Friday May 13
At 0600 I’m awakened by religious chanting down the hall from us, but it’s a good time to check emails and backup some photos on my laptop; Jeff manages to sleep through it. After breakfast at the hotel( just the 2 of us this time), a taxi pulls up outside. Out steps the guy from the Ulaanbaatar Hostel who sold us the trip and introduces us to Bat, a young driver in his late teens or early twenties. The Hostel guy explains that Bat will take us to Gorkhi Terelj for most of the day where we will see the sights and then eat with a Mongolian family in their ger. Bat speaks some English, and has had a year of college.
Bat skillfully winds the old white Hyundai through the back streets of Ulaanbaatar for about an hour and we are now in the dry, brown mountainous Mongolian countryside. It’s a clear day but a little dusty. Mongolia, by the way is considered to be one of the most polluted countries in the world. On a recent CNBC news story, it was considered to be number one with Ulaanbaatar being one of the worlds most polluted cities. Almost half of the Mongolian population lives in Ulaanbaatar, but we have not really noticed any pollution, just some dust. The main sources of pollution are coal-fueled stoves and boilers used for heating and cooking, as well as congested traffic and old cars. The pollution is worst in the winter months so we may have missed it.
We are starting to see some vendors on the roadside now selling various things or showcasing animals like falcons, hawks and camels. In the valley in the distance, we can see the Trans-Siberian making its way to the south toward the Gobi Desert and Beijing. Tomorrow that will be us.
The driver pulls up to our first stop, a large complex near Tsonjin Bolgod, with a memorial to Chinggis Khaan, just completed in 2009. After passing through a concrete gate that looks a little similar to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a large equestrian statue comes into view. The statue is 130 feet tall, making it taller than the Statue of Liberty. It is made of stainless steel and has Chinggis Khaan mounted on a horse and looking south toward China. He has a golden whip in his hand which legend says he found at this spot as a young man and inspired his future conquests.
From the parking area we walk up a couple hundred of steps up a hill to a circular facility upon which the statue is mounted. The view from the top of the hill is spectacular, and you are able to see snow covered mountains many miles in the distance. There are patterns of gers in all directions, maybe as many as 100. More will be added and they are intended to be sleeping sites for tourists, restaurants and gift shops. Later I would find that the pattern is intended to mimic the seal of 13th century Mongol tribes. A few other tourists can be seen but it is mostly not busy. A herd of grazing cattle walks slowly by the entrance as we depart.
We’ve been driving on a pretty good 2 lane blacktop road up to this point, but now Bat explains that he will be taking a shortcut to Gorkhi Terelj to keep us on schedule. So he slows down to about 40mph, turns right off the road, through a small ditch and up an embankment on the other side into a pasture. With a big grin, he speeds up, dodges some rocks and cattle, then after about a mile through the grasslands, he picks up a 2 lane cow path, and follows this for several miles until we come upon another blacktop highway. This blacktop road isn’t much better than the cowpath, and soon we come to a long bridge of loose planks. The wooden planks make a loud washboard noise as we cross the Tuul river, looks like there is a new bridge under construction right next to us, but this one holds up and a bit later we are at the entrance to the park.
Immediately inside the park, we see a small herd of double hump back camels. I ask the driver if we can ride these camels. Sure he says, offer the herdsman 5000 Tugriks, or about $4. I have never seen a camel up close before and I am surprised at how clean, calm and furry they are. They have a very dignified look and like to stare at you, almost seem to be checking you out. Mine had a huge reddish brown beard that lay down its entire neck and half way down its front legs. He watched me continuously as I walked toward him, and then bellowed a little as I touched his beard. He seemed to be making speaking noises a lot like Chewbacka in Star Wars. His owner had him kneel down which he did very willingly and calmly. I jumped onto the colorful red saddle that looked much like a Persian rug and off we go. The owner led us around with a leash for awhile and then turned it over to me. The camel slowly lumbered along in a big circle in the herdsman’s pasture and we finally returned to the starting point. He kneels again and I jump off. I wanted to get some pictures with my furry friend so I stand next to him, barely taller than him as he is kneeling. We both smile for the camera at the same time. Somehow I feel like I really connected with that camel!
Back in the Hyundai, we head down the narrow paved road that winds through the park. But soon we are off the road again speeding through another pasture into the middle of a herd of wild Yaks which are grazing in a small valley. The Yak is another big furry animal that looks a little like a Texas Longhorn except for a long shaggy coat that almost reaches the ground. We step out to take some pictures and our driver cautions us not to get too close as they might charge. Then we stay parked here, in the middle of the herd, for some time just enjoying the beautiful animals and the rugged Mongolian countryside.
Time to go see Turtle Rock says our driver as he dodges the Yaks and finds his way back to the main road. More large herds of cattle, yaks, and goats are common now, some of them being monitored by young herdsmen on horseback.
Turtle Rock now starts to come into view in the distance. It is a large monolith, maybe 200 feet high that clearly looks like a turtle from a distance. I had seen this in one of the earliest Amazing Race episodes, and became interested in Gorkhi Terelj after seeing the program. The paved road ends about a mile from the monolith but a couple of muddy dirt roads are available and these present no problem for Bat.
At the base of Turtle Rocks a couple of vendors offering camel rides and horseback rides. We must have climbed some over the last couple of hours because there are patches of snow here and there. There is a large group of young Mongolians, men and women, riding horses up and down the hillsides nearby. They are moving fast and appear to be very skilled at riding. It is said that this comes natural for all Mongolians. I had once read that in earlier years, if a Mongolian needed to travel for more than 100 feet, they rode their horse instead.
I find a gift shop and am reminded that I still need to get something for my wife and daughter. I see some wool slippers for 25000 Tugriks. Let’s see that’s about $2, what a deal and I pay a smiling salesperson. After I get outside, something triggers me to double check my thinking. Wait a minute, brain freeze…….I just paid $20 not $2!!! Well, they probably needs the money more than I do, so move on!
Bat asks if we are getting hungry, which we are, so we jump back into the Hyundai, drive back down the dirt road and then go cross country through the grassy steppe until we enter a box canyon a few miles away. There are 4 or 5 gers surrounded by old wooden stables and a young Mongolian boy stops us. “ Wanna ride a horse”? “Sure, how much”? Our driver says it is free, included in the price along with the lunch. It’s a beautiful young, black stallion with a traditional Mongolian saddle resting on a colorful rug that is covering the horse’s back. Mongolian horses are smaller than those in the states but just as spirited. “You ride much, says the young boy”? “No, not on horseback, I say”. “Ok, I take care of you then”. And so he leads me around the gers, down a hill and back and then drops me back at the car. If I’d had some experience at this, it would have been a great place for a long ride. “Gotta dirt bike, I ask”? No, sorry he says but lunch will be at 2:00 so maybe you would like to walk to the top of the hills nearby where there is a great view.
We grab our cameras and walk up about 1000 feet to a bluff with views for several miles in all directions. The sky is clear blue now with patches of white puff clouds, adding some color to the brown/olive colored landscape below. The rocky vista is randomly dotted with bright white gers and Turtle Rock stands out in the distance. For several minutes, we just sit and enjoy the peace and calm of the view before descending into the valley.
On our way back to the ger we come across a strange little building about the size of a phone booth. It’s an outhouse with seating on the inside for either a man or woman, but mounted on the exterior wall is a white porcelain urinal just for a man. How unique is this! After this experience we walk a few steps to the Hyundai and Bat accompanies us to one of the gers.
This particular ger that we now enter is constructed of wood, unlike most of the white felt tent like gers we have see throughout Mongolia and appears to be maybe 30 years or more old. It sits on a rough concrete foundation and is in the shape of an octagon, about 20 feet in diameter. A sleepy dog rests on the concrete slab in front of the main door. To the right, and to my surprise, is a satellite dish with wires leading to a window.
Inside we are greeted by a young man who is crippled and our driver says he does all of the cooking for the family. In the middle of the ger is a large wooden log that extends to roof providing support for the structure. Each wall of the octagon shaped house seems to serve as a different area of the home. A bed rests against one wall, cupboards against another, stove against another, a couch, a stereo and 2 thin screen TV’s! Some of the floor has old tile and some is covered with an old rug. There are 2 windows but there is no table for eating. I am asked to sit on the coach, Jeff gets a lazy boy type of chair and Bat sits on the bed. The young man gives each of us a plate of food and a cup of tea. On each plate is a stew like dish, similar to something we ate a couple of times in Russia. Beef or mutton is mixed with fried potatoes and vegetables along with a slice of bread. It was a great meal!
After lunch, Bat says it is time to start our drive back to Ulaanbaatar. I ask him if we could look at one of the traditional felt gers nearby and he says “sure”. This one did not appear to have a concrete foundation, and it may have been wood. It had a small wooden door with colorful art work. The felt cloth that served as the exterior was mounted on colorful wood slats that extended from the surface to the center of the ceiling. In the middle of the ger was a small wok like concrete oven that vented to the ceiling. The floor was covered with colorful blue patterned tile. It was sparsely furnished with a small wooden table for 2, a couch and a bed. Bat explained that this belonged to one of the other family members.
Bat jumps into the Hyundai and takes us back to UB. We ask him to drop us off at the Train station where we have an 0615 departure in the morning. We had to buy tickets separately for this leg of the trip because the trip originates in Mongolia instead of Russia. We were not able to buy e-tickets, instead we had to buy real tickets which were delivered to us in Moscow by Real Russia, the company from which we had purchased them. The ticket offices for International departures is a couple of blocks away from the train station so Bat drops us off there. We tip him well for providing us with a fun trip. We verified that these tickets were ‘real tickets’, not vouchers, then walked over to the main station, familiarized ourselves with the layout, and walked back to the hotel, a couple of miles away.
I’m a little tired from today’s adventure but this is our last night in Ulaanbaatar, and we both like to eat well, so we walk back down Peace Ave to баялаг ьууз, the Mongolian restaurant where we ate lunch the other day. I have an excellent fried rice entrée and Jeff has dumplings. Our total bill is under $10 with drinks. Love the food here! We pick up some ‘train food’ at a supermarket down the street and walk back to the hotel. There is another loud party going on until well after midnight. Hey, it’s Friday night and the young Mongolians really like to party!