After finishing the masterful yet bittersweet biography ‘On the Trail of Ghengis Khan’ by Tim Cook. I knew that we simply could not miss Mongolia, especially as our train was essentially passing through it.
From a planning perspective Mongolia was the most difficult place to coordinate, the train to Ulaanbaatar was the most expensive and ran only once a week in the off season, it also had the most difficult visa process. Once John, Cal, Dan and I decided on Mongolia we were unsure what to expect. There was limited information destinations and sights (with the exception of Gorkhi Terelj park) and we were unsure how would get between sights (aside from Ulaanbaatar there are uniquely very few major cities). Despite these uncertainties we persevered and boy am I glad we did.
We had spent the majority of the 36 hour train journey from Beijing making friends with a Canadian guy, Bobby. who seemed as grateful for the company as we were. It was a big surprise to learn the train was completely deserted, we assumed even in the off season there would be a few stupid Australians / Germans / Israelis braving the frigid tundras of the Russia. Bobby was seasoned traveller and was following virtually the same route as us; but with different dates and times; however our timelines for Mongolia lined up perfectly. We stepped off the train in Ulaanbaatar into the frigid -30 degree weather; which we were only just starting to become accustomed to.
At the train station we met a very friendly local Mongolian lady ‘Borghi’ who gave us a pamphlet for her hostel and helped show us to an ATM in the station. She was very accommodating and surprised we were travelling in the off season and offered us a spot at her hostel’ Golden Gobi, which we politely declined as we had already booked a bed at another place.. However at her insistence we came to her hostel in order to help finish off the food left over from last night’s New Year’s celebration.
Golden Gobi was very welcoming and cosy, so much so that after we had returned to our hostel we were so disappointed that we left and went back! Borghi and the rest of the staff made us some Mongolian tea (thick salty tea, with lumps of curds floating in it, with the option of adding butter to make it even saltier), with some western style coleslaw and a bowl of dried cheese kurds on the side. Personally, over my 5 days in Mongolia, and having this tea with every meal, I eventually got somewhat used to it; but it’s definitely an acquired taste!
Later that night we booked a tour through the hostel, it worked perfectly because it covered everything we wanted to do in Mongolia and then some:
- 1x night in a Mongolian ger with a local family
- 1x night in a Kazakh ger
- Mongolian horse riding
- Entrance to the Ghengis Khan statue (or ‘Big metal Chinggis’ as it became known amongst our group)
- Entrance to the ‘1000 llamas cave’
- A hike to an ancient monastery
- A trip to the local ‘Black market’
- Transport (via 8 seater minibus)
- English speaking guide (Borghi)
The great thing about this tour was how customisable it was, if we had more time we would have gone west to do a kind of ‘safari’ with the few remaining Golden Eagle hunters’ or north to see a tribe that still rides reindeer! All in all this cost us around $180 AUD each.
We spent the rest of the night exploring Ulaanbaatar. Around the center there is really not too much to see. The city still bears the very visible scars of the USSR’s collectivisation era and urban sprawl seems to be a growing issue. After an incredibly western meal at the local Irish pub we headed home and went to sleep.
The next day we set off to our first destination for the night; the Mongolian ger camp (located in Gorkhi Terelj park), throughout the 3 hour drive we got to learn a lot about Gorkhi and her linage. We learnt she was from a nomadic family west of Ulaanbaatar who had moved to Ulaanbaatar in search of work in the growing tourism industry; teaching herself English along the way.
Sadly this seemed to be the fate of many Mongolians we heard of, with an devastating drought killing many livestock in 2004 and 2009, there are less truly ‘nomadic’ Mongolians than ever before. This, combined with the youths shifting attitude away from migratory lifestyle means the country is reshaping its identity and sadly losing its truly unique identity as nomadic.
The country is also in the difficult position (both figuratively and literally) of being landlocked between two of the world’s fastest developing nations, both using their influence to gain control of the enormous surplus of copper and other minerals of the Mongolia’s newly developed mining industry.
Prior to arriving, Borghi took us to the ‘Zaisan memorial’, a kind of memorial to the Russians who died defending Mongolia in WWII. The artwork on the inside was a mosaic of all the achievements of the USSR. Things like the space race, and the defeat of the Japanese. I think in the middle there was an ‘eternal flame’ at one point, but it was filled with beer bottles and rubbish. Due to the view and its isolation from the rest of the city, I would imagine it would be used as a kind of ‘make-out point’ with Mongolian teens nowadays.
After arriving at our host family’s property we were introduced to the family, and had lunch; a kind of spaghetti with mutton and potato fries and of course the salt tea. Interestingly this family did not live a in ger, and had a small house with 3 ger’s behind which the tourists slept in. This seems to be the the trend for Gorkhi Terelj accommodation, being the biggest tourism hotspot in the entire country.
After brief introductions we relaxed in our ger for and hour or two before heading out for horse riding.
For me, the horse ride was fairly underwhelming. From the beginning I felt guilty for even getting on my horse. These were not the towering stallions that I had seen on the discovery channel, they were significantly smaller, stockier and hairier than what I pictured and being 6”4 my feet almost dragged along the snow. As well as this, I was not allowed to ride without a guide holding the reigns; when I asked why the guide indicated to me through hand-movements that the horse was very skittish. This was proven correct when he tried to bolt off after a car door was slammed in the distance.
After we got back we started our hike to the monastery. From what Borghi told us it was one of the few temples that was not destroyed by Stalin and the USSR due to its remote location. It took us about an hour to reach to the top of the mountain. On the way up is a long path decorated with Buddhist prayer boards, each with a unique life-lesson/mantra. Halfway up the hill is a big wheel (picture the wheel of fortune wheel) in which each person spins; whatever number it lands on matches one of the prayer boards, and that mantra/life lesson is supposed to be specific to you. Some are very thought provoking, while others seemed a bit more specific to those who were familiar with Buddhism.
There were many small shrines along the way, mostly depicting Buddhist deities. We also noticed there was a strange cursive script to accompany them. Which Borghi explained was the Mongolian script. It was a really unique and interesting script, reminding me lots of Elvish from Lord of the Rings (as it was written top to bottom, rather than left to right). We learnt from Borghi that when Mongolia was collectivised under the USSR, the Mongolian script was banned, and was almost completely lost to history. However since regaining independence there has been a resurgence in interest and schools now teach the script again. We were glad to hear this
At the top of the climb we were greeted by a caretaker and his dog, who ‘guarded’ the monastery in the winter (when all the monks went home). The view this far up was even more impressive and I had to try my hand at meditating for 10 minutes. I’m no Buddhist but if I was to guess, it would be easier to attain enlightenment with a view like this:
On the way down Borghi led us into the shack of the groundskeeper, who was responsible for giving visitors tickets. From the sheer length of the conversations I got the feeling he did not get many visitors. With Borghi translating he asked us riddle after riddle that we could not guess, it was not so much the riddles were challenging; more that the translations didn’t quite match up and sometimes the answer was distinctively Mongolian, so odds were really stacked against us.
After what seemed like hours of riddles (and John throwing a riddle back to him, which he answered immediately) we left and started the twilight trek back to our ger. After a tasty meat stew for dinner and a few too many beers and shots of Chingis we went to sleep.
A quick note on the bathroom situation. As you can imagine there is no plumbing, so a hole is simply dug, with a wooden 3 door shack placed on top, and used until it is ‘full’…
One should also be careful as the old pits are usually just loosely covered in snow and a few sticks – so watch your step!
The next morning we said our goodbyes and headed off to see Big Metal Chingis. I was constantly impressed by our drivers navigation skills as in this time of winter there was virtually no roads visible (aside the main ones), so we were constantly veering off the main road, driving through shallow snow for a few kilometres before hitting another main road which we turned onto. This was done completely without any GPS. It was impressive.
On the way we passed a number of small shrines / totems. Borghi told us these were originally up in the mountains and were used to give offering to God’s but obviously nowadays people don’t frequent the mountaintops on a daily basis so they are usually located on the side of roads.
They were usually wrapped in blue, red, white and yellow clothes. If I remember correctly: blue was for the sky, yellow for the sun, red for blood and white for milk. Locals had stopped to leave a bit of money, some candy or other personal items. This particular one had a mini statue of Genghis himself near the bottom. While stray dogs had made their way to the top and nestled among the cloth for warmth, waiting for the offering locals would leave behind.
As per Mongolian tradition we walked around it counter-clockwise 3 times and made a wish.
I drifted back to sleep in the car for a few hours before John and Cal shook me awake and pointed it out. There it was, Big Metal Chingis, glimmering in the winter sunlight. The site itself was almost deserted due to the off season but low and behold we managed to meet an Australian ex-pat who had moved to Mongolia after his contract there had ended with his company. After a look through the museum located in the basement we headed up the elevator and came out on the neck of Genghis’’ horse. It was an impressive view with Ghengis’ gaze apparently facing out toward where he found his ‘golden whip’. We were told there were originally plans to have a string of hotels and other tourist infrastructure built around, but that doesn’t have appeared to have taken off as of yet.
After this we piled back into the car, stopped to get more Chinggis vodka and headed to the Kazakh ger camp. Upon arrival, it was immediately obvious this was much more ‘real’. This time the family lived communally in an authentic ger (as opposed to the more western looking residence from the previous night) on a sprawling steppe, with only a neighbour’s ger a few kilometres away to obscure the never ending blanket of snow.
We were welcomed inside by Jarr’et and his family of two daughters and wife. After some understandably awkward first few minutes we got to know Jarr’et better as we helped him with some of his nightly chores.
With dusk settling he asked (mainly through Borghi translating from Kazakh to English) if we could help him get his small herd of goats back in before night. Well, maybe there was some mis-translation but ‘small’ came to mean about 150 goats… We walked about half a kilometre with Jarr’et asking us how life is in Australia. It was difficult without a translator but we managed, but the majority of the conversation centred around the cost of meat, beer, how cold it is, how cheap farm land is and if we had a family of our own (‘you are 25 why not?’). Between the language barrier, the wind chill and trying to convert Australian dollars to Mongolian tugriks in your head it was slightly difficult, but we were all in good spirits and the initial awkwardness was soon behind us.
Eventually a brown/grey mass began to define itself on the horizon and it was clear we had stumbled across the herd. After a relatively easy (apart from a troubling few goats that stopped at the salt-lick and got their tongues frozen to it) experience of walking them back to the pen, Jarr’et counted that there were 3 missing. So back out we went. By this time the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon and the chill was setting in, soon enough we found another herd of goats, which turned out to be the neighbours.
I was sure that Jarr’et would just grab any three goats, but to our surprise he moved through the herd before seizing individual goats that he recognized as his, to me all the goats were virtually indistinguishable but somehow he was able to tell the difference (when I asked him about this later he told me ‘if you saw your girlfriend in a crowd, you could pick her out right?’ – I wisely decided it best not to point out the differences between the two situations).
After this came the intensive dragging of the goats 500 metres back to the pen. Contrary to walking the leisurely stroll of guiding the herd back, these individual goats gave us absolute hell. Cal took the step to toss his goat over his shoulder, while holding the horns down. While John and I ended up with this little shit of a goat who bucked, kicked, bleated and cried the whole way back. Eventually he gave up struggling and let us drag him dead weight through the snow by the horns. Throughout this ordeal there was a stray dog continually darting in and out, looking to make an easy meal of the stragglers; so it was on the person who wasn’t dragging these animals to keep the dog away mainly by hurling frozen dung back at it. By the time I got back I was drenched in sweat.
As strange as it sounds this was probably my favorite few hours of the whole trip. This lifestyle was so different to my life at home. As I stood back to observe John swearing under his breath as he dragged a stubborn goat across the frozen tundra, in near pitch black; I felt truly lucky to be able to experience other people’s cultures in such a real way.
After we bought the remaining animals into the shed for the night (Jarr’et joked ‘this where you sleep tonight okay?’), we headed inside for dinner. Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the inside of the ger (I thought it would be rude, considering this is where real people live and eat; rather than a tourist attraction), but it was fascinating to see a modern family unit existing in a space about the size of a standard western living room.
Not long after we sat down, dinner was served. Now here’s where I really wished I got a picture. We had all heard how meat is virtually the only cuisine in Mongolia, but until this point we were likely given the ‘tourists menu’, but this time, out comes a humongous plate of just meat (save for one or two potatoes and a cucumber). From memory it was a mix of yak, ox, cow, camel, horse and mutton, all of which were wrapped around huge thing or calf bones. All tasted the same to me, except horse which had a distinctly more smokey taste which I actually enjoyed. As we stuffed ourselves with the choicest pieces we soon got down to the more sinewy bits, and eventually just small golf-ball sized hunks of pure fat. It was hard to suppress gagging once we got to this, and eventually I politely declined eating anymore. After dinner, we began again on the Chingis vodka and beer while Jarr’et asked us question after question on kangaroos (‘can you eat them?’, ‘can you ride them?, ‘could a child ride one?’, how much do you think it would be to get one here?’). Eventually the night devolved into Jarr’et arm wrestling John (John won, and Jarr’et was very impressed) and John trying to play the family’s horse-head fiddle; although I suggested playing ‘Fever for Flayva’ John wisely decided against it, and freestyle instead it, before Jarr’ets daughter showed us how it was done after dinner.
After dinner we headed back to the guest ger and we were introduced to some Mongolian games using sheep anklebones, the idea was similar to jax (link to wiki page), but varied because your ‘score’ was based on which side of the bone lands face up. After a few more beers we drifted off to sleep.
The next day we made our way back to the hostel in Ulaanbaatar; but not before stopping off at the ‘black market’ where John and Myself scored these stylish fox and marmot fur hats, which cost the equivalent of around $60 AUD. After one more night at the hostel we said our goodbyes to the incredibly welcoming staff at Golden Gobi, with hope that we would see them again and jumped back on the train heading to Ulan Ude.