Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for Mongolia

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England

30th June Mongolia
Journey to Mongolia
On the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia - Click to enlargeWe boarded the Trans-Mongolian train to Ulaan Baatar at around 7am. The journey from Beijing takes 30 hours. On this and other Trans-Siberian trains, second-class ‘hard-sleeper’ compartments have 4 berths, which allowed us to have a whole compartment to ourselves, and a little extra space and privacy. This was a good thing, as Nick was suffering from an injured eye, caused by a thorn from a tree in Beijing.

Late in the morning we had our last glimpses of the Great Wall, as we passed through it and into Inner Mongolia, the part of Mongolia which is currently governed by China. The children spent most of the day playing happily with the children from the next compartment. An excellent piece of luck placed us next door to the Mongolian ambassador for Canada, and his wife and three children, aged 15, 9 and 6. They spoke excellent English and were returning to Ulaan Baatar for a holiday.

Tom, Esther and I went to eat lunch in the dining car, but Nick did not feel up to moving, so I brought him a plate of food down the train, through seven lurching carriages, to our compartment. We had never eaten in a train restaurant before, preferring to eat before and after long journeys, and survive on the train with instant noodles, so eating at a table while the landscape of northern China, green and rolling, slipped by the window, was something of a novelty.

Nick’s eye was feeling a bit better by the evening, which was a relief as he would have been really upset not to have seen the bogey-changing that took place on the China-Mongolia border. Mongolia and Russia use a wider gauge track than China and most of the rest of the world, so, at the border, the train rolls into a huge building, where the bogeys and wheels are literally changed. The process took a couple of hours. Lifting apparatus was attached to the four corners of the underside of our carriage. Then the old bogeys were detached and we rose into the air until the carriage, with us in it, was about 2 metres from the ground. Then they slid out the old set and brought in the new bogeys underneath us along the track. Incredible! All this happened between nine and eleven pm, and during the operation, the children went to bed. We still had over three hours to go before we were through the passport and customs checks for both border posts. Our passports were collected and examined repeatedly and a lot of paperwork had to be filled in. For this we were glad of the help of our friends next door. At 2am we finally closed the compartment door, and soon after that the train started moving again.

All night we were crossing the Gobi Desert. We awoke at about 8.00, and I pulled the curtain aside to look at the landscape. The vast Mongolian steppe was spread out as far as the eye could see. Pale dusty green-brown land met clear blue sky on the horizon. While Nick still tried to persuade his poor sore eye to adjust to the light, the children and I were delighted to see that the wandering animals in the middle distance were camels! Then there were wild horses, roaming and grazing free, and herds of cattle, usually watched by a solitary cowherd. Sometimes his ger home was visible nearby. A distant rain shower caused a brilliant rainbow to appear ahead of us on the plain, and we knew we were going to enjoy being in Mongolia.

1st-16th July Mongolia
Ulaan Baatar
 - Click to enlargeAfter Beijing, Ulaan Baatar seemed small, very low level and chilly! We arrived on a rainy afternoon, not really knowing what to expect to find there. We picked our way through the mud and puddles as we left the station, and took a taxi to Nassan’s Guest House. When we got there Nassan was not at home. But Ulaan Baatar is full of guest houses, usually converted rooms in grotty-looking blocks of flats, so the taxi driver took us to another place. We had a look but it was terrible! Not having eaten anything all day (it was now 5pm) we decided to give up for a while and get some food. We sat down in a restaurant we had picked at random, and got a good, warming meal, before braving the rain once again and walking back to Nassan’s.

We stayed at Nassan’s for a whole week, sleeping in a small dormitory with up to three other people. Although basic, it was comfortable enough. On the day after we arrived the sun came out, and it got hot. We really enjoyed the clean air in Mongolia; a country with an area greater than six times that of the United Kingdom, and a population of only 2.4 million people. Surrounding the relatively peaceful capital city was the pale green grassland steppe which stretched on with no walls, fences or other boundaries until it reached the clear blue sky on the horizon. The most widely eaten meat in Mongolia is mutton, and in Ulaan Baatar the smell of mutton replaces the petrol and diesel fumes that pollute most capital cities. We particularly enjoyed the mutton dumplings in our favourite restaurant, where even the “beefsteak” was made of mutton!

During the week we spent staying at Nassan’s Guest House, we devoted most of our time and energy to our Russian visa applications. The Russian embassy in Ulaan Baatar opens its doors to foreign applicants at 2pm, and closes them again at 3pm. On our first visit, we arrived at about ten past two, obtained application forms, and waited in a queue for an hour before being told that they were now closed and to come back tomorrow. Other people in that queue were there for their third or fourth time trying to apply for visas. We were told that the office seems to do everything possible to make it difficult to apply, and that the majority of personal visa applications were unsuccessful. The list of documents which you must include with your application includes a letter of invitation to Russia, which must come from an officially registered Russian company, travel insurance from a Russian company which is on the official list, and a mysterious document called a “tourist voucher”. We left, application forms in hand and went in search of someone who could help us. We found a tour company which arranges tours to Russia and the manager, Tseden, said he could help us. However, two visits to the embassy later, we still didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so we decided to try again. In the end we found a Russian company, called Legend, who would make the application for us, for a fee, of course. And finally, nearly a week after arriving in Ulaan Baatar, our application was accepted. The cost of the visas alone (not including the expensive hotel we had had to book in order to obtain the “tourist voucher”) was US$452!

While all of this was going on, we did manage to do a few things in Ulaan Baatar that were more interesting. While I went for a scout around to find a guest house which had space during the Naadam Festival (more later!), Nick and the children visited the Natural History museum to see the enormous dinosaur skeletons on display there, which were unearthed in the 1970s in the Gobi Desert. I found some interesting places to stay, some of them in Ulaan Baatar’s ger district, which is basically a shanty town of traditional Mongolian felt houses, surrounding the concrete part of the city. In the end I booked a room at Idre’s hostel, some way out of the town centre, but friendly and comfortable.

On another day we went for a walk to visit the city’s monastery, Gandantegchinlen Khiid. It was beautiful and far more impressive than we had been expecting. Inside there was an enormous standing golden Buddha, which took up the entire central part of the four storey high building. Around the walls inside were thousands of tiny Buddhas which, we speculated, had been placed in the temple by individuals and families. There was incense burning and bells tinkling, and the inside of the temple was cool and calm.

Another museum worth the effort was the Mongolian National History museum, which was well laid out with information in English throughout. The lifestyle of the traditional nomadic Mongolian people has not changed much for hundreds of years, and some of the traditional costumes on display were remarkably similar to the clothes people wear today. We were particularly interested to find out about the various occupations of Mongolian territory, by Turkey, China and the USSR, and the development, during Ghengis Khan’s reign, of the great Mongolian Empire – the largest area of land ever controlled by a single administration in the history of the world.

7th-10th July Mongolia
Terelj National Park
A homestay ger - Click to enlargeWith our passports safely deposited at the Russian embassy, we set off to spend a couple of days in the country. Idre arranged a homestay for us in Terelj National Park, 80km from Ulaan Baatar. We transferred all our things from Nassan’s to Idre’s and caught a busy public bus to Terelj. The family met us from the bus with a warm welcome. There were horses to take us the 3km or so to the family’s home, a ger. It was hot in the sunshine, and Nick could not make his horse keep up with the others, so in the end he decided to walk, but Tom, Esther and I really enjoyed the ride – a bonus for us! The horses were lively and relatively responsive. Tom rode with a young guy and they kept trotting off ahead. Esther and I went more slowly, although we also trotted at times, urging the horse along with the word “Cho! Cho!”. The children and I had practically settled into our little ger by the time Nick arrived. Our little round house, made of felt and canvas on a wooden frame, contained three beds, two armchairs (which we turned into a bed for Esther), a metal fire box/stove and a couple of other pieces of furniture. It was warm and cosy and very colourful, everything painted orange with bright designs, a bit like a traditional English gypsy caravan or canal narrowboat. Of course there are many similarities between a gypsy’s lifestyle and that of a nomadic Mongolian family, who might pack up their home, load everything onto ox carts and move to better grazing land four or more times per year.

The setting was superb. Terelj is a mountain steppe area and the little community was in a lovely green valley surrounded by green hills with rocky peaks. The occasional vehicle came up or down the valley but in general people got around on horseback. We spent two whole days and three nights in this beautiful peaceful place. The children loved it. There were other children to play with, grass to run around on, discoveries to be made of dens in the rocks, mysterious copses or wildlife, like the spider egg cases that Tom found under a rock. Meals were brought to us in our ger; mutton dumplings and thick broths, and we could sit in our doorway and watch eagles wheel and swoop to catch their prey.

On our first day there, Tom, Esther and I went horse riding. Nick left us to it and went for a walk, having decided that he had had enough of horses. We rode to a temple which was brand new, and then round behind the mountains to ‘turtle rock’. At the end of the ride one of the boys who had gone with us as guides took Esther on his horse. I let Tom go ahead (he was riding pretty well and is very enthusiastic). I hung back until they were safely home, and then spurred my horse into action for a 100m sprint! It was fantastic! High above, and unseen by us, Nick was watching us ride along the valley through his binoculars.

The next day we set off in the morning to go for a walk. It was raining and cool so we needed to do something active. We did not do very well in our aim to find a circular route, but we enjoyed exploring. We saw eagles and small rodents, like prairie dogs, as well as countless beautiful displays of wild flowers. By the time we returned to the ger we were all tired and hungry, and rather damp. The wife had gone to Ulaan Bataar, so it was up to the husband (who we nicknamed Vodka Man) to provide us with food! Lunch was alright, but dinner took a long time coming and , we suspect, was cooked by the kids. In between, though, we were treated to a traditional performance of Mongolian Throat Singing, a phenomenon we had not been aware of before. We had heard the singer, a friend of the family, singing the day before, and had asked him to show us how this very special sort of singing is done. He put on a good show. We sat huddled in the ger with our cups of tea and he sang several songs to us in the traditional Mongolian style. Before each song he introduced the theme in Mongolian, and our host family did their best to interpret, although this was quite amusing! Throat singing is a tradition that involves making a deep base note, while, at the same time, singing a melody in such a way that it sounds exactly as if the singer is playing some kind of rustic flute. It would be hard to believe such a sound was possible without experiencing it first hand. We were fascinated and impressed. It was nice because he was really proud of his talent, and all those watching, the family, some friends and us were appreciative, even the teenagers!

The following morning we left our ger early to take the hour-and-a-half walk back to the road to catch the bus back to Ulaan Baatar. We had really enjoyed our relaxed stay in Terelj National Park, and were quite sad to leave the countryside behind.

10th July Mongolia
Mongolian State Circus
We managed to buy tickets for the Mongolian State Circus Special Performance, taking place during Naadam.

The show began with a performance of traditional music by an orchestra of stringed instruments.

Then we saw acrobats on camels. Most of the acrobatics actually took place on the floor, using the camels as props, but a pair also performed on a cart towed by a camel. Then a troop of tumblers somersaulted over the camels from a springboard.

After the camels had finished there followed several other acts of heart-stopping acrobatics and contortions. A group of twenty or so girls, aged between about 5 and 12, did a haunting dance which included contortionism and gymnastics.

A troop of male acrobats, including one little boy (about 8 to 10) did a breathtaking routine, flying and somersaulting from one to the other, until they made a tower of five people.

Another man did an act where he built a teetering tower of some six poles, one on top of the other, and then balanced on the top on one hand.

Then the clowns came on. The purpose of their act was to remove the floor covering to make way for the horses which would be on next. However, their act included some audience participation. First a smallish boy was picked from the crowd, and then an older one. There seemed to be a pattern developing, and we were not very surprised when Tom was next to be picked. The act was funny, the clowns blew whistles to organise the kids into a comedy routine of a game of ‘leapfrog’.

Then came the horses. Wild-eyed and long maned, they cantered around the ring while their riders leapt on and off and did stunts on their backs. They were such beautiful and powerful animals and, although they were obviously fearful of the ringmaster’s whip, it was exciting to see them move, so close up.

Then it was all over. Esther burst into tears, which was not really the effect we had hoped for, but she cheered up, of course, and we made our way back to Idre’s Guest House, chattering noisily about all we had seen.

11th-12th July Mongolia
Naadam Festival
Mongolian wrestlers at the Naadam - Click to enlargeWe were lucky enough to be in Mongolia while the Mongolians were celebrating their biggest annual event, Naadam. The festival is based around the celebration of the “Three Manly Sports”, wrestling, archery and horse racing. In Ulaan Baatar it is a big deal! We booked to join a tour for the two days.

Day 1
The group met at a café in the morning for breakfast. From there we went to the stadium. The first game we saw being played was the ankle bone shooting game (billed, confusingly, as “uncle bone shooting” in the programme!). This game, we speculated, probably had its origins with nomad shepherds whiling away the hours in their gers on winter nights. A flattened piece of bone is fired from a smooth wooden shoot by a flick of the fingers, and flies about five metres through the air, aimed at an arrangement of sheep’s ankle bones. The players and spectators take the competition very seriously. After watching for half an hour or so we went, with our guide, to take our positions to watch the opening ceremony of the games in the stadium. The place was packed and it was very hot. The ceremony was elaborate with gymnasts, dancers, singers, including one riding a camel, shows of horsemanship and, most importantly, a large brass band playing dramatic, solemn music, while the nine flags of Ghengis Khan were paraded around the stadium and placed in their holders at the front of the stadium near the president’s seat. The president himself made a speech and the games began.

We watched the first few rounds of the wrestling competition. The wrestlers, wearing big boots, underpants, and vests that exposed their chests and torsos, entered the arena and performed a kind of dance, holding their arms spread like the wings of a bird of prey, and stepping slowly, swaying from side to side. The object of the wrestling was to be the first to get your opponent to fall. As their were no weight divisions, though, the first few rounds were over very quickly, and it was easy to predict who was going to win each time: the big guy!

In the afternoon we went to watch the archery, in a different stadium. Nick was particularly interested, being something of an archer himself. We were impressed by the traditional costumes worn by the competitors and the amazing composite bows they used, made of layered horn, bark and wood. The arrows were made from willow branches and vulture feathers, and had blunt ends for the purposes of the competition. The targets were colourful blocks placed on the ground at a distance of 75 metres for men and 60 metres for female competitors. Beyond the targets were the judges, who indicated the quality of the shot with shouts and waves to the archers.

After a short wander around the many stalls of souvenirs, the bus took us back into the city.

Day 2
The day began early and we headed straight for the finishing line of the horse race, by bus from the café in Ulaan Baatar. The horse racing is not held on a horse track but out on the open steppe about twenty km from the city. It was quite cool when we arrived at about 8.30am. There were many spectators and people were on foot or on horseback. There was a group of gers from which you could buy breakfasy (Mongolian style!) and ‘airag’, fermented mare’s milk, Mongolia’s favourite alcoholic drink. We bought neither!

We took up positions near the finishing line and waited. We had a long wait, as it was about an hour and a half before anything happened at all. Each year at the Naadam Festival, some 400 horses race 30km across hilly steppe terrain for large cash prizes. The unbelievable thing about the race is the age of the jockeys. As there is no rule about age, and obviously the lighter in weight the better, the jockeys are all children, aged from as young as five. Many ride bareback and many have only a very basic rope bridle with which to keep control of their horse. Despite being interesting and quite unique, the horse race is not really much of a spectator sport. Waiting on the finish line, all we saw was the results! Exhausted horses staggering over the finish line, their hair plastered to them with sweat. The child winner looked tired but jubilant. The others just looked tired. Then the crowd headed off to see the winner. It is considered good luck to touch the winning horse, and other finishers too. People were scraping the sweat from the horses with pieces of wood and dripping it over themselves! Yeugh!

The bus was to take us to the stadium, back in Ulaan Baatar, for more wrestling and archery, but we decided to stop in town for a couple of hours, and get a taxi there later for the final rounds and the closing ceremony in the evening. We went, with our American friend Alan, and our guide, Miastuyen, to the Khan Brau Brewery for a beer, and then back to the hostel for a rest before meeting up again at 6 o clock.

We arrived at the stadium in time to watch the last two rounds of the wrestling. The tension was high, as was the temperature in the packed stadium. The wrestlers spent ages locked together, staring at each other and deciding on their first move. The crowd waited on the edge of their seats, passing airag and dumplings among themselves. Then, a moment of excitement! The wrestlers were wrestling! But nothing came of it until, after about 40 minutes of repeating this routine, one went down. The other pair of semi-finalists were still in full swing, and went on for about twenty minutes more before one fell. There was a break for the finalists to regain their strength, during which prizes were presented to the fastest twelve kids from the horse race. Through Alan’s super-powerful binoculars, we could see the president of Mongolia handing each of them a rucksack full of goodies.

Then the two remaining wrestlers, brothers-in-law, we were told, battled it out. Although Mongolian wrestling involves a lot of ritual psyching each other out, standing nearly motionless and staring, the final was tense and exciting. There were a few tussles, and finally it was all over. The winning wrestler performed the elegant victory dance around the nine flags of Ghengis Khan, and the closing ceremony began.

At the end of the ceremony we followed the crowd to the VIP stand to catch a final glimpse of the president as he left. For the crowd, it was a patriotic moment. For us, it was quite a relief to be on our way back to Idre’s, but, as we left the stadium, we felt privileged to have been able to witness this traditional Mongolian festival in all its glory.

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