Excerpts from Travel Journal of Louise Jandacek
As we left Beijing it was too cloudy to see the Great Wall of China from the plane. We flew north and a bit west to UlaanBaatar, the capital of Mongolia. UlaanBaatar, meaning Red Hero, sits on the Tuul River, 4,300′ above sea level and home to over a million people. It is often shortened to UB, with the local newspaper the UB Post. This photo on our decent into UB shows all the jeep roads over the plains. There are very few paved roads in the country, most are in UB. Occasionally our bus found a section of pavement, but this was rare outside the UB area.
After the orientation meeting we took a walk near the hotel, ending up at a local grocery store. It was a strange combination of English, Russian and Mongolian labels. Not much in the realm of fruit and vegetables compared with Chinese markets, however the alcohol section was twice the size of fresh fruits/veggies.
Took the bus to the Buffalo Restaurant for dinner, Mongolian Beef cooked over charcoal at each table by a young Mongol woman.
When the communist Russian influence hit Mongolia in 1921 many of the Buddhist Temples were closed or destroyed. In one case an enormous 22m Buddha was hauled off to Russia, melted down and made into bullets. The replacement Buddha now stands in a tall building. The Buddha is one of protection and looms large over the city to offer security.
At the Natural History Museum we had a guide who walked us through 5000 years of history from cave paintings through the Mongol Empire, Chinese domination and then into the modern era, the Russian influence. And finally the fall of communism in 1989, the development of the modern nation of Mongolia.
There were pros and cons under Russian hegemony. Illiteracy in Mongolia prior to 1921 was over 90%, by the times the Russians left literacy was up to 99%. Unfortunately the Russians also brought vodka and alcoholism followed, now being a major problem, including the main cause for divorce.
We left UlaanBaatar and headed west onto the Steppes in our bus. Sometimes the road was paved, often with sizeable potholes. Do not picture paved American roads. Most of the time the road was a jeep trail.
This was July, the rainiest month, and the steppes were green, not at all what I expected. I don’t know what it looks like in the dead of the long cold Siberian winter, but in the summer it’s lush.
The nomads have developed a game using the ankle bones of sheep. A large variety of traditional Mongolian games are played using the shagai pieces. Depending on the game the anklebones may be tossed like dice, flicked like marbles, shot at with arrows, caught in the hands, or simply collected according to the roll of a die. In many games the side on which a tossed piece lands (horse, sheep, camel, or goat) is significant.
The nomadic people of Mongolia pack up and leave their location 3 to 6 times a year, depending on pasture, water and protection from the north winds in the winter. That explains why we never saw any toys for the children, aside from the sheep ankle bones. These carts and panniers on the backs of yaks carry all their belongings, including their homes. Ger, pronounced G-air, is the yurt-like building. Yurt is the Russian word as they are also used by nomadic herders in Siberia.
Ger camps are set up for travelers across Mongolia. Ger is the Mongol term for yurt, pronounced g-air. Those staying in the ger camps are from all over the world. It took us hours to get out of the urban sprawl of UlaanBaatar, the capital city. Our driver was really good at weaving all over the place to avoid the potholes, including driving on the other side of the road and swerving off onto the weeds. We stopped for gas, at a “supermarket” to buy bottled water. It was the size of a 2 car garage, minimal food, lots of alcohol. Stopped on the road with two foot high berms of earth on the edges. This was the bathroom break. The men went to one side of the bus, the women to the other.
Our camp, Khoyor Zagal, is fenced in, to keep the livestock out, loud noises from the cattle during the night though kept us awake. The restrooms are good, good means a seat in the toilet, hot water once the electricity came back on. No water pressure in the showers though, just a drizzle.
Breakfast included coffee, pancakes, yak butter and smoked cheese. Not American pancakes, but really thick. The road to this place was so rutted that our bus was going about 5 mph for the last 20 minutes.
When we first arrived we were served dried yogurt squares and fried bread the size of your thumb. We also got a cooking lesson on steamed dumplings. There was a water bucket and soap for hand washing. The wife rolled out the dough in little circles, about 4″ diameter. The father added the meat filling. We all practiced pinching the dough together. They were then steamed on the stove. Lunch included a noodle soup and the steamed dumplings. There were two types, one with rice and carrots and one with mutton. I had one of each, everything was delicious.
There were four gers in this camp, at least one was used for storage. We went inside the home of our hosts. It was set up with the same plan as others with a stove in the center, offerings to the gods/Buddha, photos on the back wall, beds and benches around the edges. I saw 3 children, a boy about a year old, not walking yet. He had a shirt on but no diaper. There was a stroller for him but for the most part he sat on the ground.
The granddaughter looked about four. She helped her grandmother, bringing a stool from the ger and a milking pail. The oldest child was about 12, helped with the goats, horses and babysitting. During the school year she goes to boarding school, paid for by the government. Interesting that China does not have free education. The Mongolians, according to Billy, hate the Chinese for exploiting them over the years from human trafficking to the Chinese mafia.
Earlier I mentioned living in a ger camp. Regarding the lock on our ger….the rain last night caused the door to swell, won’t close well enough for the lock to fit, so we left the door unlocked and headed off to the Ovgon Monastery.
Someone asked Billy, our 19 year old Mongolian guide what Mongolians thought of Americans. His immediate answer, “they are rich.” This is true, not only rich in possessions and cash but rich in leisure time.
My journal reads, “The Night of the Bugs”.
Dinner last night included strong dark tea. I should have known better but drank it anyway. With the caffeine I couldn’t get to sleep, so was wide awake when the bug invasion started. They were some sort of beetle, ranging in size from 1/2″ to 1″. They didn’t bite but I killed 5 crawling on my face! YIKES!!
At 2 a.m. took my flashlight and started killing them on the floor, walls, on the bed, towels, clothing, everywhere. Sounded like rain as they fell from the open skylight. I woke Pete up to dump the bugs out of the metal wood bin. He just took the whole bin outside and left it there. The invasion also ended up in the bathrooms. Two ladies woke Billy and moved to sleep in the bus. A few beetles tagged along on the blankets.
At breakfast the next morning there were multiply conversations and stories of “the night of the bugs.” The parking lot was crawling with our bugs as we loaded onto the bus. Off to another ger camp.
As we drove further west upon occasion there were small berms on the roadsides, maybe 3′ high. Since trees were non-existent the berms were the “high ground”. The eagles sought out the high ground to perch and survey the landscape. We were so excited to see the first few golden eagles close to the road, and they didn’t even fly off as we got closer. Then more and more eagles appeared on these berms. In all, I bet we saw over 100 eagles close up this day.
This camp is gorgeous., my favorite place in all of Mongolia. I’m sure it’s brutally cold in the winter, but in August it’s spectacular. From the airport it was a 4 hour drive to reach the lake on jarring roads. It’s chilly, and there are mosquitoes. The lake is magnificent!
No electricity this morning at the camp so the staff was carrying water buckets to the bathrooms. Thankfully the power came back on for hot water (instant coffee) for breakfast. Breakfast was a little unusual today, potato salad, cheese in plastic wrap and cookies.
At 8 am we loaded into the mini vans, down VERY bumpy roads, to visit the family who earns their living raising yaks.
Welcome to the Gobi Desert! We left the cool mountain lake region on the Russian Siberian border, to fly south to the Gobi, on the border with China.
Bactrian camels have two humps rather than the single hump of their Arabian relatives. The humps function the same way—storing fat which can be converted to water and energy when sustenance is not available. These humps give camels their legendary ability to endure long periods of travel without water, even in harsh desert conditions. As their fat is depleted, the humps become floppy and flabby.
Fossils in the Gobi desert of Mongolia were first discovered in the 1920’s by American Museum of Natural History scientists that were looking for proof that Central Asia was the cradle of human evolution, but instead inadvertently discovered the extensive dinosaur fossil deposits. The expeditions ended in the late 1920’s because of political unrest and resumed in 1990. The vast area has been labeled a fossil Vallhalla, due to the stunning dinosaur discoveries. In particular, the nests and eggs that were found support new ideas about how dinosaurs lived and nurtured their young. The fossils of the Gobi have also provided critical supportive information linking dinosaurs and their direct descendants, the birds.
The Flaming Cliffs site is a region of the Gobi Desert in which important fossil finds have been made. It was given this name by American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, who visited in the 1920s. The area is most famous for yielding the first discovery of dinosaur eggs. The red or orange color of the sandstone cliffs (especially at a sunset), gives it the nickname, Flaming Cliffs.