Well! Not bad to come to Mongolia, some of the remotest imaginable of all inland countries. We first went to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park.
This is article no. 6/11 in a series from a journey in 2011 on the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia, Mongolia and China. The text is a transcript of my diary at the time.
In Mongolia we arrived in the capital of Ulaanbaatar on the train from Russia. We went straight to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park for two nights and then back to Ulaanbaatar for one night. We then boarded a train to Beijing, China. This is the first of three articles from Mongolia.
Monday, 30.5, Gorkhi Terelj National Park
Arriving in Ulaanbaatar
The train rolled into Ulaanbaatar in the morning. We had been through an extraordinarily boring border control last night. Some of the Mongolian merchants were thrown off, with all their packing and in great despair. Mobile phones went hot I noticed, and I also believe I saw a tear in the eye of a bag seller. If they were detained afterwards, or just thrown off, I do not know.
The staff locked the toilets and created despair among my fellow travellers, even though we were prepared for it. Police and customs officials checked all possible hiding spaces to find out what the passengers had with them. Several dogs came along the corridor, a small and cosy one, too. Probably drug dogs, but it could also be the dogs that were trained to look for bombs. Russia is a country that really has faced terrorism, but now the train was departing for Mongolia, so I don’t know.
We had a long stay on the Russian side, until we could advance across no man’s land and into Mongolia. The Mongolian control was thorough, as well, but finally we were able to leave the border area and passengers could go to the bathroom. It was a relief for many in a double sense.
We were able to sleep through the night and finally rolled into the nation’s capital early in the morning. Before that we saw from a distance these “gers”, the traditional houses or tents. I thought they were called “yurt”, but that is the Russian name for them. They were scattered around the terrain, a very wavy landscape, with rather rounded mountain peaks that surrounded a vast plateau. There were herds of cows, but also paved roads.
Immediately off for a national park
At the station we met our guide for the next few days. Her name was not easy to understand, but she was accustomed to that and told us to use a shortened version.
She took us to a minibus and we loaded our luggage in. We stopped first at a bank and exchanged “togrug” as the currency is called. By the way, we exchanged our remaining roubles on the train from a guy who walked around with big wads. It seemed that the rate we got was OK. The point is that the rouble is still not a convertible currency, nor the togrug. It simply means that we can neither bring these currencies into the respective country, nor out of it. The money exchanger on the train came along with the police, so it seemed official.
We drove through the capital, which has almost half the inhabitants of the country of three million. Half of Ulaanbaatar’s inhabitants live in gers, outside the city centre. Most of the rest seemed to be living in residential blocks. A lot of expensive cars are here too, so the newly rich have also come to the old Stalinist Mongolia. It was like any boring city, except that there were unusually few cars on the roads this morning, and as such without comparison with Moscow.
We drove out of the capital a few hours until we came to a huge national park, Gorkhi Terelj. I thought we would stay in a ger at a campsite, but it turned out to be 200 such camps built around in the park. Some locations had wooden huts, while our camp was a good distance into the area and consisted of only gers.
I shall describe the ger closer. It is round, and stands normally directly on the ground. Our gers stand on concrete bases. The ger has a network of bars which go up towards the ceiling. The ceiling is shaped like a wagon wheel. The wheel is supported by two vertical poles in the middle of the tent. The outer walls consist of vertical poles at a height of about 1.2 metres, and then these sloping pins up to the wheel in the ceiling at a height of about 2.5 metres.
In the middle of the floor and with the pipe up through the roof, stands a wood-burning stove. Small sticks for burning are kept in a crate nearby. They were good to have in the chilly mornings.
There are four beds on the perimeter of the ger, a table and some stools in the middle. It seems that they like to sit low on the stools. It is barely okay and not particularly comfortable for stools have no backrest. The beds are not very long. The entrance door is low and cannot be higher than 1.20 metres due to the construction of the walls. It has probably the same function as low doors in long houses in the old days back in Norway, when they served as protection against intruders. It was easy to give unwanted guests a knock in the head or neck as they entered.
Inside and outside a Mongolian Ger – the traditional tent of Mongolia.
More about gers
The gers are relatively easy to move. They can be packed and re-erected rather fast, and consist almost entirely of sticks that you can pack up on a yak or other animal. On the outside of the wooden fence the tents are covered in wool, and they are therefore called “woollen houses” as opposed to “wooden houses”. In addition, they are covered with linen or cotton fabric, coloured light on the outside of the ger, and with colourful patterns on the inside. All wood is “rose-painted” as we call it in Norway.
Like this families still live today, and they share everything. There is but one room. Nomad gers may be small; ours are the medium size of approximately 20 square metres given an estimated radius of 2.5 metres. That way, they have lived for perhaps thousands of years.
We were accommodated in our gers. My friends except me came in one ger, the others were put up in separate four bed gers, the guide in another, and I got my own. Again. Therefore my ger was turned into the party ger in the evenings. And that was all just fine. For here I sit in bed early one morning on the day of departure and audio record this account.
Rest of the day
The Monday we arrived we had the day free. We had the opportunity to rent horses, and they started to saddle them up when we arrived. No one took a chance on it. Instead we went in small groups up to a peak before lunch, on foot.
Lunch was in a sense an extension of the Russian basic diet. Straightforward, and always including meat.
After lunch we were invited into the home of the local family who keep our camp tidy. They live in a ger as well. They were very hospitable and friendly, and they talked about life here translated by our guide. We were served tea with milk and homemade yogurt. A special snuff box was passed around, a traditional Mongolian greeting. One of the ladies in our party got to try on the house wife’s party dress and CJ dressed up as the man. They were both fine.
The parents told us about life in the ger with their three boys. It was a simple life, but guess what they had? Yes, they had a large flat TV-screen. And that was interesting to note. I have less than a year ago bought me the same. No matter how poor conditions they have around the world, they have a TV set. And we can notice many places around here that they have set up satellite dishes outside the gers. HK handed out tourist brochures from Norway, and both parents and boys went about browsing through them with a genuine interest.
The landscape here in the national park is of such a character that it is easy to see that it was turned into a national park. It comes complete with fine grassy meadows and grazing cows. We can also see sheep and goats, or a mixture of them. Horses run around freely. And otherwise there are craggy mountains and rounded rock formations which are nice to look at. The scenery is of a different character than I thought beforehand, when I expected only grassy meadows and moors, not mountains. The large, wide plains dominate anyway. There are tremendous views from here, far and wide. We are just over 1500 metres.
Anyway, we went in the afternoon most of us up to a place called Magic Rock. It turned out to be a picturesque rock resembling a phallus. It was incredibly funny of course.
Then there was dinner in the evening. We were served fewer dishes than at lunch, which seems to be the main meal of the day. Afterwards we went into my ger. Russian vodka and Mongolian beer came on the table. Golden Gobi is a very good Mongolian beer. Our guide performed a beautiful Mongolian song and the rest of us entertained with Scandinavian drinking songs. Not quite on par with the Mongolian, but then it is representative of the average Norwegian culture. Perhaps.
That was the first day in Mongolia.
Tuesday, 31.5, Gorkhi Terelj National Park
A dry land
Mongolia has something like 270 days of sunshine a year. Sometimes it can get the occasional rain shower. It is very dry in the ground, it is very dry everywhere. Nevertheless it is alarming in terms of fire that the locals throw so much glass and broken glass everywhere and litter just about everything in the countryside, nature lovers as they are. They do not seem to realise the consequences of it, but then they are accustomed to use almost everything and throw the rest of their organic waste in nature. However, modern materials such as glass, metal and plastic does not disappear like other materials.
When the technological development runs its course, culture does not always follow suit. Here there is a culture of throwing away.
In any case, we woke to a nice little breakfast; slices of bread, scrambled eggs on top, and a little jam of the mass-produced kind. Fair enough. But today we were going on a hike.
The plans for today
We were going to a monastery and to something called Turtle Rock. It turned out to be a rock formation shaped like a turtle.
Our guide showed off her more spontaneous sides. She took decisions on the fly and had seemingly little overview of what we were going to do, how, and when. The monastery tour we heard of the same day. She had decided the day before that we should walk the entire trip. That is kind of all right, except that she discovered that not the entire party was as fit as my friends and I. In our more sinister thoughts throughout the day it occurred to us that she could have had more economic considerations, namely to save money to rent a bus. I might add that the guide showed off a very handsome iPod last night, with a loudspeaker.
The three oldest of the group decided to stay behind when they heard we were on a two-hour hike. So after all the confusion about what to see and not to see, how we should go back and forth, and who should join, our guide managed to hijack an ox cart. The farmer was visiting the camp to fill water from the well, but got a few togrugs to run the three Norwegians on his cart.
They sat on the cart and hobbled into the valley at the same pace as we walked. It was certainly a picturesque sight. The farmer was poorly dressed, but at one occasion he received a call and picked up a nice smartphone from his pocket.
An easy walk
But we got off. The trip would take two hours. When we had hiked far over the plains of dirt and gravel roads, we came to a top where the guide said we had walked so fast, that we did not have much time left. We had walked for an hour. It turned out to be nonsense. Our dear guide did not have a complete overview of where we were obviously. When we arrived at our destination the trip had lasted two and a half hours and we were pretty stiff and sore. We did not bring water as we had left the bags on the ox cart. The heat was noticeable, too.
Along the way we passed a female version of Magic Rock, which gave rise to a group photo with us men inside the formation. (In fact, the formation is also visible on a satellite image, I see in retrospect.)
I had at least money enough for myself and others to enter the monastery building, when we finally arrived there. In groups. The monastery was a lama monastery, and I recognized the style of Tibet. A guard let us inside upon paying 2000 togrug, almost 2 USD. (In retrospect, I find that it is not a monastery, but a meditation centre. The temple and the buildings around, however, could perfectly well make a monastery, and were also so a hundred years ago.)
Eventually the guide came in a car with our backpacks, and we got a ride back to Turtle Rock. There, we had a picnic lunch with something bad, stringy meat. Not much to brag about, but needed filler.
Then we climbed our horses. Most of us had chosen horse riding for the return trip. It was not without fear and trembling we did, for almost no one had ever sat on a horse before. I was almost about to fall the first half minute, but then I found the balance and when we started going it went fine. The horses trotted quietly away in about two hours, and it was a nice, dull experience in the beautiful scenery.
Back in camp
It was still good to get back to the ger. I took a shower. There are many who have not taken a shower after the Trans-Siberian. Quite impressive really. The shower facilities must take the blame for it. There is a power supply with switches and all, which heats up a thin shower jet. It is not all who feel confident in handling the technique obviously. I received a briefing from the guide and showed it to some of the others.
The camp standard is in general fairly simple. The beds are short and hard to sleep on, many complained. We light fire in the stove every day, but today the crate with wood was empty in my ger since I’ve had guests and the crate wasn’t refilled. So now I sit here in the morning of day three freezing while I record my travel diary.
In addition to my shower it was very good with a beer after the ride. While we sat in the warm weather outside our gers a falcon came by, to put it that way. My friend T took his Italian luxury sausage, purchased in Moscow, and threw bits of to the falcon which graciously flew through the air, caught up the sausage pieces in the grass and sat down to eat on top of a pole. Good entertainment.
In the evening we had dinner. The “restaurant” was both yesterday and today used by a local team of gentlemen who was preparing to the Mongolian Championship of ankle bone shooting. It is about snapping a flat piece of bone, the shape and size as a domino piece, three to four meters off to hit two dice. All while the other participants cry out loud to annoy or support the shooter. It was not easy to hear whether the cries were encouraging or distracting the shooters’ concentration, but the shooters were good we thought.
Men practising for the national championship in ankle bone shooting.
Dinner and a party
The dinner was lamb with soup on the side. Actually, the soup was stock from cooking the meat. There was plenty of stock, and no wonder. The meat was extremely hard-boiled. Yes, it was so hard that we had to saw it in pieces. The art of cooking meat is definitely not known here. Confer also our lunch at Turtle Rock, but even not the day before the meat quality was good, we thought. Strangely the Mongolians are such meat eating people. We may have been unlucky with the cook.
Afterwards we sat in my ger and told stories served with whiskey, vodka and beer. The guide was with us. When we should go to bed a Dutch group started a disco in the restaurant-ger. It was directly annoying and I went up to ask for a little more quiet out here in the National Park. There I found our local family with all the kids, the cook and the waitress. I also found our guide and the Dutch group’s guide. The Dutch were only three or four people. The party was for them.
While we Scandinavians had enjoyed our songs and stories in our ger, there was a sound and light show without comparison in the other party. I told them to calm down a bit and got a shout from a young Dutchman if not we too could have some fun. Anyway, they muted the sound immediately, and it was not long before it was completely shut off.
In my opinion, it seemed totally out of place here, and quite surreal really. But the locals had beamed up and appeared as if the world that they otherwise knew from the TV screen had finally come to their world. There and then I felt a little guilty for having broken into it all, but I had no idea about what was going on before I entered the restaurant. Just as I sat here in bed the morning after, recording my diary, our guide came in to apologise for making such a noise. We all have a conscience apparently.
Now after breakfast we will drive back to Ulaanbaatar, and tomorrow morning Thursday, we catch the train to China. There we arrive Friday. We have Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Beijing, three full days. Tuesday is the day of departure, and we’re home late at night Norwegian time. And then I go to work again on Wednesday morning. We have one week left, and it is actually less than two weeks since we left home. The impressions have been queuing up, and almost given a headache in their sustained intensity.
All chapters in this series
- This introduction
- Some very interesting and pleasant days in Moscow. That city has certainly more to offer than we imagined.
- An excursion to a wonderful city in the Golden Ring and an evening in Moscow.
- A cruise on the Moskva River, the Gorky Park, the Kremlin and the departure for Siberia.
- The days on the train, four and a half days continuously on the move
- Mongolia: Well! Not bad to come to this country, some of the remotest imaginable of all inland countries. We first went into a national park.
- NEXT: A day in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia
- The train journey continues from Ulaanbaatar to China
- The train into Beijing from the border to Mongolia
- First day in Beijing and a visit to the Great Wall
- The last days in Beijing and the return journey