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Published: August 25th 2019
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
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