Days 1 & 2 – Arrival Ulaanbaatar
Departure from France during the day and arrival in the Mongolian capital the following morning.
Ulaanbaatar was constructed on the banks of the Tuul river, formerly Urga, in honor of the son of a great Mongol lord.
The name Ulaanbaatar was given to the capital in the proclamation of the Popular Republic of Mongolia, this name means “red hero.”
The city is divided into several districts, which offer great diversity; yurts are still visible in the middle of the city. Arrival in the morning. You will be greeted by our team who will drive you to the hotel, then guided visits in town (museums, historical sites, etc…) In late afternoon, concert of traditional music.
Day 3 – Ulaanbaatar > Ulaangom > Meeting with camel driver team Domestic flight to Ulaangom.
The flight offers views over vast prairies, steppes and deserts of central Mongolia, before arriving in Ulaangom (in Mongolian: red sand), capital of Uvs province. It is situated at the southwest end of Uvs lake, at the foot of the Kharkhiraa massif’s slopes, not far from the Russian border.
The city is a lovely village of more than 25,000 inhabitants; here you can find several monuments from the Soviet period, such as the statue of Tsedenbal Yumjagiyn, who ruled the country for more than 40 years.
Ulaangom is one of the lowest points of the country, with an altitude of around 940 meters.
Even if the city’s population is relatively small, many nomadic families live around the region, and in Ulaangom there is also a university, a high school and several secondary schools.
The city has formed excellent relations with the Russian province closest to Touva (Russia), there is a recently established government consulate and also an office representing the Uvs province, at Kyzyl, the capital of Touva.
Ulaangom and the Uvs province, are especially known in Mongolia for being one of the coldest regions in the country; the temperatures can drop to -45 °C during the winter.
Our Russian 4X4s bring us south to the Naranbulag village. The area is desert-like, with a few small, rocky massifs appearing here and there. The yurts are rapidly disappearing from the landscape; rare are the families who dare to live in this arid region.
One more small pass and in the distance the small village of Naranbulag appears, we will pursue our trek to a point, in the middle of nowhere, between the Khar Us and Khyargas Nur lakes. This is where we will meet up with our camel driver team at GPS point 49°09’41.2″N 92°33’38.7″E.
Day 4 — Day 12 > Journey by camelback
The overall itinerary is relatively simple, following in the historic footsteps of the Salt Route and trekking through the extreme west of the country to the center, the full version leading to Uliastay, meaning essentially to the center of Mongolia, not far from the ancient capital Kharkorim.
For this shorter version, the adventure ends after the large string of Kha Bor Els dunes, probably the most beautiful ribbon of dunes in the country and one of the high points of this adventure on camelback.
The path of course runs next to the great salt lakes, where several hundreds of years ago, nomads collected salt. But there are also other important concerns, such as passing through villages to replenish supplies, choosing areas with enough pasture for the camels—even if camels can go for days without water, it’s not the same case for us— and so it’s also important to go through areas with wells, especially for the horses which will accompany the caravan.
The interest of this area for travelers in centuries past was indeed the presence of salt; most lakes and water points are salty and therefore unsuitable for consumption by animals, camels, horses, and of course, us.
This creates an itinerary which is variable and dependent on the day, the season, and the rains. The itinerary will be created step by step, with only a few days’ advanced notice, in function of the information obtained from several nomadic families met along the way.
Even so, an itinerary where the camel drivers understand the different possibilities, know where the sands are too soft for the camels, they also know in which areas the nomadic camps are located.
But it is clear that this type of crossing which hasn’t been practiced in a century remains an adventure, and each time will be a kind of “first.”
Our first crossing took place in 2013, and ever since the camel drivers have come to understand the area, the pastures, etc…
The path covers dunes, rivers, passes… an incident of rain can render it impossible for the camels to cross a stream, and the team must be ready to adapt the plans for the next day at short notice.
In any case, the itinerary will be splendid: rocky massifs, arid valleys followed by green plains, regions of dunes astonishingly similar to the Sahara.
The circuit passes by the base of Kharkhira and Turgen, legendary mountains in Mongolia’s history and for the people of central Asia.
Not to mention superb salt and freshwater lakes, near to which the route will lead; they are truly splendid and will certainly remind lovers of South America of Chili’s large salt lakes.
In a long line, the caravan will start its route at Naranbulag, continue on to lake Khiargaz and its twin brother Arig, to cross the Khar Bor Els dunes, also known as the Mongol Els…
The various criteria will of course be the weather and therefore the rains; even if it falls earlier we must also take into consideration the pastures, the freshwater access points, and also the path that the logistic vehicle can take.
The initial idea was to do a route in complete autonomy, to get as close to the authentic « Salt Route » as possible, but it quickly became apparent that a vehicle was necessary for several reasons; the first being security and the second is linked to laws in Mongolia and especially the villages—it is forbidden to approach villages with “cattle,” or animals which are not a part of the region’s local livestock.
A relatively logical policy but which prevented us from going into the villages to buy food in a simple, efficient way.
In the team, there is a driver, Tsogoo, and his Russian van which follows or leads, and in any case, stays near the caravan which is extremely helpful for setting up and managing the bivouacs.
Your journey by camelback in the footsteps of the “Salt Route” will resemble a true adventure in a team, where each person has a place: the van driver, the cook, but also and especially the three camel drivers, Nyamka, Odgoo and Buyaa.
They will be on horseback—in the pure Mongolian tradition, caravans are always led by horses, which are more manageable, docile, and especially faster. Also, if a “rogue” camel attempts to break away from the group, it would be much easier to catch it and bring it back by horse.
Your guides and camel drivers are of the Durvud ethnicity, one of the country’s minorities, but which remains present in the region; always content and smiling, they have an incredible and melodious accent which city Mongols have difficulty understanding – it appears that even their way of constructing sentences is different.
As good Mongols, when the topic of their accent comes up, they simply respond that they are the pure descendents of Genghis Khan and they still speak Mongolian as it was during the glorious times of the great conquests.
Let’s speak a bit about the camels, because they are indeed 2-humped camels and not dromedaries. The Bactrian camel originates from the steppes of eastern Asia; it is smaller than the African camel, about 2 meters at the level of its humps and weighs more than 700kg for an adult male.
The Bactrian camel is perfectly adapted to the rude climate of the country—its thick fur protects against winter’s intense cold. Indeed, even the youngest are covered with a sort of coat during their first winter…
The camel provided Mongolian nomads with high-quality cashmere… widely present in Mongolia, the vast majority of the camel population is domesticated; there are only several thousand wild individuals in various parts of the Gobi. They are primarily used for hauling, but can also be ridden, or raised for meat or camel milk; its dung is used as fuel and in desert zones, represents the only combustible material available.
You will also participate in this experience, for that matter, because “dung duty” is a rather frequent task throughout the journey…because without dried dung, no hot meals!
Unlike camels from Africa or elsewhere, the Bactrian camels spend the majority of their life free, same as for the horses and yaks.
They are therefore used only very rarely and live in herds the rest of the time; as a result, they’ve developed quite a character, which has allowed them to survive the rigors of winter and especially attacks from wolves.
In this region of Mongolia the temperatures can also regularly drop to below -50°C during winter months. As for the wolves, they are indeed present, if not omnipresent, and it isn’t rare that our camel driver friends take turns keeping guard to avoid attacks from this predator.
The camels being tied up at night, they would be easy prey for the wolves, who are not afraid to approach nomadic camps, and therefore even less afraid of our bivouac.
Breathtaking landscapes, but also incredible encounters with such spontaneity and kindness. Indeed in this vast, desert area, it’s quite rare to find travelers who come to adventure so far away from the villages – the nomads will often come to meet you and invite you under their yurt to share a cup of tea and cake.
Not to mention that for the Durvud nomads of this region, there have not been camelback caravans for nearly a century, so seeing a caravan pass through the heart of their Gobi once again is an incredible event.
Mongolian camels are also much less exhausted over long distances, as well as in soft sand, being used to choosing the best passages and most stable terrains for themselves. Our camel drivers will therefore pay particular attention to camel hoof prints and will organize one or 2 days of rest throughout the trip, during moments they judge suitable, in order to let the camels rest and graze.
For those already familiar with camelback journeys throughout the Sahara or other regions of Africa, this adventure in Mongolia will certainly be different, given the management and ability of the camels, but also the landscapes will appear strange to them, perched on their “2-hump camels,” being able to contemplate the snowy summits of Kharkhira, or even finding themselves in a snowstorm in the middle of the dunes.
Every evening, the bivouac will be set up, generally by Tsogoo, the driver who, with a bit of a lead from the group, chooses the bivouac’s location. He has the magic touch for this and always chooses excellent locations, always keeping in mind water, grass for the camels and horses… and a view that’s pleasing to the eye.
By the 10th day of the trek, you will have covered a little more than 300km on camelback, traversed the entire great salt lake region, crossed a part of the Khan Bor Els string of dunes, certainly one of Mongolia’s most beautiful, climbed mountain passes and ravines, endured several storms and maybe even a few snowflakes…but what’s certain is that your head will be filled with beautiful memories, timeless images, that you will have had incredible encounters and that you will leave there, at the edge of the “Salt Route,” a bit of yourself.
Day 13 — Last day of the Méharée
The countdown will have already begun, and upon leaving the Khar Bor Els string of dunes, last but not least, there will be a final step that brings you to the source of the Mukhartiin river, a magical place, the river literally extends out of a dune; guaranteed good ambiance for this final evening in the company of our team of camel drivers.
It’s there where the arrival point will be located, in order to enjoy one last evening in the unspoiled landscape, to breathe the fresh air and spend one final evening with our friends in the “wild.”
Still a few kilometers to go…through you’ll want even more in order to continue this unique adventure in Mongolia.
Day 14 — Transfer to Uliastay
A long day of trails to arrive at Uliastay.
Uliastay is a very old city, constructed around 1733 by the Mandchou administration at the junction of two rivers, the Bogd Gol and the Tchinggistei, in a basin surrounded on all sides by massifs, including Tarvagtai and Otgon Tender; to the west is situated a desert-like area of dunes.
The industrialized part of town is more recent, built around 1950 and is situated slightly apart from the oldest part of the village.
Uliastay means “poplars,” a city bordered by 2 rivers, around which many trees grow.
Capital of the Zavkhan aimag, Uliastay is a lovely little town with 2 quaint hotels, a monastery, the Deshindarja Khiid, constructed in 1990 and which is located several kilometers outside of town. Check-in at the hotel…first shower after nearly 3 weeks on camelback… What a simple pleasure!
Evening among friends.
Day 15 — Domestic flight to Ulaanbatar Arrival at Ulaanbator during the day.
Check-in at the hotel, then the rest of the day will be dedicated to shopping and/or visits in the capital. Night at the hotel.
Day 16 — Day at Ulaanbatar
Last day in the capital
Day 17 — Ulaanbatar > International
Return flight home.