Fording rivers, crossing mountains in search of a warm bath. A balneologist's life is never dull!
14.07.2011 - 14.07.2011 21 °C
Tsenkher Hot Springs, Mongolia
Our morning began with one of those serene moments often sought but rarely found, the sun blessed grassy steppes before us. Through the door of our Ger a rectangular image of passing rural life - wild horses, naked children and languid dogs - could be viewed as we enjoyed our simple breakfast.
Heading west once again we would pass roaming herds of goats, sheep, horses and camel all of which required liberal use of the minivans horn and a judicious usage of brakes as they crossed and apparently grazed on the tarmac main highway.
Arriving in the short lived Mongol capital of Kharkhorin we struggled to purchase sufficient fuel to allow us to continue our journey. With Russia wanting to build an unnecessary 200 new gas stations in Mongolia, to the consternation of the government, the Russians had implemented a policy of gasoline rationing that was particularly affecting rural areas. As such the few petrol stations that we visited would either only sell us a few liters or demanded a special ticket, only available to locals. However, after a variety of stops and loud conversations we obtained sufficient gasoline to see us to our destination and back to Kharkhorin the following day. Just one of the trials and tribulations of travelling in Mongolia.
Leaving Kharkhorin the road soon turned into a dirt track. Until we returned to Kharkhorin we would see no more tarmac roads. Driving through the grassy Steppes on dirt tracks allowed our driver little time for relaxation. Frequent holes and undulations required constant vigilance. Navigation was through a combination of knowledge of the area and a general sense of direction, for there were no road signs on these tracks. Even the Lonely Planet guide provides GPS references.
As the grassy Steppes gave way to the small pine forests of the Khangai mountains, resembling a low lying Swiss Alp, the track become muddier. In places our minivan became bogged down but through excellent driving and a little good fortune we were able to surmount the challenges. With a crystal blue sky we hoped that rain would stay away for any additional precipitation would see us stuck in these forests with the tracks quickly becoming impassable.
Our first destination today was the scenic mountain top monastery of Tövkhön Khiid. Founded in 1653 by the first religious leader of Mongolia, the still revered Zanabazar, the monastery was purposely destroyed in 1937 but rebuilt with public funds in the early 1990s.
After lunching on Khuurshuur, that were much tastier than those we had eaten at the Naadam, we set out on the brief 2 mile hike to the monastery, through beautiful pine forests. Flies and dust became a feature, not just of this walk, but most of our time in the Mongolian countryside. Yet, some 45 minutes later we broke through the forest to see the prayer flag strewn, rocky mountain crop that had so inspired Zanabazar. Scrambling to the top various temples and related buildings could be explored. A no women area provided an amusing Shangri-la as I explored where Trey was not allowed but we were soon hiking down, followed by our slightly out of breathe guide and driver.
Having now travelled some two hundred miles from Ulaanbaatar, the last thirty miles taking almost two hours, we set out on what we were told would be a relatively brief two hour, forty mile drive to the Tsenkher Hot Springs.
With no road signs to guide us and a relatively monotonous grassy countryside, interspersed with rocky, limestone outcrops that could be best likened to those of the Yorkshire Dales, we hailed the infrequent drivers that we passed to inquire on direction and road condition. After some three hours of driving, yet still twenty miles from our destination we descended into a watery valley that fully tested the skills of our driver and the capability of our minivan. Yet this was the minivan than can. Followed by two large 4WDs we were able to pass where scarcely two minutes later the Toyota Landcrusier became bogged down. It was an amusing moment but not one that we could rest on as oncoming drivers had told us we would need to ford at least two rivers to reach our destination.
Finding the tractor outside a Ger (there was apparently only one in the area) that marked the crossing point for the river we arrived slightly ahead of a group of large 4WD, high riding minibuses. Concerned about the depth and flow of the river their drivers reconnoitered the crossing before slowly fording, one at a time.
There was a lot of water. With Mongolian words that I suspect translated along the lines of ‘oh, well here we go’ we entered the river. Water crowned the minivans bonnet but we crossed without incident. A few minutes later we reached the second river but crossed in the same successful manner. It was now ten o’clock at night. Thirty minutes later we reached the Hot Springs, where we hoped to overnight. The forty mile drive from the temple had taken nearly six hours. Tired and sore from the continuously bumping and jarring dirt tracks we were ready for bed. Yet there were no Ger’s available. With the Naadam and the warm weather every tent was taken. An uncomfortable night asleep in our trusty minivan beckoned. That is until we found a storage Ger that was quickly emptied and made into a makeshift sleeping Ger for the four of us. With three very hard beds our driver opted for the floor. Relief at not having to sleep in the car helped alleviate concerns about the lack of soft mattress . Finally able to sleep, with a fire in the stove and a full moon to admire, we collapsed into our hard beds and slept better than we had for many nights.