I have always found the Mongol Empire fascinating. Exotic names such as Chinggis Khaan and Kublai Khaan conjured up vivid imagination of the mighty warriors, galloping across the grassland on horseback – their traditional garb billowed in the wind. The fierce Mongol army swept through Europe and the Middle East, killing enemies in their path, including the Caliph of Baghdad. The sheer thought of the Gobi Desert is enough reason for anyone to want to venture into the “mystic” land. Thus, with 15 other SEA members, I began a journey to Mongolia.
The flight from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar took 1.45 hours. The Mongolian time is one hour ahead of Beijing’s. “Narra” (Sun in the sky), the local guide, met us at the Buyaant Ukhaa Airport. Immediately, we spotted a small group of women in Mongolian traditional costumes in vermilion color embroidered in gold, waiting for an important lama (Mongolian priest) from abroad. During the 30 minutes’ drive to the New Palace Hotel Narra explained some of the important facts about the capital city.
Ulaan Baatar, meaning “Red Hero” lies about 1350 meters above sea level and has a population of 700,000, one third of the country’s total population of 2.3 million. It is the administrative, political, economic, cultural and scientific and industrial center of the country. Built along the Tuul Gol River and surrounded by four mountains, the city has a pretty view.
It was declared the official capital of the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, when Mongolia became the world’s second communist country. In 1990 it achieved the democratic reform and shifted from dependence on the former Soviet Union. The present day Mongolian government is parliamentary with President second in authority to State Great Hural (Parliament).
In spite of its independence, the influence of the former Soviet Union is very much in evidence. The chimneys of the three thermal power stations dominate the skyline, belching fumes of black smoke towards an otherwise would-be picturesque landscape. Steel water pipes, covered with insulation, are raised high above the ground and can be seen along the highway.
As we crossed the bridge, we saw children swimming and women washing their clothes in the river. The hillside was dotted with white traditional “gers” (circular felt tents). Most Mongolians still live in gers, even in the suburbs of Ulaan Baatar, because wood and brick are scarce and expensive. Deserted factories and litter are evidence of abject poverty and despair. According to Narra, alcohol seems to be a serious problem. Life expectancy is 63 for men and 68 for women. Average income is US$ 50. Privatization was introduced after the collapse of the state-owned enterprises, and as a result many people lost their jobs.
Before reaching the hotel, we passed a large square named “Sukhabataar”, after a hero of the revolution who declared independence from China in 1921. It also features a statue of him astride a horse.
We left for the airport and flew into Omnogov (South Gobi), which is one of the 18 aimags (provinces) of Mongolia. Dalanzadgad is its provincial capital. After 1.20 hours flight, the small Antonov 24 plane landed on an airstrip in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi Desert. Temperature was around 13 degree Celsius, but we found it pleasant because of the lovely sunshine. Two lonely buildings belonging to the airport are the only construction in the entire area.
The Khan Bogd Tourist Camp lies about 22 km from the airport. As soon as we arrived, each of us was assigned to a ger. Khan Bogd Tourist CampGer camp siteWalter and I got the No. 1 ger – which is about two minutes’ walk to the toilet and shower facilities. The ger is surprisingly cozy and comfortable. It smells of pinewood, probably from the table and two stools that form part of the furniture. On the table, besides a tray containing four cups and a teapot, there is also a candle in a ceramic candleholder. A mirror hangs on the wall andInside our Ger a single naked bulb is the only artificial supply of electricity. In the center, a stove provides heat. Hooks for hanging jackets and clothes are attached to a wooden bar. There are three beds on which white clean towels are neatly folded. The campsite also has a bar and a restaurant that provide an abundant supply of bottled mineral water, soft drinks and beer – not to mention some red and white wines. A souvenir shop and a small theater are within a short walking distance the gers.
After lunch we went to a small museum in the Gurvansaikhan National Park. We were shown a collection of dinosaur eggs and bones, stuffed birds and a snow leopard.
Yolyn Am (Eagle Valley) is a valley in the middle of the Gobi Desert and lies about 20 km fromYolyn Am (Eagle Valley) In the valleythe museum. Our bus stopped at the entrance of the valley. A 30 minutes’ walk along the stream (some rode horseback) brought us to a wide valley. We saw an “ovoo”, a pile of pyramid-shaped rocks tied around with blue ribbons. An “ovoo”, often seen on top of a hill or a mountain pass is a religious offering to the gods. Small pink blossoms of desert flowers scattering here and there, added color to the area.
We continued walking through a steep and jagged rock of the creek until we came to a narrow gorge where a group of young soldiers were having their picnic. The dramatic and unusual scenery of the valley and the gorge is very refreshing and worth a visit, although we were disappointed not to spot any eagles.
On the way back we stopped at a place that was supposed to be a “breeding farm”. But all we saw were two camels and some sheep and goats. Inside a Ger of a nomadic familySome of our friends inside a Ger as guests of a nomadic familyWe were invited into the ger of a nomadic family and were entertained by the lady owner with a plate of dried cheese. She told us that her family consists of three children. Like other Mongolian nomads, they are in possession of the so-called “five snouts” i.e. 14 horses (for milk), 10 cows, including yaks (for milk and meat), 50 two-hump (Bactrian) camels (for long distance transport) and a flock of sheep and goats (for wool and meat). It took them one whole month to travel a distance of 200 km from the northeast to get to the present site in search of water, fodder and better weather. Putting up a summer ger takes only an hour. Because of the nomadic life, 70 per cent of the children are sent to boarding schools. A truck was parked outside, presumably for transporting their belongings.
As far as our eye can see there is nothing except a vast expanse of blue sky meeting the brownBlue sky and brown desert meets the eye in the Gobi desert of the Gobi. Occasionally, we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of a lake shrouded in mist at a distance. As we came closer, it disappeared – it was only a mirage, an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions in the desert.
After dinner that evening, some of us drowned our disappointment in a few bottles of wine.
On our way to Bayanzag, we came across a herd of fourteen camels, saw some horses at a distance but no signs of wild life. Some carcasses, presumably of livestock that did not survive this year’s drought, scattered along the road. The previous winter of 1999-2000 was one of the coldest and longest, hence the Mongolians call it “zud” – a condition, which prevents livestock from getting to grass. In this case it was snow and ice.
We stopped at the Moltzog Els, which is an area of impressive sand dunes. Wished I had brought a garbage bag to slide down the sand dunes. Family Lee had a ride on the camels. By then, a gale started to blow and, having experienced the number of sandstorms in the deserts in the Middle East, I feared for the worst.
Bayanzag lies about 22 km away from Moltzog Els. Bayanzag means rich in saxual shrubs in Mongolian but was renamed “the Flaming Cliffs” Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs)by the American palaeontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews, whose 1922 expeditions led him to discover a number of dinosaur bones and eggs, now displayed in the Natural History Museum in Ulaan Bataar. Some of us climbed up the cliffs to “unearth” the remaining dinosaur skeletons.
The beauty and the emptiness of the area is quite awesome, especially in the late afternoon, when the sun plays tricks on the surrounding landscape that consists of rock, red sands, and scrub.
As we began to eat our picnic of boiled mutton at around 2.30 p.m., it started to rain. I was glad of an excuse to get away from the rain and onto the bus to feed surreptitiously on biscuits and peanut butter.
The dinner later that night was not something Michelin would care to write about. However, the Mongolian performance we saw afterwards was the highlight of our visit to the country. Mongolian musicians A young acrobatMongolian band The traditional music played on instruments – such as flute, fiddle, violin and drum -was really outstanding. If you closed your eyes, you would imagine you were listening to a quiet running brook, the cascading of a waterfall, the whispering of the wind and the trilling of a bird. It made your heart soar and you felt a kind of inner peace. We were also quite taken by “deep throat” singing known as “khoomi” in Mongolian. It is like a growl because the sound comes from deep in the larynx, throat, stomach and palate. Later we discovered a hidden talent in our group who could produce such a sound!
That night we lay listening to the howling of wind and the lashing of rain against the skylight of our ger.
Our plane to Ulaan Bataar was delayed by 50 minutes. Upon touching down, a left front tire of the plane burst. Fortunately, it landed safely. Tobias wanted to take a photograph but a man suddenly appeared and leaned against the wheel to block it from view.
After lunch we toured the Museum of Natural History. Two complete dinosaur skeletons are on display plus the eggs that look more like flint stones. We also saw exhibits of flora and fauna and a large display of stuffed and embalmed animals. Since we missed seeing all of these in the Gobi Desert, we found the museum interesting.
Gandan Khiid, which is the largest monastery in Mongolia, was started in 1838 by the fourth Bogd Gegen, and was completed by the fifth Bogd Gegen. A visit to the place gave us an insight into the country’s present condition. In spite of its priceless objects within, the surrounding is in a sad state. Overgrown grass is an eyesore and the lawn needs to be manicured. The main attraction is white Migjid Janraisig Sum whose walls are lined with hundreds of images of the Buddha of Longevity.
The Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan lies within the area of the temple grounds. Built between 1893 and 1903, it used to be the residence of Mongolian’s last king, Jebtzun Damba the eighth, (Lord of Refuge) for 20 years. There are many stories told about him – whether true or false, certainly he was not a dull king!
The palace contains a collection of gifts that the king received from foreign dignitaries. Among these is a magnificent ger that is lined with skins of countless snow leopards. He had a great passion for unusual live animals and during the years had them all stuffed, including an elephant, which was said to have walked all the way from the Russian border to Ulaan Bataar. There is so much to see in the museums that it is impossible to do it all in one afternoon.
Later we made a stop at a cashmere factory but most of us thought the quality from “Nove Marzo” in Suzhou was much better.
At dinner we were treated to a Korean buffet, accompanied by a live band of traditional music. The food was a far cry from what we had had so far.
Finally, it was time to return home. On the way to the airport, we stopped at a souvenir shop at Bayangol for last minute’s shopping. During the trip we had more than enough leisure time and a lot of opportunities for shopping. The visit to the Republic of Mongolia was certainly interesting and we realized as we said goodbye that we enjoyed each other’s company even more!