One Week in Mongolia: A Sunpath Tour Adventure

Our only other major stop that day was for lunch which we made at a small restaurant with a sort of camp-cabin feel. I had fried noodles with mutton which was pretty decent. We also had our first experience with the squat potties that we’d quickly grow accustomed to on our journey. For dinner at our first ger was another fried noodle dish!

We’re enjoying the music so far, particularly a Mongolian rap song with some great English lyrics thrown in: “I want you so, I miss you so, thank you.” 

Views of the colorful red and orange cliffs from the bottom of the White Stupah.
Views of the cliffs from the bottom of the White Stupah.

Day 2: Yol Valley

Today we drove toward the East mountain of the three named “Three beauties of Gobi” in the Central Mongolia area. We stopped near a narrow valley and walked the length of it until we came to its end and were met with a large stupa and a waterfall. A short drive later and we had a 4 km trek through a beautiful valley that reminded me a bit of the Narrows hike in Zion National Park in the US.

Here we saw our first pika, which basically looks like a gerbil or mouse, as well as several huge birds which were probably hunting for said pika. After seeing some wildlife in nature, we made a final quick stop at the Natural History Museum where we saw stuffed versions of all the types of creatures found in Mongolia. Also on display were some original dinosaur bones and eggs discovered in the area which were millions of years old.

A girl from my tour group and our guide walking into the Yol Valley.
A girl from my tour group and our guide walking into the Yol Valley.

After dinner this night, we spent a good amount of time taking photos of the stars. You could see the Milky Way with the naked eye each night and it was absolutely stunning. I felt very “down to earth” going to the bathroom outside and looking up to see the constellations I could never see at home with our light pollution from the city.

A traveler from my group stands wrapped under a blanket looking up at the Milky Way.
A traveler from my group stands wrapped under a blanket looking up at the Milky Way.

Day 3: Gobi Desert

Today we made our way toward the Gobi Desert, a part of the tour I’d been most looking forward to. We arrived around mid-day and spent the next three hours in shifts, riding a camel with the camel man (as the guide called him) for an hour. This was just enough time for my butt to get sufficiently sore and my knees and ankles to be throbbing fiercely.

A note on the camel and horse animal encounters

A herd of brown, two-humped camels walking along the fields.
A herd of camels walking along the fields.

 I did partake in camel riding and horse back riding on this trip after some research into the ethicality of it and lots of questions from the group to guides about their care. I’ll should say that I only considered partaking in this because they are animals that have historically been used and domesticated by humans for travel and whose bodies can support human riders in appropriate conditions and durations.

Though there is always some grey area, I felt like I could consider this if the conditions otherwise seemed appropriate, though I would not condone riding elephants or petting tigers, and would acknowledge that there are some situations where camels and horses are absolutely mistreated for the means of tourism. Some may disagree with my decision to participate in this part of the tour at all and I understand that perspective as well.

That said, the Born Free Foundation and other NGO’s have outlined the following “5 Freedoms” as a minimum standard for animal tourism:

  • Food and water
  • A suitable living environment
  • Good health
  • An opportunity to exhibit natural behavior
  • Protection from fear and distress

These all seemed to be in order, and I found in general throughout Mongolia that the relationship between the Mongolian nomads and the animals was much different than most animal tourism sites I’ve encountered. For most if not all of the nomadic families, the animal heds which they protect are their livelihood. They provide their food, clothing, transportation, and income from tourism, and thus they do their upmost to take great care of each animal for everyone’s benefit.

Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA) also gives some guidelines on things to look for before riding a camel or horse. The first pertaining to camels is to check for skin issues (patchiness or baldness) or diarrhea around the tail and legs. The second is to make sure that each camel is carrying appropriate weight (maximum of 150 kg or 2 average sized individuals). These all seemed to be in order, though the camels we rode did have posts through their noses which were tied to the ropes that kept the camels in a line. 

All said, I don’t think I will ever ride a camel again, though I think these camels were treated well. I don’t think they would not have experienced much of a different life if we weren’t there as they’re still used to transport goods and people in many cases when the families move. None the less, I felt like there was still some room for uncertainty and I feel very conflicted that I went for it after all the time I’ve spent blogging and researching about ethical animal encounters.

All this to say that nobody is perfect and sustainable and ethical travel is an area where we will make mistakes and have lessons to learn. I’ve certainly learned from this experience think I could have had just as enjoyable of a time just petting the camels from the ground, which I did on many other occasions. But for transparency and to let you know that I’m still learning and improving in this area too, I wanted to talk about it openly. 

As for the horses, I still feel comfortable with that but respect that others may disagree. I welcome any discussion about horse-riding and the ethical aspects of this whether in the comments or an email!

Walking along the dunes of the Gobi Desert.
Walking along the dunes of the Gobi Desert.

Day 4: Petroglyphs and Flaming Cliffs

Today’s travels took us first to the Altai Mountain prehistoric rock carvings abound. Situated amongst unreal views are images of deer, ibex, camel, horse, hunters, carved over 5,000 years ago. We spent about an hour hiking to the top where the petroglyphs are situated and exploring the rich history I felt spoiled to see. 

Later, we made our wat to Bayanzag, or the Flaming Cliffs, at sunset. This was the location where Roy Chapman, who inspired Indiana Jones’s character, did a lot of his excavation uncovering many dinosaur skeletons and bones, some of which we were told were sold (and later taken back from) Nicholas Cage.

We enjoyed dinner under the stars and stayed up drinking on this night, as some of our group that was 16 people deep to that point were splitting ways on a separate tour the following morning. I enjoyed myself quite a bit but would find drinking to be a big mistake the following day when I woke with a headache and nausea. By this point in the journey we are starting to laugh and roll our eyes when we hear songs we’ve recognized played for the 20th time. 

One of our tour guides explaining about the petroglyphs during our one week in Mongolia.
One of our tour guides explaining about the petroglyphs.

Day 5: Hangover (And the Ongi Monastery Ruins)

To my disappointment, no fun drinking deed goes unpunished and I woke up with a hangover. I was unsuccessful in keeping breakfast down, and also had a sore throat and pounding headache that made the rest of the day bouncing along in a van rather miserable.

Around lunch, we stopped at the Ongi River and had a picnic by the water, by which point I was at least able to keep food down. From about that point on, however, my stomach was upset and I started having bathroom issues of the other variety.

I attempted to explore the Ongi Ruins where one of Mongolia’s largest monasteries and Buddhist universities once existed. Communism brought down the monastery, however, as Stalin’s regime killed huge numbers of the 1000 monks who used to live there. I was told that from the top of a big hill you could get great views that gave a sense of the immense size of the monastery. I did not make it to the top of said hill, however, and returned back to the van to continue my efforts to nap.

When we arrived to our camp for the night I was finally feeling a bit better. Just in time to try the fermented horse and camel milk called argog, and curds! My stomach showed me who was boss though (for the duration of the trip, in fact). An unfortunate look below into the toilet pit suggested that nobody had experienced a solid poop in the area for quite some time. At least I wasn’t alone.

In a very pleasant twist, we awoke in the middle of the night to find a small horse had wandered into our ger, probably to get out of the wind that was rather nippy that evening. Once I’d realized what was going on and got out of bed, he’d already made his way out of the ger. It was one of those random but lovely memories – waking to see a small horse standing in your room. Not something I’m accustomed to by any means.

Enjoying a picnic by the river before hiking to the monastery ruins.
Enjoying a picnic by the river before hiking to the monastery ruins.
One Week in Mongolia: A Sunpath Tour Adventure