From Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake to Ulziit Camp

Monday, May 26, 2014

This marked one year of adventure travel for us, and what an adventure the day was. More on that later in the post.

We had a great night’s sleep in our Ger. When we woke up, a quick check of the weather showed that it was a little cold, very windy and a little wet. It had not rained overnight and the ground was dry, so we decided to proceed north to Orgii/Jargalant (place names are sometimes very confusing as not only do they come in different alphabets and spellings; lots of times maps and books simply do not agree) . We had a bit of a slow start because we slept in a little and took our time over breakfast. But we eventfully got organized, packed up and said goodbye to our lovely host, Oyuna. It was 9:45am when we pulled out of the camp.

Our route took us around the northern side of the Lake and the views were stunning. In fact, better than the day before. Much of the ice we saw the previous day had disappeared overnight, not sure if it had been blown away or just melted in the warm conditions. Regardless, staggering to see such a change in a single night.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake or Great White Lake.
Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake or Great White Lake.
One of numerous creek crossings.

While we continued around the lake, we had to cross two small creeks which were draining into it. We almost got bogged in the first crossing (N48.17912 E99.72146) due to a poor route decision but Sterlin was up to the task. We were better prepared for the second crossing (N48.20134 E99.68942) and this time had no problems. However we had to drive around a truck that looked pretty stuck and was in the process of being dug out. We stopped to lend assistance communicating with hand signals. It was not long before Sterlin was hooked up with a tow rope. A few minutes after that we pulled the rather sizable truck out of the mud and saw the smiles of some very happy Mongolians. Atta boy Sterlin!

Sterlin assists a truck out of the mud.
Ovoo on the Lake’s Edge

Not long after that the road veered away from the lake’s edge and headed in a more northerly direction. There were more creek crossings which presented no problems after scouting for a good place to cross. We continued on a good but rocky road for 22kms until we reached two hard packed snow patches. With a little sliding we crossed these with ease. The road got a little more rocky as we headed up and over the mountain pass and our speed slowed considerably. In addition the weather was turning and we had some rain and hail, just to mix things up a little. But, once out of the mountain section and back into the grassy valley, we picked up speed and enjoyed the great views in sunshine again. We still had the occasional creek crossing, but these had rock beds and proved no problem. At 3pm we finally pulled into Orgii/Jargalant which was our objective for the day. It had taken us just over 5 hours to cover 81kms.

The wind in Jargalent was horrendous, and, combined with all the sandy unpaved roads, created quite the dust storms. There were also no hotels, tourist Ger camps or wind-free places to camp. So, after looking around for ten minutes and failing to find ice-cream, we decided to drive onto Tosonchengel, another 80kms and 4 hours away. We were very glad to find fuel and topped up Sterlin before setting off.

There are two routes to Tosonchengel, one via a mountain pass and another via Jargalant. We had heard that it was too early in the season for the mountain pass which was not yet passable, whereas Jargalant had a brand new concrete bridge which was certain to provide access north. We headed out of town in search of this bridge and soon found it. It was in fact hard to miss as it was the biggest thing for miles. As we crossed the bridge we saw a sign indicating that Mörön was only 177kms away. This tiny bit of information made us change our minds on the spot, so, instead of turning left towards Tosonchengel, we turned right towards Mörön. We had no information on the condition of the ‘road’ or even if it was passable, but we had a full fuel tank and time. Bear in mind that ‘road’ in Mongolia usually means ‘dirt track’.

The road just after the bridge and over the hill was under construction for a few kilometers and then turned into a smooth grassy track with dry river bed crossings (read ‘rocks’). This did not last as long as we would have liked it to, as the track started to be riddled with rocks and slowed us down considerably. At 5:30pm we passed through Erdenet, which was just as bland as Jargalant. The road continued to be rutted, rocky and slow. There were patches of faster grassland.

An example of the nice fast grassland tracks.

After 18kms the road stopped at a collapsed wooden bridge. After scouting a route around the bridge we promptly got stuck up to the axles in the mud. Ok. We started the steps to recover the situation when along came some locals to watch and assist. This sort of thing happens all the time here so people simply help out. We also saw a truck about 500m away and signaled for them to come over and tow us out. But what’d you know, the truck also got stuck. So we jacked up the rear wheels with our hi-lift jack (very happy we’d brought it, because at one stage it was on the list of ‘maybes’) and placed wooden planks from the broken bridge under the wheels. At least the bridge was good for something 🙂 We would have used our sand tracks except they were a little hard to get off the roof, and the wood was handy. By then the people from the truck had come over to help us as well. After a final push from all the helping hands Sterlin was out of the mud in 15 mins. Then we headed over to the truck and towed them out of the mud, over about 300 meters of potential boggy terrain and back to the road. The second truck we assisted in one day.

Stephen lifting Sterlin out of the mud.
Everyone helps as this is more than just common.
Example of the bridge crossings. This one still stood – sort of.

The whole combined exercise of getting Sterlin and the truck back on track, took about 1 hour and by then it was close to 7pm. Luckily the sun didn’t set until about 9pm, but still high time to look for a place to camp for the night. We had seen a sign to ‘Ulziit Camp’ earlier and were about 12 kms away from it, a distance we realized could take up to an hour to cover. When we got there, at 7:50pm, it looked like there might have been a camp once, but now a family had set up their ger there. The woman motioned for us to set up camp anyway and assisted in selecting the best possible flat spot taking into consideration the strong winds. One useful remnant for the camp was a clean sit-down toilet. We deployed our tent and attached our annex so we could cook a quick meal out of the wind; pot noodles seemed like the best option given the time and circumstances. What a day, we were in bed around 10pm tired, but feeling pretty good about all the adventure and stunning scenery we’d experrienced. Not a bad ‘One-Year-Travel Anniversary’!!

By Stephen, heavily edited by Caroline.