Friday, 21 September 2012

Mongolia - Life in a Ger

Paul enjoying the sunshine
The 24 hour train trip from Ulan Ude ended at about 7am.  Everyone was a little ragged around the edges for a variety of reasons, lack of sleep being the main one, and an excess of beer and vodka a close second.  The same journey from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar can be made by bus in 9 hours but you really can't break up the train trip and say, hand on heart, that you've done the Trans Siberian!  

We had an epic 5 hour stop at the Russian border town in the blistering heat (and yes, we were still in Siberia!), followed by a shorter but no less tedious 2 and a half hours at the Mongolian Border.  I am dealing with the journeys themselves in a separate post which is proving to be a bit of an essay but thought it would be more appropriate to keep those separate, for anyone interested in actually taking the train.

Incidentally, we call Mongolian money mogrots because we think it sounds better than togrogs.  We also call small tailless ground squirrels found in Mongolia mogrots, because it suits them.  That is fine, as long as the private joke remains private.  If it doesn't and you use it in everyday conversation you sound a bit like an idiot.  But I'm used to that…

The door is a tad small for a Wooky
So we arrived in Mongolia excited to be spending a few nights in a ger.  As part of the whole organised trip thing we were met by our guide (we think her name was Rachna but while her English was amazing, her pronunciation was a little hard to follow sometimes – the Mongolian language has a whole new range of sounds we hadn't come across and is so completely different from English!).  We'll call her Rachna anyway.  She led us off the platform and out of the station to our driver (whose name we didn't catch) and we were taken first to a bank to change some money and then to a shop on the way to the Terelj National Park about 60 or 70km outside Ulaanbaatar.

We have been amazed at the personal service we have had throughout this trip, we have never been part of a larger group, and the local agents have been helpful and accommodating without exception.

However, we were slightly horrified when we realised that Rachna was not only our guide accompanying us to the ger camp but effectively our personal chaperon for the duration. 

Hundreds of Mongolian kids on a field trip
The trip to Terelj took about an hour and a half, mainly because outside of Ulaanbaatar the roads are no more than dirt tracks.  The driver was clearly driving his own car because he was a bit precious about it and slowed down to a snail's pace at the sign of the slightest indentation – this obviously happens about every 10 yards and I'm amazed we reached the ger camp before nightfall.

The scenery, however, is awe inspiring so we just sat back and enjoyed driving through the hills and mountains.  There is not much in Mongolia apart from incredible landscape and lots of gers dotted around, along with herds of cows, horses, yaks, camels, sheep and goats.  Mongolia is a vast country with a population of only 3 million people, half of which live in the capital Ulaanbaatar, and 43% continue to live a rural nomadic lifestyle.

View of our ger camp from a little way up the mountain
I should mention here that a ger is a Mongolian yurt – I can't quite remember exactly what differentiates a ger from a yurt but, from memory (and don't quote me), I believe it is something to do with the structure (wooden latticed) and the coverings (cotton and felt).  It is basically a round tent, with a fire in the centre – inside it keeps cool in the blisteringly hot summers and is like a sauna in the bitterly cold (minus 30 degrees) winters.  The seasons are harsh in Mongolia and you begin to understand how these people managed to control the biggest empire ever.  They are a hardy bunch.

Upon arrival at our little ger camp we were met by the owners (who spoke no English but it was clear from their faces and body language that Mongolians were a massive improvement on the Russians in terms of general demeanour – they smiled a lot for a start).  We were then shown to the ger which would be our home for the next 3 days.  The doorway was about 3 and a half foot high so we both had to bend double to get in but once inside, it was cosy and very cute.  We wouldn't recommend it for a honeymoon as the single beds are about as far away as you can get on either side of the ger with the fire in between but we weren't on our honeymoon.

It is impossible to get perspective of this vast landscape
Rachna asked us when we wanted breakfast and we agreed 9 o'clock.  She then went off to the main building with the owners and after dumping our rucksacks inside the ger, we sat outside and just wondered at the views around us, and the absolute peace and quiet (apart from a herd of very nosy cows).

There are lots of tourist camps in Terelj but not so much that it is overdone.  Our camp was called Magic Rock and it was at the end of a road.  You could go no further, even by dirt track, because the mountains were in the way and we really felt like we were off the beaten track.

As we sat under the clear blue sky, feeling the day beginning to warm up, we tried to get some kind of perspective of our surroundings, but it was almost impossible.  There were craggy rocks and peaks to one side, tree lined hills in front of us and what looked a valley to the other side.  Distance was difficult to define and it felt as if your eyes were playing tricks on you – the foothills appeared to be so close until you realised that the dots you could see were actually cows or horses grazing in the distance.  It was so beautiful and so peaceful.

Inside our ger
9 o'clock arrived and we were duly summoned for breakfast.  And so began our hosts' valiant attempts to fatten us up.  Not that we needed it, I can assure you, but from that moment it became their mission to stuff us full of food at every opportunity.

Rachna sat with us at the table in the empty restaurant and at this point alarm bells started to sound.  We were plied with bread, sausage, eggs, tea (lots of tea), coffee, and more bread and jam.  Over breakfast, Rachna asked us what we liked to do, e.g. walking or hiking and Paul said, yes, we liked hiking (much to my horror – I don't mind a brisk walk but hiking is serious business for people a lot younger than we are and who don't smoke and drink as much as we do.  She went on to inform us that we could go for a walk later that day, and that tomorrow we were going for a hike to a local monastery, and the day after that she had planned a visit to a family ger where we could meet a local family and see how they live (I think yak's milk was involved).

The view across from our ger camp
We nodded politely and made the right noises but once we were finally alone making our way back to our ger, we discussed how on earth we were going to shake her loose.  The thought of spending the next 3 days being constantly supervised was unbearable. 

Sure enough, 10 minutes later she returned to show us the shower block, and clearly felt she should start tagging along again, and so she did.  She sat outside with us, the silence punctuated with little snippets of information about Mongolia, and the Mongolian people, which were fascinating but it was not relaxing trying to make conversation with a stranger, and not the way we had envisaged spending our time in the Mongolian outback.  We were being babysat!  I popped to the loo at one point, and half expected her to be waiting outside when I emerged.  Something had to be said and it was decided (by Paul) that I was the one to say it.

A camel
One last glimmer of hope was that some of the other guests may take some of the pressure off.  Some people are happy to have their hands held, or welcome that personal touch, but for us, while it is good to get some basic information to begin with, we're just happy to do our own thing.  However that glimmer of hope was quickly extinguished when we were informed that we were the only guests, something we had suspected given the lack of activity all morning, but we had clung to that straw until that hope was dashed.

After lunch (3 courses and lots of tea), Rachna announced that we would go for a walk and granted us 20 minutes grace to let our dinner go down before marching off.  We quickly put our heads together and had a quick conflab resulting in me trying to explain as kindly as possible that we just wanted to go off for a walk on our own.  I think Rachna was slightly offended at first.  Clearly she had been dispatched to stay with us for 3 days and 3 nights to supervise and entertain us, and our making a break for freedom meant she had failed in her mission.  To soften the blow we agreed to go on the hike with her the next day to the monastery.

A yak
We spent the rest of the day wandering into the foothills, and found a suitable rock to sit on and  enjoy the view from a different perspective.

Rachna was a lovely, sweet and gentle lady – she was probably about 35 years old with a 10 year old son.  We think she was a single mother as her mother was looking after her son while she was staying with us.  She enjoyed her work as a guide, often accompanying groups on trips of 2 weeks or more out into the desert, and she was knowledgeable and passionate about her country and her country's history.  Once we had laid down a few ground rules, she was enchanting company and the last thing we wanted to do was offend her, but neither did we want our time in Terelj to be on a strict timetable – we wanted to kick back, relax and drink in this strange and beautiful country, and just enjoy being there.

The Buddhist temple in the Mongolian hills
During the first day, Rachna constantly asked us whether we wanted a fire lit in our ger.  It was a warm day and we knew it would be cold later but didn't see the point of lightly a fire until evening.  And when we did, Paul wanted to be the one to do it!  Living in a ger in the Mongolian mountains like a nomad surrounded by herds of cows and horses was definitely bringing out the caveman in Paul, and having a petite Mongolian young woman (or anyone else for that matter) lighting his fire for him was akin to castrating him as he informed me rather dramatically!

After dinner, the man was summoned to our ger to light the fire. Paul was champing at the bit to take over, but had been held back to watch from the door, grunting the odd "ugg".  It was amusing to watch.  We were asked whether we wanted the man to return in the morning to relight the fire – we were to just leave the door open and he would come in while we were asleep.  Paul declined as politely as he could, muttering under his breath to me that he would light his own bloody fire, thank you very much! 

We sat watching the fire glowing and within 5 minutes the ger was as hot as a furnace, and although it was freezing outside, we had to escape the heat of the ger and sat outside to cool off.  We eventually returned, climbed into bed and promptly fell asleep.

Being a light sleeper, Paul was up a couple of times in the night and went outside to check out the Mongolian sky which, I am reliably informed, was clear and sparkling with stars.  He also heard a wolf howling which was magical.  Later on, while he was lying in bed, he could hear something scurrying across the ger roof (we suspected a mogrot).  In the morning, you could hear the cows munching the grass the other side of the ger walls.

Prayer wheels around the outside of the temple
Paul duly got up at 7am to light the fire and we were burned out again within 5 minutes.  There is no way to control the heat from these fires as there are only 2 settings – off and furnace hot.  Paul put just enough on to warm us up in the chilly morning and after an hour or so we got up and sat outside in the quiet, watching the little mogrots scurrying about, and the eagles soar overhead.

After breakfast, we head off to the monastery.  As it turned out it wasn't a monastery but a meditation temple set high up in the mountainside a few kilometres away.  As we didn't always catch what Rachna was saying, it wasn't entirely clear how the day was going to be spent.  We had heard the words , 5 kilometres, picnic lunch and bus.  All this seemed doable and we weren't overly concerned.

Inside the temple
We walked to the main road (which we know is 3 km for starters) and then started walking along the road in the general direction of the temple.  We must have walked another 2 km before a random vehicle (which apparently was the bus) stopped for us to board.  This bus was actually a people carrier with 12 people already on board.  We managed to squeeze on after a bit of shuffling about involving moving a small boy next to me to avoid being squashed by a rather large Wooky.  All was taken in strides and there was much smiling and nodding, with Rachna chatting away to the other passengers, us looking inanely on.

The bus dropped us off at the end of another road and we began walking again.  At this point we were beginning to wonder where the 5km came into it and how far we were actually going to be walking.  It was a very hot day, and both of us struggle with various aches when strenuous exercise is undertaken and there was a huge element of unknown here.

108 steps leading to the monastery
As it turned out, by the end of the day, we estimated we had walked about 20km, including a steep walk up to the temple (and obviously down again, which is harder on the knees).  I have to confess, once we reached the foot of the mountainside and looked up to the temple, I almost admitted defeat.  I was having trouble catching my breath which Paul said was something to do with the altitude as we were about 1500m above sea level but I put down to general unhealthiness.  

I actually said I couldn't go any further so Rachna suggested lunch, which was salad, rice, some meat burgers, water and some very moreish fruity sweets.  After lunch I was suitable rejuvenated and ready to tackle the steep uphill path to the temple. 

The path was dotted with Buddhist proverbs, none of which I remember, but reading them on the way up gave you something to think about, other than the fact that you were going to pass out any minute! 

Paul returns with firewood
As we reached the end of the path of proverbs, I spotted a rope bridge.  It was only very short (about 15m) but it was still a bloody rope bridge, a very rickety one at that.  There wasn't much of a drop, but enough of a drop if you ask me. 

But as we were waiting for a group of children to come the other way I spotted a chipmunk just a couple of feet away hauling his own body weight in the form of a biscuit which took my mind of my impending death by rope bridge.  I was only able to see the chipmunk so clearly and for so long because he was weighed down by biscuit but obviously he didn't hang around long enough for me to get a photograph.  That's the problem with the wildlife, they don't give a thought to photo opportunities. 

A panoramic view from the top 
Back to the rope bridge, once the kids had traipsed over to our side, we stepped onto the bridge, and after much swinging and swaying (and a minor panic attack on my part) made it safely and without incident to the other side.  Why we keep doing things that go against our survival instincts I'll never know but it was all worth it in the end.

Just as you think you are almost there, you find yourself at the bottom of a long, 108 step, stone staircase which finally takes you up to the doors of the temple.  The number 108 is a special number in Buddhism and other mainly eastern religions and represents one thing, nothing and everything.  Those steps nearly defeated me too but we finally made it to the top.

View from the as far as we climbed
Once at the top, we first walked around the outside of the temple which is circled by prayer wheels.  Rachna spun the wheels as we went along.  Then we went up to a cave temple, off the left of the main temple, which was just a very small room into the mountainside with an altar and some decorations. 

All along the way on our walk the area was busy with Mongolians visitors, lots of couples and families, all out on a Sunday enjoying the fantastic weather and making their own little pilgrimage.  It was touching to see young girls and boys step into the temple and offer up their own prayers.  And it was becoming more and more apparent that Mongolians are really lovely, happy and friendly people.  The children were delightful, the less shy ones calling out hello and any other English words they knew.  The whole experience was a breath of fresh air after the general miserableness of the Russians!  But it was the children we fell in love with (and we don't normally do children at all!).

Up at the top wondering how
we were going to get down again
After the cave we went inside the meditation temple which is decorated as you would expect, with gold Buddhas, lots of bright colours, different materials, silks and carpets.  It was much simpler than the grandeur and opulence of the Russian churches and cathedrals.  The whole atmosphere was a world away from western Christian religions and leaves you in no doubt that you are firmly in the heart of Asia.

The views from the temple were also worth the climb.  We could see right across the mountains, miles into the distance, but again none of this could be captured on camera because the perspective just doesn't compute.  It was enough to just stand there and gaze into the distance.  Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it's impossible to bottle a moment in time, and you just have to hope that it is imprinted in your memory firmly enough not to forget it.

We then started our walk back down.  We avoided the rope bridge by taking a steeper but more direct route which was quicker but harder on the knees.  We walked a few kilometres more until we reached a place called Turtle Rock (I won't explain – I'll leave that to your imagination!).  Thankfully, from there we managed to get a drive back to the camp. 

Once back at our ger and after a well-deserved beer Paul headed off into the foothills to fetch some firewood, returning with a fallen tree.  A small tree, but a tree nevertheless.  He was determined he was going to be the firestarter from now on and that included fetching his own wood!

After another 3 course meal and a couple of beers later Paul lit the fire, we sweltered, cooled down and collapsed in exhaustion.

Paul donned this rather fetching cow skull
On our final day, we managed to sidestep the visit to the traditional nomad family (and yak milk tasting) and kindly but firmly told Rachna we were going to head up the mountain on our own.  At one point we thought she was going to tag along but we managed to shake her off.  We told her we wouldn't need lunch (or a packed lunch – we had some leftovers from the train) and we would just have some dinner that night. 

That whole conversation was completely lost in translation because when we got back at 3.30pm we were given lunch and 2 hours later they tried to feed us dinner.  We just couldn't eat another thing and again, trying very hard not to offend, refused any more food.

Our trek up the mountain, however, was amazing.  It was much steeper than we imagined and we took the walk up very slowly.  The mountainside is covered with a carpet of dozens of different herbs so with every step you take, you get a variety of different aromas.  Once again, that is something you can't capture, but it will remain with us as part of that day. 

More stunning landscape
The going was quite tough in places, very steep and rocky, and we stopped every 50 or 100 steps.  On the way, Paul found a mountain stream and we spotted lots of animals' holes in the ground.  There was evidence (poo) of deer, sheep and goats and we came across the remains of a couple of cows (bones and skulls with alarming evidence of gnawing).

After about 3 hours we stopped climbing, just short of what we thought was the top.  Our ger camp had disappeared completely from view and we felt as if we were the only people for miles around, which we probably were.  We didn't want to go any further as we still had the walk down – we didn't want to find ourselves stuck on a mountainside overnight in the freezing cold!

We found a suitable rock and stopped to have a bit of lunch and enjoy  the view, watching a pair of eagles soaring above us.  As we sat there, we heard a wolf howling over the other side of the mountain top.  Yet another magical moment, sat in the mountain wilderness in Mongolia, miles away from anyone, listening to a wolf howl in the distance.  The peace and tranquility of the place was perfect.

Even more stunning scenery
The climb down was quite tricky.  We decided to head for the grassier area and walked across rather than straight down.  It was very steep and although neither of us is very good with heights, going down is always easier.  It only took an hour and a half to get back and Rachna was there waiting to greet us as we reached our ger.  She must have seen us coming!  She was nothing if not attentive! 

After 2 days of solid marching, showers were in order and while I was drying off, Paul was dragged up to the restaurant block where the Rachna and the young Mongolian guy were enjoying Mongolian karaoke.  We spend the next couple of hours, drinking vodka and taking it in turns singing karaoke.  The Mongolians love their karaoke and to be fair they are very good at it.  As, I discovered, was my husband!  Paul did a rendition of Delilah with such relish, I have wondered ever since if he has been secretly practising in the bathroom all this time.  He went on to do a bit of Elvis which really impressed our hosts.  I had a couple of feeble attempts just to be polite but even the vodka couldn't mask (from me or anyone else) the fact that I can't sing for toffee.  I'm not bad funny, I'm just rubbish.  Luckily, Paul's performance made up for it.

Paul entertaining on the karaoke
The ger camp family were lovely (I think there were 4 of them altogether) and they did everything they could to make us feel at home and to cater to our every whim (although they did run out of beer which is never a good thing in our book, but we had reserves of vodka so it wasn't the end of the world).

To top it all, on the way back to Ulaanbaatar, we stopped to see a couple of hunting eagles at the side of the road, and a vulture.  Paul had his photograph taken with the vulture (a charge of 3000 mogrots = £1.50), which had a wingspan of 2.8, and was an amazing creature.  The hunting eagles were beautiful too.  Hunting with birds is another tradition of Mongolia which is alive and well. 

Some of the traditions in Mongolia (and I am sure, those of other countries that we intend visiting) may not sit well with the values we have as westerners but we cannot always apply our values to different cultures.  Their lives are a world away from our own and learning about their history, culture and traditions is by far the most rewarding aspect of travelling, for us at any rate.

Paul making friends with a beautiful vulture
The whole ger camp experience was amazing.  Of course, it is aimed at tourists, but it is aimed at both foreign and domestic tourists.  The Terelj National Park is a beautiful part of the world and as well as the tourist camps, there are nomads living throughout the park, following traditions they have followed for hundreds of years.  Our time spent there was far too short, but it was enough to convince us that we want to return to Mongolia one day, and try to see more of that beautiful country. 

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