Up early in readiness for an 8 o’clock pick up as were going bush Mongolian style. We were met by Galaa our English speaking guide and Jara our driver. We were picked up in a ex Russian military UAZ 452 four wheel drive van ( known in Russia as Bukhanka, “loaf” as it has a similar shape). These started rolling off the production line in 1965 however although this one was a 2007 model but they hadn’t changed much over the years. It was a thing of beauty and Jara spent every spare minute when he wasn’t driving or sleeping, lovingly cleaning and maintaining it.
The one trouble with heading out of the city on a weekend was the Service Stations were all out of petrol so we went from one to another before we found one. Also the supermarket they usually stop at was closed so we had to find another. Once we’d sorted fuel and food we were on our way. Driving out of the city was interesting as we passed areas where people still lived in Ger’s, and an area where animal skins were sold, with trucks unloading huge piles of pelts.
Driving out through the countryside was beautiful with long washed out green coloured grassy plains running up to snow spotted craggy hills. At the edges of the road on top of the high points were piles of stones surrounding a stick draped in multitudes of dark blue silk scarves. They were Buddhist offerings for safe travels.
We passed through a few villages along the road. The beginning and end of the village marked by a speed hump which Jara tried to avoid by driving around on most occasions. The villages were mainly small weather board houses, shops or both. Sometimes they surrounded a larger brick building and were either just one side of the street or both, but usually no more than a dozen buildings.
The loaf took us off road, (a first for Michele as she’s never been 4 wheel driving before) and we headed for Khustain Nuruu National Park, where the Przewalski’s horse has been reintroduced after becoming extinct in the wild around 1966. There is no road in just a series of rutted tracks passing freshly ploughed wheat fields, sandy areas, goats, sheep, cows and horses happily grazing away (but not too far from an ever watchful shepherd)
There’s a visitor centre and a campsite with a heap of Ger’s but as it is down season there wasn’t too many people around. We headed out into the park and Jara soon had the loaf in 4wd crossing ice covered creek beds and it happily climbed in and out without a hitch. The park has tree capped ridges running down into grassy valleys and has been the site of Stone Age discoveries, with Deer Stones and other artefacts being found. There’s a scientific research centre studying the herds as from an original 15 captured for zoos in 1900 there are now 1,500 and of these 300 in the three national parks in Mongolia and growing. Not far from the research centre we found a herd which were quite tame as they’re used to visitors in the park. They happily grazed while we took photos, there was even a mother feeding her foal.
There were a few van loads of locals, some in traditional clothing also out taking photos. Mongolians really love their horses and one of the national parks aims is to give locals living at the edge of the park employment so many of them are involved with the running of the park and its amenities. As we continued back up through the park we spotted voles, marmots, eagles, yaks and deer.
Time was getting on so we headed back towards the main road. As we were travelling along a high sided track we came face to face with a tourist in a Toyota 4wd. We were soon in a Mongolian standoff with neither driver wanting to chance getting bogged in the sandy banks surrounding the road. Eventually Jara put the loaf into low 4wd and started to show what the loaf could do. The front wheels got high on the banks and just when it seemed we were going to get stuck, the back wheels bit in and the loaf was pulling itself up and over the bank and down through the sand.
We bounced our way back down the track before hitting the main road again. I say main road but it is actually the only road. About an hour later we arrived at a little village and stopped for lunch. The restaurant was packed with locals, we were the only non Mongolians and the waitress delivered the menu. Jara ordered noodle soup, Michele ordered goulash and Galaa and I ordered stir fried meat and vegetables. Our meals arrived and strangely enough they all were the same, Meat, cold mashed potato, carrot salad, rice, bread. Jara who probably had the easiest meal had to wait the longest time for his noodles. The meal was pretty industrial to say the least and I think the place only cooked two choices. It was interesting sitting in the restaurant watching the locals dressed in their traditional clothes as they interacted. Unlike a lot of other countries, the men were equally involved with their children, feeding them, nursing them and taking care of them.
Whilst we were there we tried our first Mongolian toilet. The outhouse was a six berth with doors on the side facing the car park and just a wooden screen on the other side. Underneath a big pit had been dug and in each cubicle there were two boards to stand on or squat whatever your need may be. It would probably be pretty savage in the middle of summer but as it was still quite frosty it wasn’t too bad. It was a great initiation for Michele lol
As soon as we had finished lunch Jara was straight out busily polishing the “loaf” when an old mate of his arrived with two travellers from the Czech Republic who were doing a similar tour. It was catch up time, for drivers and guides which is quite common in Mongolia, it’s also a good chance for travellers to chat.
Travelling through the countryside it was interesting seeing Gers dotted here and there with lean-tos for the animals protection from the weather and wolves. Even in the little villages Gers were preferred over houses. The yards were fenced with split pine palings that were not even dressed with a square edge but with the bark still on. Not having a square edge meant that the palings couldn’t butt up against each other, so there were small gaps in the fences, it looked really odd.
In the middle of nowhere, there was a small Tourist parks which apart from Gers had tepees (although they also called them Gers). They were in an area which adjoined some granite cliffs with rock drawings which were about 900 years old. However with the landscape and the horses, strangely enough tepees in Mongolia didn’t look out of place.
The landscape slowly changed and soon the golden green plains and rolling hills, which we’d seen all the way through Mongolia, were left behind and the landscape became dotted with camel bush and sparsely grassed. In the distance a big line of sand dunes became visible beneath the distant hills. The Semi Gobi Desert. The turn off to our nights destination was roughly marked and we headed down the rutted track watching voles scurrying to and from their holes as horsemen dressed in their thick winter deels herded sheep and goats towards their yards.
When we arrived we were warmly greeted by the Bor family. Grandfather, a sprightly 71 year old with a sun browned weather beaten face, with more lines than the Sydney subway. He was dressed in a thick maroon deel, tied at the waist with a golden silk sash, and a green felt hat atop his head. He wore a pair of reddish brown traditional Mongolian boots which curled up at the toes, extended at the heel. They had intricate black motifs on the sides and his trusty knife tucked in the top. These boots weren’t cheap knock downs they were fine quality although old and much loved. Maybe the boots even stated something about the wearer.
Grandmother was a tireless lady dressed in a dark blue deel over black boots, with her head wrapped in a scarf, who busily set the table for guests, arranged furniture, moved the family around so that we all could be seated, whilst cooking the evening meal. The son and son in law popped in and out as they were still rounding up stock. Their wives and children were either helping with the evening meal or getting ready to help with the round up.
Grandmother gave us all a bowl of hot milk tea and on the table arranged lollies, and biscuits some homemade. Grandfather then broke out the fermented mare’s milk and we had a taste. It wasn’t too bad and judging by the way the sons drank it, it must’ve been pretty good for keeping the cold out. Soon the old man pulled out a silk pouch which contained his snuff. Traditional Mongolian men all carry their snuff wrapped in a silk pouch. The snuff bottles are highly treasured with the lids made from jade, coral or agate. I had a snort of snuff it was like finely ground spice.
Soon Grandmother was passing around bowls of stir fried noodles with sliced mutton, potatoes, carrots and onions through it. The final ingredient was lamb tail fat a thick slice which had a smokey lamb flavour. It was delicious.
Looking around the Ger they certainly didn’t have much. A table, a few small beds, a few orange painted cupboards decorated with endless knots, one covered in family photos the other containing all the spare cooking bowls and covered with a scarf. In the middle of the Ger was the stove. The stove was multipurpose, with a large round opening on top which was fitted with a lid. The lid was used for cooking fresh noodles or removed when the larger wok was used to cook or boil water. Beside the stove was a box of cow and horse poo which was burnt instead of firewood, as firewood was pretty scarce but poo wasn’t.
After the meal everyone including us made their way out to assist with the round up. Grandfather mounted up and galloped off to chase down the camels while the son and son in law herded the goats and sheep towards the pens. It was nice seeing the sons and their children carrying day old lambs and kids back to the yards. There were lots of one and two day old lambs and kids. As they came into the yard Grandmother was separating them away from the bigger animals. The goats were then separated and penned before the ewes were locked away. Not far from the yard the billy goats were climbing up and down over the rocks waiting to be locked up for the night. Once the other animals were clear it was their turn. The old man came in sight driving the camels in front of him like a man possessed. The reason for the haste was a Korean Soapie the old man was addicted to was due to start at 7 o’clock and it was 2 minutes to 7.
Despite being nomadic they had solar powered electricity powering the low voltage LED lights, charging mobile phones, satellite and TV.
We were bunked down in the guest Ger with Galaa so we decided on a game of skip bo. It was good fun. Grandmother popped in and out setting the fire, pulling the cover over the top of the Ger, delivering a thermos of hot water for tea, delivering more blankets. Walking out into the darkness before bed really opened our eyes to what a truly beautiful place this is as the night sky was just filled with millions of stars shimmering in silver. As we rolled into bed firstly Galaa tucked the blankets around us then Grandmother came in with more blankets and tucked us all in. It was really sweet. Sleeping in a Ger is quite different from sleeping in a tent. There’s an outside waterproof liner, underneath is a layer of felt and in the middle the heater so it’s quite warm.
This family move 4 times a year following grasslands, and change the location of the Ger to take advantage of the weather. The Ger can be constructed in 30 minutes as it consists of five wooden lattice wall panels, 81 roof battens, a roof ring, two upright roof supports, the waterproof cover, a door, felt liner and the inside wall coverings which are blankets. In the old days Grandfather would load up the camels but these days they just load up the truck, it’s not as cantankerous.
Breakfast was a bit different with homemade biscuits, bread and jam, and thermoses of hot milk tea, hot water for tea and butter cheese. Butter cheese was an interesting mix of homemade butter and cheese giving it a sweet creamy flavour with a sharp cheese taste. Tea bags weren’t wasted by just using them once and discarding them. They were put aside and put into the boiling milk to make milk tea.
After breakfast the old man saddled up his horse and two camels for us. The two camels looked like big balls of fur as they had a full winter coat. It was interesting sitting between their humps as we’d ridden dromedary camels (one hump) before and these were totally different. We were accompanied on our trip by one of their dogs a big long haired black dog with a white chest and tan facial markings almost like a Bernaise Mountain Dog. One of the greetings when entering a Ger in Mongolia translates to “hold the dog”. These dogs are active day and night protecting the flock.
Riding along across the bottom of the valley was quite peaceful, with just the sound of the animal’s hooves as they walked along, and Michele’s camel munching on every camel bush he’d pass. The old man was softly singing a song he’d sung his wife when he’d rode into town to propose to her. He’d probably looked much like he did today dressed in all his finery, but with his best going out boots on. We passed a few other Gers around the edge of the valley and amazed at the tall granite hills covered in yellow lichen surrounding the valley. At the end of the valley the Semi Gobi stretched out before us and we contemplated what it’d be like crossing a desert on camels. Luckily for these two camels that’s all we did for soon we were returning. Michele’s camel trying to hotfoot it so he could complete his grazing but being restrained by the old man.
When we returned to the camp we were greeted with more tea, milk tea and biscuits. Two horses were saddled up and I mounted one whilst Michele struggled to mount hers. A stool was brought out but her leg was too short for the stirrup so she used a large rock nearby to climb onto the horses back. It looked pretty funny as the old man was trying to hold the horse and help Galaa to get her onto the horses back. When the stool came out it just added to the fun with the daughter in law and Galaa trying to stop the stool from toppling over whilst Michele tried to get her leg over.
Whilst it was all fun and games for us the men were busy combing the cashmere goats with cashmere rakes to remove all the loose hair, (not that the goats minded running around with uncombed hair). The goats didn’t enjoy the experience being laid on their sides and combed.
After a short walk around the hill with Galaa and the old man singing the national anthem then us singing the Australian one. We returned to camp for traditional Mongolian games with Galaa. A bag of sheep leg bones (knuckle bones) came out and Galaa explained how Mongolians played knuckles with the help of the Grandmother. They play much like us however they use two hands. Another game we played was horse racing. The knuckles have four different sides goat, camel, sheep and horse. The knuckles are lined up in one line with the horse side up. Then each player selects a knuckle each putting it beside the first knuckle. Then taking turns each player throws four knuckles and if the horse side turns up they advance their knuckles the same amount of knuckles. It was a close race but after last night’s winning streak at skip bo my luck was well and truly in and in the end I beat the field.
Our next game was a guessing game where each player takes ten knuckles and puts an amount into their right hand. Then all players must guess how many knuckles they have combined. It was a fun game and once again my luck was in, with the help of good memory.
The Grandmother and one of her granddaughters were preparing noodles. Firstly they mixed flour and water in a big bowl and kneaded it until it was the right consistency then after letting it rest divided it into three balls as round as a saucer. Then the two ladies started rolling it out flat constantly turning it until it was only a few millimetres thick and even throughout. The old lady rolled the dough onto the rolling pin then out onto the lid of the stove. She let it cook for a few minutes before turning it over and cooking the other side. It was interesting watching the two working together for the granddaughter was still young and the grandmother would finish things for her “the right way”. After cooking the dough the grandmother cut the pancake in half, then quarters, then each quarter into three 60 mm strips. The strips were stacked on top of each other and then from the shortest end they were finely sliced.
Meanwhile the Grandmother had a broth boiling over the stove, to which she added strips of mutton, potato, carrot, onion and the fresh noodles. Soon we were all being handed a bowl full of fresh noodle soup and a spoon. It was another delicious fresh meal.
All too soon our visit was over we bid the family goodbye and headed off towards the Semi Gobi bumping over the rutted tracks. It the distance we could see the flocks grazing watched over by the son’s and their dogs.
The Semi Gobi is a fairly narrow strip of desert which runs below the mountain ridges, however it’s supposedly about 60 km’s long, consisting of creamy white sand dunes and some stunted trees dotted about the area. We took advantage of the stop to take a few photos.
Just after we got started we met up with Jara’s mate and the Czech couple from yesterday. They’d been out at and were doing the opposite of our trip, with their next stop the Semi Gobi, then on to an overnight stay at a Ger.
Having only one main road in Mongolia, logically would make it easy to repair, right? Wrong! The further away from Ulaan Bataar we drove the worse the potholes became. Some potholes covering the whole road. Other areas where the whole top surface of the road had been ripped up and turned into huge ruts by heavy trucks. The whole time was spent swerving from one side of the road to the other trying to dodge potholes. Some people even drove in the paddocks on the wide of the road to avoid the potholes. The government even had the cheek to install toll gates to make road users pay for the crap roads.
Karakoram was our next stop, the former capital, destroyed twice by the Chinese after the fall of the Mongolian Empire. These days it’s a sleepy little town of 4,000 people with dirt tracks as streets and people housing their flocks of sheep and goats in their backyards. It was quite strange seeing flocks being herded down the street and through someone’s back gate.
These days there’s not much to see in the ancient capital, a museum, a Buddhist monastery, a phallic rock, and stone turtles. The phallic rock was supposedly placed years ago, by an Abbott from the monastery to stop the errant ways of the monks who were visiting the local nunnery. These days it is said to possess magical powers and if a woman sits on it she will become pregnant however the government is obviously trying to curb the birth rate and have installed a fence around it now. During summer it’s a major tourist attraction with locals setting up stalls selling all kinds of things. Not far from the rock is one of the stone Turtles. There’s four in total, about two foot high and four foot across, which mark the boundaries of the former capital. Originally they had a large slab of rock on their backs with inscriptions about the city etc but these days they’re gone. One remains in the town museum. Our last visit for the day was the Great Imperial Map Monument. It is also atop one of the hills and had great views of the town and the valleys on either side of the hill. The monument itself has large mosaic maps of the three great empires. The Hunnu (300-200 BC) , the Turkic (AD 600-800) and the Mongols (13th Century). These three empires gave us famous leaders like Attila the Hun, Chinggis Khan and Kublai Khan.
Close to 7pm we headed to the guesthouse where we were in for a surprise. The guesthouse wasn’t a building with hot showers, indoor toilets but Mönkhsuuri Tourist Ger Camp. We were staying in another Ger, it was too much for Michele, as the camp was a bit rundown consisting of just the main building, five Gers and an outhouse (which was 100 meters away). They must have known we were coming because they’d raked the dead grass and were busy burning it.
The lady at the camp was really nice firstly delivering hot milk tea then hot water and green tea. Galaa and Jara left us alone whilst we had tea consisting of goulash, bread, steamed black rice, and a local coleslaw which was really delicious. We finished the night playing cards with Galaa.
The trip across the frosty ground wasn’t the best fun for the early morning constitutional, or squatting over the cesspit but it had a light and the toilet was a double (not that I want to be talking to someone whilst we’re both taking constitutionals)
The lady topped up our washbasin in the Ger with warm water and delivered a fresh thermos of hot water for tea. Then she delivered a breakfast consisting of an omelette, toast, strawberry jam and potato pancakes. The pancakes were a little crispy and really good.
After breakfast we headed to the museum which really seemed out of place as it was quite a modern building. Inside we were met by museum staff who firstly showed us a film about an ancient tomb found nearby. Then we were escorted around by a member of staff who explained firstly the ancient tomb exhibit, an array of gold, brass, stone, wooden and clay objects which were found in the tomb. Then we visited the Stone Age, bronze, Iron Age and various empire exhibits. There were lots of artefacts spanning Mongolian history and for a little museum it was quite well set up and we enjoyed the visit. It also to Michele’s delight had a clean western toilet
Then we were off down the road to the Buddhist Monastery of Erdene Zuu. The monastery was established in 1586 and was the first in Mongolia. At its peak it had 1,000 monks, up to 100 temples and about 300 Gers within the walls. During the communist purges of 1937 all but three temples were destroyed and up to 90,000 monks across the country were executed or sent to gulags in Siberia. Some of the temple goods were preserved and these days the three temples are a museum. They’re quite different from Chinese temples and display the different style of Buddhism we in the west know as Tibetan (or yellow hat).
There’s a few halls displaying different artefacts behind glass some ceilings painted with the soyombo, Mongolian national symbol. The symbol was designed by Zanabazar who was born in 1635 and was sent to Tibet to study under the Dalai Lama and became the religious leader of Mongolia. He was also an artist, redesigning Mongolian script, and a statesman.
The Mongolian soyombo is quite interesting with the symbol at the top representing past, present and future. Beneath this is the sun and moon, and a triangle representing fight against internal threats. There are the yin and yang symbols representing men and women and below this another triangle representing fight against external threats. There are two horizontal beams above and below the yin and yang which represent a balanced society and two upright beams which encase the symbol which represent peace with neighbouring countries.
The monastery has a two storey building which houses a small group of monks of varying ages. It’s decorated quite differently from the older buildings with brass symbols on the white exterior walls, prayer wheels leading to the front door and inside is an active temple with locals popping in for prayer and to turn the sutra wheels.
After the temple we headed back to UB stopping briefly to talk to another tour group and for lunch of steamed dumpling at a little village. The little wooden shop was deserted when we walked in. They served us a bowl of milk tea, then we got a thermos of hot water to make tea, and soon they were preparing the chopped meat to fill the dumplings with.
While we were waiting I asked the location of the conveniences and was pointed to the end building and around the corner. Around the corner and across the paddock past the pile of burnt rubbish was the conveniences. Eight boards placed across the cesspit to prevent the user from falling in and about the same number forming the walls on two sides. There was no roof and when I stood up I could watch the cows and goats wandering down the street. The wind blew through the missing walls and probably explained why there was excrement everywhere but in the bottom of the pit. It was precarious balancing on the boards and I was also a victim of the high winds, as every time I went to finish off the paperwork the wind would whip the tissue out of my hand blowing it to destinations unknown. Was it the worst toilet I’ve ever been in, yep pretty close. I gave the toilet report when I returned to the restaurant and Michele hung on until another stop.
The dumplings were quite nice served with a carrot salad, which gave it a sweet taste.
The run back to UB consisted of us travelling along at 60 kph swerving from one side of the road to the other. Not far from our lunch stop we came upon an accident where a trucks trailer had flipped on its side. The contents of the load had been gathered up, stacked on the road and now they were trying to turn the trailer back onto its wheels using a long length of wire. Potholes 1 Truck 0.
We stopped for a catch-up with two other drivers, one carrying a bloke from Brisbane, who was doing the two days one night tour and the other carrying a young Swiss couple doing a five day horse trek. They’d met on the Trans-Mongolian from Russia and we had a chat about the train and learnt a few things.
The final run back to UB had a small detour as UB has vehicle restrictions to minimise traffic jams based on the last number of the number plate and the loaf wasn’t allowed in the CBD today. We headed out to the back blocks where we met Jara’s son in law, who drove us back to the hostel in his car. It was an area where lots of people lived in Gers surrounded by the split pine paling fences. The late afternoon traffic was all taking crazy pills as we tried to make our way through the snarl. It seemed to take forever with five of us squeezed into his car.
When we arrived at the hostel the place was a hive of activity with a lady busily sewing pillowcases in readiness for the arrival of a large group of Indians. The hostel crew were all excitedly talking so we left them to it and headed for a shower.
We thanked the crew for an exciting few days and after they departed were glad to relax in a real bed again. Tomorrow Russia.