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Entries in Mongolia (5)


Mongolia to China

We caught the train (our last for the trip) to Beijing. A few hours of Mongolian steppe before we hit the beautiful Gobi desert. The Mongolians say there are 30-odd Gobi deserts, and we saw a few - arid pasture (where we saw camel herds), sand plains and sand dunes.

At the end of the Gobi we had to cross the Mongolia-China border. It took seven hours (from 7pm to 2am), so much faster than Russia-Mongolia. Especially considering they had to change the boogie of the train, due to the slightly wider gauge of the tracks. Surely it wouldn't be that hard to design a multi-gauge boogie?

I woke up this morning to see the cultivated rise terraces of China going by. Then the mountains lined by the Great Wall, and into Beijing. Tonight we saw the amazing China National Acrobatic Troupe. It was better than watching the gymnastics at the Olympics, they were simply stunning. From the little boy on the slackwire with a ladder and a unicycle (which he rode on his head), to the boys running through hoops and up poles, to the girls being able to balance pots while doing contortions balancing on each other, it was great!

Afterwards we went to the Donghuanmen night market for dinner. There were dozens of small booths selling so many different foods. There were scorpians, silk worms, octopus, cockroaches, various meats, and things I couldn't pinpoint. I had a vegetable dumpling (which was great), a bizarre thing that looked like a pizza (but tasted like fried semolina covered with herbs), tofu fried in sesame, and a fried bdndnd.

Two years of studying Chinese when I was young has left me with about the same level of communication as I have in Russian after two weeks travelling there - I can say hello, goodbye, thankyou, sorry, and a few other basic words only.


Last day in Mongolia

Back from the Ger camp today. Rainy cold morning.

We went to the Lotus Orphanage to see the children today. It was beautiful. We walked in the all of these little kids started waving at us, and ran up to play. I got to lift them in the air and whirl them around, once the first child saw that they all started to crowd around and pull on my air for a whirl. One cute two year old girl kept on going up and saying hello to people, and carrying out child-sized stools for us to sit on, placing them just behind us, then giving us her toys.

We also visited the Russian war memorial, with icy biting wind and a view over Ulaan Baatar and its powerplants. Oddly enough, our room in Ulaan Baator on the first night had European powerpoints, but our room tonight in the same hotel had Australian powerpoints.


A glorious day in Mongolia

Mmm... a glorious night's sleep, the most comfortable since Moscow. The Ger is devine. I think it will take a while for me to get use to sleeping by myself again when I get back, not to have anyone to talk to as I drift off to sleep.

Most people went for a walk this morning to a monastery, but it is two hours of hill climbing, and with my twisted knee from two days ago I decided not to risk it. Instead I climbed up to the rocks on the ridge of the valley and sat with John, Niamh and Karen, just enjoying the scenery and watching the kite fly above us. Nemo brought out his five month old daughter, so I got to hold her. She was so cute, but he told me off for saying so - in Mongolian you are meant to say the opposite to children. So I said she was the most hideous monstrosity I had ever seen, and Nemo beemed. She had long hair, because Mongolians believe a child's spirit is in their hair until they are three years old, when they can safely cut it. And this is coming from Nemo, a trained urologist. While they are Buddhist, there is obviously a strong shamanist component in their beliefs.

In the afternoon clouds came in, and it lightly rained on and off. We went horse-riding on the small wiry Mongolian horses. My horse responded quite well to direction but wasn't overly keen on speed :) It was so much fun, and the hills were glorious when half draped in mist. We rode to Turtle Rock and the monastery, then back to the camp.

How beautiful to sleep to the patter of rain on a Ger roof.


Ulaan Baatar

I am writing this entry from a Ger camp, in Terelji National Park. The last two days have been fantastic, it has been a real Mongolian experience.

Yesterday I woke up early (everyone else was feeling manky from the party, especially Jodie, who threw up during the night) so I went for a walk around Ulaan Baatar. Most of the building were quite old, and falling apart, largely built in a Soviet style, except with the circular Mongolian flavour. After meeting up with Luke we walked to Sukhabaator Square, the centre of Ulaan Baatar, which is surrounded by the main cultural and political buildings. In the centre is a statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the nationalist who gained Soviet help to achieve independence from the Chinese in 1921, and is still considered the cultural hero, after only Chingis Khan. The Square contains Sukhbaatar's mausoleum, but this is closed at the moment since his face fell off.

In the afternoon we went to Gandantegchenling Monastery, and I learnt about Mongolia's Buddhist history. The complex contained many small temples and prayer wheels. We saw the library, with over a million sutras in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit, also some 16th century surgical instruments. Funnily enough the monks in there were playing pool on the computer. We also saw Dedanpovran, which was built for a visit by the 13th Dali Lama in 1904. The most impressive was Migjed Janraisig, a temple for Janraisig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a bodhisattva is a soul who has reached enlightenment but has still chosen to continue reincarnation in order to help others, if I remember my buddhism correctly). It contains an enormous statue in the middle, made of copper and gold and precious stones. I thought it was the largest statue I have ever seen (it is 26.5 metres), but the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok is actually larger, this one just looks so big because it is standing. The original was destroyed by the Soviets in 1938, melted down for bullets in Leningrad. The current statue was only reproduced in 1996. It is hollow and filled with scripture. I walked around the statue, and spun all the prayer wheels in a clockwise direction. Of course prayer is no more than inner thought, but I thought it would be respectful for me to take the opportunity for my own thoughts. If gods did exist, I could never worship one which required worship for reward. I could however respect one which rewarded service to humanity.

This monastery is the only one to survive the Soviet times, out of the 900 Mongolian monasteries.

After the disintegration of the Mongol empire in the 1400s, missionaries from Tibet converted Mongolia to Buddhism, and Mongolia became the centre of Yellow Buddhism. We went to Bogd Khaan Winter Palace, where the Mongolian kings lived (it was built between 1893 and 1903). I hadn't realised that the Mongolian king was a reincarnated Buddhist king, with each new king being a two year old child found as the reincarnation of the previous king, like the Dali Lama. The new king was always found in China, as Mongolia was a puppet state of China until the final king Jebtzun Danbq Hutaht VIII. There were many tapestries of the Buddhist gods, I thought it was interesting that the Protection King of the North had a magical white rat that always spat out precious stones.

In the evening we went to a Mongolian cultural show. The traditional Mongolian costume and dances were very Thai, which surprised me - I had picked it to be a fusion of Russian and Chinese, but I guess that since both Mongolian and Thai culture have a common foundation in Tibetan culture it makes sense. There was throat singing, which was amazing, and showed the shamanist edge to the otherwise Buddhist culture. You could never believe the sounds they were able to make. I have heard throat singing before, with Jodie in Montreal, where the Inuit play it as a game. Two girls press their noses together and throat sing until one of them laughs, the other person wins. So they throat sing while rolling their eyes at each other and pulling faces. This was more serious, accompanied by the Morin Huur (an instrument which was introduced to Europe and evolved into the violin). The other really impressive part was the contortionist, which is traditional Mongolian. The girl was did it was simply amazing, able to completely fold her body over in every direction and support her entire body with her teeth.

Afterwards we went to Modern Nomads, a cafe that employs homeless teenagers and teaches them skills, giving the profits to their support. It was a great place, but difficult to find traditional Mongolian vegetarian food, as many dishes contained sheep spine meat or horse meet. I had mushroom soup and Chingis beer.

Before bed I tried writing up my diary, but the entire internet cafe blacked out 50 minutes later, so I lost everything.

Terelj National Park

Today we left Ulaan Baatar to drive out to the Ger camp in Terelji. We drove through the most beautiful landscape - green pastures and rocky outcrops, with gers and horse herds wandering. We stopped to ride Bactrian camels and drink airag (fermented mare's milk, it wasn't too bad, just like warm sour yoghurt, the Mongolian drink it nearly exclusively from children, drinking up to ten litres a day). We passed a Shaman's rock, walking around it clockwise three times, adding a stone to the pile on each rotation to make our wish come true. Vultures circled by overhead on thermal currents.

The Ger camp itself is in the most gorgeous valley, it is times like these that I am glad I am a photographer more than a writer, to capture the essence in a picture rather than to fail through words. The valley rings with the song of circadas and crickets, there are marmots throughout the camp and kites fly overhead. A heard of yaks wandered in at one point, horses later on. The weather is amazing, all sun, green grass and trees, blue sky.

Angela and I went for a walk around the camp, then we had dinner and all went to play billiards and "donkey" table tennis - a game Katherine's family made up for Christmas, and that everyone enjoyed. Playing it after a couple of beers and rounds, John and Troy (who were both excellent) careened off and slammed into walls a few times. Karen was very competitive and gave me the evil eye when I managed to give her a nasty shot.

Nemo, our guide, told us a Mongolian joke. A guy goes to the urologist and gets an x-ray. The doctor comes out and says "You are very lucky, you have three testicles". The next day the guy is sitting next to his friend and says "Between us we have five testicles". The friend looks surprised and says, "You only have one?"

I am in a Ger with Angela (who has food poisoning) and Monica. It is beautiful and ornate, with our oven in the middle (lighted for the cold night ahead), and the beds around the edge. It is made with canvas on the outside, a layer of felt, and then green silk on the inside. The supports are all carved and painted yellow, orange and red and rays of the sun.


Trans-Mongolian railway

We just rolled up to a stop for thirty minutes and a ten year old boy ran up to our carriage and showed us an empty water bottle and gestured to us to throw down our empty bottles. After a day and a half on the train we had a few, then he lifted up his shirt and rubbed his belly. No child should ever have to be hungry. We threw him all our food left, which consisted of a bunch of chocolate and chips and an apple and an orange. He stuffed them all in straight away, blew kisses and gave us thumbs up, then danced around a bit.

So... what has happened in the last two days? Leaving Itkursk for the trans-Mongolian is a rough trip, with all the bends and bridges and tunnels. Descending from the rift there is a lot of downhill rail, which we took at breakneck speed during the night. I kept on having falling dreams (such as a lift cable snapping) due to the sensation, but by and large it was pleasant.

The train stations we passed through had the usual Russian announcements given loudspeaker military style, but for some reason they also kept on playing a tune like an ice-cream van, vaguely similar to "we wish you a merry Christmas". Combined with the obscure clicks, whistles and grinding of addition and subtraction of carriages, it made for a sleepless night.

No problem, because today was the most boring of the trip. We didn't even travel much, because we had a five hour wait at the Russian customs, followed by a 20 minute ride past an electric fence, two tanks and a machine gun tower, then a three hour wait at Mongolian customs. This was made tough by the rule of no toilets being open while the train is stopped.

Karen was left behind on the platform for ten minutes, but managed to get back, which was very funny. She told us about the history of Mongolia, starting with Chingis, then to the breakdown of the Mongolian empire, Chinese rule, Soviet rule, and the current democratically elected Communist government.

I spent almost the entire day in bed. Just thinking, and reading Pushkin's Talkes of Belkin and other prose writing.

As we rolled through Mongolia we came to green verdant pastures, filled with horses and gers (40% of Mongolians are still nomadic) until a storm rolled in and I watched lightning and listened to the thunder roll over the Mongolian steppe. Sunset was magnificent.