Two days after my Gobi adventure had ended, I felt the urge to get out of the city once again and decided to join Alex in Kharkhorin, which he had left for the day before. I missed the rolling steppe, I missed the mountains, but most of all, I missed the animals and the local people of the small villages. Kharkhorin is a small town in Central Mongolia with just 9.000 inhabitants, located by the Orkhon River, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at the easternmost foothills of the Khangai Mountains.
I had been debating for a while whether or not to go back to Central Mongolia, as I was afraid that it would ruin the first experience, when the amazing people from the Gobi tour weren’t there. But because I knew Alex was there, and because the alternative was going to a national park near Ulaanbaatar by myself, I decided to give it a go. I caught a bus from UB at 11 AM, and had a bumpy 6-hour drive through ever-changing terrain with Mongolian music videos on repeat throughout the journey. The bus driver made several loo stops (long-drop loos or just nature, of course) and also a long lunch break, so it was a comfortable ride.
I wasn’t planning to stay in Kharkhorin for long, but I wanted to at least get a taste of the village for a few days. My friend Damian had recommended staying at Gaya’s Guesthouse, so that was what I decided to do. Gaya’s Guesthouse is a warm and cozy base for exploring Kharkhorin and it’s cheap as well. I can really recommend staying there, because not only are Gaya and her family really lovely, Gaya is also super helpful in regards to further travel, whether you want to go to a nomadic family nearby, travel onwards in Central Mongolia or do a private tour of the area or even as far as to the White Lake.
After much consideration, I decided not to do any of this. I had quite an issue with deciding whether or not I should stay with another nomadic family, as I loved the experience on the Gobi tour, but I was afraid that it would be lonely to do it alone after having four friends join me in the gers for a week. When something is really good, like the Gobi tour was, it makes me miss it extremely much and makes it hard for me to go back to those places or similar scenarios without the same people. So instead, I decided to spend two days exploring Kharkhorin and the surrounding mountains.
I arrived in Kharkhorin at 5.30 PM and was picked up by Gaya at the bus station. She drove me to the guesthouse, where I got settled in the ger that I would be sharing with Alex for a few days. Alex had gone for a wander, so I decided to explore the area by myself a bit before sunset.
Gaya recommended that I walked to the Turtle Rock, which is located on a small hill just outside her guesthouse. She said that her adorable dog would probably follow me, which he did for about 100 metres, before plumping down on the ground and rolling around. I guess he was too lazy for a hike, haha!
Walking the hill was a nice experience, where I got to meet more goats (I’m so in love), and see some great views of Kharkhorin and the surrounding mountains. I also found the Turtle Rock and sat there for a few moments.
The evening was spent in Gaya’s family’s house reading, writing and eating, before going to sleep in the cozy ger in the most comfortable bed I’d slept in in Mongolia (most of them are really hard).
When I got up at about 1 PM the next day (lazy, I know, but I must’ve needed it), Alex was already gone, so once again, I decided to explore on my own. I decided to go to the Erdene Zuu Monastery, the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, and then head to the mountains on the other side of town.
On the way to the monastery, I met Alex, who was on his way back after a long walk to the mountains on the other side of the town. He told me that it had taken him about four hours just to walk there and back, which was a bummer, since that was my plan.
The monastery was a spectacular experience. I’m not usually very interested in temples (especially in Bali, where they are totally overrun by tourists), but this one really caught my interest. It was so cool to be able to walk around with no selfie-sticks poking me in the eye, no queues and no entrance fees. Everything was open and available to explore and I only saw a group of 5 tourists apart from myself.
When I was done with the monastery, I decided to give the mountains on the other side of the town a go, despite what Alex told me. I figured that even if I didn’t make it up there, it would be nice to see the river with the mountainous backdrop.
The walk through the town was looooooong (surprisingly, considering it’s quite a small town) and when I eventually got to the river, I was ready to give up and just head back to the guesthouse. But after half an hour’s rest, I decided to cross the bridge and at least give it a go. But I know myself well enough to know that that would not be enough. Once I start something, I have to follow through with it – and these mountains were no exception.
I climbed hill after hill, telling myself that it was okay to stop at the next one. But then I spotted a peak quite far away from where I was standing, but close enough for me to choose it as my end destination for the hike.
It was a struggle to pull myself up there, especially because I was still dealing with some illness from the beginning of my Mongolian adventure, but I got there in the end. What I thought was a tree on top of the peak was actually an ovoo, which is a sacred cairn found in Mongolian shamanic religious traditions. Gaya later told me that the peak I had climbed was sacred and that anyone who managed to climb it would receive great fortune.
When I was almost at the peak, I heard drums, which scared me just a little bit. Ever since I saw “The Blue Lagoon”, I’ve been scared of drummings like this and I had many irrational thoughts about how they would catch me and sacrifice me to their gods if they saw me! I peeped around a corner and saw a party of 5 people gathered around a bonfire, singing, playing drums and eating. Some of them were wearing traditional clothes. While this was exactly the kind of scenario I had in my head, it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as in the movie. Coming down from the mountain, I walked past them and not one of them took any notice of me! Mongolians are far too friendly to be intimidating anyways!
Now I still had a long walk back to the guesthouse, across the bridge, through the town and then the struggle with actually finding it in the end. It took me about 2 hours to walk back and I was ready to drop into bed the second I entered the gates!
Two days after I arrived in Kharkhorin, I decided to go back to UB after much consideration. I had quite a few options: Either stay with a nomadic family near Kharkhorin, but it was raining and I didn’t really want to do it alone; go to Tsetserleg with Alex and stay at a really expensive guesthouse plus get even further away from UB and my upcoming flight; or go back to UB and try to make it to Terelj National Park for a few days. I chose the last option based on the weather and my empty wallet. Plus it was convenient to stay close to the airport, since I would be flying out of Mongolia four days later.
On the way back to UB, I had the worst bus ride ever. It was a minivan that was full to the top! People were literally sitting on top of each other and squashing others for 6 hours straight. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I finally got there, haha!
My days spent in Kharkhorin were very enjoyable and it was a perfect little getaway from the busy capital. Here is some useful information on how to travel to Kharkhorin:
- There are daily connections between Ulaanbaatar and Kharkhorin. The bus leaves the Dragon Center in Ulaanbaatar at 11 AM and arrives six hours later in Kharkhorin. It’s possible to buy tickets on the day of departure, but during the summer months it’s probably better to buy it one day in advance.
- Returning to Ulaanbaatar, there is a bus at 10 AM and a minibus later in the afternoon. If you want to take the minibus, it’s best to get Gaya (or another local) to call them to reserve a seat and find out what time it leaves.
- The price for the busses and minivan is 17,300 tugrik one way.
- I recommend staying at Gaya’s Guesthouse, as it’s a really nice place that has everything you need. She has ger dorms, private rooms and double rooms available. Find out more and contact her on her website. Gaya will pick you up at the bus station when you arrive, if you contact her before to tell her that you’re coming.