travel diary: khangai

The Khangai is the heartland of Mongolia, a lush area of agricultural abundance, and the home of Chinggis Khan’s first capital (Kharkorum).  Tha Khangai is a mountain range, which lends its name to two provinces – Arkhangai (upper) and Ovorkhangai (lower), and from which a number of Mongolia’s largest rivers emerge.

We spent several days in the Khangai provinces, beginning with a day long (approximately 16 hours) drive from the Khongoryn Els (sand dunes) in South Gobi, all the way up to Kharkorum. Along the way, we watched the landscape change from sanddunes to rocky Gobi to steppe-like features to incredible valleys and peaks.  Along the way, the wildlife changed too, from Bactrian camels and elusive ibex to domestic lifestock and most prominently, yaks.

The yaks are everywhere in the Khangai, breeding with cows to create a hybrid called the hainag, half-cow, half-yak, with half the amount of hair and horns.  Their babies romp with swishy tails, resembling dogs in the distance.  I definitely wanted to take one home (except baby yaks turn into full grown yaks).

At Kharkorum, we visited Erdene Zuu Khiid, Mongolia’s largest.  It’s been restored since it was destroyed in the Soviet era, and it is now a functioning monastery.  While impressive, it’s not nearly as exciting as visiting Tovkhin Khiid, the site of Zanabazar’s meditations, atop a peak 9000 meters in elevation and with stunning vistas.  Tovkhin Khiid also boasts a few caves with magical healing powers. On the way down, the head monk stopped us and invited us into his ger and proceeded to tell us about all his travels in India while feeding us delicious airag.

From Tovkhin Khiid, we met up with another group of travelers and proceeded to our camp spot, which despite being July, was rather cold.  But it was a fun group of people, and after snuggling up in our tents, we awoke to the misty morning and made our way into the Orkhon Valley and the largest river in Mongolia.  By the banks of the Orkhon, we relaxed and fished, and, at lunch time, watched our drivers and guides produce the khorhog.

From the Orhon Valley, we drove to the Hot Springs, which were probably the only disappointing part of Mongolia I’ve visited so far.  The water from the hot springs is pumped into pools at various ger camps, so the rustic appeal of sitting in a spring is lost.  However, the water is hot and the showers refreshing after a couple of days of not bathing.

From the Hot Springs, we went on to Terkhiin Tsaagan Nuur, or the White Lake, one of the most stunning places in Arkhangai.  Along the way, we stopped at a volcanic crater, where we were offered some blowtorched marmot (declined).  The crater is a massive hole, but interestingly has not yet filled into a lake as most craters in Mongolia have.  We then spent two days at Tsaagan Nuur, where I attempted to wash clothes (and almost lost them), relaxed in the grass, dipped my feet in some surprisingly warm water, and watched a herder family carve and paint a ger.

And then it was time to head north to Moron, just in time to catch Naadam.  More pix can be found here.

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