Traveling during pandemic

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It can be said that July is a month of tourism for Mongolians. In July of each year, people start taking vacations and traveling across the country. Domestic tourism also gains momentum because of Naadam.

This year, from July 1, people began traveling despite COVID-19 restrictions. Of course, people who have been quarantined for many months would want to travel and make the most of the few summer days, as did I.

I left Ulaanbaatar with my family on July 2 to travel to the western provinces of Mongolia before the national Naadam holiday. At the time, traffic from the city to rural areas was sparse.

However, at the city checkpoint, COVID-19 inspection resulted in a long queue of cars heading out of the city.

A total of four inspectors at the checkpoint checked to see whether passengers were vaccinated or were tested for COVID-19. They allowed citizens who were fully vaccine at least 14 days prior and children over five who were tested to pass through the checkpoint.

Ulaanbaatar city checkpoint

Our first stop was Elsen Tasarkhai, or Sand Dunes, which stretches along Tuv, Uvurkhangai and Bulgan provinces. It is located 270 km from Ulaanbaatar. This sand dune is a spectacular nature surrounded by the Tarni River to the west and the Khugnu Khan Mountain to the north. There is a camel riding section in the southeastern part of Elsen Tasarkhai, which costs 5,000 MNT per ride. Less than 10 people were seen riding camels. Moreover, it is possible to travel to the western part of the sand dune through a small gate, paying 3,000 MNT per car. There were several small cafes and resorts nearby.

Elsen Tasarkhai

As we entered Uvurkhangai Province from Elsen Tasarkhai, the province’s emergency management staff carried out a very strict inspection. They registered car number plates in an integrated system and checked passenger information and travel itinerary, in addition to the vaccination certificate. It took about 10 minutes per car, so there was a long line of cars. 

Ulaan Tsutgalan, or Orkhon Waterfall, in Bat-Ulzii soum and Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin soum are one of the must-see places in Uvurkhangai. Unfortunately, Bat-Ulzii soum had imposed a 14-day strict lockdown due to the spread of infection, so it was not possible to enter the soum. Moreover, the monastery was temporarily closed, but souvenir shops and cafeterias in front of the monastery continued to operate normally.

We camped out near Khujirt soum in Uvurkhangai. The place is home to Khan Khujirt Med Wellness Resort, which is famous for its natural hot spring and mineral water spa. It was also temporarily closed due to the government decision to extend the state of high readiness until August 31.

As we traveled, the number of tourists grew rapidly, but some tourist attractions, such as museums, resorts and camps, had come to a standstill at the time. It was obvious that the Ministry of Environment and Tourism was not taking any action or policy measures to ensure continued activity. However, Cabinet allowed resorts and camps to operate from July 9. Before
then, travelers had no choice but to spend the night in their tents.

On the second day of the trip, we went to Arvaikheer city of Uvurkhangai and then to Bayankhongor Province. The local emergency staff of both provinces checked all our information along with the corresponding car license plate in the system, but the authorities of Bayankhongor made a number of other demands. In particular, only citizens who had the necessary reason to enter the province center, or who were allowed to enter passed through the checkpoint. In other cases, car doors were sealed and travelers were forbidden from getting out of their car in the city. Then, the car seals were checked
at the checkpoint on the way from the city to Govi-Altai Province. We were not checked again until we left the territory of Bayankhongor.

On our way from the Khangai region to the Gobi steppe, we were met by the beautiful nature of Bayankhongor and Govi-Altai. Specifically, Buutsagaan soum of Bayankhongor has a unique natural formation. It was almost like an alien planet. Many small sand dunes, vegetation, and rivers were scattered in perfect harmony. Unfortunately or fortunately, tourism was not developed at all. There were no tourist camps, resorts, or even cafeterias or shops.

Development usually takes place along roads. In October 2020, 126.7 km of road from Bayankhongor to Altai was opened for travelers, connecting Govi-Altai, Khovd and Bayan-Ulgii provinces to Ulaanbaatar. However, there was no sign of development along the road.

Interestingly, the nature in Govi-Altai was very different from Bayankhongor. I used to think that the nature of the two provinces were similar since they border. However, Sutai, Aj Bogd, Tayan, Edren, and Burkhan Buudai majestic peaks of the Mongol Altai Mountains stretch from north to south through the territory of the province, and it has a stark, rocky landscape, and wide open steppes. This region is famous for the Gobi bear, or mazaalai. Somehow a few wild camels, ibex and even snow leopards survive, often protected in the several national parks.

At the checkpoint of Altai city of Govi-Altai, the same inspections was carried out, warning people not to get out of their cars in Altai, but they did not seal the cars. 

We planned to spend the night at a hostel in the province center, but local emergency department decision forced us to leave the city in a hurry. Therefore, we asked the locals for a place to stay and they told us about a camp called Talin Khurkhree, or Steppe Waterfall. They said there was no other available place due to COVID-19. So we had no choice but to go to this place, no matter how dark it was. The camp is 93 km away from Altai city. We traveled 70 km on paved road and 23 km of dirt track.

When we asked several locals for a way to get there, they all gave us different directions, and we got lost for almost 20 km because of the darkness and lack of information boards. Later we found that the camp’s sign board was far from the main road and very small. Finally, we reached the camp, but something we did not expect greeted us. There was only one ger, one shed and one staff member, and honestly, it felt like a horror movie.

The camp owner said that all gers had been confiscated in accordance with the emergency decision, so we pitched our tent again, paying the owner 6,000 MNT for a night near the camp.

When we awoke in the morning, we were greeted by a magnificent rocky steppe surrounded by snow-capped mountains. A river, which flows in a 20-meter-high canyon, streamed toward a five-meter-high waterfall and a scenic view. It was absolutely one of the must-see places in Govi-Altai.

Govi-Altai Province

The camp owner said that she discovered the place in 2015, and noted that most people do not know it. She built a ladder to the canyon, small bridges across the river and a signboard.

Steppe Waterfall in Govi-Altai

Until we entered Khovd Province, there were no resorts and camps near the road. It seems that the province was underdeveloped in terms of tourism compared to other provinces.

We drove to Khar-Us Lake in Khovd, in the Great Lakes Depression. According to locals, the lake is the perfect habitat for wild ducks, geese, wood grouse, partridges and seagulls, including the rare relict gull and herring gull.

Khar Us Lake in Khovd

It was almost impossible to spend the night near the lake because of mosquitoes. So we went to Khovd city, 40 km from the lake. It was the most beautiful province center I had ever seen in Mongolia. The city is a pleasant, treelined place. Though it’s a small town, Khovd has slightly more going on than other cities in western Mongolia, with an agricultural university and some food processing and textile manufacturing plants.

Interestingly, the province is unique in its diverse ethnic makeup. It consists of 17 soums, some of which have their own ethnic groups, including Kazakhs and seven other ethnic groups. Particularly, Zereg soum, on the way to Khovd, was predominantly inhabited by Kazakhs, and there are many mud houses inhabited by Kazakhs. Many of the small ethnic groups have their own unique dialects, clothing, dances, songs, musical instruments, and ceremonies.

One of my favorite things about Khovd was the summer camp. More than 800 households traditionally go to summer camps along Buyant River in summer. They had a happy life untouched by the pandemic. In other words, there was a green zone in some soums of Khovd, and uninfected people were allowed to enter the city. Many travelers had pitched their tents along the river and spent the night there.

Khovd summer camp

On the next day, we went to Bayan-Ulgii Province. At the checkpoint to enter the province area, each passenger was asked a questionnaire and a very strict inspection was carried out.

When we entered the province, we felt a different culture and tradition. Bayan-Ulgii is a far-off land of high mountains, torrents and glaciers, inhabited by Kazakhs, a minority who has a different culture from the Khalkh people, herding yaks and goats, and hunting with trained eagles. The Kazakhs are close to their extended families, and many traditions that are still practiced today are centuries old. Specifically, we saw that the Kazakh ger had a slightly different shape from the Mongolian ger.

Kazakh is the language of everyday communication, with Mongolian used for inter-ethnic interactions and official communication. In fact, it was very difficult to communicate with the locals other than service workers. The locals
we met did not even understand the questions we asked.

When we asked a gas station worker in Ulgii city for a road to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park and a rental car, he gave us the mobile numbers of two drivers. Altai Tavan Bogd is around 180 km from Ulgii. The road is rocky and muddy, so Kazakhs often take tourists there by the trusty Russian UAZ-452. Rent for a car cost around 550,000 MNT. The drivers said that it takes about two to three days to get there and back, so we decided to return to Ulaanbaatar as our available time for travel would have ended.

Although the incidence of COVID-19 infection had not decreased at that time, the people traveled in strict compliance with the infection control regime.

The Gobi and Khangai are combined in the vast territory of Mongolia. I realized that if we develop domestic tourism and people learn to travel without harming nature, we can preserve the beauty of Mongolia.

Misheel Lkhasuren