Into the wild

Monday morning after an unimpressive breakfast at the otherwise nice hotel we hop on the bus to go out into the national park. Barely out of town the gravel road starts and we are forced to drive at a leisurely 30 km/h. After a while it’s paved once more and we can go faster again. Curious to see just how fast I lean over to look at the speedometer only to realize that it’s broken…

We make a stop at one of those towers/rock piles you might have seen in Tintin. Batu explains that you’re supposed to throw three rocks onto the pile and then walk three times around it in a clockwise fashion and you’ll get rich. You should also tie a blue ribbon to the pole in the middle to please the gods.

There’s also a guy with a hunting eagle there that you get to hold on your hand for 2000 tgr (15 sek). It’s really a bigass bird, weighing in somewhere at 2-3 kg. We’re almost at the park at this point and we cross a rickety bridge over Mongolias longest river into the park.

Driving deeper into the park we pass no less than three golf courses. It’s kind of hard to tell it’s a golf course though since the only green thing about it is the actual green, the rest is as brown as the rest of the landscape. Apparently there are several semi-luxurious hotels in the park, which I guess explains the excellent 3G coverage throughout the park.

We reach camp Mirage at about 11 am and I share a ger with Jacob, Peter and Andreas. Apparently ger and yurta are the same thing, except that yurta is Russian and Mongols aren’t too fond of Russians anymore.

Seeing as there is a good hour until lunch is served we immediately go about climbing one of the nearby mountains. Sitting up top provides a great view and we decide to climb another peak. The weather by the way, is excellent, about 8°C, tiny clouds and very little wind. Couldn’t have asked for better!

Lunch is served in a very large ger, easily seating 50 people. Imagine our delight when we realize that lunch is a four course meal. It’s also delicious btw, those Mongolians sure can cook. Camp is really out in the sticks even if it doesn’t sound like it, but there are still real toilets and even hot water so that you can shower (not very long though). You can buy beer and snacks in the large ger as well. But in spite of all these modern amenities you still get the wilderness feeling. It truly is a grand place to be!

After lunch we make a short excursion to turtle rock. It’s a large rock formation that really looks like a turtle, not terribly exciting but fun nonetheless. Afterwards we get to meet a real Mongolian nomad family. They live in a ger all year round and move to and fro on the steppe with the seasons. During the summer they don’t have any means to store meat, and as a result are practically vegetarians. Wintertime they live off the herd. Batu tells us that eight years ago 75% of all Mongolians were nomads, today it’s down to 45%. He blames television for glorifying city life, sending nomads into the city with a skill set largely useless in the city. The sad fact is that many of them end up as homeless pickpockets.

We also get to sample some traditional Mongolian nomad cuisine. First up is fermented horse milk, tastes like apple cider vinegar with a hint of dairy at the end. It also has about a 3% alcohol content, hence the popular name “horse beer”. Next is dried curd that tastes more or less like really old cheese with a hint of dried yoghurt. Finally there’s some sort of dried cream that you put on a piece of bread. It tastes like cream really and is quite good.

After the nomads we get the rest of the day “off” and immediately go climbing again. We go for the highest one, west of camp, but it proves a bit too hard to get to the very top. Andreas and Rickard get up with a helping hand from me and get a few aerial shots of camp and surroundings.

On the way down we split up and me, Peter and Jacob find this fabulous lookout spot where we just sit down and play the “silent game” for half an hour. Sitting there we see a couple of ravens playing and everything is just bliss, definitely the best cold hang so far.

Going down I finally find what I’ve been looking for all day: an untouched patch of snow, just large enough to make a snow angel! The fact that it’s on a 45° slope presents a problem, but I manage to make a half-decent snow angel. In September. In Mongolia. Life is good.

Back at camp it’s dinner, and this time it’s only three courses, scandalous! It’s a traditional Mongolian dish with homemade pasta, strips of beef and various vegetables. Dessert is a water melon no larger than an orange! After dessert we hook up with Sanna and Elin to go out stargazing. But first we play around with Jacob’s camera setting it to long exposure and drawing stuff with flashlights (just like Dali did). We get a bunch of really cool pictures and resolve to do some more tomorrow.

Then we head up the hill a bit to get away from the lights in camp. Light pollution is so low here that you can see the entire Milky Way! It’s really hard to pick out constellations since you see so many more stars than usual. They’re also all turned about compared to home, making it a bit trickier. We just lie down on our backs and play the silent again, counting shooting stars. This is how it always should be.


Arriving Ulaanbaatar we are met by our guide-to-be Batu. He speaks excellent English and informs us that due to the blizzard all roads out of town are closed. So the program is tweaked right then and there so that we spend the first instead of the last day in Ulaanbaatar of our allotted time in Mongolia.

First on the agenda is a tour of the city and we go to the war monument on the outskirts of town. It’s situated on top of a great hill and provides a nice view of the capital. It’s super windy and really cold up top but nice nonetheless.

Next up is a temple, the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, where a bunch of lamas (not llamas Tommie, the monk kind…) are sitting, mumbling incoherently. Suddenly one of them gets a phone call and does his best to answer discreetly.

Talking with Batu outside the temple reveals that Lamaism is big business in Mongolia. People go and buy prayers in a little shop nearby and take them to the monks, who then recite them (ordinary people either don’t think that the gods can hear them or just can’t be bothered and rather just buy salvation). Batu is quite critical of the Lamaism, since the Lamas are usually really well off, driving Escalades, sporting heavy golden jewelry and the latest cell phones. They are also allowed to marry and have children. Sounds like a rather sweet gig to me…

There is another building at the temple, housing a huge (26.5 m) four-armed golden idol of the god Migjid Janraisig. Inside you’re only allowed to walk clockwise and along the walls are 1001 25 cm high, “helper deities”, that assist the larger one, who is a god of compassion.

Then we’re taken to a cashmere outlet shop where they have fabulous hats, socks, gloves, sweaters and the like. Given that it’s freezing outside and very few of us were smart enough to bring gloves, we shop like there’s no tomorrow.

Then finally back to the hotel for the first shower and shave in seven days. Freshened up me, Jacob, Linda, Rickard, Renee, Anders and Peter head out to find a meal. Walking in traffic in Ulaanbaatar is really hazardous, they don’t drive as fast as in Moscow but that’s probably mainly because the roads are in too bad a condition to allow it. They drive very erratically though and view the lanes and stop lines as mere suggestions. That, coupled with the fact that many manhole covers are simply missing makes it interesting to be a pedestrian.

We find a nice-looking place after just a few blocks (our hotel is right in the middle of town, just across from the Chinese embassy) and sit down. It looks promising since there are quite a few Mongols in there as well. Observation: Mongols are HOT! Especially the women, but also the men are really good looking and smile almost all the time. Talk about a contrast to Russia where even Mats had to work hard in order to get a smile from people.

Half of us, me included order the horse fillet and the others order dumplings in different shapes. The horse fillet is incredible and the dumplings are great as well. It’s a nice change of pace that not all the dumplings are deep fried like the Russian pirogues, some are actually made in the oven. The meal cost a staggering $7 apiece (including beer) and then we’re even given a lousy exchange rate of a 1000 tögrög to a dollar instead of the 1400 you’d get at a bank. Almost everywhere in Mongolia you can pay with dollars, but they might be short on change. Most often they just round down to the nearest thousand and then divide by 1000 for the price in dollars.

After lunch we go to the museum of natural history to look at dino bones (they’ve found quite a few out in the desert lately). The exhibition is so-so but it’s always fun to see some ancient bones and stuffed animals.

Walking back to the hotel me, Jacob and Peter take a detour after seeing a little “Supermarket” sign. We go into what looks like an ordinary apartment building and find ourselves in a second-hand computer shop. There are more computer parts than you can shake a stick at: motherboards, old chassis, printers, hard drives, scanners, you name it. That doesn’t seem like the supermarket though and after some additional searching we find it in the cellar, next to a restaurant. The steps in the stairwell leading down are leaning every-which way, are of uneven height and length, making for an interesting descent. We buy some local vodka, some candy, a coke and go about our way again.

Another thing about Mongolian streets is that there is generally really poor runoff. So after the heavy snowfall there are plenty of large puddles to circumnavigate. Couple that with the prevalence of holes and you have the result that you have to treat every puddle as a potentially five feet-deep hole.

We see another shop on the way home and decide to go inside (shops in Ulaanbaatar generally just have signs with text on them, making it kind of hard to tell what they’re selling). It happens to be a book store and we browse a bit before moving on.

Back at the hotel we have about an hour to relax before heading out again to see a traditional Mongolian show, followed by some Mongolian barbecue buffet. The show is really great (and a steal at $9, I would gladly have paid three times as much) featuring traditional music with lots of funny-looking instruments, throat singing, acrobatics, dancing and theater.

Then off to the barbecue, for those of you not familiar with Mongolian style barbecue it works like this: you get a plate which you fill with all the stuff you want from a buffet of raw food (cabbage, onion, peppers, lamb, pork and so on). Then you get a cup of sauce and proceed to the giant cooking table where a bunch of cooks fry everything up for you and pour the sauce over at the end. These guys were wielding sword-like things which they used to turn the food and to do fancy tricks with, such as lining up seven pieces of pineapple on it (while it’s still lying on the table) and then hitting the handle so that they all fly up in the air and land on your plate.

It’s not just the process that’s excellent though, the food is delicious and seven helpings later I’m experiencing Tommie-levels of fullness.

On the, incredibly poorly lit, way home we stop at a pub to have a couple of drinks for good measure.

All things considered I’m surprised at how much I liked Ulaanbaatar, my sister, who visited it last year called it “the ugliest city she’d ever seen” and others agreed that it wasn’t far off. The city seem to have shaped up just during the latest year though because there were several really nice apartment complexes (even by Swedish standards) being built. The main downside are the super crappy roads. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I like the people so much (especially after spending a week being abused by grumpy Russians and equally grumpy Chinese train hosts) but I kind of like Ulaanbaatar.