Monday, 16 July 2012

Leaving Ulaan Baatar - The Reality

Friday, 13th July 2012

Before losing my internet connection, I gave a brief note of what was to happen.:-

“I suspect I may be out of touch after this post, so I'll briefly tell you what we're doing today, our last day in Ulaan Baatar. We should visit the Gandantegchinlen Khiil, a Buddhist Monastery then tour the Museum of Mongolian National History. Next, we travel out of the city to Terelj National Pak where we should have lunch. On our return to the city, we may have some free time (it all depends upon the traffic) before our final meal in Ulaaqn Baatar at the 'Square' Restaurant where a Folk Performance is offered. Later this evening we will board our 'Golden Eagle' train for Moscow and travel towards the Russian border overnight”.

Not being very superstitious, I hadn’t given serious thought to the date being Friday the thirteenth. Oh well.

The day started well enough with breakfast at the Kempinsky. Tatiana, the Tour Manager, had suggested we took a reasonable breakfast as we were unlikely to get lunch until around 2.0 p.m. Our main luggage was being taken straight to our train so I just had with me a small rucksack with my computer and the usual bits and pieces.

The Main Temple at the Gandantegchinlen Khiil Monastery

We drove through the city to visit the large Buddhist Monastery called Gandantegchinlen Khiid. The Tibetan form of Buddhism was introduced into Mongolia in past times, largely for political reasons by the rulers. In the last century, when Mongolia became a Socialist State, religion was ruthlessly crushed. Monasteries and temples were razed to the ground and tens of thousands of religious people were killed. It is only since the peaceful revolution in the 1990s that freedom of religion has been restored. A survey found that 53% of the population claimed to be Buddhist and most of the rest had no religious belief. All other religions make up just a few per cent of the total. Looking at the number of Mongolians visiting the Monastery to worship confirmed that Buddhism is still an important force. There are prayer wheels everywhere around the site and in the main temple, large and small but, in general, they were not built to the high standard I’d admired in Bhutan. The architecture is generally traditional Chinese Style, similar to the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum we’d visited the day before.

Most of the buildings were of wooden construction but the main temple had massive main walls of brick, similar to buildings I’d seen in China. The huge Buddha figure in the main temple is a replacement for the earlier one destroyed by the Communists. The walls of the Main Temple were crammed with tall shelving carrying perhaps thousands of individual Buddha figures. I went into the teaching room where a number of young monks were chanting religious texts. Large bookcases held important books in the old style of rectangular pages with the text hand-written.

A huge new temple is under construction. I would have happily spent longer in the precincts of the Monastery but we moved on by bus to the Museum of Mongolian National History where we spent a little over an hour. There was still a festival atmosphere in the adjacent Shukhe Baatar Square and a brass band was playing outside the Museum for a time.

View of Shukhe Baatar Square from the steps of the Museum of Mongolian National History.

We set off again in the bus to leave the city and drive to the Terelj National Park. In normal circumstances, the journey would have taken 90 minutes but it was clear that these were not normal circumstance. We moved very slowly for kilometre after kilometre until we feared we’d never get to our destination. We did arrive, but almost two hours late and, by this time, the weather had turned wet. Near the entrance to the National Park there were lots of holiday chalets and people just camping on the banks of the river, either in tents or rather smart-looking camper vans.

Holiday chalets near the entrance to Terelj National Park.

A few kilometres further on, we turned onto a dirt road with signs advertising a number of holiday camps at various distances from the junction. The first camp was a number of holiday chalets with steeply-pitched roofs, reminiscent of those I’d seen in the Carpathian Mountains during my trip to the Ukraine.

The second camp had a number of almost-traditional Ger structures. I say almost-traditional because they were rather well-appointed to suit tourist tastes, built on a flat concrete base with fairly elaborate doors and a glazed ‘lantern roof’ to admit more light. Our driver parked the bus on the wet grass(it had been raining earlier but had virtually stopped by the time we trooped off the bus) and we made our way first to a modern toilet block and then to a very large Ger which was arranged as a restaurant. There was a table for 10, a table for 8 and two tables set for 4 diners. A number of tables remained unused so they can cater for larger groups when necessary. Each table had a white tablecloth with cutlery and glasses laid out and the high-backed chairs had white covers. The wooden structure supporting the large tent cover was extensively carved and elegant (electric) chandeliers hung from the roof. Once our group had settled into our impressive surroundings, an enjoyable meal was served by the friendly staff.

We had lunch in this large, well-appointed Ger.

By the time we emerged from the Ger to board the bus, the rain had stopped, but it remained overcast. Next, we were to visit the traditional Ger of one of the nomadic farmers. We drove to a semi-permant village with a number of Ger and wooden stockades forming a series of yards. Baggi got off the bus to enquire the whereabouts of the farmer we were to visit, to be told by one of the villagers that he’d moved. Having obtained directions, we moved about 1 km to an isolated Ger with a number of horses nearby. The horses were either ‘hobbled’ on the front legs by the head rope or the headrope was ‘hitched’ to a wire run between two vertical posts.

The farmer emerged from the Ger, wearing his traditional hat, and invited us inside. Various seating units which can double as beds were arranged against the curved tent wall, alternating with various storage chests, all decorated in traditional, painted designs. The ground was covered by a series of carpets (this Ger was erected directly onto the grass, as is traditional) and the effect was spacious and inviting. We were offered the traditional drink – mare’s milk encouraged to ferment. The alcohol level depends on the type of grass and Baggi suggested that, at that time of year, it would only be around 3% but could be over twice that strength. The drink looked like milk and was served in bowls (made in China). It had a slightly sour taste with a slight ‘kick’ and, to my surprise, I emptied my bowl. Some of our group declined.

The farmer offered us 'Kumis' (fermented mare's milk).

After discussing the nomadic life of these people, continually moving to new pastures to feed the horse, sheep and goats that they tend (with Baggi translating), we moved outside to admire the horses and some of us elected for horse riding.

I was quite surprised that we were provided with riding hats and gaiters before being allocated to our mounts. I had a grey. Mongolian horses are quite small but, as we saw in the Naadam horse racing, can be fast. I’m afraid our hosts led us on foot by the headropes so we didn’t have a chance to ‘explore the envelope’ but all the horses were sure-footed and willing so we had a very enjoyable ride back to the Camp where we’d taken lunch.

Our group of riders about to set off.

I’d have been happy to spend much longer here but, after a chance to visit the Camp washroom, we were back on the bus and headed off towards Ulaan Baatar.

We paused at one of the stone ‘cairns’ we’d seen in various places around Mongolia, called 'Ovoo'. A vertical wooden pole is provided, which you walk round three times in a clockwise direction, throwing a small stone towards the pole, producing the cairn effect. Various flags and pieces of fabric were tied to the pole and other offerings had been added to the stone heap. I was intrigued by a miniature prayer wheel happily spinning on its own, electrically-driven probably from a small photo-voltaic panel in the base. Later, I saw the same thing mounted on the dashboard of cars. I was reminded of the water-driven prayer wheels in Bhutan.

Before leaving the National Park, we stopped at this 'Ovoo'.

As we continued, the traffic became heavier and by the time we were about 20 km from the city, it stopped completely. A few drivers continued happily using the wrong side of the road, others drove along the verge and the more adventurous just headed off across the adjacent fields, either picking out existing tracksw or starting new ones. Whilst there were some ‘off-road’ vehicles, most of the cars attempting these manoeuvres were standard saloons. We’d come to a standstill on a bridge over a fairly wide stream so vehicles attempting to by-pass the jam had the problem of crossing the stream which they solved by driving down a steep bank, fording the stream and powering up the opposite bank before bumping out of sight ahead of us.

When roads become gridlocked, Mongolian drivers are quite happy to go 'off-road'.

Our problem was that we had no information about when we would move. A few police cars had come from behind us with their red and blue lights on and overtaken us on the wrong side of the road but they were never seen again. Our 50-seater coach was too large to attempt any off-road driving so we just sat there, devoid of information. As time went on, we became more anxious. We'd been promised dinner in Ulaan Baatar before joining the 'Golden Eagle' train for our epic journey, but that clearly would not happen. Baggi walked to a shop to provide some snacks for us and we already had plenty of bottled water.

Fortunately, Tatiana, the Tour Leader, had a working mobile and, in conjunction with the Ground Handling Agents in Ulaan Baatar, they came up with a solution. Two 'people carriers' were despatched from the city by a different route on the other side of the railway which ran parallel to us. They couldn't meet up with us because, although there was a road, it passed under the railway by a bridge too small for the people carriers (and, of course, far too small for the bus). The driver managed a fairly spectacular U-turn to reach the 'road' (more of a track) leading to this bridge and he managed to get within a couple of hundred yards of the bridge. By now it was dark and, following the earlier heavy rain, the track was partially flooded. But nobody complained as we trekked on foot to the bridge, illuminated by the headlights of the waiting 'people carriers' on the other side. We were divided up between the two vehicles and set off in convoy at speed on a twisting minor road which led us back to the city. We arrived at Ulaan Baatar station and, with some sadness, said goodbye to Baggi and our Mongolian friends.

Tatiana, of course, travelled on the train with us. Once we'd located our cabins, we were invited to the Restaurant Car for a rather belated dinner, in lieu of the meal which had been planned to take place in the city hours before. To our amazement, the train was able to depart on time at 22:50 local time. And so, our interesting time in Ulaan Baatar came to an end, with rather more of an adventure than we had expected.


Gandantegchinlen Khiil Buddhist Monastery
Pictures of Ulaan Baatar
Pictures around Ulaan Baatar
Terelj National Park


'Guidebook to locales connected with the life of Zanabazar, First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia' by Don Croner, Polar Star Press (ISBN 0-9779553-0-3). This book has a section on the Gandantegchinlen Khiil Monastery.
'History of Mongolia' by Baabar, Nepko Publishing.