Hope we are all well. Where is Mongolia? Isn’t it part of China? Why go there? Let’s start with a brief description of Mongolia. Three million people live in Mongolia and half live in UB (Ulan Bator). Mongolia is the 18th largest country in the world. Mongolia is not part of China. Siberia lies to the North, China to the South and Russia to the east and west. Mongolia is the least populous country in the world. The country is slightly smaller than Alaska. UB is the coldest capital in the world. Mongolia won its independence from China in 1921 and a communist regime was installed in 1924. That communist regime latest until the fall of the Soviet government in 1990 and Mongolia now is a democracy. Russia was the second language taught in the schools until 2009 and now English has replaced it. The three most popular sports are horse racing, archery and Mongolian wrestling. The currency is named “Tugrik” and I took out of an ATM 200,000 Tugrik and it cost me $81. Food and other items are not expensive. The nomadic culture exists all over and the people are very proud of their past and nomadic culture. In Mongolia, there are 13 times more horses than humans and sheep outnumber humans 35 to 1. There are two major religions, Buddhism and Genghis Khan. Everyone knows who Genghis Khan was and the people worship him. So why go to this country that would seem to have little to offer? The people have always fascinated me. Their nomadic culture and way of life has always been something that I have had an interest in. I wanted to visit Mongolia and get to know the people. Andy and Kevin have given me that opportunity with this unique trip. So now that we know a little bit about this faraway and strange country lets start our day.
Woke up at 6 AM and we all met for breakfast at 7:30. Breakfast was quite interesting, particularly the Mutton noodle soup. I have had mutton quite often on the Navajo Reservation and love the taste, but not for breakfast. We all then got on a large van and went to our first stop. There are no motor bikes nor Tuk Tuks in UB. Only cars and vans and lots of traffic. Not your typical Asian city that I am used to. The first stop was Gangden Monastery. I have been to quite a few Buddhist countries and each country has its own customs and differences. We were met by our Monk guide who was an older man. The highest level of monk in Mongolia is the llama. There are currently 3000 llama’s in Mongolia. They are the teachers and teach the younger monks. 600 llamas reside in UB. Religion was not allowed to be openly practiced until 1990. Zaya told me that before that time, the monks would gather secretly and do their morning prayer and teachings. Our monk guide is a llama. There were lots of smaller temples and prayer spin wheels throughout the complex. The monastery was destroyed during the 1920’s and restored and revitalized during the 1990’s. The name means “the big place of the complete joy”. I noticed a tall wood pole sticking in the ground and people were going over to it and praying and kissing it. I asked Zaya what it was. She told me it was petrified wood from a holy temple far away and the people carried it here and it never touched the ground. There was a very large Buddha statue housed in a large temple. The statue is named the statue of Megjid-Janraiseg. The original statue was erected and 1913 and destroyed by the Soviet troops in 1937. The new statue was started in 1991 and finished in 1996. It is 82 feet high and weighs more than 20 tons. it is made of copper and covered with gold. Very impressive. The monks were called to prayer at 9 AM. For instance, when I was in Laos, the monks were called to prayer at 4:30 AM. In Laos, large wooden drums made of water buffalo skin were used. Here a few monks climbed a tower and made a noise using a big conch shell. We then were told that when we go into the temples, we should walk clockwise around the outside while the monks were chanting their morning prayers. When we leave the temples, we had to back out and not turn our backs and walk forward. Got some great shots of some of the morning activities. There were times, while in the temples, when we were told not to take pictures. Andy and Kevin also arranged for some younger monks to pose for a small photo shoot. The llama who was our guide offered to answer any and all questions. We all fired away. The temples were all beautiful and rich in reds and bright colors. It was then off to lunch and some delicious Mongolian food. While we were eating lunch there was a recording of Mongolian throat singing. Very strange. Could never become a fan.
We then drove about 90 minutes out of UB through rolling hills and plains with scattered Ger tents and finally arrived at a place where there was a huge statue of Genghis Khan on horseback. The statute is over 130 feet tall and is on top of a large domed building in the middle of virtually no where. Legend has it that this is where Genghis Khan found a horse whip when he was 17 and the statue also points towards his birthplace. The domed building had a huge Mongolian boot and large horse whip inside. We then climbed up to the top for a closer view of the statue and more photo opportunities. Now the fun really started. You can rent Genghis Khan era clothes there and wear them to take pictures. We all dressed top in 13th century Mongolian clothing and Andy took lots of pictures of the group. When I get them you will get them. Reminded me a little of Olivia’s and my trip to Peru and Lake Titicaca last year. People on one of the floating islands dressed our group up in their traditional clothes. Andy said this was his best group workshop participant photo of all time.
On the way to Genghis Khan complex we had picked up a Mongolian couple. The woman was in her early twenties and the man was a shade under. The woman was a former Miss Mongolia and was in the Miss Universe Contest. She was beautiful. We drove out to the plains and the woman dressed top in a 13th century Queens dress and the male model in Genghis Khan era clothing that an archer would wear. We all took pictures of them posing against this Mongolian background.
Dinner was interesting. Had Mongolian hot pot. Olivia would have loved it. A big bowl was on a hot surface in front of each of us. We were given a huge plate of raw meat, lots of vegetables and noodles and told to cook the food ourselves by putting them into the hot pot and there was a way to regulate the heat. Very interesting.
Now for tomorrow and when the adventure gets quite interesting and unique. We have a 6 AM flight and fly to Olgii in Western Mongolia. We will be about 100 Km or 60 miles from the Russian border. The flight takes three hours and is a prop. The name of the airline is “Atila Airlines”. I guess named after Atila the Hun. I have flown on some strange airlines in my life and this will be high up on the list. No frequent flyer miles here. Olgii is home to the Kazakh people, who have a rich cultural heritage and hunt with Eagles. When we arrive, we are first going to an open air local market. Should be very interesting. This region is almost untouched by tourism. After that we will be driving to our Ger Camp. We will be staying with a local family. Kevin has arranged for us to have our own chef. Zaya has told me that I can taste “Mare Milk” here. She also said that sheeps head is very popular and good. That will eventually be on the menu as well. Our toilet facilities will be the hole in the ground and no showers. We will sleep on cots with sleeping bags. No internet nor cell phone service here. Can I live without it? Can anyone live without it? I will be still writing my daily blog, but will then copy and paste when I hook up with the internet in a few days. Google “The Eagle Huntress”. A movie that was recently done and the Mongolian Eagle Hunter festival. I don’t know how much sleep I will get tonight. So excited. Am waking up at 3:15 AM and its now 10:15 PM and need to pack, shower and shave and be ready to be a Mongolian nomad. Bring it on.