Footsteps of Chinggis

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August 25th 2019
Published: August 26th 2019
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Day 27 to 30 of 80

Footsteps of Chinggis

Thursday we had booked ourselves a guided tour out of the city to reach a Chinggis (Ghenghis to us westerners) Khan monument and a National Park. We wanted to make a day of it so chose a tour with a couple of extras rather than a quick out and back.

Just as well really. The route to the statue was about 65 km out of town. Regrettably, though, they are rebuilding the main highway in that direction so all traffic, both directions, is being diverted onto the roughest, unpaved, rutted, gravel track - a bit like the 2 border roads we encountered in Georgia /Armenia. But with 'rush hour' volumes of traffic, many of them treating the whole width of the road as a dirt race track. It made for an interesting if somewhat bone-shaking 45 minutes.

Along the way we came upon a police check in the middle of nowhere. The driver slowed down, put down his window and stopped briefly enough for him to blow into / onto a breathalyser. It made a 'bing' sound that presumably meant OK and we continued on our way almost without interruption.

The first stop was for the Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue, at 40 metres the world's largest Equestrian Statue, on a 10-meter plinth . This is something of a vanity project. Erected by Battulga Khaltmaa, who went on to be President, he had grand plans for the project. 'Completed' in 2008 but there is a 'plan' on display in the exhibition space in the plinth, showing 300 gers, hundreds of other equestrian statues, facilities, landscaping. ... the location was chosen as supposedly being where Chinggis found a golden whip.

The reality is somewhat sadder than that. Inside it feels bodged - poor quality decor, narrow staircases, doors off hinges, statue supports cutting into public access spaces. The statue itself is impressive, built of 250 tons of stainless steel, but it's hardly a work of art.

Outside its surroundings are either unfinished or already falling apart. Steps with missing slabs and edges, rough pathways and tacky concessions areas. Hey ho.

Slight backtrack, then a sharp turn northwards took us into the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Now, we are fortunate/unfortunate to live within the boundary of a National Park back home. At one level the Park Authority can be a right pain in the butt with their restrictions on what you can/can't do to your own home and property especially in the villages and rural areas. On the other hand there is no way they will allow unrestricted development within pristine areas.

Within G-T Park it couldn't be more different. There is development everywhere, and we don't mean just already there but still being built. Our route alone took us in sight of probably a dozen enormous concrete shells in mid-construction. And they are not even hidden away but are being built dead in the middle of some of the park's prettiest landscape.

In addition there are dozens of tourist ger camps, each with 'amenities' - play areas, restaurants, bars, even blooming karaoke advertised at their entrance. We asked our guide whether the developments needed permission and he confirmed they do, for a fee. Someone is getting rich somewhere on the allocation of fees.

Suddenly we veered off the road, down a cart track, across a meadow, a couple of muddy streams and up to an isolated ger family homestead - 2 gers, a long shack/shed and an outside loo hut. Incidentally, this offroading was being done in a pretty standard hybrid Prius.

Inside one of the gers we were sat in the pride of place settee and offered, from a large, plastic, picnic thermos flask that wouldn't have been out of place from "5 Go Camping", a glass dish-full of warm, salted milk. Which surprisingly wasn't at all unpleasant. The saltiness was very light, and somehow not table-salty, as if some other salt was being used.

Then came a dish of dried, cheesy curds, looking like oversized vermicelli. These were somewhat less palatable, rather like the dried rind of a ripe Gouda cheese, which had gone off.

Then a box of pastry shapes arrived which were basically just that - pastry. But there was also a bowl of Urum, the clotted cream we referred to in the last blog. Not as sweet and creamy as West Country clotted cream but very nice. No jam though 😕

Then we were geared up, helmet and chaps, for our Mongolian pony ride. Very sedate, for an hour, led all the way.

What was surprising was the range of alpine, spring flowers everywhere - gentians, edelweiss, harebells, pulsatilla, dwarf pinks/dianthus, white campion, dwarf michelmass daisies - except that it's not Spring but August. Reckon the seasons here must go July/August -spring, August /September - summer, September /October - autumn, October /June - winter.

And at last we saw some 4 legged wildlife - several martens dashing about, but too quick for photos.

On our return to the ger, after more warm milk, we were fed. Given the passion Mongolians seem to have for eating every weird bit of their animals, Pip had played safe and predeclared that she was vegetarian, so she got a stir fried vegetable plate - cabbage, potato, cabbage, courgette, onion, but the emphasis was on the cabbage! Paul got mince filled, probably lamb, khuushuur, the Mongolian version of the fried, filled pancakes he had had already.

On to a couple more stops. Turtle Rock first, looking every bit like a Tor back on Dartmoor. Hopefully the picture will show why. On the opposite side of the road is where one of the concrete shells is being built.

Then Temple of Buddha Aryapala, a "place for anyone who wants to do meditation and be free from any outside distractions." Not old, 20 years or so, but serenely placed looking down a side valley.

And with that it was time for the town-bound journey back over the diversion.

Our, quite young, guide was somewhat laid back - fell asleep in the car on the way out, and the way back. He spoke very good English indeed, good pronunciation and accent, due to him having spent 6 years in ... Sweden. Maybe they speak English more refined ova' there.

Hard to say that he did much guiding though, but he was prepared to espouse at length at the futility of religion, how dark Buddhism actually is, China and Chinese, and how he 'lives for the day'. Reference the latter he almost fell to the floor with laughter when we referred to the George Best quote "I spent half my money on women and drink. The other half I wasted.", or at least he did after a couple of seconds working it out. And of course we had to explain who George Best was.

But, one last for the day from our guide, who, having told us of all the bad things they get from China he asked, and answered, us this:-

What's the difference between bird flu and swine fever?

The first requires tweetment but the other needs oinkment.

Hey, you don't have to like these!! 😊

Friday we stayed in town. More temples. We started at Gandantegchinlen Monastery, Buddhist, and early enough to catch them at prayer/chant, though it was already 09.15 so not really hardship-early. Some of the monks, arranged 'choir stall' fashion in front of their main deity, seemed somewhat less attentive to their chanting and more interested in its tourists. But then how appropriate is it for a Buddhist ceremony to be tourist fodder. You'd hardly expect hoardes of Chinese tourists walking around the edges of C of E services back home.

Paul spotted the lead chant monk sneak a couple of pinches of what we presume was snuff into his nostrils.

The older section was built 1809, closed in the 1930s by the communist regime then reopened in 1944. The trigger for this was a visit by US Vice-president Henry Wallace who asked to see a monastery, so the Prime Minister of Mongolia guiltily scrambled to reopen this one to cover up the fact that he had recently laid waste to Mongolia's religious heritage. The monastery remained a 'show monastery ' for other foreign visitors until 1990 when full religious ceremonies recommenced.

As befits its importance this monastery has expanded and outside the old area there are a number of additional temples, meeting houses, library with Mongolia's largest collection of books on Buddhism. And in the largest of these buildings another BBB ' Bloody Big Buddha - at 26.5 metres it is the largest indoor statue in the world. Mind you the original was 7 metres higher, but melted down for bullets for the Siege of Leningrad.

According to guide books about 600 monks are at the monastery. However we overheard a guide saying there were around 150, plus others come in on a daily basis. So they are 9-5 monks or day-release monks!

We are used to seeing monks on mobile phones or with other modern devices, but the one we saw today in monk's robes - a dark, rusty red - wearing a monk's garb colour pullover with a Nike Swoosh symbol on it we thought was pushing it somewhat!

On to the National Museum of Mongolia, a really excellent museum, well supplied with English explanations and labels, and a good room map. The usual sort of ethnographic arrangement - first room "Pre-history', last room 'Aren't we great and modern nowadays', the other rooms the periods in between. This included a room of Mongolian costume of the 20 different ethnic groups but also had an excavated, almost complete, felt coat from around 1100!

One fact our guide did tell us on Thursday was that Mongolia has been/is tolerant of people's differing religious views (the people, maybe less so last century's communist government). In one room we learnt that Karakorum, capital of the Mongol Empire 1235 to 1260, had 12 idol temples, 2 mosques and 1 Christian Church.

We also saw 3 certificates pertaining to the UNESCO list of 'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' :-
2014 - Mongolian knuckle-bone shooting
This is a type of dice game but the dice are the astragalus bone from the ankle of a sheep or goat. They can land in one of 4 positions, so games can be derived for them.

2015 - Coaxing ritual for camels
Singing to camels so that they will accept a new born or orphaned calf.

2013 - Traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol ger and its associated customs.

After a beard trim for Paul - plus hair around the ears, back of neck, eyebrows, ears and nasal hairs, all unasked for but part of the 'service' - one final temple for the day, Dashchoilin. One of 3 remaining of its type in Mongolia, the temple buildings are built to resemble gers, but they are built of substantive materials. Again, originals were destroyed under communist regime in 1938, rebuilt in 1990.

That evening, our last 'on land' in Mongolia, we said "Sod it with all the meat!", and went to TripAdvisor's #2 listed restaurant in Ulaanbaatar, a vegan restaurant. Attached to some sort of 'monk-y' study building. And it was really really good. Pip had a meatless bolognese, Paul meatless dumplings and fried pancakes, again, with a non-dairy cream and a spicy dip.

Somewhat ironic, given that we were heading for a vegan restaurant, that we saw some bloke on the path-side blowtorching a pigeon (or was it a rat?) on top of a rock, the smell from which had hit us several metres before. Wouldn't have minded so much but he was doing so just outside a small sales kiosk.

Just two final observations before moving away from Mongolia and into China, aside from the 'wish we'd booked a couple of extra weeks so that we got into the country more',

In the town, Ulaanbaatar, it is the accepted thing to stand at the roadside and stick your hand out to show that you would like a lift. And for those we've seen, you rarely have to wait very long before someone will stop and the hitcher jumps into the back of the car. We even saw family groups, parents /children, doing this.

We have had several occasions when the children locals, seeing that we are 'western', will come up and practice some basic english eg 'Hello. My name is .....' . Charming. Unlike many adults who look at us as if we have grown horns or something.

The final leg of our St Petersburg to Beijing by train started Saturday. This leg is on a Chinese train. Quite new as train carriages go, 2007 on the plate on the steps. At first sight the 1st class cabin is a step up from our previous legs. The cabin even shares a Jack & Jill toilet/wash room /shower with the cabin next door. This gives room for an armchair, but means there is a top bed as well as a lower, rather than 2 lower seats/beds. But the mattresses are hard, the sheets thin and the pillows filled work a strange bean-baggy type of filling that is loose to sort but sets like concrete when you settle your head to it.

Storage inside lacking even compared to the tightness of other legs. OK for us of course but a lot of luggage being stored at the carriage ends.

The route across and out of Mongolia took us across the Gobi Desert which turned out, at least on the section we crossed, not very desert-y. It certainly got drier as we got further into its heart. The grass covering got thinner and thinner. The horizon was wonderful. Like the fens on steroids. Wild horses, camels and the very occasional ger, though often with some posh auto alongside. Guess it's a bit like Travellers at home with posh cars still living the trailer life. Lots of birds of prey.

Surprisingly also we kept passing remote industrial sites, particularly open cast mining.

One noticeable 30 minutes stop, at Sainshand where we bought a lovely little watercolour of a ger and horse from the artist for $3. Ah, the universal currency. The exit from Mongolia was straightforward, and no need to exit the train.

Entry into China was more formal. All off the train and into an airport style immigration and customs checkpoint and a waiting area beyond. No issues to speak off, though Paul only had to place his left hand for fingerprints, and didn't even notice his photo being checked. Pip, however, had to place her left hand, then her right several times, then her thumbs, and had to specifically pose for the camera before the lady stamped her passport.

The main pain with China entry was that they have to change the bogies (wheels/axles) on the train. China rail gauge, at 4 ft 8 1/2 inch, is smaller than Mongolia's 4 ft 11 27/32 inch. The China border stop is therefore timetabled for 5 hours. According to some references on the Web Paul thought that he may be able to watch the bogies changing, but turned out not to be so. Instead we were all held in a windowless , airless arrival hall, on hard sweaty seats, with absolutely no catering at all, not even a drinks dispenser. Oh, and with squat toilets. Thank heavens for the disabled cubicle.

In reality we were back on the train after 3 hrs 30, by 00.30. It was due to depart at 02.00 but neither of us know what time it actually left as both of us were asleep within minutes of our heads hitting the concrete. Sorry.... pillow.

Woke up on Sunday at our leisure to a completely changed landscape. Lots of agriculture - maize and other unrecognisable crops. Lots of modern China - industry, power plants, hydro, a ginormous solar power farm. Settlements coming and going, but not much below the size of a small town, but all within some beautiful scenery.

Having not used the Mongolian restaurant car yesterday, which had a nice sounding menu, we headed for that mid-morning to at least get a better coffee. However we were sent back in the opposite direction. At the border changeover the Mongolian had been changed to a Chinese restaurant car. And what a let down that was. Barely classable as sub-par transport cafe. The vest-wearing blokes, sat at the far end, smoking, didn't help. We didn't seek a menu and just headed back to our cabin. Hope it's not too much of a sign of things to come.

As the train approached Beijing the cabin nippy bought in a comments book for us to write in, with a couple of currency bills already inside. We were the first recipients of the book!

The main Beijing rail station was something of a shock to the system. It was 'everyone moving away from a football match at once' crowded, and then 30°+ when we got outside. But we eventually caught a taxi, got to our hotel, only to find through almost no english that they thought they didn't have a booking for us. Not sure what sorted it out. We did give them Explore's local agent name/number so maybe the solution lay there (we join an Explore trip on a week and had booked and paid Explore for a 7 night pre-tour stay).

Tonight we walked close to Tianamen Square and enjoyed a Peking Duck dinner.

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