Day 39: Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin , The van tour (Day 1)

White buildings with red trim at a petrol station.
Refueling our van at Erdenesant.

I’m woken by my French room mate. He’s asking on behalf of the Dutch-Irish couple: am I still coming?

I check my phone and there is a short but positive message from my employer – we’re on!

After yummy hostel porridge I rush to repack my gear into my new 40L dry bag (₮ 97,400 / NZD 74.90). The rest of my gear is thrown into the storage cupboard.

I grab ₮ 800,000 ($480) from the ATM to prepay the driver and cover the three days I’ve stayed at the hostel so far.

Our trip should take five days, so we should be back on Wednesday.

Van tour itinerary
Day Location Activity
One Kharkhorin & Erdene Zuu monastery Ruins
Two ? Waterfall & horse riding
Three Tövkhön temple Hiking and horse riding
Four Ugii Lake Ruins
Five Return to Ulaanbaatar -

I say should, because from what I’ve read, the cute but boxy Russian tourist vans are reliably unreliable. There’s a high likelihood that our van will either get one or more flat tyres, and/or overheat, and/or crap out in some remote location. Help could be some hours away and so it’s best to go prepared with this eventuality in mind.

The trip is also going to be reasonably expensive, I guess that’s the price of convenience. We’re self-catering, so our main cost is the driver, followed by petrol, then food, accommodation and activities.

Van tour costs (each)
Item NZD
Driver 266,000 $204
Petrol 101,000 $77
Food 90,000 $69
Accommodation 42,000 $32
Activities 29,000 $22

Our van arrives and I’m disappointed to find that it’s a newer model, and probably won’t break down at all.

Our driver, Zirka, is friendly, though he speaks minimal English.

It’s 360km from Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin, our first stop for the day.

We’ve got lots of time to kill. I’m riding shotgun and want to ask him so many questions. But as his replies inevitably require hand gestures, I decide that it’s better to let him drive.

The sprawl accompanies us on our exit from town. But soon we are driving down wide highways, accompanied by nothing but the steppes – and the hills.

The hills are beautifully gentle. Their slopes rise ever so gradually from the flat earth. Their peaks are undefined, soft, black and shadowy. I love them.

Kharkhorin is not what I expected.

I was expecting Karakorum, a grand medieval city. But that’s not what’s here. Thankfully my disappointment is offset by the realisation that the place we have come to see, the Erdene Zuu Khiid (monastery) is pretty awesome.

At the entrance to Erdene Zuu Khiid, I’m not really surprised to find a row of shops.

But there is also an eagle. Tethered to a wooden perch, an entrepreneurial woman in a brimmed hat and shiny blue coat approaches us.

It’s a big bird, majestic. Eagles are used to aid Mongol hunters in the country’s far west. The popular Eagle Festival definitely came up on my radar during my trip planning, but the host town of Ulgii is almost on the border with Kazakhstan and would have been a considerable detour.

For a fee we can hold this eagle on our arm. We all do this, and it’s wonderful. But the woman, intent on giving us the full experience, scares the bird into taking flight. It extends its huge wings in preparation to flee, but the rope prevents it from actually escaping. I’d be impressed if it wasn’t so painfully cruel.

Rows of bright white stupas mark the boundary between the barren steppes and the monastery complex within.

A spiritual outpost, Erdene Zuu Khiid is one of the earliest surviving Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia.

The blue skies definitely help the appreciation factor and I’m very glad that I brought a real camera (thanks Dave!).

Inside, there are various buildings but only a handful of signs to explain what they all are.

Maybe a Google search can make sense of all of this. For now, I forget about understanding and focus on what I can see and feel.

As the day comes to a close we drive a short distance to our accommodation at a nearby ger camp.