Mongolia - Land of the Eternal Blue Sky

Trip Start May 02, 2012
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Trip End Jul 31, 2014


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Where I stayed
Oh-so Indie hotel

Flag of Russian Federation  , Central Russia,
Tuesday, July 8, 2014

There is so much to catch up with - we have been on the train from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar (UB) and in the Mongolian countryside staying in gers with nomad families (definitely no wifi!!) and then a brief stopover in UB again before boarding the Trans Mongolian/Siberian Train, so I fear that this may be a VERY long-winded account!!  But I need to get it down for my own record…

At the moment we are in Russia on the Trans Siberian Train (also called "The Track of the Camel") from UB to Moscow for 4 nights and 5 days.  We boarded a few days ago and passed through the Mongolia/Russia border very late at night.  The Russians were very thorough in searching through our cabin – even using sniffer dogs – but the best part was that we didn't have to get off the train at all.   Very efficient….  As I write we are travelling alongside Lake Baikal.  At this point I must elaborate on Lake Baikal as it truly amazing…..!   It is 636km from north to south and 60km wide and holds more water than is in the five Great Lakes in North America.   It is the deepest lake in the world – and is getting deeper as the Asian and Pacific tectonic plates separate.   It will eventually become the Earth’s 5th ocean…   The water never gets warmer than 15 degrees centigrade, is pure enough to drink and it is possible to see down as far as 40m.   Over 1,700 species of plants and animals live in the lake – 200 kinds of shrimp!  The omul – a salmon-like fish – is Baikal’s main commercial fish and supposedly emits a shrill cry when caught. The smoked omul is sold along the way at the various railway stations.  The golomyanka oilfish, endemic to Baikal has no scales and gives birth to live young (about 2000 at a time).  (The fish info is for Bruce – but he probably knows this already!).   Freshwater seals called Nerpa seals, also only found here – they are the world’s smallest seal and can hunt 1500m below the surface even at night.  They have particularly large claws to force their way through the sometimes 1m thick ice that covers the lake in winter.

But back to our departure from Beijing….

We caught the Trans Mongolian Train (2 days and 1 night) from Beijing to UB and had a lovely 2-berth cabin, sharing a toilet and basin with the adjacent cabin.   The cabin had bunk beds and an armchair.   It was super-clean and really comfortable.  At the China/Mongolia border we all had to get off the train and wait for 3 hours in a very basic waiting area while the bogeys were changed to fit a different rail track size, the Chinese dining car was swopped for a Mongolian one and we went through passport and customs control.    It was 3am before we got back to bed, by which stage we were absolutely exhausted.   It was quite surreal walking along the deserted dimly lit station to get back onto the train with music blaring over the crackling loudspeakers and customs officials and police standing watching over things.

Ulaan Baatar, situated along the Tuul River, has the feel of being stuck in a time warp.   As you arrive through green rolling hills, one catches a glimpse of the brightly coloured roofs of little houses and buildings and the white round gers (called yurts in Russia).   Each family is allowed 0.7 hectares of land and they often build a wooden fence (called a hasha) around the plot - and then erect a ger to live in.   The ger (a circular tent with the door always pointing south) is made with a felt and canvas-covered wooden trellis around the circumference, with a wooden roof structure with a round “wheel” in the centre through which a stove’s chimney protrudes. The covering at the bottom of the ger can be lifted up to let in the breeze, and the top half of the wheel on the roof can be covered up or opened.…  It must be very cosy in winter.   Lots of city hashas were empty as families take their ger with them when they migrate to the countryside in summer for grazing for their animals. 

There are no planning regulations in UB and the Russian communist influence is very evident in the architecture of the city.   Mongolia has had a difficult time since the break up of the Russian Federation in 1990 (in 1996 a non-communist democratic government was elected) but appears now to be on the up with a lot of infrastructure and building work on the go.   Some people even call Mongolia “Minegolia” as it is rich in copper, gold and coal.   But it’s basically a poor country and the people are still nomadic at heart.   The traffic in UB is unbelievable – I thought that the South East Asia countries were bad, but this was worse.  The explanation of this supposedly is that drivers act as if they were still on horseback – travelling in all directions and taking whatever gap is available!  Both left and right hand drive cars are used.

Our tour into the countryside – to the steppes west of UB - was so different.   We set out with a guide (a young Muslim girl) and a driver, in a Russian 4x4 kombi – called a Furgon.   The vehicle was out of the “Arabian Nights” - the inside roof was padded with bright orange shiny fake leather (with buttons), the seats were red and orange, the curtains were shiny green – with gold tasseled braid all over.  There were heavily patterned carpets – and a final touch, a bright blanket tossed over our seat!!!   No seatbelts were in evidence!  The roads are quite badly potholed so travelling was slow.  We stopped twice to fill up two big “containers” with well water just outside town, and then again later for a lovely picnic.   For the picnic we just drove off the road into the hills (there are no fences in Mongolia) and then set up a low table with little plastic stools (Vietnam-style).  We sat down to fried eggs, bread and meat, and a cup of tea and swarms of “miggies”… The Mongolians eat mainly meat and dairy, as very little vegetables, fruit or herbs are produced. Chicken is often not available.

We arrived at our first night stop – a family ger in the middle of nowhere. (How the driver found it amongst all the criss-crossing sandy tracked roads I don’t know!).  Our ger contained just a central wood stove and ornately painted wooden box beds with horsehair mattresses – very hard.  There was no electricity (we had candles) and the toilet was a “long-drop” a very long way away.  It appears that bathrooms don’t feature heavily in their culture!   A bit of a setback for me!!!!   The water supply was a little contraption on a pole – basically a small bucket with a nozzle at the bottom – no piped water.   Dinner at 6:00pm was a typical Mongolian meal cooked on the woodstove – a soup called “shölte khool” which included mutton, potato and flat pasta bits and served with fried unleavened bread and thick yoghurt.  Delicious….

When we were offered a horse or camel ride (we chose horses!) the farmer galloped around at a fearsome rate brandishing a long stick with a noose attached (an urga) to catch the horses!   Being a non-rider I became increasingly nervous – as he took a good half hour of frantic activity, and expert horsemanship, to round up the horses that weren’t too keen on being caught….   But we then had a wonderful ride ending at 9:00pm with the sun just going down over the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert.

Horses are a most important part of Mongolian life.  Herds abound, and everywhere people are working on horseback as well as riding for pleasure.  We saw many groups of children riding and men on horseback in their traditional clothing – a tunic with a silk belt.  The belt is to keep their body organs in place when galloping and also is used as a pocket.  The horses are never petted and, when at the ger, are tethered to something that looks like a clothesline.  The mares are milked to make a fermented daily drink called airag, which Andy enjoyed, but which was far too sour for me.  When tethered the horses shake their heads continually as they are plagued by horse flies and “miggies”.    The Mongolian farmer runs all his stock together in one herd – cows/yaks, goats, sheep, horses and camels. 

Our 2nd day in the Mongolian countryside started with rice porridge and a divine hot shower at a local shower house in Kharkhorin, the former capital of Mongolia. I think it was the capital in Chinggis Khan’s time (before he went on to Beijing). Kublai Khan was his grandson!  We loved seeing the Erdere Zuu – the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery. The 100-odd monks still chant prayers for the daily visitors who come to worship there, and it feels like things haven’t changed since then, except the monks don’t live there and arrive in kombis with their fancy wristwatches and cellphones!!!

The excellent museum in Kharkhorin was also interesting.  China, Mongolia and Russia have been so intertwined over the years, that it has been fascinating to piece history together. That night we stayed with another family in a ger in the town, and I had an enjoyable time in the family kitchen area making vegetable dumplings with the owner lady.  There is an art to making different shapes, and I was all thumbs…  But the finished dumplings were divine, steamed for our supper.

We spent the 3rd day in Mongolia at the Hustai Nurwuu National Park - 100kms west of UB.  This park is home to the endangered Przewalski horses (called Takhi locally). They are much lighter in colour than the local horses……but otherwise not too interesting!!!   Was more interested in the variety of veld flowers.  We stayed in yet another ger at a popular tourist place just outside the park, and after another picnic with fried rice and cucumber in the hills, we headed back to UB.    All along the road were little mounds of rocks and stones, with multi-coloured scarves draped on them and flapping in the wind (the blue ones to honour the supreme god of the eternal blue sky).    These are mounds are ovoos and are erected to honour the spirits.  Locals stop at them and walk 3 times around them, throwing in more rocks and stones or anything else they feel like – often beer cans/vodka bottles/sweets and other odd things…showing gratitude and respect, and asking for a safe journey.

Mongolia is known as the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky and we certainly endorse that….

We are now on the last day of our five day long Trans Siberian Train trip and will arrive in Moscow (MockBa – the Cyrillic alphabet is a bit of a puzzle!!!) in a couple of hours. Really look forward to that…..

It has been a great trip despite my initial concern about it being such a long journey. The train is a brand new Mongolian train and we have been comfortable in a 2-berth first class compartment.   When we left UB our carriage had about 10 other passengers but most got off at Irkutsk – to explore Lake Baikal - and the last couple at Verkhoyansk after two nights.   So it has been nice and quiet….. The cabin attendants are on duty day and night and keep the place spotless. They vacuum even at 3 am!!  Every time the train stops they put on their full uniform and stand at attention on the platform at the door to the carriage.

We have passed through a variety of types of countryside – in Russia, some big rivers (including the Ob and the Volga), a lot of forests, the Ural Mountains  and some small scale agriculture.    The northern part of Mongolia in particular was absolutely beautiful. 

We managed to catch a glimpse of the little monument marker showing the boundary between Asia and Europe.  As I have mentioned Lake Baikal was a highlight, and we travelled for many kilometres along the shoreline. It also has been interesting to see from the train as we pass, people going about their daily lives.   The gold onion-domed orthodox churches are a feature of most villages – such opulence, compared to their little wooden houses!  We stop at the larger stations along the way for about 20 minutes at a time.   It is nice to get off and have fresh air, and Andy usually dashes off to see if there is anything worthwhile to buy to eat and to see if he can get wifi!!!   (He has been mostly unsuccessful - although he did find a delicious salami and fresh bread….!)   We had stocked up on some foodstuffs before we left at UB – at the State Department Store – and actually have managed perfectly.   We tried the Russian dining car that was hitched on to our train when we crossed the border, but it is really old and shabby with very poor food at highly inflated prices.

So now to Moscow in an hour or so, and then after a few days there, on to St Petersburg – it has always been a dream of mine to visit these historic cities……
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Comments

Justine on

Absolutely fabulous Ann. So nice to read (and see the pic's) about all the interesting and wonderful things you are doing on this trip.xxx

Gill on

Don't fancy the shower facilities. All so interesting xx

paula on

Can't wait for the next installment!!!!

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