Stepping Out Of The Van

This post has taken a more time to produce and is a lot longer than anticipated, because despite the impression that may have been created by my Life On The Road And In Gers post we actually did a lot of things while we were in Mongolia.

On our first day we visited the Choir Monastery, here was the original statue of Sukhbaatar which I mentioned we saw the replica of in Chinggis Khan square.

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We visited a giant ger there which had a smaller ger inside it, this was currently being used as the temple as the original was currently being reconstructed after the political victimization. The ruins from the political victimization were surrounding the ger and temple under reconstruction.

The small ger inside the large one had apparently belonged to a Lama, where he lived by himself, we also had pointed out to us another ger where the reincarnation of the lama now lived on his own too.

P1010379We also met a very cute cat there who we were told belonged to a little girl who lived there, but she had told someone in the last tour that they could have the cat and proceeded to have a conversation in English which led the tour member to send this little girl a letter through our guide. Her English was very good and we were told that she went to one of the most expensive schools in Ulaanbaatar.

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While we were visiting the monastery they were busy preparing for the opening of the new temple, so they had been putting up many gers to accommodate visitors and we were lucky enough to see one being constructed, which was very interesting to watch. Firstly they put up the centre, followed by the side walls, then they lay each rafter between the centre and the wall and finally they wrap the whole thing in felt.

Our next activity was a hike, which we were slightly apprehensive about because despite being in a desert the weather had started to close in and we had had rain the previous night. It actually meant that the weather was quite a pleasant temperature by the time we reached Narrow Gorge. Actually, before we got into the gorge itself, between the weather and the hills I was reminded very strongly of Scotland.

Something that reminded me slightly less of Scotland, was when we got our first sighting of vultures on the trip. There was quite a few of them, but they were pretty far away, so we didn’t really get an idea of their scale at that pont.

As we entered the gorge the cliffs started to get much more shear and it became less a reminder of home and more just awe at our surroundings. I could tell my husband was itching to try to climb the cliffs but we had neither the time nor the safety equipment, so he resisted.

P1010476We saw several sacred stone heaps as we went through, some with sculls on the top, some of which we walked around as I described before. I am not sure what dictates which ones you walk around and which ones you don’t. Vultures weren’t the only wildlife we saw, we also saw these rodents that were maybe the size of a guinea pig, but I don’t know what they were.

We continued down the gorge and while I don’t think that it was particularly narrow it was very beautiful.

One thing that we did a few times is meet nomadic herder families and while we did have a local home stay which I plan to write about in my next post, each time we met with a family we were invited inside and allowed to try some curds and milk. I can’t remember exactly which families we tried which foods at.

P1010489Some of the dairy products we tried included: goats milk tea; salted milky tea; fermented camel milk, fermented mares milk; goats curd; camel curd and goats butter. If I am honest the only one I liked was the tea, although we did also try a goats curd which had been dried and had sugar added which was nice, everything else was too sour for me and the fermented camel milk was almost fizzy. I did briefly mention this in my Going For A Ride post.

Talking of camels, prior to my experience in Going For A Ride post we climbed some sand dunes. I don’t know what your experience is with sand, but this was probably one of the biggest dunes I have ever seen, standing at about 200 m high and with every step I took going slightly down hill it was really hard work.

We were helped by some members of our group who forged ahead and created footprints for us to step in, when stepping in the footprint my foot sank a bit less making it slightly easier. We were also lucky that it wasn’t a scorching hot day, so that didn’t add to our fatigue. Still, I was one of the last to the top because it was exhausting.

When we reached the top the views were fantastic. I was a little scared to stand up as it was fairly windy at the top as well as high and with very steep sides. I think if you started rolling down these sand dunes you would never stop. When looking in one direction you could see the desert that we had mostly been driving through, very little sand, mostly rocks and surprisingly green for a desert. looking in the other direction there were lots of dunes leading to a mountain range.

My husband was brave enough to walk to the end of the dune for me to get shots of him over there, while I just stayed put.

P1010537Coming down the sand dune was much easier than going up, people tried different techniques, some ran down, some ran and pretended they were skiing. I opted for the bum slide down, which was not as slidey as you might imagine since it was as sand dune, but very fun and the least scary option as well as the least likely to hurt my knees. At one point my husband ran down in front of me holding my ankles which was really fun. After all that, I didn’t even wear a hole in my trousers.

It was here where we met the camel herders for our riding experience I mentioned in Going For A Ride.

The following day after dropping our stuff at the ger camp we headed towards the flaming cliffs for sunset. The cliffs themselves were really lovely even with the full sun on them. As we waited for the sun to go down we chatted and took photos and then the inevitable photograph shenanigans ensued including discovering some fun things to do with panorama shots.

Eventually the sun set, though in my personal opinion I thought that the sky looked more like it was on fire than the cliffs did.

We headed back to the cliffs in the morning to explore them by foot. We had a couple of wild life spots of a lizard and a bird of prey sitting very close to where we were walking.

The fantastic views continues and they were in all directions, we climbed up some of the cliffs (not the vertical parts) and could see even more. Some people in the group were much more daring than me with heights and went to the top of some very narrow looking ledges, but I was quite happy with my vantage point.

Eventually we made our way back down to where the drivers were waiting for us, even after all that my knee was still not giving me any trouble.

We were lucky enough to come across a Mini Naadam at one of our lunch stops. Naadam festival is one of the two major holidays each year in Mongolia (the other being the lunar new year) and everyone gathers in Ulanbaatar to celebrate by competing and watching various traditional sporting events including: horse racing, wrestling and archery.

We had started our tour not long after Naadam had ended (It was much cheaper to go after the festival than during it), so we felt that we were incredibly lucky to come across this Mini Naadam. To the best of my knowledge, before and after Naadam villages hold their own local Mini Naadam festivals and while some of the athletes travel between them it gives locals a chance to compete.

P1010629We arrived just after the horse racing had finished, but we were just in time for the wrestling. Firstly the wrestlers came out and presented themselves and their representatives to the crowd by circling round them like a bird. The wrestlers have to be men and they have to be Mongolian. They wear a special jacket that is open at the front, because the legend tells of one time when a woman won the wrestling and nobody knew because her chest was covered, so to prevent this from happening they introduced these jackets. The top ranked wrestlers get to choose who they fight first, so they of course choose the lowest seeded wrestlers to go against, leading to some very uneven matches.

The basic rules of Mongolian wrestling are there is no kicking, punching or eye gouging but pretty much everything else is allowed. The aim is for any part of your opponent to touch the ground apart from their feet or hands. There is no time limit so matches can go on for hours.

As I mentioned before that most of the fights we saw were pretty uneven so none of them lasted that long. When the fight was won, the winner imitated a bird again while the loser untied the knot holding his jacket together.

P1010639After the wrestling we had some fried dumplings for lunch which are traditionally eaten during Naadam.

Our next activity was a visit to Hoshuu Monastery, which was the least renovated of all the monasteries we visited while in Mongolia. This really gave an idea of the scale of the destruction brought upon the buddhist faith during the political victimization. The fact that it survived and is still the religion of most Mongols is pretty amazing.

It was really hard to imagine the monastery as it must have once been given the scale of the ruins, it must have once been a hub of activity. The ruins in themselves had a poignant beauty to them.

P1010647There was a ger with a display in it of all the buddhist artifacts that had been recovered including some very interesting things such as: a fossil which our guide said they weren’t sure what it was from but I am convinced it is a dinosaur fossil, perhaps an Ankylosaurus (which isn’t outwith the realms of possibility as a large number of dinosaur fossils and bones were discovered in Mongolia); a human skull which was used as a cup in ceremonies and some weights and measures.

We continued on from the artifacts ger to a small building which was where the current temple for this site was. The building was dwarfed by the ruins surrounding it but inside it was peaceful and serene. There were no monks there as our guide explained that they visit from Gandan monastery for ceremonies and events but none are residents of this monastery.

The next day we had our greatly anticipated home stay, however I intend to give this event its own post as it was one of the biggest highlights or our trip in Mongolia.

The next ger camp we stayed at was actually the sight of hot springs, there was a pool to relax in and massages on offer. We actually went on a walk to the source of the hot spring which was over 70 degrees celsius, this is obviously cooled before reaching the pool which is at 35 degrees.

We headed up through the woods (which was a novelty for Mongolia as we saw very few trees on our stay there) to the top of a hill and then down the other side towards the spring.

When we reached the spring we found there were cows actually drinking from the spring, which is more than I would do given the smell. Actually that is unfair, there was a slight smell of sulphur about the place but not nearly as much as at Rotorua for example, which we visited on our honeymoon last year.

We made our way back to the ger camp where later we had a horse ride, if you would like to read about that it is in my Going For A Ride blog. We followed the horse ride with a massage.

You would think the whole experience would leave us feeling very refreshed but unfortunately the next day I wasn’t feeling very well and basically sleep walked through the next day and crashed as soon as we reached the following ger camp. However I will try to relate that day as well as I can.

The day in question was spent at Kharkhorin which is the only other city we visited in Mongolia and was the ancient capital, from the days of Chinggis Khan. Our first stop there was at Erdene Zuu Monastery which was the largest monastery we visited, or had been prior to the political victimization.

P1010760There is very little left of Erdene Zuu Monastery apart from the walls and a couple of buildings, there are not even ruins like in Hoshuu Monastery so it was even more difficult to imagine what it must have once been like. We joined a local guide here who took us through the buildings that had been left standing. Again I am afraid no photos inside the buildings as per our theme.

These three buildings were actually very significant in that the main building was the first part of the monastery to be built, the two one either side had been built by the successors of the original founder. So, the oldest part of the monastery was the only part to survive intact with the exception of the walls and a stupa which didn’t really get explained to us.

Following this short tour we were invited to have a look around the new monastery that had been built on the site and this was a positive hive of activity compared with the ghostly equivalent we saw at Hoshuu Monastery. There was chanting and families consulting and prayer wheels and offerings.

The next stop in Kharkhorin was the national museum, this was our only museum visit and following our theme there was again no photos to be taken inside. Our guide did a wonderful job of explaining the exhibits and we learned a great deal about the history of Chinggis Khan, his son Ogadai and his grandson Khublai. We also learned about the tomb that had been discovered. Unfortunately as I mentioned I was a bit like the walking dead at the time so my recollection is not that great.

P1010785Our final stop in Kharkhorin, for this I should probably let the pictures speak for themselves.

Apparently this statue was because the monks from Erdene Zuu kept visiting the local women and even after corporal punishment was established at the site of the statue, the monks persisted. So the statue was put in place to shame the monks and prevent the crime. The situation of the statue in the valley is because of the shape of the surrounding hills, which I didn’t take a picture of I am afraid but resemble the female counterpart to the statue.

On our last day before returning to Ulaanbaatar we visited the Khustai National Park where the Przewaslki horses have been reintroduced to Mongolia. These horses were the precursors to our modern domesticated horse, and had lived in Mongolia for centuries until they unfortunately became extinct in the wild. Fortunately however there were a number in captivity across the world. A programme started in order to reintroduce the Przewaslki horse to the wild from the captive stock and luckily for us the program was a success meaning we had the chance to these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

Things weren’t looking too promising as we set off in search for the horses as it was tipping it down with rain, but as we drove on the rain started to clear and we saw a rainbow and some deer.

We drove on until we reached a car park where another van from a separate group was parked, by this time the rain had stopped and after a little while and with some discussions with the people from the other van, we saw our first sight of them. They were quite far away so we made our way towards them, I was worried that they would become spooked and run away but they weren’t.

I feel like they were quite distinct from a domestic horse, their heads and shoulders are larger and look more powerful. They almost look more like how horses were depicted in cave paintings with the tan coloured skin, black legs and black stripe down their back. Which I suppose makes sense seeing as these would be the type of horse that cavemen would actually see.

After a while we figured out there was a male and two females as the male started putting a show on for the crowd, I chose not to photograph that particular display.

As the sun started to set we made our way back towards the vans and we had the great fortune of seeing some more dear and then some more Przewalski horses with a couple of foals near to the cars.

This really was a magical way to end our tour surrounded by wild horses as the sun set over Mongolia.

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