This year, Mongolians celebrated the National Naadam Festival for nine days, which many saw as a great opportunity to spend time with their families in the fresh air.
For me, it was a chance to relax and be away from my daily routines, including social media, televsion, and UB’s crowds. Even if you don’t have much to do, sometimes you may find living in UB stressful, simply because of its traffic congestion and other inconveniences. When the first day of the holiday officially began nationwide, right away, I headed with my family to Uvurkhangai Province to visit the Ulaan Tsutgalan Waterfall.
Ulaan Tsutgalan Waterfall, also commonly known as Orkhon Waterfall, is one of the most-visited tourist attractions in central Mongolia. The height of the waterfall, which is located between beautiful valleys filled with volcanic rocks, is about 20 meters. It can be reached in four to five hours from Uvurkhangai Province’s Kharkhorin soum.
Due to heavy rains, the Orkhon River had so much water. Fortunately, my father was driving a Jeep, so we didn’t have any difficulty crossing streams to get to Ulaan Tsutgalan.
Since we left Ulaanbaatar, I could enjoy the fresh air and beautiful sights of Mongolian nomadic life. Uvurkhangai is a province famous for its yak. Many herders had yaks, and we even saw a yak giving birth. When we finally arrived at Ulaan Tsutgalan, after around ten hours of driving, it was already dark. We rented a ger at a tourist camp near the waterfall. Early in the morning, we went to Ulaan Tsutgalan. Going near the Orkhon River, and hearing its sounds and breathing the fresh air, made me feel as if I’d combated a whole year of exhaustion and fatigue.
Because the Orkhon River had so much water, Ulaan Tsutgalan Waterfall had two streams. Of course, there were many other travelers visiting the most famous waterfall in Mongolia. Everyone was taking photos and enjoying the mist emanating from the waterfall, coming in on a soft wind. Our family spent nearly four hours admiring the natural beauty of the falls.
The Orkhon River is the longest river in Mongolia, with a length of 1,124 kilometers. It originates from the Khangai Mountain Range and merges with the Selenge River, eventually reaching Lake Baikal. The Orkhon River Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical significance during the time of the Great Mongolian Empire.
Kharkhorin and Erdene Zuu Monastery
After our travels around Ulaan Tsutgalan and the Orkhon River, we headed to Kharkhorin soum, which was the capital of the Great Mongolian Empire in the thirteenth century.
Kharkhorin attracts not only many foreign tourists but also many Mongolians, probably because of Erdene Zuu Monastery, one of the oldest surviving Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and part of the Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site.
When I passed through the gates of the monastery, I noticed right away that it was a place where many Mongolian historical films have been shot. The monastery’s museum consists of five buildings, two small ones and three large ones at its center, and museum guides tell visitors about the collections. When I entered one of the biggest, I was simply amazed. I almost forgot that I was visiting a museum and felt like I was in an active temple. Many of the museum’s visitors were praying to Buddhist gods, so did my family, including my little daughter. Mongolians believe that people shouldn’t turn their backs towards gods inside a temple, and visitors should leave a temple walking backwards. Unfortunately, I saw that not Mongolians but foreign visitors were doing this. I met tourists from Germany and Spain at the monastery, and while not all of them were Buddhists, they still paid tribute to Buddhism, which I appreciated very much.
After visiting all of the museum’s buildings, we went to an active temple where many lamas were doing a spiritual reading. Leaving Erdene Zuu Monastery, I felt so much at ease and happy. Because of our busy daily lives and routines, we don’t usually have the time to visit Gandan Monastery. I felt like I had killed two birds with one stone, simultaneously becoming familiar with the museum’s exhibits and praying for the good of everything.
Our family spent four days in Kharkhorin, and I had the chance to admire horse racing up close. During our stay I met an Israeli traveler, Aminadav. He came from Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin by car and bought a horse from an Uvurkhangai herder to continue his travels to Khuvsgul Lake by horse. This was my first time meeting someone so brave. Travelling alone through Mongolia with only a map in hand isn’t a piece of cake, for sure. He said that he hoped to reach Khuvsgul Lake in 20 to 30 days, travelling around 30 km per day. Even though it sounded impossible and I was quite concerned about him, I hoped he would have an unforgettable adventure in Mongolia and enjoy his travels.
Turkish museum in Mongolia
After our stay in Kharkhorin, we decided to head back to Ulaanbaatar, while visiting other tourist attractions on our way back. First we went to Khushuut Tsaidam Museum located in Arkhangai Province’s Khashaat soum, which preserves monuments and remnants from the Göktürks period found at surrounding archeological sites.
The museum opened in 2011 with support from the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency.
When we entered the building, a museum guide started talking about the museum’s history and the findings in its collection. He said that all of its assets were found during recent archeological explorations and were handed over to the state.
Leaving the museum, we decided to go to Ugiin Lake, one of the biggest lakes in Mongolia at 27 km square, located in Arkhangai Province. When my parents told me that we were going to see a lake, I thought it wouldn’t be so big, but the view of the landscape when we arrived was stunning.
Rain arrived on that sunny afternoon, and even though it wasn’t very hot, people were swimming, many were fishing, and children were playing in the water. The average depth of Ugiin Lake is around 6.6 meters. The lake abounds in various types of fish and birds, which creates an incredible natural beauty. I observed many seagulls, which had the ability to catch fish effortlessly. I noticed that Ugiin Lake attracts travelers, tourists, and nature researchers from Mongolia and foreign countries. I heard that there are more than 150 types of rare bird species dwelling at Ugiin Lake.
People were staying overnight in tents near the lake, while sitting in peace, admiring its beauty That night, I probably saw one of the most beautiful sunsets in my life.
The next day, after lunch, we continued our trip to Ulaanbaatar. We stopped by the ruins of the Khar Balgas citadel, located 33 km southwest of Kharkhorin soum. The city was founded in 751 AD as the capital of the Uighur Khaganate, which ruled Mongolia from 744 to 840.
We visited the outer walls (with gates to the north and south), a Buddhist stupa, and the ruler’s kagan (castle), and it was very interesting place. Seeing how people at that time constructed buildings was amazing. The buildings were built from stones, each of which was carefully shaped. We wondered what tools were used to cut the rocks.
From the walls we could see rows of stupas on either side of the citadel and the remains of irrigated fields in the surrounding countryside. The city had an elaborate plumbing system that brought water into the city from the nearby river.
There was a small museum housing findings from the ancient city. Seeing Buddhist gods carved on stones, including Nogoon Dari Ekh (Green Tara), I was amazed with the detailed artwork.
Hustai National Park
After becoming familiar with the countryside lifestyle of Mongolians and visiting many museums and other interesting places, we reached Hustai Nuruu in Tuv Province.
Hustai National Park is one of the most well known and prestigious special protected areas in Mongolia, and works to conserve ecosystems, the biodiversity of the park, and historical stone monuments. It is also home to efforts to build up the population of wild takhi (the Przewalski’s horse). The national park covers around 50,000 hectares and was established in 2003.
Since 2011, the governments of Mongolia and the Czech Republic have been reintroducing the horses to Mongolia. Other European countries have also been part of these efforts.
There I met a senior biologist who said that there are now over 350 takhi, with around 50 stallions. He said that sometimes wolves catch and eat baby horses, but otherwise, he underlined that the takhi population is growing rapidly in Mongolia.
It is impossible to get close to the horses, but they seemed to be used to people watching them. When we got there we saw a herd with a baby horse through binoculars. The biologist said, “You are lucky to see them today, if it is hot they tend to run away and no one can see them. We have around 2,700 deer here also, but visitors won’t be able to see them until September.”
The park is home to 459 species of vascular plants, 85 species of lichen, 90 species of moss, and 33 species of mushrooms. Forty-four species of mammals have been recorded, including red deer, Mongolian gazelle, roe deer, wild boar, wild sheep, ibex, Mongolian marmots, grey wolves, Eurasian lynx, Pallas’ cat, red fox, the corsac fox, and Eurasian badger.
The park’s 217 species of birds include the golden eagle, bearded vulture, great bustard, whooper swan, black stork, daurian partridge, and little owl. There are 16 species of fish, two species of amphibians, and 385 species of insects (including 21 species of ants, 55 species of butterflies, 10 species of bush crickets, and 29 species of grasshoppers).
Going slowly like this, we reached Ulaanbaatar. Even though I spent only seven days in the countryside, I grew used to its air, views, and calm. This was one of the greatest trips I’ve taken in Mongolia, and I hope to continue my travels around Mongolia’s other provinces and visit other attractions, admiring the country’s eternal blue sky.