The viewing area at the lodge's watering hole.
The viewing area at the lodge's watering hole.
...and the schnitzel
...and the schnitzel

Time for one final post on our time in Mongolia. On the last day of our tour we drove from Mongol Els back to Ulaanbaatar. We rose early and said our goodbye to the camels that were loitering about the camp.

Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?
Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?

We also had to say goodbye to the camp’s fluffy Mongolian puppy. He was a real mischievous one with a big appetite for shoe laces.

Look at that beautiful road!
Look at that beautiful road!

Hitting the road (and yes, there actually was a beautiful paved road) we headed east towards Ulaanbaatar. Our first stop along the way was at Khustain Nuruu National Park which is home to the world’s only wild horses. We learned that most wild horses, such as the American Mustang, are actually feral. In other words, they are escaped descendants of domesticated horses. The Przewalski’s horse (or takhi) which is found in this part of Mongolia is a distinct subspecies which is critically endangered.

Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)

The takhi went extinct in the wild during the 20th century but have recently been reintroduced into Khustain park from breeding stock at zoos across the globe. The Takhi is considered to be the closest living relative of the domestic horse but it has a distinct appearance and even has a different number of chromosomes.

Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)

Our second stop of the day was at a roadside cafe for a final serving of greasy noodles and mixed vegetables. I won’t lie, after nearly two weeks of this sort of food I was ready for a change!

After a final few hours in the minivan we crested a ridge and caught a glimpse of Ulaanbaatar. Traffic was terrible getting into the city but we eventually made it to the guesthouse with the odometer reading 2,522km. I have no idea how much time we spent in the trusty Russian minivan over the 13 days of the tour but it sure did a good job. The terrain we covered was the roughest I have ever traveled across and the fact that we made it the whole way without a single breakdown or puncture is a testament to both Russian engineering and our driver’s diligence.

Home sweet home for the past 13 days
Home sweet home for the past 13 days

Our final two days in UB were spent largely recovering from the tour. We had quite a massive pile of dirty clothing to wash, postcards to write and emails to catch up on. We explored UB a little more in these two days but our main find was some tasty meals – who would have thought that Mongolia would have such good vegetarian food?

Well I think that is a wrap for Mongolia. While it wasn’t an easy or relaxing place to travel, it was certainly one of the most exotic places we’ve been. Between the largely nomadic population, the stunning landscapes and the extreme climate it is a place to be remembered. I think that we both were pushed to our limits in many ways during the tour and while it really sucked at the time it is now something we can laugh at and be proud of. Go to Mongolia, you won’t regret it!

Smiling for the camera
Smiling for the camera
Mongolia Wrap-up
Smiling for the camera
Smiling for the camera
Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?
Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?
He had an appetite for shoe laces
He had an appetite for shoe laces
I already did the sunset between the camel humps picture so how about a ger camp.
I already did the sunset between the camel humps picture so how about a ger camp.
Saying farewell to my new friends
Saying farewell to my new friends
Look at that beautiful road!
Look at that beautiful road!
Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)
The steppe is very clean, but occasionally you do see a strange piece of trash.
The steppe is very clean, but occasionally you do see a strange piece of trash.
How about this box of vegetable oil that left Buenos Aires the same week as us way back in March?
How about this box of vegetable oil that left Buenos Aires the same week as us way back in March?
Rolling into UB on beautiful tarmac.  Very happy to be back to civilization.
Rolling into UB on beautiful tarmac. Very happy to be back to civilization.
Home sweet home for the past 13 days
Home sweet home for the past 13 days
Vegan cake...in Mongolia!!!
Vegan cake…in Mongolia!!!
Toilet paper, Mongolian style
Toilet paper, Mongolian style
We managed to hang nearly all of our clothes in our tiny room in UB
We managed to hang nearly all of our clothes in our tiny room in UB

Thai Airways took us from Bangkok to Beijing on their daily red-eye. The flight was way too short to have a meaningful amount of sleep but that didn’t matter, I was very excited to be on the way to Mongolia! We landed in Beijing just before dawn on a beautiful autumn morning.

After a brief visit to the Air China lounge we boarded our connecting flight on an Air China operated Boeing 737. It was my first time on Air China and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed. The meal service included some terribly bland rice porridge and the entertainment consisted of a lively argument between two of the flight attendants midway through the meal service. In the end, I concluded that the best thing about Air China is that they are in the Star Alliance (my miles work for booking their flights) and that they go to Mongolia. Other than that, I wasn’t too impressed.

Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK

We had booked a room with the Khongor Guest with the intent of also booking one of their tours. This got us a free transfer from Chenggis Khaan International Airport into the center of Ulaanbaatar (UB), a drive which took nearly an hour to cover the 10 or so miles. Traffic, even at 10:30AM on a weekday, is horrendous in UB. I was glad that we had the ride because the location, or at least the entrance, of our hostel was hard to find.

The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse

We spent the majority of our first day in UB recovering from the redeye and working on a tour plan with the owner at Khongor. They offer a wide range of itineraries spanning from simple day trips to 30-day tours of the whole country. We wanted to visit both the Gobi Desert (in the south) and some of the lakes in the west/north of the country. We eventually converged on a 14-day itinerary that would allow us to visit these areas.

Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.

Another aspect to planning to the tour was finding companions to lower the per person cost. Luckily two other travelers had arrived the day prior and had similar destinations in mind for their tour of the steppe. The four of us were to travel together for the first 8 days of the tour and then Amy and I would continue on our own for the remaining days. We opted for an all-inclusive tour which included the minivan, fuel, driver, tour assistant, accommodation, all food, and admission fees along the way. This type of tour priced out to $48 per person per day when we were splitting it four ways, and then $82 per person when it was just Amy and I. Pretty expensive, but it is not an easy place to travel independently.

Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square

With the tour scheduled for departure the next day, we set out and explored a little of UB. Near the guesthouse was the State Department Store whose slogan reads ‘all needs fulfilled.’ It dates back to ‘Red Russia’ times but nowadays serves as an outlet for all sorts of high-end brands. Just a little further down the main drag is Sükhbaatar Square, the center of UB which was a reasonably impressive sight.

UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"

Foodwise, UB treated us much better than expected. We found a vegetarian restaurant (Gerel Ayalguu, directions here) just a couple blocks from where we were staying. On our first visit we sat down and had a good long stare at the Mongolian menu. I could positively identify one word “кофе” (coffee) but nothing else. Eventually one of the waitresses brought over an English menu – phew, what a relief. Ordering still took some guesswork (the translations were iffy) but Amy ended up with a nice soup and I got a big hearty serving of noodles.

One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food

The next morning we were met by our driver and tour assistant, Ultzi, who would be taking care of us for the next 13 days. We loaded our bags into a tough-as-nails looking Russian minivan and set out for the grocery store. Ultzi shopped for the food that we would need for the next few days and we found some supplemental snacks before setting out on the steppe.

Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?
Off to Mongolia
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square
UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
Amy enjoying her 'kimchi soup' and (soy) milk tea
Amy enjoying her ‘kimchi soup’ and (soy) milk tea
Noodles, the first of many I think I'll be having in Mongolia
Noodles, the first of many I think I’ll be having in Mongolia
Noodles.  The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Noodles. The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?

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