Any attempt at blogging the wonders of Mongolia will almost certainly fail to do it justice, but I’ll give it a shot.
As we stepped off the train onto the platform on our early morning arrival in Ulan Bator the first thing to hit was the cold – it was ridiculous. I can only think of one other time I’ve been that cold [in the states, in the back of a car while a couple of friends insisted on going for a walk] and all I wanted to do was find the warmth of the station.
With little-to-no information we’d thought that our train had pulled in a little later than planned so were bewildered to find ourselves early. Turns out that while Russia had – for the first time – declined to change their clocks this year Mongolia hadn’t followed suit, so we gained a bonus hour under unusual circumstances.
We didn’t have to wait long before we met Nasaa our magnificent host. She led us to the van and we then made our way to a local hotel for a chance to get cleaned up and have breakfast. The clean-up part was interesting as the hotel was Japanese themed so rather than a quick shower we were shown to separate male & female bath-houses.
For the uninitiated [which included me up to this point] it kicks off a bit like a gym or swimming bath changing rooms. The bath houses weren’t normally open at this time and I had the whole place to myself so I locked the door and proceeded to scatter my belongings all over the place. You enter the bath-house area via a screen door. Think large public bath and sauna on one side then across the opposite wall a series of plastic stools, low faucets and showers encouraging a sit-down approach – I declined the seat option and made the best of it. Buffet brekkie followed before being dropped in the centre of U.B. for another walking tour.
The highlight of the tour was the Gandan Monastery. Among other things we saw a 90 ton Buddhist statue – Migjid Janraisig – made from 20 tons of copper, 400kg of silver, 2000 precious stones, and whole lotta something else. It’s the biggest of its kind in Mongolia but don’t think “Buddha” as in fat happy bald dude – I know I would have done. We weren’t allowed to take photos but the best I can do is 4-armed statue akin to a puzzle clambered over in videogame Uncharted 2.
We also visited a number of temples where monks chanted in some incomprehensible pattern in between checking out text messages and giggling with each other. The highlight here by far was had while watching young monks in training, solemnly chanting and creating quite a spectacle, only to have the illusion shattered by a tubby monk wandering past with a Hoover. Combined with the regular sight of monks on mobiles it was amusing to see past and present collide in such a comical fashion.
After the tour we had coffee and took advantage of precious wi-fi before Nasaa took us to a cafe where the locals dine. Here we enjoyed our first taste of Mongolian Tea. I think it involves Milk, Butter, Salt and not a whole lot else, but it tastes a lot like a kind of unsweetened Horlicks. While it’s unlikely to appear in a Starbucks near you in the near future it’s quite palatable. The food was delicious – particularly the meat and potato dish I managed to hog.
In the afternoon we drove 50+ km out to a huge 40 metre steel Chinggis Khan [Genghis Khan] monument – the photos will hopefully do this more justice. You can climb within it to reach a viewing platform atop the horse head giving stunning panoramic views of the raw beauty of the Mongolian countryside.
We then travelled the short distance to our residence for the next couple of nights – the Elstei Ger Camp. Most of that journey was off-road, along make-shift dirt tracks. We arrived to a greeting by three huge dogs that proved to be more interested in a cuddle than anything else – not threatening at all to us as camp guests but with a serious job to do. The countryside is plagued with raiders and thieves, not to mention wolves, and these threats are very real. Combine this with the backdrop of scorched plains, distant mountains, dead animal carcasses, an unfathomably serious litter problem and pretty much nothing else as far as the eye can see and it starts to feel pretty post-apocalyptic – imagine this and you’ll start to see the picture, but make no mistake – the vistas are still stunningly beautiful, the air fresh, and the silence near constant.
We were shown to our Ger – another case of pointing you at the photos rather than me attempting to describe it. Suffice to say it was awesome, and they kept the central wood / coal stove burning throughout our stay, making for a toasty place to retire to.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing and dining at the “cafeteria Ger” where we were treated to a magnificent 3 course meal to a standard that we’re unlikely to make a habit of.