Orkhon Khurkhree, Mongolia
The second day . . .
We woke up this morning in our ger and were shortly thereafter treated to a breakfast our driver had prepared: salami, cucumber, cheese sandwiches. Afterwards, we set out to the Erdene Zuu Khiid monastery (the first Buddhist monastery erected in Mongolia in 1586 AD), which was only about 800 meters from where we stayed last night. Inside the monastic walls are several impressive temples and stupas with the most outstanding structures being the Dalai Lama Süm (süm means Buddhist temple), the Golden Prayer Stupa, and the Lavrin Süm (a Tibetan-styled temple).
After thoroughly photographing the monastery it was back on the road for us, but not for long, soon we were traveling cross-country on dirt trails trying to toss and turn us with each bump and dip. Our next stop was a ger situated amongst a few others generously spread out in seemingly the middle of nowhere – nothing but hills and mountains with some nearby woods to provide timber. We were invited into the ger by an old gentlemen, his daughter (possibly), and the matriarch of the family (I have to guess on a lot the details because of the language barrier).
The ger had a smaller diameter than the one we stayed in last night, and inside there were three cabinets, a sofa, a bed (which we all sat on), a stove in the middle sitting on an old computer tower, three large metal bowls with dairy produce (tsagaan idee, which literally means ‘white foods’) in them (in various states of cream), and bags with other food stuffs (flour, dried meat, etc.). The floor to the ger was mostly open ground but for one rug and a sheet of cardboard.
While sitting in the ger, we first had a liquid cream that tasted like yogurt with what looked like the semi-hardened skin off the milk (the cream was tasty, not the skin). We then witnessed the woman of the ger make shölte khool (literally: soup with food) for us: creating the dough, flattening-out the dough and laying it outside to dry, cutting the dried meat in to bits and putting them in boiling water, then cutting the dough in to strips and adding it to the boil, cutting ginger and adding it as well as other vegetables in to the boiling water, and finally serving the hot pasta in bowls for our consumption. We were given some liquid sour cream to add to the pasta which almost made it taste like beef stroganoff.
We ate our lunch, which was tasty; however, if you can’t eat food with hairs in it, Mongolian nomadic food is not for you. After lunch everyone who spoke Mongolian carried on a conversation for quite a while, during which time the men smoked several cigarettes (it seems all the men in Mongolia smoke, however I don’t recall seeing any women smoke). Once the conversation had run its course, we gave our farewells and ba-yar-la-laa‘s (thank you’s) and we were on our way again.
The Frenchman and I, not remembering the exact itinerary, thought we were on our way to the Orkhon waterfall at this point – we ended up being wrong. We drove on dirt trails for a while before reaching an end. Our next destination was three kilometers uphill, through woods, on a very muddy and eroded trail, which was closed for vehicles – we soon found out why. We met up with another vehicle full of three guys and two gals who were also heading uphill and after our driver exchanged words with them, both our vehicles were ascending the trail.
It wasn’t long before the other vehicle got stuck and we had to use a tow-rope they had to pull them out. We then had to use it again . . . and almost again. They then gave up driving and began on foot, except for one passenger who was using a crutch and who had joined our vehicle, but we only went about twenty more meters before our driver, too, gave up. We were now all walking uphill; the Frenchman and I, with youth in our favor, quickly hiked the remaining one and a half kilometers to the top.
Once there, we discovered no waterfalls, but instead a monastery that was built by Undur Gegeen Zanabazar in 1653. Zanabazar is a very famous Mongolian who is a descendant of Chinggis Khan, studied in Tibet, and revolutionized Mongolian art; he was also the first spiritual leader of Mongolia. It was also at this site, the Tuvkhen monastery, that Zanabazar created the Soyombo symbol, which symbolizes Mongolian Independence and can be seen on their national flag.
The Tuvkhen monastery sat on top of the rocky top of Shiveet-Ulaan mountain and consisted of several temples and stupas. On the edge of the rocky cliff by the main temple stood a monk looking very stoic and, I might add, appropriately so for this site. I continued on the trail past the temples and soon found myself climbing up the rock mound (no longer hiking) to get to the ‘Mother’s Womb Cave’, a narrow cave that goes about eighteen feet in; once you reach the end, men are supposed to turn clockwise and exit (women go counter-clockwise). I tried it out and there wasn’t much space to turn; I moved clockwise, balled up, tried to flip around, became stuck, became unstuck, and then successfully turned and exited.
After that claustrophobic experience, I continued to the top of the rocky outcrop and enjoyed the views. Once finished, the Frenchman and I started to descend, only to find the rest of our party 200 meters down. We then all walked back to the top. Prior to entering the monastery, three of the other travelers donned the traditional Mongolian tunics. The Frenchman and I waited at the bottom of the rocky outcrop for almost two hours – my traveling companion even built a fire in this time out of boredom rather than necessity. Once everyone was done paying their respects, we headed back down to our vehicles.
We finally reached our vehicles, gave some powerful pushes to get them unstuck, and we were on our way . . . on a trail that was less traveled, and very muddy. Soon our vehicle became stuck in the deep mud and the other vehicle came to assist us . . . only to get stuck as well. Both vehicles now laid in the mud, with the port-side of ours and the back bumper of the other resting on the ground. We tried pushing, digging, using bark and limbs for traction, but nothing was working. The drivers insisted on moving the vehicles forward, I was advocating to try moving them back to get them unstuck, but it was no use.
They tried propping up the port-side of each vehicle, digging the tires out, pushing, and pulling, but nothing was working. Hours were passing us by and soon it was dark and we had to pull the flashlights out. I was prepared to sleep in the vehicle this night and try again in daylight since it seemed all their efforts were futile. It was also getting much colder and the mosquitoes were out and determined to stick us. Furthermore, all of our shoes, socks, and feet were soaked from the boggy soil, making them very cold. It was becoming more and more miserable. If there was one positive to the situation, it was that the stars and the Milky Way could be seen in all their stunning brilliance.
Luckily, some night hikers were seen nearby and we called for them to come. They assesed the situation and brought some friends. Now with the additional manpower, we were able to push the other vehicle to the rear, which cleared it from the mud. They then drove it forward and with the tow-rope and chains the night hikers had brought, the other vehicle pulled our vehicle out as we pushed from the back. We were finally cleared from the mud . . . after four frustrating hours. The night hikers then guided our vehicles down semi-drier paths until we reached the bottom. It was now 23:05.
After a celebratory smoke, we were on our way to the ger where we would spend the night. Through bumpy and rocky paths in the dead of night, our driver, to his credit, navigated the Russian YAZ to our ger for the night. It took over two hours of driving. It was now 01:20.
The owner of the compound, after being woken up by our driver’s incessant honking showed us to our quarters and then went with our driver to make and bring dinner to us. it took over an hour. It was now 02:30. We ate our late night dinner of corkscrew pasta and vegetables. Then we finally went to sleep.