5 August 2011

Sleepless in Mongolia

The journey down from Ulan-Ude in Russia gave me a short and sweet introduction to Mongolia. It seemed that as soon as we crossed the border from Russia, the landscape changed. Suddenly there were huge, wide open green fields, surrounded by rolling green hills. The odd flock of sheep or herd of cattle grazing, wild horses running across the plains, herders and their gers (traditional house) dotting the landscape. I can completely understand how people fall in love with this country.

The capital city, Ulan Bator (UB), is a stark contrast. Concrete and steel, cars honking 24 hours a day, busy people wearing suits. Although it is a big city, it definately retains a Mongolian flavour. Keep reading; I will explain.

My host in UB was Danny, a peace corp volunteer from Nevada. I could not have asked for a better host in UB; really laid back, friendly; just a plain awesome guy. Besides that, always up for a party. A large number of the Peace Corp Volunteers (PCVs) teach English, and it being summer holidays, they are not working. Many come in from the countryside into UB and party, a lot of them crashing at Danny's. The first night I arrived I dropped my bag at his place, went out for a bite to eat, then went out clubbing until some crazy hour. From that point on I got into a bit of a cycle - sleeping most of the day, partying all night. We went to a couple of trivia nights (one of which our team won), went to a salsa night, went to see and AWESOME Mongolian throat singing band called Altan Urag, and I learned one of the greatest drinking games of all time - beer die. The PCVs are all such awesome people, but I think they are the main reason I got 'stuck' in UB. I planned to move on after a few days, but ended up staying a week.

I did manage to stop partying long enough to see some of the sights in UB. Highlights;
- S├╝khbaatar Square, the huge central square which contains a massive statue of Chinggis Khaan and the parliament building.
- Gandan Kiid, a large monastery sitting not far from the center of UB. It was really interesting, with monks wandering around, temples, buddha statues, and more pigeons than I have ever seen!
- The Winter Palace - now converted into a museum, the winter palace is definitely worth a look. Intricate temples, carvings, paintings and silk work. The only problem is they charge you some ridiculous amount if you want to take photos. So I was just sneaky and got a few sly ones.
- Buddha Park - a HUGE standing golden Buddha. Very cool.
- Zaisan Memorial - built by the Russians as a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. This monument sits on a huge hill right beside Buddha Park. It gives spectacular views over the whole of UB.

After a few days in UB I felt like I needed to get out into the countryside. A two hour bus ride away is the national park - Terelj. I had no real plan what I was going to do there, I had no accommodation or anything organised. I just thought I would stumble across a guest house or ger camp. And when there, I thought I could just go hiking into the park, or organise a trek or horse riding trip through wherever I stayed. Well, it didn't quite work out that way...

The bus runs from the center of UB right to the Terelj village, at a total cost of 2,200 Togrog (maybe €1.20!). I quickly understood why it was so cheap; the more stops we made, the more people packed on to the bus. I don't think I have ever seen so many people on a bus before. In the end an old woman was literally sitting on my lap, and the aisle was so jam-packed no one could move at all. While on the bus I met a couple of French guys (Simon and Herve) who were on a big trip; heading overland to Malaysia. They were planning on hiking up into the park for four or five days, camping along the way. They told me they had a spare tent and invited me to join. Hell yeah! I was in.

The first evening we hiked about a kilometer up the river from the main village and set up camp. That night we discussed plans - where we were going and how long it would take. None of us had a map. The only information was a conversation Simon and Herve had with a German couple who said: 'Go up the river until you hit a branch running off to the left. Follow the branch until you meet a road. There you can hitch back to Ulan Bator. Make sure to always stay on the right-hand side of the river; it is easier'. Not exactly rock-solid information. That night we dined on rice mixed with tinned whole sardines and mushrooms we had picked from around the camp site. Later I realised I was missing a fairly essential part of the camper's inventory - a sleeping bag. That night was pretty brutal. I mean, it wasn't THAT cold, just cold enough so I was awake for the majority of the night, shivering under 7 layers of clothing.

The following morning Simon woke to find that his boots has been stolen from just outside his tent. They were even under the fly, and not at all visible from the outside. So someone actually lifted up the corner and nicked them. So we made a new plan; Herve and I would head out, Simon would make his way back to UB to find new boots. As soon as he got back to Terelj he would set off after us, and hopefully meet up with us that night.

So Herve and I set off, making sure we were on the right-hand side of the river. Within 30 minutes we had to cross two side rivers and scale a massive cliff face. I was doubting my ability if the terrain was to continue on this way, but after a while it smoothed out. I have said it before and I will say it again; Mongolia is beautiful! The wide open lush, green fields, the rolling hills, the forests, the rocky outcrops, the wildflowers growing literally everywhere, the wild horses, cattle and yaks running in the fields, the gers; white polka dots on an otherwise spotless landscape. You may thing I am exaggerating, but this explanation has nothing on reality.

After a few hours we saw a ger and decided to try and ask if we were on the right track. Just as well we did too. The woman spoke very little English, but from what we could understand, we were half-way along a river (Khurkhree) that had branched off the main river (Terelj). It had branched to the right, so we could understand why we didn't really notice - we were walking on the right the entire time. Apparently we had gone 12 kilometers past the junction. Shit! She must have sensed our disappointment, as she invited us into their ger. The whole family were there, including a grandmother and three children. They served us up some fresh yoghurt (Tarig) and well as dried curd (Aaruul), with clotted cream/white butter (Urum). Most was really good (I wasn't a huge fan of the curd and butter). When we were leaving she also gave us some smoked pine cones; you crack them open and eat the seeds. A lot of work for a small pay off, but they were still pretty good. In return I gave her a small kiwi shaped pin, she seemed pretty happy with that.

With full bellies, we turned around and started heading in the direction we came. Being the smart, young guys we are, we crossed the river, meaning there was no possible way we could miss the junction. Again we walked for hours, along the way stopping in at a couple of gers to make sure we were on the right track. Their English was non-existent, but from what we could understand, we thought we were doing OK. By this stage my back and hips were starting to ache. When I set out from UB I had not been expecting to hike for hours on end, so had bought much more than I should/could have. My backpack was not light.

We continued to walk for hours, until... guess what? We ended up right back where we started. We both had no clue how it happened, but we had just walked 25+ kilometers and ended up right back at square one. Was the ger lady right? Had we somehow crossed the river unknowingly? Or had we been on the right track the whole time? No idea. The worst part was that we were both tired, wet and cold, and had no way to start a fire. Thank goodness Simon came after about an hour, successfully returning from his UB trip with new shoes. We set up camp again less than 100 meters from the place we had camped the previous night.

That night I managed to light one of my shoes on fire and ruin my socks trying to dry them. Later it got so cold that I crawled out of my tent, started the fire again and slept beside it, waking every hour to throw on another log. Even though it is the middle of summer, it does cool down a lot in the evening. It seems that 7 layers of clothing just didn't cut it.

The next morning I decided not to continue on with my new friends. My only decent socks were half melted, my shoes were falling apart, I had no sleeping bag and no sleep! And besides that, my back and hips were killing me. So we said our goodbyes and headed off in separate directions. I decided to hike out of the park, then hitch back to UB. The scenery on the way out was just as spectacular, with huge rock formations and massive green valleys. The traffic on the road is minimal at best, about one car every five minutes. So my chances of getting a ride were slim. But I was lucky enough to get a ride with a nice Mongolian couple.

That wraps up my first week in Mongolia. Next week I plan to head east to Kharkhorin, the ancient Mongolian capital. And from there south to the Gobi desert.

Once again, time for Random Observations:
- There are open man-holes all over the place. You will be walking along the footpath, then suddenly there is a huge hole. No warning, no cones blocking it off. Same on the road; the drivers just have to be aware at all times that there may be a huge hole waiting just around the corner. Apparently the reason is that people steal them to sell the metal. Danny was telling me that he had a friend who saw a Mongolian guy in the middle of the road, in the middle of the day, trying his best to pull off the man-hole cover, cars swerving all around him.
- While Mongolians in general have a better idea of how a queue works than Russians, there is one main exception. They LOVE to push in. They will do anything they can to jump the line. They will lean over you while you are being served, wave their money around at the attendant, push the goods they are trying to purchase in front of yours, or just physically push right in front of you. And it seems other Mongolians don't really care, often the attendant serving the 'pusher' before the 'pushee'. It happened to me a few times and I was like 'Hells no! Back of the line buddy!'.
- The taxi system in Mongolia is different to any other I have experienced. Anyone and everyone is a taxi. If you need a ride simply hold out your hand. Within a couple of minutes someone will pull over, their car probably full with half of their family or their groceries... If someone is going the same way as you, most times they will pull over and take you. There is a universal price set at 500 Togrog per kilometer (about €0.30), but often if you are a tourist they will try all they can to rip you off. I simply checked with one of the peace corps peeps what I should be paying before taking a cab, then just hand that amount to the driver, don't even ask.
- As I mentioned earlier, Mongolians are extremely friendly and hospitable people. They always have time to sit down for a chat, even if they cannot speak English. They will just share a couple of moments in your company, then move on. They will also share whatever they have, even if they do not have a lot. They always seem to have a smile on their face, and sometimes all they want to do is stop and shake your hand.

1 comment:

  1. love the photos - especially the one of the memorial where you can see the sky and clouds as well.

    Reading this almost makes me want to think about taking the Trans-Siberian railway when I eventually go back home...


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