Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Mixed Bag - Mongolian Adventures

Our "Nomad” experience was coming to an end and to top it all off we had a wonderful “morning soup” for breakfast. I would like to put this lightly, but I don’t know how. It was the most foul tasting soup I have ever had. It was basically the leftovers from the previous night's BBQ, mostly fat and innards soaked off from bones that had already been eaten, but it was worse then just that. It smelled foul, and there was no way I was having it. The others agreed, but somehow Tia was able to finish half a bowl.

And a Beautiful sunrise as well - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
When it was time to go we were rushed into the vans and before we knew it, we were off. Later we realised how sad, and how rude, this was. We just stayed with a family for a couple of nights and were not given a chance, nor did we remember, to say goodbye. I was quite disappointed in myself.

We hadn’t driven more than fifteen minutes before we stopped again. This time one of the vans drove up onto a ramp. Oh no, what now ... ah yes, better fix that suspension before taking the van back to the boss ... Soon a welder came out and they started welding the lower part of the shock absorber back onto the control arm. It looked like a pretty dodge job to me, and I felt sorry for Nic and Dave who had to ride in the van.

You know the roads are bad when you spend most of the time driving off-road. But as usual, this didn't slow down our drivers, who were racing each other again. Tia was getting nauseous and at points we were reaching speeds of 140 km/h. They were constantly slamming on the brakes, swerving around potholes and seemed to play chicken with other cars. Dave advised us on what to do if the van rolled ... scary stuff.

Surprisingly we made it to our next destination without further incident, a massive 40 metre high stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan. The sculpture actually didn't look too bad, and you got to climb out of Genghis' crotch and up the horses mane for a nice view from atop of the head.

40m of Stainless Steel in the form of Genghis Khan - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where

A great place to exit Genghis Khan - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where

The Right hand of Genghis Khan - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where

Then it was back into the dreaded van for another ride; this time it was a race to the tour company's ger lodge. The other drivers took the road, our driver decided to take a "shortcut" over rough, sandy backroads and open plains. This part was particularly scary - if he lost it here we would definitely roll. Thankfully the spirits must have been watching as we survived the 20 minute dash to the lodge.

Calm - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
The ger lodge was different to the nomad experience from the last few nights. It reminded me of a school camp or a caravan park. At least it had a shower and a well cooked meal (I was starving).

With no plans for the next day we decided to plan a trip to Terelj National Park. Nic and Dave were onboard, although poor Nigel was ill (something to do with too much milk) so he and Sarah were content to chill. We talked to Oyuun and this resulted in a bit of a battle to get a fair price (we didn’t trust her after the camel incident), but we got an agreement in the end. The evening was spent with all six of us travellers hanging out in Nic and Dave's ger, swapping stories and joking about how this mixed bag Mongolian adventure was turning out.

The next morning we woke up and got ready for a nice hike. But hold your horses, there seemed to be a commotion between Nigel, Sarah and the guides Neesa and Oyuun. Long story shot, at some point in their Mongolian journey someone had stolen several hundred US$ out of Sarah's bag. The guides panicked and had no idea what to do. They went into lock down mode - no-one could leave. They called all the drivers to get them to come out here and they wanted to search everything. Nigel just wanted them to call the police so he could get a statement for his travel insurance claim, but was told that he would need to pay the police to get them out here. Although Nigel and Sarah insisted that we should continue on our hike, instead of waiting for these guides to sort it out, the guides thought we were very cruel (and possibly suspect) for even considering a hike while this travesty was unfolding.

Eventually we settled them all down; Nigel and Sarah would go to Ulaanbaatar the next day to obtain a police report and we were allowed to go on our hike. Later we heard how Neesa had called her shaman to enquire on the whereabouts of the money (it seemed that shamans could now perform spiritual services over the phone). The shaman, after a day of deliberation and consultation with his spirits, came to the conclusion that yes, a large sum of money had been taken, and no, they will never see that money again.

The ride to Terelj National Park eventually got us there around lunchtime. We asked Oyuun if she knew the track. “The last time I took another group for a walk we followed this road up the hill,” she said as she pointed to a trail, “follow this around and you can come down here” (a sheer rock face), “or here” (a slippery slope of shale scree), “or here” (another sheer rock face). We smiled and nodded but felt we were lucky she had decided not to come along.

The start of the Climb - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
As we started up the track the skies opened up and it actually started hailing. Amazing ... I love a good hail-storm. It was small stuff so we weren't worried, but it reminded me of my childhood in Northern NSW. The track disappeared pretty soon and it was becoming quite the adventure. We continued up hill until we reached the ridge line. There was no way we could walk along it, as it was much too steep. So we found a high point to have a bit of a look and worked out where we would go; off in the distance we could see another track and decided to head down the other side of the ridge towards it.

Nice light after a hail storm - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
The walk was refreshing and enjoyable. It was the start of autumn so many of the trees had turned and golden leaves were falling.

Nic accelerating the Fall - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
The rain had cleared the air and the lighting was crisp. We passed a ger nestled amongst the rocks and trees but no-one was home. We spotted scampering squirrels and soaring eagles.

Finding our own way - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
After a quick snack at the highest point on the walk, we descended back into the valley. It was rough and steep but we slowly made it down.

The view from 2000m- Gorkhi Terelj National Park
When we got back we asked if Oyuun had really done the walk before. "The other group did it by themselves and it took them two days" was her reply. Uh, thanks.

Autunm colours - Gorkhi Terelj National Park
The next day we said our goodbyes to the members of our group headed back to Ulaanbaatar. New friends with new shared stories of Mongolia.

The Gang - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
We had an extra night here which we used to do our laundry (ger struts make good hanging spots), write bits of our blog, and go for long walks.

A good road - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
Long Shadows - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
The reality of this land - Somewhere in Mongolia Click here to find out where
We also spent some more time with our own guide, Enkee. He became more open with the other guides gone, expressing his concern at the overcharged camel rides and stolen money. That aside, he was a kid who came from the countryside, who loved to drink fermented mare's milk ("I like the people in the ger on that hill over there; they gave me four litres of mare's milk to drink!") and taught us how to play knuckles. Not the painful version I grew up with, but Mongolian knuckles. Basically it uses sheep knuckle bones, where each of the four sides of the bone is distinct and symbolises a camel, sheep, goat, and horse. There are many games, but we played a simple racing game where you line up 20-30 bones, horse side up, set your own "racing horse" bone at the start next to the first bone, and take turns rolling a set of four knuckle bones like dice. You get to move a spot for every bone that gets rolled as a "horse", and extra moves if you manage to roll one of each of the four animals. First to get to the end of the line wins.

Learning to play Mongolian Knuckles - Somewhere in Mongolia
Our last day in Mongolia was spent exploring museums in Ulaanbaatar. First we checked out the cool wooden puzzles at the Intellectual Museum. I was fascinated with the puzzles that had been invented; I especially liked the desks with the hidden draws that would only open when the proper sequence was complete. We also checked out the rocks, fossils and huge number of taxidermied animals at the Natural History Museum. Mongolia's natural history is interesting, especially since it is a major fossil finding destination. We were close to the museum's closing time so had to rush through some of the exhibitions but it was good stuff.

We boarded the #24 train that would take us to China the following day. Our Mongolian experience was a mixed bag of tricks; at times it was frustrating, but in many ways it was amazing. It can be a difficult place to travel, that is for sure, but there are enough great people for you to meet to make a trip worthwhile. You will have stories regardless.

Sunrise - Ulaanbaatar Station

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