After trying to use the park’s website to figure out how to get there with no results, I emailed them and asked for some help. Luckily, the guy who handles their email was on top of things and told me the best way to get there. Turns out, a van leaves every Friday and Sunday bound for the park to shuttle employees back and forth. I’d hoped to leave Friday and come back Sunday… so that worked quite well! The service is expensive, running $15 each way, but since there are no public transport options to get to Hustai, it’s the best of the worst.
I made it to the park office on the outskirts of UB just in time. The bus leaves at 5 p.m. on Fridays and I showed up at about 10 minutes till. Bam! It’s a little hard to find, but if you know what to look for. On Peace Avenue, go west past Gandan Khiid. You’ll go through another big intersection, then start watching the building numbers on the right. When you see a small side street that goes between building numbers 31 and 33, you’re almost there! Turn up that street and follow the little signs posted on the buildings labeled ‘Hustai National Trust’. I think it’s right, left, right, left, right… You’ll find it! But if you’re worried… here’s a map.
View Hustai Park Office in a larger map
I woke up at 7 the next day (true story, Mom and Dad!) and went to get breakfast in the main hall. Apparently that is included in the $18. So that $59? That’s just getting you lunch and dinner! Cause, you know, it’s expensive to bring food in from UB.
Breakfast was tasty, consisting of many slices of bread, salami, cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, an apple, and some tea. Just my style. I scarfed down every last morsel and set out for the day. The park offered a ride in their van through the park’s interior, charging the ridiculous rate of $1 per km. I agreed, simply because I wanted to see the park’s layout and I have a little wiggle room budget wise. While it ended up being an expensive 2 hours (10 km there and back made for a $20 charge) it was worth it. As we drove along the windy, muddy, treacherous road, I was lucky enough to see a lot of takhi (Przewalski’s horses).
The story of the wild takhi is an inspirational one. They are one of the only species who have been successfully reintroduced to their natural habitat after being declared extinct in the wild. Now, there are nearly 300 roaming the 50,000 + hectares of Hustai National Park. While they are protected from human poachers and others, they are otherwise left alone; and a number die each year from wolf attacks and the harsh climate. More on wolf attacks later… (like that? The suspense!!)
Anyways, I saw several groups of the takhi, including a group of three who were sharing the hillside with a herd of 12 deer. I wasn’t able to get very close, but I still tried to get a few pictures. There are rules in the park that prohibit you from coming within 300 meters of a takhi. I didn’t really want to take any chances, especially since the driver and my park guide were standing there watching me. So I got this…
Takhi on the right, deer on the left
Next I’m going to try super glue
Despite the wildness of my surroundings, every once in a while I would come across something built by human hands. In Mongolia, the piles of rocks, trees, and scarves known as ovoo are ubiquitous, and Hustai National Park is no exception. In the majesty of such a place, it doesn’t take much effort to understand the Mongols’ awe and respect for nature.
Remember that wolf attack I mentioned earlier? It didn’t happen to me. I didn’t even see a wolf 🙁 Instead, I stumbled across a several day old wolf kill… what appeared to be a domestic horse. There wasn’t much to go by, but suffice to say, it was a stark reminder of the savage nature of the environment here. Mongolia has never been an easy place to live, for men or animals.
Since I have a twisted sense of humor (sometimes) I couldn’t help but take a funny picture. You know when you have a friend who passes out somewhere and you decide to take embarrassing pictures with them? This was that kind of scenario… maybe a little more morbid.
One thing I’ve noticed about the terrain in Mongolia is how it can all look the same at first glance, but turn up with hidden wonders upon closer inspection. So too, with Hustai. After a while I got bored with following the road and turned up a valley along a dirt path. The terrain went from bleak hills and wind-blasted valleys to a sheltered, boulder-dotted ravine with a stream bed coursing through it. While the water was only just starting to flow, already there were small touches of green as plants came to life again after remorseless winter. Shrubs covered the sides of the hills and the stream bed was lined with gnarled and leafless trees. Within minutes, I saw a few marmots, some hares, and nearly had a heart attack when the pair of partridges at my feet decided to take to the sky. They’re like the grouse of Mongolia… serious jerks. I hate those birds.
As I walked up the opposite hill, I noticed something on the hillside. A lone takhi. Staring at me. This was such a more memorable encounter than the ones before. It was just me and him (I assume, since you don’t see too many solitary females). I walked slowly and made sure not to get too close, both the park regulations and common sense when dealing with wild animals contributed to that decision. I miiiight’ve gotten a little closer than 300 meters, but not too much. Regardless, the stallion noticed me, and huffed loudly when he deemed I was close enough. I stopped and he kicked a foreleg and shook his mane. “Easy, big guy, ” I murmured, and walked slowly along the hill, maintaining my distance. He walked the opposite way, and we carefully passed each other on the slope at a healthy distance. As he reached the ridge of the hill, he looked back a few times, then disappeared over the hill. Unforgettable.
I turned back shortly after. I had set myself a time to turn around which would give me plenty of daylight to make it back to camp. Instead of going along the dirt path back to the road, I turned into the hills and left all forms of path behind. I had a pretty good bearing on where I needed to go, so it wasn’t a crazy move. I quickly found myself climbing the ridges of some huge hills/little mountains. The wind was brutal. As I emerged from the sheltered valley and reached the ridge, I was blasted by a wall of it. There were moments I felt like I could fall forward and it would push me back up. That didn’t stop me from walking three times around the ovoo at the top of the hill and placing a stone on it.
It’s common to make a wish when you do something like that, but I had a think instead. As I circled the pile of stones, I let my gaze pan over the icy mountains that spread in every direction. I thought of my friend, Bram, and the spark of interest in Mongolia that flared to life in me when he introduced me to the country so many years ago. I thought of the decisions I’ve made in my life so far that have led to me being here. Like the mountains spread before me, I could see all the paths winding and leading to where I was. I realized something then, something that I’ve known but haven’t always remembered.
I am free. Free to live the life I’ve always wanted. Free to pursue a dream from my childhood and free to realize it’s achieved on a mountaintop in Mongolia. As wonderful as that freedom is, I forget it exists all too often. The moments when I’ve remembered that freedom have been the key forks in the path of my life. So when I placed that stone on top of the ovoo, I made my wish: to always remember that I am free.