travel diary: eastern steppe

Ah, the Eastern Steppe.  If I were going to pick any part of Mongolia that I would say was distinctly Mongolian, I would go with the steppe.  There is more steppe in the central and west part of the country, but the East has reached almost mythical proportions when thinking about nomads and horses and running wild and free.

Part of that comes from the relatively sparse population – population density is almost as low as the Gobi, and most of the people are concentrated in urban centers, leaving vast open spaces for wildlife and livestock.  Rumor has it, the herds of gazelle number close to 1 million, the largest migration in the world.

We spent a week in the East, but unfortunately missed the famed gazelle, only catching glimpses of a few lone animals here or there.  We did see a number of birds of prey, many of which just sat on the side of the road watching us as we drove past.

Eastern Mongolia is not just steppe, however.  In the southeast, much of the landscape is the Gobi, with the same scrubby flora as is found in the south.  We started in SE Gobi, at the border town of Zamyn-Uud.  From there, we drove to the Energy Center, at Danzanravjaa’s monastery in Khamar.   Danzanravjaa, the Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi, was a 19th Century monk who established a rather forward-thinking center of learning, Buddhist contemplation, and even performing arts, in the middle of the desert.  As like most Buddhist centers in Mongolia, much of it was destroyed by the Russians a century later, but many parts of the center have been rebuilt.  One attraction in particular is the Energy Center, where it is said a soul can be rejuvenated and made blissful by observing a few rituals.

From the Energy Center, we proceeded northeast, camping over night a few times.  One of the best things about Mongolia is the ability to pitch a tent just about anywhere in the countryside.  There are few places in the world where this is possible.  We headed into Sukhbaatar province, where the gobi turns into volcanic plains before becoming outright steppe.  In Sukhbaatar, at Dariganga, it is possible to see volcanic craters and lakes, as well as underground caves.   The ethnic stock here is different too – the Dariganga people are one of the many minorities in Mongolia.

After a few days exploring, we left Dariganga and began a long drive across the steppe.   The land is flat, much like the central portion of the US.   But unlike the American midwest, this flatness is entirely wild, with no neat rows of corn or soy, and little to no development whatsoever.  We went hours without stumbling across a town, following only some well-worn dirt tracks through the high steppe grass.    Eventually, the steppe turns into more mountainous areas in the north, but for several hundred kilometers, there is nothing to see but the endless blue sky.

More pictures can be found here.

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1 Response to “travel diary: eastern steppe”


  1. 1 Jasmin September 11, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    I live it!! Travel channel has some competition 🙂 Makes me want to hop on the next flight to reconnect with my Mongol heritage!!


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