Touring Mongolia

Discover Mongolia's rugged beauty through a detailed travelogue that spans across its vast landscapes, from the captivating Gobi Desert to the majestic Altai Mountains. This travel report provides insights into Mongolia's cultural heritage, unique nomadic lifestyle, and breathtaking natural wonders, making it an essential resource for adventurers and travelers looking to explore wild Mongolia.
Introduction about the Mongolia Travel Report

Prologue by Gilles about our Mongolia tour with a rental car

Grisemote has been circling like a lion in a cage for 3 years now. The virus we won’t name has taken charge of closing borders and flights, limiting us to a few nice European trips.

And yet, as usual, everything was meticulously planned.

– The choice of country: Mongolia, for its legendary vastness, its sparse population essentially concentrated in a few towns and the perfume of adventure attached to this evocative name, with a hint of apprehension when we hear the words of Genghis Khan and his fierce warriors, the aridity of its desert – the Gobi, the Black Death which is said to have been exported in the Middle Ages, decimating half the European population (the 1st consequences of globalization?).

– The choice of rental vehicle for our Mongolia tours: a Russian UAZ Patriot 4×4, which we immediately imagine to be sturdy but Spartan. Chosen 3 years earlier at Sixt (rental retained and at the same price, during this period).

– The flight with Turkish (good for us, as we didn’t lose anything for 3 years).

– The route was based on the tracks and trials and tribulations of the illustrious Cécile and Laurent, as well as Marie’s Team, which meant we could set off in the middle of nowhere, but with a wealth of valuable information.

From the very first tracks, a feeling of great freedom invaded us and didn’t leave us until we returned to the capital. Huge open spaces just for us. The enchantment of the surprising diversity of the landscapes we crossed. The possibility of landing in the most grandiose places, with no constraints other than those of Mother Nature. That little piquant taste of being alone in the world, which means that whatever happens, we can only rely on ourselves to get us through. This sometimes generates a great deal of tension in the crew, but also a rare feeling of living each moment to the full and intensely, quite simply…

The identity card of the stay

We visit Mongolia 3 weeks and a half for two, in complete autonomy.

A total of 5000 kilometers (almost), including 4000 kilometers of trail. GPX tracks entered in our phones and tablet beforehand (just in case!). We also used the Offline Maps+ application on Android, for which you have to download the maps and GPX tracks in advance to be able to go offline. The app works very well with satellites. The local 4G network, present in almost all villages, even the smallest ones, means that missing map elements can be completed if necessary.

We had to adapt every day to unforeseen circumstances, starting with our vehicle and the climatic events we had to deal with. Aside from these minor hiccups, which were easily solved, the trip went off without a hitch from one end to the other, including air transport – rare enough to note!

Covid and closed borders + war in Ukraine, foreign travelers didn’t rush to this destination. Apart from at the airport and the Kharkhorin temple, we met NO Western tourists, and those we did meet were part of tour-operator groups.

We had to take three tries to book our plane tickets, and finally make our trip a reality.

The trip was planned for 2020, but cancelled due to COVID. Tickets rebooked for 2021, after the Mongolian borders were opened, but finally cancelled a week later by the airline, and finally, tickets rebooked for this year, which finally took us to our destination!

What triggered the spark that led us to the land of Genghis Khan?

First, Marie’s travel diary (on the “Si belle la Terre” website, always a source of inspiration):

https://sites.google.com/view/201706-mongolie/accueil?authuser=0

And then there was the book that accompanied us every day, inspiring and supporting us. Cécile and Laurent’s book. Available on their website “overland aventure“.

We also bought their GPX tracks.

We also used the Lonely Planet, a road map we bought on the internet, but rarely used.

The 4X4 for our holidays in Mongolia

We booked it with SIXT and paid for it in 2019. Online payment at the time of booking enabled us to get a negotiated rate. It’s true that renting a 4X4 independently for touring Mongolia is still a rare commodity in the country. As a result, the rental price is quite high. What’s more, the tracks are so bad that the vehicles are bound to age prematurely!

We opted for a Russian UAZ. Already for the price, it was among the cheapest 4x4s (we don’t have the basic one, but the “patriot”), and we wanted to test a “local” vehicle, to blend in with the cars used by the Mongolians. “L.O.L”, as our children would say! Here, Toyota is king. Come on, in Ulan Bator, 95 out of 100 cars are Toyotas. The most common car is the Prius. They’re everywhere, and Mongolians don’t hesitate to use them on the most unlikely trails, in the most remote corners (not always successfully, but often).

And to top it all off, people looked at us and our vehicle with curiosity: what kind of brand is this???!

We had a big COUAC, but we’re totally satisfied with SIXT’s services. Booked then cancelled twice, they kept our payment for 3 years, without any increase. I added two extra days which we were not charged for. As for the car and our COUAC, I’ll let you find out as I go along… But we’d go back with SIXT without any problem, if the future brings us back to Mongolia.

Visa for our Mongolia holidays

At the time of this trip to Mongolia it was available online from the embassy, very practical (60€ for a maximum of 30 days). Now Mongolia does not require visa anymore for most nationalities.

Credit cards

Used everywhere, even in grocery stores and gas stations in the smallest villages. We had Visa AND Mastercard. Sometimes one or the other didn’t work, but never both.

Mongolian SIM card for our mobile phones

UNITEL, taken from the state store in Ulan Bator. Twice as much data, for less money than Marie’s trip 3 years earlier.

Cooking gas

For our stoves (MSR and PRIMUS), cartridges taken from the “seven summit” store in Ulan Bator at the price of 9€ per small cartridge! Overpriced. We didn’t see any others in the villages we visited.

On the other hand, Mongolians use small stoves with “spray-type” gas cartridges, which can be found everywhere, at a very reasonable price. More sensible!

Water houses

Found in many towns and villages, sometimes several in the same town. They all look “the same”: cubic, surrounded by fences, with a pipe sticking out.

However, we found it very difficult to get water from these houses, which were either disused or had a card. So we often bought water in the numerous grocery stores.

Climate in July/August for touring Mongolia

We’d expected it to be very hot, but it was almost always cold at night in the country of endless blue skies. 0°C comforters desirable!

The wind picked up regularly at the end of the day, and was sometimes extremely violent. We had brought mason’s pegs to hold the tent in place.

Special track/soft sand equipment

We had a 9.3-kilo compressor. We didn’t regret taking it along, even though we only deflated the tires once in the Gobi desert. We had a slow puncture, which kept us going for several days. Extra pressure gauge for checking.

Effective desensitizing plates, but in a fiber material whose edges we had to cut to fit in our trunk, folded in half. The fiber being light, the weight didn’t penalize us too much.

Got a lot of use!

Food during our Mongolia tour

Plenty of grocery stores, but little choice in the villages. Grocery stores don’t necessarily carry the same items. No salads, tomatoes very rare, cucumbers sometimes. Long turnips.

Milk and yoghurts, sometimes “laughing cow”-style cheese spreads, handy for sandwiches. Small saveloys (but not always good). Otherwise, rice, potatoes, eggs (but we broke them all on our first run, so we avoided them), preserves, soups. Bananas sometimes.

We didn’t eat any meat.

In short, it takes a lot of ingenuity to try and vary meals when camping, especially when you don’t have a cooler. A lot of “raids” on grocery stores, but we managed in the end.

Restaurants (we didn’t test much!). Mostly mutton in the form of soup or “ravioli”. Mostly very fatty. A few moments of solitude in front of the plate.

Fuel

We use 92-octane petrol, which we can now find at all service stations, which was not the case a few years ago. While prices are soaring in Europe, here it’s still more than reasonable. But what about now?

Money

The Tugrik (MNT).

1€ = 1610 MNT

For your information, the vehicle deposit was MNT 5,613,000. In fact, even the smallest amount represents a significant quantity of banknotes, which is why it’s so much easier to pay almost everywhere with a credit card.

Where is Mongolia? Wedged between China and Russia.

Mongolia is located between Russia and China
Mongolia is located between Russia and China

The flag of Mongolia

Our Mongolia itinerary (approximate)

Day 1 of our Mongolia trip – Flying to Mongolia

Uneventful flight from Lyon with Turkhish Airlines, via Istanbul. The war between Russia and Ukraine (which broke out even though we’d had our tickets for ages) meant a lot of schedule changes and longer flight times, but in the end everything went smoothly. For the first time, we couldn’t get window seats – what a shame!

I’m lucky on the flight from Lyon to Istanbul: a woman prefers to be on the aisle side and lets me take her seat. The weather is clear and the view superb!

The Saône north of Lyon, then the Alps

Then over Croatia.

Arrival in modern Istanbul.

Istanbul airport is as huge as it is attractive.

After the uneventful flight to Istanbul, we cross the night at an accelerated speed of 800 km/h eastwards on the 2nd leg to Mongolia.

The stewardess on the ground had managed to get us two seats side by side (which was not the case when we booked), but central. I get annoyed when I see people lucky enough to have a window sleeping or worse, closing their window. The arrival in Mongolia looks great! Sunrise, flying over dune fields and all in a pure, clear atmosphere. I’m ranting!

Arrival is a quick formality for customs and baggage claim, including a sizable trunk containing the tire inflation compressor and camping gear. Our cab driver (shuttle booked through “Zaya Guesthouse”), who takes us to Ulan Bator, is already plunging us into a new world. The car’s steering wheel is on the right, whereas driving is on the right. He doesn’t speak English, and we’ll see later that it’s pretty much the same everywhere except in the big cities.

We are also confronted with the Cyrillic script, which makes the written word incomprehensible. Without speaking the language and understanding the written word, exchanges quickly become limited. It’s a good thing we’re going into the desert.

This takes us to Ulan Bator, the second most polluted city in the world, and it shows.

Early in the morning, the road runs smoothly, but afterwards it’s the complete opposite – a nightmare! In Ulan Bator, as soon as you leave the main arteries, the asphalt quickly disappears and the streets resemble tracks worthy of the Paris Dakar, sometimes very narrow and cluttered with cars parked in all directions. In short, not easy to cross.

Zaya welcomes us in an annex to her main establishment, a whole apartment, which allows us to relax and catch up on some of our jet lag. The only HIC is that, since we’re camping, we have a lot of heavy gear, especially the 30-kilo trunk, and it’s on the 3rd floor. But Zaya helps us without hesitation. He’s a very attentive host.

A good nap and we’re off to reconnoitre UB. (Ulan Bator for those in the know), waiting to pick up our car at 4pm from SIXT.

On the agenda, we scouted the area to buy the camping equipment we didn’t bring with us, due to the weight limit, i.e. chairs, table and gas refills from “Seven Summit”.

The state departement store, celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Well, well, well! What’s LEON doing here?????

We then stroll through the center. The next day sees the start of Mongolia’s BIG festival, Naadam. It looks very attractive. Men compete in horse races, jousts, fights etc… We’re careful, though, as the Covid is always present, and we can hardly see ourselves confronting it in a tent. So we avoid the gatherings and only attend the preparations. Perhaps another time…

Funnily enough, there’s a parade of people, mostly with bouquets of flowers, posing to be photographed in front of the imposing statue of Genghis Khan.

It’s in this flagship building, the Blue Sky, that we meet Jay to collect our vehicle: a Russian UAZ Patriot 4×4.

It’s right on time. No worries, no unpleasant surprises, no extra charge despite the two extra days on top of the initial payment.

The UAZ Patriot, which arrives at 28,000 kilometers, is completely scratched and dented. The engine exudes health and a certain power, but the equipment is minimalist. The trunk door closes with difficulty and eventually opens. As we make our way through the narrow lanes, we discover that the leaf spring suspension is probably robust, but pretty damn firm, the gearbox looks like a joystick because it’s so approximate, and the clutch requires a sportsman’s calf. It’s a promise for the vertebrae. We’re pretty dispirited and not very confident for the rest of our journey.

We continue the day by shopping at the mall: a fundamental moment not to be missed because once we leave Ulan Bator, everything becomes very complicated:

1) You need to know where to look, as the store names are in Cyrillic and have no shopfront.

2) you have to find what you’re looking for. It will take us more than a week, for example, to find a 20-l can of petrol and a rope.

We fill the trunk with food and water.

Just as in Kyrgyzstan, the last distant country we visited, candy and cake aisles predominate. If these are your main staples, you’ll have no trouble getting supplies anywhere in Mongolia…. otherwise, it’s a different story.

We’re pretty worn out from our journey, which began the day before, and from the six-hour time difference, but we find the energy to have dinner at Bull 1, a restaurant specializing in Mongolian hot pots. We loved it! It’s so much fun. Fortunately, we had the benefit of a few tips from diners at the next table, as there are a few things you need to know. And as is often the case, the waitresses don’t speak English.

The return to our quarters is done in torrents of water. We have to dry all our clothes all over the apartment, but fortunately we have plenty of room.

Day 2 of our Mongolia trip – Driving to Baga Gazriin Chuluu

After a good night’s sleep, Zaya comes to help us unload the luggage, and we set off for the Baga Gazriin Chuluu nature reserve, accessible by tar road. We decided, however, to take the track in parallel, an option we would choose as soon as possible. But this may not have been the best solution. The track is difficult and unattractive. The weather was gloomy. It takes us all day to reach our destination, some 220 kilometers from UB. This gives Gilles a chance to familiarize himself with this 4X4, which we don’t really like at the moment.

We pass the sacred mountain of Zorgol Hayrham Uul.

We come across our first damselfly cranes.

And our first gazelles, very shy.

We’ll be seeing lots of horses running free. For us, it’s always magical.

Sometimes when we pass the yurts, the dogs like to chase the car to show us who’s boss!

The track finally takes us to our destination. We take the time to take a few photos before choosing our pitch for the night. This often takes time. We like a good view, but we also need flat ground, not too rocky, not next to the road or a track. As we soon learn, we also need to take the wind into account.

These strange cavities are the tafonis described in Cécile and Laurent’s book.

In short, we were criss-crossing remote nooks and crannies, and it was as we approached the main track, incredibly lucky for us, that the unthinkable happened. We were cruising along at a leisurely pace, and without a moment’s notice, the engine came to a screeching halt!

Fortunately for us, the area is well-suited to Mongolian tourists. Several of them stop to test their ability to fix the car in a jiffy. In vain! Solidarity is one of Mongolian values.

We can’t get a signal on our phone to call SIXT for assistance. That’s where Ari and his family come in.

Ari is a small woman, with a strong character and polished nails, like almost all the Mongolian women I’ve met. She’s on vacation with her family.

I think she’s funny with the hair on her tongue. I realized afterwards that it was the Mongolian accent, they all have a hair on their tongue !!!!

No signal, so she takes matters into her own hands. She invites me into her car, along with her son and his grandmother, and we drive to the entrance of the park to find a signal, while Gilles and his companions set up the two families’ tents for the night. She speaks minimalist English, and the others none at all. After several unsuccessful attempts, she manages to reach Jay from SIXT on his phone, explains the problem and tells me that he’ll send help right away.

Phew!

We join the rest of the family, and here I am, Mongolian-style, hunting down horse droppings to use as fuel for the fire.

A camp has been set up next to the tents, and we’re invited to a Mongolian barbecue for the evening, with singing, dancing and good cheer despite the strong wind and bitter cold.

We can participate in the form of a bottle of vodka, fruit or wine, all of which are much appreciated. Before the festivities begin, Ari sprinkles the camp with a few grains of rice and does the same with a few drops of vodka, shamanism obliges! Now we can get down to business.

It’s a pleasure to nibble on the expertly cooked pieces of mutton, with hands that have just been washed after the hunt for dung! We’re served pieces that are soaking with the bones that everyone has put back into the dish after having sucked them copiously, and which we devour with delectation. Total immersion, goodbye COVID measurements.

The photos of the evening aren’t great, but that’s to share the atmosphere.

Teka is our cook for the evening.

The whole family breaks into a beautiful Mongolian song. We too have to share traditional songs, but we’re spared the dance.

It’s almost 2 a.m. when we return to our tent. The jet lag is still very much present. It’s our first night in a bivouac, and it’s super cold and rainy too.

We won’t be sleeping alone. Just before going to bed, we are entrusted with the remaining meat, which we host, it goes without saying!

Chilly wake-up call, lots of wind, but no more rain. No sign of SIXT, which was due to arrive during the night.

Ari manages to reach Jay again by climbing onto a protuberance. UNITEL, our network provider, doesn’t come through here, but the other one does. She gives him a dressing-down, as he’s still sleeping. In the end, the car shouldn’t arrive until around 4 – 5 pm. Shoot, the day’s ruined.

Breakfast all together before the family continues its vacation on other horizons.

Three riders pass us by. They’re magnificent, and we’re spellbound. The resourceful Ari, in exchange for a few sweets, cakes and tangerines, gets me on the horse. I’m ecstatic on my Mongolian mount, and a nervous one at that. That’s as far as it goes, but it made my day.

Souvenir photo before leaving. Thank you Ari and your family for adopting us for an evening.

Once we’re alone, we fold up the tent, as the rescue car is due to arrive in the afternoon. The weather’s bad, and it’s starting to rain. We take shelter in the car to wait it out. We’re forced to stand by the car and wait for help. We take it in turns to make little excursions into the granite structures.

Cut into slices.

The purple flowers are Mongolian thyme, and they’re everywhere.

Hours go by and still no one on the horizon. Another family worries about us, tries to repair the car and then contacts Sixt, without success. They also ask if we have enough food and water.

As sunset approaches, we pack up the tent near the track. With the sun shining so brightly, I set off again for an escapade on the massif opposite.

It’s clear that we’re likely to spend another night here. Our benevolent family passes by again; they’ve settled on the other side of the mountain, a little further on. We’re worried we won’t hear from them (at the same time, we don’t have cell phone reception). They contact their son in UB, who contacts SIXT at the airport to see if they have any news. The son calls them back, they know about the problem, it’s in progress, assistance should arrive during the night. Phew! If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call on them, they tell us. Thanks to them too. We’ll meet them later in a small supermarket in a lost town – fun!

With a heavy heart I start cooking. We’ve lost a whole day, and we’re stuck next to the car! Then we get another visit, this time from three men… with a bottle of vodka. We offer them some of ours. After the vodka-splashing ritual, it’s time to spin the bowl. No thanks, we’ll keep our glasses, let’s be a bit reasonable. They stay with us for a while, with very few exchanges and a lot of silence, since we don’t understand each other. The two of us finish the evening under the moon with a plate of noodles, with many uncertainties in our minds about what’s next for the breakdown service.

Day 4 of our Mongolia trip – Touring into the Gobi to Tsagaan Suvarga

We’re awakened at dawn by a voice, hallellujah! The driver had the coordinates of our vehicle, but no GPS.

He unloads a new UAZ Patriot from his truck and loads our car instead. Surprise… it’s a pick-up! It’s only 9200 kilometers on the odometer, and it’s in good condition, with good tires, a gearbox less approximate than the previous one, and brakes worthy of the name. Everything seems to work. In short, we’re pretty satisfied, and at the same time, we had no choice (except that the rear lighting wasn’t working, which we discovered at the end of the trip, on the road. On empty tracks, it’s not a problem).

And that’s when we try to fit all our gear in the non-folding rear seat. The trunk is open to all comers, so there’s not much room. It’s clear that it won’t fit. The trunk slides into the pickup’s open trunk, and Gilles tries to fit the rest in. We can’t afford to put anything other than the trunk in the pickup, firstly because of the bad weather and secondly, in the unlikely event of theft (outside large conurbations), we could find ourselves without a tent or mattress. Of course, loading the car every morning will cost us a few minutes. It’s like desperately trying to fit into jeans that are too small. You can do it, but by pulling in your stomach… It’s a real sweat, but business as usual and we’re back on the track. We have to get to Tsagaan suvarga.

First of all, we drop in to check on “our family opposite”. We pass by the miraculous spring, reputed to heal the eyes. Bingo, we find them there, along with our three vodka-drinking lads from the previous day and their families.

Everyone knows us or recognizes us, it’s fun.

Before leaving Baga Gazriin Chuluu, we stop off at another beautiful spot with very different rock structures.

After a not-so-simple passage for the first turns of the wheel of our new machine, we follow the track to reach our next destination 240 kilometers away, after refuelling in Mandalgovi. The road is quite nice at first, but then large potholes appear, requiring us to pay close attention.

We reach Tsagaan suvarga via a plateau overlooking the site, which is superb.

We then descend to set up our bivouac. We’re not alone on the site. The challenge is to find a quiet spot with a good view (our car and tent are at the top of the photo).

A short stroll in the light of sunset, then a barely veiled full moon.

Day 5 of our Mongolia trip – Driving more south into the Gobi desert

We rise with the sun and set off on a short hike. It’s still very cool. First, we climb back up to the plateau, but on foot via a small coulée in the cliff.

The cliff plateau is the most coveted part for Mongolian tourists. Once back down, we wander off to the colored rocks and are soon alone in the world.

It’s really fun to walk around all these colorful structures.

Before breaking camp, we have to restructure the car. The trunk overturned on the last trip, and the eggs, although protected in a special, but not watertight, box, made an omelette that was spread all over the place. Washing all this is no easy task, as water is scarce here. We try to buy straps to fasten the trunk, but here too it’s an ordeal to find out where you can buy them. In small villages, a store doesn’t usually have a shop window. It’s often just the door of a house with a Cyrillic sign. After a long, fruitless search, Gilles ends up tying up the trunk and the water bottles, which are bursting one after the other, with our clothesline!

After breakfast, repositioning and restructuring, we leave the site for the town of Dalanzadgad, 160 kilometers away.

We pass a huge group of camels, near a water source. We didn’t immediately understand what was going on.

Some men have stopped for water. They help themselves, but the thirsty camels become aggressive and force the men to give up and leave. It’s sad to see these thirsty animals, forced to wait for good will. I’d have given them something to drink, but given the atmosphere, I was afraid of being attacked, and I’m neither tall nor heavy enough. As we slowly make our way back into the Gobi desert, we have to get used to the harshness of the place. It’s tough out there.

To each his own haircut.

These are our first camels, and this herd is particularly photogenic.

We know exactly where they got Sid’s head from in “Ice Age”.

Camels aren’t the only ones waiting for water.

We arrive at the town gate of Dalanzadgad.

Various refreshments and we treat ourselves to a proper meal.

We head for the Düngenee Am canyon, 55 kilometers away, in the Gurvan Saïkhan park, which we reach after 30 kilometers of track. We were supposed to go to the Yoliin Am canyon, renowned for its persistent ice, but it’s July, and given the number of Mongolian tourists at the previous sites, we decide to skip it and go straight to the very narrow Düngenee canyon and bivouac afterwards.

We have to cross a pass at 2400 metres, with a few rather impressive sections, which our 4×4 climbs without any problems.

This is not the case for the two vehicles, which will not pass despite their best efforts. They go so far as to ask us to tow them, but without a 4×4, passage is simply impossible.

We reach the Düngenee Am Gorge, and then it’s a surprise: we thought we’d fly over it with the drone, but it’s tent on tent. The Mongols have colonized the area, and we sometimes find it hard to get around, as the passages are so busy.

We make our way up to this little squeeze known for barely allowing a vehicle to pass.

We continue on a high plateau and decide to move forward on the path, as we’re a day behind schedule on our itinerary, due to our technical incident.

We skirt along areas of pretty coloured rock, but the wind is so strong that we can’t find anything to shelter the tent. We continue on towards Bayandalai.

We pass the town and head due north, our next destination being Bulgan and the Bayanzag cliffs.

We come across this gentle camel, which I go to scratch under the neck. It’s moving, she doesn’t dare move and I can just hear her swallowing. Her bare skin looks like turtle skin. Normally at this time of year, the camels have been shorn a first time, leaving the fur only on the top of the head and the humps so that they don’t catch cold while waiting for the second shearing. This second shearing was obviously not carried out according to the rules.

Having said that, some time later I felt a sting on my back which turned out to be a tick. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a souvenir of the pawing, as the poor things are covered in them.

The arid plain doesn’t appeal to us as a place to bivouac, so we set off on a track that leads into the mountains.

He thinks he’s hiding something.

We find a nice spot that looks promising for sunrise, as at the moment the weather is grey and cold, but without a breath.

We go to bed dressed from head to toe, at over 2000 metres. We’re going to freeze again tonight.

At around 11:00 pm, the wind suddenly picks up so violently that the tent twists on all sides. It’s very impressive. Gilles goes out to move the car to shelter us better. He checks the moorings. Fortunately, it’s well anchored with our mason’s pegs, but there are no rocky structures around to protect us. And now it’s raining ….

Day 6 of our Mongolia trip – Exploring the Flaming Cliffs

We survived the night, but the sun we’d hoped for in the morning didn’t show up, and the rain persisted. The valley, which had promised to be superb, was not. We quickly set up camp to find the track that will take us to Bulgan.

We are surrounded by small whistling rodents, the pikas.

Our first stop on the road is the Khavtsgaït petroglyphs, which we reach after a navigational error on a dreadful, almost unreasonable track. Somehow, we manage to get there without any damage.

We climb to the top of the summit, and what follows is an extremely entertaining treasure hunt. Using the coordinates provided by Cécile and Laurent, we search for notable engravings amid a myriad of rock drawings.

We then continue our journey to Bulgan, with the ritual fuel, water, shopping and garbage cans if possible.

The incinerator in the center of the village (you can’t find one everywhere, so it’s sometimes difficult to get rid of your rubbish).

Here the water house

We then reach the Bayanzag cliffs, also known as the “cliffs of fire”, at the foot of which we intend to bivouac. We reach them from above.

Some platforms are designed for easy access on foot. This is a tourist mecca, with entrance fees and marked trails.

We follow the ridge with difficulty as a strong wind has picked up, perhaps 80 – 100 km/h? and we’re struggling to stand. We hesitate to go near the edge, as the wind is pushing us so hard.

Then we see a sandstorm in the distance. 

The wind and sand are still as strong as ever, making our progress increasingly difficult. We’re forced to turn back. The few tourists present (Mongolians) have melted like snow in the sun.

Within minutes, the sky darkens and sand is everywhere.

The vendors at the entrance to the site are packing up their stalls at breakneck speed. We take one of the trails down to the foot of the cliffs, hoping the wind will ease.

We follow the valley floor track, but the interest is very limited with this reduced visibility.

The sun is somewhere behind the sand curtain, but can’t quite break through.

We then look for a large structure that could shelter our bivouac from the wind. The goats, perhaps used to it, don’t seem to suffer too much from the strong winds.

We find a monolith in which we play palaeontologist’s apprentice. Bayanzag is a major deposit of dinosaur remains, the beginning of a fossiliferous zone several hundred kilometers long. Mongolia is the world’s richest area for Cretaceous dinosaur fossils and eggs. New species have also been found.

As far as we’re concerned, we have the impression of unearthing what might look like eggs, pieces of vertebrae or something else? We’d have liked to stay on site and pitch a tent, but the wind made bivouac impossible.

With a heavy heart, we head back up to the plateau, disappointed not to be able to sleep at the foot of these cliffs, renowned for their flamboyance in the light of sunset.

The weather forces us to seek shelter as quickly as possible, before nightfall. With little choice, we head for one of the tourist yurt camps on the outskirts of the site. Swap a night in the fabulous setting of the glowing cliffs for accommodation dedicated to the comfort of tourists….. The LOOSE!!!! (well, as far as we’re concerned, it’s not our cup of tea!)

On the set, the horses are also struggling to move forward.

We settle into a simple, unpretentious yurt, but benefit from shared hot showers and a restaurant. A group of tourists also occupy the space.

At around 10 p.m., the wind died down, but far too late …

Day 7 of our Mongolia trip – Driving to the highest sand dunes in the Gobi

We wake up to glorious sunshine. The wind and suspended sand have disappeared!

Today’s menu includes a stopover in the nearby saxaul forest, before heading off to the fabulous Khongoryn Els dunes 135 kilometers away.

Saxaouls are one of those extraordinary trees that have developed multiple ingenious strategies to survive the most arid conditions. Designed like sponges capable of gorging themselves with water, their roots seek water deep in the soil, their reduced leaves limit evaporation and they can even filter salt water. In short, trees that command admiration and deserve our respect…

We stroll among these venerable creatures for a while, before continuing on our way to the dunes.

We often come across fuel reserves in the form of dung. In such a harsh country, anything goes. In fact, we even stock up on dung ourselves, Mongolian-style, in case of need. The pick-up is very practical for this. We can store bags of “fuel” or harvested wood in it when we find it, which is not so easy in the Gobi.

Each pass has its own ovoo. These are sacred monuments where Mongolians place various offerings. This one is particularly noteworthy for its concentration of ibex horns.

A few prairie dogs on the lookout.

In the distance, we can see the dunes beginning to take shape.

And a few gazelles, rare animals to live in such arid conditions.

We reach the dunes. There’s a ford to cross. Its location, whose coordinates are given in the C&L book, has not changed, and we have no difficulty in crossing it.

While on other trips we’ve enjoyed pitching our tents in the middle of the dunes, we’re staying reasonable here, as the difficulties on the tracks are numerous enough not to add to them. So we look for a nice spot for our bivouac at the foot of these gigantic piles of sand, which Mongolian tourists reach by camel.

We unfold the tent, take out the pegs and, like a reminder, the wind picks up with powerful gusts. It’s clear that the tent can only fly away.

Although sleeping on the soft sand is very tempting, we move away a little to find firmer ground to anchor our dwelling permanently.

Camels leave more or less deep footprints, certainly depending on their weight, but also on the firmness of the sand.

It’s time to take to the ridges and discover the vastness of the desert.

All means are good to reach the top of this pyramid with its steep slopes and pronounced edges.

These dunes, which can reach 300 meters, are bordered by a small mountain range whose waters feed a small stream, creating a green strip of soft grass that animals love.

The desert, with its shapes and curves, its alternating light and shadow, is always very photogenic.

Gilles brings out the drone for a few aerial shots while I survey the peaks. Just then, I see a group of dogs from nearby yurts mosey off into the dunes for a wild game. One of these dogs will then land at the top of the dune to watch the sunset. A poet?

We’re both watching, each on our own dune, as the sun’s last rays fade. It’s quite magical to see him clearly settle down and watch.

A few funny encounters: twisting plants, circles formed by twigs in the wind.

We return to our base camp.

The light is still beautiful and we’re enjoying it all the way….

Today’s route will take us from the dunes to Noyon, where we’ll be bivouacking nearby.

First, a short hike at sunrise in a very different light from the day before.

Wind, always wind…

The droppings formed amusing barkhanes.

The previous day’s camel tracks have all but disappeared.

It’s not grain in the photo, but distributed grain, in the form of violent, omnipresent bursts.

Back to the tent for breakfast. This is the time when the herds are on the move, either to their milking places, or to pastures or watering places.

The goats bleat their way across our pitch. While the camels are rather discreet in their movements, the goats and sheep always do so with fanfare.

It’s the horses’ turn. Some of them take to the dunes in total freedom, until the stallions call them to order. Horses have quite a hierarchy too.

Today’s challenge is the 3-kilometre sandy pass over the dunes towards Sevrei. We choose not to deflate the tires (it’s long and tedious to re-inflate). This is our first big area of soft sand. We need to keep up our speed and, above all, not stop.

Very impressive, but “Nickel”, a successful operation. So we let our guard down and over-optimistically set off after the pass on a bad track of deep sand. A small mistake with big consequences. The penalty is immediate: shovelling and desilting plates, a lot of effort, and off we go again!

We leave the sand behind to find a different kind of mineral desert.

We need to get petrol in Sevrei, but it’s Sunday and the only service station is closed. We don’t have anything too much, but we’re betting on pushing on to Noyon, where we hope to find an open station. If not, we’ll have to park there until the next day!

A successful gamble, as there are no less than three filling stations. For all of them, you have to contact a phone number. 1st out of fuel 92, ours! The second doesn’t answer, the third is the right one, phew!

Noyon is surrounded by some pretty colorful folds, but it’s still early, and we decide to push on to a canyon some 30 kilometers away.

Once again, we’re faced with a sandy wind that overwhelms us, but doesn’t last this time.

After a few animal encounters, we reach the entrance to the canyon.

The colors of the different rocks and the multiple folds are of the most beautiful effect.

I call the structures “dinosaur backbones”. Despite the clouds, it’s lunar and very beautiful. We take the opportunity to take some aerial photos with the drone.

We decide to take the intersection into the Khurzi Khana massif to set up our bivouac for the day.

We came across this strange insect and another less colorful one, which gave us a bit of a fright with their prominent stings. After some research, it turns out to be a variety of grasshopper that has lost its wings, the “bradyporidae”, or zychias to be precise. It would appear that the pretty, colorful one is the female, for once…

We dine, keeping an eye on them all the same. I’m looking forward to the morning light, because the area is really great.

Inevitably, the wind picks up in the late evening. The gusts are terrible. Once again, I wonder if the tortured, battered tent will blow away with us. But when I wake up, we’re still here!

Day 8 of our Mongolia trip – Reaching the most southern points in Mongolia

Well, sunrise without sun. The clouds take up all the space, damn!

We set off in the opposite direction to the canyon we’d left behind the day before. A few sunny spells allow us to take a few brighter shots.

We leave the canyon to join the track to Gurvantes under a leaden sky. The aim is to get as far as possible along the road to Khermen Tsav, a site that is not very accessible and therefore well worth the effort!

We try out a number of solutions to block the hooking system of our GPS, which makes monstrous jumps on most trails. The simplest solution is to wedge the phone in its lower part with my hat, which will no longer serve its intended purpose, but the archaic system turns out to be the most effective.

We pass through a very arid zone (yes, some are more arid than others, even if this seems inconceivable), where even the saxaouls give up the ghost, and then we arrive in a swampy area that poses no problems for us, given the current drought.

The track passes through an abandoned phosphate mine.

Another navigational error, a little nothing at all, but we find ourselves “BIM” in the deep sand.

Shoveling ritual (always the same), no plates this time …

Our route, increasingly arid, takes us to Gurvantes. Lightning flashes everywhere, but we only get a few drops.

We refuel in a village that has obviously been hit by a thunderstorm, but we made it through the drops.

From Gurvantes, twenty kilometers on, we reach a massif of orange-pink granite, with a beautiful elephant-shaped arch (at least that’s the image I have of it).

It’s a funny thing. There’s nothing here, no herds, no yurts, we haven’t seen a soul, it’s a total desert. And there, on the pass, in the middle of nowhere, A POUBELLE. Why here? A mystery! In the end, on reflection, it’s surely a step towards avoiding the scourge of Mongolia, the empty vodka bottles that dot the landscape. If it works….

We’re approaching our granite zone.

There’s my elephant.

Beautiful granite window

The view of the massif from here is fantastic.

 Gilles is talking to a Mongolian couple interested in drones.

We regularly come across two-up travelers on small Chinese motorcycles. They’re used for everything, even by shepherds to guard their flocks. If they don’t seem overpowered, they do seem indestructible. Almost all of them are well protected from falls and equipped with wide footrests for the passenger.

Initially, we’d planned to bivouac here. Although the site is attractive, we decide to move on to another site some 50 km away, which the Americans call “dragon’s tomb”. It’s a phenomenal repository of dinosaur fossils, which have advanced science enormously. New species have even been discovered. What makes this place so exceptional is that it was a marshy area where reptiles gathered to drink. It would seem that the dunes came crashing down on the poor beasts, petrifying them in one fell swoop. In short, this Gobi is not a gold mine, but a dinosaur mine. And this place in particular. As far as we’re concerned, we don’t come here for the fossils, although we’ve tried to find some, but for the colorful rocks that preserve them (or what’s left of them.)

We leave the main track for the secondary one that leads to it. Everything here is attractive. Our choice is an orange, red and white massif.

We spend a good while crabbing through the rocky structures. These are the “golden hours”, that special light that enchants everything before night falls.

For desertophiles like us, it’s a real treat!

All that’s left to do is set up the bivouac and make dinner, and the tasks are shared.

And we fall asleep in absolute silence! (which means, for example, no goats!!!!)

Day 9 of our Mongolia trip – Exploring Khermen Tsav

Waking up to sunshine, we set off on a hike.

We follow the canyon, and I spot an area “likely” to contain dinosaur bones.

I think it’s a wasted effort, and we don’t really know what to look for, and in which layer!

So we continue along the ridges.

Trees have to dig deep, deep down with their roots if they hope to survive.

We reach the top of the plateau, as always, covered in black pebbles.

A small dot in the distance, our bivouac.

I end up, very proudly, digging up a bone, but I doubt it’s from a dinosaur!

And the trail continues towards Khermen Tsav.

We stop at the Naran Daats spring to fill up with water. Where we’re going, we’ll need to be completely self-sufficient in water, fuel and provisions, as we won’t find anything for around 400 kilometers. It’s a little-frequented site, and we’ll be alone. We top up our gas tank with a 20-liter jerry can (Russian) we bought, just in case. Even so, we’re not over-confident.

We pass an unoccupied camp of guers (yurts for the Mongols) before reaching the spring.

This is the track we’ll be taking next.

Opposite, pretty, colorful cliffs.

We stop to say hello to the camels.

Then we take the track towards Khermen Tsav. We pass a tour-operator’s car on the way back. This will be our only human encounter for two days. Towards Khermen Tsav, there’s nothing! No people, no herds, just desert once again. Access isn’t easy, so self-guided tourists aren’t plentiful either.

Let’s go!

We branch off towards the site. It’s good to have the GPX tracks, because although there’s no one there, there are plenty of vehicle tracks. We don’t know which way to turn. Fortunately, in the event of a discrepancy, it’s also easy to find the track (because it’s registered, of course!).

We come to a tricky wadi crossing: a downhill section that poses no problem, but then a climb through soft sand. We build up momentum on the firm part and pass over sand with “no tire marks” and an oblique trajectory in relation to the slope. Just 2 metres from the high point, we were skating hopelessly. No problem, we reverse. A second attempt and a second failure of the same kind, the last few metres being steeper. After a third try, we had to deflate the tires to increase the surface area on the ground: from 4 to 2 bars. The fourth attempt proved to be the right one. As the track was then sandy, we decided not to re-inflate (a long and tedious operation).

At Khermen Tsav, it’s the only time on our trip that we deflate the tires – the UAZ has many faults, but also many qualities. In the sand in 4×4, it passes quite well, even with inflated tires. Out of the 4×4 position, it’s a rear-wheel drive. Great fun when skidding on soft ground…

Deflating to 2 bars, while sand gusts hit us in the face. Extremely strong wind…again.

Our wadi

Dune crossed, phew!

A small gust of sand later…

Ah, ah, a small error of inattention, and we’re still shoveling (well, we’re still the ones with the shovel!). Nothing to worry about, except that we’re alone. Fortunately, there’s a bit of wood and we’ve got the desensitizing plates to get us out. Magnificent skies, as usual.

Thank you, branches!

We arrive at the gates of paradise, Khermen Tsav, which translates as “crack in the wall”. Between its highest and lowest points, there are 1,000 meters.

A red rock marks the entrance. Here, fine sand roses have crystallized in the walls.

Khermen Tsav can be explored on two levels: the canyon and the plateau.

We start downhill to set up our bivouac in an oasis. We follow a pretty little canyon and choose our spot. We’re on our own, so the choice is vast. We choose one with shade (a little), some shelter from the wind (a little) and a view of the site (yes, not bad!).

We’re not quite alone on the site,!!!! We meet the inhabitants of the day: swarms of flies come to pester us while the tent is being set up. As we’re the only occupants of the site, they must have given each other the word. As far as mosquitoes are concerned, if you avoid the underside of trees, no worries.

With the tent set up, we quickly give them the slip and head for the plateau. We pass a dry riverbed, overgrown with sand, to great effect.

The plateau is covered with black pebbles that gleam in the sunlight. We follow it all the way to a viewpoint overlooking the “amphitheatre”.

The smallest challenge of the day (er… after the dune crossing, and the ensuing silting up!) is the descent into the soft sand to reach the canyon. The descent itself looks impressive from above, but poses no problems, but you have to move on quickly to the area below, without stopping. Returning is impossible.

No problemos, and we return to our bivouac to explore the area on foot.

We follow an area populated by reeds, pass by the great dunes (a thought for the dinosaurs petrified in their collapse!), and reach the amphitheatre. Shadows have already fallen over the cliffs, but it’s still shimmering. We play Indiana Jones in the canyon and make our way into the small nooks and crannies, rather dark at this hour.

Some drone shots

Our little tent at the back

We really enjoyed the area, and we’re thinking of going back in the morning for another light.

The sun has gone down and so have the flies, and this is where we meet the inhabitants of the night!

As luck would have it, while we were having dinner, my headlamp came across two diamonds in the night. They were the eyes of a hare, discreetly watching in total darkness, hoping to pick up something.

We’ll be running into him again and again.

Then a hedgehog “triple gallops” past. Intrigued, I decide to explore a little further. It’s a family of hedgehogs banging the bell with the leftovers of the tour-operator they’d met in the morning, who’d left them something to live on. Then there’s a shy mouse watching me.

If during the day we don’t pay much attention to it, we realize that we’re on a huge Swiss cheese. Hundreds of holes everywhere, inhabitants waiting patiently for the night. We leave a plate of what we can, and some water. In the morning, there’s nothing left!

Day 10 of our Mongolia trip – Venturing north back to green steppes

In the morning, the sky is more than threatening. Lightning flashes in the distance. We know that this trail can become complicated in rainy weather, so we abandon the beautiful morning light, which is absent anyway, to try and get away quickly before the impending storm.

Once again, despite the black sky on all sides, we escaped the drops. At the end of the runway, we take the opportunity to re-inflate the tires, before doing so in the rain.

We have to go in the direction of Altai, to reach Ulaan Yabar in two days, via the Shinejinst and Biger tracks.

We’re leaving a bit of dust behind!

Beautiful panorama.

And then the miles rolled by in the rain. Miles and miles of track with no visibility – that’s a long time! But that makes it less dusty… Muddier!

We’re on a high plateau at over 2,000 meters, and it’s freezing.

We push our patience to the limit and stop at a “superb campsite”, with grass where we have a gigantic pitch to make all the campsites in France and Navarre pale. Only the herds compete for our attention.

That evening, for the first time, we built a fire to keep warm and had dinner in the shelter. At around 8.00 pm, the “wind” button was turned ON and all night long, the tent was in turmoil, almost as much as those trying to sleep, plugging up the slightest cold entrance in the comforter. 

The morning was no better. So much so that, dressed to the nines, we quickly dismantled the tent in the rain and skipped breakfast. We’re freezing anyway. And so we set off again, still in the rain.

We pass through towns where the weather has left its scars.

The water house, with its feet in the water.

We pass two young shepherds in the downpour. One of them came to greet us. Approaching very gently, I wanted to offer him some sweets, but his fierce horse knocked him to the ground. He had to hobble off after him. We were sorry, but we couldn’t help him, just waved to him after making sure he got his horse back.

A herding dog comes to visit. Is it a Bankhar dog, resistant to extreme temperatures and capable of protecting herds from attacks by packs of wolves? Bankhars were reintroduced in an attempt to re-establish the nomadic ecosystem and way of life, after having been eradicated during the Soviet period.

Very interesting article: www.ledevoir.com/monde/566230/des-chiens-a-la-rescousse-des-steppes-de-la-mongolie 

It’s true that many of the dogs we’ve come across have the same physiognomy as this one.

None of them has ever been aggressive, but they do come to visit us and settle down peacefully at a respectful distance, whether they’re looking for food or not. All have had the same attitude. Then they leave, quietly.

Today’s muddy journey has considerably changed our car’s profile. We take advantage of a passage near canals in the middle of the desert to give it a polish.

We also took the opportunity to photograph some very active gerbils.

Surprised to find camels at 2000 m altitude 

Before reaching Ulaan Yabar, we stop off in Biger to stock up on a little bit of everything. They don’t often see Western tourists here, it seems, and in the grocery stores, I’m often mistaken for an alien. We call the children to come and see “the phenomenon”, but also to speak English so that they can chat with us. Often, it’s just a few words. While they certainly learn English, they obviously don’t practice it much. The children are often fearful of me (do they recognize the teacher’s profile?). We were once offered cakes and sweets by a shopkeeper who called her daughter. Strange feeling of being a curiosity.

The houses in the villages are mostly enclosed. As a result, the straight streets seem barricaded and empty. Life tends to be concentrated around the “shops”. To get to these villages, you’ll need several hours on tracks, and when we say “street”, it’s very rare that there’s any asphalt at all, and sometimes they’re even completely potholed. There’s no need to put up a 30 km/h sign.

We’re approaching the foothills of the Gobi Altai Mountains, and all the Mongolians we meet are heavily covered mountain men.

We’re offered white wine, Biger’s specialty. Where are the vines? Apparently, the wine is made from clay (see the photo on the bottle). Not expensive, but we won’t repeat the experience, as it’s not far from vinegar.

Under a leaden sky, we take the track to branch off towards Ulaan Yabar.

And then the sun returns as we approach the site.

We set up camp at the foot of the reddish-orange rock structures.

The view over the Gobi Altai mountain range is superb, although clouds hide the setting sun.

From our campsite, we can see the last of the light.

Another dream bivouac, what a feeling of freedom, how lucky we are….

Day 11 of our Mongolia trip – Colorful rock formations

Early wake-up call with sunshine. Planned hike to “la belle lumière” before breakfast.

A spring and several small streams criss-cross these badlands. We follow the gorge for a few meters,

to gain height among the multi-coloured rocks.

The snow-capped mountains begin to peek out, coming into full view at the highest point marked by a cairn.

Encounter with a very noisy bird, a grouse?

Beautiful view of our valley …

… and on our camp, which we return to for breakfast, and a few drone images.

Before breaking camp, we take advantage of the water to finally do some laundry and wash our hair.

We retrace our steps to reach the intersection and head north towards Altai. Under the sun, the colorful road is as beautiful as ever.

Gilles chose to take a trail that isn’t the main one. It’s very beautiful, passes through the mountains, but certainly much longer. We didn’t regret our choice, as the scenery is so sumptuous. However, we didn’t go near the gold mines, nor did we come across the famous gold-digging “ninjas”.

Another one of those famous ovoos with multiple treasures!!!!

We pass absolutely no one on this road for hours on end. It’s arid, even the yurts and herds have deserted the place.

We pass several disused buildings and find a stream where we can picnic. A bit of grass at last, and herds of cattle.

A dog keeps us company and shares our meal, just a few yards away, of course.

Two cowboys on motorcycles, guardians of the horses, come to share a fruit juice. 

We reach a magnificent pass. The road is colorful, lined with rocks that are no less colorful. We’re not far from 3000 meters.

As usual, you can’t see it in the photos, but a very strong wind is blowing.

Mares waiting to be milked. Here, fermented mare’s milk is drunk. The foals are brought alongside their mothers, who let themselves be milked. The foals themselves can then have their “turn of the milk”.

We arrive at the town of Altai, which has not seduced us. Refreshments, garbage cans etc… and we continue north towards Uliastaï, to get closer to our next objective, the Mukhard springs and Lake Khar Nuur.

shopping center at the entrance to the town.

Like most cities of a certain size, an exit tax of 1,000 MTK is charged.

We decide to bivouac along a river on the way down to the Gantsiin pass, which rises to 2540 meters, about 50 kilometers from Uliastaï. We’re not the only ones to find this an idyllic spot, with numerous yurts lining the banks of the river and many cars loaded up for the vacations passing by again and again late into the night.

We meet our first yaks (dzos to be precise, a cross between a cow and a yak).

Quite late into the night we hear a lot of trampling and whistling near the tent. The yaks are returning to the fold with their guardian. A bit impressive when you’re in a tent.

Day 12 of our Mongolia trip – Reaching Uliastai

Breakfast in the glorious sunshine is a lively affair.

First we have the company of a kite.

With, alas, the usual debris from vodka bottles.

Then the yaks, very, very close. What a delight!

They’re fun to move around, making little grunts reminiscent of pigs.

We take the road back to Uliastaï through fairly green valleys.

Prairie dogs.

Herd in squadron, marked here in blue

We arrive in Uliastaï, a relatively large town, irrigated by numerous river branches which give it a rather sympathetic appearance, at least from the top of the Buddhist temple overlooking it.

We take the opportunity to eat at the restaurant, especially as a thunderstorm is rumbling. The restaurant wasn’t very good. The menu was in Cyrillic, with no photos, and the waitress only spoke Mongolian. As a result, we had to choose our dish willy-nilly!

We make several stops at different grocery stores, to build up a pantry that suits us as much as possible, in a country where fruit and vegetables are almost non-existent, and then climb up to the temple.

brand-new prayer wheels.

Fine specimens of yaks in the park at the foot of the temple.

too cute. Dry snooze.

We continue our journey towards the Mukhard springs, aiming to get as close as possible.

The town’s surroundings are surrounded by beautiful granite formations.

Mongolian highway.

Corrugated iron is hell! You have to exceed 50 km/h to make it livable. Otherwise, it feels as if the car is going to break apart from the vibrations. This also explains why everyone has their own way of escaping the phenomenon.

Finally, we pushed on to our destination and headed for source 2, the nearest one. A change of plans.

We have to descend a dune, and cross a plain of soft sand where we see many sandy vehicles. Once again, we choose not to deflate.

A successful bet!

We had planned to bivouac near the spring at the point indicated in Cécile and Laurent’s book. However, access to the spring is now subject to a fee and is also closed to cars. So we set off on foot to explore the spring.

I choose to go to the top, Gilles, with his feet in the icy water. The tourists here are Mongolians, most of whom rent horses.

The large dune surrounding the green waterhole is fabulous. The banks are in bloom, which is not very common in Mongolia at this time of year.

In fact, it’s at the foot of this amphitheatre that the spring gushes forth.

Gilles successfully climbs the dune to make it sing. 

Water appears at the foot of the dune.

The horses are waiting for their riders, who are having fun on the dune. That’s when I see this poor beast getting stuck. He can’t extricate himself and is wringing his legs. Finally, he lets himself fall into the soft sand. I’m sorry to see this sad spectacle. Not all horses are the same here. These are the slaves who transport Mongolian tourists all day long, while many in Mongolia are completely free. In fact, it’s a great pleasure to see them roaming wherever they please, with no constraints, no barriers.

At last light, we have to leave to find a place to bivouac before nightfall, since ours is out of the question.

We choose to return by water, less tiring than walking in the sand, but then, it’s freezing, I’d even go so far as to say borderline unbearable. We arrive with a great leap to warm our feet, numb from the hot sand.

We return to the car, a kilometer away, and a guard shows us his badge and asks us to pay the entrance fee of 5000MNT. We would later learn that it was 3000. That’s the only time we’ve ever been ripped off. Not a pretty sight.

But the sun declines very quickly and we have to cross the sandfield again, bypassing the descent from the outward journey. We have to hurry. Just then, a man kindly asks us to take four young people in our vehicle. We realize that otherwise they would have had to walk back up the dune… So we take them on board. The challenge: passing a large area of super-soft sand. We had to pick up speed on the raised track. Suffice it to say that our surprise guests in the pick-up section were in for a real heckle, given the deep sand. Following a small error in trajectory, we got stuck in the sand. So having the muscle to push came in very handy.

The youngsters lend a hand and a shovel and off we go again.

Once they’ve reached their destination, we see them rush into a vehicle (with the stupid guard, by the way). The balls! In fact, they didn’t want to overload their car so as not to get stuck in the sand. The youngsters leave without a word of thanks, but then, that’s very Mongolian.

And all we have to do is find a place to pitch our tent before dark, as we have almost no lighting (Russian vehicle where everything falls apart as the journey progresses).

We set up our tent in the heights, far enough away from the tourist yurt camps. There’s no shortage of space, and we’re not bothered by the neighbors.

The tent in the morning, not enough light in the evening.

Again and again, the wind rises to lull us to sleep.

Day 13 of our Mongolia trip – Visiting the interesting black lake and springs in the sand dunes

Today’s program includes the Mukhard 1 spring and the road to Khar Nuur lake, all relatively close by. Yes, but! Let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a track, it’s like a surprise package. Gilles will call today’s trail HORRIBILIS at the end!

Our first stop is the village of Erdenekhaikhan, where we fill up with petrol. Fingers crossed, it’s Sunday. Phew, all’s well, we can set off for spring number 1.

The track to get there is very sandy. We’re getting used to it by now, and no shovels will be used.

At this spring, we’re alone, apart from the herds enjoying the cool water. The place doesn’t seem to be touristy

 This green ribbon in the middle of the dunes is incredible. A few drone photos give you an idea of its size.

We descend to the foot of the sandy amphitheatre. The water is much cooler than in the previous spring, and even more refreshing in this heat.

Another “singing dune”, a low Tibetan horn sound. Always astonishing. All you have to do is get down on your bum, taking sand with you down this severe slope.  

From the top of the dune, sheep and goats arrive in waves.

They take pleasure in hurtling down the slope.

This is the signal for the cows to return to the dunes, while the horses decide to join the amphitheatre. Fun to watch.

We continue along the water to a ford. Many Mongolians camp in this pleasant spot. Crossing the ford is a mere formality.

Hundreds of tiny dots in the sky.

Monk vultures, very impressive.

We return to Erdhekhaikhan, where, to be on the safe side, we refuel and take advantage of a local’s card to fill our bottles at the water house. We retrace our steps to the intersection of spring 2 and take the track to Khar Nuur lake, the one passing through the arch, the famous HORRIBILIS.

Ah, surprise! The track passes through a stretch of sand dunes. A bit of fun, but also a lot of tension!

This is followed by a rather steep pass offering us a beautiful view of our sandbox, the challenge of the day. Ascent in 1st gear in 4×4 position, so much for the slope.

That’s when the track became appalling. Average speed of around 10 km/h. It was impossible to go faster than a second because the vehicle was so hectic. We struggled to reach the arch, which we didn’t cross, as this is where people come to take photos. Here, two cars block the way. They’re taking their time and have no intention of letting us through. So we go around them.

The trail is unpleasant, but the view all the way is still great. 

The descent to the lake section is spectacular, with a finish over dunes that have invaded huge black boulders.

The yurt and cars give a sense of scale to the surrounding landscape.

We descend to the sheep floor.

In fact, it’s mowing season.

Our backs are full, but we decide to bivouac in the area where the dunes plunge into the lake. We still have an 18-kilometre track to follow alongside the lake.

Yurts by the lake mow by the handful.

We arrive near the lagoon where several tourist camps have been set up. This is also a bivouac site. At this time of year, it’s very busy, with tents and barbecues dotting the area. We didn’t come to Mongolia to be on top of each other, so we prefer to move away to pitch our tents. It’s a pity we won’t be sleeping at the foot of the dunes, and it’s true that the lagoon is rather nice.

We climb up to set up camp. We find ourselves alone with a view – not at the foot of the dunes, admittedly, but superb over the lake.

In the distance, a herd of horses reaches the dunes.