the sand quality is superb – its grainy and yellow, all the things you want from sand. Honestly thought, there is like a million different kinds of sand. I’ve heard that to make silicon wafer for electronics industry there is a specific place in Australia that has just the right properties.

Also since the dunes are not that big it is possible to take everything your learned in Olkhon and apply it here. Remember this is Mongolia, so you are allowed to go ANYWHERE you want. I once asked a Mongolian guide if we can drive through some place…she gave me a very strange look and said: “i don’t exactly know, but i think your car would be able to go through there”…

Hahaha…I asked we are allowed, she laughed and said: “This is Mongolia, the true land of freedom. Drive if you want!”

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Soon after Mongol Els you get to the city of Kharkhorin. The town itself is just your average Mongolian town… not much to see. But there is a very cool Buddhist monastery – Erdene Zuu Monastery, built long after the city of Karakorum has been reduced to nothingness at the end of 16th century.

Here is the dumb part, i was walking around trying to connect to my Mongolian Khan ancestors, walking the path they have taken…now i read that this was build 300 years AFTER Genghis khan.

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Not the dumbest thing i have ever done. There are some turtles and stone statues that do actually date back to the 13th century. One of the turtles is located near the monastery and the other one near one of the roads to the waterfall.

With the dark purple storm clouds in the distance, silent lighting and licking wind the stone walls of the monastery reassured the soul that there is nothing to worry. These walls are truly one of the most solidly constructed buildings in Mongolia. I’m not talking about the actual wind and load bearing capacity, I’m talking about the feel. They rise up out of the steppe, white with little towers peaking up in semi-orderly fashion. Coming up to the monastery i was thrown back in time to the period of lords and vassals and i was a lonely messenger coming to the castle to shelter from the impending winter.

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Drove just outside of the city to camp on the bank of the river. The menacing clouds didn’t produce much rain but did cause us to fold the tent around midnight and sit in the car watching whatever movies we have. Around 1am the wind died down enough to open the tent and pass out.

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In the morning we were greeted by a roaming herd of sheep and goats. Oh and i forgot to mention, like a million flies. Last night they were also there when the wind died down.

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I boiled the water for the coffee and watched as the sheep slowly grazed on by.

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You are probably imagining this as an idyllic type of setting: river, green hills, animals all around. Yes those are all true, but its also smelly, flies that cover your face and poop. Remember that all these grazing animals are just walking grass-to-poop conversion machines. So dont be jealous just yet.

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Quick breakfast and we are off to the valley. Now i’ll direct your attention to the map you saw in the beginning of the post. From Kharkhorin and the yellow pin where we camped to the waterfalls, the brown pin, there are two possible routes the blue and the green.

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Not worrying much about anything we plugged in the coordinates of the waterfall and set off.

The GPS decided to take us through the blue route along the river.

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The scenery is out of this world, the road takes you from the river up to the hills and back down. There were literally no other cars that we saw, only a couple of local bikes.

The picture above is what i have been dreaming about for many years, when i would lie awake and imagine every possibility that Mongolia would present. An interesting side note, what you do not see in this picture is just before when coming down the steep hill…i thought i would need to change my under garments. Hyein got out of the car to take the picture and observed from the outside the treacherous climb down. Turns out as usual my fears were unbiased and the car was not completely on its side like i thought.

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The road is long, but beautiful. No one else on there except the random sheep and goat herds.

In Mongolia you dont have to look for adventure, you just show up here and it finds you. This little river crossing was our first real experience with water. In the photo you see the car bravely across the stream, what you dont see is me getting out right before it, checking the depth, nervously pacing back and forth trying to figure out if we can cross. Then saying the hell with it and just going. The water barely touched the car’s body.rivercrossing2

I like this “blue” road, it gently introduces all the concepts of Mongolian driving to you, like a teaching course. Starts out with little mud and creeks, and gradually works itself up to some rocky climbs and bigger streams.

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If you are brave enough to take your eyes of the road for a moment…or better yet just stop and admire the beautiful views around you. Little white gers, can be seen for miles in this luscious valley.

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The road is nice, but grueling by the time we got to the waterfalls…i didn’t know left from right and up from down. My neck was aching and my back exhausted from all the white knuckled driving, rain and river crossings. We forgot what we came here for….a yes, the waterfall…where is it?

A local boy was happy enough to show us the way.

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Wait a moment…wait drove for 6 hours just to see this thing?

We have seen the Iguazu Falls and then this? Okay its pretty, in a 3 year-old’s finger painting kind of way.

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As i have said before its the not the final destination that makes our journey worthwhile, this being true today more than other days.

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Unlike the road less us to believe the waterfalls are not desserted, since we didn’t see a single car on the way there we thought that we would be completely by ourselves. Turns out that the falls are very much a local tourist attraction. Foreigners and Mongols alike come over to the valley to take in the views.

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In Orkhon valley was also the first time we saw yak’s. If you have lived in the city all your life, then it will be hard for you to tell the difference between a yak and a cow. Unless they have been recently shaved, yaks will be the fluffier of the two with long strands of wool hanging on their sides.

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The exhausting drive, the crazy wind from last night and possibility of rain with wind this night, we didn’t hesitate to splurge on a ger.

A ger or yurta as they are called here is the traditional home of the nomadic Mongols. We asked around at it takes about an hour to put it up and about 30 minutes to pack it up.

Shit…it takes us 2 hours to get ready in the morning…and i thought we have better equipment.

For all my architecture and engineering inclined friends out there – a ger has a central ring supported by two main wooden columns from which a bunch of small beams radiate towards the outer wall. The outer wall is self standing and cinched into a circle with straps. Its insulated with thick wool fabric and waterproofed with plastic.

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While the wind howled outside and rain pattered on the roof we happily discussed to ourselves that we made a good decision by staying in tonight.

In the morning we set out back towards the city, the streams that tickled the nether regions before have become full blown deep rivers.

There was absolutely no way around it…if there was i would have taken it, instead of trying to swim across. The water was taller than our wheels and the first time that we actually needed a snorkel.

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Sheep and goats, for some reason ALWAYS hang out on the roads and they always seem very annoyed that your are making them move. No…its you guys who are hanging out in MY way. But this is Mongolia, if you can drive around them easy just do so, it will be faster and quieter.

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Yaks on the other hand are much more civilized and law abiding citizen…not a single one was caught lounging on the roads.

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Once again of the 4th law of sheep attraction at work. Also you can see the general layout of Mongolian dirt roads – they split and coalesce without any visible reason.

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The river Orkhon offers some amazing views.

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We talked to a few tour drivers in the ger camp and asked them how long it took them to get to the waterfalls. They all said 3 hours…there is no freaking way that they could have done the same thing in half the time…i’m telling you not in the cars they got. So there has be another road…know we know it as the “green” road on the map above. And its paved at least half of the way…so that would make sense.

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More camels chilling in the rain.

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Because we cut down the drive from the waterfalls by half we were able to head back to the city the same day. It was raining and we didn’t want to cook outside.

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Saw a bunch of cars parked next to a ger, we assumed that it must be some sort of a feeding place.

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We walked inside and sat down and realized that for the first time in our trip we have no idea how to speak Mongolian, how to order food…nothing we got a nothing.

Crazy, right? But it makes sense, in central america we learned Spanish, in Brazil we communicated with Spanish, Singapore speaks English, Thailand we had Suin (Hyein’s Cousin), Korea and Russia are obvious.

Mongolian doesn’t belong to any language group that we can draw inspiration from. It uses Cyrillic, the Russian script, but that where the similarities come to a dead end. Resorting to some hand waiving and finger pointing we conveyed, like in “When Harry Met Sally” that we will be having what they are having.

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Turns out is the Mongolian version of Spaghetti Carbonara with a side of milk tea. It wasn’t bad, the noodles were hand made and instead of panceta it was chunks of fried lamb and lamb fat. The tea is made with milk, salt and just a couple of tea leaves. It tastes like boiling hot salty milk.

Its not bad…just not used to this combination, but after a long day it goes down quite nicely.

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Remember that “blue” road along the river? Every time we went over a bump for some reason the screen on our car computer would disconnect. I said to myself that i would check all the computer connections when we get back to the city. On the paved road the problem seemed to disappear and my worries with it.

When we got back i looked under the car and didn’t see anything wrong.

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The next morning we were leaving for Gobi and my neurotic nature made me look under that car again. And good thing, i noticed the front sway bar bolts came loose. Stopped by a mechanic and had it fixed. I would have done it myself, but i really needed to get the car up on a lift and thoroughly looked at. One of the two bolts came completely out and the second half way out. Replaced them and tightened them.

Put the car back down but it was still making a creaking noise, the rubber boot on the ball joint of the right lower control arm broke and a bunch of sand got in. We asked the mechanic if we are okay to go with it for a while, he said yes and wished us good luck.

I think the computer screen disconnecting was also due to the flexing of the front end and twisting a wire somewhere.

Summary:

Should you go to Orkhon valley? Yes, it is probably one of the best places to view the stereotypical hills and valleys. Also if the weather is good, stay for a few days and enjoy some horseback riding. Its THE place to do it. There are bunch of horseback riding camps and the landscape is perfect.

And a note about suspension. If your car starts to make creaking noises all of a sudden – that absolutely means that there is something wrong and you should at least check it out. Especially if you are in Mongolia and the car’s suspension get a full work-out every single day.

Read next our adventures in Gobi, same thing as Orkhon but with more camels and more sand!

2 Comment

  1. max says: Reply

    пейзажы идилистические и монголы вполне себе няшными(мягкими и покладистыми) выглядят, а только подумать что лет семсот назад выпиливали людей тысячами просто, похуже каких-нибудь теперяшних игиловцев-джихадистов

    1. irazinkov@gmail.com says: Reply

      Да…я как раз ходил и об этом постоянно думал…милые…когда спят и зубами к стенке.

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