Trans-Siberia trip, August 2010 – Part 3

Photo albums from this trip are here.

In August we went to Russia (with a short side trip to Mongolia). This page is a very brief summary of the third part of the trip, our day in Mongolia. We intend to return and fill in more details when we find time.

Part 2 (Khabarovsk to the Mongolian border) is here.

Wednesday, 11 August: Mongolia. We spent the day in Ulaan Baatar and in Terelj National Park, about an hour and a half away. We arrived at Ulaan Baatar right on time at 6:30 AM. It had already been light for an hour or so, on a beautiful fine day. We stripped most of the things out of our bags due to warnings about the prevalence of pick pockets in the city, leaving our passports and wallets and all except a few dollars in the cabin safe.

As we got off the train and walked to the buses, we were greeted by young people attempting to sell us paintings and drawings of the city. The GW Travel Director Marina Linke greeted us at the bus. Our guide was Vicky, who spoke excellent English with an American accent. I asked if she had learnt in the USA. She blamed watching USA cartoons when young.

Traffic in Ulaan Baatar was crowded and chaotic. The city was built for a half million, and the population is now a million. Most of the population are Buddhist, but there is now a 10% Christian minority, and about 8% Muslim. There is a Muslim mosque, and another being built. The number of cars was impressive, and Vicky said another 200,000 appeared each year! Like Russia, there are no restrictions on whether cars are left or right hand steering, so despite driving on the right, most cars have right hand steering. There seems as little regard for traffic rules or pedestrian crossing as there is for steering wheel locations.

Passed the central monument to the legendary ruler, Genghis Khan. Visited the Buddhist Monastery Gandan (Gandantegchinlen Khiid), which grew to nine datsans or institutes, with 5000 monks, before being partially destroyed and repurposed by the Communist government in 1938. The monastery was moved from Ulaan Baatar by the 5th Bogd Jebzundamba way back in 1838. In 1990 the Gandan monastery was able to Stargell rebuilding. It now has ten datsans or temples and 900 monks.

Buddhist Monastery GandanThe area includes the Buddhist University of Mongolia, established in 1970, which offers four year Bachelor’s Degrees including majors in Buddhist Philosophy and Chanting. Also offered are Tibetan, Sanskrit And English language majors, as well as Traditional Medicine and Astrology. One of the temples were called the temple of space, and another the temple of time. The most impressive item for us was the giant standing Buddha in a large temple. Eric paid the $5 fee for taking photographs (our guide said it was official).

Buddhist Monastery GandanThe painting and drawing and coin selling folks from the train managed to beat us to the Temple, despite us travelling by bus. It seemed there was someone with a cell phone directing operations of the sellers. They certainly were persistent.

Pickpockets were also prevalent around the temple. The sunglasses are a bit of a giveaway on the spotter when inside a temple building. They seemed to be running two blockers, and at least one dip, however we did not see the passer. A couple of our folks had zippers partially undone on bags or purses, and one of our male tourists had a wallet partially out of his pocket before spotting the attempt. It is particularly silly for authorities or businesses not to crack done on pickpockets in tourist areas. Being pre-warned, most of us had left passports, wallets, credit cards and most of our money in our cabin safe. So not only would the pickpockets not get much, but we were also not going to be buying souvenirs.

We visited the Natural History Museum. Although covering a wide range of natural history, the most impressive part was the hall of dinosaurs. Many of these were discover in and around the Gobi desert. Facing us at the entry was a five metre tall Tarbosaurus bataar, with a notation Maleev 1955. This had the typical tiny front claws you expected in a predator dinosaur. However when you saw the Deinocheirus front limbs and claws mounted on a wall, you could understand just how impressive a dinosaur could be. These had a 2.6 metre forelimb, with 32 cm claws. These forelimbs were found in 1965 at Nemegt Basu.

The Museum of Mongolian National History was our next stop, just before eleven o’clock. Vicki did an excellent job explaining the various historical relicts of tribes and groups in the area over the centuries. She also explained an extensive display of the national costumes of various ethnic groups.

Shukhe Baatar SquareShukhe Baatar Square was a few minutes away, once you managed to dodge the cars to cross the street. This was impressive. It is a very large square, with an imposing statue, with many new and old building surrounding the square but failing to dominate it. The government building faces it, and has its own set of statues and sculptures. There at the square we faced the return of the souvenir sellers who first met us at the train.

Drove to Terelj National Park, about an hour and a half away. We stopped near the entrance to look at a shamanist prayer rock pile. This was surmounted by a bright pole, intended to act as an antenna to good things happening. Vicki suggested we each walk around it three times, carrying three small stones. You throw a stone on the rock pile, and make a wish as you walk around. There were three art shop gir here, as well as someone with a trained hawk.

Terelj National ParkThe scenery is rolling hills, and some nice granite outcrops. It looked really wonderful country, although we suspect during winter our view would be very different. We made our way through these hills along a bumpy road. There were a large number of houses and ger, which are available for hire by visitors. There were signs like “Welcome to Guru Travel” and “Mirage Tourist Camp”. Many signs were in Russian, although English was not uncommon.

We had lunch in Terelj Park, at a Ger restaurant at Terelj Lodge. There were ger huts available for hire to visitors. Ger (Yurt) restaurant. A Ger is a traditional tent dwelling, used by approximately a third of this nomadic nation.

The restaurant had a wonderful view of the surrounding park and mountains. We started with a green salad topped with what may have been goat cheese, then went to mushroom soup. Eric skipped the main course, of a unknown schnitzel, which may have been vegetarian (Jean let me have a taste). There was a dense cake afterward, which may have been made using condensed milk. Plenty of wine, with glasses refilled whenever the level dropped.

In the rest of the afternoon we viewed scenery of Mongolia. At the restaurant area there were horses tied to a line. A couple of horses were asleep on their feet, heads resting on each others shoulders. We visited a nomad ger which was conveniently on hand, together with the huckster selling jewellery and other trinkets. He had a fine collection of old military swords and bayonets, which must have dated back much the the past century.

YaksWe could not stop the bus where the two-hump camels were. We did stop where a herd of cattle were wandering along, as there were a bunch of yaks in the same area.

We saw a small coal-fired power station near the National Park. We had followed high voltage transmission lines out from the city. Soon afterwards we passed a major town entirely for workers in the coal mines and a larger power station. Mongolia basically gets all its power from coal fired power stations. There was also a rather large antenna farm, with two large antennas and multiple smaller ones.

Our bus made the bumpy return to the city and arrived around 5:30 p.m. This was for some shopping time in downtown Ulaan Baatar, where pickpockets also played their trade. The large department store our guide Vicky recommended had watchful attendants, so pickpockets were not as much of a risk.

Jean was tired, and not really wanting to look through a store, no matter how nice. We caught the escalators up, partly to see what was on each floor. On the top floor was a nice looking bookshop with lockers for your bag. It also had free WiFi. So did the little food court that was on the same floor. So we sat in uncrowded food court and downloaded a bunch of news and email.

Dinner in a ger restaurant was next. The number of courses was staggering. Each time we thought they had brought the main, we discovered it was another entree. The main course was boiled mutton, complete with a rock. They put the rocks in the meat to cook it from both the inside and outside. Luckily they warned us not to eat the rocks, giving rise to much comment about boiled galah recipes and stone soup. The mutton we had was fall-apart soft and rather nice. However someone else at the table had tough mutton they could not eat.

Folk music groupThe performance of Mongolian folk music was simply astounding. A four-piece orchestra in traditional garb playing on traditional horsehair stringed instruments, including the horse head fiddle. The female singer did some traditional singing, showing an astonishing vocal range, as did the male singers in the group. This first piece sounded atonal to our ears, being too used to the scale used by European music. The players did a piece that depicted horses, and you could really hear that was what the music was about. There were several other pieces of Mongolian music, often on the theme of horses, almost certainly selected or converted to be appealing to Western ears. The musicians were said to be members of the Mongolian orchestra. They had a CD of their music available, with the title The Magic Fiddle. Mungun Ayurzana was born in Umnugobi South in 1982. He has taught music at the Mongolian University of Culture and Arts since graduating in 2005.

The final act was by a young female contortionist of astonishing suppleness and strength. I do not know how a human body can get such a range of movement. As she passed by our table afterwards I did notice the joints in her hands looked stressed, almost arthritic, whether from training or a result of being naturally double jointed.

We were certainly well fed and well entertained when we boarded our train just before 9PM for the long overnight ride back to the border.

Continued…

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