Mongolia Part 2: Ulaan Baatar Routine, First Two Excursions

As opposed to my last update which memorialized a few of the people we met in Mongolia — not posthumously thankfully —, this entry focuses more specifically on how I spent my time during the three weeks or so in the country. I cover our “routine” in Ulaan Baatar as well as our first two excursions to the countryside, which I vastly preferred to the congestion, chaos and filth of the capitol city. While the period taking classes in the monastery was enjoyable, the days were long and arduous, filled with grueling class sessions. The room in the monastery we stayed in was beautifully decorated with gold and red color schemes, containing an elaborate altar at the far end and intricately constructed steel profiles of the Buddha affixed to the outside of each window. However, the benches we sat upon were little wider than two by fours, making the entire experience a bit uncomfortable even with a sweater folded underneath one’s rump. Outside of class, our days in “UB,” as we referred to it, were filled with adventures for food and drink; either at local restaurants or at the find-anything-there State Department Store (or SDS as we referred to it).

The Mongolian cuisine was quite delightful if one first got past the fact that it was heavy and often greasy, consisting largely of mutton-based dishes. Some of the traditional plates were the “bos,” or stuffed dumplings, hearty meat stews, “manto,” or steamed white bread, and who could forget the fermented mare’s milk and dried camel’s yogurt which nearly made me gag! (Perhaps the only food to ever illicit this response. Imagine the sourest milk on the planet in concentrated cube form). Strangely, looking back on it, many of the best dishes I had were from vegetarian restaurants. In a country with a nomadic pastoralist tradition of consuming massive quantities of meat and dairy, the vegan joints were all the rage within our group. Perhaps it was an escape from the heavy dark meat that every other chain or ma and pa-owned restaurant offered, but man, were those places good! Never would I have guessed what soy products and tofu could do mixed in with plenty of fresh vegetables, which were very hard to come by otherwise.

Our days in Ulaan Baatar were also full of lots of reading and writing, as we were assigned many chapters and outside handouts for our Introductory Buddhism course – not to mention the lengthy research project which spanned the entire time in UB and the China tour which followed. While I filled much of the time in UB with schoolwork, it was the extracurricular activities which were the most memorable. For example, in one entertaining outing, a group of four other Pac Rimmers and I visited the Museum of Natural History one afternoon, a laughter-filled adventure had at the expense of all the poorly translated display panels. On another occasion during a weekend night, over a dozen students went out to a local restaurant and afterwards migrated to the nearest Karaoke club where we sang and danced for two hours straight in a private room, all for under five dollars a person. Once we figured out how to use the darn controller, which was about 1 foot by 1 foot and all in Korean, things moved along pretty quickly. I will definitely remember dancing to RESPECT by Arethra, screaming my voice hoarse to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and being tickled by roughly five Pac Rimmers (the true number of attackers I will never know), who insisted on sitting on me, torturing me to the point of near-exhaustion and hyperventilation. Don’t ask how it happened, I don’t fully recall, but it was BAD! However, in spite of it, that was a very good night.

To change gears, while there were many great times had in the city, it was the Mongolian countryside which captured my senses and imagination. Before leaving the city I had little idea that the majority of the country was a gorgeous vast expanse filled with plains and mountains which seem to rise out of nowhere. At this point I should take time to briefly discuss our first two major outings, each requiring a bus ride of several hours. The first visit was to Khar Khorum, the ancient capital and the second to Tereli, the site of our beloved Abbott’s retreat center and temple, nestled in a beautiful mountain-crested valley. I greatly enjoyed both excursions due to the rare opportunities to explore mountain ranges by both hiking and rock climbing. One of the most memorable experiences of the entire journey thus far was a morning climb on the first full day spent outside of UB, after staying the night in a ger (or Yurt) camp. The trek up the small mountain, adjacent to the settlement, consisted of a challenging scramble and a climactic, almost cathartic, moment while summiting the granite peaks exactly as the sun rose up behind them. Needless to say, there are few occasions I would willingly get up around 6 am for (and it was still a struggle to get out of bed) but this one was entirely worth it!

I shouldn’t forget that the second trip, our visit to the Abbott’s monastery, yielded another great morning of solo climbing (3.5 hours to be exact, along with several situations which would have resulted in a quick death if not navigated cautiously and fortuitously). After trying several failed routes up the bowl-shaped ridge – which involved a lot of fence-jumping and steep climbing that left my hands a bit raw —I finally found a passable, yet still challenging way up the steep granite incline. It was only after bear-crawling up the outcroppings and clinging with my hands to a steep, narrow overhang that ran most of the way up this particular formation that I was able to keep my footing and make progress. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would make it down that final route either (well – safely at least), but I would find an alternate route once at the top. Thankfully, I stumbled across two classmates who were nearing the summit from another side canyon, which was far easier apparently. After joining with the two, a second wind hit me and we all made it as far as physically possile, reaching a false summit that, nonetheless, had a breathtaking view of the valley below. The way down was bumpy and footing was uncertain at times but it was much more enjoyable than it would have been alone!

Once at the bottom, the ecstasy of consuming massive amounts of traditional Mongolian barbecue afterwards cannot be adequately described using any words I know. I had a voracious appetite and there were large quantities of slow-roasted mutton on the bone, potatoes, and other vegetables… ‘nuff said. Oh yes, and I had the honor of helping to clean the pot too! I think there was a classic Peter-moment caught on tape while wearing my burr-covered blue sweatshirt, nose running from a combination of a head cold, a chilly morning, and a fine hot meal. I recall tearing sheep-meat off a long-bone with my teeth and grumbling something barbaric. It all just seemed to fit the scene too well!

Apart from the mountain-climbing adventures on the first two outings, there were many other memories, including private audiences with two Buddhist Abbotts and exploration of ancient monasteries and temples. Unfortunately, while the sessions with the Abbotts were marvelous, I have little to no idea what the significance of most of the contents of the monasteries was since the tour guides from Khar Khorum spoke butchered English. Although, luckily, I gathered sufficient material for my on-going academic project through lively discussions with our interpreters and special guests. Most memorable in my mind were the opportunities to: hold golden eagles for two dollars, GIANT birds; hear a traditional throat singing performance, a cross between humming, whistling, and gargling; see a contortionist act and cringe throughout most of it; and lastly, try some very good Mongolian vodka and some very, very bad Mongolian vodka.

On a side note, every supermarket in the country has an entire aisle devoted to vodka, virtually all named after their beloved Genghis Khan – known as Chinggis Khan to locals. As I learned, not all Chinggis vodkas are the same. Some are smooth as glass while others require 5-10 minutes for one’s taste-buds to recover no matter how creative the post-shot remedy (even pickles cannot offer a full antidote).

Vodka-sampling aside, some other priceless memories included going camel and horseback riding, wrestling with Mongolian cowboys, and having a home visit and question and answer session with a lifelong nomadic herder in his ger. In the process of each of these, I learned a lot about myself. First, I now know I don’t like riding camels, I’d rather take a horse. Camels are large, onerous and foul-smelling animals that are extremely stubborn, and no doubt hard to break. Second, I learned that I’d rather ride a Western horse with a Western saddle than a Mongolian mare. I was struck by the small stature of the equines (dinky ponies really) and unimpressed by the wooden buckets for saddles that left many of my companions with awkward bruises. Not to mention that the stirrups were so short that I couldn’t even properly extend my legs. Third, even though I was once a very good wrestler, I had a lot to learn in the Mongolian-style judo that was widely practiced throughout rural areas. I nearly held my own in the several matches I wrestled, but the different scoring-system and the sheer number of hours the rough herders left me at a disadvantage- aka I soundly lost my second bout. Fourth, wrestling outside on the hard ground will leave marks, such as bruised eyelids and scrapes on foreheads… But you should have seen the other guy!

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