Here in part of 2 of my Trans-Siberian adventure blog, you find me and my travel buddies having just arrived in Mongolia. The priority was to obtain some Mongolian currency, as it’s not possible to buy it in the UK, so we quickly exchanged any remaining Chinese yuan into Tughrik before leaving Ulaanbaatar train station. First stop on our whistle stop tour of the city was the Gandantegchinlem Buddhist monastery constructed in 1809, and moved and rebuilt in its current location around 1838. It survived the Communist led destruction of monasteries and was reopened in the 1990s – a little history lesson for you there. Inside (you’ll have to take my word for it, or pop in to see it yourself as I wasn’t organised enough to pay to take a photo) is an impressive 26.5 metre high statue of Megjid-Janraiseg (Avalokiteśvara), a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas
By the time we reached Sükhbaatar Square in the centre of the city, the weather was starting to turn. We’d been told that it was going to snow, and the temperature was dropping quickly as we took a walk, somewhat briskly, around this grand open space.
Before heading to the Ger camp, we mounted 300 steps to the Zaisan Memorial, a monument to honour the Mongolian and Soviet soldiers killed in World War II.
From there you had amazing views of the city.
With snow storm clouds looming on the horizon, we jumped back into the passenger van, and were driven to the Elstei Ger camp, 50 kms North East of Ulaanbaatar, stopping only to pick up beer on the way (you might be starting to see a recurring theme here).
We were shown our lovely Gers,
before being served lamb dumplings and banana pudding for dinner in the restaurant block. We discussed plans for the next day (weather permitting) which included Howard and me horse riding, and John and Lindsay walking to a nearby nomad family.
While relaxing post dinner, Anka (our guide/host/friend) taught us how to play a curious traditional Mongolian game called ankle bones. Each of the four sides of an anklebone represents a different animal; horse, sheep, camel, goat. After tossing four of these ‘bones’ and depending on which sides they landed on, you moved another set of bones that represented a horse race!
After several games, we ventured out into a cold night, and retired to our Gers. But we didn’t spend the entire night alone. At 1am and 6am a ‘fire lady’ came into our Ger to keep the stove going. We felt ridiculously spoilt, and were enormously grateful for this service. Regardless of the freezing night outside, we were kept warm and cosy.
Peeking outside our tent at 8am in the morning, there was a layer of snow on the ground. Wearing many layers of anything warm I could find in my suitcase I ventured to the shower block. Much as we hadn’t expected such high temperatures in Beijing, we hadn’t packed for a freak Mongolian snow storm in September. Thankfully hot water was in good supply so showering was a way to get warm before heading back out into chilly winds. Over a hearty breakfast of soup, egg, bread stuffed with lamb, and tea, we planned our activities for the day. But alas, the weather took a turn for the worse, and for our own safety we were not able to stray far from the camp. We read and relaxed until lunchtime, and afterwards went for a blustery wander around the camp. I managed a couple of cuddles with my favourite Ger camp dog to warm up.
Returning to the restaurant block where a fire was lit, Anka taught us a complicated Mongolian card game. We played several rounds asking questions constantly, as the rules were complex, and then we introduced our Mongolian host to Crazy Eights and Rummy 500. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon though we felt a little sad having missed out on a horse trek as it had been high on our wish list. John, who just happens to be a member of the magic circle, performed magic tricks after dinner. It was a lovely end to the day, and a nice surprise for Anka.
The clouds were just starting to break early the next day providing beautiful scenery for our brief walk to breakfast.
With the promise of better weather ahead, we were offered the horse ride that we hadn’t been able to do the day before and taking up this offer instantly, we couldn’t hide our excitement. John and Lindsay also got to visit a local nomad family. In fact, we all did, as that’s where our horses would be ‘caught’.
It was a treat meeting local nomads in their ger, and we were offered hot milky tea and (very) hard cheese. Having just had breakfast, I took a small bite of the cheese, which was ‘interesting’, and I hid the rest in my jacket pocket. I didn’t find it again until well into the train ride to Russia, but it was still well preserved. After Lindsay had played a few notes on the family’s horse head fiddle that you can see above, we were taken outside and introduced to our horses, which we were warned might be a bit feisty. They were a bit different from the ponies I had learned to ride on a 100 years ago at the Harrogate Equestrian Centre, but we had a really enjoyable journey back to our Ger camp across the Steppe landscape.
We were sad to say farewell to all the lovely people who had taken care of us but had to press onwards, as we had a train to catch to Moscow!
We had one more thing to see before leaving Mongolia – a giant statue of Genghis Khan (known locally as Chinggis Khaan), built in 2008 on the occasion of the eight-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Mongolian Empire. At 40m high you can’t help but be impressed by its sheer size.
Taking a lift, you pop out above the horse’s head, look up into the huge face of this legend on horseback, and take in the view of the plains below.
In the basement of the building on which Genghis’ horse is standing is an archaeology museum which includes a history of Ger designs which after our recent camping experience was really interesting.
After a busy morning of riding real horses, and climbing to the top of a huge stainless steel one, we headed to the train station. Knowing that there wouldn’t be a dining car on the train until we reached the Russian border, we stopped off at a big Mongolian supermarket. We topped up with exciting provisions like a tea towel and kitchen paper (you might laugh, but they came in very useful on the next leg of our journey), and enough food to feed us for the rest of the day. One thing we all missed was cheese. We hadn’t savoured any in China or Mongolia, and all we could find in this store was some rather sad cheese slices. We bought some anyway hoping it would satisfy our craving. It didn’t.
Back at Ulaanbaatar station, we bid a fond farewell to our fantastic guide, Anka (now a fb friend!), and boarded our train to Moscow. We were setting off on the next part of our Trans-Siberian adventure.
[ALL PHOTOS OWNED BY CHRISTINE NEWBY. PLEASE ASK PERMISSION TO USE]