Snow in Terelj

It was pretty toasty in the ger when we awoke and Tim stoked the fire. We needed to venture outside for our morning pee and opened the door to a blanket of crisp white snow covering of everything. It must have snowed all throughout the night. It was one of the prettiest things I have seen and something I will never forget. Our ger was covered in snow with our little chimney sticking out. The golden trees were covered in a layer of snow and everything just looked clean and fresh. 

That was soon ruined by the ger owner trying to drive his car through the snow to get to Ulaan Baator but he didn’t make it very far and soon needed assistance from us to push him out. Again he didn’t make it far and soon got out threw his hands in the air and left the car and started walking back to the ger camp. 

We packed a lunch and went hiking. Unfortunately we also didn’t get far as we couldn’t manage to cross the river without getting our feet wet. We went back to the ger camp and headed the other way and soon found the same issue. It was still a nice walk along the river in the woods. We had lunch out there and Sandro boiled some water for tea. We also managed to pick up a beautiful dog who must have smelt our tuna sandwiches. He was really lovely and followed us all the way home and layed down in front of our ger. By this stage it was mid afternoon and I don’t think we would have made it much further than we did anyway as the snow had started seeping into our shoes and our feet were freezing. 

We all got warm around Sandro and Tamar’s fire and continued with our card games while sipping vodka. It was an awesome way to spend the rest of the afternoon. Our hosts were a little rowdy when we got back from our walk and when we went to get more wood for our fires they were passed out in their ger. Maybe it is tradition to drink a bottle of vodka on the first day of snowfall in Mongolia……. It didn’t really matter as we were not getting dinner from them as we had brought supplies so we collected the last of the firewood ourselves from their pile and boiled up some water for noodles. Then at about 8.30pm our door opens and a big bowl of Mongolian mutton soup gets delivered to us. It must have gotten lost in translation that we didn’t want dinner so we politely filled out bowls and ate a second dinner! 

The temperature had really started to drop when we got back to our ger but Tim got the fire started again and it warned the place slightly. 

The next day we headed back to Ulaan Bataar but unfortunately old mate had ruined his car trying to get out of the snow yesterday so we had to walk the 2kms to the bus stop through snow and over rickety river crossings. It certainly was an adventure but we made it back and enjoyed a wonderful hot shower! 

I must admit that although I have loved experiencing Mongolian nomadic life living in a ger, after two nights I was definitely ready for a hot shower and a warm place to sleep and it’s only Autumn! They really are a tough people and no wonder they drink straight vodka to keep them warm. I take my hat off to them making a life in such an inhospitable place. S 

Our ger in the morning.

The camp.

On our walk we came across another ger camp. That is a whole ger backed up on that tiny trailer.

The crew.

Our adopted dog. 

All of us following the owner to the bus stop.

This bridge was tough. The snow after a night had frozen and the bridge had a slight lean to it. I must admit there was one hairy part where I thought I was in the water bag and all!

While we were waiting for our bus a herd of horses, cows and yaks and then sheep and goats passed us with their owner. We think he was moving them to their winter ger.

Trip to Terelj National Park

Today we had placed our faith in Baatar our host for another tour. We were essentially getting a lift to a nearby National Park called Terelj but on the way we were going to see another couple of places. Once again we weren’t quite sure what the plan was but we were ready at 9 as he told us.
There was another couple staying at the hostel called Sandro and Tamar from BC Canada who we had met and seemed really nice so we had decided to join up with them on the trip to split the cost. They had a tent and were planning to go off on a four day hike through the wilderness but we at least thought we could join up for the first day.
We had to catch a taxi to the outskirts of town to meet Baatar as there is a policy of odd and even number plates only being allowed to drive in the city on alternate days and he was on an off day.
We were soon whisked off up a hill to see a monument built in honour of the Soviets which also commanded a great view of the city. I wouldn’t say Ulaanbaatar is the most beautiful city and unfortunately the cloud had set in but it was great to see the size of the place and the ger suburbs stretching up into the hills.
When we drove north out of the city we were very quickly in the middle of nowhere whereas the southern side of town seemed to stretch further towards Terelj. I wouldn’t say it was densely populated by any stretch of the imagination but there were more hamlets and buildings along the road.
Second stop was a 40m high statue of Chinggis Khan atop his horse. It was made out of steel and in the sunshine made for a very impressive sight! We climbed up inside and got some great views of the surrounding area. The only strange thing was that it’s built in the middle of nowhere!! It’s only possible to visit on a tour and it’s not on the way to anywhere.
Next stop was our destination Terelj National Park. First impressions were of how different it was to where we had been before in Mongolia. There were much bigger hills covered in trees. It was autumn so the trees had all turned a magnificent yellow and the initial views were superb.
The place itself is fairly busy during the summer as it’s so close to Ulaanbaatar and there was evidence of this with the many tourist camps dotted around the place. We were at the back end of the season though so the place was pretty much deserted.
Baatar was kind enough to drive us to a couple of the more out of the way sights and we got to see a massive rock in the shape of a turtle. This was followed by a walk up to see a temple. The temple was quite pretty set into the end of a valley and on the walk up the path was lined with signs with sayings on. We felt very righteous by the time we got to the top.
While Baatar’s people carrier had got us around most places so far he had to drop us off at a petrol station to get picked up by our hosts for the last leg of the journey. After we had gone down a fairly rough track and forded a couple of rivers we arrived at our ger camp. We had a ger each and they were very homely and set in the bottom of a valley amongst the forest.
It was all very picturesque and the four of us decided to use the last bit of sunshine and go for a walk. Then it was back to the gers to get the fires started and the places warmed up. We had a great evening with Sandro and Tamar playing cards and keeping warm in the tents and just as we were going to bed there was a dusting of snow starting to fall!! T

40m high and built on the spot where he found his lucky whip.

The plan is to build 10,000 of these figures to represent Chiggis’ army.

Nothing to be said

At turtle rock in Terelj National Park.

The Buddhist temple and the valley around it were spectacular.

We met this guy at the temple who was pretty blind and was fascinated by my hairy arms!

Our ger camp in the valley at Terelj.

The walk through the fallen leaves and the yellow trees was really very relaxing.

Karakoram and surrounds

We awoke before dawn to Grandma restocking our fire. I stuck my hand out and it was freezing outside. But the fire soon warmed the ger and we were toasty warm. Breakfast was simple fare of bread, biscotti and jam. But the best part was the homemade butter/cream. I don’t think I have ever had that before.  

We asked Baatar where the fresh cows milk had come from as we hadn’t seen any cows and he told us that the cows are normally here in the morning for milking because they keep the calves near the homestead and the mothers and the rest of the herd come back in the afternoon to feed the calves. However yesterday the granddaughters were in charge of keeping the mothers and calves separate and they got sidetracked playing so the mothers took the calves with them so therefore no need for the herd to come back. So no fresh milk this morning. Granddad needed to go out on his horse and find them and bring them back.

We then got to watch the goats and sheep slowly make their way out to the pastures. The camels had already taken off somewhere. We found out that a camels hump/s are their fat reserves and are effected by how healthy and fat they are. There was a mother with her calf who she was still feeding which is causing her to be not as fat as the others so her hump is not upright but saggy. 

We headed out soon after breakfast to check out one of the nomad spring camps. The nomads traditionally have four camps. One for summer which is just right out in the open air with no fixed structure other than gers, autumn camp which is closer to the mountain side to shelter from wind but now a lot of nomads don’t use this and go straight from summer to winter which is in the hills so they are sheltered from all sides. They then have a spring camp which is out on the plains again but usually have a structure for the sheep and goats to shelter from the wind. 

Our ger was a 4 walled ger which means they use 4 lattice like structures bent into a circle. The nomads central ger can be as many as nine. The gers are insulated with a layer of sheeps wool compacted into felt. In summer they only use one layer but in winter three. Also the floor in winter is insulated with felt but in summer just a layer of Lino. 

Their lives are hard. I have spent two days here in Autumn and cannot comprehend how hard winter must be. Waking in -20 degrees and walking out to a landscape covered in snow. Apparently the horses and camels can still find food but the sheep and goats cant so need to be fed stored hay. In saying that Batoor says that the horses at the end of the winter are in pretty bad shape. But summertime comes and they recover and the scenery would be beautiful out here. 

After the trip to the spring camp we headed to Karakoram. Which was supposedly the seat of Chiggis Khans empire but today there is nothing left. Near the site a Buddist temple was erected. It is a vast walled complex with temples inside. Again we managed to show up just as a ceremony was taking place. Like most of the places of worship all but three of the temples were destroyed in the religious purges and it didn’t fully open again until 1990’s. 

Lunch was had in one of the restaurants. Batoor has been ordering a selection of Mongolian fare for us to try and it has all been delicious. The meat has been tasty and the sauces very flavorsome though everything comes with rice and potatoes. 

We headed back to the ger camp and after a cup tea we were told we were going horseback riding. We were a little apprehensive as we had been told Mongolian horses are pretty spirited and considering these guys just this morning were happily roaming the country side with their herd we didn’t think they would be to happy having us on their backs. 

We were asked if we wanted to be lead or if we had enough experience to ride ourselves and I decided to ride myself. Tim’s horse wasn’t the most cooperative so he was lead by the nomad. It was really peaceful and beautiful riding the plains on sunset. The smells and rhythm of the horses were really quite therapeutic.

Unfortunately the ger camp had suddenly become filled with other tourists but by this stage it was seven o’clock and our dinner was waiting for us in the ger. A few games of cards later and a fully stocked fire and our eyes were shutting. We fell asleep to the sound of the explosive wind passing sheep and goats sleeping right outside our ger. 

The next day we didn’t have any plans so after a lazy get up and a walk around camp we headed back to Ulaan Baatar. This took most of the day with a stop for lunch at around 3pm we experienced first hand the horrible Ulaan Baatar traffic. It took us an hour and half to travel about 20kms! 

Once back we sorted out the next day’s plan to visit Terelj National Park with Sandro and Tamar, a Canadian couple we were staying at the guest house, we all headed out for a bite to eat at one of the budget Mongolian restaurants and then decided on a sneaky beer at one of the pubs. This one was a German ale house which was really rather nice. The weirdest thing about the place was that we were the only mixed gender table throughout the whole place. It was either groups of males or females. We asked Bataar the next day and he shrugged his shoulders and said that he and his wife never go out for a drink together either. It is either him staying at home with the kids and she goes out or he goes out with his friends. I get the sense there is still a little bit of a gender gap here. S

The herds leaving to forage for the day.

View from the ger camp into the little Goni.

Such a vast expanse of nothingness. You can see the different nomads herds as little black dot clusters on the plains behind Tim.

Just one of the homesteads we passed while driving. You couldn’t have posed him better really.

One the way we saw vultures hiving near a carcass of some description. I didn’t realise they were so big! They sure are ugly too.

The temple in Karakoram.

The walls of the temple. It was really an impressive space. Not really filled either but a lot of the temples had been destroyed in the religious purge and never rebuilt.

A herd of horses. 

We stopped off at the little Gobi just near the ger camp and climbed some of the dunes.

Our faithful steeds. We have decided that an hour of horseback riding is a perfect length of time. Any more after that and a certain body part hurts like there is no tomorrow!

View while riding.

A nomad bringing in his herd for the day.

Off On Tour in Mongolia

We didn’t really know exactly what we were going to do in Mongolia but had a few ideas. After chatting with our host Baatar he offered to take us on a tour which would take in some of the adventurous places we were thinking of. We checked out prices and worked out that his was a pretty good deal.
So this morning found us getting picked up by Baatar and being driven to an ATM to withdraw 1 million tugriks for our trip!! I feel at times that this country might spend more time counting money than anything else!
Anyway we were soon on the road and our hunch about Baatar turned out to be correct. His English was excellent and his openness and knowledge about the country meant for an absolutely fascinating drive out to our first National Park.
We started by asking a few questions and eventually the conversation flowed covering many wonderfully amazing facts and insights into Mongolia. I shall just try and list a few to remember:
Interest rates for savings in the banks at 20% for local currency and 7%for US dollars.
Mongolians allowed to own apartments but (apart from a few in the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar) no one is allowed to own land as it goes against their nomadic background. For this reason farming is only a relatively new practice dating back only as far as 60 years.
He remembered the communist era. Everyone had food, shelter and clothing but the difference between the poorest and the richest person was minute.
Remembered Coca-cola as being the real treat. It cost a US dollar and was only available from special tourist shops. He remembered getting enough money together to buy a coke and how much it was savoured and the can even kept as a souvenir.
Chewing gum was what everyone craved and when they got it it would be chewed until the end. There were no bananas until 1990!!
The change from communism to democracy was well welcomed but a very hard time as it took the country time to adjust. There were food stamps to stop people from starving but essentially people were opening up shops without anything to sell in them.
The food stamps meant that the people got all of their essentials including vodka!
We had a good discussion about the different types of communism and once again we noticed that it was said that the way of life wasn’t truly bad. For while no one got ahead no one was left behind either.
The pollution issues in Ulaanbaatar stem more from people burning coal to keep warm rather than factory pollution.
The nomads traditionally have five animals, horse, camel, cow, goat and sheep. The horse is the pride of Mongolia but actually is the least useful (especially now there is a more modern nomad riding around on a motorbike). They are still kept but more as pride. The sheep and goats are kept together as the goats can lead the sheep to grazing land and the sheep keep the goats warm.
Sheep’s wool is so cheap it’s not worth selling.
It’s so amazing to see huge areas of land without any fences at all and the animals just wandering in herds. They are branded for identification and the goats and sheep are brought home every night to try and protect them from wolves.
Religion was effectively wiped out between 1921 and 1990. The Buddhist monks were not seen as productive and many were wiped out and the others made to work. Buddhism was still practised but mostly in the open only by older people who had nothing to lose or it was done in private.
Christianity is rising. There are (as always) many religious groups coming out and converting people. To be fair it was said that they probably do more for the community than the Buddhists do and they provide bibles translated into Mongolian whereas Baatar said he had never seen a Buddhist text in anything other than Tibetan.
Back to the day…while gleaning all this info we had driven to Khustain National Park which is home to the Przewalski’s horse. These are a wild horse native to Mongolia and are the last of the wild horses but unfortunately almost became extinct but have recovered somewhat due to this National Park’s effort in breeding them. The actually differ genetically from the domestic horse.
When we arrived we thought it was quiet but Baatar couldn’t understand why it was so busy. There were a dozen or so cars in the car park. Anyway we set off into the park in search for horses but couldn’t see any at all. We stopped at one point and heard some animal calling from one side of the valley so decided to go for a walk to see what it was. The noise was truly quite chilling and we soon worked out that there were a few calling to each other. When we finally caught sight of them we found out that they were Red Deer another native of the park and quite rare to see!
Sarah and I were set off on a hike by ourselves while Baatar retrieved the car and on the way while we were avoiding stepping in the many gopher holes we saw a viper which was fairly exciting.
Back in the car and a little further down the road we finally saw what we were here for…the przewalski horse. They were a different colour to the domestic horse but looked very clean and in very good shape. We went for a walk to see how close we could get but they were fairly skittish.
We had a late lunch in a roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere which consisted of local fare of stew and rice but was pretty delicious.
Later we arrived at our ger camp and as soon as we arrived we went on a camel ride with the owner of the camp. He couldn’t have been more stereotypically dressed if he tried and the camels with their double jumps were like something out of the movies. We followed our leader around some dunes while he serenaded us. It was really quite an amazing moment there in the middle of Mongolia miles away from anything.
By the time our ride finished the sun had gone down and it was freezing!! Luckily a fire had been lit in our ger and food soon arrived to warm our insides. We sat and ate heartily chatting about our amazing day!! We were given a bit more wood to keep our fire going for a while and a couple of sleeping bags and blankets. We were warm enough to begin with but when we woke up through the night it was freezing. Still we had enough warm clothes and blankets and were fine!! T

Withdrawing a cool million from the ATM.

The main road through Khustain National Park

You do have to zoom in but those are some Red Deer on the horizon.

Some more shots of the Khustain National Park.

The Takhi wild horse.

A typical scene on the steppe.  A ger, some livestock and some beautiful barren scenery.

These odd rows of restaurants would pop up from time to time, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

The owner of the ger camp where we were staying.

Camel riding.

Our ger!

Ulaan Bataar Day 1

Ulaanbaatar is weird. It’s full of opposites. It’s one of the worst polluters in the world in winter yet every third car is a Prius. The written language is either so close to English you can pretty much understand or looks like a drunk dyslexic has grouped together a whole heap of wxys all together with other letters facing the other way. You are literally in the middle of nowhere yet can sit down to a nice coffee is a shop that wouldn’t be out of place in Australia. You have the choice of Italian, French, Chinese, Korean restaurants and little food vans sell sushi rolls. You have men in nomadic dress walking down the street beside Buddhist monks and men in suits driving Lexuses and Mercs. You can usually walk faster than drive as the traffic is atrocious. It’s one of the dustiest places and most of the buildings are communist bleak. Yet the place somehow has character. Like I said. It’s a very strange place.
We walked to the biggest Buddhist temple in the city called Gandan Khid. It was pretty weird compared to the others we have visited in China. The buildings were pretty basic and run down but they are still actively used as there were monks all around and in one temple there was a ceremony with chanting and musical instruments. Buddhism was outlawed when the communists came to power and a lot of the temples were destroyed or abandoned. This one was hastily reopened in 1944 because a US president came to visit and asked to see one of their temples. From that date on it was the show temple for foreign dignitaries until it fully reopened in 1990 after Mongolia became a democracy. In one of the bigger buildings there is a giant standing Buddha and for a few dollars extra to the monks we could take a photo. 
There were beat up prayer wheels encircling the whole complex with some of them so big you had to push them while walking around them. We followed a lady all the way around turning every wheel. Interestingly all the Buddhist temples in Mongolia are Tibetan not Chinese. 
Our next stop was the Mongolian history museum which took us roughly through Mongolias history. Including Chiggis Khan’s Mongolian Empire. It was so big! How he managed to conquer such a vast amount of land and hold it for so long is amazing. He was obviously a very savy leader doing it with only 100,000 men on horseback.
We then headed out to the black market. It was a proper locals market with not a souvenir in sight. Instead knock off winter clothes, leather boots, wooly hats and out the back were furniture, beds and hardware. The traditional Mongolian boots were the highlight. We also were looking at fur hats and I soon found myself with a wolf skin on my head that was put on by the store owner and was horrified when it’s little paw hit me in the face. Poor thing.
For dinner we took advantage of the worldy cuisine and ate pizza. I am ashamed to say that it was delicious. We justified our purchase by saying we were going to be out in the Mongolian wilderness eating what the locals ate for the next three days. We are so excited! S

Such a strange written language. Almost gives you a headache looking at it.

All around the temple there was prayer wheels. We have since found out that in each wheel there are Buddhist books inside. So spinning them is like reading the books and makes you more enlightened.

The Migjid Janraisig Sum statue which was originally built by a Khan (king) to try and restore his eyesight but was destroyed by the Russians after the communist revolution. It was re-commissioned in 1996.

A really big prayer wheel. Feeling smarter and more enlightened already.

This amused us no end. A few years ago in Australia there was a Coke ad about having a coke with your friend and all the bottles having names on them. Well it also hit Mongolia and apparently these are pretty popular names over here. I have no idea how they are actually pronounced. 

Some of the beautiful material the nomads use in their outfits.

Traditional Mongolian shoes.

Everything is named Chiggis here after Ghangis Khan. Beer, vodka, restaurants, hotels. You name it they have called it Chiggis.

Arrival in Ulaanbaatar 

So after an eventful night we woke up to the clickity clack of the train and when we opened the curtains we were gazing out across the Steppes of Mongolia. What a sight to see, the sky was a brilliant blue and the scenery stretched out for miles.
To be fair there wasn’t much to see but the scenery was pretty unique and we did get to see some camels with double humps!! There was the odd Ger camp and horses and cattle and sheep too. Other than that though there was not much out there, as you would expect from the least densely populated country in the world.
It was really relaxing sitting in the cabin watching the world go by and just after lunch we were pulling in to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. The outskirts/suburbs I guess were a mix of gers (the local tents) and brightly coloured houses with beautiful rolling hills in the background. It was really quite unlike anything I have seen before.
While Ulaanbaatar is by far the biggest city in Mongolia it still only has about a million people living here and we were lucky enough to get a place to stay right in the centre. There was a bit of a mix up with timings when we arrived and so our lift to the hostel wasn’t there but we managed to make our own way which involved walking through some pretty bleak parts of the city. It certainly didn’t start off as seeming like the most attractive city.
Our hostel turned out to be an apartment in a rather dowdy apartment block and as we waited outside for someone to arrive to let us in we were both sort of wondering what we had let ourselves in for. It’s difficult to describe but everything looks very worn, very grey and as I said before, bleak.
As usual though it wasn’t long before things started to look up and our hosts were very friendly and helpful and we soon managed to organise a tour with Bataar our host who is going to drive us himself into the centre of Mongolia where we can hike, ride camels and stay in gers. Should be brilliant.
We set off to have a look around and started with Chinggis Khaan Square which was most unusual with an incredibly diverse bunch of buildings circling it. The centre piece was a statue of Chinggis Khaan riding on his horse looking all dominant!! Hopefully we will find out more about the history over the next few days.
The search for dinner ended up with us in the Mongolian equivalent of a greasy spoon. The menu though had pictures and even some English. We ordered a couple of Mongolian dumplings and a broth with dumplings and a sort of stew. All very hearty fare and certainly filled us up although some dishes were certainly tastier than others!!
So far Mongolia has certainly been incredibly different to anywhere else and I can’t wait to explore further. T

The view that greeted us in the morning on the train.

A whole lot of nothing.

A station literally in the middle of nowhere.

There were the odd small collection of houses dotted about.

The ger tents with their livestock.

The train cutting its way through the Mongolian landscape.

The suburbs of Ulaanbaatar.

Our hostel.

The statue of Chinggis Khaan in his square.

Just a couple of the variety of buildings in the main square.