Mass tourism in Mongolia? You wouldn’t believe it. But it’s reality. It’s Nadaam time. A tribute to some rather unusual days in Mongolia’s remote countryside.
Most international tourists are extremely enthusiastic about the endless blue sky in Mongolia, the vast green pastures, the expanse of the landscape, the pristine rivers and dark blue lakes or simply the sadness of Gobi’s desert. They’re getting so excited about the loneliness: The wild scenery of soft hills sprinkled with ovoos, just populated by some sheep – or billy goats. The endless grazing land dotted with a few yurts at the horizon. And noble herdboys living their independent and lonely life with their herds far from their beloved 1s.
And last but not least – or rather most important: tourists love the lonely tracks twisting thru the landscape. As an enthusiastic overlander you finally get away from these awful tarmacs. Hence, you can drive on small tracks. Tracks which may be corrugated or not. Sandy tracks, rocky tracks, muddy tracks. You can drive on the tracks or completely loose them.
Whatever kind of track you’re driving visibly you’re the only 1 taking it. You feel like an explorer discovering new, completely unspoilt lands. Maybe areas no foreigner has been since the fathering of Chinggis Khan. What an incredible adventure. Where else in the whole world could you find the opportunity to feel as blissfully happy as in the Mongolian countryside?
For many drivers it’s the 1st time they’ve been offroad – or maybe just off the track, off the tarmac or whatever. What an adventure. Thus certain even prefer to experience this unique challenge in a group. Probably to exchange every evening the incredible dangers lived that day or just to drink a beer together.
For the numerous drivers of campervans the 1st time their porcelain plates and their wine glasses get some cracks and the shelf with the garden gnomes in the upper left corner of their mobile-home drops due to overweight. Hence, their beloved gnomes get bumps’n’hematomas on their PVC heads. Thus in the evening they may no longer serve for decoration in front of their campervans. Finally, the van’s ground clearance may be a problem, they touch every bump on the tracks. How interesting and adventurous.
In the evening, you may camp wherever you like in Mongolia. It’s true nobody cares. Maybe a lonely herdboy passes by. He brings a goat’s head cooked to perfection in a sauce made of sheep tail fat. You add a bottle of vodka, or 2 – and there’s the romantic dinner out in the nature.
Well, that’s the romanticism about rural Mongolia. Maybe true (or not) – at least during 355 day a year. But now we live the remaining 10 days: the week of Nadaam Holiday.
And during these days – wowww! – what a difference. It’s the time when urban live is spilling over to the herdboy’s life. And urban guys convert into herdboys.
It’s the period when all Mongies living in towns have to take their cars and drive to some relatives anywhere in the country. The further, the better. The older and smaller the car and the worse the track the better for next year’s Karma.
In figures: an estimated 2 mio. urban Mongies visit their 1 mio. rural relatives in the famous week of the Nadaam festival. And use this unique opportunity to have some real holidays (away from their relatives) somewhere in the nature. What a spectacle…
… and we’re in the middle of it.
Murun, 12th July –end of Nadaam madness minus 5
Back to Murun. Passing thru the town; everywhere long queues at the petrol stations. All parking spaces in front of the supermarkets are full with heavily packed cars and people preparing for their holiday adventures. Astonishingly, there’s no problem to find accommodation. Everybody wants to go to Lake Khuvsgul.
But we plan to experience today’s Nadaam spectacle taking place a little outside the town. Arriving there we feel like in a sandstorm in the Sahara. It’s definitely extremely dusty. Nevertheless, the organizers seem to be prepared to whatever incident may occur.
The venue offers many spectacles. For kids, for youngsters, for men.
And of course especially for women: wrestling.
In no time our eyes and the camera lenses are covered with a thick layer of dust. Time to say goodbye to the Nadaam festival.
The next morning on to Khuvsgul Lake some 100km to the north. The most famous tourist spot in Mongolia. We want to drive to the north- eastern shore, spend a few days there. Nice green landscape, lots of cars on the road and a number of places installed to participate at the tourists wealth.
Especially the Tsaatan. This tribe living west of Khuvsgul Lake and famous for breeding Taiga reindeers is of particular interest to Nadaam holiday makers.
Arriving in Kathgal, the main town at the lake there’s a huge traffic jam. So time to look at the tourist ger camps on both sides of the road. In between all free space filled with tents, 10 000s of tourists – all celebrating their Nadaam holiday. Difficult to drive on. Finally we reach the junction of the road going to the lake’s eastside. Also full of cars. We move on. Not far, just a little. Then we realize that there’s no longer any chance to drive further. All is blocked by 100s or 1000s of cars. All trying to get out of the mess. We too. The only solution rushing into our mind is to return immediately to Murun – and to forget lake Khuvsgul. And a few hours later back we are.
In Murun we take the opportunity to visit another site with some deerstone steles some 20km to the west.
Ugii Nuur, 14th July –end of Nadaam madness minus 3
Today is 12th July, we’re in Murun. 5 days left until Nadaam leave takes an end. As we have to cancel our recreation at Khuvsgul Lake, we need to replan our trip for the next 5 days. Simply because we wouldn’t dare going to Ulaan Bataar during the on-going Nadaam Festival. This period definitely has its reputation. Nevertheless, we’d like to be there next week to ensure Prado’s service at the Toyota’s garage before heading to Russia.
Currently, we try to avoid as much as possible all spots local tourists may consider must-have-seen places during their Nadaam holiday. Probably, quite a difficult task. After enormous reflexions and discussions considering all important and useless factors we still don’t have a clear idea on how to spend the next days.
Whatever. On the 13th we drive eastwards towards Ulaan Bataar. The road is pretty good; of course the hell a lot of cars in both directions – Nadaam Holidayers. We think about camping somewhere on the way, maybe along a river, next to a forest or just at the foot of a hill. Unfortunately, some other 100 000 people have the same idea. Probably this situation occurs only along this road because it connects the capital with Khuvsgul Lake.
So we study our guide books. Search an interesting place. Not an easy task on this part of the Northern Road. Finally we discover the Uran Togoo Vulcano near the small town of Bulgan. Not being a top sight in Mongolia, we hope not too many people are attracted by this place. Arriving at the volcano in the late afternoon we find not too many visitors. A place to stay overnight is quickly found in the forest next to Uran Togoo. We walk to the volcano. On the way we discover the mess: during the last days this forest was regularly used as a toilet by numerous visitors. Somehow a forest dotted with toilet paper. Well, later we’ll have to find another, cosier and cleaner place.
Up to the volcano together with a number of co-climbers. A nice view. Slightly worrying is the constant pall of dust along the tracks. We discover 100s of cars driving in all directions in the plain below. Slowly we start learning more about what’s happening during Nadaam holiday.
From the top of the volcano we discover at some distance a ger camp. And that might be the ultimate place saving us from spending the night in this toilet paper-dotted-forest. And we’re lucky. We get 1 of the last yurts to recover from all these Nadaam challenges.
Then some more reading in our guide books. Lonely Planet gives us the ultimate idea. To go to Ugii Nuur. A pretty isolated lake some 100km south of the volcano. The site is described as absolutely off the beaten track. Logically, it’s a secret Lonely Planet only shares with us. Hence, we’re absolutely optimistic to finally discover our secluded place where we can wait until Nadaam madness takes an end. Our GPS even finds a small track leading to this mysterious lake. Surely a track nobody knows. Thank you Lonely Planet for sharing such a great secret with us!
The next morning (end of Nadaam madness minus 2) we’re on the way to Ugii Nuur. Of course 1st we have to cross the plain around the volcano – these tracks which have been used by 100s of cars yesterday. Today, still the same. We’re driving in the dust of the preceding car. Should we dare keeping some distance to avoid all this dust getting in our car, the vehicle behind immediately bypasses us to fill the gap. Logically, how can we waist such a lot of valuable space on this track. Only ignorant foreigners dare to behave like this.
Whatever. We drive for an hour or so. Then we, Prado and everything we have in the car is covered with a solid layer of fine dust – even if the windows are closed. Who cares, except us. We decide to take an even smaller, but longer track to Ugii Nuur. So small even the GPS cannot find it anymore in its digital brain. That must be the track to avoid all other cars. Well it is. At least for a few km.
Then the cars are back. A little fewer than before, but still we’re driving in the dust. Astonishingly the smaller the cars the faster they drive on the track. And the more enthusiastic the drivers are to have their cars filled with dust; to breathe it; to feel the hair sticked together with sand and loam – these all are adventures they probably couldn’t live in their proud capital. And this way, they probably even feel more intensively these outdoor adventures. Well, so far our observations about lonely tracks in Mongolia.
In the afternoon we approach Lonely Planet’s off the beaten track secret Ugii Nuur. Thus, the place nobody knows and consequently nobody visits. The place where we’ll camp at the lakeshore, cook our spaghetti polonaise and drink our bottle of rotten grapes. Thus, the ultimate place to wait until this Nadaam madness is over.
Getting closer to the lake we discover that eventually we’ve been slightly overoptimistic concerning Nadaam holidayer’s knowledge about this secret place.
Somehow the situation reminds us to pictures we’ve seen of South Africa’s Jeffrey’s Bay in December, Mallorca’s Ballermann in July or Italy’s Rimini in August: 1000s of tents along the shore. 1000s of people sitting in front of their tents, sunbathing, swimming, eating, watching their unruly kids, taking their dog or themselves for a walk or simply waiting in front of 1 of the few toilets.
Of course, contrary to Rimini they’re not listening Adreano Celentano’s schmaltz or Pavarotti, but simultaneously many of the latest Mongi-hits.
Of course, not as developed as Ballermann. Everybody has to bring his own beer. The reason why the cars are so full.
Of course, not as civilized as Jeffrey’s Bay. There are no waste bins every few meters. There are a few 1s some 100m from the shore. Unfortunately they’re already full. So the visitors seem not to have any other choice than to define further spaces to dispose of their bottles and plastic bags.
And last but not least – as everywhere else there are a few toilets for the campers. Unfortunately they share their miserable destiny with the waste bins. Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem to be a real problem. As 100s of cars drive constantly directly behind the tents thick dust avoids any view to the grassland further away. So the ideal place to extend the toilets – and anyway, all will be covered with dust.
So where’s the problem? Maybe at night when the wind turns from the land to the lake. But then everybody sleeps.
Finally we have no other choice than going again to a ger camp. Just 1 yurt left. But we’re saved.
Time to explore a little more of this interesting world.
In the back of the camp the 1st surprise. We discover a huge red bus. Amazingly only the front part with seats. In the back they constructed a kind of small boxes with windows. That’s the place the poor passengers spend the night. Somehow reminds us to a can of sardines. We even discover some guys using this strange vehicle. And they even pay for it. It’s called Rotel Tours – the wheeled hotel. A place where you never need to change your hotel room during the whole journey. Must be fantastic. How else to explain that some people choose to travel this way?
Well, there’s more to discover outside the yurt camp. Carefully we walk along the lakeshore – always paying attention to what is hidden on the ground. Especially if there’s some toilet paper nearby.
We find a group of 10 mobile homes from Germany and Swizzyland. They’re on a tour from Europe to Mongolia and back. All organized by Seabridge, a travel agency providing them whatever they need except driving their vehicle.
And finally of course the romanticism of camper life at the lake shore – shared by 1000s of people at the same time. Even if there’s some clear indication that camping is strictly forbidden.
Definitely not exactly what we expected at Ugii Nuur – Lonely Planet’s ultimate off the beaten track destination. Whatever – the beautiful sunset compensates at least partly for certain inconveniences.
Ulaan Bataar, 16th July –end of Nadaam madness
Ugii Nuur – not really the place to wait for the Nadaam madness to take an end. Just 2 days left. We have the great idea to drive to Khögnö Khan Uul Nature Reserve – the place we already visited some 10 days ago. We’re undeniably optimistic that this part of Mongolia doesn’t participate in Nadaam madness. A small track leads us there. And really there are no cars of people on Nadaam leave.
Arriving in the nature reserve there are some dark clouds; it looks like rain in a few minutes. We look at the ger camp we stayed before. Nobody. What a relief – no longer these masses of tourists. Unfortunately, not only no tourists currently stay here, but also all staff has left – for Nadaam holiday.
Wowww – we’re back in the circuit. We drive on to Kharkhorin. The town receives us with a nice sandstorm.
We go to the same ger camp we’ve been last times. At least their staff is only partly on leave.
Later in the afternoon many people from the town arrive. They organize a kind of party – eating a lot, singing a lot, drinking even more. Probably to celebrate the end of Nadaam madness. The next morning at 3am the restaurant tries to send them home. Not an easy task. A few need some more drinks; others just 1 for the road; the majority simply has enormous problems to find the door out of the restaurant. All efforts are accompanied by long discussions, some quarrels, lots of insults, cries and the noise of shattering wood. This ceremony takes hours and we’ve the honour to listen to all – we`re in the ger next to the restaurant. Finally at 5am it’s definitely over. And we go to sleep.
A few hours later we’re on the road to Ulaan Bataar, the proud Mongolian capital. It’s the last day of Nadaam madness, so time to arrive there. Of course hoping that tomorrow life will turn back to normal.
Some 370km, 5h on the tarmac. Surprisingly there are not too many cars on the way back home from their beautiful Nadaam leave.
The next day we go to Toyota for Prado’s maintenance. Arriving there we learn that the garage is closed – due to extended Nadaam holidays.
Well, Prado will probably enjoy its rejuvenation in Russia.
And we’re pretty concerned: will eventually follow the extended Nadaam madness the ordinary madness of the last week? Who knows. Time for a beer.
So far our few crazy days in Mongolia. The next post about life returned to normal. Promised.