9 August 2011

Bumpy, dirty and dusty [Mongolia]

I am learning that nothing in Mongolia happens quickly. If you want to travel independently, you better have some time up your sleeve. Getting from place to place can take not just hours, but days! Paved roads and spacious buses are few and far between. These are replaced with bumpy dirt tracks and crammed, unreliable mini-buses. One thing is for sure - I am getting a truly authentic Mongolian experience.

Bright and early Sunday morning I grabbed a cab and headed for the bus station. My destination for the day was Arvaikheer. The main reason for visiting the city was to catch the end of the Nadaam festival (a traditional festival which is centered around Mongolian sports - wrestling, horse racing and archery). The journey took about six hours, all paved roads (thank goodness!).

I arrived in Arvaikheer and after a taxi driver attempted to rip me off, met up with Jo (another Peace Corp Volunteer). We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the finals of the wrestling at the Nadaam festival. It was an experience; the wrestling itself was cool, and the atmosphere was awesome. Very 'Mongolian', meaning health and safety regulations are non-existent.

Arvaikheer is... well, it there is not a whoooooole lot to do there. To put it bluntly, the city is dull. I actually spent almost three days there. Why? It is a long story. Let's start at the beginning... The second night in Avakheer I was invited to a gathering of PCV's and volunteers with other organisations out in the countryside, where a Khorkhog was being prepared. A Khorkhog is made by cooking pieces of meat and vegetables inside a container which also contains hot stones and water. The food was very Mongolian; a lot of meat and a LOT of fat. That evening I met another couple of Peace Corp Volunteers - Babila, Joyce and Alison. Babila was organising an English camp for Mongolian children. They were one person short and invited me to join. Not only did it sound like a cool thing to do, but they provided free transport, accommodation and food. I was in! That night I also met Andrew and Leah, who happened to be heading down to Khongoryn Els in the Gobi desert in their little Russian jeep. Exactly where I wanted to go, and conveniently they were leaving the day after the camp finished. Up until this point I had been really struggling to plan out my travel in Mongolia, as getting from A to B is extremely difficult. The public transport runs into and out of Ulan Bataar, so to get anywhere you need to go through the capital. It is extremely frustrating. Besides that, transport generally only runs to the province capital, so getting out to where you want to be is almost impossible unless you hire private transport or go with an organised tour. Both are really not within my budget.

Anyway, I'm getting off track. So everything was falling in to place. Except the following day the camp was cancelled! I was gutted. So I tried to leave to Kharkhorin (my next planned destination) that afternoon, but could not find any transport. The following morning I tried again with no luck. Finally that afternoon I managed to find a meeker (mini-bus) running to Kharkhorin. And thus explaining my long stay in Avikheer. It was lucky there were so many awesome Peace Corp peeps around to keep me sane.

The journey to Kharkhorin was an experience in itself. As I mentioned, Mongolia is quite lacking in paved roads. So I was in this mini-van packed full of Mongolians, trundling along this dirt trail. Bumpy, dirty, dusty, cramped are all words that spring to mind.

My friend Marissa set me up in a guest house with a friend of hers in Kharkhorin. But it wasn't so much a house as a row of ger's (traditional Mongolian Nomad house - basically a hard-core tent). It was the first time I had stayed in a ger, and I enjoyed the experience. Well, apart from the bugs. There were all these black beetles that keep climbing the roof, but falling off half way. Meaning they fell on ME! No idea what they are trying to get up on the roof? Even the bugs in Mongolia are crazy.

Kharkhorin is an ancient capital of Mongolia. It is home to the Erdene Zuu Kiid - a huge monastery just outside of town. In its heyday it contained around 100 temples and housed 1,000 monks. Although now only three temples remain - most were destroyed in the late 1930's by Soviets. Another highlight was the phallic rock. It is exactly what you think - a penis shaped like a stone stone shaped like a penis. Interestingly, it points toward 'vaginal slope'. According to Lonely Planet the stone was placed there to stop frisky monks, who were excited by the shapely slope, getting excited and trying it on with the locals. While I was there one Mongolian woman got up on it and rode it. Everyone (including me) thought that was pretty hilarious. So her young son then gets up and does the same. That was more disturbing than funny.

While at the guest house I met up with a few cool people - Anna from Austria, Ran from Israel, and a French couple (I can't remember their names). They were heading to Tovkhon Kiid (monastery) the following day and asked if I would like to join. The monastery is completely isolated, and the only way to get there is to hire a private jeep. But with five people, it is surprisingly economical. It cost about Tog 20,000 each in total, about €12, for jeep, driver and gas for the whole day. The monastery was founded by Zanabazar - a pretty famous dude if you know anything about Mongolian Buddhist art, and a direct decedent of Chinggis Khan (that's Gengis to the uneducated). It was also destroyed by those bloody Soviets in the late 30's, but has since been rebuilt.

We had been told the drive out was about two hours. It ended up being closer to four! Along a bumpy dirt track, through rivers, across fields... All in a 40 year old Russian Jeep with rocks for suspension. On the way we stopped in at a ger and ate some more Mongolian food - dried curd, yogurt and milk tea. I have to say again how hospitable the Mongolian people are - it is really great. I keep waiting for the catch; for them to ask for money or something, but it just never comes.

The monastery itself is quite underwhelming, but the views from the top are spectacular. Open plains, hills, forests... just check out the photos.

The return trip to Kharkhorin was pretty brutal, but it was nothing compared to the trip back to UB the following day. There was no space on the bus, so we had to take a mini-van. First of all it waited around for almost an hour for people to show up. We then drove around town making house-calls, picking up packages (the mini-vans also run as courier services) and people. There was one free seat in the van, and the driver kept telling us to squeeze up. We soon found out why. We pulled up to one house and they bought out this guy on a wooden stretcher. I couldn't help but laugh, where was that going to fit? They spent the next 15 minutes trying to fit this guy in on his stretcher, along with THREE more people. The van was seriously crammed, something like 17 people in total. Besides that, after about two hours the van broke down; it was overheating. From that point on we traveled at about 50km/h and stopped about every 30 minutes to fill the van up with water, which meant fully unloading the van, and waiting for it to cool. In total the trip took about 11 hours, and toward the end I was almost going insane. We were stopping so often it was driving me crazy. We finally arrived in UB at around 8:00pm, tired, sweaty, grumpy, muscles cramping. 11 hours for 370kms on paved road is not making good time... the norm is closer to 5. The strange thing is that the Mongolians don't seem to ever complain at all. They just sit there no matter what the conditions, patient and quiet. I guess they are just used to it.

I'm now back in UB, planning my get-away; I really don't want to get stuck here again. The Gobi Desert is calling... Im yet to figure out how I am going to get there, but whatever the method of transport, I am sure it will be an adventure.

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