travel journal

Mongolia Journal ~ Genghis Khan Monument

Day 7 of Mongolian horse trek, 2015…


1 July 2015

Morning – Day 7 (Tuul River)

I haven’t climbed out of the tent yet. I hear snoring from the next tent, the ripple of the river, horses munching, birds chirping, the groan of some distant animal, grasshoppers chirruping and smacking the side of our tent.

Late afternoon – Day 7

We’ve spent most of the day at the Genghis Khan Monument. Being the halfway point of the trek, today was designated a ‘rest day’ for humans and horses — boy did we need it!
We all rode to the monument, then Ganaa (our horsewoman) took the horses to the next campsite and David returned at the end of the day with the car to collect us.

trek_day 7_genghis1

The ride to the monument took under an hour, and involved climbing an enormous hill to give us an aerial view of the monument before we got there. I felt a bit sorry for the horses, but mine was a champion and powered up the hill. He just put his head down and went for it in a solid walk. The view out over the valley floor was impressive.

The monument is a 40-foot statue in shimmering stainless steel of Genghis Khan mounted on a horse, all on top of a building housing two museums of Mongolian artefacts.

trek_day 7_genghis2

We spent the whole afternoon at the monument. First we checked out the two museums, which were fabulous. The first exhibition was of Bronze-age artefacts between 4th C BC and 1st C AD. Notable items included bronze daggers, buckles, belts, miniature figurines, bowls, stirrups, mirrors… many/most featured intricate designs of horses (sometimes being attacked by tigers), birds and many other animals. They appeared to be finely cast and impressively intricate. Really beautiful, and indicative of how (wealthy) people even back then liked having pretty things.

The second exhibition was of artefacts from 13th-14th C — the time of the great Mongolian empire. Cool stuff in here too! Items of note included swords, bowls, vessels for wine, gorgeous little stoves for sitting over fires, copper concave mirrors for fire-lighting, mail made of small forged plates stitched onto leather, chain link mail, cast steel stirrups and bits…

After the museums, we ate lunch in the restaurant. We pounced on the menu, keen for anything other than what we’d been eating, albeit with some measure of trepidation. We both ordered “chicken cutlets”, which proved to be some kind of chicken meatloaf with potato wedges and salad. It was yummier than it sounds — although we were probably fairly easy to please after all the stodgy camping fare.

Next we took the lift up inside the statue and climbed out to stand on the horse’s head, from which you get a 360-degree view of the surrounding valley. Apparently the statue was erected on the site where Genghis allegedly found a golden whip, a massive replica of which is held in the statue’s hand.

There’s not much else to do at the monument, other than view a short video about the building of it, which was certainly fascinating from an engineering perspective. The grounds around the outside are completely undeveloped and badly maintained. Like so much of this country it feels as though something was built with huge aspirations then left to fall into ruin and decay. One decided bonus, however, was the flushing toilet in the tourist centre!

We’re currently in our latest campsite — another valley amid the hills of the steppes. It’s another gorgeous location, despite the high-voltage power lines we’re camped below. It’s sunny like it hasn’t been all day, and I have no idea of the time.

trek_day 7_camp

Mongolia journal ~ Rivers and words

Exactly two years ago I was in the middle of my Mongolian horse trek. TWO YEARS AGO! It’s so hard to believe… (I’m definitely due for a new adventure!)

This is a short post about our sixth day of riding, which largely involved following (and crossing) the Tuul River.


30 June 2015

Lunch – Day 6 (near Terelj NP)

We’ve retraced steps from Terelj NP to stop in the vicinity of the previous night’s camp by the Tuul River, sitting on a hill overlooking the distant valley and road. It’s a gorgeous spot. The horses are grazing peacefully and it’s quite windy with intermittent cloud.

We’ve been learning Mongolian words the past few days… first we learnt ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘my name is’ etc. Then we started learning how to count to 10. Yesterday we learnt 1-5 and we’ve just learnt 6-10. It’s fun. Burmaa (our guide) gives us spot quizzes from time to time.

This morning’s ride was very pleasant. We meandered long the river and forded it a few times. Awesome fun. I sang some songs while riding along in my own little world — it seemed like the time for it. The wide open spaces often make me feel like singing.

trek_day6_fordriver

Fording rivers is awesome fun.

Eventually we ended up at here at our lunch stop after a couple of hours riding, mostly walking with some trotting and cantering. I’m starting to understand my horse a lot more. He’s a lovely horse, docile and responsive. He goes downhill a bit slowly and has a slow trot, but he canters really well and seems happy enough to wade through water.

Evening – Day 6 (Tuul River)

Tonight we’re camping beside a different section of the Tuul River, this time right on its banks. We’re at a ford, with horses and cows crossing as we’ve been sitting here. Everyone has washed a bit (selves and clothes — our newly washed underwear is strung up to dry along an old paling fence), and it’s been a chilled-out couple of hours. As always when the sun fades (now) the temperature drops substantially, though.

trek_day6_tuulRford

Cattle fording the Tuul River

 

trek_day6_campsite

Camping on the banks of the Tuul River

The afternoon ride was pleasant, although rather long with lots of trotting and cantering. We are starting to feel the fast pace and long days. I like not having to rush around in the morning with the late-morning starts, but I’m a bit tired of finishing so late.

It must be around 9:30pm right now and we still haven’t had dinner. Although it’s nice not to have to do any of the cooking, we are somewhat at the mercy of the Stepperiders crew.

Tonight the horses are grazing around right outside our tent. They munch grass like machines. From within the tent, it sounds as though they’re right on top of us! We’re half worried they’ll trip over the guy ropes… (heh)

Mongolia Journal ~ Terelj NP

It’s been a little while between posts, but this is the fourth edited extract from my Mongolia Journal, covering day 5 of my two-week horse trek in 2015. With photos!

It’s hard to believe it was almost two years ago now.


29 June 2015

Morning – Day 5 (Tuul River)

Morning, best guess about 8:30am? Sunny and very pleasant. Ant crawls across my knee. Mixed herd of sheep and goats descend upon our site, much as they did yesterday at our previous campsite.

This is one of the things I love about Mongolia — the sharing of the land. There are no fences, so sheep, goats, cows, yaks and horses all roam freely, intermingling together. There’s a herd of horses roaming around our camp right now as well. It’s just so cool.

trek_day5_campview

Day 5 – Overlooking our camp near the Tuul River — sharing the steppes with sheep, goats, cattle and horses

(Later) We’ve just been on a morning walk around our camp… up the hills behind the camp to look down the Tuul River valley towards Terelj National Park (there’s a town on the other side of the hill from our camp), then along the ridge down to two ‘owoos’ (shrines) with ‘hatag’ (prayer flags). The hatag is used as a sign of respect for festivals such as the lunar new year, and Burmaa has just told us that when young couples decide to wed, the boy’s father gives a hatag to the girl’s father.

trek_day5_ouaa

Day 5 – Two ‘owoos’ (shrines) with ‘hatag’ (prayer flags)

Lunchtime – Day 5 (Terelj NP)

Great morning ride. We left camp by riding along the river,  then forded it on horseback. I confess I was apprehensive about this, but it turned out to be the coolest thing ever. So exhilarating! Then we crossed a road twice and followed it towards Terelj National Park. We did a lot of trotting and cantering this morning and I am getting better and more confident every day.

We are now sitting on the steppe beside the road, a herd of cattle surrounding us. Our stepperiders hosts are cooking lunch (we’re getting two high-carb cooked meals a day — so much for losing weight!).

trek_day5_lunch

Day 5 – Lunch stop by the road near Terelj NP (also later our camp site).

We took a stroll towards a nearby big rock with a cave inside. Apparently monks hid within when the Russian communists came. Otherwise we are just sitting in the sun (there being no shade). It’s pretty hot today.

30 June 2015

Morning – Day 6 (Terelj NP)

We camped overnight beside the road into Terelj NP after an epic day that left us too exhausted to write last night. It’s now a sunny morning and we’re waiting for water to boil so we can have coffee and then breakfast. It’s not a great campsite, having been chosen in desperation. In fact, it’s the same site where we had lunch yesterday. It’s right beside a road, and there’s no cover for any toileting — a bit stressful!

Yesterday afternoon we rode from here into Terelj NP to “see Turtle Rock”. K and I had no idea how long this “side trip” was going to take, but Ganaa (horsewoman) stayed behind with the car and David (our driver) rode her horse.

It took forever. And it was hot. I got really cranky, knowing we were going to have to retrace our steps (which I detest), so the further we went, the crankier I became. We had no idea of the time, but we think it took at least 1.5 hours to get there. Moreover, it was clear our “guides” didn’t actually know where they were going…

trek_day5_turtlerock

Turtle Rock. Yeah.

Once we finally found it (which involved backtracking), Turtle Rock itself itself was hardly worth the effort, although I guess it was an interesting rock formation. An added bonus, however, was the presence of a flushing toilet we could pay to use (worth EVERY cent).

By this time it was probably late afternoon, but we went on another 2km to see the Princess Monastery. This involved a long climb (on foot) to the building, but we elected not to pay the entrance fee.

trek_day5_terelj

Day 5 – Terelj National Park (from Princess Monastery)

Then came the long ride back to our lunch spot (now camp site). By then the shadows were really long (maybe 7 or 8pm?). On the way back we trotted and cantered a lot, because it was so late. I was absolutely exhausted, but managed a standing canter and gallop!

It was pretty late by the time we reached the car, at which point our tent came out and four of us raised it in about 5 mins. We were handed dinner — already cooked. Then we collapsed in our tent until it was dark… (Then we took it in turns to sneak out under the veil of darkness to take care of business. Ahem.)


2017: According to most of the Mongolian travel guides, Terelj National Park is one of the major attractions around Ulaan Baatar. I’m not surprised it was included in our itinerary, but I don’t really feel as though we saw much of it…

According to our itinerary, Terelj NP was one of the few specific highlights mentioned:

  • Day 3. Ride to Terelj National park and beautiful valley, camping next to river
  • Day 4. Explore Terelj National Park, which is located in Khentii Mountains… natural beauty and interesting rock formations… Massive woolsack weather conditions very well known. In Terelj National Park-forested alpine mountains, see you gigantic rock formations such as Turtle Rock. The area of Terelj National Park is ideal for hiking, horseback riding, fishing, climbing and photography.

So it’s fair to say we were expecting much more of Terelj NP. More at least than a scant half-day, during which I was too tired and cranky to fully appreciate what I did see. Considering the length of our trek (14 days), I’m still not sure why we got shafted on this one! It remains a slight disappointment.


So that was Terelj NP… Plenty more to come. I’m hoping to post more regularly for a while and keep the posts a little shorter. Stay tuned…

Mongolia Journal ~ 3 Getting into the swing of things (with eagles!)

This is the third edited extract from my Mongolia Journal, covering days 3 and 4 of my two-week horse trek. With photos!


27 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 3

selfie_ellen with Sir PlacidWe’re at lunch in a long flat valley with a train line and a town in the distance. The night was wild and cold, and it rained heavily. I wore a fair few layers, plus dragged out the Mongolian blanket to put on top of my sleeping bag. Since I used that as a pillow the first night, this left me without a pillow, which wasn’t too comfortable. Hmm.

This morning we visited the ger of Ganaa’s friend. They served us Mongolian tea (salt, milk, water, some herb) and a range of homemade snacks: a bread/cake thing, milk curd (not very appetising) and some milk cream/half butter. It was lovely hospitality, but strange, because our hosts wouldn’t make eye contact or even try to communicate with us. We stayed about half an hour.

Since then, we’ve cantered and trotted quite a bit, before watering the horses just near today’s lunch stop. We’ve just watched a herd of horses come up to the shallow waterhole near where we’re sitting. A couple of them rolled in the muddy water as though having a bath; but, since they are decidedly not clean now, they were probably just trying to cool down.

It’s wonderful watching the horses interacting, gaining an appreciation for herd dynamics. The stallion is very much the dominant presence, making sure all his mares are together, actively rounding them up if they wander too far. One of the horses stood in the water splashing it up onto his stomach with one of his front hooves. Another (a chestnut) stood in the water with his head on the shoulder of a beautiful grey. Among the mares, the foals are often lying flat on the ground beside their mothers, out for the count.

Day 3 - lunch stop

Day 3 – lunch stop with freight train

Evening – Day 3 (near the town of Nalaikh)

Our camp is on a sloping grassy hill where the horses are grazing. I’m still temporally challenged. Ganaa (our horsewoman) asked us if we were tired and we said we were fine (perhaps a slight untruth on my part). Turns out it was probably closer to 6:30pm than 4pm as we thought. We continued on to this campsite and have just eaten. It’s after 9pm. (Yes, OK I’m struggling with the time thing. Everything is taking longer than it seems. Apparently we left our lunch stop at about 4pm. I’m just going to try to accept the routine — such as it is — and stop obsessing about what time it is…)

Our post-lunch ride was great. Lots of cantering and trotting. We also had to cross a main road, which was quite scary.

Day 3 - camp

Day 3 – camp

Day 3 - sunset

Day 3 – sunset

28 June 2015

Early afternoon – Day 4 (near the town of Nalaikh)

It’s sometime in the early afternoon and we haven’t left camp yet. But that’s OK… there’s a very good reason.

First up this morning was the dawn. We were both woken by the call of some sort of magpie (we think). Unlike Australian magpies, which have a beautiful call, this did not. Anyway, the light outside looked reddish, and I had the sudden urge to see dawn breaking over the steppes. Unzipping our tent, I found we were perfectly oriented to witness a magnificent dawn display — all pink and gold. We watched it for about 15 minutes, took photos and thanked the magpie (which we dubbed the “tourist bird”, assigned to wake campers to see beautiful dawns). I slept some more after that and I think we woke quite late.

Day 4 - dawn

Day 4 – dawn over the steppes

After breakfast, we went into the nearby town of Nalaikh for a shower. This was an interesting — albeit wonderful — experience. The water was hot, pressure fine; all in all perfectly adequate for getting clean and washing hair. Yay! (It had, after all, been four days since our last shower.) The facilities, on the other hand, were pretty ramshackle. Although they did seem clean. But, contrary to our expectation of a facility offering running water, there were no toilets!

OK, so by Mongolian standards, there was a toilet. Upon asking for it, we were directed out the door into the lane out the back, where we found a ramshackle hut. Inside this hut — which had no door — was a hole.

Yep. A thunderbox with no door. Opening onto a laneway.

No. Just NO.

Sigh.

After our shower, we found a shop with bananas! And then a cafe latte! With our clean hair, banana and coffee, we were pretty happy by the time we got back to camp.

Evening – Day 4 (Tuul River)

After leaving camp, we rode for a while before stopping at a roadside bazaar. (We were asked if we wanted to detour to see a camel. I was ambivalent.) In the end I was glad we went, because, camel aside, the roadside attraction had eagles!

Day 4 - roadside eagles

Day 4 – roadside eagles (L-R black vulture, golden eagle, white tailed eagle, black vulture)

There were a golden eagle (Mongolian hunting bird, approx 8kg), a white-tailed eagle (Mongolian fishing bird, 7kg) and two black vultures (Mongolia’s largest bird, 15 and 20kg respectively). For a modest fee, we could hold the golden eagle — the most beautiful bird, soft feathers. Amazing. (Yes, it was all a bit tacky, and I wasn’t comfortable seeing these glorious raptors tethered on posts at the side of a main road; but how else to get that close?)

Day 4 - Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

Day 4 – Me with a golden eagle. Gorgeous.

The other thing that happened this afternoon involved Ganaa going off in the car with David to “get products for dinner”, leaving Burmaa (our fairly novice guide) leading Ganaa’s horse. Our instructions were to “keep following the road until we catch up”, which we did until we reached a point (a town and a river) at which we had to stop and wait. And wait… And wait.

Day 4 - while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

Day 4 – while waiting, we took photos! This is me with my horse.

It was a bit uncomfortable, because they’d left Burmaa without a phone and we were waiting for at least half an hour, probably longer. They eventually turned up in the car at around 7 or 8pm, having had their own showers back at Nalaikh. Fortunately our current campsite was nearby. It’s on the side of a hill overlooking the Tuul River, which winds its way through the steps towards UB.

For dinner we had the most delicious thing — a fried noodle dish with spices called tsuiwan. Easily my favourite dish here so far. The sunset tonight was beautiful to match the dawn.

Day 4 - camp above the Tuul River

Day 4 – camp above the Tuul River

As a side note, the steppes are littered with rubbish (broken glass, plastic bags) and bones. We’ve seen many horse skulls and the skulls of other animals, plus severed limbs and heads. In fact, there’s a dead foal on the hillside not too far from our camp. That’s the natural cycle of life, I guess.


In the next post we ford a river and head towards Terelj National Park…

Mongolia Journal ~ 2 Into the steppes

I’ve finally got my act together and have started blogging edited extracts (and PHOTOS) from my Mongolia travel journal. If you missed the first post, it’s here — First Impressions.

This post covers the commencement of our two-week horse-riding expedition. Owing to the nature of journals, events are not necessarily presented in sequential order, so I’ll include the ‘day 1’ etc references for the days of the trek.


25 June 2015

Stepperiders camp

Morning, 8am. Hot sun climbing in the sky. Horses roaming free around the site, grazing, snorting, whuffing contentedly. We’ve just watched mother cat stalk, kill and eat a ground squirrel. She brought it over (still wriggling) near to the shelter we’re sitting in, before she bit its skull and then proceeded to munch her way through the entire animal head to tail. It took her about 5 minutes. Now she’s back at the stalking.

The horses here just roam free when they’re not being ridden, mares with foals among them. Currently a whole herd is grazing around and through the camp — frantic munching and snorting and occasional biffo. They are such beautiful colours. We’re going to watch them get rounded up this morning, among them the ones we’ll ride for the next two weeks. Only the geldings are ridden, but Stepperiders has three stallions, each of which has his own herd. Today, they are rounding up the geldings from the ‘Palomino’s’ herd…

(Later) They rounded up the horses, with one rider first driving them down the hill towards the camp (amazing to watch him ride), and then along a valley into a rickety corral. Because the horses are half wild, they lassoed the horses they wanted, bridled them, then led them to the shed for saddling. This all took rather a while, and it was about midday by the time all the horses were saddled.

stepperiders_roundinghorses

Rounding up the herd

stepperiders_horsecorral

Selecting the riding horses

Meanwhile, mother cat caught another ground squirrel and gave it to her babies. So cute (and slightly disgusting) to watch kittens gnaw on a dead rodent.

26 June 2015

Lunch stop – Day 2

Too exhausted to write last night, but what a day! The first of our horse trek. We didn’t leave the Stepperiders camp until almost 1pm, but eventually we got away and rode out onto the steppes. I am riding a dark brown horse with a white star and two clipped ears. He seems to have a lot of gas, so we’ve been calling him ‘Sir Gasalot’. (The Mongolians do not name their horses; they refer to them by their colour and markings only.)

My horse, Sir Placid

My horse

It’s just me and Kirstyn on our expedition, accompanied by a guide (Borma), a horsewoman (Gana), and a driver (David), who appeared at camp last night and brought us lunch just now. We’re a little overwhelmed at having three Stepperiders staff for just two of us — they wouldn’t let us help with setting up camp last night, although we did dismantle our tent this morning. Right now, we are sitting down relaxing, while our three attendants cook us lunch. We already requested hot water for coffee (which we have) and I think they probably consider us crazy Westerners. We feel so spoilt.

Back to yesterday: We set off late, but stopped for a quick lunch of sandwiches about an hour later. Then we rode for about four more hours, winding through hills and valleys, into Bogd Khan National Park. Along the way, Gana sang us a wonderful local song (in Mongolian) about a mare and her foal. It was really hot, the sun relentless. I wasn’t sure my sunscreen was going to hold up, but I don’t appear to be burnt. (I’m really glad I brought a couple of light long-sleeved shirts.)

Day 1 lunch stop

Day 1 lunch stop

We stayed mostly at a walk, although towards the end of the ride got the horses up to a canter. Bogd Khan National Park is forested, so we were able to relax in shade while waiting for our support vehicle to bring water and dinner — by which time it was apparently 7pm. It didn’t feel that late, because it’s high summer here and it doesn’t get dark until around 10pm. I have to confess I was absolutely exhausted and, aside from an easy walk around the camp, didn’t do much for the rest of the evening.

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Day 1 campsite, Bogd Khan NP

Evening – Day 2

It’s night, and we’re in our tent at the end of day 2, listening to the wind howl. This camp is in a saddle, where there’s a stand of rocks and pines and scrub (meaning: plenty of cover for outdoor toileting). It’s pristine and the view is amazing. We got in late again, set up camp (we were allowed to help put up our tent this time), then sat with a coffee while dinner was cooked. After dinner, it turned out to be 9pm! I couldn’t believe it was so late. But we still had time to climb up to the top of a nearby hill to appreciate the view over the steppes.

Day 2 View over campsite

Day 2 View over campsite (dusk)

I love camping with horses. They are hobbled and tethered together in pairs, just beyond the pines we’re camped in. They have plenty of grass to graze upon and despite the howling wind, they seem pretty happy.

Back to this morning… We started late again. I have no idea what time it was, but maybe around midday. I think we probably had breakfast around 10am. We have come up with the concept of Mongolian time, which comprises very slow mornings and late finishes — not what I expected at all. Means we may find ourselves utilising mornings for exploration. Likewise, our lunch stop today was long and leisurely, while they cooked a full meal (some rice thing). I honestly don’t know where the time is disappearing to. But we like it! It’s very pleasant just sitting on the steppes, enjoying the view and the sounds and the smells.

mongolian-time

Anyway, first up this ‘morning’ was a short ride to a nearby Buddhist monastery in Bogd Khan National Park. A visitors centre houses a collection of stuffed animals that can be found on the mountain — including bears, wild boar and pole cats. We also discovered that the ‘hawk’ we’ve been seeing is some sort of kite. Beautiful. The monastery, which was destroyed by Russian communists in 1937, was very picturesque.

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

Day 2 Bogd Khan NP monastery

The post-lunch ride took us through the steppes, including up and down some hills. We watered the horses in a valley where there was an actual watering station, and where other ‘wild’ horses and other animals were drinking too. Afterwards we moved a bit faster — the horses even galloped. I had never galloped before, so this was exciting.

Day 2 watering station

Day 2 watering station


This post covers Days 1-2 of our two-week horse-riding adventure in Mongolia. I’m on a roll now…

Mongolia journal ~ 1 First impressions

It’s over a year since my Mongolian adventure, and I haven’t got near all the blog posts I was going to write. Thank goodness I kept a daily journal, or I’d have forgotten so much already.

I always intended to write themed posts about my experiences, rather than simply transcribing my journal. But… I’ve left it too long now, so my journal is what you get. It’s not verbatim, though. I’m cutting out the boring bits and re-interpreting a few things based on later experiences. I’m focusing on my reflections of the Mongolian horses and culture and horses and landscape and… did I mention horses? (Also, in some cases, kittens…)

It’s also giving me an excuse to finally go through my photos. Some I have already used in earlier posts, but I think many will be shown here for the first time.

So here we go!


Ulaan Baatar, 23 June 2015

Arrived Ulaan Baatar late morning and were whisked away to our hotel by a driver. The journey from the airport was fascinating. The architecture is blocky (mostly) and exists in pockets of conformity and multicoloured madness. Everywhere is badly maintained — cracked concrete, abandoned buildings, scraggly weed-infested gardens, faded and jumbled every which way — but quite clean, as in devoid of litter. Today was overcast and dusty and (when the wind picked up) thick with fluffy plant seeds.

We spent a couple of hours this afternoon walking around the city — there’s not much English, and things are hard to find, but the mix of architecture is interesting. The traffic is mad and, like in so many Asian cities, crossing the road is terrifying. I braved one of the non-traffic-lit pedestrian crossings… and survived.

I can’t wait to get out of the city and onto the Steppes. As the plane flew in, the view of the crumpled landscape was amazing. It’s really NOT flat. The drive from the airport also gave us a glimpse of the undulations at the edge of the city. I’m so excited to get out into the wilderness and experience the landscape properly! I think I’ll gain just as much insight about that as horses (to inform my writing) from this trip.

We have internet here in our hotel, but otherwise my phone is in flight mode. For the next two weeks, we won’t have any internet at all. Nor will we be able to charge our camera batteries, so we’re going to have to be conservative. It’s going to be interesting!

Steppe Riders camp, 24 June 2015

It’s after 7pm with such bright sunlight that it feels like the middle of the afternoon. We’ve had a relaxing day at the Steppe Riders camp, after being picked up from our hotel at 10am. The camp consists of several permanent gers, including one central common/dining ger, where we were greeted with traditional Mongolian tea. This is milk with rice and salt and bits of dried meat… one eats it with a spoon… very odd, but edible. Then we had hot tea.

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

We were left to our own devices for several hours, while they prepared a ger for us to sleep in and awaited the return of another riding party. We loitered in these gorgeous surroundings — rolling treeless hills, dotted with gers in the many valleys. The hilliness of this part of Mongolia has surprised me. The ground is also rocky in parts, and the grass is very short. Kirstyn and I walked up to the top of one of the hills to see the view — more hills and gers, also cows, horses, sheep, and many falcons hovering above the steppes.

Lunch was served at around 3pm (!) when the riding group returned. It consisted of fried pastry parcels (either filled with meat or vegetables) known as “hoosh” with salad (“gatherings”).

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

This afternoon, we went on a “training” ride for around 2.5 hours. I was a bit nervous to start with, and suddenly it was borne upon me what a big deal this is. Horse riding for 14 days! (OMG) Riding here is a bit different. The command for go is “chu” and the command for stop is “osh”. The horses are quite small and hardy, with a really smooth trot.

We rode in a loop out from the Stepperiders camp, stopping halfway for a visit to a neighbouring ger, where we tried fermented mare’s milk (“airag”). It’s only just become available as they start to wean the foals. I’m not sure I like it too much; it’s like a mix of yogurt and beer. Not really my thing, but pleased to have tried it. They keep it inside a massive open leather bladder hanging on the inside wall of the ger.

While riding, I tried the Mongolian way of trotting a few times, which involves standing up in the stirrups, instead of rising to the trot. It’s quite fun actually, and by the end of the ride I was feeling much more confident in general.

The sleeping ger we have been allocated is also home to a mother cat and four kittens! They are so cute. The mother cat is still suckling the babies, which seem to live in a pipe under one of the beds. There are five beds in here, but so far Kirstyn and I are the only inhabitants (along with the cats). This is a good thing, because we’ve just spent an hour (and all the available beds) re-packing our bags for tomorrow…

IMG_2717 kittens

The cuteness!


That’s all for now. I’ll try to keep the Mongolia journal posts coming every month or so. To see the earlier posts about the trip (and there were a few) click on the Mongolia tag.

Travelling in the 90s: Venerable Rome

It’s been a year since I posted the last extract from my 1993-1994 travel journal for the Travelling in the 90s series. I’ve been distracted. But there’s only a couple of weeks of Italy to go on the entire trip, so I’m going to focus on getting to the end.

Our last stop was Florence — a bit of a disappointment in gloomy February. Will Rome be an improvement? (Oh, yes, I think it will!)


[Thursday 15 February, 1994] We took a train to Siena this afternoon, but upon arriving discovered that the train station was at the bottom of the hill (mountain) upon which the town perched. We tried to ring a hotel and got someone who only spoke Italian. Then we tried to catch a bus (up the mountain) but couldn’t work out how to get tickets.

Then we both had a tantrum, and in a fit of pique decided to trash Siena and Go Rome!

So we jumped back on the next train to Rome. When we got there we didn’t see any pickpockets (I have to admit to being paranoid) and were taken by a scout to Soggiorno “Vichi”, which is where we are now. However, there are not many blankets on the beds, and the shower is only so-so, so I’m not sure whether we’ll stay for the nine nights we have left. In the meantime, Rome awaits — I can’t wait to see some of it tomorrow!

[Wednesday 16 February, 1994] Today, we basically explored Rome. Our LP guide book gave a suggested route, which we more or less followed, and which included many of the major piazzas and monuments. Rome has so many of these that there is no possible way to see them all in one day.

We’re staying in a not-so-interesting area near the train station, but it’s certainly convenient as far as carrying packs goes. It means that we have to walk somewhere to get into the atmosphere of Rome. Initial impressions include smog, crazy driving, enormous, and the incredible number of piazzas — small or large squares, often with fountains in them.

There is the fountain in the piazza del Spagna (near the Spanish Steps, which are all uneven and higgledy piggledy); the famous and beautiful Trevvi Fountain (which was by far the cleanest thing we saw today — sparkling white); the fountains in the piazza del Navona (the central and main one is called “The Four Rivers” and in fun we named them Tiber, Arno, Rubicon and Grand Canal); and fountains in the piazza Farnese (two old bath tubs). We threw coins in the Trevvi Fountain (as one must) and also I believe in some others along the way.

Another feature of Rome is obelisks!

It was a great day. I really enjoy wandering around a city and just soaking up the atmosphere — Rome doesn’t hit you the way Paris or Venice do, but respect and wonder kind of seep in. It’s a GRAND old city and reminds me (in a literary fling) of a crusty old grandfather, who has seen so much of life that now everything is taken in his stride. Age and position command respect!

Our route today included the major sights of the Spanish Steps, Trevvi Fountain and the Pantheon. This last is an amazing piece of architecture — a huge dome with a hole in the top. The inside is mostly Christian, having been consecrated to the faith in 609BC. It was originally dedicated to all the Roman gods.

pantheon

Pantheon, Rome

The Campo de Fiori was very un-bustling — I guess you have to catch it in the morning. And the via Vittorio Veneto is absolutely DEAD in the morning! We went through a pedestrian subway between via Veneto and piazza del Spagna which must have been half a kilometre long. We also walked for quite a while along the Tiber — it’s pretty, but seems almost forgotten. The grass is overgrown, and I got the impression that traffic zips over the bridges without even noticing that there’s a river there at all. Poor river.

Tiber River, Rome

Tiber River, Rome

There is so much more of Rome to see! More piazzas, heaps of churches, ruins, museums, not to mention the Vatican. Rome has so many layers. Venerable City!

Tonight we solved the dilemma of whether or not we should use our kettle (which MUST BE EARTHED) on the Italian sockets. For the operation we donned rubber-soled shoes and flicked the switch with a plastic spoon. It worked and boiled water twice without electrocuting us! But we shall continue to be careful…

[Thursday 17 February, 1994] It’s incredible to think that it’s only a week until we leave for home. Today I amazingly woke up with the 8:30 alarm, and actually got out of bed into the freezing cold morning. H was about half an hour behind me.

We went to the ancient sector of Rome today — the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine hill. The Colosseum turned out to be free for the first level, which suited us. A ruined stadium looks much the same from all levels.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Next we went to the Forum which reminded me a bit of Ancient Corinth. It was a mess of ruined temples and basilicas — we were taken aback at how disorganised it was. We were forced to buy a guide book in order to discover what everything was. However, the book proved to be really good value with lots of interesting and useful facts.

There is not much left standing in the Forum. The Temple of Saturn has about six pillars, Castor and Pollux three, and Vesta three. The Temple of Antoninius and Faustina has about eight as well as a Christian basilica built in the centre. There were also temples to Julius Caesar, Venus and Rome, Romulus, and an interesting one to Apollo on the top of the Palatine Hill.

Ancient Forum, Rome

Ancient Forum, Rome

The guide book also covered the ruins on the Palatine hill, which consisted mainly of palaces and houses. The architecture of these buildings is really amazing. The Romans seemed to mainly build with flat bricks, so as a result the ruins look less ancient than ruins in Greece. They also tend to be covered in green vines, blending into the side of the hill. It was a very enjoyable day. We had a picnic lunch beside the temple of Venus and Rome with a view of the Colosseum.


I really really must go back to Rome. It was one of my favourite cities on this trip. There’s still more to come from Rome, but next post will be a side trip to Naples and Pompeii. More amazement!

(As usual, terrible photo reproduction… adds to the experience!)

If anyone has memorable travel experiences of Rome I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Travelling in the 90s: Florence is freezing

Meanwhile, at the tail end of my 1993-1994 adventures, we’re in Italy. Having just experienced the Carnival of Venice, we’re now en route to Firenze.

Welcome to Travelling in the 90s


[Saturday 12 February, 1994] It took over three hours on the train to reach Florence, through lovely rolling hills with villages nestled in the valleys. An accommodation scout brought us to the funniest little place — the kitchen and bathroom appear to be those also used by the family (or whoever lives here), but at the same time there are seven or eight rooms. It’s on the top of a four storey building with three other similar hotels in it. Our room is very comfortable with two beds, heater that works, table and two chairs, with lots of space.

[Sunday 13 February, 1994] Today was our introduction to Florence, and it was not a particularly auspicious beginning. Personally I find Florence rather dull and depressing. This may have something to do with the fact that, being Sunday, all the shops were closed. But what city’s museums are only open until 1:00pm? Just what is one supposed to do after that time?

Of course Florence has other attractions (such as the Uffizi Gallery) that are open until later during the week (just not Sundays)… HOWEVER, absolutely nothing is open on Mondays.

We didn’t pick very good days to come to Florence, I’m afraid.

Admittedly we started off badly, missing the 8:30 alarm and surfacing at around 10:00. This resulted in a hasty departure by 10:30 without breakfast and coffee. We went to the Pitti Palace, which houses about 8 museums and adjoins the Renaissance Boboli Gardens.

florence rooftopsWe chose to see the galleria del costume, which proved to be extremely interesting, as apart from various dresses of different periods, it exhibited reconstructed garments of the Medicci family. This included an account (in English) of how they reconstructed all the pieces — fascinating. We then wandered around (up and down) the Boboli Gardens for a while, viewing the red rooftops of Florence from a number of vantage points.

After the Boboli Gardens it was 1:00pm, so of course nothing more was open except for the Duomo (free). So while on the south side of the Arno River we checked out the “piazza de Michaelangelo”, named for the huge copy of David in the midst of a carpark on top of a hill (which we felt compelled to climb) offering a lovely view of Florence.

florence country wallBy this time we were starving and it was at about at this point (2:00pm) that disgust with Florence seeped in. Surely there must be a market for relatively cheap food in Florence? All we could find were heaps of cafes with table service etc… We wandered around for about an hour, until we finally found a snack bar just around the corner from our lodging, and ate heartily and wholesomely within the warm cocoon of the cafe.

I should mention here that today was FREEZING. The wind was bitter.

florence duomoAfter lunch we of course came across three other snack bars — that’s how it goes. We then wandered into the Duomo — all rather impressive on the outside with its pink/white/green marble facade, but typically churchy and almost dull on the inside.

Thoroughly freezing, tired, grumpy and bored, we got lost on the way back to our hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon in bed with books. Our “home”-cooked dinner of spag-bol was delish, and there’s enough for tomorrow night as well. yum yum.

[Tuesday 15 February, 1994] Yesterday we had lots of fun. Since Florence is dead on Mondays we went shopping — although it turned out that the only reason the market itself was open on a Monday was because it happened to be Valentines Day. In any case, we wandered around in the freezing cold, trying on leather jackets. I was after a brown-ish suede blazer-style jacket — and the first one was gorgeous! But I could hardly buy the first I tried on. Even though the man seemed very concerned that we understood he had NOT doubled the price of the jackets just so that he could halve them. Hmmm.

One guy at one of the stalls said: “Australian? You’re looking for something in brown suede.” I stared at him blankly until he said that all Australians wanted brown suede. Very amusing.

Eventually H tried on one she liked, then they finally brought out one I liked, and offered us a good deal for two. I checked the seams and the leather and the button-holes and the way it hung, and was satisfied. It’s impossible to say whether we got a good deal or not, but I don’t think we were ripped off. We are both feeling very pleased with ourselves.

florence fountainThis morning we went to the Uffizi Gallery. I had been especially looking forward to this because Florence is supposed to be the art capital of the world. When we got there at about 10:00am we waited in a 20 minute queue and it cost about aus$10.

We were disappointed to discover that owing to the bombing a while ago, only the top floor of the gallery was open. This took all of an hour and a half to see. They showed us some of the paintings that had been restored after the bomb, but most of what we saw were marble busts and statues, and paintings of the Madonna and Bambino or the holy family — too much of the latter gets rather tedious.

Nevertheless, we DID see the Botticelli room which was fantastic, brilliant, marvellous. I’ve decided I’m a big Botticelli fan. I crashed an English art history class and learnt about the “style” of his “Annunciation” compared with Leonardo’s — fascinating. I also saw “Birth of Venus”, “Allegory to Spring” and various others — a whole room devoted to him! Unfortunately only one Titian and a Michelangelo. Very sad.


Ah yes, methinks I need to go back to Florence in nicer weather, because I know so many people who love it and I just… didn’t.

Please share your Florence stories in the comments, happy or sad.

(Always apologies about the crummy photos from back then.)

Travelling in the 90s: The Carnival of Venice

We’re into the final two weeks of our 1993-1994 (Travelling in the 90s) adventure (back when I was a true natural blond — check out the photo). Venice was our first stop in Italy and undoubtedly one of the highlights. I can’t tell you how many exclamation marks I had to remove from the following extract from my original travel diary.

By complete serendipitous coincidence, we landed in Venice smack bang in the middle of Carnival. Oh. My. God.


[Friday 11 February, 1994] Well, today was Venice. There is simply no other way — no way at all — to describe it. Venice is the most beautiful city I have ever seen.

The overnight train from Nice got in just after 9:00am. A guy in our cabin informed us that Venice was in carnival and that all the rooms would be booked… Naturally we became rather apprehensive about accommodation, because we’d had no idea. Thus when we jumped off the train and were offered a double room for one night only in a small pension for 70,000 lira (~$70) we took it straight away.

Thank heavens we did too, for I’d not have missed the Venice carnival for the world — and it transpired that the pension was quite close to Piazza San Marco and the very hub of the carnival.

There are so many things to describe about today. The man at the station put us on a vaporetto with directions, and we sat in the very front of the boat. Thus Venice was first introduced to us as we glided down the Grand Canal on a sunny blue morning.

Venice - Grand Canal

Venice – Grand Canal

It is one of the most magical things I have ever experienced — my heart was singing.

Now that sounds so corny, but I was so uplifted that I cannot describe it any better. The city is beautiful (I repeat myself!). The buildings are very old and often in severe disrepair, but there is something about water which makes everything beautiful. I can only hope that some of the many photos taken today can do the place justice. Today, Paris fades into nothing.

We found our hotel easily enough and deposited our bags, then we went out to explore. How lucky we are to have chosen now to come to Venice, because the carnival is the most amazing thing!

The basis of it appears to be costume — and in fact one of the first things that struck us about Venice was that every second shop was entirely devoted to masks. There are thousands of them, literally. And of all sorts: painted porcelain, leather, papier mache, sequin-covered, all sorts of interesting fabrics etc. Any possible conceivable mask could be found in Venice somewhere.

Venice - Masks

Venice – Masks

The costumes worn by people throughout the city (but mainly around the Piazza San Marco) were also extremely elaborate. Many of them appeared to be concoctions of tulle, rich fabrics, sequins — set off with plain white masks. But there were also Renaissance figures, medieval figures, young D’Artagnons, richly-dressed ladies of the past etc. Anything was conceivable.

The Piazza SM was very crowded, consisting mainly of huddles of people frantically taking photos of costumed figures, who seemed to spend all day walking a few paces and then stopping to pose serenely for at least ten minutes.

Venice costumes

Venice – Carnival costumes

Aside from those glorious costumes, there was street entertainment — mainly music by bands from all over Europe (it seemed). One German band played medieval-style music while dancing around and being generally silly. We spent quite a bit of time wandering through the crowds, admiring costumes, listening to music and absorbing atmosphere.

Venice gondolaWe also wandered around the ‘streets’ of Venice, which consisted entirely of pedestrians and bridges over the canals. We were waylaid by a Gondolier at one stage, and succumbed to a 40 minute gondola ride. (Well, it has to be done doesn’t it?) We also had the privilege of training a new gondolier — he needs a bit more practice! In any case, we thoroughly enjoyed our gondola ride — the near-silent lapping of the waters against the side and the dip of the oar in the water, as we glided through some of the smaller canals.

Afterwards, we found and photographed the Bridge of Sighs. By this time we were so starving that we blew our food budget on dinner. I had pizza, H pasta — with bread and water. Hmmm. Tomorrow it will be bread and cheese again!

Venice canal[Saturday 12 February, 1994] We got up at 8:30am (how funny that now we’re on the road we can do so easily!) and packed and left. For breakfast we had yoghurt and banana on the banks of the Grand Canal, while further costumed merrymakers passed us by. It was all rather lovely.

We then caught the number one vaporetto to the train station, where we booked a train ride to Firenze (Florence) and deposited our packs in the luggage store. We then set about finding souvenirs — for Venice hit us hard and we will never be the same again. Venice has DEFINED the word ‘masquerade’ for me, and that is how I will always remember it.

We were distracted from our battle with the scores of Saturday tourists who had flocked to the carnival, by a group of four English actors performing in comic style a version of Richard III in four (4) languages (English, German, French and Italian). They really were hysterical and very clever. Lunch took place on the steps of the station, and then we took the train to Florence.


Okaaay, so I was just a little bit excited… Next stop in 1994 is Florence, where we are considerably more subdued.

Travelling in the 90s: Provence (in the steps of Madam, will you Talk?)

Flights have been booked today for my next overseas adventure — Huzzah! All will be revealed in time; but in the short term I’m going to focus on wrapping up the Travelling in the 90s series. There’s not too much more of my 20-something year old ramblings to go.

So today it’s back to 1994 France, when $4 coffees seemed like a king’s ransom and there was no such thing as a smart phone. Or maybe even the internet…


[Wednesday 9 February, 1994] Tuesday we left Paris and caught the train to Avignon. We were very fortunate to be on a TGV train which went extremely fast — to Avignon in less than four hours. We arrived mid-afternoon and trudged like laden pack-horses through the centre of town to the youth hostel via the tourist information centre.

Avignon is totally gorgeous. It’s walled all around and has lots of tiny cobbled streets with real “provincial” shops. (How else can I describe them?)

The hostel was not too far, although outside the walls and across the river Rhone. As we stomped across the bridge, the wind (Mistral) was rather vicious — but we prevailed, and caught a magnificent view of the “Pont d’Avignon” (Pont St Benezet) of the well-known song.

avignon1

Avignon – Pont St Benezet and Palais des Papes

The hostel is right on the banks of the river, providing fantastic views of the bridge, the “Rocher des Dames” (hill), Notre des Dames (cathedral), and the Palais de Papes (Palace of the Popes). It’s rather basic, although reasonably new. The management crammed us into a tiny room with four Canadians, leaving the rest of the place (huge) empty! We were not particularly impressed. Nevertheless, it is a place to sleep, reasonably priced, and could be a lot worse (memories of Patras).

When we got to the hostel at around 3pm it was absolutely deserted, so we dumped our packs under some stairs, had a cup of coffee, and then set off the explore for a few hours.

Avignon - Palais des Papes

Avignon – Palais des Papes

We started walking along the river, and ended up visiting the Palais des Papes. This is an enormous building, totally unfurnished, except for a few frescoes and tapestries — but the architecture was fascinating. Besides, I rather enjoy a good echoing hall! And of halls there were heaps. What would a pope do with so many halls I wonder? I loved the place.

We then set off the find the gardens referred to in Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart, which I am currently reading. After a bit of perplexion, it turned out that these were in fact Rocher des Dames — a hill on top of which is a sort of park area. The wind was very wild up there.

We then wandered back to the hostel, passing underneath Pont St Benezet. We found our packs, booked a room (which turned out to have four sleeping Canadians in it) and then had more coffee — oh I love our travel kettle!

Today we went to Nimes (a la Madam, will you talk?) — 30 minutes on the train from Avignon. Nimes is lovely too — quite similar to Avignon but substantially larger.

We walked around — past the Roman amphitheatre and up towards the Temple of Diana, which is part of le Jardins de Fontaine. This consists of Roman style water pools and arches (and statues), behind which is a large hill covered with gardens. On the top is a tower from which the view is said to be superb. (We wouldn’t know, because we couldn’t enter it without breaking locks.)

Nimes - Temple of Diana

Nimes – Temple of Diana

The Temple of Diana proved difficult to find — probably because I was expecting something grand. So when we finally found the forlorn, lonely little ruin I was surprised. It consisted of nothing more than half an arched roof filled with vines and ivy-covered trees.

On our way back towards the station, we stopped at the amphitheatre. The view from the top tiers was pretty good — although the canvas canopy to protect bull-fighting spectators marred it a bit. The construction was very similar to the Roman Colosseum, although smaller I think, and in better repair.

We foolishly caught the bus back to Avignon which took 1.5 hours, and reminded me considerably of the Delphi-Patras bus ride, as it took us into every little nook and cranny of every village of the region. (Perhaps I’m exaggerating.) This evening we booked our tickets to Venice on the overnight train for tomorrow. Then we went out with the Canadian girls to the Koala Bar in Avignon — run by Australians, but full of Americans!

[Thursday 10 February, 1994] This morning we slept in. We got away about 11:30am and made for le gare, where we deposited our packs in a locker for the afternoon. We decided not to do too much, so had a quiet afternoon sampling chocolate crepes and sidewalk coffees.

Avignon has a square (no cars) with heaps of tables and chairs out in the sun. It was a beautiful day, with blue sky, few clouds and almost no wind. (That Mistral can be quite bitter.) So we indulged ourselves by using up all our spare French cash on yummy French food.

(The food in France seems to be markedly superior to anywhere. Chocolate crepes are simply to die for, and the BREAD… I have actually been looking forward every day to bread with ham or cheese and tomato for lunch. It’s delicious!)

The crepes were of course tres superbe, and the sidewalk coffee was bliss. Even though it cost about AU$4 it was divine.

Train station - writing postcards

Train station – writing postcards

We are now on the train to Nice, where we expect to arrive some time after 8pm. We’ll then have around 3 hours to kill before catching our overnight train to Venice…

… Well, we utilised the first 1.5 hours in Nice very well, but unfortunately the station lockers closed at 10pm so we had to go back. Very upsetting.

Somehow, by shear fluke, we managed to crash the Nice festival!

It was the first night apparently, beginning with an enormous procession of floats, bands, children in costume, clowns — all throwing confetti and making “music”. It looked as though the children were in school class groups, and had been labouring for weeks on their costumes. People were running up and down the street with cans of spray-streamers (and tried more than once to sell such cans to us). The atmosphere was amazing — so much music, light and colour. Everyone was dancing and laughing.

nice carnival

Nice – Festival!

The procession ended in a big square entirely outlined (and walled) in coloured lights, where scaffold-seating housed a large crowd. The whole thing was incredible. We hung around a while, soaking in atmosphere, but then our time ran out and we had to go back to the station to retrieve our packs. Right now we are sitting morosely in the station, waiting for the train to take us to Italy.

Only two weeks to go.


Next stop in 1994 is the amazing city of Venice, where we somehow (completely by accident) managed to crash the famous Carnivale. That’s something to look forward to.

Next stop for me in 2015 is… Mongolia! More details later. One thing I can promise is better photos.