Posts Tagged 'countryside'

travel diary: terelj

This travel experience is a bit different.  Previous trips to the countryside entailed hopping in a car and driving for hours…. This time, we eschewed our normal mode of transportation and tried another – dog sled.

Terelj is probably the most visited destination outside of UB, because it’s close to the city, but far enough that, as a national park, it seems like you are in the countryside.  And because of its proximity to the capital, it plays host to a wide range of ger camps, resort facilities, and nomadic families, offering conveniences for every taste.  Surprisingly, I’ve never been to Terelj before, and I do appreciate being able to leave Mongolia haven’t visited at least once.

This time around, we embarked on a trip with a French tour guide who runs the only dog sledding operation in Mongolia.  Joel is originally from France, but has made Mongolia his own, along with his 44 Alaskan huskies.  He’s been dog sledding for a long time, and it was quite a treat to share his love for the sport for even just a weekend.

So early Saturday morning we departed UB and headed to the countryside.  It was nice to escape the pollution and breathe clean air, and I gladly traded my warm apartment for more rustic conditions.  We arrived in Terelj and after suiting up (which included waterproof boots, massive sheepskin mittens, and every layer of clothing I brought with me), we met our team of dogs.

I think the usual team comprises 6-11 dogs, but as beginners, we only had 5.  Enough for me, as my dogs were ready to run, run, run.   We set off almost immediately along the frozen Terelj River, and after maybe 30 minutes of trying to get used to this strange new sensation, we learned to relax and go with the flow.  I think riding the sled must be like skiing – you stand on two planks of wood and adjust with movement of the dogs and the sled.  The key, I guess, is staying loose.

After 3 or so hours (30 kms), we arrived at a family’s hasha, where we would stay the night.  The family was warm and welcoming, and we played Mongolian card games and drank vodka into the late hours, before stoking the fire and heading to bed.  The ger was surprisingly well-insulated, keeping us warm for almost the entire night.

The next day, we hopped back on our sleds and headed out again; this time, though, I managed to wreck my sled almost immediately on a steep decline with rocks.  But the dogs ran on like nothing happened, and I hopped back on and kept going, getting comfortable again after a few minutes or so.   Again, we raced along the frozen river, driving through slush occasionally, which I will confess made me slightly apprehensive.

And at the end, we warmed up in the home ger again, glad to have had this wonderful experience.   I had expected to be very cold, but was surprisingly ok, despite temperatures far below 0 F. The dogs were adorable and fun – each has a name and a distinct personality and it was fun to watch them interact with us and each other.  Definitely a worthwhile experience!

More pictures found here.

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travel diary: kazakh

Early October marks Western Mongolia’s largest event, which is pretty small by global standards, and even Mongolian standards (as compared to Naadam).  Still, the Eagle Festival is a fascinating glimpse of one of Mongolia’s largest ethnic minorities, the Kazakh people.

Kazakhstan is obviously a large country, and just next door, separated by a sliver of Russia.  But Kazakhstan has long since gone Soviet, and the Kazakhs in Mongolia have managed to preserve traditional Kazakh culture to a surprisingly authentic degree.  This is helped by Mongolia’s relaxed policies on integration, allowing Kazakhs to maintain separate schools in their own language.

Unlike the rest of Mongolia’s minority groups, the Kazakhs are distinctly different, in looks, language, religion, food, and culture. They are Muslim, though not often religious (despite preparation of halal meat).  They maintain traditional foods from central Asia, while incorporating some of Mongolia’s most popular dairy items.  And they share Mongolia’s love of horse riding and the wild outdoors.

In the first weekend of October, the Kazakhs of Mongolia display another popular cultural tradition – eagle hunting.  For a while, eagle hunting was on the verge of dying out, until one of Mongolia’s largest tour operators began sponsoring the Golden Eagle Festival.  So, with its origins in attracting tourists, the Eagle Festival is expected to be a glamorous sham of an event.

It was nothing of the sort.  Small and even a bit intimate, the eagle festival was two days of rodeo-style entertainment.  We started in the main square of town for the parade, where the locals dressed in their finery and marched around.  Then we piled into our vehicles and headed out to a small canyon outside of town, where a large ring had been set up for events.

There are three main events at the eagle festival, two of which involve eagles.  The first is a competition in which eagles are launched from a high point on a bearby hillside, and sent to capture a small bit of fox fur that the trainer is dragging on the ground behind his horse.  The second is similar, but this time the eagle is meant to land on the hunter’s arm.  I found the second to be by far the more exciting of the two.

But my favorite activity was the third, in which two men on horses played tug-of-war with a goat skin, pulling each other over and under their horses, often galloping off and in circles before one of them managed to pull the skin away from the other.

The rest of the festival was typical, with vendors set up selling skewered meat, Kazakh embroidered goods, fur hats, and other items.  I even tried a bit of horse intestine, which was disappointing in its almost normalcy (except for the chewiness….).

But the Eagle Festival is not the only attraction of western Mongolia.  The most mountainous region of Mongolia, Olgii and the other western provinces are incredibly beautiful landscapes.   The moutains rise tall and proud, and the lakes are often half-frozen in the fall.  In particular, the salt accumulating along lakeshores reveals a very different view of the Mongolian countryside.

Mongolia’s highest peaks rise in the west, in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.  And not far from the park’s entrance live Kazakh herders, moving from their summer gers to their winter houses while we were there.  We had the opportunity to hike a bit in the snow of the mountains, while staying overnight with some of the local families, who fed us traditional Kazakh foods like “five fingers”, a delicious dish of salty steamed dough and roasted mutton eaten with both hands and much gusto.

We also had the opportunity to purchase some traditional crafts, and our host told us that much of the old embroidery is difficult to find anymore in Kazakhstan, and becoming more rare in Mongolia itself.  I felt lucky to be able to purchase one, made in 1952, which I hope to restore upon return to the US.

mongolian grasslands

The recent Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences is a woman (one of the two, rather), which is unique in its own right.  But more exciting, much of her work centers around the proper management of the commons, which is an important issue in Mongolia today.  Fittingly, that work involved Mongolian grasslands, demonstrating that locally-based, community management is more effective than both privatization and socialism.

travel diary: gobi

While I haven’t been everywhere in the world, I have been to the Gobi.  And I firmly believe there is no place on earth like it.  Perhaps the sand dunes look like the Sahara or Arabian Peninsula.  Perhaps the zag makes the landscape look like Moab.  And perhaps the gobi-steppe bears a slight resemblance to the African savannah.  But combined, these landscapes make for a unique environment, and one made even more so by the Bactrian camel, an animal found no where else in the world.

Of all the places I’ve visited in Mongolia, the Gobi is by far my favorite.  Not because it’s any type of vacation, but because its forbidding beauty challenges the imagination, and because the Gobi people are the hardiest, yet friendliest people in the world.  No longer so isolated due to the presence of satellite TV and cheap solar panels, Gobi people used to rely on travelers to bring news of the outside world.  Thus, friendliness is ingrained culturally, and still hasn’t changed.  Even the ones making a business in tourism are still extremely friendly and giving.

I took two trips to the Gobi (three if you count SE Gobi), once to see all the sights, and the second to take an overnight camel trek across the Gobi’s tallest sanddunes.  The Eastern steppe is fairly remote, sparsely-populated place.  The Gobi is even more sparsely populated, and even more strikingly so, as the great majority of people live in or near the aimag capital of Dalanzadgad.  The Lonely Planet estimates the population density to be 0.3 people per square kilometer.  DC’s population density is about 3700 per sq km, about 10000 times as much. The Gobi is on par with Greenland.

My first trip to the Gobi required a 15 hour drive to Dalanzadgad from UB.  It took us 15 hours to get not-that-far, and another 2-3 hours the next morning to go the rest of the way.  But we did have a flat tire, which definitely slowed us some.  After leaving Dalanzadgad, the emptiness of the Gobi became almost entirely apparently.  We passed a few other vehicles, mostly because it was high tourism season, but otherwise saw little of human presence. Our first day in the Gobi was spent at two of the most popular spots (after we found our way) – Yolyn Am and Bayanzag.

Yolyn Am is otherwise known as Vulture’s Valley, though I don’t recall seeing any vultures.  Instead, the big draw is the ice gorge, a sort-of glacier in the middle of the valley that lasts for about 9-10 months of the year and melts for the rest, before refreezing again (I’m not sure if it is dry).  The hike to the ice gorge is beautiful and distinctly un-Gobi-like, and the ice gorge itself is kind of cool in an out-of-place way.

Bayanzag, on the other hand, is one of those places that sounds very cool on paper, and turns out to be much less cool in execution.  It is the location where the first dinosaur eggs were found, and in past years, excavations have still gone on.  Lately though, not much of anything is happening, so aside from some cool red rocks, there isn’t much to see now.

The highlight of the trip though is the Khongoryn Els, the Khongor Sanddunes.  These are Mongolia’s tallest sanddunes, topping 200-300 meters at their tallest point.  On my first trip to the Gobi, we stayed 2 days near the sanddunes, admiring the view and hiking up the dunes, and catching the sunset.

My second trip the Gobi involved going directly to the sanddunes.  It was a much more unpredictable journey, but by the time we made it to the sanddunes, we were able to catch a wonderful sunset, which I had missed the first time around.  The next day, we met our camel guide, a herder who lived on the other side of the sanddunes.  He suggested a 20 km ride, an overnight stay, and then a ride back the next day.  Agreeing, we mounted our camels, and headed on our way.

If you’ve never ridden a camel before, it is, in a way, similar to an elephant, in that you feel very far off the ground.  But, instead of being safe in a little seat, you are riding the camel on a little saddle that vaguely resembles a rug.  Also, there is the same front and back motion as riding a horse, and then maybe some sideways motion too.  Either way, it’s a bit like being in a boat.  So, for 20 km, we rode the camels along the sanddunes until we reached a lower part, where we proceeded to cross.  At some point, however, 20 km turned into 30 km, and our ride became a whole-day affair, until we reached our camel herder’s ger.  For a good 10 km, there was nothing but sand all around, and reaching his ger in the middle of nowhere came as much of a blessed relief.

Overnight at the camel herder’s ger was like being the only people on earth.  The stars were bright with the lack of civilization, and every sound in the night was audible.  I had, unfortunately, been told about wolves, so I slept very little for fear that said wolves would materialize (no, they did not).  The next day we trekked back across the dunes, but this time taking a more direct route.  It shaved 10 km off our trek, but also had us travelling across the tallest points of the dunes.

From the backside, the rise is more gradual, allowing for some gentle up and down on our camels.  At some point though, the rise was too steep and we dismounted and lead our camels up, up, and up, until we reached the peak.  At the top, we tied up the reins and sent them down the other side, following closely behind, a pretty much steep drop to the bottom. Then we brushed off the sand and calmly climbed back on our camels and made the remainder of the way back to our ger camp.

More pictures here and here.

travel diary: eastern steppe

Ah, the Eastern Steppe.  If I were going to pick any part of Mongolia that I would say was distinctly Mongolian, I would go with the steppe.  There is more steppe in the central and west part of the country, but the East has reached almost mythical proportions when thinking about nomads and horses and running wild and free.

Part of that comes from the relatively sparse population – population density is almost as low as the Gobi, and most of the people are concentrated in urban centers, leaving vast open spaces for wildlife and livestock.  Rumor has it, the herds of gazelle number close to 1 million, the largest migration in the world.

We spent a week in the East, but unfortunately missed the famed gazelle, only catching glimpses of a few lone animals here or there.  We did see a number of birds of prey, many of which just sat on the side of the road watching us as we drove past.

Eastern Mongolia is not just steppe, however.  In the southeast, much of the landscape is the Gobi, with the same scrubby flora as is found in the south.  We started in SE Gobi, at the border town of Zamyn-Uud.  From there, we drove to the Energy Center, at Danzanravjaa’s monastery in Khamar.   Danzanravjaa, the Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi, was a 19th Century monk who established a rather forward-thinking center of learning, Buddhist contemplation, and even performing arts, in the middle of the desert.  As like most Buddhist centers in Mongolia, much of it was destroyed by the Russians a century later, but many parts of the center have been rebuilt.  One attraction in particular is the Energy Center, where it is said a soul can be rejuvenated and made blissful by observing a few rituals.

From the Energy Center, we proceeded northeast, camping over night a few times.  One of the best things about Mongolia is the ability to pitch a tent just about anywhere in the countryside.  There are few places in the world where this is possible.  We headed into Sukhbaatar province, where the gobi turns into volcanic plains before becoming outright steppe.  In Sukhbaatar, at Dariganga, it is possible to see volcanic craters and lakes, as well as underground caves.   The ethnic stock here is different too – the Dariganga people are one of the many minorities in Mongolia.

After a few days exploring, we left Dariganga and began a long drive across the steppe.   The land is flat, much like the central portion of the US.   But unlike the American midwest, this flatness is entirely wild, with no neat rows of corn or soy, and little to no development whatsoever.  We went hours without stumbling across a town, following only some well-worn dirt tracks through the high steppe grass.    Eventually, the steppe turns into more mountainous areas in the north, but for several hundred kilometers, there is nothing to see but the endless blue sky.

More pictures can be found here.

travel diary: buryat

Mongolia has some surprisingly diverse people and landscapes, from the Gobi in the south to the taiga in the north, from the Kazakh eagle hunters in the west to the Buryat farmers in the north east.

I haven’t been west yet, but I’ve been north, and south, and east.  And while the Gobi remains my favorite part of Mongolia, the Buryat people of northeastern Mongolia might be the most charming.

Buryatia is a country in its own right, spun off from the Soviet Union after the collapse.  The majority of the Buryat people live around Baikal and are distinctly russified, even with their Siberian features (former PM of Ukraine is Buryat).  Those who live in Mongolia have mixed in a bit, and are more Mongolian in appearance.  Their language is also very similar to Mongolian, though the accent is distinguishable.

In Mongolia the Buryat community is located in the aimag of Khentii, which also happens to be the birthplace of Chinggis Khan. Khentii is absolutely beautiful, just on the edge of the taiga, with coniferous forests, rivers, and long stretches of mountains (part of the Khentii mountain range). The people are genuinely friendly…. and they make great food.

After a long drive through the eastern steppe, we headed into Khentii aimag during a harrowing drive in the middle of the night.  It was raining and the ground was exceptionally but our driver handled the road with relative ease.  Arriving in Batshireet at 4 am, we crashed out and slept in, before taking a 25 km bumpy ride to, once again, the middle of nowhere – or more precisely, the Onon River valley.

Unlike the rest of Mongolia, the Buryats live in wooden cabins instead of gers.  This makes for a more permanent settlement, meaning most families have both a winter and a summer camp (usually only a few dozen kilometers apart). We stayed with a family at their summer camp, but being as it is fall, the families were making hay and readying the winter camps as well.

They say Temujin was born in the Onon River valley area, and also from this area, he launched the early stages of his empire-building.  Not much has been found of his early life in this area, but The Secret History of the Mongols gives some details about his life in this area.

We spent some time hiking around, playing with the dogs, checking out the livestock.  The Buryat women milk the cows twice a day, often bringing in 100 liters a day.  Of course, that much milk is too much for consumption, so 40 or so liters gets turned into milk cream – basically, the fat skimmed off the milk and rested for 12 hours to become a spreadable cream.  The remainder of the milk is turned into food for the farm animals.  Of the 40 liters, only some 4 liters of milk cream is made, but that is often more than enough.  Milk cream that rests for more than a few days becomes butter.

The Buryats don’t make nearly as many dairy products as most Mongolian herders, but what they do make is delicious.  And they are also known for their bread, which as a slightly sourdough quality to it, with a light airyness that makes you want to eat half the loaf before you even realize you’ve done so.

We spent the second day in the Onon valley riding horses, circling around to the river, watching hay being made, and then stopping at a family’s house for an afternoon snack.  This time, the herder’s wife gave us arkhi, which is a distilled spirit made from boiling already fermented milk.  The taste is akin to rubbing alcohol, but the alcohol content is somewhere around saki or wine.

After racing home on our horses to avoid the coming rainstorm, we lit the fire in our cabin stove and settled in for a night of moshig, a Mongolian card game that is relatively easy to learn and play.  The neighbors, hearing of foreigners in the area, came by in the hopes of picking up a few bucks.  Unfortunately for them, our driver was the best player for miles, and he walked off with several grand.

travel diary: naadam

Arguably the biggest holiday of the year, Naadam celebrated the three “manly” sports – horseback riding, archery, and wrestling.   “Manly” isn’t the most accurate term, as the riders are usually kids under the age of 15, and archery has categories for men, women, and children.  The wrestlers are pretty much big burly men, though.

Every aimag center and soum center celebrates Naadam in mid-July, as well as a big celebration in Ulaanbaatar. Depending on who you talk to, either Naadam is better in the countryside or in UB.  I, for one, prefer it in the countryside, simply because it’s a smaller, more personal experience.

In the aimag center, the whole aimag turns out for the celebration, which stretches over 2-3 days.  We saw Naadam in Moron, the capital of Hovsgol aimag.   The first day involved a parade, in which just about everyone who lives in Moron participated (as far as I could tell, which leaves me to wonder who was in the audience).  After the parade, we watched the wrestlers come out and salute the spirit banners, before they began their matches. The wrestlers pair up and compete, and as each one loses, he bows out, narrowing the field greatly.

Then we wandered over to watch archery, where woman and children shoot from the same distance, and men from further back.  Despite its popularity, archery always seemed relegated to a small area to the side or back of the stadium.

Naadam is pretty serious here in Mongolia – in each aimag and soum center, we saw a Naadam stadium.  Even in remote areas, small soums gathered to hold a regional Naadam, and people often go to more than one, stretching the holiday out over a week or so, sometimes.  On our camel trek to the middle of nowhere, we crested a hill and was told that this was the area they held their local horse races.

Speaking of horses, the race is probably the crowning jewel of Naadam in the countryside.  Over two days, juvenile jockeys race their horses several kilometers in several age classes (age of the horse), often riding bareback.  In recent years, there has been some concern about child safety (it is not unheard of for the jockeys to fall off), so an age limit was set.  In the official aimag and soum center Naadam, there are also ambulances and other official cars preceding and following the horses.  At the finish line, spectators are often roped off, for safety.

We watched two horse races in Moron, both of which were fascinating.  But the real treat came as we drove to Lake Hovsgol, and learned not only that Hatgal was celebrating its local Naadam, but that the current race was about to pass through the entrance of the park, imminently.  So we parked our vehicle and pulled out our cameras and settled in for the wait.  In half an hour or so, we heard the thundering of hooves, and watched as cars turned the corner and came into view (official cars fly the Mongolian and aimag flags).  Directly behind them came the lead horse, and we realized quickly that we were directly in the path of the race.  Moving aside as the riders swept past us, we snapped hundreds of pictures, and then all cars parked in the vicinity packed up and took off after the race.  Our driver, who conveniently had experience with local car races, careened around trees and divots so that we could take video of the horses running along side of us.

The finish line was just outside the town, where a makeshift stadium had been set up, and the wrestling had already started.  At this point, the rain arrived, so we huddled into a ger and partook of Naadam’s official food – khuushuur.  After a few minutes of watching wrestling and archery, we proceeded on our way, happy to have gotten two uniquely exciting perspectives on this holiday.