travel

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…

Hiking the Three Capes Track

tct2_munroellenSo, I went hiking a couple of weeks ago. (Yep.) And, despite apprehension about my general fitness, I survived four days of schlepping around the Tasman Peninsula with only a few blisters and a mild case of sunburn.

(I did wonder a few times — muscles burning, lungs wheezing — what the hell I was doing, but that’s enough said about that.)

The Three Capes Track in Tasmania is one of those new hiking ‘experiences’, where you pay some money for the privilege of using a well-constructed track and staying in beautiful new eco huts with kitchen facilities, dorm beds, and other, er, facilities. (Let’s just say, this was a far cry from toileting Mongolian style… They might have been long drop toilets, but there were stalls with doors and everything.)

It had been a while since I’d gone hiking. The last time I carried a full pack was January 1999 for Tasmania’s Overland Track. Then in around 2005 I spent eight days trekking in Nepal — but that time I had porters to carry my gear (thank the stars).

For the Three Capes Track we didn’t need to carry tents or stoves, but we did need to carry other gear and food — and we ate (and drank) extremely well — so it was kind of a halfway deal. I just gritted my teeth and told myself it was yet more research and, as I went up and down more steps than I cared to count, realised that Zillah (my kick-ass Dungeons and Dragons character) I am most definitely not…


Three Capes Track – Day 1

The first day is just 4km, starting from Denmans Cove near the historic Port Arthur site. We took the later scenic boat ride (sea eagles perched in the trees!) from Port Arthur, to arrive at the cove at around 3pm. We then took our time and climbed up through coastal forests to arrive at Surveyors Hut in time for a pre-dinner cup of tea.

The walk is somewhat up and down (and up) to the top of the cliff, but not difficult. It was a good length just to get me into the mood of carrying my pack. And the first sight of Surveyors Hut, as we came around a bend out of the bush, took my breath away. That thing is so huge! It’s beautifully designed, with broad decks and lots of space — not to mention a gorgeous view.

tct1_surveyors-hut

Surveyors Hut

That night we dined in impressive style, thanks to one of my hiking companions: chicken curry with rice, steamed greens and poppadoms. And red wine (decanted into a bladder for carrying). And brownies for dessert. As I said, we ate well!

Day 2

We began the second day in leisurely fashion, taking our breakfast (instant oats with dried blueberries and sweetened condensed milk) and coffee (one of my companions carried a stove-top espresso maker!) with easy conversation. It was so nice to hang out with fellow hikers. We headed off walking at about 10am.

The second day’s walk is 11km, undulating along clifftops towards Cape Pillar, including up and over Arthur’s Peak and Crescent Mountain. The views are staggering — back towards Cape Raoul and Crescent Bay, where dune-surfing takes place, and to Cape Pillar in the other direction.

We again took our time, stopping at each of the marked “Encounters” to read from the guide book about some aspect of history, or geology, or vegetation, or wildlife etc of the place we had stopped at. These encounters are one of the great aspects of the hike — and they are the thing that makes it an “experience”, rather than a simple hike. They are marked most often by some form of creatively designed bench seat, offering a good excuse to rest for a few moments.

More than that, though, the encounters really made us stop and look and think about where we were. They made me notice the changing vegetation and look out for things I might not have noticed otherwise. The little book containing all the information is a really fabulous initiative.

We arrived at Munro Hut late afternoon, and spent the hours leading up to dinner relaxing on the deck and admiring the view (see photo with me at the top). More wine that night, and some whisky I’d been carrying. Plus a Thai vegetable curry with tofu. And Lindor balls. Yum.

Day 3

Lots of good things about day 3 (17km) — including the fact that most of it involved leaving our packs at Munro Hut and taking day packs out to the tip of Cape Pillar, where there is a rocky feature known as The Blade.

You can see from the above photos that we had glorious weather — in fact, it was hot hot hot. Again, it’s not a difficult walk, although there is plenty of up and down (and steps). We clambered up to the tip of the Blade, which overlooks Tasman Island, just to say we’d done it, but the views are better from elsewhere. There’s a lighthouse on Tasman Island and a weather station. And seals frolic in the rockpools at its feet.

The Blade and Tasman Island

The Blade and Tasman Island

After the return trip from Cape Pillar, it took less than an hour carrying our packs to reach Retakunna Hut, which sprawls and nestles in a bushland setting. It’s serene and beautiful there. Finally it was time to eat the dinner food in my pack, and I was glad to get rid of the potato, carrots, snow peas and half a dozen fresh eggs I’d been carrying! This was combined with tuna and couscous and other bits and pieces to form a hiking version of nicoise salad.

Day 4

We rose early on Day 4 (dawn! I swear it’s true!), because although only 14km it’s actually the longest day from a time point of view and walkers need to be finished by a certain time to catch a bus back to Port Arthur at the end. We were on our way by 8am and reached the top of Mount Fortescue by 9am, once the morning drizzle cleared and before the clouds had burnt off.

Once the clouds did burn off, the day turned scorching hot. Day 4 is only 14km, but I admit to being generally fatigued by the final day (unfit, remember?) and this was the hardest day for me without doubt. It’s a gorgeous walk, though. The first climb of Mount Fortescue and its descent is through beautiful rainforest. Then we came out onto the clifftops on the other side, where the views are again stupendous. The geology of this part of the world is certainly striking.

tct4_cliffs

Towards the end of the walk, we all downed packs for a side trip to the tip of Cape Hauy. This was not really too far, but it was hot, I was tired, and there were steps. Steps up and steps down. More steps.

Steps.

And hot.

This was definitely the hardest section of the entire walk for me, most likely a combination of the heat and fatigue. But it was all over in a couple of hours, and then it was time for the final descent to Fortescue Bay, where the bus was picking us up at 4pm. We arrived by about 3pm, which gave us time to relax before getting transported back to Port Arthur.

3CT Map


Overall, the Three Capes Track was a fabulous experience and it was a privilege to see such a beautiful and remote part of the world. We did have some discussions about the model for the hike — the section from the start to Munro Hut can now only be done as part of the Three Capes Track Experience, meaning independent hikers are excluded. However, they can still get to the tip of Cape Pillar, and Cape Hauy is a day hike from Fortescue Bay.

I’m not sure I’m on board with excluding independent hikers, but I do feel that these facilities make it possible for a greater breadth of people to participate. It certainly suited me at this stage of my life. I absolutely love trekking and adventure, but I do not absolutely love carrying a full pack. Moreover, sleeping on memory foam mattresses certainly beats my old and very thin thermorest. (Interestingly, the most popular demographics for the Three Capes Track are 1) over 50s, 2) women, 3) families.)

It was fabulous to explore another corner of my country, but there are still many many walks around the world I want to do. Some of them wilderness hikes, others through more civilised areas. On my radar at the moment are: the Mont Blanc circuit in Europe, the Appalachian Trail in the USA, the South West Coast path in the UK (plus many others), and the pilgrims way through southern Europe.

Which one shall I do next?

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.

A day at the races, Mongolian Nadaam style…

It’s been hard to avoid horse racing in Melbourne this week. The Melbourne Cup carnival seems to get more hyped every year, and all week it’s been a frenzy of fashion, ridiculous weather and thoroughbreds.

I largely ignored proceedings (although I’m regretting that now, given the inaugural win of the main event by a female jockey; plus the name of the winning horse, Prince of Penzance, appeals to me). But it has struck me that now would be the ideal time to share my experiences of horse racing in Mongolia.

Horse racing in Mongolia. Where the field of a few hundred horses races for up to 27km and the jockeys are as young as 7 years old.

We were lucky enough to accidentally time our recent visit to Mongolia to coincide with the annual Nadaam festival. I will talk more about this in later posts, but basically it’s a traditional festival covering the “three manly sports” of Mongolian horse racing, Mongolian national wrestling and Mongolian national archery.

None of these events are anything like what you might imagine.

The wrestling and archery take place in stadiums within Ulaan Baatar (as well as villages and towns all over the country). The horse racing in UB takes place at a venue outside the city.

This is the story of our day at the horse races…


Our first challenge was finding a bus to take us to the venue — called Doloon Hudag. Armed with virtually zero information, we clambered through the maze of food vendors outside the main Nadaam stadium trying to find buses, and in the end gained assistance from the police/security detail. Even as we were sitting on the bus, we weren’t entirely confident it was taking us to the right place… but thankfully, after a 1h 15m journey, we arrived at our destination.

We still had a while before anything was scheduled to happen, so we wandered around the food vendors, essentially a village of “kitchen gers” offering various different types of national cuisine. Horses were being ridden everywhere and the place definitely had a carnival atmosphere. It was hot, with no shade. Our efforts at eating icecream were disappointing, with “3 scoops” Mongolian style equating to about half an Australian scoop. Hmph

kitchen ger city (my photo)

kitchen ger city at Doloon Hudag (my photo)

At about 2pm we headed to the bleachers, where a small crowd was starting to gather, to watch whatever was going to happen. The bleachers were lined up along one side of the track at the finish line. All the public announcements were in Mongolian.

We sat around for a while wondering what was going to happen (and when). Eventually, one rider came down bearing a flag, and this appeared to mark the start of the procession of horses and riders to the start line. For the next 60-90 minutes, riders streamed past in groups, heading away to a distant marshalling point.

nadaam-childrenriders_K

young riders head out (Kirstyn’s photo)

The horses and riders kept coming and coming and coming. Most of the riders were young kids, riding horses twice as big as themselves, many riding bareback. The sun was beating down on us and we felt rather sorry for the stoic security detail standing in lines beyond the fence.

nadaam-horsemarshalling_K

marshalling area (Kirstyn’s photo)

Once the last horses had (finally) reached the marshalling area, they all got going again and headed into the distance and out of sight.

There are six horse races during the three-day Nadaam festival, based on age:

Azarga (stallion) – 22-24 km
Ikh Nas (geldings over 5 years old) – 25-27km
Soyolon (5 year olds) – 22-24 km
Hyazaalan (4 year olds) – 18km
Shudlen (3 year olds) – 14-16 km
Daaga (2 year olds) – 10-12km

Tradition dictates that the race routes be long and straight to best test the character and stamina of the horses. There’s no need for navigation. They just let the horses run and run and run.

We were watching the Ikh Nas… the longest race of them all. At this point we were waiting for them to ride out 25-27km to the starting point of their race.

And so we waited. The minutes ticked past. The sun beat down. More and more people packed into the stands, a flock of multi-coloured sun umbrellas. 4pm still nothing…

At some point they made an announcement and a cheer went up. We got excited, thinking it meant the horses were in sight! Alas, all it meant was that the race had actually started. But that was progress, right?

More waiting, watching, wilting. A few times we contemplated leaving. Why would anyone choose to do this? Why would they bring kids? But we kept thinking we’ve waited this long, we had better just see it through.

Finally at 4:45pm the racers appeared as a distant cloud of dust on the horizon. (You have no idea how many “mirage” clouds of dust I’d been seeing!) And then we could actually see the poor horses sometime after that, all sweaty and exhausted, their young riders lashing them with ropes.

nadaam-horsesreturn_K

first horses return (Kirstyn’s photo)

Most cantered in, a few managed a gallop, one or two had dropped to a trot. Some looked about to drop and the whole thing made me want to weep. We knew from watching the stallion race that morning on TV that they’d been pretty much galloping the whole distance.

nadaam-horsesreturn

horses returning (my photo)

We decided we didn’t much like the horse racing component of Nadaam, and we got out of there pretty quickly, before all the horses (and there were at least a couple of hundred) even finished. There was a mad scramble for buses, and we eventually found ourselves back in the centre of the city.

The Mongolians, though, they love the horse racing. Here are some interesting factoids from the tourist brochure we picked up:

Star horses get titles, like “tumen eh” (leader of 10,000) for horses that have won Nadaams in the past. The best horses are “dayan tumen eh” (multiple leader of 10,000 horses) and “darhan tumen eh” (unbeatable leader of 10,000 horses).

There is a lot of ceremony involved with all the Nadaam events. The horses’ manes and tails are bundled with leather; the horse trainers wear traditional garb with fancy hats and carry ornate horse combs; some of the races warrant dawn send-off ceremonies; there’s apparently a special crowd call of “giin goo” or “guurii gurrii” as the riders come in…

Horse field dust is considered wonderful, almost sacred. So getting dusty and dirty at the races (pretty much guaranteed) is good luck. Getting the Soyolon dust on you is apparently best of all.

The first five horses to finish each race are each nabbed by one of five designated “horse collectors” hovering at the finish line. The five winning horses and riders win presidential awards and medals.

Thus ended our “day at the races” in Mongolia. Worth doing once for the experience, but I think I’d much rather be riding the horses across the steppes of Mongolia, than watching them race.

(Some photos by Kirstyn.)

The treacherous footpaths of Ulaan Bataar

Before I went to Mongolia, my aunt said to take a torch.

Well, doh! I’m camping… “No, not for the camping. For the footpaths in Ulaan Bataar. They’re really dangerous at night! You could hurt yourself.”

I thought, yeah, right. But, well…

Ulaan Bataar is many things. Well-maintained is not one of them.

We spent around a week in UB, much of which involved schlepping from one thing to another on foot. At first, the footpaths greeted us with smiles…

But as time went on, the truly treacherous nature of UB’s footpaths were fully revealed. The city overlords attempt to make them attractive urban conduits, but…

I think you’d call that a fail.

And then you see things like this in the middle of one of the biggest annual festivals… I believe this was to run power to one of the stalls out at the horse racing event during Nadaam. Across a busy thoroughfare.

ub_powercord

Yep, it definitely pays to be watching where you’re walking when pounding the UB pavements. Which is why this week’s WordPress photo challenge theme of Beneath Your Feet rather resonated with me today (and gave me another excuse to share another facet of Mongolia).

Some of these photos were taken by my travelling companion, Kirstyn McDermott.