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Alternate Routes · Asia · mongolia · Mongolia · Armands Potapovics

Dog sledding trip to Mongolia

Author: Armands Potapovics0 COMMENTS

Dog sledding trip to Mongolia

How much do we know about Mongolia? Very little, in fact! Mongolia was recognized as the world's fastest growing economy in 2012, and it's high time to see it with one's own eyes. Situated between two of the world's superpowers, China and Russia, Mongolia is stepping up to satisfy China's growing need for natural resources. Mongolia is the 19th largest and the most sparsely populated country in the world with a population of about 3 million people and a total area of 1.564.116 km². It's a challenging destination. Why not try to explore it on a dog sledding trip!

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Tuul River Route
You can reach Mongolian plateau by plane, landing at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar (1350 m above the sea level). A gilded Chinggis Khaan statue stands tall there, reminding of the once so powerful Mongol Empire and the ruthlessness of the Mongol invaders. Our trip starts by visiting Terlej National Park, situated not far from the city.

Foto: Dog sledding trip to MongoliaFoto: Dog sledding trip to MongoliaFoto: Dog sledding trip to Mongolia

No unified driving culture can be traced there - half of the vehicles have right-hand-side steering wheels, everyone tries to get ahead as fast as possible and a so-called zipper principle doesn't function at all. Our driver makes a bold maneuver to overtake a pre-soviet time bus, instantly triggering a seatbelt-fastening-reflex. Japanese cars are prevailing and the reason is their low price. There are no more paved roads about 100 km from the city and you have to continue your way along naturally beaten dirt paths.

The thermometer, as if frozen solid, invariably registers 30°C degrees below zero, not a single cloud stains the bright blue sky and the sun accompanies us for the entire trip. The air is very dry at this time of the year and you can instantly light a bonfire of freshly broken branches with just a single match. But as the sun sets, it becomes considerably colder.
Wind of Mongolia team is preparing for an adventure ride along the frozen Tuul River and we are the very first Latvians participate in it. Tuul River route is the shortest one of the two available dog sledding routes in this country.

A playful pack of the Alaskan huskies are romping in the snow, impatient for the ride to begin. Yet not all the dogs are about to take part in it and the ones staying behind bark angrily at those that are about to leave. A hard, several days long run across the snow awaits them. The speed of a team of the Alaskan huskies is about 13 - 15 km/h and usually six dogs are pulling a 150kg sled along the curvy ice-covered river.
The number of dogs depends on how many people and how much weight they have to pull.

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Mongolia is a mountainous country and going by car along its rocky roads is harder and more time consuming. In winter, frozen rivers and lakes is a much better option, preferred by nomads, too. 45% of the country's population lives in Ulaanbaatar, while all the rest are nomads, travelling from one place to another.

Foto: Dog sledding trip to MongoliaFoto: Dog sledding trip to MongoliaFoto: Dog sledding trip to Mongolia

The Alaskan huskies usually look very different from each other. A vast range of their breeds developed in America during the Gold Rush period through natural selection. These dogs were matchless for transportation in severe conditions of Alaskan winters. In spite of their modest exterior, these are dogs of great strength and endurance. It's in their nature to move as much as possible. The Alaskan huskies love outdoors, but taken into a warm room, they would sit by the door and wait for a chance to get out again.

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It's minus 30°C, and Joel, the owner of the company, deftly prepares dogs and sleds for the trip. He has no gloves or a cap, just a headband to protect his ears.
Frenchman Joel Rauzy is a well-known sled driver or a musher and an experienced mountain guide for over 20 years, but in France - an award-winning wrestler. His wife and a business partner, Bayana, is a Mongolian woman. She is a former teacher and translator, and is absolutely irreplaceable in communication with the locals. Joel says that Mongolian language is a "very specific" one. It is difficult to recollect even already learned words. Wind of Mongolia team consists of the owners themselves, of young Mongolian guys with good English language and marketing skills and of experienced guides from Europe. They are the best professionals in the field, and would accompany you anywhere - would it be a dog sledding ride, rock climbing, kayaking or horseback trip, a visit of a botanical garden, a hike into the desert, 4x4 adventure trip or a Buddhist tour.
Joel came to Mongolia with only 8 dogs, but now he has 40 dogs. The story of his arrival and first steps starting a new business in an unknown country without any knowledge of the language is a very inspiring, too. He tells about his attempt of bringing over a sled by plane and finding out that it slightly exceeds the maximum allowed size and about meeting Mongolian Airlines (MIAT) management to get a special permit. Shortly after that MIAT became his business supporters. Joel also holds a unique record of reaching an altitude of 5.5 km with a dog sled and it was in Chile. Each dog harness and piece of gear is handmade by him. Nothing that shops can offer is durable enough, anyway you have to repair and improve everything, he explains.

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We unload our stuff at some bend of the frozen Tuul River. A completely unknown yet very exciting experience is awaiting us. Dogs are hooked up according to a certain hierarchy that only the owner himself and his assistants know about. It has to be observed because some dogs don't get along with each other very well, while others are too friendly, making it difficult to move forward. There are ten guide dogs that are in the lead and nine of them are females. They are more suitable because they are calmer and more balanced.

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Guide dogs are trained to understand and obey the commands. They run in front and ensure that the sled sticks to the intended course. Male dogs easily get distracted by smells, they get into fights, and tend to head into any direction they prefer. They have different functions, however - there are either speed dogs that follow the leading dog, helping to pull the sled and stay on course, or pull dogs - the ones that just do their job and pulling the sled.
Rivers are frozen solid in winter and you can peer into cracks that reach down to the very bottom of the river, and can be up to 1.5 m deep. It is not clear to me how do fish survive, but there is plenty of them in summer. Locals hardly ever eat fish, but we met a guy who had learned fishing from some Russians while working together still in Soviet times.

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Gently sloping mountains in the distance and large herds of cattle is typical scenery along the way. Economy of this country largely depends on its livestock and there are approximately 12 million heads of cattle (yaks, horses, sheep) on the population of about 3 million people. Wealth of a particular family is measured by the size of its herd. The more cattle it has, the more meat and milk products it can afford to put on its table, the more affluent it's considered to be. Flour and vegetables are bought in the city, but their amounts are insignificant. Vegetables are grown in greenhouses there. The soil in central region of the country is poor and rocky and it is difficult to grow anything there. Mongols drink tea with milk, even their national drink is herbal tea with milk. And again, the more milk they can use, the richer the family is believed to be.
Even alcohol is fermented from milk there. One may try it, although it seems inconsumable for a European. The locals appreciate vodka and it's a good gift choice for your hosts, along with some sweets for kids. The most favorite local brands are Chinggis Khaan Gold and Platinum and they go well together with a Mongolian style meal after a long day of a dog sledding trip. Mongolians praise their spirits as the very best ones because of the excellent quality of water. Dinner habitually consists of meat, very hard and salty cheese, herbal tea with milk and some cookies bought in a shop.

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It is already late in the afternoon when the ride along the snaky frozen river finally brings us to our first lodging - an authentic but very modest Mongolian household. First thing that we notice are small Mongolian horses. Fury and funny, they make us smile as we behold them. Historically, they are the very same that took Mongols all the way to Moscow and back. Evidently they do have some stamina!

Dogs are released from harnesses and they get some special power food. Meat leftovers and innards are filled in an animal's stomach, used like a sack, and then frozen. Before feeding, it is cut into pieces and boiled, adding some flour. Such food contains also liquid and is given to dogs twice a day, considering every dog's size and age. The owner also take good care of their feet and every dog gets special leather boots that ensure good protection in those harsh conditions. It oftentimes happens that dogs injure their paws on sharp pieces of ice and rocks while running.

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We have our meal and drink traditional herbal tea, sitting at a low table. There is a metal stove in the centre of a Mongolian yurt or ger, which serves for heating, cooking and for melting ice to obtain water. Almost a sacred item is a large cauldron, which is used for cooking, washing clothes, and probably for taking a bath, too. Meat is defrosted and a Mongol woman uses a small axe and simple kitchen utensils, and quickly makes a meal. Rivers are frozen to the very bottom in winter and no water is available, therefore nomads use ice water. It is very clean and safe for drinking, but in summertime they use boiled water.

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This remote area gets more populated in summer, but in winter only vacant roundish marks where gers have once stood are visible on the ground here and there. In winter, nomads prefer to live in camps near the cities because shops are within easier reach and there are more job opportunities. By the way, nowadays the nomadic movement is closely monitored. It is done to ensure better pasture usage, and to prevent overgrazing of some areas while others become overgrown. Even Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar is settled in its current location for a comparatively short period of time - only since 1778. Until then, it has moved from one place to another for 28 times!

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Even though it is 40°C below zero, dogs are spending night outside. They calmly sleep until the morning comes and their snouts are slowly getting white with frost from their own breath. The ones that are thinner or not so strong are covered with blankets. It is not easy to put on some extra fat for natural insulation in conditions like that.
Some wolves are howling in the distance and it doesn't feel very cozy to linger outside any longer.

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The same monotonous Mongolian landscape surrounds us in the morning. It greets us with clear blue sky and bright sunshine. I listen to the squeak of snow beneath our sled and catch myself thinking about home. My mobile phone keeps silent - no signal reaches out here and it will stay like that for few more days. But it's fine for me! Not many photos can be taken either. It isn't warm, at all! A couple of shots and my frozen fingers are searching for mittens. Battery, too, has to be kept safely in a deep pocket to protect it from freezing.

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Modest daytime warmth heats the ice, making it sink a bit and squeeze out water from the beneath. It surges above the surface and instantly freezes and such process repeats again and again. Little ice balls are forming between dogs' toes and small icicles are hanging from their snouts from drinking as they quickly gulp some water. They cannot stop running because others won't wait!

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During the trip, we meet a man who breeds horses and is a well-known wrestler. He boasts a truly beautiful herd and many medals for his achievements in local wrestling competitions. Wrestling is the most popular national sport in Mongolia and means for men to solve their arguments. Speaking of Joel, his successful wrestler's career early in life considerably helped him to gain trust among local people when he arrived in Mongolia.

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Trails from cattle stables are winding into all directions. Every morning numerous animals are let out to graze on scant, few centimeters long grass and seemingly endless caravans of cows are treading home along those trails every night, as the sun is sinking. Cows much like goats are climbing rocks and soaking in sunshine during the day.

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As the sun is setting, it becomes much colder and hands are reaching for huge sheepskin mittens. A neighbor from a distant farm comes over on a horseback to have a chat, and to drink some tea or perhaps something stronger. Beds are placed along the walls of a ger, while the center is left free. It is typical arrangement for most of the local homes. We are too many and some of us have to sleep on a thick sheep-wool rug, snuggling under many warm blankets, while our clothes are hanged at the ceiling to dry. The ger itself is covered with sheepskins but has no extra water insulation. Climate is very dry and the very shape of a ger and its roofing provides enough protection against rain.

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Huge birds with about 2 meter wingspan are sitting on the rocks and waiting for us to leave. They feed on carrion and wolf leftovers. Evidently they assume that dogs are a pack of wolves that will leave some food behind. Local people have observed funny situations with scavenger birds that sometimes eat too much and cannot take off any more. They jump uphill like sparrows, searching for a better take-off position and try to take advantage of wind currents that would help them glide and eventually take into the sky!

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Six days later our journey is almost finished and dogs are taking us back to civilization. Houses, some recreation areas and tire marks in the snow come into view as we approach the border of the National park. A huge equestrian statue of Chinggis Khaan is looming on a distant hilltop. About the height of a 3 story building, it reminds of the former might of this country.

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We already know all the dogs by name, their positions in the sled team, and their quirks and habits. We have learned more about the nomadic life during harsh Mongolian winters and, most importantly, we have learned more about ourselves. And we bid a somewhat sad farewell as we leave.

More photos from river route can be seen here.
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Khövsgöl Lake Route
Mörön city in the north of Mongolia is located in about one hour and a half flight from Ulaanbaatar. Mongolian airline with SAAB aircrafts is servicing this route, but Joel and his huskies will have to spend 3 days and nights to reach it, stopping only to have their meals. They will travel along roads that only the local people know about or no roads at all, in fact. Such trips have seasonal character and are possible only in spring.
Far away from the city one can get a deeper insight into the local customs, culture and lifestyle. There you can see national costumes and spot the fashion trends that have reached those remote areas. You can meet Buddhist monks and simple and friendly local people, unhurriedly going about their daily lives.

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Our next destination is a town of Khatgal at the southern end of the lake, and it takes several hours to get there. It's a long way and most of it is travelled in dark. Only a very experienced musher, who is familiar with this route, can find his way in darkness, with no road signs whatsoever. Our musher not only manages to find his way in the dark during several hours long ride but to tell his entire life story in a leisurely, easygoing manner.

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Khatgal was founded in 1727 as a camp of the Mongolian watch post system. Khövsgöl Lake is the largest fresh water lake in Mongolia and the second one in Asia. Dubbed a younger sister to Lake Baikal, it is 136 km long, 36 km wide and 262 meters deep, and boasts crystal-clean water. According to local legends, Lake Baikal itself has emerged from Khövsgöl.
No one has heard about Latvians there and perhaps I am the first or one of the first to visit these places!

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There is a supporting team that accompanies us along the entire route. Their task is building and breaking the camp, and taking everything to the next stop along the shortest way that only they themselves know about. An old soviet time motorcycle with a sidecar is used for this purpose and it carries also all the necessary tools in case any repair works are required. Disassembling and assembling an engine in the middle of a frozen lake is nothing unusual for people there!

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Travelling by a dog sled across seemingly endless whiteness of the snow-covered lake in good weather conditions is nothing too exhausting, but fresh air, altitude (1645 m above sea level), wind and bright sunshine still manages to drain your strength and it is pleasant to reach a logging where somebody is waiting for you. The lake seems boundless, and is covered by a dense network of seasonal roads during winter. Each vehicle finds its own way among piles of snow and ice. Depending on your chosen route, it may take 3 to 9 days to cross the lake, covering an average of 40 km per day, and an entire day of relaxation in a ger camping in the northern end of the lake. This section of the lake near the Russian border was a favorite vacation spot for Russians in the soviet times. Many mountain rivers flow into Khövsgöl making it a profuse ice fishing place during spring spawning season.

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Ice layer that covers the lake in March is one and a half meter thick and melts during one and a half month in spiring. Khövsgöl Lake is very clean, with no external sources of pollution, and therefore the ice is absolutely translucent. It feels like hanging in the air when you stand on it. Ice is different in different places, depending on temperature and other conditions.

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It may be smooth and shiny as glass, grainy as sugar, snowy or resembling a shattered glass. Seemingly monotonous lakescape changes all the time during the journey. Intact nature, occasional footprints of animals in the snow, blue sky and bright sunshine accompany us throughout the day. As frost is loosening up, peculiar ice caps are forming around rocks and warm midday sunshine heralds the arrival of spring.

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Dogs remember places and they sense that the camp (meaning food and rest) is close. The final powerful dash and they pull the sled off the ice and onto the grassy, sandy bank for about 200 meters to the very camp site, and then wait to be released from their harnesses. When the hard work is done, they can romp around, bark at each other, lick themselves and relax. There is a constant competition going on among male dogs - they growl at each other and get into fights. Joel has his own technique how to tame them - he just bites on their ears! Joel has also written a book about one of the sled dog breeds in Greenland.

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Our first stop amazes us with fantastic vegetation - clean and untouched fir tree and larch forest. Thick, yellow carpet of needles covers the ground, and above all - a fantastic view toward the opposite side of the lake from a high bluff! Chilly wind starts blowing from the lakeside, urging us to put on something warm while walking and waiting for a meal.

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Our international group of travelers enjoys also Latvian chocolates and Mongolian vodka. Language barriers soon fall and we talk eager to learn more about the local people, events and the country itself.

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As usual, a new day starts with gathering dogs and putting them into harnesses, everyone in its right place. There is certain mistrust in the beginning, but soon the dogs learn to recognize you, to trust and respect.

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There are certain local fishing peculiarities, which prove that brilliant ideas can be very simple ones. Mongols first drill 2 holes through the thick ice (1.5 meters!) and then place a net under it, using a device called "submarine". It is produced by their big neighbor China and has a little light that shines through the translucent ice, allowing fishermen to follow it.

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They retrieve the device through the other hole together with a rope, which they will use to pull the net out of water. Everything else goes as usual, and they just have to check every now and them to see if there are any fish in the net or not yet.

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Approximately a halfway to our destination we stop at a ger camping near Russian border. Camping gers somewhat lack coziness and a specific sense and smell of home, however. They are a bit too clean and tidy, I would say, or too commercial, to be more precise. The camp is managed by two Russian women from Irkutsk, who started their business quite a long time ago. Aside from local souvenirs, a snack bar offers "Laima" chocolates from Riga. There is also a selection of homemade treats that are usually offered to guests at Mongolian homes. A heard of cattle freely roams around the place and grazes on short grass reminding a golf course.

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Finally we have a chance to bathe in a simple sauna with a sweating shelf, and to order a non-Mongolian style meal. And my cell phone succeeds to pick up a vague signal at a tiny lakeside spot, which requires certain efforts to be located in the first place. Now I can finally tell my family that I am alive and well! There is a shopping street with quite a decent offering, much better than one might expect. You can get Russian-made sweets, vodka of familiar and unfamiliar brands, poor quality sprats as if coming from Latvia, and a cap to protect your face from sunburn.
The sun is gleaming on our faces as we turn southwards to cross the lake. It reflects from the surrounding snow and ice, so that a cap can give some protection only from the above. It turns out that the local shaman woman whom we wanted to meet has gone to the city to purchase some spare parts for her husband's broken car. Maybe we'll meet her some other time. According to the owners of the camping, she is the most famous in this area and people are coming to see her from everywhere!

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I have never been a huge ice fishing enthusiasts, but I do agree that 1.5 m ice is quite reassuring. An oldish UAZ jeep takes us across the snowy whiteness to the river mouth. The river brings plenty of food from the mountains and therefore there is plenty of fish near the river mouth. My first experience turns out to be very successful one for the simple reason that it's literally impossible to catch nothing. You just have to choose the right depth. Eventually we realize that enough is enough, or else, we won't be able to consume all that fish. Female fish are full of roe during the spawning season and we vote to choose the best fish roe recipes. They are two - a traditional Latvian one in salted boiling water and the other, unfamiliar to me - in vodka.

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The relaxation day is over and we are ready to head back to Khatgal. Huskies are bored of baking in the sun and energetically drag the sleds to the edge of the lake, easily covering few hundred meters across grass and rocks. We stop for a while for them to romp around and roll in the snow.

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The lake is huge, but the ger camping, sitting on the slope, is still visible from a large distance. We are on our way back now, stopping only to have a lunch in the middle of this massive white field. We have taken firewood with us and there are no bushes to hide behind for a pee. Locals say that the ice is alive and it reflects all the external conditions. Just put your ear to its smooth surface and listen attentively, and you can hear that.

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Every mound of ice distracts you from thoughts and requires full attention. You have to concentrate really hard not to lose any of your belongings on those bumps. Joel says that Europeans usually have a better sense of balance. He explains it with our passion for skiing and skating for many generations. He remembers a guy from India, who was falling on every bump and turn, unable to remain on his two feet. I believe he is much better at driving his tuk tuk!

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On our way back, we stop at a small island in the middle of the lake. There is a burial place of a shaman and once a year shamans from near and far come over to perform their rituals there. They tie colored ribbons to trees to scare away evil spirits, and have their regional assembly. Later on, husky dog sleds arrive to take away all the byproducts of such a gathering.

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Another clear and sunny day on Khövsgöl Lake surprises us with a very unusual phenomenon - a real mirage! Looking back at the island many kilometers behind us, it seems as if rising above the surface of the lake and floating in the air with something like fog underneath it.

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Our final camp is sited in an intact area in the middle of nowhere again. We enjoy fish roe prepared in two different ways along with some white bread that has been carried with us for the entire week. We fry fish on the fire and savor last bits of "Laima" chocolate. It feels good, and we wish to stay a little longer there, to absorb the purity of nature, and to preserve those moments for many days to come. As the sun is setting, it gets chilly and we look for some extra clothes to put on. Tomorrow is the departure day.

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They say that local nomadic people have been quite scornful of dog sledding in the beginning, and didn't see its benefits. Yet Joel Rauzy managed to prove his point by offering a bet - a dog sled against horse-drawn sleigh, and you can guess the outcome! Unlike dogs, hoses are unable to cross open cracks or piles of ice or anything that seems insecure for them. Incredible as it may seem, that's the way how dog sledding started in Mongolia, and from that time on barking of dogs is met with a smile and respect!

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As we are approaching Khatgal, signs of civilization are coming into view - ships that are frozen in the lake, communication towers, motorbikes with four passengers instead of just two...It's a log cabin town that is built without any guidance of a chief architect, there are heaps of rubbish and things no one needs any longer, a shopping street still waiting for the summer season to start, and signboards fluttering in the wind. We also catch a glimpse of four little Alaskan huskies. They will definitely grow up to know the purpose of their life - to bark and to run as fast as they can!
Now, in broad daylight, our way to Mörön seems more comprehensible than it was in darkness. Mörön resembles a big square that consists of smaller ones, representing blocks of houses. Richer people reside in wooden cabins closer to the centre, while the poorer ones live in their gers. You can hardly speak of any riches at all, in fact, but youths are trying to be in step with fashion and girls are strolling in high heels along the dirt roads of the small town, or no roads at all for that matter.
It's our final day in Ulaanbaatar for the time being. Among places to see is Sükhbaatar Square - any Mongolian's pride, the most popular Buddhist temple, the emperor's ger, clad in leopard skins, Ulaanbaatar market place and a very good restaurant of local cuisine.
It's worth visiting this place while the number of foreigners arriving at Ulaanbaatar International Airport is still quite limited.

All photos from lake route can be seen here.
www.extreme-mongolia.com

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