When horsemen ruled the world, the region now known as Mongolia and Siberia, was the seat of awesome, all-conquering power. Today the region is much more tranquil but no less intriguing. Except for eternal blue skies, a rich history, unique cultures, stunning landscapes and nomadic herders slowly giving way to a fledgling, modern agriculture – the place is pretty much empty – and you’ll love it.
We arrive in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbataar, via Seoul, South Korea. Mongolia is ringed by mountains in the north and west and the Gobi desert in the east and south the rolling grasslands (steppes) cover more than 75 per cent of the country. The traditional nomads – 30 per cent of the population – pack up their gers (circular hide tents) and move with their livestock.
We will meet and be hosted by some of these traditional herders as we travel through this amazing landscape. We will also visit some modern and impressive cropping operations spurred on by government incentives towards greater food self-sufficiency. We also enjoy the annual Nadaam Festival where Mongolian independence is celebrated and horse riders, wrestlers and athletes are all on display.
Unlocking Siberian secrets
Onto Siberia where we meet the local Buryat farmers and marvel at Lake Baikal where 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water can be found! We will also visit areas such as the remote, fertile and spectacular alpine valley of Tunka, dotted with agricultural settlements as well as the very attractive and cosmopolitan city of Irkutsk – one of the most important cities of far eastern Russia.
Home is via a direct flight to Seoul or continue your adventure with travel west to Moscow and St Petersburg on the trans-Siberian. Another option is to fly (or train) even further eastwards to Vladivostok.
Daytime flights depart for Seoul, South Korea. There are daily direct flights out of Sydney – one connection out of other capitals.
On our late afternoon arrival in Seoul, we are transfered to our hotel for a well-earned rest and freshen up before enjoying a “meet and greet” at the hotel.
We have a city guided tour this morning to get our bearings. Seoul is a beautiful city consisting of both modern and ancient architecture. The metropolitan area contains no less than four UNESCO World Heritage Sites while street vendors compete for business amidst towering modern skyscrapers.
We also meet with Austrade officials to learn more about agricultural trade and opportunities between Australia and South Korea. South Korea’s export-oriented economy supports a relatively affluent society of 48 million people. The country’s rugged mountains leave a relatively small arable land area but around 2.4 million farmers manage to eke out a living. Rice dominates crop production and has long been the staple food. Corn, barley and soybean are also grown. To meet domestic demand, Korea is turning increasingly to food imports and Australia is a key supplier.
This morning we board our charter coach for guided visits to fertile dryland and irrigated farming areas as well as scenic sights in the Han River Valley to the south of Seoul.
More farm and technical visits before our direct evening flight to Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia. We are met at the airport and transferred to our hotel.
With a population of over 1 million, ‘UB’ is the largest city in Mongolia. Located in north central Mongolia in the Tuul River valley, the city lies at an elevation of more than 1300 metres. The city was founded in 1639 as a nomadic Buddhist monastic centre. In 1778, it settled permanently at its present location – before that, it changed location 28 times! Mongolia boasts an eternal blue sky, a rich history, a unique culture and stunning landscapes – and just 2.8 million friendly people.
Mongolia’s real attraction lies in the untouched beauty of the countryside, its exhilarating wide open spaces and rich nomadic culture. Mongolia is a large country with a very low population density – 30 per cent of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic. The average elevation of Mongolia is more than 1500 metres and three mountain ranges stretch across the north and west. The east and south are largely occupied with Gobi desert. The steppes (grasslands) predominate, covering more than 75 per cent of the national territory. The traditional nomads raise livestock such as sheep, goats, horses, camels, yaks and cattle. The nomads generally move four times a year depending on weather conditions and grass.
In recent years, government incentives have been offered to local farmers to help Mongolia move to a self-sufficient level of grain production. Over coming days we will be introduced to the traditional nomadic lifestyles that 1 million inhabitants (around a third of this intriguing nation) choose to follow. We will also learn more about the development of their modern farming enterprises. During our travels (by private charter coach) we will be comfortably accommodated in gers (Mongolian circular tents) with various nomadic farmers and their families.
Today we leave UB and travel southwest into Mongolia’s grassy, fertile valleys. We enter the imposing Khogno Khan Mountain region where we enjoy breathtaking panoramic 200 km views of the surrounding farmlands and steppes. Dinner and overnight in a ger camp.
Today we visit a modern wheat farm as well as meet with nomadic farmers and learn more about their dairy farming (cows and mares) as well as the traditional manufacturing of the dairy products and dishes. We also visit ancient Buddhist Monasteries nestled within the mountain cliffs.
Early departure northwards today through stunning scenery, including the amazing Lake Ugii, and onto Hustai National Park on the northern shores of the Tuul River. The Park is home to Mongolian wild horses, the “Tahi”. Dinner and overnight in the Park.
More fantastic scenery and visits in the Mongolian steppes before returning to the capital and a free evening to join in the fun of the annual Nadaam Festival.
Today is the final day of the Festival. As Genghis Khan said: “It’s not how many breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away.” Welcome to Nadaam.
The festival officially celebrates the Mongolian Revolution and independence and features horse riders, wrestlers,athletes, musicians, monks and dancers.
Travel north today to the border town of Sukhbataar, the capital of Selenge Province, located at the junction of the Orkhon and Selenge rivers. The Orkhon rises in the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia and flows northwards for more than 1100 km before joining the Selenge River which flows into Russia, emptying into Lake Baikal – our destination in Siberia.
This morning we cross the border into Russia (Siberia) and travel north following the spectacular Selenge River Valley and onto Ulan Ude with farm and scenic visits along the way. ‘UU’ has a population of 400,000 and is the capital of Siberia’s Buryat Republic.
A brief city tour introduces us to one of Siberia’s most likeable cities. Founded as a Cossack ostrog (fort) called Udinsk in 1666, the city prospered as a major stop on the tea-caravan route from China. Renamed Ulan Ude in 1934, it was a closed city until the 1980s due to its nearby – and very secret – military plants. The city has an intriguing mix of Mongol-Buddhist cultures and is the southern gateway to the amazing Lake Baikal.
This afternoon we travel to the southern shores of the Lake – the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world containing roughly 20 per cent of the planet’s unfrozen surface fresh water. At an average depth of around 1600 metres, it is also the world’s deepest and is among the clearest. By surface area, it ranks seventh largest in the world. In other words, we are talking an awful (and enviable) amount of fresh water.
This morning we enjoy a cruise on the lake and learn about some of the 1700 resident species of plants and animals – two thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world. The Lake was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is also home to Buryat tribes who inhabit the eastern side of the lake rearing goats, camels, cattle and sheep. The regional average temperatures vary from a minimum of −19°C in winter to a maximum of around 14°C in summer. Around mid-morning we head westwards and into the spectacular and fertile Tunka Valley. This is one of Siberia’s scenic and farming gems. The Tunka River’s fertile plains are sprinkled with the agricultural settlements of the indigenous Buryat people – the descendants of Mongols. Overnight tonight in the valley.
Today we immerse ourselves in the spectacular scenery of the Valley and meet with local farmers. We enjoy another night in the valley in the village of Arshan.
This morning we travel to Sludyanka to catch the Circum-Baikal Railway train. This historic train runs along the southern shore of Lake Baikal through magnificent scenery, mountain tunnels and regular stops to enjoy some guided walks. On arrival at Port Baikal, we have a ferry crossing to Listvyanka and then our charter coach takes us onto Irkutsk, the administrative centre of Irkutsk Oblast. With a population of nearly 600,000, this is one of the largest cities in Siberia. During the communist years, the industrialisation of Irkutsk – and Siberia in general – was heavily encouraged by Russia’s central planners. The large Irkutsk Reservoir was built on the Angara River between 1950 and 1959 in order to facilitate industrial development.
More technical and cultural visits in and around Irkutsk before we enjoy a farewell dinner this evening.
Free time today for some last minute shopping before transfer to the airport and our direct flight to Seoul with connecting flights to Australian destinations. You can also choose to rest up for a day or two in Seoul (or elsewhere in Asia) before heading home.
Another add-on alternative is to continue westwards from Irkutsk on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow and St Petersburg. Travel eastwards by rail or air to Vladivostok is another option.