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Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We arrived in Mongolia late at night. We were all roused by the ritual that is the swapping of the trains wheels. Russian and Mongolian train lines are different so the carriages have to be hoisted of their wheels and on to new ones. This is slow and noisy process but after 4 days on the train seems the height of excitement. As we crossed Mongolia the train slowly started to empty we said goodbye to our mute Mongolian student room mate at around 5 in the morning. We arrived at the capital still early in the morning when were greeted by our petite tour guide. I say we, we did not know how big the we was until we arrived. Me, Simon, Amanda and Jennifer had worked out that we had booked through the same company but along the journey we had been joined by Canadian father and son who it transpired were to join our motley crue. We had exchanged brief pleasantries but were forced to become much more comfortable with each other very quickly. We were transported to hotel to have our first shower in 5 days. We were all understandably enthusiastic to enjoy this modest luxury. This excitement was stymied by the realisation that this particular hotel favoured the Japanese style shower. For those of you who don't know what this means imagine open swimming pool showers but with the shower head situated at waist height and a childish looking stool placed in front of it. After a short awkward silence we manned up and cleaned ourselves up. Next we were transported to a restaurant and given breakfast which consisted mainly of goat or horse, it was never made 100% clear. Then we our your guide gave us brief tour of the city before taking us to the Ger Camp. My personal highlight of the tour was while standing in the central plaza of Ulaanbaatar we were given a abridged history of the city. Situated in the middle of this large plaza was the Mongolians war hero astride a strapping stallion. Our guide proceeded to inform us that after expelling the Chinese from their country their leader made a speech to his people on this spot and that during the speech the horse had relieved itself. When the speech was finished a strange spectator decided to mark this spot with a large stone. So when the Mongols traditionally a nomadic people decided to build their capital they built it with this spot as its centre point. Then they named the city Ulaanbaatar after that famous leader it literally means Red hero. After the tour we were taken to visit one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries. Most of the original monasteries were destroyed by the sequential communist overlords who banned religion and forced the traditionally abstinent monks to marry. When the Mongol's regained independence special allowances were made for married monks who wanted to rejoin the order including special accommodations for them and their families next but segregated from the monastery. In the main shrine there is a massive statue of the Boddavhista which it is rude to turn your back on even when leaving the building. This is particularly challenging as their is a high step at the entrance which one must step over as it is also seen as rude to step on it. As you pray you should walk in clockwise direction around the shrine. If you don't have time for this their are also prayer wheels with pre-written prayers in side metal tubes which you can spin as you pass them outside the shrine. What felt strange to me was how similar the shrines and rituals of the Buddhists was to those of the Russian Orthodox Catholics. The central plaza was surrounded by several impressive buildings. Although what struck me about the city was how new it felt; unfinished. Their was a lot of construction work going on and as we left the capital we passed many ger tent settlements. Although not as squalid it did remind of the favellas of south america and my GCSE Geography lessons which told me how when a city is growing too fast their isn't enough time to build accommodation for its new citizens. Another interesting fact is that 1/3 of Mongolia's 3 million population now live in Ulaanbaatar. The journey to the ger camp was exciting due to the fact that inside the capital the roads weren't in great condition but outside the capital road isn't accurate description of what we were travelling on. The driver was obliged to swerve wildly to avoid the many potholes but so were the drivers of the oncoming traffic which meant there were many hair raising moments. The traditional ger camp turned out to be not so traditional. We were welcomed by a troop of female young Mongolian students who rather to the embarrassment of some of us proceeded to carry our weighty luggage to our tents. These females were accompanied by one tall male in full black ops uniform armed with a baton and a torch. The females turned out to be students on Summer vacation work experience while studying Tourism at university. The male was the sole security guard to this camp and he spent most of his time in his turret which overlooked the camp. These were not the only factors that made the camp seem less then traditional. Although our tents looked the part they were permanent structures unlike their real counterparts, their entrances faced in the wrong direction and they contained sinks with running water. This was not an entirely bad thing as I previously mentioned we were all missing regular access to basic amenities.

The two days I spent at the Ger camp were really enjoyable and I highly recommend it. Mongolia averages 256 days of blue skies a year. These blue skies combined with the green rolling planes and the silence of the great open created very relaxing atmosphere. While there I spent most of my time relaxing and enjoying the tranquillity but this was also interrupted by various activities. We tried out Mongolian bow and arrow, went horse riding, visited a more traditional ger tent were we tried the delicious delicacy fermented mares milk. I also found time to scale the peak of the highest nearest hill were I thrice circled the pile of rocks at top to ward away evil spirits and spied in the distance in the middle of nowhere a massive gleaming statue of Genghis Khan on his horse apparently built to ward away any further attempts to invade Mongolia.

The last thing worth mentioning about the ger camp is how goats are very integral part of the traditional Mongolian way of life. They spend their days herding them. They use their dung as fuel for their fires keeping them warm and cooking their food. Every meal features goat and goats milk in various forms. Furthermore we were introduced to traditional in door games which used the spine bones of the goat as pieces.

We then returned to Ulaanbatar for one more night in a hotel before catching the train to Beijing. In the evening our guide took us to a show. I'm struggling to find an accurate title for it. It was essentially a fashion show which showcased modernised versions of traditional Mongolian clothes but this was interspersed with various performance including a mime, contortionists, dancers, solo and group musical performances featuring throat singing and the horse head lyre. Wonderful. The last day was mostly spent blogging and booking my hostel in Beijing but I did find time to visit the Mongolian history museum where I was given some beautiful Mongolian calligraphy.

permalink written by  redherobluevillain7 on August 22, 2009 from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
from the travel blog: Stories from the middle of the middle kingdom.
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