Winter in Mongolia – a dog sledding adventure

Our sled glides over enless snow-covered rivers  underneath the wide Mongolian sky. The only sound is the panting of our 12 sled dogs. The high sun lets the thermometer climb to -20°C. Suddenly, with a bang, the ice gives away and  our sled tumbling into the river below. We get back on our feet in the shallow riverbed and quickly climb out of the water. Within seconds, our drenched clothes freeze solid. Luck for us, as not only is the ice a good insulator but also the next Ger with a warm fire is an hour ride by dogsled and Russian army jeep away. Finally, we reach the Ger and painfully defrost our toes.

This is the last day (and episode) of our dog sledding trip through Gorkhi-Terelj National Park in Mongolia. We had booked a five day dog sledding tour with the operator Black Ibex (at this time, there are only two dog sledding companies, which supply all the tour operators). Our goal was to get away from the Chinese crowds over Chinese New Year – we succeeded.

Things to cross of the bucket list

  • Live with the nomad families in their Gers
  • Go dog sledding somewhere cold
  • Take a nightly bathroom break at -40°C
  • Learn the correct pronunciation of Genghis Khan

Things to do better with hindsight

  • Organize shopping for hand made reindeer boots
  • Do not drink fermented cow milk

Travel plan

  • Air China via Beijing to Ulan Batar
  • Stay at Ulan Batar: H9 Hostel (good), Bayangol Hotel (ok) and Blue Sky (good but below expectations)
  • Stay during dog sledding: Gers with local families
  • Dog Sledding via Black Ibex

(Rough tour map. Red are Dog Sledding Camps, Green are other sights we visited)

Here is the full story

Day 1, 26.01.

We leave early from Shanghai. The flight to Ulan Batar is quite empty. Still, Air China dies not manage to bring our luggage. This means that we have to spend the first day at -20°C with light clothes suitable for the Shanghai “winter”. We walk only a bit to Genghis Khan Square and the State Department Store. But its very cold. In the evening we have the first Mongolian dinner with Kuushuur and noodle soup.

Day 2, 27.01.

We sleep in as our luggage is scheduled to arrive in.the morning. However, the flight is canceled. Therefore we re-arange our plan and visit Ulan Batar. We visit the Ulan Batar history museum and have a Mongolian BBQ lunch at Modern Nomads, a famous Mongolian restaurant  chain. In the afternoon, we visit the Gandantegchinlen Monestary, one of three (former) monasteries in the city, and hike to a vista on the south side of town and enjoy the view. In the evening, we change hotel to Bayangol. Still, we wait for our luggage. Time goes by, no news. 22.00, 23.00, midnight. Finally, at 1 am the wonder happens and our luggage arrives.

Day 3, 28.01.

The next morning, we leave for Terelj National Park right after breakfast. Its a ca. 1.5h drive through a beautiful snowy landscape. We stop at the black market  and supermarket for some last minute shopping, in particular lawn chairs and mogolian Vodka.

We arrive at the dogsled base, which looks like a rebel base, hidden in the woods. Instructions are given in military style in less than 5min: “lean into the corners, sometimes you need to push, don’t fall off”. 5sec later, we are off. Michi sits, i “drive”. “Drive” means that I try to balance on the sled while holding on for dear life. The dogs make a mad dash through the forest. Around the first bend, a big tree trunk lays across the track. The dogs jump over it and the sled follows, sending us flying through the air. We make a miracle landing and continue.

As we ride across the frozen river and past small settlements, Bilge, our 23 year old dog sled guide, needs to frequently shoo away some cows and frequently untangle his dogs that often do not follow his commands. Once we reach the main river, the ride becomes a lot smoother. We ride under wide open skies in a beautiful winter landscape, trying to keep our eyelids from freezing shut.

After about one hour ride, we stop for our noon break.   Olga, our 28 year old car driver and senior dog guide, has prepared a camp fire and is cooking lunch on the river bank. We sit in lawn chairs on the snow in the sun. After lunch, we continue for another hour and a half until we reach our first nomad family.

After lunch, about another hour and a half later we reach our first nomad family’s winter home. Ride times are short  because of the far sub zero temperatures (for me, as as honorary Minnesotan, -20°C is, of course, shorts and t-shirt temperature) we can only start at ca. 10.00, once the sun starts to warm the air and we need to be at camp well before sun down when the temperatures quickly drop to -30°C and below.

The family lives alone (mother, father, son). Their settlement consists of two Gers, one for the family and one for guests, as well as some stables and barns. The mother tends the household, while father and son take care of the cattle. They do not own a car but ride on horse backs. They have a small, solar powered TV and a cell phone, but no other electricity (or indoor plumming, which I, spoiled as I am, would have highly appreciated at -40°C during the night).

The 5 of us sleep in the guest Ger. The family cook mutton soup for us (mutton is the staple food of the Mongolean diet. Its fat, which is good for the cold). Meanwhile, Olga and Bilge feed the dogs. Afterwards, we have our first Mongolean evening, means: Drink Vodka. Vodka is drunk in turns (usually because having only one glass). Our guides wash down the Vodka with Fanta because they dislike the taste. Clear.

The night is beautiful with millions of stars in the sky. Out here, in the wilderness of the most sparsely populated country in the world, there is on light pollution). At night, the temperature drops to below -40°C, which makes going to the bathroom (= pee outside) not 100% pleasant. Temperatures in the Ger fluctuate violently, from sauna temperatures with a full fire going, to ca. 5°C after the fire goes out at night and nobody wants to get out of their warm beds to restart it (Bilge, as the youngest guy on the tour has to do it at 3am).

Day 4, 29.1.

We sleep in until 9.30 (although we are woken up at 6.00 by the mother cleaning the stove pipe of the Ger (i.e. violently beating it with a piece of wood, before taking of again). The night was cold but at least we learn that it was the coldest night so far in this winter. We have fried bread for breakfast. We buy a handmade bag and book cover from the mother, while Bilge and Olga prepare the dogs.

At 11.00 we ride!

We make our way back to the river. The sun is shining and the snow is glistening. Despite the cold temperatures, the fast flowing river is not fully frozen. Steam rises from the patches of water. The dogs hesitate but after some encouragement (“Hep! hep! Hep! Go! Go! Go!”), they push through. Its fun to watch the dogs run. Their problem is that the sled does not stop for bio breaks. At first we thought that dogs tried to slow down the sled, digging their heels into the snow, but actually they were just taking a dump at full speed.

We ride for two hours until we make our lunch break, again on a river bank. Olga cooks noodle soup with mutton; same as yesterday but just as tasty. After another hour, we reach a bridge, our turn around point for this leg of the trip.  We backtrack for about one hour before we turn and head for the winter camp of our second host family, Bilges Grandparents.

Bilges grandparents have two guest Gers. Still, live is hard. A cow that was looking for some dietary variety had tried to break through the door of the guest Ger. We have dumplings and beef for dinner. Again, we drink a bottle of Vodka. Bilge, who has dinner with his Grandparents, brings 1l of “mongolian vodka”, a distillate of fermented cow milk yogurt. The cow alcohol gives me a headache that feels like the cow has kicked my head. Our tour guide Ergene learns the hard way that you should not mix antibiotics and alcohol, as he gets a bad skin rash.

Day 5, 30.01.

We sleep again until 9.30. We are served milk rice (with a choice of sugar or cheese) as mongolian hangover breakfast. We head south. Bilge has problems to control his dogs and his sled breaks loose. He runs but fails to catch it. Nonetheless, he signals us to ride on. After a while, we are completely alone, riding through the most beautiful winter landscape, far away from any civilization. The dogs lead the way. We expect to be met by Olga but he is nowhere to be seen. After one hour riding, the main river turns into a river delta covered by forests. The path becomes narrower and narrower until the sled can barely pass through the trees. We have no cellphone reception in this remote are. I uncover my skills in track reading to see if and when a dog sled has passed through this way. We decide to continue and after a few hundred meters more, we indeed meet Olga and Ergene, who just caught Bilges sled). Olga looks at us and asks: “Bilge?”. I point in the general direction and indicate “walking”. Olga shrugs.

We ride with Ergene until ca. 14.00. Olga has taken the jeep to find and pick up bilge. We meet them for a river lunch of fried chicken. Michi is cold, so she rides in the car. Bilge and I make good time. Around 16.00 we reach settlements under a giant Ghengis Kahn statue. Sheep are grazing. Bilge drives the flock away towards their enclosure, but the dogs pickup the scent. They start a mad hunt. Bilge and I both desperately try to kick the sleds’ anchors into the frozen ground at full speed. I manage, just 10 meters before the gate of the farmers settlement. Dogs are howling and pulling. An old mongolian guy walks out in the middle of the farm gates and just stands there, arms crossed. Standoff. With the help of the farmers son, we manage to turn the dogs away. Bilge decides to take a ride through town to our hotel for the night (an actual Ger hotel in the national park). Roads in town are icy so the dogs can run fast. Its a mad and uncontrolled ride up and down steep hills. Both feed and full body weight slamming on the breaks, tearing up the ice, we come to a stop at the hotel.

The place is a luxury resort Khaan Jim. The Ger has floor heating and inside toilets. We have Kuushur and liver for dinner. We drink the remaining two bottles of Vodka and call it a night.

Day 6, 31.01.

We have breakfast at 9.30, with marmalade and fried dough sticks, as well as an award winning mutton and flour soup. Its truly a breakfast of champions. Again, we ride through town. Its no less mad than the first time, only this time Michi is in the sled. Miraculously, we reach the river alive. Ergene suggests Michi to ride “Titanic Style”. He means standing together with me on the back of the sled.

We ride. Suddenly, the ice gives away with a bang and, “Titanic Style” we sink into the ice cold river water.  Ice swimming at -20°C. The dogs pull the sled out, we scramble on the ice. Michi is soaked, my shoes are full of water. Luckily, the water freezes instantly, protecting us from the cold (and also saving our cameras from a watery grave). Very bad is only the water in the boots that does not freeze but sucks any heat out of our toes.

Rescue is not close in this remote countryside. First, we need to catch the sleds. Bilge had stopped about 20 minutes away. Once back on the sleds, we ride on for about an hour until we reach a spot were Olga can bring the Jeep down to the river. We switch to the Jeep and ride for another hour to our first family’s home – russian jeep without heating. Olgas driving style keeps us warm.

The mother takes us in, we hang our clothes to dry and warm our feet on the fire. Bilge and Ergene drive the sleds back. After we have recovered, we drive back to the base. Its time to say goodbye to Olga and Bilge. From the base, we drive to our hotel for the night, another luxury Ger resort. We relax and play a traditional game  of flicking sheep ankle bones, with Ergene. The camp is luxurious, they even send someone to feed the fire, at night.

Day 7, 01.02.

Today, we visit the national park, in particular turtle rock and a monastery. From the monastery we have a beautiful view across the valley. Afterwards, we drive to the giant Ghengis Khaan Statue and climb on top. We see our camp from two nights ago. In the evening, we drive back to Ulan Batar, where we stay at the Blue Sky hotel. We visit the monastery museum behind the hotel, which opens just for us. We go on the hunt for some hand made reindeer boots but have no luck. We have dinner at a different Modern Nomads.

Its the first day of the month, so no alcohol is served in Mongolia. Its a measure against alcoholism, which presents a substantial problem to the country. Therefore, instead of a goodbye drink at the sky lounge, we have a hot chocolate.

Day 8, 02.02.

Today is departure day. In the morning, we go cashmere shopping and buy a memory bottle of Vodka. Ergene drives us to the airport. We say goodbye. The flight to Shanghai is Chinese. Air China mixes up our seats, so we have to fight to be able to sit together. At immigration we are greeted at the “foreign passport counter” with the words: “Stand back, chinese nationals first”. Welcome “home”.

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