May 28, 2014

Kharkhorum, Mongolia

Today marks the first day of a four-day tour around Mongolia. An adventure that will take myself and a fellow traveler, a Frenchman to be exact (I need to try to get him to say, “Ricky Bobby” – haha, I know, I’m stupid), to Kharkhorum, the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire, the Orkhon Waterfalls, and the “Mini Gobi”. We met are driver, a local who speaks no English, but who communicates with us through hand gestures, laughs, and grunts. Then we grabbed our packed bags, put them into an old Russian vehicle (a ‘YAZ’ – this is a Cyrillic acronym, so it’s pronounced “ooh-ahz”), and we were on our way . . .

To the supermarket. First we had to buy our water supplies, toilet paper, and whatever else we desired. Then we were off . . .

To a stall on the side of the road in Ulaanbaatar to fill the tires with air in preparation of our wondrous journey, which would finally begin . . .

After we filled the vehicle with diesel fuel . . . and the reserve tank. But after our visit to the gas station we would finally set out to our first stop, Kharkhorum . . .

But then the vehicle started to fill with smoke, a plastic wire was burning; so we pulled off to the edge of the asphalt and our driver corrected the problem all whilst maintaining a cheery disposition. We loaded back into the vehicle and finally started out on our journey . . . we really did this time.

One of the many detour signs due to "road construction" leading us on to a dirt trail.
One of the many detour signs due to “road construction” leading us on to a dirt trail.

To simply type that roads in Mongolia are in a state of disrepair would give a reader a false impression because I don’t think that statement, without amplifying information, would prepare any traveler for the crumbling roads we encountered. Our driver did his best to navigate between potholes, but it was a bumpy ride none the less; it’s a good thing there was padding on the roof in the inside of the vehicle, because we didn’t have seatbelts and had to try to anticipate which way our bodies would be thrown. Some portions of the road were blocked due to “construction”, and so we had to drive on dirt trails following the road, which usually provided us with a smoother ride than the hard road. This proved to be an interesting experience and at least the grand rolling hills and mountains of the Mongolian steppes gave us something to look at.

Typical outhouse found in rural Mongolia.
Typical outhouse found in rural Mongolia.

We stopped for lunch (egg, fried mutton patty, rice, mashed potatoes, and tea), which was quite tasty – thus far, I have enjoyed all the Mongolian food I ate. This stop also had a type of outhouse I had not yet encountered in my life: a wooden stall, with the center plank on the floor removed, with a deep hole under the entire structure; luckily I only had to piss this time, though I’m sure we’ll meet again under less pleasant circumstances Mr. Outhouse.

One of the horse racers we saw in the countryside.
One of the amateur horse racers we saw in the countryside.
Bactrian camels resting in the sand.
Bactrian camels resting in the sand.
An ovoo (Buddhist rock mound) in Mongolia.
An ovoo (Buddhist rock mound) in Mongolia.

We then continued west to Kharkhorum, stopping along the way to see various sites such as an amateur horse race with motorbikes following along, a shepherd with several Bactrian camels lying in an off road sand dune, and a Buddhist rock mound (an ovoo) with a pole in the middle and many blue ribbons tethered to it (I was told later that you are supposed to grab three pebbles, walk clockwise around the mound three times, dropping a pebble each time, all while contemplating whatever is on your mind).

Statue of phallus in Kharkhorum.
Statue of a phallus in Kharkhorum.

Finally, after about seven hours of driving 260 kilometers, we arrived at Kharkhorum. First we stopped at a statue of a phallus, again with many blue ribbons. As I approached the statue, I saw a woman circling it clockwise, rubbing her abdomen and hands on it, and praying. I imagine she must be praying to become pregnant, but sometimes the obvious deduction isn’t the correct one. We then went to our ger camp and unloaded our belongings.

Sketch of a Mongolian ger.
Sketch of a Mongolian ger.
One of the Turtle statues which once marked the boundaries of ancient Kharkhorum.
One of the turtle statues which once marked the boundaries of ancient Kharkhorum.

Since we had time to kill before dinner, we (the Frenchman an I) trekked up to the top of a nearby hill to look at a turtle statue (the turtle statues here marked the boundaries of the original city of Kharkhorum) and additional rock mounds; also, we had an excellent panoramic view of the village and the very near Erdene Zuu Monastery all in the company of a flock of sheep and goats.

Dinner was then served shortly after our return and we ate boiled dumplings filled with vegetables and rice. After retiring for the night, all I could hear whilst trying to catch some sleep was incessant dog barking, which is a constant background noise in Kharkhorum as car horns are in Ulaanbaatar.

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