I have traveled a lot, and have been on many private tours. This was among the very best. Between my guide, Adiyabold Namkhai, the herder family we spent the night with, and the expanse of the eternal blue sky over the hills, valleys, and rocks of Terelj, this was almost a spiritual experience. Adiya is an incredible guide. He is smart, thoughtful, insightful and intellectually curious. While of course he explained much about Mongolian history, culture and geography, he also was very interested in learning about me and the space I inhabited.
The tour was an overnight tour. Adiya picked me up promptly at my hotel in downtown Ulaanbaatar. We drove in his spotless SUV for a little over an hour to our first stop: The Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex. As if making up for the decades of Soviet repression of Mongolian history, the Mongolian government erected a massive stainless steel statue of Chinggis Khan astride a horse in the middle of a plain. The site is reputed to be where the Great Khan found a special riding whip, and indeed, it holds his steel hand high. You can access the mane of the horse, and from there marvel at the open space, dotted with occasional ger camps that stretches out from the statute to nearby hills and distant snow-capped mountains.
From there we drove to the 13th Century Mongolian National Park. This is a series of ger camps that recreate life in the Mongolian steppes in the 13th Century--sort of like a Colonial Williamsburg, only really spread out. We went off road on the grass lands. Within minutes of leaving the last hard top, we were out of sight of any humans. Occasional horses and cows might make an appearance on hills, but this was open and empty a space as I have ever encountered. Then, all of a sudden we were at the watchers' campsite. We entered some of the gers and met with the guard, dressed in his deel, who described how the watch camps also served as postal services of sort, where messages would be given by one set of riders to another who would then ride off to the next camp. There are a series of these camps--including a camp for a khan, a site for the shamans, a herding family camp (where we had a meal in the main ger). Staffing was sparse, but I was there before people really come to tour.
We ended the day by driving to our host family. They had a collection of three gers and a pen for one of their cows who had just given birth to a calf a few weeks before. We were shown to our ger, which was much cozier than I anticipated. It was cold and very windy out, so I very much appreciated the roaring fire in the cast iron stove in the middle of the ger. And yes, it was fueled with dung. Adiya walked with me into the hills surrounding the gers where I took photos of the dying light. Later at night, I sat outside to marvel and the night sky, heavy with stars, but dark nonetheless. We woke early to climb the hills and watch the light break over the hilltops and spill into the valley.
The host family was wonderful. Through Adiya, the talked about their lives, which sound remarkably similar to the lives of their ancestors from the 13th Century. Mind you, the 21st Century was there too, with a solar panel on one of the gers, and a satellite dish on another. They gamely made vegetarian versions of Mongolian food (e.g., horshor stuffed with mashed potatoes and carrots). My best meal was breakfast--a porridge of rice and fresh cow's milk. Note: these were real herders and not a ger in a ger camp. Apparently, spending a night in a ger is a thing, and developers have capitalized on this by creating tourist friendly camps. I say this because my one difficulty with the experience was the outhouse. I fully expected to use one, but didn't realize that it would involve squatting over a large pit atop two wooden planks. I suspect the ger camps have outbuildings with flushing toilets.
We ended our second day by driving out toward the forested mountains and the famous Turtle Rock--a formation that really does look like a turtle lifting its head high out of its shell. From there we made our way to the Aryapala Temple Meditation Center. The Temple is built up on the rocky side of a mountain and looks over the Terelj valleys. Definitely worth the walk up.
If anything brings you to Mongolia, add an extra night to do this, and do it with Adiya.