We only had three nights in Ulaanbaatar and then we would be returning to the Trans Mongolian Train for the next leg of the journey to Moscow. We stayed at the Guide hotel for one night, then checked out and went on a tour for two days and a night, then checked back into the same hotel for our last night. The hotel staff were good enough to allow us to leave the bulk of our bags at the hotel for our tour meaning we only took a small overnight backpack with us.
The hotel was quite good, although the surrounding streets looked very run down and a little seedy. We ate a reasonably priced dinner at the hotel and then retired early as we had an early pick up the next morning. The price of the hotel room, AUD$73, did include a reasonable breakfast the next morning.
We booked a tour with Mongolian Short Tours and cost US$260 each. This tour was a private tour with us, a guide and a driver. The tour guide and driver turned up 10 minutes before the scheduled time (I hate waiting for tours to turn up). The guide was a lovely young lady called Jagaa who spoke perfect English. The driver was Jack and he spoke no English but engaged well with us through the guide.
We needed to pick our train tickets up for the onward journey to Moscow and we asked Jagaa if we could do that before we set off on the tour – Jagaa was only too happy to help. We were supposed to pick the train tickets up from a travel agent office near to where we were staying. This all sounded so simple, but wasn’t! Firstly finding the travel agent office was not easy. The reason being the travel agent office was in a block of apartments, which was surrounded by several more blocks of apartments. Jagaa had to ring the travel agent to find out exactly where they were – even locals had trouble finding it. We parked outside the apartment estate, which all looked like the stereotype of huge bland soviet housing complexes and Jagaa led us through until we reached a block that had a huge metal door and an intercom system – I felt like a spy and was waiting for the KGB to spring their dastardly trap, of course I would then fight my way out al la Jason Bourne, it’s probably time to move on from that fantasy – anyway, it was different.
The travel agent asked our names and then she shook her head and said ‘we have no tickets for you.’ The travel agent then said ‘you will have to wait until the lady that does the tickets comes in’ – this is the part of travel I hate!! So we waited. The lady eventually came in, some 30 minutes later, and she checked our passports, shook her head and engaged in a long conversation in Mongolian with our guide, there was lots of head shaking, eyes rolling and shoulder scrunching and then Jagaa turned to us and said ‘it is okay, wait’!!! The travel agent rang several other travel agents and eventually smiled and started nodding – the tickets were with another travel agency. We then set off for the other travel agency, 15 minute drive away, and our tickets were sitting waiting of us. Di and I had considered picking our tickets up on the day we were due to depart, as we departed at 3pm, so we had time in the morning – or so we thought!! I am so glad we didn’t as our guide, Jagaa was a heaven send helping us the way she did. I would have hated to find our own way around the apartment complex, discuss everything in broken English with the first travel agent, and then make our way over to the other travel agent office all by our lonesome. Finally, we were off on the tour.
The morning had been wet with steady rain, but as we left Ulaanbaatar the rain stopped. We headed for the flat plains of Mongolia.
We stopped about 90 minutes later on the side of the road where a Mongolian man was showing his birds and animals to passing tourists. The animals were basically camels but the birds were far more impressive.
The man had eagles, hawks and a monstrous vulture that was simply huge. The vulture weighed over 20 kilos and some of the slighter tourists had trouble holding the bird on their arm. I paid the 4000 Tughrik (AUD$2) fee to hold the giant bird, the glove was very thick for protection from the claws, and when the heavy vulture landed on my arm it immediately spread its wings, making it look a very formidable creature indeed – I would hate to be lying sunbathing in the desert and see him flying overhead!!
We then continued on to Terelj National Park. At the entrance to the National Park we stopped at an Ovoo Rock Pile. The Buddhists are supposed to pray here, walk around the rock pile three times, before entering the park and as part of that prayer they cast a rock onto the rock pile which is supposed to give them safe passage through the mountains.
Whilst we were there the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted – it was still summer in Mongolia – I cannot imagine how bad winter must be!!! The Ovoo is always in a high place and this offers some stunning views down into the entrance to the National Park.
Driving through the National Park you get a splattering of buildings, these are mainly hotels with Ger accommodation.
There are signs of some serious construction going on and it appears that larger, more traditional, hotel complexes are coming soon – tourism and the creature comforts march on.
Our next stop was for lunch at a hotel where the accommodation was all in Gers. We had a traditional lunch with beef noodle soup, mutton dumplings and a dessert which was a sticky cake. Whilst we were having lunch another western couple and their guide entered the hotel. We got chatting, as you do, and the westerners were Scottish who had travelled from London by train and were heading on to Beijing by train. Their guide was called ‘Chukka’ and Chukka was an English Football encyclopaedia; he was a Norwich City fan and started quoting all these facts and figures on any team you named – amazing the people you meet.
A Ger is a portable round shaped dwelling that is usually white in colour and is also known, in other countries, as a ‘Yurt’. The Ger is made up of a felt cover, some wooden poles, a round window in the ceiling, a wooden plank floor, a wooden lattice wall and a colourfully painted small entrance door. The Gers have a metal stove in the middle with a chimney through the ceiling. They are round so that mould does not build up in corners.
After lunch it was a short drive to Turtle Rock – though to be honest you need a good imagination to see a turtle in the rock formation. Turtle Rock is the symbol of the Terelj National Park.
It was then a short drive up the mountain to Ariyabal Meditation Centre. The meditation centre is a temple with several teaching rooms surrounding it. It is built on the side of a mountain and you climb a vertical pathway, cross a bridge and a climb a few hundred steps to get to it.
At first I thought this place was going to be hundreds of ancient years old and I was a little disappointed to hear it was built in 2006. The temple is dedicated to the wheel of time and half way up the path there is a spinning wheel built into the roof of a small building where you spin the wheel and it lands on a number – you only do this spinning once in your lifetime and, if you study Kalachakra philosophy, the meaning of the number will be explained.
What was probably the most impressive thing was that all the teachings of Buddha are lined up on signs along the path and steps – they are written in both Mongolian and English and I found myself reading each one as I climbed the steps – there are hundreds.
The view from the meditation centre/temple is pretty spectacular as you get a great view down the valley and beyond. The view alone is worth climb.
The inside of the temple is small but very colourful.
Although the temple was small it wasn’t crowded and it was a comfortable climb up and down to it – well worth the effort.
We then had a thirty minute drive to meet our host family for the night. We were staying with a nomadic Mongolian family in one of their Gers rather than a hotel Ger – it should be interesting.
The family had four Gers – three they lived in and one for the paying guests. The family also have a horse riding business for tourists. They also herd cattle. The location of the Gers was on a flat plain surrounded in the distance by mountains. The family stay at this location for three months each year and this is when they make their money. In winter they take all the livestock and move to sheltered locations near mountains where they form communities with other nomadic families. These communities help each other through the winter.
Apart from wandering over the hills, watching the milking process, watching the family herd the cattle and horses, we spent a lot of time eating and what we ate most of all were dairy products – lots and lots of milk based food and drinks – milk from cows and horses.
We were served a lot of bread, but the bread was to eat with the yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, curds and clotted cream with. We washed this down with salted milk tea that I rather enjoyed and the driver, Jack, drank by the bucket load.
After this arrival snack we were served airag. Airag is fermented mares milk which is mildly alcoholic. The family had the airag fermenting in the outer stomach lining (a sack) of a horse. This sack was situated next to the door and the wife on entering or exiting the Ger would stir the airag so it fermented evenly.
I sat back sipping my airag, which has a bitter and sour taste and takes some getting used to – the first sip is kind of like tasting milk this is just beginning to go off – Jagaa told me the airag slowly deadens the tongue – it contains 2% alcohol. Guests should drink their airag and leave an empty bowl – as Di didn’t like hers and only had the smallest of sips, it was left to me to drink copious amounts to cover for Di’s shortfalls – the things I do for my wife!!! This also left me with a tongue that felt like I had just left a wayward dentist’s office and my tongue lolled about refusing to follow the orders my brain transmitted – what else is new!!!
The family Ger is filled with hundreds of little trinkets they have collected. It seemed like a miniature museum. Most of these trinkets had some sort of connection to a horse and it is plainly obvious that the life of these nomadic families revolve around the horse.
We then had free time to wander around outside and to make our beds in the Ger. Our Ger was basic with five single beds and stove only in it.
The loo was about 100 metres away and was a large hole in the ground with a small wooden structure built around it. I could see Di looking at the toilet in the distance and I saw her plotting her night time path through the cow pat and horse dung minefield for her multiple night time excursions to the loo, it could be a tough night!!!!
As I wandered the hillside I resisted the urge to break into a run and start singing the ‘The hills are alive…….’, much to the relief of the watching cows. I did, though, get to see the family’s two young boys try comically to pull a calf away from its mother so the mother could be milked – eventually the boys won .. just!
Di watched as the wife, the son and daughter prepared the evening meal. They made Buuz. Buuz is a flour dough dumpling with beef or mutton or lamb or horse or yak or goat, basically any meat and cooked in garlic onion and peppers and then steamed.
The meal was served after 7.30pm and we ate Buuz with bread and cheeses washed down with salted tea again – we were bloated.
There was no electricity and the candles came out and we chatted with the husband and wife translated through Jagaa for a while. Then it was off to bed. There are no showers and you make do with pouring water from a jug to wash with. We checked out the stars and then hit the sack.
We were awoken about 3am when the wife came, with prior permission, into our Ger to restock our fire – it did get very cold overnight. When we woke the next morning the Ger was so snug and warm and I had kicked off all the bed covers – the Gers are amazingly warm with the fire going.
Jagaa brought us some more water to wash with – I learnt Di had cheated during the night and peed near the Ger!!!
We entered the main family Ger and the young girl was making urum, which is similar to clotted cream, in a large vat. We sat down for more bread, cream and cheese but also some strawberry jam. I think in a twelve hour period I had consumed more dairy products than I had in the previous twelve months – I was worried it would all start to ferment in my GUT!!!!!!!!!
We then said our good byes to the family and we were off. I enjoyed my one night in the Ger but I do not think a second night would have been okay. I needed a shower, the room had a constant taste and smell of smoke and I was over dairy products – but one night was great. Di had issues with the toilet and, to her credit, Jagaa took Di straight to a hotel to use their toilets once we left the nomadic family.
These hotels have a main building and are surrounded by Gers. The tourists pay to stay in the Ger. The hotel has a dining room, a bar, toilet block with western toilets, showers, wash basins and lounges in the Gers. The tourists there seemed to be just coping with these prehistoric conditions they had to endure – if we had stayed a second night, we would have stayed here!!!
We then drove out of Terelj National Park and headed for Genghis Khan.
Genghis khan is a Mongolian hero from centuries ago, well the Mongolian think so. In his time, his empire conquered most of the known world; from Asia, through Russia, up into the Middle East and parts of Europe as far as Poland all fell to the Mongolian army Genghis Khan led – the Chinese even built a Great Wall to keep him out!!!
On the plains, near to where he was born at Tsonjin Boldog, a 40 metre statue has been erected in his honour. This was the next leg of our tour. You exit the road through some grand gates depicting statues of fierce warriors on horseback and enter a large carpark; thankfully the carpark was nearly empty.
In the distance the stainless steel Genghis rides his magnificent horse to eternal glory.
You walk up the steps and into the museum at the base of the statue. Inside there is a small elevator and a staircase that takes you up into the statue and you emerge on the horse’s head. You turn around and there is Genghis in all his glory.
The view from the horse is magnificent over the outlying plains. You also get a great view of the tour buses arriving and we felt a sense of relief knowing we beat the rush. The statue is the tallest statue on horseback in the world.
We then explored the museum. There is the biggest boot in the world that is made from 200 cow hides.
The museum tells, not only the story of Genghis Khan, but also his sons and the following Mongolian rulers as they devoured country after country during the 13th and 14th century. You can dress up in traditional clothing from the Genghis era, and many tourists did this.
I found seeing the map of the world and how far the Mongolian Empire reached was truly amazing – please bear in mind the Mongolian population today is only 3 million and 800 years ago they conquered the world.
Genghis Khan was an orphan nobody wanted, who became the leader who united war lords from throughout Mongolia into one functional army – not an easy feat. Once his opposition surrendered they paid taxes and came under his protection – basically he was the first ‘barbarian’ with rules and standards. Khan created the post office and paper money. Yes, he was ruthless and millions died before his army, the context of the time in history is important, but he was a great leader and war tactician.
I am not condoning this, but 1 in every 200 people alive today descended directly from Genghis Khan, he certainly left his mark on the world.
On exiting the museum a walk around will show you many statues of various soldiers in the Mongol army and explain their roles – it is all very interesting.
I loved the history and the grandeur of the Genghis Khan statue and it is a must see when you visit Ulaanbaatar, regardless of whether you consider Genghis a monster or a hero.
From there we made our way to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and into an area where Kazakhstani people reside. The Kazakhstan people are Muslim and have a long standing connection to the Mongolian people and are the largest ethnic group in Mongolia.
We were supposed to go there and meet with a lady who would show us how they make traditional Kazakhstan clothing. But this lady was away on a visit to Mecca, so we got her husband. Jagaa did not know what to expect from this change of circumstance.
First thing we were fed, fed a lot and we drank the same milky salted tea. We sat around and chatted, through Jagaa, with our Kazakhstan host for ages, he was very inquisitive about our travels and about Australia. We then learned about him and Kazakhstan. Our host then named three famous Australians – sadly they were all actors and probably even worse was the fact none of them were born in Australia, but hey ‘such is life’ – for the record he named: Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson.
Our host then took us around his Ger and showed us some of the old items he had collected or made. He showed us shoes with horse hooves attached that were used for climbing mountains 50 years ago, saddles, hawk gloves, furs, baby cribs, and then he started to pull out dresses and one thing led to another and soon Di resembled a princes from a Disney animated movie. If Di was a Princess then she needed a Knight, but what she ended up with was a reject from Night at the Museum!!!
Yes folks, we played dress ups again and we loved it.
So what do you do after dress ups, well we ate MORE food. Lunch was served. For lunch we had spicy beef fried noodles with bread – never ending spicy beef fried noodles and bread I might add. Di, being a female, was excused from having to eat so much, but my bowl was constantly being refilled, no matter how much I ate the spicy beef fried noodles kept coming. To top it off we had more salty milky tea to wash it down with.
Our Kazakhstan host was a very gracious host and he made me promise to put Kazakhstan on our list of countries to visit. We said our good byes and I waddled to the car and we set off back to our hotel.
Jagaa and Jack were excellent and we tipped them both generously. I enjoyed my two day adventure and actually wished we had more time in Ulaanbaatar and I can see us returning one day. That night, after a wonderful shower, I vowed to never touch a dairy product again – this vow of course lasted to the next morning when I just have to have milk with my coffee!!!!
The next day we would be back on the train and off to Moscow.
The adventure continues …. In a lactose free sort of way ……………….