Saturday, June 16, 2007

Crossing Mongolia - Part 1

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - Here is Part 1 of our trip across Mongolia from Ulaan Baatar to Moron.

Khogno Khaan Uul - May 6th to May 7th

Our first day on the road. We were sharing the van at this time with Angus, a traveller from Ireland that had only 3 days between Trans-Siberian trains. He rode with us as far as Khogan Khaan Uul (uul means mountain), but had to turn around and return to Ulaan Bataar the next day.

Khogno Khaan Uul is a 1967m peak overlooking the ruins of Ovgon Khiid monastery. According to the the Lonely Planet, the monastery was built in 1660 and destroyed in 1640. I'm not sure how that happens, but the Lonely Planet has been known to be wrong before (many times in the case of Mongolia). It was rebuilt in 1992 and we were able to take a short hike there from the family ger where we were staying. Angus rented a horse.

Olgii Nuur: May 7th to May 8th

On the way to Olgii Nuur we made a few stops. Our first stop was at the town of Rashaant, where we waited almost 3 hours for a car to drive by in the direction of Ulaan Baatar. Since there is no public transport, that was the only option for getting Angus back in time to catch his train. In the end we sold him off to a family of four crowded into a small white Toyota.

The next stop was Kharkhorin, which served as the capitol of Mongolia from 1220 to 1240 when Kublai Khan moved the capitol to Beijing. There were a few marginally interesting sites around town. First there was the Phallic rock or "vaginal slope" as it was also supposedly called. As the name implies it was a stone penis, placed in its current location to remind horny monks, turned on by the shape of the surrounding hillside, not to fraternize with the local women. There were also two turtle rocks here that marked the boundaries of the old capitol. Next to each rock there is a blanket with souviners on it and some poor soul bundled up from the cold waiting for passing tourists.

We had lunch in a family ger in town where, for a small price, one of the local throat singers performed for us. He was fantastic. He played 3 different instruments and even did a little number by pounding himself in the face with a spoon.

After lunch we visited Erdene Zuu, Mongolia's 1st Buddhist monastery, started in 1586 and destroyed and reopened so many time it takes up half a page in the LP. It was a dusty mess and the guide at the monestary belted out so many names and dates in such bad English that we had no idea what she was talking about. The Tibetan style Larvin Sum temple, however, was lively with monks praying and lots of insense burning. We just felt a bit voyeuristic to hang around for long.

That night we stayed at Olgii Nuur. It was late and we barely saw the lake before hunkering down in the ger for the night.

Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur or The Great White Lake - May 8th to May 10th

The Terkin Tsagaan Nuur (nuur means lake) or Great White Lake did not get this name because the lake is covered with ice for most of the year. But because there is some legend about a boy, his mother and a well that, like all Mongolian legends we heard along the way, was completely incomprehensible. In any case, it's very beautiful...and white.

We spent a day there hiking to nearby Khorgo Uul, a volcano that spewed lava over the entire area many millennia ago. To get to the cone we crossed one of the most tortured landscapes I've ever seen. It looked as if someone blew up a parking lot, then took a blow torch to the asphalt pieces, and finally blew them up again. What was amazing is that although this volcano hasn't been active for thousands of years, it looked like the whole thing was created earlier today.

The hike was fascinating and the views spectacular, but as soon as we got to the far side of the cone it started to rain. By the time we started our descent, we were being pelted with wet snow. On the way down, Suwei took a digger while leaping from rock to rock. The rock rolled, her ankle twisted, and she went down hard nearly planting her face in the dirt. It scared the hell out of me. This happened not 12 hours after she burnt her hand on the wood burning stove while helping Khishgee make mutton dumplings. Limping, wet and cold, we made our way down. We were happy to see Birah and the van at the top of the pass to the lake. He had been there for about an hour, worried and waiting to give us a ride back to the ger.

Later that day I taught the kids at the ger to throw rocks at each other.

Shine Ider - May 10th to May 11th

We had a long day of travel to get to Shine Ider. The weather changed from overcast to brilliant sunshine to snow and back again.

We overnighted with a family just outside of Shine Ider. This was the first time we actually shared sleeping arrangements with a family. They were great though. We shared some music and photos that we had on our iPod and they shared a bottle of vodka (a common occurrence during our future ger stays).

At one point they asked us why we were traveling in such cold weather. The only answer I could come up with was "Becaue it's cold outside."

Moron - May 11th to May 12th

Moron, pronounced moroon, means "river". I knew we had arrived when I was awoken from a nap by the lack of bouncing. We had reached a paved street and a dusty aimag (province) capital city (more of a town). We stopped here for the night in order to resupply, repair the van's brakes and take our first shower since leaving Ulaan Baatar.

Before showering we visited the market and stocked up on colored pens for the kids, some new cassette tapes for Birah and a glue stick for me. (Not what you are thinking. I bought it so I could glue things into my journal.)

That's it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2. For more pictures and stories on Part 1 click on the slideshow below.

Crossing Mongolia, Part 1

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