Tuesday, 8 May 2012

On the steppes, Mongolia

Since I was a kid, I had always wanted to go to Mongolia, ride a horse and stay a night in a ger. No particular reason, just something I had always wannted to do, and now that I'm here I'm more than excited by the notion of being able to do it.

I managed to find a decent hostel which was arranging trips which weren't absorbetently priced so I booked two small ones to fit into my ever decreasing time here in Mongolia. The first, a two day, one night trip to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park and the second, a three day, two night trip out in the Semi- Gobi desert.

Gorkhi Terelj

The trek started early morning with a two hour ride to the park. I was accompanied by three other hostel guests, our manic driver who seemed to know every pot hole in Mongolia and our enigmatic guide Oogii. He was so full of life and knowledge of the area, having grown up in a nomadic family, and helped to make the trip just that little more enjoyable.

Driving along the highway we came across what was no doubt one ofthe featured stops along the ride where you could hold eagles and giant vultures. After a while of swinging them around they soon get heavy but apparently they won't open their wings otherwise, dubious.

Those claws were going straight through the glove

Once in the park, all there was to see were roaming hills and endless steppe, now and again there would be a building or a ger camp but by and large the countryside was empty, save for a few horses and cattle. As we approached our camp we stopped off at a cave where Buddhists had hidden during Soviet times and a rock formation known as Turtle Rock, however, it actually did look like a turtle.

Turtle Rock

Once at the camp, we were able to explore on our own accord and venture up the nearby hills to get amazing panoramic views of the area, the scenery unspoilt and never-changing for miles on end. There was a monastery within walking distance, too, so we headed that way and had the rare opportunity to actually take photos inside; usually this isn't allowed.

Hilltop view in Gorkhi Terelj

More scenery

Rather than staying in the actual ger camp of the family, we were allocated a 'tourist' ger. This is effectively the same thing, only it is sparsely furnished with just beds, a table and chairs and a stove, which once lit created incredible heat within the confines of the ger. Our guide rustled up some cracking grub but nothing especially Mongolian, he promised that for when we started our second trip. The evening consisted of playing football by moonlight with some locals, watching Oogii doing card tricks and relaxing, we hadn;t a chance to hit up a convenience store for booze, a couple days off would be nice anyway!

Inside a basic ger

The following morning, we headed to a small town south of UB for our horse ride across the steppes, I was so excited. I'd always wanted to gallop across the steppes and the moment was upon me. However, having never ridden a horse before, I was more than a little apprehensive once I got up on it, regardless of how small they are, and also, especially as my horse seemed to ignore every command I gave it.

Me on horseback

Riding along the steppes

We slowly made our way out of the town and then cantered a while towards the Manzushir monastrey complex with our guide. I was happy enough taking it slow at first but by the time we got to the monastery I was itching to open her up, as it were. We had a picnic lunch of kimbap, amazingly enough I liked it more than the stuff I wouldn't touch in Korea. I don't know why it was so good! After lunch, Oogii joined us on the horses and straight away he wa urging all the horses on and before we knew it we were going pretty quickly, or so it felt anyway. However, once we got out onto the steppes, we really started flying and for just a short while we were galloping at full speed. It was an amazing feeling but I couldn't stop laughing the whole time. I was so terrified and just wanted a seat belt! Even so, riding along the steppes was am incredible experience I won't forget.

Semi Gobi Desert

After one night respite to relax after the first trip, we were on the road again to the Semi Gobi desert to once again stay at a family run ger camp, some four hours drive east from UB. The roads were horrendous and half of the time we were off road, driving along tracks that only our driver knew of, I'd swear he was making up where he was going some of the time, plus I've never seen anyone drive so fast on dirt/ sand. Best not to look and just stare out the window at the landscape. It had snowed during the night and everywhere looked so white, clean and peaceful.

By the time we reached the ger camp, we were in the Semi Gobi and the snow was gone, just sand and rock formations for miles around with bracken and tufts of grass springing up all over the place. Pretty barren place to live but this ended up being the family's spring camp, they only stay here for one month before moving all their gear and livestock to their summer camp, where they stay for five months of the year. The rest of the time is at the their winter camp where the kncukle down and deal with temperatures knocking on -57 degree Celsius.

Nothing but desert

And again

Huge rock formations

We basically spent the day climbing local rocks and hills and eating amazing homemade Mongolian food with the family, who were more than keen to try and talk to us through our guide Oogii. More than once Oogii would tell us to say something in Mongolian which meant nothing close to what he said it meant but the family seemed to enjoy laughing at us and feeding us so I wasn't bothered. Turned out I was asking if one of the women loved her husband and that I loved her, she took it well.

Unfortunately we couldn't go camel riding as for two days they were unable to find the camels in the desert, nomads leaving their animals to just randomly roam has it's apparent drawbacks it would seem, so we had to wait until at least one of them was located, as it was, on the following two days, just one of them was all they found.

On the second day we woke up to find it had snowed and the desert was as white as the eye could see. Sadly this meant that we had to take it slowly while trapsing around the desert on our horses, but it was still fun. I felt much more comfortable the second time and wandered around the area, getting a feel for it. After, I went for a power nap, no longer than an hour, before we headed off to Khar Khorum, only to find all of the snow had completely melted. Incredible how the weather fluctuates here.

Riding in the snow

The ger camp

Where did this snow come from?

Khar Khorum was the old capital of the Mongul Empire established by Chinggis Khaan, but there are very few remains from that time, the biggest attraction in the area now is the Eredenezuu monastery. Aside from it's giant outer perimeter, there isn't much left of what was originally built. Again the Soviets destroyed everything except three temples in the the centre of the complex which they decided not to iradicate due to the monks' requests to at least leave some culture for the Mongols to hang on to.

Outer walls of the Eredenezuu monastery

When we got back to the camp we saw that one of the camels had been found, so the following morning the man of the house, an incredibly weathered 79-year- old man, led us around the area. I've never been so uncomfortable as I have on a camel. I thought the horse was bad, the camel nearly killed me and eventually I had to just stand in the stirrups, no way could I go on bouncing between those humps.

My camel and guide

Once we got back to the ger camp, we said our farewells and headed back to UB, with our driver taking his sweet time this time around. I think he may have gone a little hard on the van going out.

Packed my bag, had a few beers with one of the lads from the tour and prepared for an early start in the morning on the train to China. Next stop, Beijing, and a face full of Peking duck.

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