NEAR ULAAN BAATAR
Near Ulaan Baatar are some lovely hiking areas, monasteries and arguably some of the wildest areas near a major city in the world. Just a few kilometers outside the city are mountains, pastures, and gers. Venture further on some directions 20 kilometers from the city and are you will be in places that humans rarely tread. One of the nicest things about traveling in the u32 area is that the transportation links are very good by Mongolian standards. There are even some paved roads.
The four sacred mountains around Ulaan Baatar—2256-meter-high Tsetseegun Mountain to the south, Songino Mountain to the west, Bayanzurkh Mountain to the east and 1949-meter-high Chingeleti Mountain to the north—can all be climbed. Tsetseegun Mountain is the highest and most accessible. It is covered mostly in forests. See the Lonely Planet Guide for Mongolia for information on the different routes to the top.
Zaissan Tolgoi (a couple of kilometers south of the Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace) is a hill with fine views of the city. Zaissan Memorial, located here, is dedicated to World War II victims. Next to monumental statue of a soldier there is mosaic on a large circular panel of reinforced concrete built to honor the friendship between the Mongolian and Soviet peoples. In the center is a large granite bowl with an eternal flame,
Gachuurt (25 kilometers form Ulaan Baatar) is a tourist ger camp on the Tuul River with gers, a golf course and a jazz café. Activities include hiking, fishing, swimming, and horseback riding. Gachuurt can be reached by taxi or bus (departs opposite the Star Hotel). Overnight in a ger with meals cost US$25. Call Gerel (976-1-326-377 for reservations).
I hiked from Gachuurt to Terelj National Park about 100 kilometers from Ulaan Bataar, along the Tuul Gol (a river). Along the riverbanks closer to Ulaan Baatar were groups of partying Mongolians, drinking heavily, swimming, and listening to Guns and Roses and Mongolian and Russian pop music. By evening I had outdistanced myself from them and set up my tent on a hill. Here, as the August sun was going down at 10:30pm, I experienced the kind of stunning vista that I had come to Mongolia for: a big sky with low clouds racing by, and mountains covered by forests on their leeward sides and grass on their windward sides, with a few ger encampments scattered here and there along the river and the flood plains.
Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve (130 kilometers southeast of Ulaan Baatar) is one of the most popular nature reserves of Mongolia. It is a lovely combination of mountains, colorful wild flowers, pretty lakes, rivers and wetlands. Among the rare species found here endangered Argali mountain sheep, white-napped cranes, Siberian white cranes, hooded cranes, black storks, Asian heron, and whooper swans. Over 80 Argali sheep live in Gun-Galuut now. Tourists visiting the Nature Reserve have the opportunities to watch and photograph these animals, raft and fish in the lakes and rivers, camp in beautiful locations and visit nomadic families, riding horses, yaks and camels and being introduced to traditional nomadic lifestyle and culture.
Tuvkhun Monastery (300 kilometers east of Ulaan Baatar) is located on the peak of the Undur shireet and is at a height of 2,312 meters. It was erected by Zanabazar (1st Bogd Gegen in Mongolia) in 1654 on a smooth area of the south slope above steep rock face about 20 meters high. There are 14 small temples. Zanabazar created his famous script “Soyombo” here in 1680. This temple has enjoyed state protection since 1998 and was recognized by UNESCO as a “most wonderful valuable object” in 1996.
Giant Genghis Khan Statue
Giant Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue (in Tsonjin Boldog, 54 kilometers east of Ulaanbaatar) is 40-meter 131-foot tall statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, on the bank of the Tuul River where, according to legend, he found a golden whip. Part of the Genghis Khan Statue Complex, the statue symbolically points east towards his birthplace and sits on top of the Genghis Khan Statue Complex, a 10-meter-high (33-foot-high) visitor centers with 36 columns representing the 36 khans from Genghis to Ligdan Khan. It was designed by sculptor D. Erdenebileg and architect J. Enkhjargal and erected in 2008.
Visitors walk to the head of the horse through its chest and neck, where they have a panoramic view. According to the initial plan the main statue area is supposed to be surrounded by 200 ger (yurts) arranged in the pattern of the horse brand marks used by the 13th century Mongol tribes. The attached museum has exhibitions relating to the Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures in Mongolia, which show things such as everyday utensils, belt buckles, knives and sacred animals. The exhibition on the Great Khan period of the 13 and 14th centuries has ancient tools, gold objects and some Nestorian crosses and rosaries. Adjacent to the museum is a tourist and recreation centre, which covers 212 hectares (520 acres). The US$4.1 million, complex was built spent by the Genco Tour Bureau, a Mongolian company.
In 2009, shortly after the Genghis Khan statue was unveiled, Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “Jesus Christ looms over Rio de Janeiro, a quartet of American presidents gazes from the face of Mount Rushmore and Lenin keeps watch over St. Petersburg. But if there were a global contest to honor larger-than-life men on a colossal scale, Mongolia might just vanquish them all — again. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, August 2, 2009 /^\]
“A monument is the latest effort to show off an old khan...and this time he charges admission. About an hour's drive from Ulan Bator...the khan first appears on the horizon as a twinkling speck, rising on the plains like a shimmering mirage. As one approaches, he takes the breath away: a 131-foot-tall giant on horseback, wrapped in 250 tons of gleaming stainless steel. Visitors can even take an elevator and emerge from between his legs to gaze at the lush Mongolian steppe from a deck atop his steed's head. “All Mongolian people are proud of this statue," said Sanchir Erkhem, 26, a Mongolian sumo wrestler living in Japan who was posing for photographs on the platform during a trip home. “Genghis Khan is our hero, our father, our god." /^\
“The giant statue of Mongolia's most famous personage... is the latest in a horde of monuments and products that have appeared here since the country threw off Communism nearly 20 years ago. Planes now land at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, students attend Chinggis Khaan University and tourists can stay at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel. The khan's bearded visage graces cans of energy drinks, vodka bottles and cigarette packs, as well as the money to pay for those goods...Politicians have been eager to join the khan's bandwagon. In 2006, the government unveiled yet another statue of the conqueror, this time sitting Abraham Lincoln-like on the capital's main square."
Terelj National Park
Terelj National Park (90 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar) was the first national park established in Mongolia. It is a lovely and wild place with rock formations, evergreen forests, mountains, rushing streams, and lots of ger camps, some of which have karaokes and discos. In the spring and summer the meadows are carpeted with different kinds of wildflowers.
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was created in 1993, borders the Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area, and is one of the most visited protected areas. Terelj is located on the Terelj River and is a spectacular valley with eroded rock formations, pine-covered mountains and grasslands carpeted with perennial wildflowers and edelweiss. A large number of adventure activities can be enjoyed here such as hiking, fishing, swimming, cross country skiing, rafting, horseback riding, birdwatching. rock climbing, and mountain biking.
There are several groupings of ger camps. Some have Mongolian barbecues. Horse can be rented. Their quality and price depends on where you rent them. Some long distance hiking and horse riding destinations include the Yestii Hit Springs, the lake Khagiin Khar Nuur and 2656-meter-high Altan-Olgii Uul. Visitors can do multi-day hikes and spend the night at gers that are spaced 10 to 16 kilometers apart. .
Places at Terelj National Park
Among the popular spots in Terelj National Park are Turtle Rock; a rock formation that does indeed look like a turtle and has special significance because turtles are associated with longevity in Asia; the temple Gunjin Sum (See Below); and UB2, a large hotel at the end of the main road, with access to the wilderness. A few nomads live here and graze their sheep, cattle, horses and yaks. The camp is a bit difficult to get to. There is no public transportation. Most travelers go with a tour group and make arrangement with a travel agency or the park. The road is paved all the to the UB2 hotel.
Gunjiin Sun Temple ( Terelj National Park) contains the grave of the Manchu queen of the Mongolian Ephu King Dondovdoir. The king built the temple in 1740 after the death of the queen, who is said to have been poisoned because if her love for the Mongolian people, which was seen as a betrayal to the Manchus. The temple is one of the few Manchu style temples in Mongolia and was not destroyed in the purges in the 1930s but in the meantime became a near ruin from neglect. It has recently been restored.
Khan Khentii Protected Area (adjacent to Terelj National Perk) is a massive wilderness covering over 1.2 million acres, where 1,150 species of plant, 50 mammal species, 253 kinds of bird, and 34 species of fish have been identified, The Tuul River has its source here. It passes through Ulaan Baatar on its way to Lake Baikal. The Onon and Kherlen Rivers also begin here. They flow into the Amur.
The region of Khan Khentii Protected Area and Terelj National Perk is on the southern edge of the Siberian taiga forest and marks a transition zone between the steppe and the taiga. Plants from both environments as well as others can be found here: Arctic tundra, northern coniferous forests and steppe. Plants found in Manchuria can be seen in the park alongside plants usually seen in continental Europe. There is an amazing variety of wild flowers, including several varieties of edelweiss. The highest mountains are over 2800 meters.
My Experience in Terelj National Park
I spent two days in Terelj in the mid 2000s. The hiking was great. Because much of the park — and Mongolia for that matter — is covered by grasslands you can walk anywhere you want. Without a lot of trees blocking the way you can see for miles and miles. At the top mountains there are wonderful views in all directions.
I stayed at a ger camp and hotel where a BBC crew was also staying. They were in Mongolia filming a Mel-Gibson-Passion-style film about the life of Genghis Khan, with Mongolian actors speaking Mongolian. The day I ran into the crew they had been shooting the birth of Genghis Khan in a ger that was set up in a forest about a kilometer from the hotel. While they were filming they were hit by a nasty storm, a tornado they said, that caused animals and equipment to be hurled into the air and the ger they were filming in to collapse.
The first crew member I met said that 20 or so cattle had been killed and a girl had been seriously injured. A second one I talked to later said about six horses were killed and a girl was slightly injured. A third crew member I met after that said he thought that only couple of ponies had been injured and that was it (I can see why the BBC had been having some credibility problems in recent years). I was able to hitchhike back to Ulaan Baatar after my park trip with relative ease.
Mt. Bogd and Manzushir Monastery
Mt. Bogd National Park(45 kilometers south of Ulaan Baatar and relatively easy to get to) is by some reckonings one of the world’s oldest national parks. Established in 1778, it covers 426.51 square kilometers and is the home of the 2122-meter-high mountain Bogd Khan Uul. The Valley of Huree is a popular place for hiking and horseback riding, Visitors can try archery here and see huge gers on carts and other props used on the filming of the movie “Chinggis Khaan” and visit a museum dedicated to Chinggis Khan. Wildlife on the area includes wolves and foxes.
Mt. Bogd adorns the south side of Ulaanbaatar. Under state protection since 1778, it is sacred mountain with rock carvings, over 300 plant varieties and animals such as boar, fox, hare, wolf, squirrel, eagles and woodpeckers. You can also visit the Manzushir Khiid, an 18th century monastery in the southern reserve. The Monastery overlooks a beautiful valley of streams and pine, birch trees, dotted with granite boulders. Established in 1733, it had over 20 temples and was once home to at least 300 monks
Zuumod (45 kilometers south of Ulaan Baatar) is a provincial capital with an interesting museum and is home of Manzushir Khiid. Fifteen kilometers outside if town near the village of Khoshigiin is Mother Rock, a sacred landmark for Mongolians. Pilgrims make offerings of vodka and scarves and circle around three times and makes three wishes. In the Soviet era visiting Mother Rock was forbidden and the government tried to blow it and up and tear it down with a tractor but when they tried to it the tractor mysteriously caught on fire and the officials that ordered the destruction either died or became seriously ill.
Manzushir Monastery (five kilometers on foot from Zuumod) is located in a beautiful valley with mountain streams, pine and birch trees and granite boulders, Established in 1733, the monastery was dedicated to Manzshir, the God of Mentality, had 21 temples and was once home to at least 300 monks. It was destroyed and ;eft o ruins after the purges in the 1930s. A few new temples has been built next to the ruins. The old main temple has been rebuilt and serve as a museum with art objects and artifacts from the old temples. There is some pleasant hiking on the area. In one place there are some cave painting. On the way to the monastery is a two-to bronze cauldron made in 1726.
Khustai National Park
Khustai National Park (near Khustain Nuruu, 100 kilometers southwest from Ulaan Baatar) is where some nearly extinct Mongolian wild takhi horse (Przewalski Horse) were re-introduced in the grasslands and birch forests here in 1993. A large fence surrounds the areas with the horses so they don’t escape. The best time to see the wild horses is around dusk and dawn at places where the come to drink.
The reserve area covers 90,000 hectares. Asiatic red deer, wolves, boar, wild cat, lynx and gazelles also live here. Deer and gazelles are often spotted but sightings of the other animals are rare. Within the park are a number of Turkic graves and stone men, or hum chuluu. The Ongot archeological complex is nearby. A number of hikes and horse rides can be done in the area. There is a ger camp here. E-mail MACNE@magicnet.mn or call 976-1-367-345.
Khustai National Park has an area of 506.20 square kilometers and is run by the Mongolian Association for the Conservation of Nature and the Environment (MACNE), with the cooperation of the Foundation Reserves for the Przewalski Horse (FRPH) and the Dutch government. One of the park’s main goals has been reintroduce takhi to wild. Also called the Przewalski horse (named after the Polish explorer who first ‘discovered’ it in 1878), the horse numbers were greatly reduced after poachers killed them for meat, and overgrazing and development reduced their fodder and breeding grounds. In the last 10 years, the Takhi has been increased to more than 200 horses.
Takhi (Przewalski Horses)
The Przewalski's horse, also known as the wild Asiatic horse or takhi, is the only true wild horse left in the world and the last remaining species of wild horse. It is found almost exclusively in zoos although some have been reintroduced to Mongolia. [Source: Natural History, July 2002]
Przewalski's horses are small and stocky and look somewhat like mules. The closest living relative of the domestic horse, they are 2.2 to 2.6 meters in length, with a 80- to 110-centimeter-long tail, and weigh 200 to 300 kilograms. They are rusty brown to beige in color, with dark brown lower legs. Although they have different numbers of chromosomes they are the only members of the equid family capable of producing fertile offspring if interbred with domesticated horses.
Przewalski's horses are named after a 19th century Russian-Polish explorer, who brought some skins from the animal to Russia. He was born in Smolensk in 1839. He traveled extensively in the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Western China, Tibet and Central Asia. He was one of the first Westerners to meet the Dalai Lama and served as an agent for the Russians in the Great Game. The Przewalski's horse was named after him. He died in what is now Kyrgyzstan in 1888.
Przewalski's horses are markedly different from domestic horses and regarded as a different species. They have several characteristics that are closer to the prehistoric ancestors of horses than to domesticated horses. They have a short neck, short back, stubby legs and a thin tail base and have a short mane and forelock. During the summer zebra-like stripes appear on their legs.
Przewalski's horses used roam the steppes and deserts of Mongolia, northern China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. They were depicted in wall paintings but were considered too wild to domesticate and were pursued only for food. Another kind of horse was selected for domestication.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mongolia tourism and government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020