A Night Under the Stars

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October 15th 2013
Published: October 15th 2013
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At midday on Friday, I headed out with a few hostel-mates to find the bus to Terelj, the National Park not far from Ulaanbaatar.

There was a charming man (trying to persuade us to get a taxi with him instead) talking to us in Russian at the bus stop. He was very interested in who we were and where we were from. He had some interesting preconceived ideas. For instance, there was a man from Australia, so, of course, there was a short Kanagaroo impression, for the girl from Austria, a short rendition of Mozart, and for the two of us Brits his comment was 'Ah, John Major'. After a short discussion about politics (mainly Northern Ireland and the Basque region, but I added Scotland to his repertoire), he took some convincing that we were poor, lowly travellers and unable to fork out for a taxi and were content to take the bus.

We got on the bus about half an hour after the scheduled time (Mongolian's tend to be a little lax with their timing, but tell you to make sure you are on time, as as soon as the bus is ready to go, it will go, with or without you).

Two of us got off at Turtle Rock (a giant, turtle-shaped rock), which had a restaurant and gers (yurts/traditional tents) to rent. The other two carried on to the end of the route, determined to head out into the wild for a week or two.

The food at the restaurant was delicious. And, due to it's proximity to a Buddhist Temple, there were lots of vegetarian options. I had a noodle salad. Lots and lots of fresh, shredded veg and some warmish noodles, seasoned with... well, it was seasoned. We asked the guy at the bar if we could rent a ger, and he named his price for the ones round the back of the kitchens. We found this to be perfectly acceptable and agreed.

We dumped our stuff in the ger and headed over to Turtle Rock, scrambling up the side to get a better view of the area, then heading up into the Turtles neck from were it was possible to climb down through a gap onto the turtle's... shoulder? I say it was possible to climb down, but I decided against it. There was no way I was going to be able to get back up! There was nowhere to put your feet as you turned and pulled yourself up, and being trapped on the shoulder of an zoomorphic rock is not my idea of fun. Does Mongolia even have Mountain Rescue?

It is difficult to describe the scenery there, it is, unfortunately beyond words. 'Epic' does not quite cover the feeling. Trying to describe it would be like standing in the middle of LOTR and saying 'bit hilly, isn't it'.

We are in a valley and there are mountains all around us. The rocks are scramble-able and there are giant birds flying overhead. We are in the middle of a village of Gers, but they are spread out all the way through the valley, as though the occupants like to have their space. There are horses and camels tied up to a fence waiting for tourists, but we are at the end of the season and no one is riding them. There were black squirrels in the trees. The roads are rough tracks but that doesn't stop the cars from bombing down them at speed. Cars passed us by sometimes; Hummers, Land Rovers, and Hondas, and a van with the most enormous spoiler. There were dogs who come up to us for a curious sniff and cats that feigned affection for some warmth.

We headed back down the turtle and set out along the road to the temple. From the temple gate up the side of the hill to the temple were posts with Buddhist teachings written on them in Mongolian and English. The English, however, was unintelligible for the most part. I'm sure the words of wisdom were important and helped people to lead their lives in fulfilling ways, but in English they made no sense and had terrible grammar.

"Remember; your father will become an animal, your brother will become your husband, and your enemy will become your son"

Karma truly is a bitch.

Again, the temple decorations were... interesting. I'd always thought of Buddhism as a largely benign religion, with lots of meditation and enlightenment. However, the pictures decorating the outside of the temple, people being cut in half, genitals being eaten by dogs, people being mutilated... lovely stuff. The guide who met us up at the temple (and asked for lots of pictures with me), delighted in pointing out and re-enacting the various scenes. For 2000 tögrög (80p) he opened up the temple and gave us cloth shoes to put over our shoes.

The inside was very pretty. Huge portraits of various Buddhas with little snippets of information regarding their lives, and lots of photos of the Dalai Lama. It was here I saw my first 1T note (currently worth £0.00037). Most shops don't have 1T notes, they simply round up.

We walked back to our ger and the man came in to light a fire. The first time, my fellow traveller commented on how 'primal' it was with the man setting a fire and then bashing down the lid of the fireplace with a log. Unfortunately, the fire went out very quickly. I went to ask the man to come again. This time he brought a blow torch.

We ate at the restaurant again, the food wasn't as good as lunch, mine was a Mongolian-style cauliflower cheese grill, peppered beyond sanity.

It was nice, after a year in Hong Kong, to see the stars again, and then fall asleep in a bed beside the fire.

For people who don't like camping, a Ger is the best place to start. It is a circular shaped, felt covered tent, about 15ft in diameter and about 7ft tall in the centre, but the ceiling slopes down at an angle on wooden slats to the walls that are about 4ft. The walls are supported by a wooden lattice covered in felt. The floor is wooden, and ours was painted orange. There is a rug that looks suspiciously like one Mum chucked out some years ago. There is a door, which you have to duck to get through, that is also painted orange and decorated with all kinds of swirls. There are three single beds, with different firmness mattresses. In the centre of the Ger there is a metal drum that houses the fire, with a long chimney that comes out of the drum and out through a hole in the ceiling. Next to the chimney, two wooden columns support the roof.

When I woke up in the morning, there was a cat sitting on our roof, miaowing to be let in. I watch the sun come up over the mountains and got the bus back to Ulaanbaatar at 8:30 in the morning, Mongolian power ballads blasting the whole two and a half hours back (actually, I quite liked the music; very catchy!). Went to the train station to get my bus ticket, and walked back to the hostel via the map shop and the supermarket to pick up supplies for my journey into Russia.


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