The Road Less Travelled

“I shall be telling this with a sign

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made the difference.”

The quote above is the last verse of the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. It resonated with me on Saturday 24th May, as we left Uliastai and headed towards the small Khar Nuur in Zavkhan Aimag.

The Garmin suggested that we head back north, on the road we drove in on, until we reached the turn-off towards the small town of Yaruu. Based on our paper map, we knew that there was a more direct route to Erdene-Khaikhan. We therefore ignored the Garmin and took the paved airport road towards the town of Aldarkhan.

GPS trail of our route
GPS trail of our route

The nicely paved road stopped immediately after the turn-off to the airport and we continued towards Aldarkhan on dirt roads. Just before reaching Aldarkhan there was a small dirt track on our right that was sign-posted as going to Erdene-Khaikan, which was apparently 86km away. We headed onto that track and began to drive in a westerly direction through the mountainous region. The Garmin wanted nothing to do with the track we were on, and kept trying to take us back the long way to Yaruu. There were several tracks, roughly parallel to each other, but they all had some degree of corrugated washboard that is not fun to drive on. Keeping one wheel to the outer edge of the track usually helped to avoid driving on the corrugations.

We knew from the map that there should be a track to our right at some point, that would take us north to Erdene-Khaikan, but there didn’t seem to be anything heading north so we kept pushing west. Eventually, I saw a partially overgrown and seldom-used track that branched off to our right. We knew that we were roughly south of Erdene-Khaikhan, so we took that little dirt track. And what a pleasure to drive it turned out to be! Being seldom used and running through a sandy region, the track was very smooth. I was able to drive in fourth gear at speeds reaching 55kph. But we were certainly on the road less-travelled. The vegetation was sparse, so there were no nomadic herdsman or their flocks/herds. It seemed that there were no other people for many miles in any direction. At one point, we passed five cow skulls scattered in the same area, which enhanced the feeling of being in the wilderness.

Dirt roads diverge
Dirt roads diverge
Cow skull in the wilderness
Cow skull in the wilderness

That small track kept us heading north at a fair clip until we suddenly came upon the small village of Erdene-Khaikhan. We had been told that there were some impressive sand-dunes between the village and the small Khar Nuur – and that one of the dunes had a small river emanating from it. That was what we were hoping to see. With no specific directions, all we could do was drive north-east from the village, towards the lake (which was still over 30km away). We could see the lake on the Garmin but it wouldn’t navigate anywhere for us as it didn’t recognize any of the ‘roads’ that we were on. We took another seldom-used track north from the village that took us over a small mountain pass and down into a valley where we saw the sand-dunes ahead and a small river. After scouting the area and realizing how far away the small Khar Nuur was, we decided to camp on the bank of the small river with a beautiful vista in front of us. It was a beautiful spot to camp.

Riverside campsite
Riverside campsite
View from the tent
View from the tent
A herd of horses crosses over to our side of the river
A herd of horses crosses over to our side of the river
Our camping spot, viewed from above. That's the Defender and tent to the right of the place where the rivers join
Our camping spot, viewed from above. That’s the Defender and tent to the right of the place where the rivers join

On a previous day, we managed to pick up some firewood from a site where locals had been cutting timber to make a log structure. Without any charcoal for the Bush Pig, the wood provided fuel for the braai.

Free firewood to fuel the Bush Pig braai
Free firewood to fuel the Bush Pig braai
Dinner: Chicken legs with onion, garlic, pepper and tomatoes in the skillet (and cauliflower cooked in another pot)
Dinner: Chicken legs with onion, garlic, pepper and tomatoes in the skillet (and cauliflower cooked in another pot)

Had we known then what we now know about the larger Khar Nuur, we would have spent more time in this area and tried to get to the smaller lake.

A Huge Disappointment

We had been planning to spend at least two nights camping around the larger Khar Nuur (in Khovd Aimag) and Dorgon Nuur to its south, after reading that Khar Nuur was potentially the most beautiful place in Mongolia. When we got there it was a huge disappointment.

We set off from our water-side camp-site on Sunday morning, filled up with diesel in nearby Erdene-Khaikhan, and resumed driving the road-less-travelled. We knew where we wanted to go but the Garmin couldn’t set a route as it did not recognize the roads in the area. Instead, we were left to consult the paper map and use approximate compass bearings to take us in roughly the right direction – having to guesstimate which track to take whenever they diverged.

The first part of the day was pretty good. We would drive up and over passes to find a new scenic valley stretched out before us. The smooth dirt tracks allowed us to cross the valleys at 55kph and we would repeat the process after crossing the next pass. Eventually, however, the dirt tracks became corrugated washboard (I hate that stuff).

We’d set off from Erdene-Khakhan to Zavkhammondal and then took a south-westerly route. Then we picked up a track heading north-west towards Dorvoljin but missed the town completely and found ourselves at the river. Once at the river, we followed its bank until we could cross at a pair of bridges. Once over the two bridges, we followed tracks through flat gravel landscape to the northern shore of Khan Nuur, fully expecting some lush scenery to jump into view around the next bend. When we got to the lake, we discovered that the same flat gravel landscape went on for miles. There was nothing beautiful about this lake! In addition to the uninspiring landscape, there was a strong wind blowing and clouds of black flies. There would be little point in camping there, so we back-tracked and continued to drive west, hoping to find a more attractive spot.

Northern shoreline of Khar Nuur
Northern shoreline of Khar Nuur
Uninspiring gravel landscape around Khar Nuur
Uninspiring gravel landscape around Khar Nuur

Having researched the original comment recommending Khar Nuur, I now believe that the traveller was referring to the smaller lake of that name in Zavkhan Aimag, near to Erdene-Khaikhal (close to where we camped the night before).

This guy didn't seem to mind the barren landscape
This guy didn’t seem to mind the barren landscape

We pushed on through continuing barren landscape and high winds and decided to head for the town of Dorgon, where we would seek out a cooked meal, thereby saving the time that would be required to cook and clean up. We found a small café where we had a simple meal. We also discovered that we’d crossed into another time-zone and had ‘gained’ another hour. Instead of 6.30pm, it was only 5.30pm.

After dinner, we drove to the shoreline of Khar-Us Nuur, found a grassy spot, and parked up. With strong winds blowing, we decided to climb into the back of the Defender to sleep, rather than struggle with the tent.

Parked on the shore of Khar Us Nuur (Dark Lake) where we slept inside the Defender
Parked on the shore of Khar Us Nuur (Dark Lake) where we slept inside the Defender

Total trip mileage at that point was 9,046 miles

Khovd

Due to the new time zone, daylight came earlier and we were both awake at 5.00am. Despite the cramped space, the back of the Defender provides a comfortable night’s sleep. We have our thick memory-foam mattresses in the back and the sleeping bags, and the vehicle kept us quite warm, despite the chilly winds outside.

I took advantage of the soft grass to get underneath the Defender and grease the prop-shaft universal joints before we set off. We began the run west to Khovd, just under 100km away, about 6.00am with the sun still low in the sky behind us. It beautifully illuminated the scenery ahead of us, providing a few photo opportunities.

Part of Khar Us Nuur (Dark Lake) in the early morning
Part of Khar Us Nuur (Dark Lake) in the early morning
The morning sun casts a long shadow
The morning sun casts a long shadow

We were in the town of Khovd by 8.00am and began to look for hotels. Of the three we located, one was fully booked, one appeared to be disused (the Grand Hotel) and the third had rooms available. We took the ‘Lucks’ room at the Buryant Hotel, which is a suite with separate living room for 60,000 MNT per night (less than $35). However, as we are finding in these small Mongolian towns, the hot water in hotels is only turned on at specific times (6.00pm to 10.00pm, in this case). There is also no Internet access at the hotel, so we’re having to use the internet cafe a couple of blocks away. Even that came to a dead-halt when the power to the shop went out for a while.

Bedroom of our Khovd hotel suite
Bedroom of our Khovd hotel suite
Then living room of our suite in Khovd
Then living room of our suite in Khovd

We’ve reached Khovd ahead of schedule and had considered spending a couple of nights here to rest up. However, on first appearance, there doesn’t seem to be much here to cause us to hang around.

We’ll probably leave Khovd tomorrow morning and head north-west to the Mongolian section of the Altai mountains as we make our way to the Russian border in 2-3 days.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Craig! Been checking out your wonderful entries. Brilliant! What a fantastic adventure you are on. I am so elated that your dream is coming to life and you are experiencing a truly memorable odyssey. Look forward to seeing more tales! Keep on truckin!

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