Mongolia during Autumn


Hello from getting-rather-cold Beijing!

On October 1st every year, China has a public holiday to celebrate the founding of the PRC in 1949. Being of such national importance (and, perhaps, to stimulate consumer spending), the holiday was recently extended to last three days. But it is made into a week-long break by requiring Chinese citizens to work (or study) on the preceding Saturday and succeeding Sunday after the holiday, instead of on the Thursday and Friday. I had used the May holiday to go to Nanjing and Suzhou, two of the country’s most popular (and so crowded) destinations among the Chinese. This time, I decided (four days before the holiday began) to go to the other extreme –- out of China altogether, to Mongolia. Kath Jones, a friend also living in Beijing, was my willing accomplice. My expectation that the trip would involve lots of mutton and nature was true -– but I had not expected to be so reminded of many of the countries that I’d visited last year. Nor was I able to anticipate the big breaths and eyefuls of huge space and big sky that Mongolia forces on its visitors. So on Wednesday lunchtime, with ease, we bought our international train tickets in the public tourism service targeted at foreigners and/or international travel, paying a small fee for the comfort. I handed my passport over to Kath to use her central Beijing location, and her expatriate-business-person knowledge and contacts, to get our Mongolia visas in express time. As I sped back to Yuyan Xueyuan for my afternoon class, I suddenly realised, oh shit, that my Chinese study visa was single-entry only, so I couldn’t use it to get back in again after our holiday. But there was no time to go back to the police with my passport and change my visa again before leaving. I accepted that I’d just have to visit the Chinese embassy to Mongolia in Ulaan Baatar, and hoped that they would not be closed the whole week like offices in China itself.



Train to Mongolia

Our train, the Chinese one that travels the thirty-hour journey to Ulaan Baatar (apparently much cleaner and more food than the Mongolian or Russian), left Beijing at 7.30 am on Sunday morning. We’d chosen a regular sleeper coach. We shared our compartment with a Beijing couple who had brought large bags of fairly odorous deep-fried food for the journey, as well as suitcases full of sweets (as the customs check later revealed). We chatted a bit: he was going to Mongolia on export business (sweets?), and has been doing so for several years. She was just coming along for fun, and is a local bureaucrat of some kind: when our train passed close to the Great Wall at Badaling, not far from Beijing, she mentioned she would be able to get us in for free! The scenery at that point was beautiful: heavily wooded, mostly green, but with some changing autumn colours too, along jagged ranges that you always see in pictures of China and the Great Wall, the same as I had recently gazed at Mutianyu on the school trip. We passed through Datong (which Nikki and I had visited in March, and caused a local man to miss his train due to drinking beer with us), and then went north through Inner Mongolia (a Chinese "autonomous region"). Gradually the landscape became sparser, browner and less populated. I looked at my phrase book, and found it impossible to get my head or tongue around even the most basic of Mongolian phrases. Our Chinese companions ate some of their smelly food, but not quite enough –- in the morning the deep-fried tofu was rancid, and so was thrown away, an action Kath would have applauded during the previous day while the niff wafted up to her upper berth.....

We got to the border during the evening. After much clanging and waiting, we found our carriage at a station. Everyone got off the carriage –- except Kath, our conductor, and me (us two being too slow)! But this slowness turned out to be a bonus. Rather than spending an hour or so hanging around an unexciting duty-free post in the cold, we got to see the train being jacked up and its wheels changed to fit the Mongolian railway gauge. I am not sure what happened when I came into China from Kazakstan in March by train, as I never noticed our carriage going up and down and we never got out of the train, either! But the bogeys were changed there, too. I think I must have either been concerned with concealing large wads of cash about my person for fellow passengers or been heavily asleep with a stinking cold caught in Almaty. Anyway, little had we realised that the earlier banging and shoving had been the decoupling of the carriages, which are one by one pulled into the sheds and dealt with by a team of workers. So we climbed down before our carriage went up, and had a good peer at the process, along with several other foreign tourists on the train –- though whether they were there by accident or design I don’t know. We still got a few minutes in the cold smelly station before we could get on the train again. It was by now past midnight, and it took until 1.30 a.m. to go through border procedures with passports and customs on both sides. We handed the friendly Mongolian passport woman our passports from our beds in a sleepy state.

The next morning we travelled through the Gobi desert. It is covered in whirling spindly shrubs, a few Mongolian white felt yurts (called gers), and the occasional rusting oil can. It reminded me most of my journey through the desert south of the Empty Quarter, in Oman in January. From time to time we would pass a small town. People in traditional Mongolian clothes (large quilted black silk coats, tied tightly at the waist with brightly coloured silk, and thick slipper-like leather boots coming to an upturned point at the toe) would look out at the train as it went past. We stopped at one town, and I bought my first Mongolian hot steamed mutton dumplings, using Chinese money, and getting a good price, thanks to the help of the conductor (who was by now our pal). Pretty tasty! I got out to buy my dumplings, and to get a good look at what was going on, but lots of people bought things through the train windows. Two-litre plastic bottles of a milky substance (probably airag -- fermented horse milk, Mongolia’s favourite drink) were delivered up to eager buyers, using a clever contraption which combined a broomstick with the upturned top of another plastic bottle acting like a cup to hold the bottle being sold.




Ulaan Baatar and Töv

We got to Ulaan Baatar early on Monday afternoon, in bright sunshine. We spent that day and the next getting to know that tiny city, enjoying the sunlight and clear air that so contrasts with Beijing, especially at the temples and winter palace of the Boghd Khan, Mongolia’s last religious and political leader before submitting to the Russians and becoming a communist country. We also worked out how and when to get back to China. Our assumption that there would of course be a Sunday morning flight to Beijing had proved to be a bit naive -- and the Saturday flight was already full. So Kath reluctantly put herself on the Friday flight; and I bought a Monday morning flight ticket after finding that Sunday’s train (coming all the way from Moscow) had no tickets locally available. In Ulaan Baatar, the pastel-coloured buildings of flats, the shops that look totally uninviting from the outside, and the cars, all made me start realising how much I want to go back to Central Asia! --- especially as Ulaan Baatar, like Bishkek, has a large useless-seeming windy square in its centre. Unfortunately, although Mongolian is from the same language group as the Central Asian languages, it does not resemble them in the slightest, and I could remember hardly any of the scant Russian that I had picked up in the spring. One taxi driver looked at me with absolute incredulity as I tried to say thank you in Mongolian and it appeared as if I was about to vomit in the process! The most striking difference for me between Mongolia and the (other) central Asian republics was not the difference in religion, but the absence of Russians there today –- though I assume the fact that Mongolia always remained an independent communist country would explain that.

Wednesday and Thursday were spent in the countryside of Töv province, which surrounds Ulaan Baatar. You are deep in the countryside, feeling the freedom and space, within 20 minutes of leaving the city centre. We visited a famous beauty spot, Terelj, which would be a good place to go hiking from during the summer, and then we spent the afternoon and night at a ger out in the countryside. A local woman whose children now run a local tourism agency (which has prices a sixth of those of the companies with foreign ownership or investment, we had discovered) looked after us for the night. When we were initially dropped off, she was not there, and we watched her come on horseback over the nearest hill, herding her sheep and goats back home for the night. We climbed the nearby hills, and gulped the air in, acting as boxing targets for the thousands of grasshoppers and cicadas, which would bounce at us and rebound against our legs, bodies, heads or even faces. We shared our ger with many of them too, and we couldn’t help treading on a few. The next day, we rode to visit the remaining buildings of the Manzshir Khiid monastery. This riding experience proved even more painful than in Sichuan in July! I was blaming my ailing knee joints (though feebling thighs probably had something to do with it too), until shortly before getting back to the ger in the afternoon, Kath and I swapped beasts, me convinced that it would not help. But my, what a difference an inch or so of stirrup and a comfortable saddle make! We spent lunchtime at what is left of the monastery, being entertained by a boisterous little girl and her brother, who brought me a crown of Mongolian edelweiss.

Kath had to leave on Friday morning in nasty cold weather, the season’s first snow having fallen on the hills outside the city during the night (that would be October 5th!). I spent the day in Ulaan Baatar getting a new Chinese visa (the office did re-open) and seeing the couple of dinosaurs still in Mongolia (the rest being in museums around the world), a strange theatre museum, and the Gandan Monastery, which was colourful and full of activity despite the heavy skies and recurring sleet.




Trip to Kharkhorin

My best two days were over the weekend –- and not just because I was supposed to have been back in Beijing by then! I decided to spend the time seeing a bit more of the Mongolian countryside by taking a public bus to Kharkhorin and back. Kharkhorin is a modern town 400km west of Ulaan Baatar built near the site of ancient Karakorum, the Mongolian capital "city" until they moved to Beijing. The city would never have had many stone buildings, but interestingly the ruins of those that there were, were re-used to build a beautiful monastery called Erdene Zuu in the 16th century. Familiar with the practice from Lebanon eastwards that a public vehicle leaves when full (and having found that 1pm was too late to go on Friday), having so little time I didn’t want to risk missing a bus on Saturday morning. So I was out at Ulaan Baatar’s ramshackle central bus station shortly after 7 am. This meant that I got to see beautiful pink and gold light coming through slatey clouds onto snow-covered hills around the city. But it also meant that I had to sit and freeze in the minibus for 3 hours until it finally was full!!! Probably the source of the cold that I still haven’t shaken off, two weeks later..... The scenery as I left Ulaan Baatar, now that there was snow on the ground, was somehow even more breathtaking than the brown expanses we had seen two days earlier. It reminded me of the Ferghana valley, and of the area just east of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Just as I was thinking I would like to take a picture, a woman called for a toilet break and we all relieved ourselves. Only the young boy on the bus, wearing a 1950s English schoolboy style of cap, dared to peek at me. Around 2pm, we stopped for lunch in a red mobile home which was one of a small string of "buildings" that suddenly popped up. No gers behind to back it up. We sat on benches inside, and were served hearty hot potatoes, vegetables and shreds of mutton, as well as refreshing slightly salty milky tea in bowls.

There had been no more snow since about an hour after we left Ulaan Baatar –- and by the afternoon, the scenery was reminding me of the Jordan desert instead, if slightly less dramatic. As if to add to it, suddenly there were camels sauntering by the roadside, chomping on the little grass and few shrubs! Mongolian camels are certainly domesticated, but they were the most untethered I had seen for months, and they were the only ones with two humps, bar a couple dolled up for tourists in China, that I have ever seen. As I watched them from the train, it had seemed as if their humps were empty, as they were often sagging over to one side. We eventually got to Kharkhorin. I would be able to wander round the grounds of Erdene Zuu, but the inside was already closed for the day. I had made friends with a deaf mute, a friend of the driver, who had got on the minibus from our lunch stop onwards. His inability to hear meant that he was great at understanding people’s gestures and expressions, and similarly at expressing things without using words. So having told me that the driver wanted to leave at 8 am the next morning, he managed to tell the driver to not go until 10 am instead! Waving me in the direction of the local hotels near the dusty bus stop, he made it clear he would be there the next morning. I found the hotel, with the help of one of its guests, who spoke a little English. Hurel Baatar, aged 30, turned out to be the sports doctor that had gone with Mongolia’s team to Sydney for the Olympics! He was staying in the hotel (a small family house) with his father, a high-up in the ministry of agriculture, who was in Kharkhorin on business for the week. I found it interesting that despite their apparently high social position, they were staying at the cheaper and simpler of the two hotels, and were happily friends with the family. Not something I’ve ever seen elsewhere. I went off to the monastery to see as much as I could before it got dark, and we ate our dinner together -- he eating dumplings, me eating a plate of nicely displayed rice, mutton stroganoff ("we call this goulash") and cucumber, and lots more salty tea. I was put in a warm room next to the washbasin (no running water, just a little metal box that gets filled up, stuck underneath the mirror), and didn’t mind the trip to the toilet outside.

On the following day, my hopes for an 8 am breakfast and a swift visit to the monastery again were confounded –- but the ladies in the hotel told me (perhaps to mollify me, as breakfast would not be ready till 9) that it did not open till 10 am. So I settled for eating a tasty Mongolian breakfast (deep-fried flaky bread, more tea, and mutton and noodle soup) with the smiling director in the Ministry of Agriculture instead. I was offered a seat in the official jeep, as they were returning to Ulaan Baatar that day too. But given my arrangements from the day before, I declined the offer, and was eagerly welcomed back onto the minibus by the deaf guy, a place having been saved. Once my luggage was stowed on top again, we were off! This time we shared our leg-room with a few small drums of airag, still fermenting and buzzing. The scenery of course was much the same as on the previous day, but there was still lots to look at. We lunched at the same place as on Saturday –- this time a plate of Mongolian noodles (like cut-up pancake) with the mutton and vegetables, and of course some more salty tea. During the afternoon, the minibus began to misbehave a bit (felt like a clutch problem), and when we came to the first outpost of greater UB, we stopped for half an hour while the men peered inside. A little earlier we had had to stop, as the journey had got too much for the stomach of one of our passengers (she didn’t look like the type to have spent the night on the airag). Looking in the other direction, my eyes landed on two Mongolian men carrying out the national pastime –- wrestling!!! Fully clothed, they grappled with each other on the hill above the roadside, their horses standing patiently by. It was not clear whether they were seriously settling dues or just having a quick workout –- but they seemed to be enjoying themselves! I felt like the show was being put on just for me, as there was so much of the rest of Mongolia that they could have been wrestling in, rather than right by the minibus! I had felt very sorry when the sports doctor had dolefully told me the night before that Mongolia had not done well in the Olympics -– their first year with no medals since 1968 -– especially as the sports that the athletes had mostly contested in had been archery and wrestling, Mongolia’s national habits.

Back at the guest house in Ulaan Baatar, I got clean and warm and prepared my bag (significantly fuller than when I’d arrived) for the flight the next day. But interesting events were not yet over. That night I shared my room with two young Australian guys who have just spent the last year and a bit cycling across Siberia! One actually started in London, the other in Finland, and they met up in Moscow. So rather than sleeping to ward off my encroaching sickness, I was regaled with tales of Russian doctors and their varied approaches to frostbite. Tim and Chris will be finishing their journey in Beijing in a week or so, so I hope to meet them once they get here. Check out their website if you have a moment.

And the flight back to Beijing? Pretty dull, dodgy food. Most amusing was listening to the several big forty and fifty-something Americans in fur-lined caps with their gold-chain-clad and stiletto-heeled wives, who had just had a Mongolian hunting holiday. Tales of ibexes abounded.


Lots of love

The tiles on this page are from a doorway in the Manzhusir Khiid monastery in central Mongolia. |Click here to view the original photo|