The Land of the Great Khan

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September 4th 2007
Published: September 4th 2007
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First, an apology: for being so dilatory in my blog-writing this summer. You should have received two blogs about my trip to South Korea (which I have just republished with photographs), and I battled with Microsoft China in Xi'an to try and send you at least a short summary of my trip to Mongolia. For some reason, the fonts and character-spacing spontaneously changed when I tried typing directly into the travelblog website, so I changed to Word with the aim of then cutting and pasting my text into the website. However, there too the fonts went haywire. Now, I thought I was sufficiently au fait with Word to be able to sort it out, but it is a little tricky playing with an application when every pop-up and every response to a menu command brings up options in Chinese and nothing but Chinese. Nothing I tried could sort out the mess, so I added an apology to the blog for its lack of aesthetic appeal and hit "publish". A couple of days later, a friend emailed me to ask whether I'd had problems with my fonts when writing that blog. Curious, I thought: didn't she see my apology at the beginning? (As we used to work together in marketing, I thought she might simply have been getting her own back on the times that I'd critiqued her drafts!) She'd cut'n'pasted text from the text to show me the mess I'd sent out, but I already knew I'd sent out a mess. What I didn't realise until I got back to the UK was that it was largely an unreadable mess, with large parts of it in pure gobbledygook. No, I really hadn't lost the plot in July: I promise you, when I sent it out from China, it was at least all in English! Blessings on Mr Gates….

So, this is what you should have received (and my thanks to David in Kathmandu for finally managing to email me a readable copy of this text!):

"I don't quite know when Mongolia got under my skin, but since I fell in love with deserts and vast open spaces, it's been a "must visit" destination and the only questions have been how and when. The answer came with a two-week Explore trip time to coincide with the country's major international festival.

Frustratingly, I haven't had time to write a blog on this fabulous country (those who usually blanche at my verbosity can heave a huge sigh of relief!), nor have I had time to sort out my photos for this trip or for Seoul because the trip dovetailed too temptingly well with an Exodus trip overland from Beijing to Kathmandu. I'm now sitting in Xi'an in the wackiest-located internet cafe ever the day before we take the road towards Tibet and even more remote landscapes. (To set the scene: this internet cafe is two floors up from a night club and one floor up from a casino - very seedy-looking! - but it is equipped with PCs as far as the eye can see (easyInternet cafes pale into insignificance in comparison!), its clientele ranging from young Chinese men playing computer games to Westerners checking that nothing untoward has happened back home). Although short of time to do anything much, I wanted to put fingers to keyboard briefly today.

Mongolia more than lived up to my high expectations. The vast vistas of desert, steppe and mountains are timeless and humbling, and, even when writing my own journal, I was struggling for words to describe them.

Then there are the people: reserved and quiet but warmly welcoming with bottomless hospitality for visitors to their gers.

The history of the country is everywhere. Chinggis Khaan a hero whose image haunts you from the minute you land at the eponymous airport, and whose imposing statue looks down over Sukhbaatar Square in the centre of Ulaanbaatar from its location outside the parliament building; Naadam, the festival of "three manly sports" (recently increased to four with the addition of something that is best described as Tiddlywinks with attitude) brings history to life with its traditions and the colour and chaos of the opening ceremony and games.

But now I must focus on China and the next four weeks. Sometime, I hope, I'll find a few hours to write a bit more, this time with photographs."

Some hope! The rest of the China, Tibet and Nepal trip was a more-than-full-time assault on the senses... but more about that in another blog. Back to Mongolia.

I don't apologise for the number of photographs in this blog (‘sides, I know a fair number of you only scan the photos anyway - and I don’t blame you!), but I wanted to show you something of the variety and unusualness of the scenery on this trip. In outline, we flew from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, still redolent with Soviet-style architecture but clearly also benefiting from a lot of investment given the number of construction sites littering the city, to the south Gobi, and then gradually made our way back north in a westward-curving sweep through the desert's gravel plains and its occasional desolate towns, across the steppe, and through the mountains to the colourful spectacle of Naadam in UB, before heading north-east into the more Alpine scenery of the Gorkh-Terelj National Park and the Khan Khenti Specially Protected Area. Also, unusually, I’m leaving the photos in chronological order, so that you can get a feel for the changing countryside, just as we did.

There were also a few unusual experiences to try and capture: walking on ice in the desert, drinking fermented mare's milk and seeing the horses being milked, watching horse-racing that made the Grand National look like a walk in the park, stepping back in time with visits to nomadic peoples in their homes, and rafting down a gently-flowing river in a monsoon-esque downpour (for the sake of my camera, I don't, I'm afraid, have any photographic record of the latter, but I could not have been wetter had I actually swum the distance in my clothes). Was it any wonder that I spent the first couple of days in Beijing mind-blown by my previous couple of weeks?

My companions on this trip ranged in age from 33/34 to about 78, the latter an incredibly well-travelled, quietly-spoken Australian lady whom, it was rumoured, had visited over a hundred countries. I clearly have a lot of work to do! The others included two British couples in their late/middle age; a second Australian lady who was combining this trip with visiting her new grandson (and his parents who are working in UB); a delightful Irishman who is an on-call driver for tours around the Emerald Isle and could vouch for the incredible fortitude of the Soviet coach that was to be our main form of transport, as well as the skill of Dawa, the slight and quietly spoken local driver; and a lively English speech therapist who locums in order to be able to travel, ski and dive between jobs (my role model!). Those of her travel tales that I have heard so far deserve several books alone; for example, she is the only person I know - or imagine that I'll ever know - who can say that she's hitchhiked through Zaire! I felt decided under-travelled in this company. But the Most Eccentric Award went to an ex-CIA grandmother newly in possession of a video camera which used to emerge, with attendant real-time commentary, at the least excuse... even to the extent of filming people going into and coming out of the showers at one of the ger camps (until Lisa squawked in protest)! When we heard from a fellow guest at that camp that his shower had been interrupted by an arm groping around under the curtain of his cubicle and an accompanying American accent explaining that she was just looking for her "bobby pins", we had no problem guessing who was to blame! Although she irritated us a little at the outset, needing someone to keep a constant eye on her lest she go AWOL (quite how she'd made it on her own from the US, via Beijing, to UB in the first place, I really don't know), she came to regarded as tantamount to the mascot of the group, treating us, from time to time, to a variety of usually-unintentionally funny comments. I only regret that I didn't spend more time with her: that doolally exterior (which I couldn’t help thinking might simply have been a ruse on her part) must mask some great stories and experiences.

In addition to Dawa and an English expedition leader, we had a local guide, Emma (not that that was her real name, it was just easier for us non-Mongolians to pronounce), who was a Real Character. Unlike her fellow Mongolian women in many respects, Emma was slightly-built, outgoing, lively and endowed with a sense of humour that, although it needed a little working on (her jokes could be surprisingly risqué and/or un-PC!), was very Western.

Mongolians don't really "do" towns. Despite the Russians' best efforts to corral them into urban conglomerations, Mongolians clearly retain a strong nomadic spirit. Even in towns, they often still live in gers - wooden-trellis-framed, felt-covered circular tents that can be packed up and reassembled in an hour or so - albeit they usually surround their town gers, somewhat incongruously, by fences. Those towns that we drove though in the Gobi were desolate, spirit-less places; collections of dwellings, accidentally scattered in vaguely the same proximity, with no roads as such - rather, spaces where buildings weren't. UB (there are an infinite variety of spellings for the capital as there are for all other Mongolian names - there being no agreed transliteration for Cyrillic-scripted Mongolian - so I'm opting for the city's common nickname) was a curious mixture. I'd read enough to know not to expect much - it only became the capital in the late nineteenth century, and, as I've said, towns aren't a Mongolian thing - but I actually found myself liking the place, despite its chaos and traffic and pollution and permanent state of construction. It's a people-watcher's dream: the business executive types, modern-dressed but still, in style and manner, a long way off from their London or New York counterparts; elderly nomads in their full-length felt dels, looking bemused at the crowds and traffic, but yet often equipped with mobile phones; the much-talked about street children, who live in underground sewers and heating pipes, and break tourists’ hearts with their begging; Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean faces, each one telling a different story; the expats with their tales of what it's like to live through a winter in the coldest capital city on the planet; the occasional red-robed monk; and, of course, tourists, not many in number (about 3,000 Brits visited the country last year, for example), but still managing to outnumber the Mongolians in Sukhbaatar Square for the beginning of the Naadam opening celebrations.

I won't strain my vocabulary with trying to describe the scenery further; I hope that the photographs convey a little, although nothing except being there can really allow one to appreciate the vastness of the landscape. Despite the enormity of our surroundings, driving the 1,400 km or so across the country from Dalanzagad in the south to the Gorkh-Terelj to the north-east of UB was far from boring. As I had found with driving in Namibia, landscape - even vast desert vistas - morphs surprisingly quickly. From the bare gravel plains of the Gobi at 10 am one day, we reached the first scattered blades of vegetation two hours' later, and lush grass-covered, rolling hills, complete with babbling stream and “yows” (our nomenclature for half-breed yaks) by the early afternoon. (I should add that our average speed was probably around 35-40 kph, and that only on a good day.) In the Gobi itself, there was a gentle haze of green around our camp and a surprising variety of flowers at Yolyn Am, the valley that the sun never sees and which therefore retains its ice flooring, sometimes all year round. However, this green tinge to the Gobi was rare: true to form, I had been the rain-god - or rather the rain, this time, had preceded me. The Gobi had had its biennial dose of the wet stuff, and was in this unusually verdant state.

Roads simply weren't. At best, we had dirt tracks, but there was not a signpost in sight until the outskirts of UB (at which point, I think most people would have figured that the city lay ahead). How Dawa knew which track to take - particularly when looking for comparatively needle-in-a-haystack sights in the Gobi, such as the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag where Roy Chapman Andrews unearthed dinosaur eggs and more than a hundred dinosaurs in the 1920s, and the sand dunes of the Moltzog Els - was entirely beyond us. Not only did he change direction at times where there seemed to be zippo indication to do so and no change in the landscape by which to take bearings, but he would also, at times, simply bypass previous tracks and set off cross-country. You'll appreciate why Cormac, the Irish driver, was so impressed at the coach's construction: not once did it let us down; not so much as a flat tyre in ten days of, to put it kindly, “challenging” driving conditions. And, if one were to clone Dawa, I think that the world's market in GPS systems would crash overnight.

Our accommodation across this part of Mongolia was fabulous: we stayed in ger camps. Where we were in a place for more than one night, we stayed at camps run by the local travel company, Nomadic Journeys, through which Exodus was running the trip. These usually comprised about fifteen 2-man "sleeping gers", set out in a slight "V" formation facing the view, two double-cubicle toilet shacks (ecologically sound, if not always fragrant, long drops sited a good fifty metres from the nearest ger), some form of showering ger(s), and a double kitchen/dining ger. I could not fault the thought and effort that had gone into designing and running these camps. Of course, they were not quirk-free. At Khogno Khan, we were bemused at the five-minute delay between ordering a cold drink and its arrival... until, one evening, when a few of us were heading up to the local lookout point for sunset, we discovered the reason. Beers and other drinks were kept underground, in storage located about a hundred metres away from the kitchen and accessed, improbably for a place in the middle of nowhere, through a manhole cover. It still didn't explain quite why drinks came out in ones with no apparent thought that it might be an idea to bring out several at once, but that's a detail.

At the same camp, we were impressed to find a shower ger that contained four spacious shower cubicles and an attendant who mixed the water for us, testing it, as you would for a baby's bath, with her elbow. We'd already learnt how to use camp showers, mixing the fire-heated water with cold in a five-litre container, then pumping the container's handle to create enough pressure for the water to come through the shower attachment, a process that usually had to be repeated a couple of times in the course of a shower, but which was extremely effective. At the other Nomadic Journeys ger camps, the shower ger was usually smaller than the others and only allowed for one shower at a time, so this large, multi-cubicle version was an eye-opener. It could get deliciously toasty in those gers, the fire under the large water vat, combined with the steam, creating a sauna-like effect which I, for one, was reluctant to leave on a chill evening.

I became converted to the idea of gers as bedrooms, not least, of course, because they were usually located in the middle of nowhere with little but the sound of silence to rock you to sleep. Sleeping gers were simply furnished: cot-type beds with plenty of yak- or camel-hair blankets, a table and stools, a washbasin whose outflow bucket was emptied daily and for which water was provided every morning (at Dungenee Ger Camp in the Gobi, the invasion of a team of four staff to provide and change the water first thing in the morning caused a little alarm the first day!), and a stove which could be lit on request. We only had ours lit once, and it was incredible how quickly it heated up the ger. More often, we had to deal with removing the stove's chimney pipe from the roof of the ger. The top of the ger's roof, formed from what resembled a concave cartwheel, could be left uncovered for ventilation, in which case the chimney pipe would be poked up through it. However, if the wind blew - which it did every day during our trip, usually in the late afternoon - the opening would be covered by an additional flap of felt after the pipe had been removed and lain along the floor of the ger. Getting that flap up and over wasn't the easiest task in the world: if the wind was blowing from the south or east (gers seem to face in one of those directions), it could be a real struggle to flip it over against the wind.

If we were only passing through an area, we stayed at larger ger camps which tended to comprise upwards of thirty sleeping gers and fixed structure toilet/shower and kitchen/dining facilities. These were necessarily less characterful places, although the presence of a flush toilet and/or a less work-intensive shower could be a welcome sight.

Food in the ger camps was excellent, and
parking sign at the Gobi ger campparking sign at the Gobi ger campparking sign at the Gobi ger camp

...all that space and they still felt the need to demarcate the parking area!
I was particularly impressed at the consideration that had gone into that alien (for Mongolians) concept, vegetarian meals. The variety of veggie food in Mongolia was better than I've had anywhere. In UB, you can find almost any nationality of food you like, a development of the last few years only. That said, some of the old stalwarts still continue. I had read about Millie's, THE hangout for expats, and, sure enough, we had a very warm welcome from the lady herself and delicious hot steak/cheese sandwiches and scrumptious cakes in generous portions. But during our first lunchtime in UB we encountered a new ingredient on the menu, horse: variously "soup of horse meat", "horse intisting salad", "horse ribs", and plain ol' "horse meat". Nor were we in any dodgy back street cafe, but in a trendy, chic restaurant/bar on the main street called (for no apparent reason that we could see) Santa Fe Restaurant and Pub. However, Mongolian cuisine can fall down when attempting some of the basics of Western cookery: toast, for example, tends to be made from defrosted toasted bread which isn't always entirely thawed....

Beer was plentiful: variously, Golden Gobi, Chinggis and Kharkhoran, and
camels at Moltzog Elscamels at Moltzog Elscamels at Moltzog Els

We felt as if we were back in the time of Lawrence of Arabia as these came towards us up the sand dunes...
there was also, to our surprise, wine: not exactly locally produced but at least delightfully labelled. Take this, on a "Mongoliana Merlot Cabernet 2004": "The splendid delicious toast that makes to feel the secret beauties of Mongolian woman, made from 100% red Chile grapes, has a sweet smelling of almonds roasted wood." (This begs the question as to whether it is the woman or the wine that is made from “100% red Chile grapes” and/or with “a sweet smelling of almonds roasted wood”…) But no description of liquid in Mongolia would be complete without mention of the local specialties: vodka - which needs no further description (though I did find myself liking it neat for the first time) - and fermented mare's milk or airag. This really isn't as bad as it sounds. Fermented for at least five days, it tastes like yoghurt that hasn't set and has just started to go off; with a slightly sharp and distantly fizzy taste. If it's been fermented for less long, it's milder both in terms of bitterness and fizz. But it's surprisingly drinkable... and medicinal, having what one elderly lady of my acquaintance would call "depth charging" properties. Or is that more information that you actually wanted?!

Apart from Naadam, which I'll come to, we squeezed in a little culture between the vast vistas of landscape. First was Erdene Zuu Khiid, the formerly huge monastery at Chinggis Khan's capital, Karakorum and the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It must have been an incredible sight at its peak in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with 60-100 temples inside its walls and up to 1,000 monks in residence. Now it is a pale shadow of that: its stupa-punctuated walls remain standing, incongruous against a backdrop of the modern, industrial Kharkhorin, but only a few temples and the Golden Prayer Stupa have survived the Soviet purges of the 1930s and/or been restored. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to visit what was probably my first - though, given where I was going to be travelling in the next couple of months, certainly not my last - Buddhist monastery and to see a little of Buddhism in action, as it were, with the trumpeted-commencement of a ceremony for the red-robed, and be-hatted monks (the aptly named Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism is practised here). Outside the monastery's walls, barely a stone remains of the ancient capital, although
the Flaming Cliffsthe Flaming Cliffsthe Flaming Cliffs

...but no further dramatic dinosaur remains immediately obvious!
we were shown what seemed to be a rubbish tip that is apparently the beginnings of an excavation into the city's foundations: serious amounts of imagination required at this stage.

Back in UB, we visited Gandan Khiid, now the largest monastery in Mongolia. For its reconstruction, we have a US vice-president to thank. When Henry Wallace asked to see a monastery during his visit to Mongolia in 1944, the then-prime minister and Stalin acolyte, Choibalsan, scrambled to open up Gandan Khiid, despite the ravages it had suffered during the purges the previous decade. Much of this monastery is not open to the public, but we could at least admire the relatively new 26.5m high Migjid Janraisig statue. Curiously, this statue contains an entire ger, complete with furniture, in its base, as well as unimaginable quantities of gems and herbs. But, more notably, its predecessor's whereabouts are not known for certain. The communists removed the 20m gold and bronze statue in 1937 and took it to Leningrad where, it is thought, it might have been melted down to make bullets... or is it still lying around somewhere?

We also paid our brief respects to the Bogd Khaan, Mongolia's last
shop in the Gobishop in the Gobishop in the Gobi

Curiously, the girl behind the counter had just about the best command of English of any Mongolian I met, and she was one of the best dressed... and this in the middle of nowhere
king and eighth Living Buddha, with a trip to his Winter Palace which oddly seems to have survived the Russians' cull of Mongolia's heritage. The Book (Lonely Planet, of course!) comments that the Bogd Khaan was "either a great visionary and nationalist, or possibly a sexual predator who had been blinded by syphilis": I'm not sure that the two are mutually exclusive. Anyway, some of his bizarre collection of artefacts is housed at the Winter Palace, and ranges from a ger sickeningly covered in 140 snow leopard pelts, to a mangy collection of stuffed animals (the Khaan's zoo collection was kept for some form of posterity), to phenomenally ornate sets of robes worn by the Khaan and his wife.

Naadam was like looking through a window back in time. Its central sports of wrestling, riding and archery continue to reflect the Games' origin as a post-battle celebration, and the costumes worn by participants and some of the spectators clearly have their origins in those times. The archers looked magnificent in their mid-length dels, embroidered boots and helmet-style colourful headwear; the judges were equally well-adorned. My only regret is that my camera, with which I had a running battle for the entire trip because of its never-ending appetite, chose the evening we visited the archery competition to run out of juice. Nor could I record "Tiddlywinks with attitude", otherwise known as knucklebone archery, the new addition to the Games, a curious sport in which contestants flick polished slivers of bone off a hand-held rectangular wooden slide at a pair of animal (sheep, perhaps) vertebrae set out on a low box a couple of metres away. Contestants are encouraged/distracted by chanting from the opposing team. The event takes place inside a vast hangar-type structure, and the impact of the chanting from the fifty or more games that were taking place at any one time was overpowering.

The opening ceremony was incomprehensible, but wonderfully colourful and lively. We started in Sukhbaatar Square where the mounted standard bearers were putting their horses through their paces amidst the gathering crowds. Once they had ridden off, we drove down to the Naadam Stadium which is, appropriately, overlooked by Chinggis Khaan himself, or at least his likeness, chalked into the hillside behind. There we took our seats and, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, waited to see what would happen. After the anticipated parade by the mounted standard bearers, their ceremonial placing of banners around the central stand, and President N Enkhbayar's address from the newly-adorned stand, the colour and panache began. Rather like the Olympics' equivalent, a march-past had been devised with people in a large variety of stunning costumes, representing the various tribes that comprise modern-day Mongolia and certain facets of Mongolian life. Buddhism, for example, was represented by a group of surprisingly cheerful masked gods. So many people were involved in this parade that I found myself wondering how many Mongolians were actually left to watch it, whether in the audience or on television, never mind take part in Naadam festivities around the rest of the country; the population of Mongolia itself is only about 2.5 million nowadays. After the parade, we were treated to a variety of dances by some of its more gaily-coloured participants, and then the Mongolian equivalent to Ozzy Osborne - or so he appeared - complete with top hat and flowing frock coat, took the stage, to be followed by a smooth-looking, crooning dude (Will Young on a smart day?) in a white pinstriped suit, gold medallion visible. The army, some of whom were in the stands opposite us, were clearly getting into the spirit, curiously shedding their shirts en masse, but retaining their hats in some odd parody of "The Full Monty". All the way through the first part of proceedings, a man and a woman had taken it in turns to read from a large tome; Emma later described what they were reading as poems and stories of Mongolia's greatness. This was, after all, the 801st anniversary of the "great Mongolian state". It was a shame that we couldn't understand them, or the President's speech for that matter.

Gradually the festivities drew to a close and we could see the wrestlers, dressed in their unlikely padded Y-fronts and tiny colourful boleros, limbering up with people whom I presume were, effectively, their seconds. 512 wrestlers compete in the UB Naadam, each wrestling his opponent until one of them touches the ground with a hand, arm or body. This is one sport in which women don't take part, although I do like the story - apocryphal or not - that the reason the men wear such tiny boleros when wrestling is because, one year, a woman in disguise took part and won!

But - like most other spectators at this stage - we had a date with the horses and couldn't stay for much of the wrestling. Horse-racing takes place outside the city, and we joined a horrendous traffic jam to get there, each of us increasingly pessimistic that we would make it in time. Not that we were going to see the whole of a race, simply the final furlong, almost literally. Horses are raced according to their age: we were going to watch the end of the Soloyon race for five year olds which is run over a staggering 24.7 km. The riders are children of up to 14 years old or so, the point being to test the horse's endurance, not the rider's skill. Mind you, at races over that distance, an incredible degree of endurance, not to mention sheer tenacity, must be required on the part of the child to stay on board, and lots of horses galloped in rider-less. Impressively, Dawa negotiated the traffic and the little-signposted tracks off the main road to get us to within walking distance of a decent viewpoint - us and our closest ten thousand plus Mongolian acquaintance, or so it seemed - to watch the horses come in, visible initially only at the front of clouds of dust. Despite the crowds and the awful journey that everyone there would have had, the atmosphere was festive, but the arrival of the horses seemed to be a curious non-event. That that was the point of our being there was only really indicated by the fact that, after fifty plus of the hundreds of horses racing had reached the finishing post, people started to meander off.... and there began the final piece of chaos for the day: trying to get out of the parking area. For the only time in ten days, Dawa asked us all to get out of the coach while he drove it, distinctly unauthorisedly, across a ditch which bordered the parking area and which, almost certainly, had been dug to prevent drivers doing exactly what Dawa then successfully attempted!

So ended a chaotic, dusty but memorable Naadam, at least for us. We were to stay outside UB with the horses and their trainers, at a temporary ger camp erected by Nomadic Journeys. From there we could watch the evening's activities: horses being brought in after races, horses being exercised, horses being rounded up, horses simply left to their own devices. It was the most amazing atmosphere: this was Mongolia, the horse people, untouched by modern times.

And that, for me, exemplified everything that has attracted me to the country: contented, self-sufficient and quietly hospitable people; incalculable numbers of livestock; and huge open spaces. Mongolia: I'll be back!

Additional photos below
Photos: 72, Displayed: 42


female protective deity at Erdene Zuu Khiidfemale protective deity at Erdene Zuu Khiid
female protective deity at Erdene Zuu Khiid

Scary woman, this: she married the Devil in order to kill him, then skinned him and ate their child... but I love the donkey's resemblance to Shrek's!
wild rhubarbwild rhubarb
wild rhubarb

With wild thyme also much in evidence - as well as the ubiquitous livestock - we felt we could have coped quite well, left to our own devices, should the need have arisen...

A wee reminder of home....

4th September 2007

Glad I could be of service...

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