Wednesday, 2 May 2012


25th - 28th Apr 2012

Chinggis Khaan statue

The train left Beijing Main Station at 0805hrs on the 24th. I shared a 1st Class compartment with an amusing chap ( computers ) from London, called John. He was travelling through Asia and would be ending up in Germany I think. Anyway, he was good company.
There was a loose group of nine of us who had booked this journey throught the same agency which, if you are interested, has proved extemely helpful and efficient, and is called ‘Monkeybusiness’. Their office in Beijing is manned by Matt ( ex-Melbourne ), Andy ( ex-Oxford ) and Joanne ( Beijing ). 

It was her ( right ) who came to see us off and made sure we got on the correct train with the correct tickets.

The journey north-west through China took us over some rugged mountainous areas but the scenery was a bit spoilt due to the fact that it was misty and raining. Lots of tunnels. We went through Zhangjiakou, Datong and Jining...for those nerds with an atlas out.

 Lunch in the Chinese dining car was edible and they sold some rather strange tasting beer. As we approached the Mongolian border the countyside became much flatter. 

I must say that all the towns and villages we passed looked remarkably dour, grey and uninviting. In fact, outside the centre of Beijing and, notably, in Tianjin, I haven’t seen a single building in China of any architectural merit, and many houses look semi-derelict. Out in the sticks they appear to build purely functional structures and with no attempt at decoration or aesthetics. For some unknown reason the only colour they use, other than some yellow on red signs, are much used blue corrugated iron roofs. So it’s basicallly blue and grey all the way. I suppose the charming Red Guards destroyed all the smart houses in their Cultural Revolution. Needless to say the one group of dull homes I photo'd ( right ) didn't have blue roofs.

We arrived at the border town of Erlian in the dark at 8.30pm and were ‘checked-out’ by Chinese customs and immigration. The train was to be here until about 11.00pm due to the fact that the ‘bogeys’ ( undercarriage ) had to be changed because the Mongolians use the Russian ( Stalin imposed ) railway guage which is wider than the standard 4’8” Chinese guage. Some of us got off the train to do some shopping in a supermarket which was still open. Others stayed on-board and were shunted off to some sidings for the wheel change procedure which, they told us, was an interesting and efficiently carried out procedure which involved the carriages being jacked up, the old bogeys slid off and replaced by wider guage ones.
We stopped again somewhere on the Mongolian side for their immigration procedures and eventually rolled on at 2.00am. I must have slept well because I woke up at 10.30am. The scenery had changed dramatically because we were now passing through the eastern part of the Gobi desert. The skies were blue and the land was arid brown sandy earth, flat as a pancake. There were even herds of woolly double-humped bactrian camels. We had been through Sainshand and passed abeam Choir, an ex-Soviet military airbase. 

Brunch was taken in the Mongolian dining car ( left ) which had magically replaced the previous Chinese one. This carriage was a work of art! The food wasn’t too bad either. 

On approaching Ulaan Bataar there were increasing signs of habitation by way of ‘gers’ , with herds of horses, sheep and cattle roaming the steppes. As you may know the ‘ger’ is the traditional Mongolian portable family dwelling consisting of a circular wooden frame with a canvas and felt covering. The land was still brown with a covering of sparse coarse grasses; the animals seemed to be in good condition nevertheless. I couldn't get a decent pic featuring a settlement plus livestock.

We got into Ulaan Baator at about 1.20pm and were met by our charming, and pretty, Mongolian guide Zaya ( left ). She is a teacher in her normal day job. We were taken straight away on a brief tour of the city which included the only temple/monastery in the place left undestroyed by the Soviets.....

....The Gandan Monastery ( right ). All the Mongolian Tibetan style Buddhist temples and monuments ( as with the one above ) are surrounded by or contain lots of brass prayer wheels of varying size. You are supposed to walk around each place, or structure, clockwise, three times, spinning the prayer wheels as you go! It is time consuming and hard on the wrist so us non-believers only did it once. At least you didn't have to take shoes off inside the temple; far too chilly for that sort of nonsense.

Then to the main, central, square; Sukhbaatar Square, named after the hero who liberated present day Mongolia from the grip of the Chinese and the Mad Baron, Baron von Ungern-Sternberg ( if you want a good read about a really weird bloodthirsty madman, then stories about this lunatic are worth a decco ), in 1921. The statue ( left ) is of said Damdin Sukhbaatar. Note the writing down the left side. This is original cursive Mongolian script and read top to bottom, left to right. It has been mostly replaced nowadays by Russian Cyrillic script. The Mongolian language sounds rather gutteral and is nothing like Russian or Chinese, or anything else for that matter. It is, apparently, very difficult to learn; more so than Chinese. I only learnt the words for 'cheers' which sounds like 'tosch toi'. 

Right: The Parliament, or Government, building on the north side of the square. Mongolia now has what is considered a true working democratic government with free and fair elections. The Mongolian Revolutionary People's Party ( MRPP ) rules.
The real hero of the people is, of course, none other than Chinggis Khaan ( I use the local anglicised spelling for dear old Genghis Khan ). They really do worship him. It is his statue which sits under the central arch, flanked by other supporting warriors of those days including Kublai Khaan. 

Left: The Mongolian flag. The colours and symbols all have a meaning.
We were a sort of loose group of eight by this stage, split into two parties. I was lumped in with another Brit ( living in Hong Kong ) called Tim, a CNN TV producer, and his daughter Louise and her boyfriend Jake. They were good company and most politely, and patiently, put up with me. We were to be together for several days. Tim had been to university in Ulaan Baatar and must be one of the few foreigners who can speak Mongolian, as well as Russian and Mandarin.
 We were herded off into a hotel for a communal Japanese style shower and bath, a bit like a sheep-dip. This was because we hadn't had a proper wash since Beijing and there were to be no showers for a couple of days at our next port of call out in the middle of nowhere. 

Then into a minibus for the 60 km journey east of Ulaan Bataar ( UB from now on ) to the Elstei Ger Lodge. En route we stopped to admire a couple of eagles ( these are still used to hunt with ), a vast angry looking black vulture and a falcon which was, incongruously, perched on a stuffed wolf. All 'shitehawks' in the Geordie vernacular, apart from the wolf of course which is a 'derg'. As you may be aware, there are only three types of bird in the Geordie Book of Bords namely; spuggies, craas and shitehawks. Simple. 

Left: Our camp. We lived in gers and I got one to myself; they had probably been warned about my snoring. It really was out on the steppe with nowt around for miles, except the enormous metal statue of Chinggis which was about three miles away. More about that later.
We were to be here for two nights

 Right: Inside my ger. Outside the skies were blue but the temperature was freezing and there was a brisk breeze which cut like a knife. I was supremely grateful now that I had lugged my heavy cold weather clothing with me. The last time I had needed it was in the south island of New Zealand, whenever that was. The coal/wood stove was seriously effective and inside this 'tent' it was as warm as toast. We left our doors unlatched and a camp servant came around at all times of the day and night to top it up and keep it alight. I remember he came in at least three times during the night! The only drawback to this accommodation was that the loos were about 200 yards away cross country which was not altogether convenient. There was a little tank of water above a sink to wash a bit of you in.

Left: The Mess ger. Excellent food was served and all agreeable to the delicate Western palate. Luckily, I think, we had arrived before the summer season where the standard drink and sustenance is 'araig', or fermented mares' milk. The locals drink it by the gallon but it is only produced in the summer months. Phew!
Vodka in the winter. Definitely not that disgusting Chinese paint stripper masquerading as a drink for humans which Tim produced one night....just to get rid of the poisonous stuff I suspect, and/or those that drank it.

Right: Some of our team. The locals, one on the right, normally wore the long coat called a 'del'. It was thick sheepskin inside with a coarse silk exterior. I was told they are supremely warm. They are always colourful.

We set off in two groups on horseback to visit the ger of a nomad family from Kazakhstan, who entertained us to lunch. Actually these horses were really tough little ponies about 13.2hh. They lived wild in herds and were very low maintenance, it seemed. The Mongolian horseman presumably knew which one was which and just went out to catch enough in the morning, and when finished with they were just turned loose. 

Right: In the ger of our Kazakh nomad hosts. Lots of sweets, bread and horse meat on offer. The other standard beverage is hot salted tea, often including butter and mutton fat to give it a bit of body. Hmmmm. They even had a telly! On approach to a stranger's ger it is customary to shout 'hold your dogs'. We realised the sense of this because every homestead is guarded by enormous slavering rabid brutes which look as if they would rip you apart as soon as look at you. Ger dwellers are notoriously generous to passers by and any stranger can rely on a meal and even a place to sleep when travelling. Assuming, of course, that the resident dog hasn't eaten him first.

After lunch our very small horde rode on to visit the aforementioned enormous shiny metal statue of Chinggis ( see pic at top ). I am told that this is situated where it is ( in the middle of bugger-all ) as a focal point for Mongolians who like to get out of UB to come to camp in the semi-built camp-sites surrounding the statue, to drink lots of vodka, socialise and to pay homage to their hero.

It is also supposed to be the hill where Chinggis picked up, or dropped ( can't remember which ) his fabled 'golden whip'. Right: This is supposed to be an enlarged version of said golden whip. Much of the life, and death, of Chinggis is shrouded in mystery. He was born with the name Temujin in 1162, but noone is sure exactly where, or indeed where, when or how he died. He left no written records, monuments or artefacts to be remembered by. He definitely built the biggest empire ever.

The building at the base houses a museum of artefacts supposedly recovered from the period of the Mongol empire; brooches, weapons, horse equipment etc. There is also a place to dress up in Mongol horde gear to have your photo taken. No thanks. There is also what is considered to be the biggest leather Mongol boot in existence ( left ) made out of hundreds of goats' skin leather. I have no reason to doubt this.

A lift takes you up one of the horses forelegs to a door at the top from which you can climb up some steps along the horse's neck to stand on top of it's head. Right: Here we are looking back at GK's face. 

Left: The horse-master was a wizened old guy who knew his stuff. He gave you a bollocking if you didn't do what you were told. Considering he had lots of possibly lunatic tourists to look after, and any injuries would not be good publicity, one can understand his concern. He is seen here carrying a pole with a loop of rope on the end to catch horses with. These little animals have a very short stride and were not the most comfortable things to ride, but the saddles were well padded and they are very docile. We were given an interesting display of how to 'break' the young ponies. A fit young Mongolian is plonked on it's back and locks his legs underneath it's belly and let go. After about 20 mins of bucking bronco style antics he is still on top and the pony is knackered. They then bung a saddle on. Job done in under an hour. None of your fancy 'horse-whispering' crap here. 
On return to UB we had a day and night to explore the place. The hotel ( Bayangol ) where we stayed was perfectly comfortable and was probably the first hotel I have stayed in ( for a long time ) which has the sensible arrangement of the light switches by your bed being slightly illuminated ( when off ), and with clear markings of what they are for. If you wake up in the night and need to go for a pee, no fumbling and thrashing around tipping over glasses, cups or lamps on a side table to locate a carefully hidden light switch. Why can't more hotels do this.

That evening I, and some others, found ourselves in one of the several Oirish bears which have, inevitably, found their way here.
This place, right, was quite an upmarket establishment and the food and drink was not cheap.  It had Guiness on tap. UB has no shortage of watering holes.

The next day we went to visit the Bogd Khaan's Winter Palace on the southern edge of the city. The Bogd Khaan was the King in past times, and 'living Buddha'. The last one, the 8th, ( not called Henry ) lived in this palace until he died, under suspicious circumstances...poisoned they reckon, in 1924. The Soviets pulled down all the palaces, as well as purging monks and any other reactionary elements ( 27,000 people killed at the behest of Joe Stalin which accounted for 3% of the population at the time ), except for this one which they kept as a museum. Above: Jake, Louise and Tim outside one of the Winter Palace buildings.

Right: Not sure who these represent, but the King on the right has a rat in his left hand. This is not my rat; it is quite a coincidence because it looks very similar. 

The eighth, and last, Bogd Khaan was somewhat eccentric and kept a private zoo and a large collection of stuffed animals, now rather moth-eaten. He also had a ger covered by the skins of 150 snow leopards ( left ). Not too many snow leopards around now, if any. I wonder why not.

Right: His carriage was made in Britain. Where else. His sedan chair is to the right of the picture.

Next up to the top of a hill to the south of the city, 626 steps to be precise, to the Zaisan Memorial ( left ) built by the Soviets to honour the war dead. It is a typically hideous structure.........

........and a focal point for acres of graffiti ( right ), and lots of litter. The Mongols are not good with litter and even some outlying areas of the steppe are scattered with broken bottles and plastic bags, but......

 provides a good view point looking north over the city of UB. Did I mention the population of Mongolia is just under 3 million and with a land area almost the size of Western Europe? Over 1 million of them live in UB. Plenty of space and lots of wealth in terms of mineral resources.  

Right: At the base of the hill is this old Soviet tank ( T? ). It was this machine, or similar, crewed by Mongolians, that first entered Berlin at the vanguard of the Soviet occupation in WW2.

One of the more interesting features of Mongolia, and specifically the Gobi desert, is the abundance of dinosaur bones, and eggs, around the place. There have been numerous palaeontologists who have dug up many often quite intact skeletons of 80 million year-old monsters. Some of these are displayed in the UB Natural History Museum. This museum is, on the whole, rather decrepit and dull and many of the other exhibits very moth-eaten, flea-bitten and falling apart, but the two palaeontology halls are unique in the quantity and quality of 70/80 million year old bones. I paid 5000 Tugrik extra ( $4 ) to bring my camera in but was still not allowed to take pics of the dinosaurs' remains. The surly female guard did not offer any reason for this. But I did anyway. Their star exhibit is of the entwined skeletons of a velociraptor fighting a protoceratops which were preserved intact due to the creatures being suddenly buried by a collapsing sand dune. Unfortunately this extraordinary exhibit is often away on loan, as indeed it was, in Seoul, on the day I visited.

Left: An almost complete, and genuine, skeleton of a Tarbosaurus. I couldn't get closer because Ms Whiplash was lurking around the corner and would have arrested me had she seen me with my camera out.

Right: Skeleton of the head one of those carnivorous  dinosaurs with a beak. There were so many exhibits here of ancient and huge creatures it would be the envy of any museum worldwide, I suspect. 

Left: A clutch of dinosaur eggs ( at 70 million years-old somewhat past their sell-by date I fear ). Many other shapes and sizes of dinosaur eggs were here. Some looked like fossilised buns and others like small footballs.

Right: A pair of well preserved hairy mammoth tusks.
There was also a large space devoted to the re-establishment of that rare wild horse, the Przewalski or, in local terms, the Takhi horse. They had nearly become extinct but thanks to some being donated from European zoos they have now managed to multiply in a protected National Park to the west of UB.

UB has many things to see which I didn't have time to explore. It is a place of great potential and promise and has made great strides since throwing off the Soviet yoke in 1990. Having said that, the Soviets did a lot of good ( apart from their architecture ) in educating and giving the Mongolians technology and the wherewithal to develop their country. In fact, at the time, Mongolia needed and greatly benefitted from Soviet assistance. They still much prefer the Russians to the Chinese and, for a reason which escaped me, have a close and friendly relationship with the Koreans.

Left: They still have the almost mandatory statue of Mr Lenin in his characteristically pugnacious pose. I think all ex-Soviet and communist countries have a standard mould for these.

Right: Also a statue of the great explorer, trader and political adviser Marco Polo who, as far as I can remember, was an adviser to the court of Kublai Khaan.

Left: So let some Chinaman have the last say on the much vaunted Chinggis himself. Whatever he might mean. By the way, the term 'yurt' is the Russian word for 'ger'. I think.

Off to catch another train tonight which heads north for about 30 hours. More to follow, when internet connections allow, from Siberia. Brrrrrrrr!

1 comment:

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