A Month in Mongolia.
Trip Start Jul 23, 2009
25Trip End Apr 01, 2010
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Well I've dreamed about Ulanbatuur and now I'm here; a little fragile from train journeying, two nights on a local train and excruciating border 'formalities' on both sides, and another goodbye to new friends....
The laugh of course was that we were accessories to some quite blatant smuggling over the Russian and Mongolian borders by local traders and their provodista pals. Dave and Kate had agreed to let some of the provodista's mates sit in their first class cabin for 'the five minute hop over no man's land' which was actually about an hour. Meanwhile the visitors proceeded to settle in, call up their friends, talk and laugh loudly and stock the upper cabin shelves with watermelons, crates of grapes and so on
Miraculously these offerings had all disappeared by the time the uniformed Russian Federation Customs and Immigration Officials climbed on board to conduct their lengthy searches which included ordering us all out while they got to work unscrewing panelling and seven hours later, we were finally over the border; the harvest festival returned but was not 'seen' by the Mongolian officials.
At First Glance
We were a happy crowd of foreigners cooped into one carriage (as we were to join a much larger train) and a veritable united nations of English, French, Dutch, German and Italians going our merry way. Arriving at dawn with a beautiful sky - this is known as Blue Sky Country - the rolling steppe seems to hunch over what is an ugly skyline of soviet, jerry-built buildings, which is the first sight you have of Ulanbatuur.
Mongolia in Brief
That Mongolia exists at all as a country is due to the vagaries of recent political history: briefly a satellite of the Soviet Union which helped it defeat Imperial China in 1924, it's rich mineral resources were exported to the Soviet Union and despite subsequent industrialisation (as the Chinese had kept Mongolia poor), Mongolia remains an extremely poor country.
Mongolia does not have the infrastructure to develop it's own natural resources and nearly everything has to be exported and 'finished off' elsewhere and as an example of madhouse economics, is then re-imported including some of the cashmere goods for which it is famous
This is a classic, third world poverty trap and to cap it, the Russian Authorities presented Mongolia with a bill for industrial development when she became independent in 1990 which technically makes Mongolia bankrupt. Mongolians however reserve their deeper enmity for the Chinese and the Manchu Emperors who repressed the people and their culture rigourously over the centuries. In a parallel piece of vandalism, the Russians destroyed almost all the temples and anything basically culturally Mongolian during their recent tenure.
Quite a price to pay for the empire building adventures of their beloved leader Genghis Khan who is now a cult figure....
The fact that this monastery is extant is because the Russians planned to keep it as an example of 'how backward we once were'. It has now been restored and has one hundred and fifty Buddhist monks in situ. My hostel perches on a nearby hill and it's only five minutes walk to this most electrifying place; I returned in a somewhat somnambulist state on my first visit, really affected by the mysterious rituals I'd just seen but couldn't photograph: clashing drums, chanting, incense, prayer wheels, the people praying and the huge Golden Buddha now restored - you get the picture
However, I need to keep my wits about me as it's also city-ger town - where the poor and dispossessed live - and is supposed to be a pickpocket joint. Of course 'pickpocket' is a bit of a euphemism as it actually translates into knife wielding bag slasher, but I take all possible precautions and armed with my high decibel whistle and attitude (don't even think of messing with me), I've encountered nothing but kindness but you've heard this one before...
Crossing the Road in Russia and Mongolia: A Comparison
Once in Moscow, too lazy to use the underpass and not liking them much anyway, I ventured on to a wide boulevard meaning to cross it by first getting to the middle; I very soon realised this was definitely NOT done and, as the cars whistled by me on either sides, I vowed on Joshie's life never, ever to do this again, that is, if I survived.
Using up one of my cat's lives I made it across......
but I had the sense that if I hadn't, a Russian Official would have been saying to the Embassy when inevitably they were called out to verify my death: " That The Russian Federation regrets this unfortunate death but ......."
However, please note, this road lunacy is the only way to cross roads in Ulanbataar
You just take a big breath and step out into the traffic and ......
as they don't usually stop .....
trust the drivers to go round you, which they do...
I have no wish to examine the Mongolian roadkill statistics if they exist but I don't think they kill that many: it would be very messy and the police would have to measure - take statements and so on - and they don't actually want to kill you, so all in all, you're pretty safe actually...(?)
Several times now, Mongolian ladies have taken my arm and we have walked trembling into the traffic to arrive at the other side, cackling triumphantly!
I thought I'd Died and Gone to Heaven: Elstei Ger Camp
You soon get out into the steppe, in fact it's visible from Ulanbataar - the rackety buildings fall away and all you can see are individual gers - round felt tents - and animals roaming free as there are no fences
Elstei is a camp established by Shuren - a leading Mongolian travel company here - 20 years ago - and is near a nomad camp where the nomads herd horses, goats and sheep and attend to the various needs of the tourists.
It was exactly what the doctor ordered for me - a week's solitude - loads of sleep - 3 meals a day - and horseriding; not to mention the company of the most amazing Mongolian staffers and visiting tourists coming and going, including two women from Hastings so how weird is that?
The whole staff turned out to see me off, even the disdainful security guard waved goodbye, (he'd been the horse guide of the ride of my life) and it was with a lump in my throat, and a tear in my eye, that I left such a beautiful place promising myself that I'd come back..
The Horse Ride of my Life: a Dedication
After watching the horse handlers for a day or two, I decided to try my luck again at riding because I'd effectively given it up some years before because of some nasty tumbles...
Thought I couldn't be in Mongolia and NOT ride a horse in open country....
I'm so happy that I've found my horse legs again and I rounded off the Ger Camp experience by riding out with Mongolians - the daughter of Shuren's Managing Director, a nephew, one of their friends and the security guard as horse guard, to have the most thrilling ride of my life. We GALLOPED, I repeat I have never willingly galloped a horse anywhere, and in a funny way it was easier, just stand in the stirupps like the jockeys do, see, easy....
Anyway, as I rode along grateful I was still on the best horse in the world (Josh took a tumble), I resolved I was riding for a friend and so I dedicated my ride to Hilary Claire, killed in a horse riding accident in France, two years ago: "RIP Hilary: I rode for you."
The mongolians I have encountered are also in my dedication because they are the most caring and thoughtful people I have met so far....I know I'm in Asia.
I'm off to spend a week in Gobi at another Ger Camp en route to Beijing where I can get to camel ride amongst other things but news of that will come from China as in the desert there is no internet, funny that?