After 5 and a bit days of exploring the impressive Gobi desert, we were on the move North, into the beautiful UNESCO protected Orkhon Valley. After several punishing hours in the van over deeply rutted dirt roads and river crossings, the scenery got greener, with eagles buzzing the van and vultures devouring their meals nearby. Thanks to our talented driver Loya, we’d made it to our destination.
Orkhon Valley, situated South East of the capital Ulaan Baatar in central Mongolia, is home to the former capital of the Genghis Khan empire: Kharakhorum. The lush green valleys veined with rivers are a draw card for tourists to Mongolia. A popular mode of transport is by horse, and the day after our arrival, horses would be our means of conveyance. Upon arrival we were welcomed by our nomadic family with ‘urum’, butter made from boiled yak milk which renders urum as the by product, and it is delish! We’d been forewarned our bellies may not be accustomed to it, it was a warning none of us heeded as we greedily scoffed down the buttery treat on some sweet bread. It was a truly brilliant sky as the sun went down, with deep dark ridges in the clouds playing off against the rich green of the hills, with some golden arcs of light busting through the clouds to illuminate the hilltops.
The next morning, after watching the animals get milked, we hopped on our steeds that were to deliver us up the valley. One thing to note with Mongolian horses is that they aren’t particularly tame, despite being domesticated in some sense, they are more grazing animals here that moonlight as transport, they get ridden a few times during summer and never in winter, so they really have a mind of their own. They say that horses reflect their rider, somewhat accurately in the case of Mark’s horse, dubbed “Red” who was highly competitive and hated being left behind, a trait shared by Martina’s horse she’d called “Munder”, meaning hail in Mongolian as they constantly tried to outdo each other. Bénédicte’s horse on the other hand, well, she called her horse “Cannabis” after it’s particularly relaxed nature, and constant case of the munchies, stopping to eat despite the yanking of the reigns. “Munder” was correct at one point as it absolutely hailed down just before we made it to our next nomad family.
We’d assumed this was some sort of organised thing and that the nomads host people all the time, but it turned out that our lovely host only learned of our arrival, well, upon our arrival. Unperturbed she organised for us more “urum” and “targ”, or yak yogurt. She warned us that having too much may cause our stomach to turn a little, and while the rest of us took note, Martina went right ahead and had her fill, this time with more predictable results, including a few trips to the loo under the milky way – literally, the toilet only had walls about a meter high and no roof, like we say, apprentice proof. The young daughter took a particular interest in drawing with Bérèngère, who, whether she like it or not got woken up for some art lessons. We were also taught a Mongolian card game by Vampi called Muushig, quite a strategic affair, but all the easier when while teaching the game you also happen to have all the trump cards, we are still unsure if Vampi was really good, really lucky or was counting cards. The trip back went far quicker than the day before as Munder and Red spurred each other on into gallops with Red losing the plot as he caught sight of home galloping at some speed and going over the greet his mates somewhere up a hill. While there was exquisite scenery all the way, it must be said, they are not the most comfortable horses to ride. Being shorter than European horses means they have a bounce to them, once again for the men, it is advisable to get the horse to walk or gallop, not in between, this only serves as a medieval torture device of sorts. But it was fun all the same.
After a good night’s rest we said goodbye to our family and it was back to the ‘road’ through more proper 4X4 tracks and we walked up to one of the first monasteries in Mongolia and had a go at a “re-birth procedure”, involving crawling down a small cave, turning around clockwise for a Men and anti-clockwise for Women, this might be fine for the average height Mongolian, but it can be assured, for 2 tallish Europeans it is not. Nonetheless we are re-born and absolved of our sins, so if we’ve done anything to you in the past, it’s been forgiven and we are officially off the hook. Until about 20 mins later, when Mark pulled down a half built hut attempting a chin-up, although it was immediately rectified, so we are unsure where this currently sits in the sin stakes. Our camp that night was at some hot springs, we should have taken note of the fact that no guides seemed to be getting in the pools immediately upon our arrival, but eschewing this we jumped in and nearly boiled ourselves alive, but due to having worked ourselves up about it so much we muscled through and forced ourselves to enjoy it, and sizzle away any aches and pains we might have had from the horse trek.
The next day we headed to Kharkhorum and to our surprise and pleasure encountered actual roads for the first time in 8 days. Wandered around what was the main monastery of Mongolia, built in the 1600s and still in active use today, although some of it was destroyed since it’s conception it is in relatively good shape and was in interesting place to visit and learn a bit about the origins of Buddhism in the country. The crescendo of the night was having Mongolian BBQ, quite different to the type we may have had as BYO dinner at in western cities, reliably getting so drunk you spill a whole bottle of wine over the table, well, that’s what one could imagine happening anyway…. No, this is a big bowl that gets filled with meat, vege, herbs and spices along with river stones to aid the cooking process. In the early day of this method they subbed out the pot for the skin of the animal they were cooking so they didn’t have to carry cooking equipment with them during battle, the result is very yummy. The night was alive with a huge electrical storm that lit up the whole sky and our Ger with huge hail stones, hail stones Martina used to cool a burn received during a freak marshmallow roasting incident. With the following night being our last and having to move from the Valley to Terelji national park, we spent the night having beers and playing Mongolian card games with Vampi and Loya and reminiscing on the trip, before making our back to UB, but not before visiting the giant Genghis Khan monument outside the city. Coming in at 40m tall, it is the largest equestrian statue in the world, made of stainless steel it’s pretty impressive as it stands out in the countryside. Loya even came to visit it with us for his first time, despite having driven here for the last 10 years since it was finished in 2008, we took that to mean he liked us.
Back in UB for our last night meant, apparently, only one thing, Karaoke night. Vampi took us to a local haunt which in fairness could have been haunted with the howls coming out of the place. While the singing on all counts was awful, it was a great night to spend with Bérèngère, Bénédicte and Vampi. They, along with Loya and all the families we stayed with and the trip well worth remembering and Mongolia will always be a fond memory for both of us as long as we have a functioning memory. After a great send off from our trip we jumped on the Trans-Mongolian for 25hrs back to China where we ended up in Hohhot for a night, then a 22hrs train to Xining, capital of western province Qinghai, that would be our staging point to enter Tibet. Martina had been before and warned Mark of what a dire bleak place it was, completely devoid of any life or color, a truly grim place, perhaps perfect for stancing Mark thought. Turns out things move fast in China and Xining has staged a complete beautification.
Gone are the dusty streets and smelly dirt banked river, hello tree-lined streets and blooming river promenade. In just 7 years Xining had gone full ugly duckling, a fact Martina is still grappling with. We only had time for one attraction though, and after initially going the wrong museum we made it to the Tibetan medical history museum. The main attraction being a wall painting, big deal you say, well this one is on a 2.5m high religious painting called a Thangka and snakes its way around the hall for over 600m! The artwork took over 30 years for 400 artists to complete and depicts all Tibetan Buddhist history from start to finish, although curiously didn’t have quite enough room for the current Dalai Llama. It’s really cool and if you find yourself in Xining it’s worth a gander. So that’s it for “mainland” China as we head into Tibet. China has been a revelation as we came without much expectation, and Mongolia a dream come true, both are well worth booking a ticket, just remember to get a VPN unless you want a holiday from Google as well as work.
Until next time.
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