Posted by Selena Travel / 02 28, 2019
While some people prefer to visit Mongolia in the summer, if you find yourself in Ulaanbaatar for the winter, there are still a ton of great activities to enjoy. One of the coolest Winter activities you can do is take a ride on the frozen Tuul river pulled by a team of excited huskies.
The trip to the dog sledding will start off memorably, as you travel through Terelj National Park. It’s easy to arrange a taxi ride out there, or you can rent an SUV and drive for the hour-long trip from the capital yourself. Ulaanbaatar fades away in your rear-view mirror as you drive into the mountains and hills of the national park. On the way, you can see herds of horses, sheep and goats. The road takes you through a couple charming villages and you pass by a number of ger camps. When the urge to stop and take a photograph of the amazing scenery strikes you, you can easily pull over and take a break.
After you get into the park, be prepared for a couple sections of unpaved roads – it’s a good initiation for driving in Mongolia, and not very challenging. The road meanders near the Tuul river. The Tuul travels from the Khentii mountains that border Russia in the North, passes through the capital Ulaanbaatar, and wanders south and west. There are many small islands in it, and it’s often surrounded by birch and willow forests. The river is sacred to Mongolian shamans, and it’s a nice place to stop and have some lunch.
Finally, after driving over a frozen river and a dirt road, you’ll stop outside the kennel where dozens of excited dogs will greet you. The temperature can drop down to -25 F / -32 C. The low moisture makes it bearable, but definitely dress in layers. The dog sled operators tell you what to wear before you arrive. You will want thick mittens and socks. The only extra thing we brought along were a set of crampons to keep from slipping on the ice.
Driving Dogs Through Snow and Ice
When you get to the site, you can hear the dogs yipping and howling in the kennel from inside your car. The dogs are all huskies with varying degrees of fluffiness. You and a partner will be taken to a set of dogs, or you can drive a team solo. After a quick instruction session, given in good English by an employee, your dogsled adventure begins.
The dogs can pull you nearly 25 mph / 40 kph on the frozen river, and it feels even faster as the trees that line the river whiz past. The only real control you have is a brake – a piece of metal located at your feet you can jam down into the ice to slow the dogs down. It is exhilarating to fly across the ice and lean into corners while the dogs race the other sled teams. There are a couple sections where you may have to push the sleigh, and we drove over a terrifying short bridge of sticks that was only a couple feet over a gap, but felt like a mile above ground.
The trip is an out and back following the river with frequent breaks to catch stragglers and rest the dogs. The driver can work up a bit of heat, especially if the sleigh gets caught on some rocks or snow. If the dogs can’t pull you, you have to help push your partner. The dogs are familiar with the route, but the guides follow along in a car in case of any problems.
The person sitting in the sleigh may be colder and have less control, but it’s crucial they lean into turns. They also get to experience the speed the most – you can put an arm out and feel the frozen river under your hand, and enjoy the rocky outcroppings surrounding you and the river. You’ll also be able to take some spectacular videos.
The whole experience can last up from an hour to a whole day to whole expeditions for the brave. Meals on the river can be a part of any of the packages.
If you opt for a shorter stay, there are a ton of options for activities in Terelj. The area has great spots for hiking, though few established trails. You’ll warm up quickly despite the cold. When you reach the peak, you’ll be rewarded with both a great view, and a chance to participate in adding to the ovoo at the top. Ovoos are piles of rocks that are a feature of the landscape. The Mongolian tradition is to contribute a rock found on the mountain to the pile at the top and walk around it clockwise three times. These ovoos are found on nearly every peak around Ulaanbaatar, and often have interesting offerings to see.
There are spas, restaurants, and ger camps in the park. You can stop in for a massage or a nice lunch at any one of them and extend your stay in the park to make a weekend in Terelj. Seeing the sun rise over the ridge surrounding the park is very special, and some of the gers that are ready for winter have heated floors. Find one with a window for a view of the sunrise you won’t soon forget. Despite the cold temperatures, these places are kept warm by the hospitable staff who will be so glad you came, especially in the off season. If you come during winter, doing a dog sled tour and visiting Terelj will be an experience you won’t forget!