Mongolia Photo Montage

So I thought that I would round off my adventure by putting up the photos which actually have me in them! As I hope you can see from the pics, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the incredible country of Mongolia.

Thank you to everyone who followed this blog — your encouragement meant a lot to me.

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Article Published! – Ulaanbaatar Through The Eyes Of A Foreigner

My last-but-one article for Montsame News Agency was published in last Friday’s issue of the ‘Mongol Messenger’ newspaper. My final article for the agency is about the National University of Mongolia and will be published in the magazine that comes out in June.

It can be read here: NUM

Tomorrow I leave Mongolia to come back to England, so this may be the last post on this blog, although I might put up a little slideshow of photos (including some with me actually in them!) in a few days time. For now, here are my thoughts on the city of Ulaanbaatar, which I am surely going to miss.

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ULAANBAATAR THROUGH THE EYES OF A FOREIGNER

Expectations Vs. Reality: When I applied for a Projects Abroad internship in Ulaanbaatar, I had no idea what to expect. Booking my plane ticket felt like I was diving blindfolded off a precipice, and my apprehension was compounded by the reactions of my friends and family to the news. Some laughed, some almost choked, some even let out an involuntary gasp of horror. Everyone looked bewildered. “Mongolia?” they would squeel, “Why on earth are you going to Mongolia?” The notion that I would willingly leave Somerset to travel 4,380 miles to what they believed to be a frozen wasteland was completely unfathomable to them. Some refused to believe it entirely, writing ‘good luck’ messages for my trip to Samoa or Thailand. Others tried to convince me that I had embarked on a suicide mission and that I was inevitably going to be kidnapped and exchanged for a yak on the Mongolian steppes. One person even tried to convince me that the Mongolians were cannibals.

But whatever my expectations of Mongolia were, they were demolished within seconds of touching down at Chinggis Khaan Airport. Here I was met by Zulaa, whose big smile made it known to me that the Mongolians are a nation of kind-hearted, sincere and hospitable people. I could not have anticipated the warm welcome I would receive from my host family and from my colleagues at work, who offered me sweets, tea and ‘buuz’ the minute I stepped through the door. (I also did not anticipate the efficiency of Mongolian central-heating systems, as is apparent from my suitcase plump with fur, fleece and thermals. As a consequence, I’ve sat in my apartment every evening feeling hot as a steamed dumpling). I have been humbled by people’s compassion and generosity, and impressed by the pride they demonstrate for their country and their values. All of my anxieties have been dispelled by the knowledge that the Mongolians do not wish to make a foreigner uncomfortable in their country, but to welcome them as a friend.

Comparing Mongolia with England: In some ways, Mongolia and England are not too dissimilar. The skylines of London and Ulaanbaatar are both dominated by glinting glass buildings, and certainly, the Blue Sky Tower bears some resemblance to London’s famous ‘Gherkin’. Also, both nations share a love for tea that is rivalled only by the love one feels for one’s closest family members. Arrive at the door of an English or Mongolian home, and a steaming cup of the brown elixir will be served to you within minutes.

But there the similarities end.

The snow-capped mountains of Mongolia are a far cry from England’s green hills, and certainly, you are unlikely to see soaring eagles in the skies over Derbyshire. You may spot a wren. A chaffinch if you are lucky. The seeming endlessness of the Mongolian countryside was what struck me the most upon arrival here (apart from the traffic, which struck me on the back of the leg as I crossed Peace Avenue). The steppes stretch for miles and miles until they blur into the blue sky they lie so magnificently beneath. Contrastingly, in England the land is divided by hedgerows, fences and country lanes, portioned up into squares of green like patches on a quilt. This is to describe the parts of England which actually are green, for England is a country of towns and cities to a much greater extent than Mongolia, owing of course to the difference in population size between the two countries. Which landscape do I prefer? The verdant valleys of England will forever be my home, but I think a space has opened in my heart for wild Mongolia. Its mountains will loom large in my memory for many years to come.

Of course, the apparent absence of any road rules in Ulaanbaatar was something I couldn’t fail to notice as soon as I arrived, when a car swerved spectacularly in front of us, blaring its horn and missing us by mere centimetres. This erratic swerving to the left and right is less common in England, with the exception perhaps of Swindon on a Friday night. Maybe it is because the English are a nation of people who will apologise profusely even if someone propels them sideways off a pavement that they stop their shuddering cars at the red lights regardless of whether there are pedestrians crossing or not.

Mongolian cuisine is also very different from the British food that I am used to. In England, chicken, steak and bacon is generally preferred to mutton, and the Mongolian ‘buuz’ which I was immediately treated to upon my arrival here was a novelty for me. My surprise at sampling what I thought to be a gherkin that turned out to be a tomato was quite considerable. Do I prefer English food? In actual fact, I do not. Mongolian food has a wholesomeness that you cannot really get from your beer-battered cod and chips, and a mug of warm Mongolian milk beats a cup of semi-skimmed any day.

One final and crucial comparison to make is that between Mongolian and British beds. Perhaps this is a gross generalisation, since I only slept on one bed in Mongolia, but they seem to be a lot harder than British beds. I realised this very soon after arriving at my host family’s apartment where I, an exhausted over-heating traveller laden with heavy luggage, plonked myself down on my new mattress, and in doing so, nearly broke my back in four places.

A newbie in UB: Of course I felt like a foreigner in Ulaanbaatar. I could hardly have looked more Western if I’d draped the Union Jack around my shoulders and launched into a stirring rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’, and everywhere I went I attracted attention. But most glances were of intrigue, not menace, and I’m sure that I too was guilty of a little staring. Feelings of vulnerability were only aroused when I thought about getting a bus or a taxi, which my hosts repeatedly warned me against, or when I visited one of the markets and was advised to hold onto my bag. Walking home late in the evening clutching a pillow was probably not the wisest idea, but I think I already mentioned the bed situation. I felt lost in any part of the city which wasn’t Chinggis Square, and Mongolian money baffled me — I looked painfully English at the bakery in my first week when I handed over two 20,000 Tugrik notes for a sandwich that only cost 6,000 T.

And I did miss England a little. I missed my family and friends for example, and my pet dog and cat. I could have stroked one of the dogs wandering around Ulaanbaatar, but I think this would have been inadvisable, resulting either in mange or the total loss of a forearm. I also missed the colour green. That’s not to say that there isn’t some green in Ulaanbaatar — the ‘Unitel’ sign for example is quite a brilliant lime. But I missed seeing trees bursting with leaves and fields covered in grass. In Ulaanbaatar, I felt like I was living inside a snowglobe — one that had been shaken very vigorously — for often I was walking around completely disorientated.

But my overall impression of the city was a positive one. The lighting-up of Chinggis Square ignited feelings of excitement in me to be in Mongolia, sharing incredible and happy moments with the beautiful Mongolian people. From the vibrant colours of the market-stalls to the pristine whiteness of the snow, from the wild roaring roads to the peaceful hill-top monasteries, Ulaanbaatar is a city which cannot fail to captivate a foreigner’s mind, and I’m glad that I came here.

4 Day Road Trip in Pictures

I wanted to go on one last adventure before I left Mongolia, and so I found myself in a Russian military truck with a Mongolian driver called Ikhee, who wore a leather jacket and promised me that if I couldn’t speak Mongolian now, I would be able to after a bottle of vodka. My first glimpse of him was seeing him staggering down the street carrying an entire crate of cigarettes, which he threw in the back of the truck.

Ikhee was also in charge of buying us provisions for the journey. Breakfast day 2 consisted of a bowl containing cucumber, tomatoes, a slice of cheese still in its plastic, and a hunk of swiss roll.

Also on the trip was a young Dutch couple called Esther and Jordy, who were stopping in Mongolia before continuing on to Beijing with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Here is a record of the trip in pictures:

DAY 1 – KHARKHORIN

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We stopped here for lunch (‘khuushuur’, or fried dumplings), and so that Ikhee could buy a Coke from that huge Coca Cola lorry in the middle.
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Kharkhorin is the ruined ancient capital of Mongolia

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We couldn’t get this dog off
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Thank you Rabies jabs

We stayed at a ger guesthouse that night, in beds that were 90 years old.

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We climbed up a hill in the evening to watch the sunset.

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Kharkhorin on the right

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DAY 2 – ERDENE ZUU MONASTERY & THE WATERFALL

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This was the last ‘road’ — from then on we were just hurtling over rocks, driving through rivers and over frozen lakes. We were thrown around like laundry in a tumble dryer, and the back right door kept flying open, meaning Jordy ended up on more than one occasion with half his body out of the truck.

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The waterfall was completely frozen except for that bit on the right, which was crashing down onto the ice below.

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DSC01375DSC01376DSC01378DSC01436 (2)Here we stayed the night in a nomad family ger. Jordy put way too much wood on the fire, nearly burning us to a crisp and depleting the Mongolian population even further. The nomad (wearing pin stripe trousers and a golfing sweater) came out of his ger with a cigar between his teeth, laughing like some kind of Bond villain.DSC01440 (2)

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It was a long way to the toilet
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And there were yaks everywhere, which made walking in the dark a bit problematic.

DAY 3 – MINI GOBI

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[Not pictured — Ikhee charging around the field flapping his arms and squarking, in a heroic attempt to make the vultures take off]
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This might be my favourite picture of Mongolia
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Orkhon valley
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This is Mongolia, where you can drive for hours and hours and not see a thing except for animal skeletons and horses.
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Ikhee drove us up a hill and stopped the truck at this monument. It marks the exact centre of Mongolia, so of course we all made sure to stand right in the middle of it.

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Arrived at our final nomad ger
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This gent was brilliant. He took us camel riding and horse riding, and spent the entire time grinning at us, going “Vodka?” and pretending to down a glass. In all, I reckon he repeated this about thirty times.

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The inside of the nomad’s ger
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The inside of our ger

I made friends.

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Outside our ger there was a pen full of lambs and goat kids. The nomad showed me one little goat which he was particularly proud of because its horns were just coming through. He scooped up the little thing and placed him in my arms. I spent a happy evening cuddling the sweet thing.

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Here’s the little fella

In the evening, the nomads got on motorbikes and camels and herded the sheep and goats back into the pen.

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DAY 4 – BACK TO UB

No photos to show for this, it was just a very long 7 hour drive back to the city. One of the nomad’s sons had to go back to school in Ulaanbaatar, and so he jumped in the truck too. 7 hours is a long time to listen to Mongolian radio by the way.

Article(s) Published! – Andrew Lloyd

My interview with/article about explorer Andrew Lloyd was published in this Friday’s issue of the ‘Mongol Messenger’ newspaper! Andrew is on an expedition from Yakutsk to Darjeeling to raise money for the Gurkha Welfare Trust, and is about to begin his journey through the Gobi desert.

Andrew was an interesting person to interview, and has been a good friend to me for the past two weeks, providing me with some of my funniest memories of Mongolia.

I am also very thankful to him for inviting me to spend yesterday evening with explorer Karl Bushby, who, in three or four years time, all being well, will have become the first person in history to have walked a completely unbroken path around the world.

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You can read the article here: ANDREW LLOYD

The full version of my interview with Canadian band ‘Braids’ has also just been uploaded to the Montsame News Agency website:

http://en.montsame.mn/content/montreal-mongolia-%E2%80%93-interview-%E2%80%98braids%E2%80%99

And my ‘Nomad Spirit’ article from two or three weeks ago can be read here: ‘NOMAD SPIRIT’

Chinggis Square

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I thought I should make a little post about Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) since I’ve walked across it twice a day for the past five weeks (my workplace is just behind that big black building on the left).

That impressive-looking building in the middle is the Government Palace. Seated in the centre is Genghis Khan, flanked by Ogedei Khan and Kublai Khan.

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In the centre of the square stands an equestrian statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, one of the leaders of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution against the Chinese.

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The State Ballet and Opera House is my favourite building, located on the East side of the square. It looks somehow edible…

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On the South side of the square is the most useful landmark in Ulaanbaatar – the Blue Sky Tower.

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On the West side you have the Golomt Bank, the Mongolian Central Stock Exchange, the Telecommunications building and the Central Post Office.

And of course, you can always see the mountains.

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On particularly fine days, there are these tiny colourful cars that parents can rent out for their children to drive around the square in. The true Mini Coopers.

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They say that 1 in every 200 Mongolian men is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. I believe I found one of these descendants in the miniature Land Rover that nearly took my legs out from underneath me the other evening — the kid seemed pretty hell-bent on annihilating every non-Mongolian in his path without mercy.

Chinggis Square at night is also pretty impressive. The whole of the Government Palace is lit up, and twinkling string lights are also spiralled around the avenue of trees lining the South side. Oh, and the little cars for the children light up too.

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The Winter Palace

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The Winter Palace was built between 1893 and 1903 for Mongolia’s eighth living Buddha and last king, the Bogd Khan. He lived there for 20 years.

Although the Summer Palace was destroyed, the Winter Palace was spared destruction by the Russians. Now it is a museum, and a good one at that.

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Amongst the exhibits are a Ger lined with the skin of 150 leopards, a robe made out of 80 foxes, a pair of gold boots gifted by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and a parasol gifted by the British and made entirely out of peacock feathers. A tour through the palace brings you into two rooms full of taxidermied animals. These were two of the most amazing rooms I have ever been in! The first was full of exotic birds in every colour of the rainbow – some of them were tiny and beautiful, others were massive and freaky-looking. Toucans and even penguins were amongst the animals brought to the Bogd Khan’s palace. At the back of the second room (filled mostly with reptiles) was an armadillo, a sloth, and, most incredibly, a tiger swinging a bloodied gazelle in its jaws. A pretty surreal place.

You weren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum so I’ve nicked some off the Internet:

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Exhibit 24-9-63 – ‘Pencil-sharpenings Bird’

It’s fair to say that the Bogd Khan was keen on animals – he had a brown elephant calf walked through the Gobi desert for him to keep at the palace. He was particularly fond of this elephant, and there is a black and white photograph of it in the exhibition. Next to this photograph, in a glass cabinet, you can see the elephant’s red ceremonial hat which it wore on special occasions. My colleague told me that the elephant was cared for by the tallest man in the world at that time — so tall he could reportedly walk along next to the palace walls and pick up people walking on the other side without bending down.

A little further through the exhibition you can see the framed certificate of Mongolia’s Declaration of Independence from China (1911), and then the bedroom of the king and queen. The Bogd Khan and his wife slept separately, in beds surrounded by painted glass. However, the doors of these glass cubes were pointed towards each other, so that the king and queen would see each other when they woke up in the mornings. Also in the bedroom was the Bogd Khan’s musical chair, which I imagine he probably considered throwing out of the ornate window one or two times.

There are six temples in the palace grounds, and most of these are filled with golden bronze and copper bronze statues inlaid with coral and turquoise, as well as richly coloured tapestries and wood carvings. There is a whole room dedicated to paintings of the ‘White Tara’, many of which were painted in a single day.

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Terelj National Park

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Terelj National Park was top of my list for places to visit in Mongolia – and it didn’t disappoint. I took this photo standing on the steps leading up to a tiny monastery in the side of a mountain. To reach the steps, you first had to hike through the valley, and then cross a rickety wooden bridge that was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

On the way to Terelj we stopped at this – an ‘ovoo’.

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Saruul instructed me to pick up some stones. We walked around the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction, as is the tradition, throwing the stones onto the pile, and yellow rice into the air. If you drive past an ovoo and can’t stop, you’re supposed to beep your horn three times instead.

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What I found the most interesting when we got to Terelj was the coloured writing and pictures on the sides of some of the mountains. Like here for example:

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The monastery was similarly colourful, both outside…

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…and inside.

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In here, we had to take off our shoes and stand in a line. There was a lady in front of us wearing a gold robe, and she led a kind of prayer ceremony. I self-consciously joined in with the ‘ummmmms’ but couldn’t last as long as the Mongolians. 25 seconds and I almost passed out.

All around the outside of the monastery were brightly coloured prayer wheels. We walked right around the building, turning each wheel with our right hands.

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On the way out of the park, we stopped at one of Terelj’s famous rock formations – ‘Turtle Rock’.

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Five Go Off To A Ger Camp

On Saturday afternoon, me, my host sisters Saruul and Enkhzul, their sister Tumi and her friend, all piled into Tumi’s car and drove out of Ulaanbaatar to the countryside beyond.

“What’s your favourite music, Rosie?” Tumi called back to me as we were hurtling along.

“The Beatles.” I replied. The car swerved violently to the left as Tumi delved into her CD compartment and unearthed a 28 track Beatles compilation. After the car was realigned with the oncoming traffic, I could relax to the sound of ‘All My Loving’ and ‘From Me To You’.

We arrived at the ger camp at dusk, having taken three wrong turns and driven through a massive sprawl of gers and huts.

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Ger unlocked, we hauled our supplies inside, then stood around shivering uncontrollably until a little man came along with a bucket of coal and fired up the stove for us. Within minutes, Saruul had a pan of pak choi and noodles hissing away, Enkhzul was playing Teddy Pendergrass from her portable speaker, and Tumi had broken out the Mongolian beer. The party had started.

After we had eaten, we had a few rounds of cards. The girls’ Mongolian card game, however, counted 2 and 3 as ‘high cards’, and this totally messed with my head. To make matters worse for me, the punishment for losing a round was to have the others actually inflict physical pain on you, either by whacking you on the wrist, or by flicking you really hard on the forehead. As a result of this, and the aforementioned Mongolian beer, I woke up in the morning feeling quite tender.

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I don’t think I could have felt any further away from home than I did when I was sat on my bed looking up at the stars through the top of the tent, whilst the girls all sat around in the dark singing Mongolian folk songs for me. Perhaps more surreal though was when Tumi, remembering my love for The Beatles, led them into a rendition of ‘Yesterday’.

Sleeping in a ger is one of the cosiest experiences you can have. Tucked up under several blankets, with the stove spilling out warmth, the dogs howling in the distance, and the tent flapping quietly in the wind, I fell asleep almost instantly.

I was woken up at 1am by the little man returning to top up our stove with another bucket of coal, and then again at 6am by my alarm – I wanted to get up and see the day break. I took my coat and camera and headed outside, where all was still and silent. It was so beautiful.

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After crunching around in the snow for a while, I headed back to the ger. It was at this point that I was thankful for my Rabies jabs, because I turned around to find five or six scraggly dogs loping along behind me. Another was sat on the doorstep of our ger like he’d just knocked and was waiting to be let in for breakfast.

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With cold hands and toes, I crept back under the covers and lay looking up through the top of the tent until the others stirred around me.

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The little man came back in and had breakfast with us (I don’t know who invited him) and then we all headed out to play basketball and volleyball in the snow. A little while later, we filed back inside to warm our hands around mugs of milk tea. Then we packed up and set off for Terelj.

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We had to leave this little guy behind.

Community Outreach Project

book6 (2)On International Women’s Day, our journalism volunteer group took a bus out to the ger district of Ulaanbaatar to visit a single mother caring for her six children, the youngest of whom had Cerebral Palsy. We brought gifts and sweets for the children, and a large decorated cake for the mother. Whilst we were there, we shot footage of the mother’s day-to-day life, which included collecting firewood, coal and water, cooking and cleaning, and keeping a constant eye on her youngest son, who couldn’t talk, and who had to be held up constantly and prevented from falling into the stove.We filmed an interview with her and with a woman single-handedly running a daycare centre for nine children. Our group hopes that by giving a presentation on Saturday in the heart of the city and doing a fundraising event the same day, we may be able to raise awareness of the suffering of single mothers with disabled children in Ulaanbaatar.

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