“If you think you have seen a sky full of stars you should go to Mongolia”
I read this line somewhere before our dream actually became a solid plan and that was the first moment I thought Mongolia would be a country worth considering. I have to admit I didn't really knew anything about this country back then. I knew quite well where it was tough! Back in primary school I once scored the worst note in geography for not being able to show where Gobi desert was and I kept that region in mind ever since. But apart from that I had no idea what Mongolia was all about.
But I have to say the line with the stars proved to be very true! Mongolian sky is simply amazing. Since there are normally no lights around you can see the stars quite well and there seem to be much more of them than I have ever seen anywhere else. And the milky way looks awesome too. And if that wasn't enough you don't have to wait too long to see a falling star neither, so if you have a few wishes to make, you know where to come.
Shortly after Tsetserleg and the beautiful White Lake we had to make up our minds and choose our route. There are a few possibilities, each having it's pros and cons, each having different views to offer. The route in the south of the country seems to be the most popular one, especially now, when most participants of the Mongolian Rally (charity event, where people drive old cars from Europe to Mongolia and then leave them there to be auctioned to rise money for children projects) take that path. Maybe it was because of my bad memories with Gobi or maybe because choosing between stone desert and crystal clear lakes we automatically go for water, anyway we decided to take the northern path. And we never regretted this decision.
The northern part of the country is simply splendid! The views (all amazing) keep changing like in a kaleidoscope and the lakes are even clearer and more beautiful than we could ever imagine. It was only a pity that the weather didn't really allow us to take a nice long swim, but we could at least have a few short baths and a few lovely sunsets in the evening.
We left the city of Tosontsengel (very funny one, with about 150m of tarmac street right through the center) and headed to Naranbulag and from there we wanted to go to small and then to the big Olgiy (quite a few cities in Mongolia have the same name, just to make navigating a bit easier...). And every day our camping sites were getting even better and the views were even more breathtaking. The local people were amazing too. I don't believe they see too many tourists, even in the high season, so they were always showing much interest in us. But always in a nice, friendly way. They were all very open, especially the children, who had no problems telling us all kinds of stories using hands, legs, paintings and all the other things they could think of. And it worked! At the big lake of Hyargas Nuur we had quite a long conversation with a little girl and her grandmother, who came by to see who's camping on their grounds. They both wanted to see the cars and found it very funny that we actually sleep inside. And at the lake near small Olgiy we met another nice family. They came on their horses just to say hi. We never failed to offer the locals at least some tea with cookies, which always made them even more open and friendly. Those ones offered us some horse riding in return. I was quite skeptic about it, since horses are not really my favourite animals, but they gave me a calm, nearly sleepy one and promised not to let the line out of their hands so I gave it a try. Now I can say I did some horse riding in Mongolia, but I guess I'm still not a huge fan of it. David was doing surprisingly well riding on his own considering the fact that the horse was much smaller then he was and if he just spread his legs he would be standing on the ground again. Gerrit got another chance to ride too and he made quite a few circles and was actually doing so well, that the Mongolians offered him another horse, more wild and without a saddle. He was doing good this time too, until the horse decided he doesn't want to be a tourist attraction and shook Gerrit of his back. Fortunately Gerrit was trained enough to land on his feet without hurting himself. The local family took a second to see if he's OK and when they saw him running after the horse they burst out with laughter. It took them a moment before they could control themselves again and then they sent the youngest one to collect both, the horse and Gerrit still running after it.
I have to say we only had the best experiences with Mongolian people. Their friendliness and hospitality exceeded our expectations. We tried to thank them in the same way, but somehow we always ended up getting more than we could give back. We still have about 2kg of different dry horse milk cookies with us, but we heard they are good for ages so we plan on bringing a few back home.
Anyway, our northern route was doing very well and we were hoping to reach the big Olgiy the next day. It is the last big city before the border (everything above 25.000 people is considered "big" in Mongolia). We were already planning where we're going to sleep and which restaurant we want to try when we get there. We should have known it would have been too easy... Around 100 km before the city a river crossed our path. Of course, there was no bridge to be seen, so we parked the car, got our shoes off and decided to test the ground as we always did. It didn't look too bad at the beginning, even though the river was quite strong and fast, that is why we didn't really understood why the locals told us to turn around and forget it. They were showing us the alternative routes on the map telling us we shouldn't even bother trying here, pointing ahead and saying something about a second river. We got what they meant when we made a small walk. The river was divided in 2 main streams, the first one we checked being the smaller, shallower and calmer one. I could hardly cross the second one, as it was way to strong and was trying to pull me with it the whole time. At this point we knew, we're not trying to cross this one. There was a big chance Karossi could make it, but too much was at stake. If the river would turn out to be too much for our car, we would kill the engine which would probably mean the end of our journey. We had to go back. It wasn't an easy decision to make since it was quite a huge detour and we could not be sure how the roads will look like in the other part of the country. In Mongolia, especially after heavy rains you may never know if all roads are still in usable conditions or (as in our case) if all rivers will be easy to cross. But we had to give it a try.
Since it was already afternoon we decided to take go back to small Olgiy we left that morning and spend one more night at the camping spot we liked so much, but taking a slightly different track this time, just to see something new. One more evening on the beach, with camels walking around sounded like a nice comfort, but we were still not in the best moods. Until we drove for a few miles. The road wasn't really good, but the views were perfect. Mountains, wild animals and the most beautiful lake we saw so far made us forget about the river and the detour. I started to think that it was simply meant to be, a small detour just to discover a few other marvelous locations Mongolia had to offer. And after we drove all the way south to Khovd and then all the way back north to Olgiy I still believe it was!