After three weeks cooling our heels in Ulaanbaatar waiting for visa extensions, Dom and I decided to get away and head to Terelj National Park for some hiking.
The third biggest protected area in Mongolia, Terelj is 80km from UB and full of wildflower meadows in summer, against brilliant backdrops of pine trees, mountains and glittering streams.
We hitched from UB, hiked for five hours and set up camp near a tinkling stream surrounded by lush, green Siberian Taiga forest. It was bliss after the city.
Three Mongolian herders and their kids joined our campfire and we mimed and chatted using our dictionary. Later I realised they may have been seeking safety in numbers.
Next morning revealed nasty blisters from my hiking boots which I patched up with plasters before we headed for a nearby mountain where we scrambled upwards for two hours, like manic goats. I’m not a fan of heights and wobbling on piles of vertical scree with a backpack pulling me off balance was nerve racking!
As we neared the top, thunder grumbled overhead in dark clouds close enough to touch. There was no rain or lightening, just the air bulging with moisture and electricity. We didn’t hang around.
The other side was just as steep but appeared more inviting with its Taiga forest and trees for balancing against. But appearances can be deceiving.
Bees, flies, mosquitoes, bumble bees, and unnameable biting things swarmed, seethed and wriggled into our eyes, ears, noses, and open mouths. Breathing became an unwanted feast of wings where stopping even for a moment was out of the question.
We literally ran down the side of that mountain – crashing into branches and flying over holes as insects blinded us – miraculously avoiding broken limbs. We caught fleeting glimpses of chipmunks flying past in trees and grassy areas squashed by sleeping deer. When we stumbled on a big hole – possibly dug by a bear – we increased our pace.
On and on, downhill we ran, until we found a flat spot to camp away from the trees. After a nine hour day we were bone tired and dehydrated. Dom cooked tea in a sea of mosquitoes while I tried to make sense of things in the tent. I was delirious and struggling to see through a migraine. We were asleep before dark.
That night I heard four-legged things scruffling around the tent. Was that a horse?
In the morning I struggled putting on my boots – the blisters were now huge and throbbing. Why was I so stubborn?
Instead of walking, we found a local herder who was happy to hire out his horses and act as a guide back to Terelj. This was more like it – back in the saddle and riding across the steppe!
I asked the herder about barking we could hear in the nearby hills, that I’d also heard just before dawn. Our answer came just over the rise.
A wolf had attacked one of his horses and fifteen huge black vultures were now crouched around the carcass, like mothers at a tea party. They were powerful birds with legs as thick as my forearm – it was fascinating and sickening watching them feed as we passed close by. Little wonder the horses shied away from their dead comrade – it could have been any one of them.
And those noises I’d heard in the night? Most likely wolves. Yikes!
The rest of the ride passed peacefully through flocks of sheep, goats, horned cows and oxen. The scariest animals we met were dogs with moulting winter coats hanging off them like extra limbs. The dogs not only looked deranged, they also lunged fang-first at our stirruped feet before the herders called them off.
When we stopped at gers children laughed as I limped along. Silly tourist! How to explain it was from hiking blisters, not from riding? I laughed along too and drank my salty milk tea, daydreaming about eating on our upcoming trip all the edible plants we’d been riding past – spring onions, garlic, dandelions, strawberries, and wild rhubarb.
After six hours we arrived in Terelj and hitchhiked back to UB. Our driver was an off-duty policeman who smoked and drank and wove his way all over the road, overtaking trucks on tiny gravel roads and getting his mate to change gears while he lit a smoke. We were glad to get out.
Ulaanbaatar greeted us with a magnificent thunderstorm that cleansed the city and washed away the dust. We felt refreshed and renewed – ready to tackle our visas and get on the road to Tsetserleg where we would begin our big journey westward.