Treasures of the Khans

About 800 years ago, a loose confederation of tribes began to stream out of the Altai Mountains in what is today western Mongolia. Combining their unparalleled expertise in archery with superb horsemanship, these peoples left their homeland of high plateaus and forlorn crags to sweep across the Asian steppe, conquering territory as far afield as India and Eastern Europe. The legacy of the Mongol Empire is one of ruthless conquest, and while many people are familiar with the exploits of Genghis Khan and his horse archers, very few are aware of the majesty of Mongolia itself.

Modern Mongolia is a fascinating land bursting with natural beauty. Many tourists avoid Mongolia for political or logistical reasons, as traveling there can be cumbersome and the country doesn’t offer many conventional tourism options. SoulBuffalo’s significant experience in the area and extensive network of local contacts enable us to connect our guests with the marvels that Mongolia has to offer. Join us as we seek out the wildlife and wonders tucked away in the hidden pockets of this landlocked nation.

Our expedition takes us through remote steppes and valleys that are home to many of Mongolia’s most celebrated animals, including moose, wolves, and brown bears. We’ll descend into the expanses of the Gobi desert, a vast and wild hinterland sprinkled with camel tracks, shimmering oases, and dinosaur bones. We’ll traverse the painted gorges of the Gurvansaikhan Mountains, listen to the haunting song of the sand dunes of Khongorin Els, and experience the perplexing wonder of the Vulture’s Mouth glacier.

Throughout this expedition, our guests will sleep in traditional Mongolian yurts. We’ll eat and drink with nomads who are direct descendants of the storied Mongolian warriors from the era of the great Khans. We’ll ride the endless steppe with the endangered Przewalski wild horses, fly across breathtaking landscapes, and stay with local families to experience their lives and traditions firsthand. Come with us and witness the beauty of this proud and ancient land.

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Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Ulaanbaatar

Accommodation: Hotel Bayangol

After arrival, we will meet our local driver and transfer from Chinggis Khaan Airport to our 4-star hotel in town. Our fascinating experience of Mongolia already starts during this drive, simply by observing this world that is so different from anything we have seen so far. By the time everyone is collected from the international flights, it will be time for us to have a late lunch and a refreshing shower. Once we have recharged ourselves, we will get back on our vehicle and drive to the center of Ulaanbaatar. This fascinating city has so much to show to the foreigners. Everywhere we look, we will see something completely different, something surprising, something so unusual that we want to immediately get there and explore. We dedicate a few hours for this hungry exploration, before we enter the National Museum and listen to some interesting talks from local guides. Once we are done, we will be back on the streets to capture Ulaanbaatar in the soft, warm afternoon lights. By the time the sun reaches the horizon, we will find ourselves in a local restaurant where, if everything goes according to plan, we share a meal with an expatriate who can tell us all about what life is like in Mongolia. He is going to introduce us to the status of nature conservation in his country, but more importantly, to some of the true culinary secrets of this nation. We drive back to the hotel after dinner and retire early.

Day 2: Terelj National Park/Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area

Accommodation: Gunjin Princess Yurt Camp

Our photographers will be up with the rising sun to take excellent city and people pictures in Ulaanbaatar. Once this soul-inspiring activity is done, we return to our accommodation to join the late-risers for an excellent Mongolian breakfast. After breakfast, we check out from the hotel and jump on our comfortable 4×4 vehicle towards Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area. En route, after about 2 hours, we reach Terelj National Park, and start encountering some interesting wildlife and excellent scenery. Soon enough we find an enormous granite rock formation called Turtle Rock, where we stop and take a great lunch. After lunch, we drive to a small but lovely monastery called “Aryapala Meditation Temple” on the hills behind Turtle Rock, to enjoy some amazing scenery and climb some of the hills before the sun rises too high. From here our destination, the traditional yurt camp is about another 3 hours drive. Once we arrive, we take our yurts (so exciting to sleep in them for the first night) and get on the road to explore the surroundings. We are now in the strictly protected area, home to more than fifty species of mammals, including endangered musk deer and moose, brown bear, wolf, fox, lynx, badger, wolverine, sable, weasel, roe and elk. The 253 species of birds identified to date include whooper swans, spoonbills, great white egrets, and numerous raptors. Twenty-eight species of fish inhabit local lakes and rivers. We drive to some amazing landscapes and viewpoints and try to spot as much wildlife as possible. We enjoy this activity as long as there is any light of the day left, and return to our camp just after the sun has set. Having a Mongolian dinner under in a camp and retire to a Mongolian yurt afterwards is a truly fascinating thing to do.

Day 3: Terelj National Park

Accommodation: Private yurt camp

As usual, the keen wildlife photographers and birders will be up extremely early and spend some more time in the surrounding area, pushing the list of observed and photographed species of birds and other creatures higher and higher. Others of us will sweetly sleep in, in the yurts, until our (also relatively early) breakfast. We are planning to visit an amazing man-made phenomenon this morning, so we are intending to take off as soon as we can after breakfast, in order to catch it in soft morning lights. And for a change, to make this even more exciting, we visit Gunjin Temple on a yak cart ride. According to an old legend, Gunjin temple (an abandoned and ruined Buddhist temple) was built to commemorate princess Amarlangui, who was married to the local Mongolian king, Dondovdorj. Princess Amarlangui was of Chinese origin, but fell in love with Mongolia and its proud people and became one of the strongest voices for Mongolian independence from China. Once we are done with this great exploration, we get back on our cart and return to the camp for lunch. After lunch, we board our 4 wheel drives and head to another corner of the national park, the confluence of the mighty Tuul and Terelj Rivers. En route we visit a local nomadic family and stay with them for an extended visit to learn about their traditional lifestyle. After saying goodbye to the family, we continue our ride to the confluence, where we take a quick swim, before we continue our drive back to Turtle Rock. It is here, at Turtle Rock, where we are going to have dinner and spend the night in one of the many local yurt camps.

Day 4: Terelj National Park/Ulaanbaatar

Accommodation: Hotel Bayangol

After breakfast, we start heading back to Ulaanbaatar. En route we visit a small cave where a hundred or so monks were hiding form the communist intruders during the 20th century. After arrival in Ulaanbaatar, we take our rooms in the now familiar hotel and have an hour to refresh under the warm water showers. From here we head out to have our lunch. After lunch, we visit Bogd Khaan Winter Palace Museum. This palace known as The Green Palace was built between 1893-1903 during 10 years by Mongolian masters and dedicated to the XIII Bogd Gegeen, the head of Lamaist religion and last khan of Mongolia. After visiting this very interesting architectural site and taking a great lunch in a local restaurant, we drive to Zaisan Hill, a WWII memorial dedicated to the Russian soldiers. From here, we have an excellent view over the city and a great opportunity to take evening/night pictures of Ulaanbaatar. Once we are done, we have a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant and return to the hotel to enjoy the hospitality of some proper rooms and proper beds.

Day 5: Ulaanbaatar/Gobi Desert

Accommodation: Gobi Discovery Khongor Yurt Camp

Since during the last few days we were up very very early in the mornings, we take this opportunity to sleep in a little bit. Breakfast will be at 8 am, and once we are done and checked out from the hotel, we drive to the local airport for our flight to the heart of the Gobi Desert. After 1.5 hours flying time, we land at the small local airstrip in the center of the South Gobi province, from where we get on our 4×4 UAZ vehicles and drive approximately 2 hours to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, where we will enjoy the picturesque Yolyn Am, a place known as Eagle Valley. En route to the Yoliin Am we will stop at the Gobi camp to have lunch.
The Great Gobi National Park is designated by UNESCO as the fourth largest Biosphere Reserve in the world. The area is often imagined as a lifeless desert like in many other parts of the world, whereas Gobi Desert is a land of dinosaurs and it is home for camel breeders rich with wildlife and vegetation. Dinosaur skeletons and their petrified eggs have been preserved here to the present day. Wild Asses, camels, snow leopards, mountain sheep and gazelles flourish here, as do different types of flora. Eagle Valley is a narrow gorge between the peaks of the Gurvansaikhan Mountains, the highest of which is 2815 meter above the sea level. The valley has a very wide entrance, after which it narrows gradually into a remarkable gorge. A spring two or three kilometers long winds its way through the defile and following it through the canyon to the high rock walls has breathtaking dramatic scenery, and no doubt is one of the most beautiful places in the country. At the end of the valley lies the beautiful ‘Vultures Mouth Glacier’, an extraordinary phenomenon. This glacier remains here, year round, despite the heat in the surrounding valleys. From here we drive another 4-5 hours to the Khongoriin Els Sand Dunes (200 km). The ride will take us through amazing desert scenery with a stony and sandy landscape, arid land vegetation, countless interesting rock structures, and maybe some wild antelopes. Our evening will be complete by exploring the sand dunes that stretch for an extraordinary 180 km and are sometimes as wide as 7-20 km. The intense sound of wind-blown sand can be heard from long distances. This sound is so melodic that the 200m high sand dunes are called “Singing Dunes”. After a short visit to the dunes, we have a much-deserved dinner at camp and retire early to rest for yet another day full of exploration.

Day 6: Gobi desert

Accommodation: Mongolian Gobi Yurt Camp

Since last night we arrived relatively late to the dunes, this morning we can take our time to properly explore them. Considering that the air temperatures rise very fast in the day, we will try to get here and climb the first dune by sunrise. We will spend the first 2-3 hours of the day taking images, climbing dunes and observing wildlife, before we return to our yurt camp for a late breakfast. After breakfast, we check out and get on our good old Russian UAZs to drive yet another 3-4 hours to an area commonly known as Bayanzag. The main attraction here is an archaeological area called “Flaming Cliffs” (Bayan Zag), also commonly referred to as “The Cemetery of Dinosaurs”. First we check into our new camp and take a short break, have a lunch and then set off to visit the so-called Roy Chapman Andrews Trail. Bayanzag is where Roy Chapman Andrews, the famous American paleontologist, and his expedition in 1922 discovered the first nest of dinosaur eggs the world had ever seen. Till present time, paleontologists from all over the world continue to discover unique paleontological foundlings at this rich site.
From here we visit to a camel breeder camp where we will have excellent photo opportunities and the brave ones can try some of the local drinks. We drive back to our camp for an excellent dinner after visiting this family and save ourselves for tomorrow, for yet another long and exciting day.

Day 7: Gobi Desert/Ulaanbaatar/Manzushir

Accommodation: Hotel Bayangol

As usual, our hardcore photographers will be up extremely early and return to Bayan Zag, the Flaming Cliffs. We will attempt to capture this area in unique early morning lights, and return to the camp for a late breakfast with everyone else. Right after breakfast we take off from the camp and drive 2 hours to the local airstrip for 100 km, for our flight back to the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Upon arrival, we get to our well-known hotel, take our rooms and enjoy a refreshing warm shower after two days of camping in the Gobi Desert. After enjoying a similarly refreshing lunch, we get on our vehicle again and drive 50 km (1.5 hours) southeast, on the road to Zuunmod. Our destination is an interesting monastery: Manzushir. The temple is nice on its own, but combined with the view it is spectacular. The monastery sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful valley with creeks and granite boulders. The monastery was established in 1733 and has had 21 chapels. Buddhist monasteries served as the centers of education, arts and various other disciplines, and among them Manzushir was famous for its school of philosophy and logic, attracting priests from as far as India coming for theological debates. In the winter of 1938 the monastery was completely destroyed and the area eventually turned into a recreation zone. We will only leave from here after sunset, which means we arrive at our hotel for a relatively late dinner and night.

Day 8: Ulaanbaatar/Lake Khuvsgul

Accommodation: Khuvsgul Private Yurt Camp

This morning is dedicated to a little bit more rest than usual. We shall gather in the hotel’s lounge for breakfast at 8 in the morning, and drive to the domestic airport for our flight to a northwestern town, Murun. Upon arrival, we have a lunch at the one of good restaurants in Murun town. After lunch, we get on our 4×4 UAZ vehicles and drive approximately 5 hours to Lake Khuvsgul (Hovsgol). After about an hour, we stop by one of Mongolia’s most famous archaeological sites, the Uushgiin Deer Stones, comprised of fourteen magnificently preserved stones. From here we continue to a remote part of the lake and arrive at our private yurt camp. Lake Khuvsgul is a lake of tectonic origin in the Baikal Rift zone and is thought to be several million years old. As such it is one of the few lakes in the world this old, and of those, it is the most pristine. Lake Khuvsgul is the largest source of fresh water for Mongolia, containing almost 70% of the surface freshwater for the country. The lake is large, 136 km long and between 20-40 km wide. The maximum depth of the lake is 262 m. The watershed of the lake is virtually undisturbed by man’s activities and retains a diverse and interesting terrestrial and aquatic biota. The level of endemism is 10-20% of the species in many groups, but many organisms are not well studied. After our arrival and a short break to rest from the long drive, we take off to explore this extraordinary beauty and diversity. Since the sunset is probably not too far ahead by now, so we don’t venture too far, but instead, stay near the shore and explore some of the many water birds and attempt to take great images of the surrounding in the evening lights. A well-deserved, excellent bush dinner awaits us after sunset and another great night in our familiar Mongolian yurts follow dinner.

Day 9: Lake Khuvsgul

Accommodation: Khuvsgul Private Yurt Camp

Since we are living in the middle of one of the most pristine natural areas in the world, we will try not to sleep through a beautiful sunrise and morning here. We are planning to be down by the lake’s shore as the sun rises over its water, and take off for an hour of early morning drive and bird watching before breakfast. After our meal, we prepare for a much longer hike in the area, which will drive us through some amazing forests, marshlands and some patches of open steppe vegetation. We return from this gorgeous walk for lunch, take a short recreational break and then drive further south to visit a nomadic family. We stay with the family all afternoon, participate in and learn about their life, go horse riding with them and even taste some of their delicious traditional food. As the sun goes near the horizon, we will be back on the lake shore with hopes for great sunset images. Dinner is served in the tented lodge again and we are looking forward to an excellent evening around the campfire, under the broad Mongolian skies.

Day 10: Lake Khuvsgul

Accommodation: Khuvsgul Private Yurt Camp

Our day today is very similar to the one yesterday, only that we swap the cultural and natural experiences around. After the early morning sunrise photography and birding session, we take off to visit yet another nomadic community – reindeer herders. Just like yesterday, we hope to be able to spend an extended period of time with them, in order to get a real insight of their everyday life, to try riding their reindeer and to be able to try some of their foods. For a proper lunch, we drive back to our camp, have a couple of free hours in the afternoon, and then take off for the nature exploration of the day: an extended boat trip on the lake. We start from just in front of the camp and drive along the eastern shore as far as we can get before the sun sets. Once in the camp, we celebrate our last night at the Lake Khuvsgul with a traditional Mongolian dinner and some homemade local spirits.

Day 11: Lake Khuvsgul/Gandan Monastery/Khustai National Park

Accommodation: Khustai Private Yurt Camp

This morning we rise to another long but exciting day in Mongolia. After the very early breakfast, we get on the road with our vehicles and drive all the way back to Murun settlement. The success of our day largely depends on the timing of the airplane, so let’s hope it picks us up right on time. Once back in Ulaanbaatar after an hour and a half flying time, we get to our well-known hotel for a lunch, then drive to another amazing temple, the Gandan Monastery. It was built in 1840 and it is the most important monastery in Mongolia. It is easily seen north west of the city center. In the past it was one of the main Buddhist centers in Asia having two dozens of chapels and famous for its library collection of religious documents and the typography. The monastery was severely damaged during the repression of the 30s and only few building remained, among them a chapel with a 20 meters high statue of Megzhid Janraisig god erected in 1911 as a symbol commemorating the Mongolia’s independence. During WW II the statue was taken to Russia to be used as scrap metal for shells. In 1990 the statue was rebuilt with nationwide donations. The Gandan Monastery is the central place for major religious ceremonies and festivities, including Tsam Dance, a theatrical performance. The monastery has presently about 150 monks and a Buddhist School. We will finish our visit at around 4 pm, then get on our 4×4 vehicles again and drive 1.5 hours straight west, to another famous national park of the country, Khustai. This is the location of the famous re-introduction project of the rare Przewalski Wild Horses, which we are planning to find, get to know and photograph in the late evening sunset lights, as they come to drink. After dark, tired and worn, yet happy and satisfied, we drive to our campsite and fall to bed after an excellent, fulfilling hot dinner.

Day 12: Khustai National Park/Ulaanbaatar

Accommodation: Hotel Bayangol

Today is a day dedicated to explore the national park and learn more about the Przewalski horses. The hard core photographers, despite our general tiredness, will get up again before the sun does and shoot horse images in the morning mist and first lights. We will all gather at the camp again for a breakfast, and visit the park’s information center afterwards. Khustai National Park lies in the foothills of the southern Khenti Mountain Range about 100km south west of Ulaanbaatar. It takes its name from birch trees growing in surrounding mountain forests. In 1990, an agreement of cooperation was signed between the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment, the Foundation Reserves for the Przewalski Horse, the Governor of the Central Aimag (province) and representatives from Altanbulag, Bayankhangai and Argalant soums (districts) who owned the land on which Khustai National Park is now located. The Mongolian Government soon thereafter endorsed the project. In 1993, Hustain Nuruu was upgraded from protected area status to reserve status and conservation measures were strengthened. In 1998, the area’s status was upgraded once more and Khustain Nuruu Reserve became Khustai National Park. As a national park, regulations on land use were tightened and all grazing and hunting was forbidden. Soon after the national park status has been granted, the first captive-bred Przewalski horses arrived from European zoos and the horse that was once widespread on these steppes was back to its home. We will learn much more about this project at the visitors center, then visit some amazing archaeological sites of the park. First some graves of the so-called Turgic people, then in the Moilt valley, the remaining of Moiltiim Am settlement. Moiltiin Am is important in understanding the emergence of early society in Central Asia and Northern Asia, because of the archaeological evidence of continuous occupation for thousands of years, from the Middle Paleolithic to the Mesolithic. Finds of stone implements tell the story. Evidence suggests stone tools were produced not only by chipping and trimming, but also by grinding. Moiltiin Am appears to have had continuous human occupation for 20.000 years. Once we finish touring this site, our day will be very close to its end, so we get back on the road and drive to Ulaanbaatar. Upon arrival, we take our rooms, refresh ourselves and dress as neatly as we can for our great Farewell Dinner.

Day 13: Depart Ulaanbaatar

Accommodation: Departure

Depending on your destination, there will be flights departing from early morning till late afternoon, so every one of us will be transferred to the Chinggis Khaan International Airport for our departing flights.