Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mongolia: Ulaan Baatar and the ger camp

The Lonely Planet aptly describes Mongolia's capital as an ugly scar on an otherwise beautiful landscape. We were met on the platform by our local guide "Flower" (her Mongolian name means Peace Flower, but it's longer than our alphabet and unpronounceable for the Western tongue). Wiser than I expected of a 19 year old to be (though the highly posed Facebook photos and love of Japanese men with coloured hair betray her youth), Flower is studying journalism and was an invaluable fountain of local historical and cultural knowledge. I had little prior knowledge or expectations of Mongolia so it stands out as an unexpected highlight of the trans-Mongolian journey.

People live in that hole. The hot water pipes to our hotel (violently green building in background) run through there, so people camp down there for warmth. Weirdly, the couple who emerged looked like regular punters, not homeless people. She was even wearing make-up.

We were only in Ulaan Baatar for a night, then drove an hour or so out to the ger (pronounce 'gear') camp in the country-side, authentically built for tourists. Our camp was called "Guru Camp", which was a slightly less awful name than one we passed called "Midori". The surrounding area was vast, snow-covered steppes cradled by mountains.
The camp itself was small collection of white felt huts, each containing four beds surrounding a fire-stove, necessary as the nights hit -12 degrees C, though we seemed to have stoked ours a little hot the first night and actually had to leave the tent to the sub-zero outside to avoid being baked alive. There is no privacy, at all, in a ger. The point of it being built in a circular formation is that everyone faces each other all the time. Which is probably not as weird if you grew up with it, but a little unsettling for those of us used to having our own space. On the last day, Flower took us to a traditional ger where a family had set up camp for the winter, and our place was actually very similar to the authentic thing, minus the snuff bottles (which are kept wrapped in silk and tucked into the tunic over one's heart) and dehydrated milk nuggets. We were served salted milk tea, which I thought was fine, but not such a winner with the others. Nomads move 3 or 4 times a year and can dismantle the structure in half an hour - an unimaginable feat to me. When a couple marry, the groom's side provide the ger structure - collapsible wooden frame and floor - and the bride's family supply the furniture inside - 3 beds, stove and fabric for the walls.
We took a four hour walk (hike - there seems to be a translation difference between these two words in each country) to 'turtle rock', which predictably looks like a huge turtle:

A couple of local stray dogs joined us for the spiritual journey. To get to the rock, we had to cross a frozen swamp, which turned out to be not so frozen in parts. Rusty put his foot through trying to navigate his own way, then walked directly behind me on the cracking ice, easing my growing panic by suggesting it was actually much deeper and colder than it looked. At the top, after a dicey scramble up (my cowboy boots were perhaps not the most appropriate footwear for scaling ice-covered rock formations in outer Mongolia - the old girls took a bashing and I had a few heart-in-mouth moments) we forced ourselves through a very small crevice for a spectacular view. Our spiritual journey complete, our dog-guides disappeared and we walked back the safe way - along the dirt road, rather than 'frozen' swamp.
I confirmed that I don't like horses or horse-riding with an hour trot on a mangy mule, which made me feel less bad about having eaten a horse steak the night before. As we made our way along the steppes, our Mongolian guide whistled a traditional tune and I was treated to a private singing serenade as he rode behind me on our way back, forcing my obstinate, flatulent horse forward as it refused to take any direction from me. However, the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon moment was somewhat tarnished when his mobile phone rang. But even the monks in the Buddhist temple, where we heard an incredible chanting ceremony, were covertly text messaging, which was in distinct contrast with the human telephone boxes ... guys on the street holding a tray of cigarettes and a wireless telephone circa 1993.
When we returned to Ulaan Baatar before our night departure, Flower had her Mum meet us to visit the black market, just outside town. It was staggering - I've never seen so many shoes in my life. The whole thing is almost a suburb, with rows and rows of stalls selling everything conceivable - I actually saw a guy leaving with a kitchen sink. The meat section was confronting, hacked chunks of fatty flesh were as cheap as $2 a kilo, but they looked like they might be fit for your last meal. Even Rusty admitted he'd never seen anything like it. Chenggis Khan is heralded as a national hero (and, as everyone is quick to repeat, voted Man of the Millennium by Time magazine) and his mug graces everything from hotels to bottles of vodka, which we picked up for the next leg of the train.

This bus stop above was near the turtle rock ... ie the middle of nowhere. We didn't see any buses, at all, in three days, except the one that drove us there. Below, the gers iced with early morning frost.

Look how BIG that thing is! He was out for his morning constitutional when we were heading back to Ulaan Baatar from the ger camp and the driver happily stopped and had a cigarette while we oogled it.
Mongolia's answer to John Wayne. He wouldn't let me take his photo so I had to snap this and run. He was doing something with a pouch of money outside one of the temples we visited. Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to.

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