Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Roadless Steppes of Khustain National Park (Mongolia)

Hours pile up traveling through the steppes of Mongolia. With mostly flat or winding grasslands stretching as far as the eyes can see, it's easy to get lulled to sleep or get hypnotized by the sheer "emptiness" of the landscape ahead of you. I was simply mesmerized.

Khustain Nuruu National Park is located in the Tov aimag (province) southwest of Ulaan Baatar. Also known as Hustai National Park (or "Birch Mountains"), the park has been declared a protected area after the re-introduction of the wild horse, the takhi (Przewalski's horse) to Hustain. The animal sanctuary is a vast 50,600 hectare land.

My travel outside the capital required a tour agency (duly registered by the authorities) that supplied a 4x4 vehicle and a driver, a daily tariff fee, payments to ger camp accommodations and the driver's food (as well as petrol). I'd have chosen to share the burden with another tourist, but on an off-season like May, just before Nadaam, their major festival in June, visitors weren't exactly a dime a dozen.

Make no mistake. Traveling through Mongolia is not cheap. The hotels in Ulaan Baatar are relatively expensive, despite paucity of the most common amenities, even in 5 star hotels. The gorgeous Blue Sky Hotel and Tower, for example, doesn't even have air conditioning - or electric fans, for that matter - due to weather conditions in the country. On its fleeting summer days, rooms swelter.

The steppes feed Mongolia's major industry, the cattle. This is why a good number of the population still lives the life of a nomad. They have to intermittently move around the grasslands to provide adequate "food" for the cows, the goats, the sheep, etc. Steppes are mainly unmarked so I was dumbfounded by my driver's "intuition", as he drove on roadless patches of grass to get to my ger camp. No GPS needed, apparently.

If I wanted adventure, this couldn't be far from one.

This is the Eye in the Sky


Ramakrishnan said...

Awesome image of the stunning steppes ! Wow ! I have been off blogging for a while. When did you begin Mongolia? A quick question -Is Mongolia still independent or is it in some way falling under the superintendence of China's expanding imperialism ?

eye in the sky said...

Great to hear from you, Ram.

I was in Mongolia 3 months ago - month of May. I wanted to go there when it's "summery" (that would be June onward) but I didn't want to be there during Nadaam, their big countrywide festival, much like India's Diwali and Thailand's Songkran, because there will be limitations in transport and other activities. So it would be May - which still had daily snow and rain, and temperatures dipping to -2 deg in the evening (I wasn't prepared for that to be honest).

There are 2 Mongolias: the independent unitary parliamentary republic (with Ulaan Baatar as its capital) AND then there's Inner Mongolia (with Hohhot as its capital), an autonomous part of China. The latter is almost a no man's land. Special permits are required to visit it, like Tibet. Republic of Mongolia, the independent country, is bordered by China in the south and Russia in the north, and its influence is Russia, not America, the UK, France or China. Even their cyrilic script looks like Russian characters.

Mongolia has palpable anti-China sentiments. After all, their National Hero, Genghis Khan conquered China. I watched a Mongolian movie in Ulaan Baatar(which was surprisingly new wave with very socially relevant hints, including anti-China sentiments). But who can escape China's expanding influence? Their souvenir shirts had "Made in China" written on them.

My Unfinished Life said...

Mongolia is a land of my dreams...yes turly as I dreamed about this flatland with a giant moon rising quite a few times in my childhood even before i came to know about it in geography books and saw in NG!!!

I so want to visit this plc!!

eye in the sky said...

Me too. I thought it would be an ultimate thrill to be at the steppes, and it was. One experience that's like no other, in my opinion. People I know, here in my country, were like, "what?" "What'll you do there?" "Isn't it scary?" I am so glad I am finding people in the world wide web who thinks differently about Mongolia. The patch of desert found here - in Khustain Nuruu is really a freak of the topography of this grassland. The big desert - the Gobi - is located more southward, and I didn't have the luxury of time to realize my visit at the Gobi, but this was alright. There will probably be another time - if only it isn't an expensive undertaking.

Please go and visit and share it also in your blog when you can. It's a lovely country. Ulaan Baatar wasn't what I expected - and I liked it (despite freezing temperature and the constant snowing).