There are two National Parks which are easily accessible from Ulaanbaatar.
GORKHI – TERELJ NATIONAL PARK
This is a popular day trip from Ulaanbaatar. Audley It is beginning to be developed as a tourist destination with Dinosaur Park full of life size models of Dinosaurs (tacky but seemingly popular) and seasonal ger settlements to accommodate tourists. Turtle Rock is on the tick list for all tourists. Terelj town is an example of how tourism can destroy what tourists originally came to see. It is a dump.
Having said that we were pleased we included it in our itinerary. It was early May and the tourists hadn’t arrived. We saw Mongolians going about their chores but no other foreigners. The person with dromedaries waiting to give tourist rides was looking very fed up and doing no trade.
Most people don't get further than the Gorkhi valley. Access to areas beyond Terelj Town is confined to trekking and many areas are accessed only by permit.
We drove up the valley as far as Terelj Town and then trickled our way back spending several hours walking along the side of valley above the road. The ger camps were not as intrusive as feared and got lost in the scale of the scenery.
The landscape was a mixture of valley bottoms, rolling treeless plains, wooded hillsides with rockier tops. There were flocks of goats grazing. It was still winter and leaves had yet to appear on the trees. In sheltered areas, Pasque flowers were just coming into flower and in a couple of weeks the slopes would be covered with them. Lower slopes are gently wooded. Higher up is rockier. The valley bottoms could be wet and scrubby in places.
After a cold start it turned into a beautiful day with sunshine. We enjoyed being out in the fresh air.
Our pictures are here.
KHUSTAI NURUU NATIONAL PARK
Khustai National Park to the west of Ulaanbaatar is about a two hour drive across the steppe. The road is unpaved and rough.Our driver frequently took to the steppe as this gave a better ride than the road.
The park is relatively new having been founded in 1998. The park was a hunting ground for Bogd Khaan, the last ruling Khaan of Mongolia, and afterwards for Mongolian political officials. Nomads have used the park for grazing animals but it has never had a permanent settlement or been used for agriculture. It is natural steppe, one of the world's most threatened ecosystems.
The park is famous for the TAKHI wild horse – the original wild Mongolian horse, rediscovered by the explorer Prezewalski. They were extinct in the wild with a few animals in zoos. Reintroduction here started in 1992 using selected animals from zoos across the world. Takhi are completely wild. They have never been tamed or ridden and are a different species to the domestic horse. They can be dangerous, especially stallions or mares with foals, so you keep your distance. There are established breeding units in the park and tourists are taken to see them with driver and guide.
With hindsight we wished we had cut our visit to see the Takhi short. Afterwards we went for a walk on our own up the ridge to the west of the ger camp. It was a beautiful evening with good views across the rolling grasslands and ridges of the park. The walking was easy and it was a shame to have to turn back for our evening meal.
The following morning we walked up the ridge to the east of the ger camp. It was steep in places but once on top easy walking with superb views. We looked down on a herding settlement and watched horsemen taking a mixed flock of sheep and goats out to graze. They are brought into the yard overnight as protection against wolves and lynx.
We spent a night in the Tourist Ger Camp by the entrance. We were allocated a traditionally furnished ger complete with wood burning stove. The Mongolians collect dry dung which they burn. This doesn’t smell and burns slowly giving a steady heat. The tourist tents were supplied with wood (perhaps tourist sensibilities don’t extend to dung). This isn’t as good as it burns quickly and is very hot but dies down and the ger gets cold. Michael woke up twice during the night to put more wood on the fire.
Toilets and washing facilities (both basic and dubious cleanliness) were in a separate building. There is a restaurant serving all meals. We went outside when it was dark to look at the stars – there were so many you didn’t know where to begin to identify the different constellations. It was magic.
Our pictures are here.