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Mongolia: Orkhon valley

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Orkhon valley | Mongolia | Asia

[Visited: September 2016]

As soon as we take the turn off the main road from Kharkhorin to Arvaikheer, we are in tracks again, and a rough ride takes us to the Orkhon valley. Our driver stops at a particularly pretty viewpoint, where we see a bend in the Orkhon river deep below us, and mountains on the other side of the valley floor. The drive through the valley is slow going, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy it to the fullest. On our left, the south side of the valley, we see impressive snow-capped mountains with peculiar shapes, and to our right, we often see the wide Orkhon river, contained by lower mountains. The going is sometimes hard, our driver steering the car over sharp rocks, and I am surprised our tyres manage the constant onslaught. When we finally arrive at what is almost the end of the valley, we drive through the river where the water is relatively low; a spectacular end of a spectacular drive. A particularly clean and well-organized ger camp awaits us, and after we leave our bags, we are our for a first walk. A herdsman on a horse guides his sheep through the valley. It takes us to the north side of the valley again, where we meet the Orkhon river. It is running fast here, and deep: no way you could cross. There are rapids as well; we sit down one one of the rocks, enjoying the view of the trees alongside the river, with an empty valley on the other side of the river. We walk along the river to arrive at another river, and follow it to its end: we have arrived at the top of the Orkhon waterfall, the tallest of Mongolia. Unfortunately, the sun is on the west side, so the entire waterfall is in the shade. Moreover, we can only see the waterfall from the top; to have a frontal view, we need to cross the river. Again, tourism in Mongolia (fortunately) is adventurous even at top locations like these, and there is no bridge to cross the river, so we walk along it to find a good place to cross the icy water. I finally do so a little upstream, and go over knee-deep through the water that make my legs turn red from the cold. It is all worth it when I see the waterfall again, and clamber down a steep section of rocks to also have a view from the bottom of the small valley.

Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Line of trees with snow-capped mountain in the background

The next morning, we are supposed to start a two-day trek with horses, and I leave early to see the waterfall with the sun shining from the east. Again, I only have a view from the top, and no time to cross the river for a frontal view; we will return once we have our horses. Back at the ger, the horses are not there, and we laze a little in the sunshine. It turns out that the horses are difficult to catch, and we start to wonder how easy it will actually be to ride them - we are in no way experienced horse riders. The sun is moving from east to west along its daily trajectory, and I am getting impatient: will we again miss the view of the falls with the sun still on it? I decide to walk down there again, and cross the river. This time, the water reaches my waist, I struggle against the strong current of the river, and when I reach the other side, I quickly check my moneybelt to see if my passport is still OK; the money in my side pockets is soaked. When I reach the waterfall, the sun just disappears behind the clouds, and I try to guess when it will come back again to shine light on Orkhon waterfall. When it finally does, it turns out I am just in time: it is still in full sunlight coming from the side, but it will be in the shade again quite soon. After enjoying the views for the last time, I once again traverse the river, and already from a distance, I see there are no horses at our ger. Now, the story is that the horses have to be used for harvesting pines, and that no horses will be found. Thanks to our travel guide, we manage to arrange horses somewhere else, and just when we think we are leaving, our host comes up with lunch. When we are eating, the driver becomes impatient, so we eat as fast as we can, take some of it in a bag, and off we are. Later, we learn that before leaving on a horse, it is customary to eat, so that the journey will be safe.

Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Orkhon waterfall seen from above

After hearing about the half wild Mongolian horses, we are now curious to finally ride them. Mine is particularly small: Mongolian horses are not very big, but strong all the same. Our guide helps us get on the horse, and we leave right away: we were supposed to leave 6 hours before so there is not much time to waste. We soon trot and it takes awhile to get used to the rhythm of the horses. Our guide adds to our enjoyment: he sings Mongolian songs, and we try to sing along, much to his amusement. Meanwhile, the skies over Orkhon valley fill with huge clouds, towering over the mountains, and making us feel infinitely small. There are showers in the distance, resulting in grey slant curtains below white clouds. There are also patches with sunlight, and the scenery of the valley changes constantly with the moving of the clouds and sunlight. Such a great sight, we sometimes almost forget we are on horseback, until the horse reminds us with a sudden movement or sound. Our shadows become always longer, and we miraculously stay dry on our more than two hour ride. When we finally get off, our legs and especially knees are sore, and I quickly walk up a hill to give them some movement and let blood regulate my joints and legs. What follows is a lively evening in the family ger, where we try the local vodka, enjoy Mongolian singing, and sleep on the hard floor. The next morning, it is freezing outside, and I go for a short walk towards the river. The night has swept away all the beautiful clouds of the previous afternoon, and the views of the snowy mountain range is now unblocked. For a while, we join with the French father and son who are on a longer horse trip, and when we cross the wooden bridge over the river (it is too deep to wade across for the horses), we ride up a valley, leaving the Orkhon valley behind.

Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Orkhon valley covered clouds
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): River meandering through Orkhon valley
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Morning view of Orkhon waterfall
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): The river just above Orkhon waterfall
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Side valley with a few yurts near Orkhon waterfall
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Orkhon river meandering through the valley
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): The rapids in the tree-lined river are just above Orkhon waterfall
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): The top of Orkhon waterfall
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Early morning view of Orkhon valley with snow-capped mountain and trees in autumn colours
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Dark and huge clouds over Orkhon valley
Picture of Orkhon valley (Mongolia): Dark skies over the barren landscape of Orkhon valley

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