Published: October 30th 2007October 30th 2007
I spent a wild week in Mongolia, so much so that I didn't want to leave at all and was seriously considering changing my ticket. I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, last Sunday, after another overnight train trip from Ulan Ude - this time in the company of a very nice English couple, Tom and Gev, who are on their way to Australia. We spent hours chatting and keeping each other's spirits up as the Russian border officials kept us at the border for over six hours - even I was close to losing my sense of humour as it was getting past 2 am and we were still at the train station. Tom was very excited to learn that I am going to Pakistan with Jonny Bealby, as he has read all of his books and is a massive fan.
I was met at Ulaanbaatar train station by Zaya, who runs a fantastic little guest house in the centre of town. After spending an evening with the Swedish version of Justin Timberlake and a couple of other travellers in a dire Irish pub, where a bored young Mongolian band blasted out hits like 'I will survive' and 'Bridge
over troubled water' on violin, keyboard and drumkit, I was ready to get the hell out into the countryside. So, the next day I sought out Bolod, a Mongolian man from a small village in the North-East of Mongolia, who, so I heard, arranges trips to shamans. However, such a trip could not be arranged in the limited time I had in Mongolia, but I met Elizabeth, a lovely Australian woman, at Bolod's, and we decided to visit one of Mongolia's most sacred sites together the next day: Eej Khad (Mother Rock). This is an ancient rock in the countryside, resembling the Mother Goddess, and many Mongolians travel there to make offerings of vodka, milk, food, incense and silk scarves. They often visit to seek solace and make three wishes as they circle the rock three times, and one is supposed to return on three separate occasions. During communism, visiting Eej Khad was a political crime, though some people still went in secret. In the late 1970's, the communists tried to blow the rock up and haul it away with a tractor, but to no avail. The next morning, workers awoke to find their tractor burnt and destroyed. According to
lore, the official who had ordered the destruction died, and his family members became ill. His team members are all said to have suffered bad luck, too.
Elizabeth and I set off early on Tuesday morning by jeep (there are very few roads in Mongolia, so a lot of travel has to be via 4 wheel drive, a very bumpy ride!) with a driver. One of the things I immediately noticed about Mongolia, after being in Siberia, was how much softer it feels, despite its ruggedness. Siberia felt harsh in many ways, and there is a completely different energy in Mongolia, emanating from the land as well as from the people. We first stopped off at a remote and near-deserted Buddhist monastery with remnants of rock carvings and paintings and the setting (on a hilltop, surrounded by pine trees) was just stunning. The land, the sky and the rocks feel so wild in Mongolia, and this explains much of the people's spirituality. Even though most of Mongolia is Buddhist now, the original religion, until not so long away, was shamanism. The tradition of leaving offerings on sacred sites, mainly on hill tops, is still very much alive, and these
places feel very ancient and shamanic indeed.
After lunch in a little cafe, we arrived at Mother Rock in the early afternoon. Zaya had warned me and said 'don't expect anything big. She's small. Like Mongolian mothers, she is small, almost insignificant - but big in spirit.' The rock is enclosed in a round wall setting, and when you enter, the strong smell of incense is the first thing you notice. She is not tall, maybe 5 ft, but there is a powerful ancient energy radiating from her: beautiful, gentle, compassionate, and very emotional. She has been dressed by the people in green satin, a dress and a hat, and blue silk scarfes hang from her belt, as well as from lines all across the site. The site was almost deserted as we arrived, and as I greeted her, a big raven flew up into the sky. Our driver pulled out a bottle of vodka and poured it onto the ground around her as an offering, whilst I lit some incense and tied the white tibetan silk scarf Anne and Barry gave me during my leaving ceremony to her belt, as I had a very strong sense to do
so ever since I had heard about the rock. Some Mongolian people came and brought offerings, leaned their heads against her and whispered their wishes into the rock. Huge eagles and kites circled above us. Significantly, I started to bleed at the site as well - another sacred offering to the Mother of this land.
One of my wishes for Mongolia was to really connect to nature, to experience and feel the land in its wildness. The local deities listened to my plea to live close to the land and hooked me up with Bert, a Dutch man who runs a little farm with his Mongolian wife and two children near Terelj. Now, Terelj is quite touristy with many ger camps, but he lives across the river (you can only get to his place by crossing the river with a jeep) in a very quiet and near-deserted area. I met Bert, a real character, in Ulaanbaatar and spent a very amusing afternoon with him, as he sold his homemade gouda cheese to local shops, visited markets and a yard to buy a tonne of cement! From the yard, he, I and a young Mongolian driver crammed ourselves into the
driver's cabin of the cement van and drove off towards Terelj, picking up another Dutchman called Vietze on the way. After some crazy off-roading, we arrived at Bert's place late in the evening, where we were welcomed by his sister-in-law and a friend, as his wife was away. After a delicious dinner (including much of Bert' wonderful gouda) in the company of twelve cute newborn piglets, dogs, puppies, and a cat, I was shown to my ger across the steppe, which included a bed, a little table and a stove to make fire. It was getting really cold - below zero - in Mongolia now, and I slept with several layers, a warm hat and five blankets, and I learnt *very* quickly how to get a good fire going in the mornings! On my last morning in the ger, it was so cold (about minus 10 degrees Celsius) that the glass of water next to my bed was frozen rock solid, as were my contact lenses. But there's nothing quite like the joy when you finally do get the fire going!
I spent an amazing three days at Bert's place, full of funny adventures like waking up in the
middle of the night to go for a pee outside (there is no electricity or running water, just the freezing cold river nearby and a toilet that's half a mile away, and believe me, outside is the better option) and being chased around my ger by a group of curious calves; witnessing a cow who had fallen into a large concrete ditch and the consequent rescue actions by the Mongolian owners (ie trying to haul the cow out of the hole with ropes and nearly breaking its neck); horse-riding across the open steppes and over rolling hills, across frozen rivers and icy fields; climbing big rocks, and walking through the vast woods, with the trees as witnesses of time around me. The silence there is absolute, only interrupted by howling wolves (and responding dogs) at night, and the occasional lone rider on the horizon. When a bird flaps its wings, you hear it. The big pregnant full moon shone over the hills in the star-lit sky, and although the cold was challenging, I have rarely felt so free and happy. Even though the winters are long and harsh in Mongolia, there is something very appealing about the simplicity of ger life: the people have very few possessions and live like hundreds of years ago, working with the land and using horses as a major form of transport. Sky burials still happen from time to time, and the steppe is littered with the stark white skulls and rib cages of horses and cows.
Oh, and the spirits of place have yet claimed another pair of sunglasses! My new Chanel glasses vanished by a river in the Mongolian woods. But, as I was riding through the woods with a very fit Mongolian horseman, I won't complain too much!
I've now bought a really cheap pair in UB - let's see if the Chinese spirits want those!
When I came back to UB, Zaya and I visited a children's charity: the Lotus Children's Centre, set up by Australian yoga teacher Didi Kalika. One of the first things I noticed in UB were the many street children, begging for food and money, because they were abandoned by their families who can't afford to care for them, or because they ran away from unacceptable conditions. In the long, harsh winters, the children live under the city on hot water pipes and in the sewage system, without food or safety. Didi started rescuing these children in 1993 and now runs a wonderful centre in the outskirts of UB, where about 150 children live in cosy shared gers, go to school etc. Visiting the centre touched me deeply, and the work the people do there is truly humbling. The centre survives exclusively on donations, so please look up their webpage for ways to support them if you are interested.
The Mongolian language is extra-ordinary as well. The travel writer Tim Severin described it as 'like two cats coughing and spitting at each other until one finally throws up.' That's a very good observation! I could write a book on my experiences in and impressions of Mongolia, but suffice it to say that I have really lost my heart there, and hope to return soon.
I left for Beijing on Sunday morning, a 30-hour train trip, made joyful through the company of three wonderful Mongolian women who renamed me instantly to 'Sainaa' (Mongolian name meaning 'the good one'), one of which, Laura, spoke good English and hence acted as a translator. Laura was on her way to the south of China to meet her Pakistani boyfriend, while one of the other women periodically called her husband for updates, asked me to speak to him and promptly invited me to their home when I return to Mongolia. We spent four hours at the Chinese border and arrived in Beijing yesterday afternoon, after glimpses of the Great Wall and being welcomed by rows of Chinese rail workers waving and cheering as we passed by. In Beijing, Laura's driver kindly sorted me out a taxi to my guest house - which was lucky, as very few people speak English here, but I had the address scribbled down in Chinese. The Xicheng district, in which I am staying, is an oasis of peace. I expected Beijing to be loud, overcrowded and unbearable (and I think it is in the city centre), but here, in this very old, authentic part of the city, it is wonderfully quiet. The guesthouse is in a courtyard, and we have a roof terrace with view to the Bai Ta Temple. It is relatively warm here (well, anywhere is, after Mongolia!), and the people are incredibly friendly and delighted when I greet them in the narrow little lanes of the district. It's very laid back here - there's a great fruit and vegetable market, an abundance of public toilets (many houses here don't have bathrooms) and bicycles, and some wonderfully quiet Buddhist temples, with colourful buildings that house immense statues and paintings of the various deities, Gods and Goddesses of Earth, Thunder, Stars, and so on.
Talking of deities, it is Samhain tomorrow. I have been wondering whether Samhain means anything here in the East, and how to spend one of the most significant days of the Pagan calendar. The solution presented itself as I was looking through my guidebook earlier on - I will be visiting Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven. It is set in a large park, and was conceived as the prime meeting point of Earth and Heaven. The Temple was once the site of the imperial court calendar, when the emperor prayed for the year's harvest at the winter solstice.
Tonight I am off on a motorcycle side-car tour of the old part of Beijing, and Friday night I leave for Tibet, another three-day train trip! I feel that I am deeply in the flow of my journey now. It' fast and often tiring, but it's wonderful: the synchronicities are getting more abundant every day, and I am meeting fascinating people wherever I go.