DAYS 1 – 23: MONGOLIA
Your epic overland tour from Mongolia to Istanbul starts in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. You will have a pre-departure meeting on the first evening, and then the next morning you will have a guided tour of some of Ulaanbaatar’s best and most treasured sights including the Gandan Monastery and the National Museum. In the afternoon you will spend a few hours exploring the Black Market. This huge market contains every single item a Mongolian may need, so a trip here will certainly give visitors a fascinating insight into peoples’ lives, whether they are nomads or urban apartment dwellers.
From Ulaanbaatar you drive out of the city and into the vast plains of Mongolia, aiming to arrive at Khar Bukh Balgas ruins in the early afternoon. Khar Bukh Balgas was built during the Kitan period in about 1000CE, and was part of a chain of fortresses that were used to govern and control the northern region and borders of the Kitan state. Upon arrival at the site, you will explore the ruins and learn about the various kingdoms that dominated Mongolia during that era.
After your visit to the ruins we will drive to Ögii Lake where many nomadic families spend their summer. The Lake is famed for it’s great bird watching opportunities where it is not uncommon to spot at Swan Goose, White Spoonbill and Dalmatian Pelicans. In Ögii Lake we will stay in a local nomadic ger-tent camp set up for guests. These are large gers, each usually containing 2 or 4 beds.
An early start as you head for to Mongolia’s earliest capital, Kharkhorin (otherwise known as Karakoram). Your first stop on the way to Kharkhorin will be at the Kultigen monument. This massive stone tomb was built in honour of a Turkic prince and warrior killed in a nearby battle. We then continue on a fairly short drive to Kharkhorin. Kharkhorin was famed throughout Asia at the capital of the Mongol Empire. You will visit the ruins of the old city, the Erdene Zuu monastery, and other historical monuments in the area. In Kharkhorin you will again stay in a ger camp.
From Kharkhorin you head south, driving into the stunning region of the Orkhon Valley. You will drive to the beautiful volcanic canyon that runs along the Orkhon River and you can take an easy hike along the canyon ending near a pool at the bottom of the Red Waterfalls where you can take a cool swim! You will wild camp in a remote area of the Orkhon Valley for the night.
The following day you will continue your overland journey through the Orkhon Valley to the Tuvkhon Monastery, which you can embark on a two and a half hour trek to visit (the first hour will be uphill!). This monastery was established during the 1650s by Zanbazar, one of Mongolia’s most respected religious leaders. The monastery’s wooden buildings are integrated with a natural system of caves perched near a hilltop, from which you have beautiful views of the Orkhon Valley and the surrounding pine forests. You will wild camp nearby.
Please note that on occasion it is impossible to reach the Tuvkhon Monastery due to river flooding or the ground being impassable – the roads are in a particularly bad state here and are very susceptible to being rendered impossible to drive on if there has been rain recently. Although we will do our best to make this visit, your understanding is appreciated if we cannot.
From the Orkhon Valley your overland trip heads north crossing the Khangai Nuruu Mountains through a series of passes until we reach an area that Mongolians call ‘The Paradise of the Horse Herders’ due to its lush grasses and open valleys. You will drive to the Tsenkher hot springs, where water flows out of the ground at 82°C, and where you can enjoy a relaxing soak.
The following day you will take a short, easy walk to meet one of the many nomadic families that spend their summers in the region. The afternoon is free to explore the valley and surrounding hills either by foot or by horseback. In Tsenkher you will stay at a ger camp.
From Tsenkher you will drive to Tsetserleg, the provincial capital, where you will make a short visit to the local market. If time permits, you will also visit the provincial museum. You will then continue your overland journey north past the Tamir river, and will wild camp tonight.
Your journey will then take you north past Taikhar Chuluu (a massive rock which is connected to local mythology) and the Chluulut Canyon to arrive at your ger camp near the Khorgo volcano.
The next morning you will take a hike to the top of the Khorgo Volcano and take in the incredible views over its perfect crater. From the top of the volcano you continue your hike through fields studded with pine trees, stopping off enroute at the Yellow Dog Cave, an interesting volcanic phenomenon. Returning to your overland truck you will continue your journey north, aiming to wild camp in the remote plains north of Khorgo.
Over the next few days you continue driving north on one of Mongolia’s most beautiful routes, crossing high mountain passes, vast grasslands, and small creeks! You will pass by the beautiful alpine Lake Zuun en route and wild camp near the lake.
The following afternoon, roads permitting, you should arrive at Mörön, the provincial capital. You will visit the local market, Danzadarjaa Monastery and the local museum before heading to a nearby wild camp. If you don’t have time on this section of the trip, then you can visit the town after coming back from Khövsgöl Lake.
From Mörön you will drive out to an ancient burial site featuring Mongolia’s mysterious deer stones, these are memorial stones representing important leaders and warriors, carved with deer motifs. After visiting the site, you continue our trip northward to one of the world’s biggest fresh water sources, the stunning Khövsgöl Lake.
Khövsgöl Lake and its amazing surroundings are home to several of Mongolia’s ethnic minorities as well as a refuge for a wide variety of wildlife. One of the most interesting ethnic groups living near the lake is the Tsaatan, also known as ‘The Reindeer People’. A small tribe of Tsaatan consisting of about 40 families lives with its herds of reindeer in the forests around the lake. These graceful animals provide the tribe with all its basic needs – milk, meat and transportation. As there are very few Tsaatan left and this is a mobile population, you may meet them but there are no guarantees – however, the scenery of the area is well worth the exploration.
The following day you will take a hike around the forests and meadows near the lake. Lying at about 1650m above sea level, surrounded by mountains rising above 3100m, the waters of Khovsgol are deep and spectacularly clear and pure. You will hike through thick pine forests carpeted with flowers and explore the setting of Mongolia’s ‘Blue Pearl’. In Khövsgöl Lake we will stay at a ger camp.
From Khövsgöl Lake you will spend the next 3 days crossing central-northern Mongolia on our way back towards the capital of Ulaanbaatar. The long road offers diversified landscapes, from vast, open steppes to beautiful sand dunes.
The plan is to wildcamp in the plains east of Mörön on the first day of this journey, by the Selenge River on the next day, and on the outskirts of the town of Bulgan on the day after that.
As you get closer to Ulaanbaatar, you will try to visit the Amarbayasgalant Monastery and wild camp near the monastery. Built between 1727 and 1736 by the Manchu Emperor Enkh Amgalan, Amarbayasgalant is among the largest monasteries in Mongolia to have survived the purges of the 1930s. With about 60 monks living and studying here, the monastery functions today as one of Mongolia’s central religious institutions, and consists of 29 different temples, all built in the classic Tibetan style.
From the monastery you will have a full drive day from northern Mongolia back to the city of Ulaanbaatar. This evening is free to relax and explore, and to have a well-earned meal and drinks in one of the city’s many restaurants!
You will have another free day to explore Mongolia’s capital, before your overland tour heads south towards China wild camping near the town of Choir, and then near the town of Sainshand. You will hopefully have the chance to visit the Dechinchoinkhorlin Monastery in Sainshand (note it is not always open for visitors).