As a final post in this series I decided to share my favourite photos I took during my stay in Ulaanbaatar and the countryside in 2016 rather than trouble you with further reading. Here I don’t aim to organize the images around a certain topic, I am just trying to give you an impression of the country as I see it.
Happy holidays and safe journey wherever the new year takes you.
First of all you need to decide the season you wish to visit Mongolia. Tourists usually opt for summer time for a reason. Winter is challenging for most of us there. This November there were really chaotic days in terms of traffic due to cold weather. Roads and pavements were covered with ice. In the -35 degrees salting the icy roads did not seem to work and when the amount of salt intended for the whole season finished within a few days then life in the capital paused. I experienced one winter in Mongolia and I would not say never again but surely I will need a very good excuse to return during this time of year. That time too I stayed in a student hostel where hot water was a rare thing, heating did not work in my room and it was -40 degrees outside. Of course, you can easily sort such problems out with booking into a proper hotel. Still, if you prefer more comfort then I would advice plan your visit between June and September. Many people complains about Ulaanbaatar saying there is nothing to do. After a couple of days sightseeing you are done with the city they think. If you expect something like Paris or London where only walking the streets is enough to entertain yourself then you might be disappointed for sure. But if you are willing to really get to know your hosts, their ways of living then it can be a life changing experience. I understand though that this can be difficult to achieve during a week stay in a foreign country.
There are lots of interesting museums in the city to visit, among them my favourites are the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts and the Mongolian National Musem. The Zanabazar Museum is because I worked there for a while and parts of their collection are extremely beautiful and cannot be find anywhere else in the world. Stepping into the National Museum you find yourself in a modern ambience that satisfies even the most fastidious tourist’s taste. The whole museum is professional, informative and spectacular at the same time.
The good thing in Ulaanbaatar is that you get all in one. You can get the comfort of a big city and at the same time the natural resources of the country are also easily accessible. Even if you just stay for a few days and you have no time to visit the countryside you will just take a bus or sit into a taxi and within 20-30 minutes you are in the mountains. You can also walk out to the mountains that surround the city if you like but nowadays it’s trickier due to huge building sites and busy roads. Years ago we just walked out freely to the river or the hills from the city centre without bumping into any building along the way. The magnificent Bogd Khan mountain (914m) overlooks the capital. It is the oldest legally protected nature reserve in the world, established in 1783.
If you have some more time but limited budget then check your guidebook or local tour guides for one day trips from Ulaanbaatar. You can find really beautiful and interesting places already an hour from the city. Bigger tour organizers tend to overprice their trips but you will find adverts of cheaper deals in cafes that are visited mostly by foreigners. You will easily recognize these places from the too well dressed people that frequent their terraces. Of course the most exciting choice is going for a longer trip and spending a few days or weeks maybe far from cities and everything you are used to. There are many options. You can do it through a local travel agency, you can hire a car and a personal guide, you can go with local friends or on your own by hitchhiking. Either way the most important thing is leaving your preconceptions behind.
Are you vegetarian? Maybe vegan? Then either change your plans of travelling to Mongolia or be prepared for a bit of extra work while there. For Mongolian meals are based on meat and diary products. Even though with a little more cash you can buy almost anything (means veggies) you need to follow a vegetable based diet, you will have to think ahead when you try to figure out what you would eat on a daily basis during your stay. Obviously, if you book into a better quality hotel they will cater for your needs. However, if you are a backpacker or if you are on a low budget and you plan to eat in simple local restaurants – and you insist on your greens – then you might stay hungry.
In recent years my diet focused more and more on veggies. By the time I left for Mongolia in July 2016 weeks gone eating only vegetables without even noticing it. When I do eat meat it’s because I am lazy to find out what to cook. Because I grew up on a meaty diet it is still easier to grab a piece of chicken or pork and make something quickly than start searching for new recipes. Therefore, I made sure I would stay at a place in Ulaanbaatar where I can make my own food. It wouldn’t have been possible in a hotel however tempting (and paid!) the opportunity was so I booked into a student hostel. Summer time is ok, hardly anyone stays there, mostly tourists or short term residents, but from September dormitories become overcrowded and definitely not for someone who wants to do some work too.
Despite careful planning my trip turned out a very busy one and I couldn’t do my cooking at home. On most days I was eating out so I had to eat what I could easily find and that was almost always something with meat. In addition, when you are on the countryside it would be unrealistic to expect your hosts to provide a vegetable based menu. I must emphasize here that I love Mongolian food. Only from experience by now I know that I feel much better when I avoid animal products. Also, I try not to support industrial meat production. They cause so much harm at every level of life.
As an extra difficulty there is something strange with local food that makes many foreigners’ life a bit challenging in Mongolia. I haven’t met anyone who would not have had problem with indigestion. I also had a more serious one this time again, and a few thankfully mild ones. One advice I can give is that never leave for the countryside if you already have indigestion. I did so and it wasn’t fun. I avoid antibiotics like hell but this time I had to take them, there was no other option. There were no doctors nearby and I wouldn’t have been able to travel anywhere for a hospital in that state. We can’t figure out why this happens with so many of us, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with where or what we eat.
If you are not adventurous enough in terms of local food and your budget allows it then you can try many other nationalities’ restaurants in Ulaanbaatar including European, American and a variety of Asian places. Still, I would recommend eating like a local at least for a short while. Food is inseparable from a culture, it carries customs and traditions you will only know if you attend a celebration, meet locals and eat their food and drink their drinks.
As I have said before, this field trip in Bulgan proved to be a special experience. The organizers pampered our senses and our mind but one event overtopped everything else. Naadam, that is the three games of men, is one of the biggest celebrations of the year held from the 11th to 13th of July. I have written about this festival before, see my earlier post for a more detailed description of this tradition. This time, being August, our teachers organized a local naadam, only for us.
Our journey started with the bus stuck in the mud so we were moved on by a pickup truck. That was fun! Not for the bus driver though. He spent the day with a few other men trying to put the bus on road again. Thankfully, help came quickly and in abundance. First on horseback then shortly after by a truck and later on by a tractor. The flow of information on the steppe is constant and quick these days too as it had been centuries ago even without the presence of cell phones. Despite the many times huge distances between villages and individual families, even where there were no sign of people living near and far, when we needed help, someone suddenly appeared seemingly from nowhere and then others followed. This safety network of the steppe is incredible for the outsider.
On arrival, of course we were offered airag of which the province is famous for. Airag is fermented horse milk, you might have heard about it as kumis. In small quantities its alcohol content is nothing dangerous but I have seen a few people getting tipsy from it after enjoying Mongolian hospitality for a couple of hours. I am not fond of this delicacy I have to admit but it’s ok to taste when offered. Foreigners are sometimes worried and visibly scared when they are given a cup of it. They are scared to refuse but even more scared to taste it. No need to worry. You either say ‘no, thank you’ or simply just take the cup, lift it to your lips as if drinking then give it back to the person who offered it to you. You don’t need to suffer if you don’t like the nectar. I must note though that airag cured my sunstroke once so it has its benefits and there might be situations when no other liquid is accessible. I would advice that if you plan a visit to the countryside then get used to immersing yourself into its culture. To further increase your appetite you will see photos of our lunch too that was khorkhog. Khorkhog means pieces of meat cooked together with potatoes and carrots in a container that contains hot stones as well.
Wrestling and horse riding were the main events of the day, this time archery, the third game of men was missed. A few men in our group decided to compete in wrestling but needless to say they were defeated within approximately ten seconds after entering the ring. We could peep into a certain game too which I struggled to understand but it looked and sounded beautiful anyway. I say sounded because the participants, sitting on the ground in a straight line, were singing or rather chanting while they used hand gestures to outplay each other. As soon as I realize what this game is called and understand the rules I will explain it further. Until then, simply just enjoy the photos!
In Mongolia traditional belief systems and Buddhism live side by side. Both are mostly unconsciously present in everyday life in the provinces and in the capital alike. One belief I can really relate to is the idea that the lakes, rivers and mountains are dwelling-places for different spirits, called ejen in Mongolian. Better not to make them angry or you will have to face all sorts of misadventures. One weekend I went for a picnic with friends near a popular river side, approximately an hour from Ulaanbaatar. We were a very mixed group, foreigners and Mongolians together. One of the foreigners, without thinking, used the river as a toilet. Not a minute passed and came a furious local with a good-sized stick in his hand. If there weren’t Mongolians in our group who explained why this ignoramus did what he did and apologized straight away, I am afraid the guy would have been beaten up big time. Never ever do this or throw any trash into the water. Doing it you insult the water spirit and disrespect locals’ belief. And I would advice the same in your home country. Similar beliefs greatly contribute to environmental protection. With contaminating the water resources we undermine our foundations, our own existence.
During the week in Bulgan aimag we visited one of the magical lakes of the country. Sharga nuur is located in Bayan-agt district of Bulgan province. I can safely say that Mongolia is largely undiscovered from many respect. We are used to being inundated by information on the internet regarding tourist attractions, beautiful sites and even places that are hardly untouched by outsiders. However, if you google Mongolian sites like this you will realize how little known the country is for outlanders. Call me selfish but I don’t mind that. A snippet of information I found about Sharga lake: ‘A small shallow lake, rich in aquatic vegetation, separated by a narrow spit from the main lake. Many small pools are found along the western side of the lake. There is a high cliff along the southern shore of the lake. The north and northwestern shores of the lake have many peninsulas and inlets with good aquatic vegetation. The southern shore is sandy with fine gravel. The surrounding area is grassy steppe, where the main land use is livestock husbandry. Globally Threatened species occurring at Sharga Lake include Swan Goose Anser cygnoides, Saker Falcon Falco cherrug, Lesser Kestrel F. naumanni and Pallas’s Fish-eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus. Thousands of ducks and grebes use the site during migration, including Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis.‘
I will leave you now with a couple of beautiful photos of the lake and its surroundings. Would be nice to know that with my photos and descriptions I have intrigued you enough to book your flights to Mongolia.
I owe you a report about a few other places we visited during our countryside stay. Once you leave the capital travelling can be difficult. On rainy days it’s not a good idea to set off especially by a modern car, or worse, by a bus constructed for city roads. Being a group we used a bus throughout the journey and it had its drawbacks. At the same time it revealed things that otherwise might have stayed hidden. And last but not least it was far more adventurous! Despite leaving the camp only on sunny days the previous rainy weather made the roads muddy and unsuitable for heavy vehicles. Not once we got stuck in the mud for an hour or two and one time for the whole day so we had to be transported on by an open van. When I use the word road I do not mean the usual built roads we are used to in the cities. In many parts of the Mongolian countryside there are only dirt roads. Locals exactly know which one is suitable in given weather or season for what kind of vehicles.
One thing that was striking during the trips and that I still cannot stop thinking about was the difference in problem solving of the east and the west. The group consisted of people from countries like the U.S., Australia, Germany, China, Japan, Inner Mongolia and a few more. When the bus got stuck in the mud the very first people who got off the bus after our teachers were the Inner Mongolian guys. They did it each and every time without being summoned. However, never I saw Western guys jumping off and getting in the thick of the fray. By western I mean people who come from a country long ago equipped by all things we identify with modern life so not only the U.S and Germany but Japan as well. On one occasion, our teacher said ‘Men! Get off and help!’ Guess who moved. One American guy asked back ‘Why men? It’s sexism.’ Well, that’s an attitude too. What I am trying to say here is that we in the West are so extremely spoilt that for every situation we have someone who can solve our problems and we become paralized when we personally should do something for ourselves. It doesn’t even cross our mind that we are able to use our body for physical work too. Of course I slightly generalize I know but I experience it more and more often that we leave the dirty job for others. We pay attention to developing mind and spirit but in the process we tend to lose so many valuable skills and we lose our ties to reality.
Our first such challenging trip lead us to Khanui river of the Khangai mountains in central Mongolia. It starts at the Khan-öndör mountain and flows 421 km long. The river ends in Khutag-öndör district of Bulgan province where it discharges into the Selenge, an other very important river of Mongolia, that river flows straight into Lake Baikal.
What a beautiful place it is! People flock here for healing because the river’s water is considered to heal certain illnesses. Each spring, of which are many, is believed to cure this or that body part. You either lie on the rocks that surround the little source, you drink from the water or wash your head in it and pray for healing. One source will cure heart diseases, others your ears, nose or throat. There is one for your lung, your spine, your stomach but you can balance your energy as well. Whatever your belief system is the energy of the Mongolian countryside is undeniable and perceptible for everyone. I don’t think it’s possible to show or make it felt through images, it would be trying even for professional photographers but for want of better I hope you will like my photos too.
Easy peasy! Collect a group of young people accustomed to all luxury that come with modern lifestyle. Then simply drive them to the countryside in roughly 15 hours with a 3am arrival when it is pitch dark and all they can see is some unheated yurts and a toilet set up somewhere further under the stars.
This is how we arrived to our camp in Saikhan district of Bulgan province in Northern Mongolia. The perplexity was visible and sensible in the group but when I woke later in the morning, stepping out of my yurt, the most breath-takingly beautiful view awaited me. It was a total surprise because I really didn’t see any of it in the dark, starless night. I was walking in awe next to horses wandering around our yurts. And the hills at the end of the vast steppe all over the horizon provided an atmosphere you would find nowhere else but in Mongolia.
The point of bringing 30 young people here was to introduce them to the daily life of a Mongolian family and show them a few beautiful and culturally significant fields or sights. Those who gathered were somehow related to Mongolian studies. A couple of teachers, a few researchers, some young students. Most of us have been to Mongolia before this or that way and of course we have had an idea of country life. However, this week was intense. I have also travelled in various parts of the country and slept in yurts here and there but I have never spent a whole week at the same place. The lack of running water – at least through a pipe and not in a river-bed – looked like a problem only for a moment. Your brain somehow switches to a different mode then everything is fine. We were cared after throughout the week. We did not have to work for what we ate, even our fire was made if we could not handle the wet firewood. I must note here that it was painful to see the amount of firewood wasted only to provide the comfort we are used to at home. One guy, a friend of my yurt-mate refused to leave the stove unattended. He stopped feeding the fire only when, to my greatest happiness, he returned to his place for the night. The heat was many times unbearable inside during the day. Heating it up to boiling point is pointless, the nights in a yurt are cold anyway if you are not used to this life. Thankfully I received a traditional caftan-like dress called deel that keeps cold out thanks to its warm lining. I have to admit without that the nights would have been challenging.
All in all, we received a mild version of Mongolian reality but it was still testing to our pampered bodies and minds. The weather was not kind to us for a few days, it was raining cats and dogs but our hosts and teachers did their best to keep us occupied. One other thing I must note – we had the coolest teachers ever. Where else can you meet scholars, who, after delivering some lectures, hop into a saddle and help herding the animals. And they do both pretty impressively. We had lectures in old-style school desks outdoor or in a yurt when it was rainy and cold. On sunny days we took the school-bus and went to see even more beautiful places nearby and a little further on. I will say more about these sights in an other post. Now have a look at the place where I spent an incredibly inspiring week.
My days are busier than I expected and my internet is struggling. For a few days it worked relatively fine on the corridor in front of my door but now I can access the internet only if I take a walk to the first floor and sit down next to the dormitory manager’s door. I don’t do that very often, I arrive home late almost every day and I cannot get bothered with answering my emails. I was away for my second week on the countryside and after that I found over 200 new emails in my mail box. Somehow the online world seems less important here. I was planning to post regularly and share my journey with you as it happens but you will have to wait a little more if you are interested in my adventures. I will post whenever I can and maybe more after I have left Mongolia and I am back to my routine at home.
My first week couldn’t have been better. I met those I thought I would never see again after my last visit and I met those too I haven’t met before in person only in emails or via Skype. I was greeted with open arms and hearts, the intensity of it surprised even me. For some reason this summer most Hungarian Mongolists are in town. It hasn’t happened for ages that we are all here at the same time. Therefore, apart from above mentioned meetings I spent some time with one of these very serious people and we had lots of fun. You believe or not, it’s fun to be around scholars! One major event we attended was a Tsam ceremony, organized by the main monastery of Ulaanbaatar, less than an hour journey from the city. Already the journey there was an adventure. The first day we had a driver ordered to take us there but the second day we took a bus to get there. I know public transport very well so I knew what was waiting for me. I comfortably sat down on the stair between the chairs but 10 minutes later I found myself half sitting in the lap of a young guy, half hanging in the air. It wasn’t a problem though because my hanging side was supported by an elderly gentleman who soon offered me his snuff bottle. We became good friends by the end of the journey.
We had invitations for both days of the weekend from the monastery but even this way it was challenging to get into the arena where the main event took place. We have been refused several times but then with a little trick we managed to enter. Sadly, my lips are sealed, I cannot disclose how. What is important is that we watched the whole ceremony from one of the main tents. It might have been over 35 ºC so we really appreciated the shadow. Most visitors couldn’t enjoy such luxury.
I have seen Tsam ceremony before but on a smaller scale, organized by one of the smaller monasteries. This one took half a day and played as Buddhist traditions dictates. The masks were beautifully made, the actors not only fulfilled their religious roles but made sure the audience were having fun too. You can find a short description about Tsam dance here. For mentioned reasons I will focus on sharing my photos of the event this time instead of going into its theoretical background. Around the fenced area where the ceremony took place there were countless food stalls and various people selling souvenirs. I don’t know how many people attended but the crowd was massive by the afternoon. We didn’t feel anything of it while we were inside and enjoyed the performance. However, when it finished and we again entered the mundane world it hit us how far the dancers have taken us from reality.
Yoga is good for more than a couple of things but I won’t go into details now. There are thousands or articles, studies you can read in the topic. Only a few funny things I experienced during my recent 30-hour journey to Mongolia that I believe is due to having been practicing yoga for a while. One major thing about yoga – Once you start doing it and find the right teachers (the latter is not too difficult it took only 10 years in my case) it will squeeze you, swallow you, digest you then spit you out in a slightly upgraded version. It hurts at times.
But back to my travel… I boarded my first flight in Budapest and landed in Frankfurt where a 6-hour wait followed before I could depart for Beijing. That flight was a nearly 10-hour journey with Lufthansa. And here come the benefits of yoga. By now I am able to sit calmly (relatively) wherever I have to. Two young guys sitting next to me watched with a little envy when I pulled myself up just to sit back comfortably cross-legged, back straight, while they suffered with not being able to place their legs and all their belongings without pain in the narrow chairs. Not hitting the guy in front of me who pushed his chair’s back into my face despite asking him not to do that several times is also an achievement. This long flight was a dream compared to what waited for me with Air China even though that was only a 2.5 hours long journey. By then I have been looking forward to landing in Ulaanbaatar where not one but two people (not knowing each other) came to pick me up and drive me to my accommodation. I have been staying in this hostel twice before so it feels like coming home but I have never had the luxury of having a full room all to myself. I even have a real piano! and a Chelsea flag on the wall. I am feeling like a VIP. Even my suitcase was carried to my room.
I promised someone I would tell what I am doing here this time, why I came. The short answer is that I came because I deserve it. But read the longer answer then if you are interested… An opportunity came up to attend a summer course intended for young Mongolists. I am not sure if I qualify with my birth date but regardless I applied and I was invited to attend the 2-week course. This will include a week on the countryside and one week in the capital with different programmes and lectures. It’s a treat for me, really. I have a strong background in Mongolian studies but it’s always good to be on the field especially that we don’t have much opportunity to speak and use Mongolian in Europe. When I come to Mongolia I always stay for months though. As I see it to travel this distance is worthy only if you spend more time here than a simple tourist trip. Well, it’s true for every country. Therefore I decided to extend my stay with 2 more weeks on my own expenses to include a short field-work too and to make time to catch up with old friends, teachers and those too whom I could be in touch with only via emails so far.
After a long sleep I went out for a little shopping and it’s obvious that lots changed since my last visit. But it’s still familiar and it always feels like some kind of magic that I walk the streets as if I was home. I have the same feeling in London. Despite having been lived there for years I cannot get used to the wonder of feeling home in a foreign country.
Later today we went to a park a bit off the centre that I have seen only in its infancy a few years ago and took a bike ride. It was hot and humid even after 8pm but the view of the mountains in the background compensated for it.
The internet connection is reduced to the corridor, at least on my floor, so we look funny sitting on chairs in front of the doors hoping for the best. Next time I will try to share a couple of photos too, maybe from a café.
Less than 2 days and I am off to Mongolia. No, not to Brasil as planned but to Mongolia. The moment I realised that Brasil won’t work out this time an other opportunity turned up. I can safely say that my summer looks way much better than I expected a couple of months ago.
I am in the phase of washing, packing and driving myself nuts… that is… I am looking forward to boarding my flight and seeing old and new friends in a far away country I can call Home No3. This will be my 4th visit and I am determined to make the most out of it.
More about my journey later…
Till then… wish you well…