Monday, September 7, 2009

Day 7 - 16th July 2009

07.30am start. Warm shower! Dream hotel. Breakfast not supplied. Our Mongolian guide picked us up at 8am for an overnight stay at a ger camp. Garditours - the tour company of the previous day’s accommodation had arranged for minibus pick up and run to Terejl, the national park some 80km from the city. The roads were even worse than in China, and that’s saying something. We bounced and bumped and weaved and swerved our way through the traffic of four wheel drive jeeps and old wrecks of Soviet era trucks. It was a society of two halves. Very noticeably so. The haves and the have nots. I wondered though, those who had the money to buy big jeeps, did they live in fancy apartments of gers on the outside of the city. After bumping along for half an hour or so we stopped at a very flash hotel that had even created it’s own beach on the side of a river that ran through it’s grounds. Prices were the equivalent of a four star in London or Madrid. Expensive, but not out of the question. However, by Mongolian standards it was a month’s wages for each night’s stay. We picked up a Danish and Romanian couple, lawyers who were doing the Trans Mongolian the opposite way to us.
Another hour and we arrived at the national park. A breathtaking region of big rolling grass hills punctuated by rugged peaks and rocky outcrops. The further we went into the park, the more dramatic the rock formations. They grew in stature until they dominated the hills in the valleys. The sun was shining and it was a crisp day. Perfect for ger living. We stopped at a mound of rocks with a wooden pole sticking out of the top. This was covered in colourful pieces of cloth that were tied on. The guide explained that people would make wishes to the air and water gods for good luck and then tie something to the pole, walk three times round the stone pile in homage and lift stones from the bottom and throw them somewhere near the top of the pile. This was meant to cement their wish and helped create a living statue of sorts that would always change shape according to the people who made wishes and took part in the little ceremony. On the hilltop, just behind the stone mound were three tourist gers selling the usual tat that you would expect to see at any tourist spot.
Then it was onward to our next tourist style destination. The aptly named ‘Turtle Rock’. This rock stands proudly in the basin of the surrounding mountain range and is very impressive. Weathered and shaped by winds and winters it looked like a gigantic turtles head. Around it flew a number of majestic eagles.
They flew with such ease, not a wing beat, simply riding the thermals rising from the surrounding rocks. The would swoop down as low as our heads before rising sharply up again on the lookout for fresh food. Of course there were the usual tourist attractions as well, dromedary camel rides and horse rides. I was surprised there weren’t turtle rides as well.
With no takers for rides, or fridge magnets, we finally moved on towards our ger camp. On the way we passed the ger camp advertised on the Garditours website. We were expecting a traditional ger camp set up - and got it - so no complaints there, but their website showed photographs of access to a nearby hotel / guesthouse with, I quote ‘exotic hot swimming pool, Jacuzzi and sauna, bar and restaurant’ That wasn’t what we went for, so we weren’t disappointed with that., but more with the false advertising. We kept going however, past other reasonable camp sites. They were dotted all over the valley. We were wondering how much further we had to go. The camps got thinner on the ground and a little bit rougher the further we went.
Finally we turned into one of the camps. A simple site with a communal circular wooden hall for meals, a toilet and shower block with the shower door locked so we couldn‘t use them, and about twelve or so gers, each brightly painted with linoleum on the floor. Felt circular tents that had a fire and chimney stack placed in the middle between the two upright posts holding up the ger. Around the perimeter were placed five single beds with one inch thick mattresses. The pillows were sealed cloth bags filled with dry beans. Comfortable enough actually. We were called to lunch - a little salad, then some kind of soup and followed by a beef (or horsemeat) stewy thing and a scoop of rice. We had to buy beers at an exorbitant price to help wash it all down. Edible but not spectacular. The Mongolian people, primarily nomads, do not as a rule grow vegetables. They eat meat in winter that they have fattened up during the summer grazing, and come summertime, they eat dairy products mostly - milk, butter (usually rancid), cheeses, natural yoghurts and of course drink AIRAG - fermented mares milk. Airag, when stored for a few days, goes sour and lumpy. After straining the curds off through plastic bags with holes punched into them, the liquid becomes mildly alcoholic, about the same strength as beer. It was sold unregulated by the bag or bucket on just about every street corner, but I just couldn’t bring myself to try it.
The troops decided to go on a horse riding trek for an hour while I caught up on my journal. Peace and quiet. After they returned walking like John Wayne, we went for a walk up the nearest hill. Amazing rock structures heavily weathered over thousands of years gave me wonderful ideas for my paintings. At the top of a flat section of rock I found a skeleton. The backbone and ribs and hips were visible but no skull that I could see. Not sure what sort of animal it was, but for a moment it occurred to me that this was what happened to troublesome tourists. They just disappeared if they complained too loudly.
Back down in time for dinner, a couple of beers and then afterwards sitting outside the gers to drink in the scenery. We invited the couple we had travelled with into our ger, now officially called the ‘Party Ger’ along with a couple of Dutch girls who had been at the camp when we had arrived. Supplies were short but at least we were long on laughs. A bottle of vodka or a few beers would have been better but the official kitchen / bar was shut and in darkness. One of the local kids came in and lit the fire for us. Earlier it had seemed we wouldn’t need a fire lit but the nights get cold so high up, even in July. Wild party over by 11pm, we were glad of the heat when we settled in to our beds for the night to dream of being Chinggis (not Gengis) Khan’s warriors.

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