Thursday, October 4, 2012

Quick Trip to Mongolia - September 2012

Wednesday, September 12, 2012:  Our small group of travelers - Lynn Bishop (my ex-roommate on many trips), Mary Alice Warren, Lynn’s high school girlfriend, Linda Marshall and Terry Wharton from our North Korean tour, left our tour organizers Cathy and Bob Parda in Beijing and flew to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on an early morning China Air flight.  We flew in a B-737-800 that I was surprised was packed.

At the Ulaanbaatar Chinggis Khan International Airport we were met by our Tour Guide for the visit: Bolor Sainjargal.  She was a young lady from Western Mongolia that works for one of the mining companies teaching safety to Canadians and Australians so her English was very good.  Bolor goes by the English nickname of Crystal because that is the translation of Bolor.

The tour bus was a standard medium size tourist bus that seats about twenty in two on one side with a third fold down seat and a single seat row on the right side.  Our luggage had to be passed through a back window and stored on the back seats.

Flying in to the airport I had a window seat and was surprised how many tall buildings were in the city and how quickly the suburbs turned to lots separated by walls containing at least one ger and sometimes a two story framed house.

A Mongolian ger is similar to a Yurt.  They consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of the flocks of sheep that accompany the nomads.  The timber to make the external structure is not to be found on the treeless steppes, and must be obtained by trade in the valleys below.

The frame consists of one or more expanding lattice wall-sections, a door-frame, roof poles and a crown.  A Yurt has bend roof poles but the Mongolian Ger has one or more columns to support the crown and straight roof poles.  The (self-supporting) wood frame is covered with pieces of felt.  Depending on availability, the felt is additionally covered with canvas and/or sun-covers.  The frame is held together with one or more ropes or ribbons.  The structure is kept under compression by the weight of the covers, sometimes supplemented by a heavy weight hung from the center of the roof.

A yurt is designed to be dismantled and the parts carried compactly on camels or yaks to be rebuilt on another site.  Complete construction takes around 2 hours although our guide told us hers took her all day to set up in her Uncle’s backyard in Ulaanbaatar (which she calls “UB”)

Even in towns and cities many people still live in gers.  In many cases they live in a regular house in summer, but move to a ger in winter, as they are easier to heat. Usually they build a fence around the yard, in which people may have some livestock or even a garden.  The ger may look small from the outside, but gers can easily accommodate a large party.  The ger is heated by a stove standing in the center, fueled by firewood or animal dung.  Seating arrangements in gers are important - the most honored guests sit at the top left end of the ger, farthest from the door, and least important ones along the left side closer to the door.  Family members usually sit on the right side of the ger.  The furniture is always arranged in the same way: kitchen to the right of the door, altar in the back, and beds to the left and right of the altar.

Crystal went on to explain that UB is in a building boom fueled by the development of the mining industry.  As we left the airport we could see many new five to fifteen story apartment buildings and many more under construction.  The road was paved but in very bad condition.  To our right was a new road under construction and Crystal told us a new airport is also being constructed.  A large gate marked the exit from the airport area.  Traffic was congested as we passed Mongolian National Olympic Committee building.  Mongolia medals in Judo, Wrestling, Boxing and Shooting.  We passed the Central Stadium, crossed the Selbe River and skirted the outskirts of the city, past the Buddha Park to the car park at Zaisan Hill.

Exiting the bus several of us climbed 300 steps to the Zaisan Memorial Monument which was built by the Russians to honor Soviet soldiers killed in World War II.  Located on a hill south of the city, the memorial features a circular memorial painting that depicts scenes of friendship between the peoples of the USSR and Mongolia.  The mural depicts scenes such as Soviet support for Mongolia's independence declaration in 1921, the defeat of the Japanese Kwantung Army by the Soviets at Khalhkin Gol on the Mongolian border in 1939, victory over Nazi Germany and peacetime achievements such as Soviet space flights.

The views were spectacular of the city and the suburbs that quickly became grass land dotted with gers blending in to forest and mountains to the south and west.  Back at the car park a “Grab & Go” stand was opening for lunch.  It featured hotdogs, burgers and pizza in addition to Mongolian dishes.  I was struck by the trash below the wall of the car park and generally throughout the city.  I had been spoiled by the neatness of North Korea and brought back to the “I don’t have pride in my country attitude” I have found in so many 3rd world countries.

We rode down the hill to the center of the city and stopped at the Modern Nomads Mongolian Restaurant which indicated by a sign near the door catered to tour groups.  The decorations on the walls were interesting with several basks with horns.  Across the room from our table was a tour group from OAT.  Our lunch included a small salad with strips of chicken and cranberries and bowl of soup.

After lunch we checked into our hotel – The Blue Sky.  The Blue Sky is the tallest building in UB with 25 stories in blue glass and a curved shaped like a large sail.  It was opened in 2011 but we found it to be still under construction in many areas.  My assigned room was at the end of the 13th floor in the southeast corner.  This meant I had widows on two walls.  The bathroom had a separate shower and tub room and both had clear glass walls so you could be observed from any place in the bedroom and hall.

After unpacking I left the room and discovered I was next to an outside facing elevator, but it was not in service.  We boarded our bus for a ride to the Mongolian Museum of Natural History.  Along the way in the congested bumpy streets I noticed that they have men wearing mouth masks holding a paddle with a big red light in the middle controlling pedestrian traffic.

We were not allowed to take pictures in the Museum which is concerned primarily with the flora and fauna of the country.  The museum has departments of Geology, Geography, Flora and Fauna, Paleontology, and Anthropology encompassing the natural history of Mongolia.  With over 6000 specimens, 45% of them are on permanent display to the public.  The museum was well known for its dinosaur exhibits, most notable the almost complete skeleton of a Tarbosaurus and the world-famous 'fighting dinosaurs', a velociraptor and protoceratops that were buried alive (probably when a sand dune collapsed on top of them) in the midst of mortal combat, some 80 million years ago.  Overall it is not very well kept.  The Lonely Planet review says: "The general impression is that you've stumbled into the warehouse of a long-deceased taxidermist, rather than into a serious scientific exhibition.  Some of the animals have been fixed with puzzling expressions, as if they remain perplexed as to how they ended up in such an unfortunate state.”

I found the section about Roy Chapman Andrews the American explorer, adventurer and naturalist who discovered many of the dinosaur remains in the Gobi Desert and later became the director of the American Museum of Natural History to be of great interest.

From the Museum we walked across the street to the Government House and on to Sukhbaatar Square, the central square of UB.  It is named after and features a statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, leader of Mongolia's 1921 revolution. The statue is located across the square from the front of the Government House.  He is sculptured riding a horse with his right hand open in the air in a gesture of observation.  It was recently bronze coated.

On the porch of the Government House (Place) was a huge statue of Genghis Khan and on the ends of the porch, statues of his sons and generals.  Bolor gave us a quick history of how Genghis Khan conquered the world east of Europe and ruled until his death and left the Empire to his sons who squandered it away through infighting.

From the square we returned to our bus and rode to the State Academic Drama Theatre to attend a performance.  We arrive early and ducked into a Pub next door for a drink before the performance.  We were not allowed to take pictures of the performance which included singing and dancing of traditional Mongolian songs and in various Mongolian costumes.  They were very colorful, impressive and entertaining.  The most amazing was the contortionist.  Bolor told us after the show that they find very young girls that are double jointed and have them train so that by the time they reach their twenties the can perform as we saw that night.  The OAT Group was also in attendance.

Dinner that night was in “bd’s Mongolian Barbeque” over the “Detroit American Bar”.  It was similar to the Mongolian Barbeque places where I have eaten in the United States.  That had a table of thinly sliced frozen meat rolled up and various vegetables and sauces.  You pile the selected items into a bowl and deliver it to a cook.  The cook pours the ingredients out on a big hot ten foot round plate and cooks it in a stir fry with two long wooden poles.  They also had a buffet of salad makings and cooked dishes if you didn’t want the stir fry.  The waiters serving drinks (the draft beer I found very good) wore T-shirts with “Kiss me I’m Mongolian” on the back.

Thursday, September 13, 2012:  We had an early wake up for a 08:00 flight to the Gobi.  When I took my shower in my glass bathroom, I found that the shower was not in the tub but rather next to it.  The water flooded the floor next to the tub and under the wall to the sink and toilet room.  Whoever designed this screwball room should have his architect’s license revoked.  We checked some of our luggage at the front desk and only took one bag for the overnight in the Gobi.

We flew in an Eznis Airways Dash 8-Q400 Bombardier, 90 seat turboprop to Dalanzadgad in the southern Gobi Desert about 350 miles south of UB.  The airport terminal is in a small building with a small building next door with glass window walls and the word LUGGAGE on the facing above the windows.  A rather ugly statue of the twin hump Mongolian Bactrian camel was in the unkempt lawn in front of the terminal.  Our transportation for our journey into the desert was an Nissan SUV with three rows of seats and room in back for luggage.  My sciatica was causing me pain so I sat in the front where I could stretch out my leg.  The SUV was filthy with mud splattered even inside on the dash and front window.  The seat had been brushed off but it appeared that the vehicle had been driven through a mud hole with its right window open.

When we left the airport we were on a smooth macadam highway to the town west of the airport.  But not for long, we very shortly veered off the road onto a smooth wide dirt road and headed north towards snowcapped mountains.  In less than ten minutes we arrived at the Goviin Bayanburd ger resort to stop for breakfast.  The main building was built in the shape of a very large ger.  We had a nice breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and little cakes and were on our way in about fifty minutes.  About five minutes from the resort we encountered a herd of camels that wander across the “road”.

We deviated from the track we had been driving on to another resort and stopped at a ger to ask for directions to our resort.  After an hour drive we arrived at our destination, the Dream Gobi Camp.  Similar to Goviin Bayanburd the main building was built in the shape of a large ger but this one was two stories high with a walkout basement.  The main floor had an outside porch circling the room and inside a round bar in the middle.  Long table lined the right side; the left side had a stairway to the basement and one to the second floor.  In the back was the kitchen and in the basement showers, toilets and a game room.

My assigned ger was one of the last pair from the central building.  It was jointed to another ger with a wooden building that housed two hot water heaters, showers and toilets.  One set for each ger.  The ger itself had two beds, two stools and a table.  The center had a rope tied to bag of dirt to for tension on the structure.  There were 18 gers on each side of the center building with only the ones on the east side having the wooden bath structure between pairs of gers.  The gers on the west side were for the guide, driver and help and they had to use the facilities in the basement.  The central building had satellite TV. 

They served us a nice lunch, with a salad of tomatoes, olives, pickles and cucumber (no lettuce), and ham cooked like chicken fried steak with a slice of pineapple on top.  The driver had left us to get gas and returned with the SUV washed and we set out across the Gobi.  We encountered men on motor bikes herding horses, and couples riding across the desert on motorbikes.

After about forty minutes bouncing around the desert we came upon a high hill overlooking the town of Bulgan.  On the top of the hill was a stick surrounded by stones.  It was a Shamanism ‘ovoo’ with blue cloth on the stick.  Mongolians use these places of worship when traveling as a way to offer thanks to the surrounding nature and the gods and to seek safety when continuing their journey.  Offerings are made by throwing three small rocks onto the `ovoo' and then walking around the pile three times, in a clockwise direction.  This ‘ovoo’ had a mound consisting of rocks, animal skulls, vodka bottles and blue silk.  Usually, rocks are picked up from the ground and added to the pile.  Travelers often leave offerings in the form of sweets, money, milk, or vodka.  We observed paper money and candy at this ‘ovoo’.

We stopped at another ger for directions.  This time the people were sorting tomatoes on the ground in front of their ger.  At 16:00 we finally arrived at Bayanzag (the ‘Flaming Cliffs’ as they were called by Roy Chapman Andrews).  After bouncing around relatively flat desert the red sandy gorge and cliffs was a sight to see.  The local museum was closed so we were not able to see the dinosaur eggs that have been found at the site.  We could easily understand how fossils could be uncovered in the area.

We only spent about twenty minutes at the site and then we started back to camp.  Along the way we passed an unusual camp where the main house was built to resemble a giant turtle.  We stopped at a ger at this camp and were invited to join the family inside.  The ger had a satellite TV next to the alter and a stove in the middle.  The host was shirtless and he served the traditional ‘Suutei tsai’ Mongolian milk tea with salt.  A few minutes after our arrival a number of family members entered the ger.  They were introduced.  We didn’t engage in a lot of interaction with the group.  They did comment on Lind’s blond hair.

Soon the visitors left and so did we.  One of the family’s father, daughter and mother rode off on a motorbike.  We walked over to a herd of camels to take pictures and stroke their fur and unusual humps.  One of the things I noticed is many of the camels had a stick through their nose.  Bolor told us it was similar to horse bridle bit.

It took us forty five minutes to return to our camp.  We discovered that another OAT group was staying at our camp and would be flying back on our same flight in the morning.  Our lack of confidence in the driver knowing where he was going led us to suggest that he follow the OAT bus to the airport in the morning.  The suggestion was adopted.

We talked with the OAT Group and were surprised that few of them had heard about The International Travel News (ITN) or the Travelers Century Club (TCC).  They were amazed at our travels.  One of the women used to live in Canoga Park next to Woodland Hills.

We had a nice dinner and retired early.  I was warned that the electricity would be shut off between 22:00 and 04:00 the next morning.  It was time for me to test the battery pack that I had purchased for my CPAP machine.  I plugged the battery pack into the extension cord and the machine to the pack.  When the power was cut off I didn’t even know it.

Friday, September 14, 2012:  At 03:15 I awoke to my cell phone clock glowing when the power was turned on.  I decided to get up and shower.  The shower head was unusual – it was a flip wand when the more you open the flip top the stronger the flow of water.  Since I was standing under the hot water tank there was no lack of hot water.  I packed up and was about to leave when the power shut off.  The flashlight app on my cell phone came in very handy because I had packed my big flashlight and the small one was in my vest that I hadn’t put on.

The power outage was caused by the camp switching from their generator to city power.  Apparently at 03:15 they had turned the generator on so they could cook breakfast.  We had an egg, bacon and toast breakfast at 04:00 and left the camp at 06:00 to follow the OAT bus to the airport.  This time I noticed that the bus followed the power lines.  It only took us forty minutes to get to the airport.  We had to kill over an hour before power was turned on in the airport terminal and staff arrived.  Check in was smooth and the plane arrived on time.  It was the same plane we flew down on the day before and we took off at 08:45 and landed at 09:50.  I had a window seat and marveled at the number of tracks that I saw across the desert.  Instead of creating one dirt road between places they have many criss crossing each other but still going between the same two points.  I guess it is a form of “not invented here (NIH)” in their personalities.

On our way back to the city from the airport we were stopped in traffic on the bridge across the river.  We wondered if there was an accident.  We discovered that it was a herd of goats crossing the bridge to water on the other side.  Our first stop was at the Gandan-Tegchinlen Monastery a Tibetan-style monastery that has been restored and revitalized since 1990.  The Tibetan name translates to the "Great Place of Complete Joy."  It currently has over 150 monks in residence and features a 26.5-meter-high statue of Migjid Janraisig, a Buddhist bodhisattva also known as Avalokitesvara.  An even larger Buddha is under construction.  The story on why the current Buddha is so big is the Emperor eye sight was failing and they built the big Buddha for him to see.

During Soviet era the monastery was saved from mass destruction but closed in 1938.  In 1944 it was reopened when US Vice President Henry Wallace visited the country.  The Buddha religion in Mongolia has a close tie to the religion in Tibet since one of Genghis Khan’s descendants; Altan Khan was the last unifier of Mongolia and a convert to Buddhism and a major promoter of the religion.

After our tour of the Monastery we checked back into the hotel.  This time I was assigned a room on the 14th floor which was not a corner room.  Even though the walls in the toilet area and bathtub area had glass walls the wall along the hallway had the closet so only one wall was visible from the bedroom and it had a shade.  The wall between the shower and the toilet was sealed on the bottom to prevent flooding the toilet area when you take a shower.

After unpacking we took the bus to the Silk Road Restaurant where I had a nice salad.  From the restaurant we rode to the Bogd Palace Museum.  Built between 1893 and 1903, the palace is the place where Mongolia's eighth Living Buddha, and last king, Jebtzun Damba Hutagt VIII (often called the Bogd Khan), lived for 20 years.  For reasons that are unclear, the palace was spared destruction by the Russians and turned into a museum.  The summer palace, on the banks of Tuul Gol, was completely destroyed.

There are six temples in the grounds.  The Winter Palace is a two story building designed in a European style working under the orders of the Russian Czar Nicholas II.  The Qing Emperor, nominal ruler of Mongolia, took exception to the palace being built on European lines, since Europeans were Christians, not Buddhists, and to placate him lotus patterns were painted on the walls and Buddhist ornaments added to the roof (the ornaments are no longer present.)  The Bogd Gegeen and his consort Dondogdulam lived in the Palace for almost twenty winters.

The building contains a collection of gifts received from foreign dignitaries, such as a pair of golden boots from a Russian tsar, a robe made from 80 foxes and a ger lined with the skins of 150 snow leopards.  Mongolia's Declaration of Independence (from China) is among the exhibits.

Our last stop was the State Department Store.  On the first floor was a model of an apartment complex under development.  The fifth floor had tourist souvenirs.  I attempted to find some small size t-shirts for the Grandchildren but the displays were so disorganized that I couldn’t find one, even with the assistance of two clerks.

Bolor made arrangements for us to have dinner on our own at the Silk Road that evening.  It was a short walk from the hotel.  We went as a group at 19:00.  I had lamb and a small salad.  The OAT Group was also eating at the restaurant.  It was dark after we left the restaurant and I was walking alone between Terry and Linda and Lynn and Mary.  I had several men approach me with offers for a “good time” and I was only one block from the hotel.

Saturday, September 15, 2012:  When I took my shower in the morning I didn’t flood the toilet area so I guess my original room was not thoroughly inspected.  I met the Terry and Linda for breakfast at 07:00.  When I finished and returned to my room the room card would not open the door.  I went down to the front desk to rekey the card and returned to my room and found it didn’t work again so I returned to the front desk and had it rekeyed again.  When I returned I saw Terry and Linda having the same problem and then I found the card still wouldn’t work.  By now I was agitated and when I returned to the front desk I asked the desk clerk to send someone with a passkey up to open the door.  The doorman rode up with me and opened both my room and the others.

This hotel still had a way to go before it could claim a 5 star status.

We had no trouble checking in for our flight.  A number of the OAT group was also on the flight to Beijing.  I was hoping at Beijing to stop in the United Club and be able to connect to the internet but the transit desk could not print my boarding pass and wrote out a ticket by hand and told me to go to the gate and get a new baggage tag.  The connection time was too short to spend the time to drop by the United Club.  When I reached the gate they told me that my bag and been transferred and they issued a new tag.

The flight was full at the last minute.  I was in Economy Plus on the right side in an aisle seat.  My two seat mates were Chinese and spoke little English.  It was an uneventful flight to Newark.  I was able to spend a great weekend with Judy, who had flown in from Los Angeles, Robin, Dan’s with my grandsons.

In summary:  Mongolia is a fascinating country to visit.  It has a long interesting history and culture.  The development of the mining industry has created a construction boom that I believe the Mongolians are having a difficult time transitioning to the change.  It is worth visiting and monitoring how the future unfolds.

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