Taking a Break in Terelj National Park
Our latest filming project, a documentary on autism in Mongolia, had kept Adam and me pretty busy during our time in Ulaanbaatar. But UB was starting to get to me. What was the point of being in this vast and beautiful land if we were going to spend our time cooped up in the city? Thankfully, relief was nearby, in the form of Terelj National Park.
Having read up about how to get to the park, we woke early, threw some clothes in a bag, stashed our rucksacks in the hostel’s storage cupboard, and headed to the bus stop to find that all of our information was wrong. The direct bus to Terelj village didn’t leave until the evening, and the bus to the nearby village of Nalaikh left from another part of town.
This seemed to be becoming a pattern for us when travelling around Mongolia. Our guidebook said one thing, bus drivers said another, and any information we found on line was out of date as soon as it was published. These muddled journeys could easily have become a nightmare, if it weren’t for the kindness of strangers who would always stop to help us. Over the next few hours, a host of strangers pointed us in the direction of the new bus stop (at the junction by the British embassy), got us on the right bus, and, when we reached Nalaikh, showed us where to get the shared vans to Terelj village. This helpfulness, especially in the face of a total language barrier, is one of my favourite things about Mongolia.
The van took us along a paved road (possibly a first for us in this country), through the park entrance and towards Terelj village, 27km inside the park. The village seemed deserted. We wandered around in search of lunch, but every restaurant, shop and hotel seemed to be closed. Luckily, a tour group visiting from UB university took pity on us and invited us into their giant ger for coffee and watermelon. After a game of charades based on bible characters (I did terribly), we thanked them for their warm welcome and headed on our way.
We had decided to stay close to the main road on our first day, and so we headed back the way we came, walking along a ridge and keeping the road in our sights. Despite the chilly air, it was an enjoyable walk. The mountains around us cast long shadows on the colourful trees below, and the sky was a clear blue. Small bodies of water alongside the road had frozen solid, and we paused to try our hardest to try to smash rocks through the thick ice, to no avail.
We passed the underwhelming rock formation of Old Man Reading a Book, and continued onwards towards Turtle rock, where we had planned to stay the night. The road took us past sculptures of dinosaurs, which we had glimpsed from the van window, and we knew turtle rock wasn’t far ahead. The ten kilometres along flat land had made for an easy enough walk, but the last kilometre was punishing. The sun had disappeared behind a mountain, the temperature had dropped even lower, and the road turned just uphill enough to make our feet start to ache.
The gigantic and admittedly turtle-like turtle rock finally came into view, and we approached the nearby ger camp to ask about staying for the night. After some surprisingly easy bargaining, where we got the price reduced from 60,000 tugrik per person to 20,000, a cheerful old man led us to our ger. Shivering despite our many layers, we eagerly watched him light the stove in the centre of the ger, and huddled around it to warm our reddened hands. If you had told us then that in a few hours we’d be opening the door to let some of the stifling heat out we wouldn’t have believed you, but gers heat up quick and soon we were peeling off layers of clothing.
After a surprisingly easy translation of “can I have food with no meat?”, we were given incredibly tasty vegetable dumplings, and slept contentedly in our warm ger, with a few close calls during the night as the fire almost died.
After a night of rising and falling temperatures, we set off to do the trail that began by our ger camp and looped around a mountain ridge back to the front of turtle rock. The sky was dull and grey and the beautiful colours and shadows of the previous day had been washed out, as we walked through the assortment of gers and buildings to reach the mountain ridge. Climbing up for a better view, we spotted eagles circling above us, and took in the view of Terelj below us. After clambering along the ridge for a bit, we descended the other side and headed back to our camp.
Of course, we couldn’t go to a Mongolian National Park without taking in a horse trek. Selecting two horses from the line waiting by turtle rock, and assuring the owner we didn’t need a guide, we saddled up and took off.
Our last experience of horse riding in Mongolia had been a slow plodding walk on two lazy steeds. These horses, however, were flighty and skittish, and, as we steered them down a trail, they broke into a canter, pulling at the reins to turn in the direction they chose. I looked nervously over at Adam, who had been on a horse a grand total of three times in his life, but he was handling it like a pro, more worried about his camera banging against the saddle than at the prospect of falling off.
After running around aimlessly for a bit, we steered the horses back to turtle rock (they were only too happy to comply), and made our way back to the ger for our last night in Terelj, looking forward to our warm fire as the first few flakes of snow began to fall.