05 August 2008

Mongolian Musings

Two weeks traveling through China from Kunming to Hohhot with the focus on reaching Mongolia while avoiding Beijing in this troubled Olympic year. From Hohhot (Inner Mongolia) there are two trains weekly to Ulaan Baatar--one Mongolian, one Chinese. My timing was good, so I got the Mongolian one to start my adventure off right.

Shades of Africa as the Mongolians are all bringing oodles of commodities in from china taking advantage of low Chinese prices on things like electronic goods, clothes and even food items such that every corner of the compartment is stuffed to capacity. The trip itself takes nearly two days and two nights, but a good fifteen hours of that is spent at the frontier. The first three hours were spent putting the cars on platforms with wheels to accommodate the difference in rail size between China and Mongolia which was pretty interesting to watch, but what I found no rationale for were the eight hours we spent sitting in front of the massive (China is into BIG) Immigration Hall, except perhaps to give the passengers lots of time to spend money in duty free. Another three hours was spent on the Mongolian side.

I was introduced from the very beginning to the fullness of Mongolian hospitality. To a nomad, survival depends on hospitality and so it is at the core of their culture. Since the train arrives at the Mongolian border too late to change money, the young woman in my compartment insisted on treating me to dinner and the young man I met in the Hohhot station appointed himself my personal guardian, as he spoke excellent English (self-taught) and was most helpful. Upon arrival in UB, his brother was there to meet him and they delivered me directly to my guesthouse.
Two days after I arrived in UB I was off with two other couples for an 8-day trip to the Gobi. With our jolly driver (Serin, from the south Gobi) and our fantastic guide (Alma, from the far west), we headed out in a flurry of snow.

Before starting any journey it is important to stop at one of the omoo shrines to ask for protection and blessings. One walks around the omoo three times counter-clockwise and tosses stones on the pile.

The first two days were spent covering a lot of "scorched earth" landscape that is harsh but fascinating--a color collage of blacks, browns and grays created by the shadows of the sun. Not until almost the third day did we encounter much green in the picture. We went camel riding, climbed the "singing dunes" to watch sunsets, hiked through the gorges of the National Park on glacial ice, explored the "flaming cliffs" where the first dinosaur eggs were found and slept in gers (yurts) with local nomadic families. On several occasions we helped put up gers, separated mama and baby goats from the rest of the flock and brushed the goats for cashmere harvesting.

Upon arrival at a ger one is greeted with camel milk tea and sweets and welcomed like family. The mantra as you leave is always the same...come back and visit again if ever you are traveling through. In spite of the cold and bitter winds you feel a warmth that embraces your soul. Magical Mongolia!!

After a three-day hiatus in UB following my sweep through the Gobi, I headed out to the interior again--this time to Central and Northern Mongolia through the lake region. Not long after you leave the capital the tarmac road gives way to rough track only. That's when you are grateful for the Russian van you are in with the padded roofs as you merrily bounce along.

There is less sand and more mountains in the Central plains (layer upon layer of them) with lots more rocks and trees, but still the ever present patchwork of colors from the shadows of the sun. Burnt oranges, blacks, browns, grays, greens and saffron. At first the trees are scant and scruffy, but as we progress they actually become proper forests.

A unique feature throughout the countryside are the vast open spaces that define Mongolia, giving it a rare sense of freedom and timelessness. In the central region there are large areas of green punctuated with scorched earth stretches. Gone are the Gobi camels and now we cavort with yaks and horses, while everywhere there are sheep and goats. I even tried milking a few goats belonging to the ger where we stayed at White Lake.

The two main large lakes we stayed by were both crusted over with ice although it is beginning to melt and we could hear the cracking from time to time as it breaks apart. No question in my mind why they call it White Lake as we watch it sparkle and glisten in the morning sunshine. In the North we frequently can see log cabins interspersed with gers and the distances between them are often less than in the Gobi. Again the hospitality we encounter from the families we stay with is unsurpassed. No matter where you are in the country, you can pick a random ger, knock on the door and be invited in for milk tea, hard biscuits and often fresh yogurt or cheese curd. The welcome from the families is in direct contrast to the scattered remains of bleached bones that testify to the harsh conditions of the land.

I've been utterly seduced by the beauty of Mongolia, but still there are a few things I don't like, namely the weather, the weather, the weather and the dryness of the wind that make my lips, cheeks, nails and even the tip of my nose feel they are about to chip and crack off. I guess that also counts under the category of weather. And that same wind creates a surfiet of dust and sand swirling around in the air everywhere you go.
Within the confines of my heat-infused world, Mongolian weather sucks! Back in UB there was one day of glorious Spring weather and then the temperature plunged to hover around zero. Not something my body adjusts to easily, but at least on the good weather day I got out to visit the Monestary in UB to bring everything full circle. It has been a wonderful month of Mongolian memories and now I board the train for the ride into Siberia.

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