This is my 15th summer in Mongolia. Since 1998 I have been making frequent visits to this amazing country which never fails to whet my adventure appetite. I always return home feeling rejuvenated for the connection with nature has never been so deeply felt in all my other travels except here.
This summer I decided to make this long overdue visit to Uvs, an aimag (or province) located in the western part of the country. Uvs houses the biggest lake in Mongolia but only occupies less than five-percent of the country’s sovereign territory; two-thirds of the province land is covered with mountains while the remaining one-third is arid sand extended from the Gobi Desert.
The scenic drive through the countryside has always been a therapeutic experience for me.
A two-hour flight journey brought my Mongolian friends and I from the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, to the provincial capital city, Ulaangom. The Kharkhiraa Mountain, a magnificent backdrop for Ulaangom, greeted us as we disembarked from the propeller plane. I could not wait to spend a week exploring the mountain range on horseback. After filling our vehicles with the needed ration, we headed into the snow-capped peaks with much anticipation.
The ride in the Mongolia is often bumpy due to its unpaved road that crisscrossed in the vast landscape. The scenery stretches as far as your eyes can see with vibrant blue skies, fluffy white clouds and rolling green grasslands that merged seamlessly with the distant horizon. The scenic drive through the countryside has always been a therapeutic experience for me.
Without any directional road signs, navigational aids and communication devices, our drivers could pinpoint the exact location of where the local horse guides were awaiting patiently for our arrival. In all these years, I have yet to figure out how Mongolian drivers navigate using natural landmarks, such as mountains and rivers, as waypoints to get to the desired destinations. After an exchange of snuff bottles between our drivers and the horse guides, we set up our campsite before nightfall bestowed upon us.
The sun was about to emerge in between the mountains as I stepped out of my camping tent. A handful of kites were gliding in the sky while a herd of sheep and goats were grazing in the distant grassland. The peace and quiet was a welcoming change to my world back in Singapore. I took a short hike to immerse myself in the tranquility while my travelling pals slowly made their way out of their sleeping bags.
Mongolian horses, though smaller in size compared to their European counterparts, have amazing energy and stamina to ride for long hours.
Kharkhiraa Mountain is a vital water source feeding the Uvs Lake. It stands at 4,037 metres above sea level and is part of the Uvs Nuur Strictly Protected Area. Our intent is to explore the mountain valley which houses five different coloured lakes in close proximity to one another. We had to exchange our vans into horses and camels as the road into the mountains were unpaved and the terrain was impassable to automobiles. This was where the adventure started. Travelling on horseback, as the Mongolians have for thousands of years, was an exhilarating experience. Mongolian horses, though smaller in size compared to their European counterparts, have amazing energy and stamina to ride for long hours. To get to the valley would require a three-day journey from the campsite where we bid our drivers farewell.
We were flanked by mountains as we rode into the valley. These towering peaks are great hideouts for the ibexes, snow leopards, mountain rams and wolves, which I was eagerly looking out for. However, I did meet some nomads travelling in their caravans, who were moving away from the mountains in preparation for the coming winter. I could not help but wonder how their lives are closely intertwined with the changing seasons, and any drastic shifts in the weather patterns could adversely affect their livelihoods. Life in the countryside is harsh but these nomads live in relative contentment as displayed in their unparallel hospitality. This is the very reason why I am so attracted to this country and her people.
“I closed my eyes to savor this defining moment – a keepsake that I will remember in my heart as to why I have and will always be in love with Mongolia.”
The uphill ride was getting a little uncomfortable on the saddle – hence we decided to dismount from our horses and walk. The hike provided a much needed relief to our knees after the long ride. We were rewarded by the stunning sight of a lake with turquoise waters that sparkled like a jewel under the sun. We then chanced upon a small hill and decided to climb it. The rising peak opened to the most magnificent view of Uvs – its rugged landscape with all its natural beauty laid bare and proud before us. I closed my eyes to savor this defining moment – a keepsake that I will remember in my heart as to why I have and will always be in love with Mongolia.