And we're off.....

Trip Start May 16, 2005
Trip End Nov 01, 2006

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Next morning we set off, realising that we had too much stuff during the packing session with the Land Rover. One of the good things about UB is that you can very quickly leave it behind you and the Mongolian backcountry is at hand. Rather like I imagine Oz or Northern Canada to be, Mongolia is a very frontier place - towns/cities, such as they are, generally stop quickly and then wild bush land starts almost immediately - cool!.

So after getting going we stopped for our first Ovoo visit. This is a common Mongolian mini-ritual that seems to combine bits of Buddhism, Shamanism and plain old traveller's superstition. An Ovoo is usually a cairn (varying in size form pretty small to almost tepee-sized) made of a combination of stones and small, cut trees (although we once stopped by one that was made up of wooden crutches - completely bizarre but by the time we'd come across that one we had seen so many random things in Mongolia that it somehow seemed perfectly normal!) usually festooned with prayer flags and small offerings, tradition dictates that one walk three times round these clockwise and leave something of value there. As it turned out we were going to need the luck bestowed on us by every one of these we stopped at....

The countryside soon began to build into the rolling praries and never-ending sky that most would imagine Mongolia to look like. Less than 24hrs after landing and we were off on our own wee adventure with no deadlines or places to be for the next 16 days! Allcredit to Sonia and JW here they did a great job of getting everything that we needed together so that my time spent in UB was minimal.

I'm not sure if it was some sort of omen or just an indication of the fact that we were truly in a very wild and unpopulated part of world but a few hours into our journey we had to slow right down and wait for one of the locals to get off the road. Not a shepherd or someone similar but a truly giant Golden Eagle, easily the biggest bird that any of us had ever seen. It was amazing how close we got before it finally flew off. It almost felt as if you could feel the gusts of downdraft as it took off with a few sweeps of its enormous wings - incredible!

The road was in relatively good nick (for Mongolia) but things soon changed as we turned off the "motorway" onto an "A" road. Basically, the only tarmac-ed roads in Mongolia only last for just over a hundred kilometres outside UB. After that it's all pot-holed dust tracks. The sort of things that rich executives pay a fortune to drive over back in the UK in 4x4s, skidding around, left to right and at sorts of angles. We were very glad that we had our Land Rover and its suspension but many Mongolians race around on these roads in Japanese saloon, as often as not loaded down with 12 members of the extended family. They must go through axles at a hell of a rate here!

Our first campsite was fly-infested but we had come prepared. The amazing views of the rolling Mongolian countryside as the sun went down more than made up for it. As we started to get the food on a local herder rode up to us and squatted down. This set something of a precedent for what was to become almost a nightly ritual: we would arrive at what we deemed a suitably scenic spot and start setting up camp thinking that we had the entirety of the vast steppes (as far as the eye could see) to ourselves - wrong. From what appeared to be nowhere, someone would trot up on a small Mongolian horse and squat near us. They would watch us faff with all our paraphernalia, giggle a bit, we'd give them some tea/biscuits, then just a quickly as they arrived, they'd trot off. We shouldn't have been surprised as I'm sure that the arrival of a small gaggle of westerners in the middle of your patch is probably a noteworthy event. What did surprise me a little was that there was no sense of "oi ye cannae camp here son, oh no, ye'll have tae move on", nor any riffling thorough our gear or badgering for "business" of any sort. The thing is, Mongolia doesn't really belong to anyone in the western sense and there are really no fences or walls and I gradually started to realise this. Also I got the impression that, as almost everyone in Mongolia is nomadic in some form or other (a typical family living outside a town will live in "Gers"- Mongolian 'yurts'/felt tents and move about four times a year), this fosters a very pragmatic mind set. This comes across in the national psyche a fair bit in that Mongolians are very laid-back, not at all prudish and unfailingly hospitable. Most things in life seem to have to justify themselves with the adage that "if you can't carry it and it breaks easily, it's not worth having". To me this came across most at times in the evening when we would get our usual visitations as I felt that most people looked at all of our "trappings" with a quick assessment along the lines of "looks heavy and fiddly - I don't think it would last long out here, you can keep all your guff, mate!". I think they were probably right about most of our stuff!

The next day we learned another thing about Mongolia - despite the roasting hot days, the nights were cold and it took us a while to loosen up and get going! It was a short drive over the hill from our campsite to the Monastery of Amarbayasgalant Khiid. This was originally built in 1727 and is one of Mongolia's top Buddhist sites. It was certainly an impressive construction to see in the middle of the steppe. It's still a practising monastery but when we arrived it was deserted. One of the young monks let us in to all the various buildings/shrines. We were accompanied by a troup of Mongolian tourists. The site has a great collection of statues and tapestries and is not in too bad a state, considering how little money goes into restoration/cultural activities in Mongolia. Mongolia has virtually no "built" heritage and if you're the sort of person that likes stunning architecture, it's fair to say that you won't get a great deal from Mongolia (nor would you, for that matter if you're a gastronome, but there's plenty of other things on offer!). It's a bit odd that a country that was the centre of the largest continuous land empire the world has ever seen has virtually nothing to show for it! That said, Amarbayasgalant Khiid, is one of the few exceptions (apart from the fact that it's not from the days of the empire!). For those of you that are interested, Mongolian Buddhism is a form of Tibetan Buddhism and when we were at the monastery there was a suitable collection of yellow hats associated with this type of Buddhism. They'd all just been left loafing around - the Monks presumably off for a quick chant and cup of Airag??

We spent most of the rest of the day getting to the city of Erdenet. This appears from almost nowhere and is Mongolia's second city (in terms of size), but it uses almost half of all Mongolia's electricity. This is mainly due to the fact that it arose from the steppe to service the country's largest copper mine, which is still active and is one of the 10 largest copper mines in the world. It is an open cast mine and is quite an impressive site in itself. What I found fascinating was the style and architecture of the city - it is a little chunk of the Soviet Union in Mongolia. Mongolia is a country where the influence of the old Soviet Empire is still felt everywhere, but nowhere more so than Erdenet - the Soviets basically built it from scratch in the 1970s. Run down and shabby it feels like what I imagine most of the former USSR to look like, it's even complete with posters extolling the virtues of our glorious workers in the mine etc. Here we drank some horrible goo called Kvas, which is fermented bread or something equally foul - so we left it for the boys to polish off (Jamts and Chukka). We did a bit of stocking up here and encountered a truly rancid mutton market in the local shopping centre - no accounting for taste! It was also here that we saw for sale some of the legendary fishing lures that are designed for the huge Taimen (the fish that Mongolian rivers are famous for). These are made of an ex squirrel with hooks in it, as this is something of a delicacy for a Taimen - a good indication of their size, although I've no idea how a big fish climbs all those trees?!

For some reason Jamts decided to drive us hard after this and it was almost dark before we stopped to camp out. During this drive we came across our first Mongolian dust bowl, so we were suitably filthy when we stopped.

The next day's driving took us further north and the scenery changed accordingly, more larch forests and birch woods, more rivers and log cabins started appearing, making the place feel like Montana or Wyoming! That afternoon we stopped by our first big river camp and it was to turn out to be our most one of our most beautiful - very pristine feeling and like a small chunk of Siberia had come into Mongolia (river Eg, near a place called Teshig). We stopped early so were able have swims and get a good fire going. James and I set off to try and catch something to cook on it. Which, amazingly, we did - six grayling fell to the skilled use of James' Sage (fly rod) and two made it to the pan. They didn't taste of great deal - but that's just not the point is it?! During a walk downstream that evening we saw what were all sure was a wolf print! This was classic wolf territory and we knew that local farmers loose a few livestock to them now and again, but to actually see the real sign of one was quite something.

The next morning after the usual confusion that surrounded organising anything with our dodgy combination of Russian and English, three-way translation, we set off to a nearby relative's house for afternoon mixed dairy products, hot salty water and horse riding (what else)! A great spread was laid on inside a log cabin (which are only used, it seems, in summer). Some of it wasn't too bad and I tucked in with the typical gusto of a polite Englishman abroad! The salty tea really took a bit of getting used to however! We were sized up and then assigned to some of the family's best racing-nags. We quickly learned that the horses had very distinctive characters and I (the least experienced rider) had been given the horse equivalent of a Porche! James had a reincarnation of the horse he'd ridden in Kyrgystan - "Mr Snek" (a reference to its constant desire to snack at every opportunity). This was a horse so docile that only a sound thrashing could get it do anything more than a light walk.

Needless to say we were all kept on leashes and I was glad of this especially as all the local lads started to chatter amongst each other about how much of a demon ride mine was! As our confidence grew, however we ditched the leashes and started to trot a bit. For me the whole experience was very refreshing as my only prior experience of horse riding was three hours of lessons in Richmond Park. These lessons had been very formal and full of dos and don'ts. But here it was a different story - just get on with it and try not to fall off! After lunch by a very large local lake we took off for a slightly more adventurous ride into the hills little way. I'm not sure why we all felt so much more confident but when one of the horses started to canter we all just took off and before we new it, the 1st US Cavalry was on the scene - all in a line, along a dusty shore-track, totally exhilarating! We went back to our riverside camp and said a sad goodbye before setting off on another dusty drive. By the end of the day we were hot, tired and very dusty. We struggled to find a suitable campsite but what we ended up at wasn't too bad, apart from having to share the only trickle of water with the local gang of yaks and horses, still, none of us was were stampeded in the night!
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