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April 4-14, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

Our stay in Mongolia turned out to be saving a grace, and the most unique experience so far in our world trek. Over the first few days Kristin regained her health as the snow covered city warmed and the winter covering melted away. It was so easy to fall into step in our new surroundings. We slowly ventured out to see the city sights arm in arm with our newfound family – and it seemed that with every day we were meeting more and more family members. We felt kind of like American celebrities who had come to visit this Mongolian family since everyone wanted to meet us and ask us questions.

Almost every evening we enjoyed some good old Genghis Khan Vodka with our family – and it is seriously good vodka! There is a proper Mongolian way of drinking it: first the head of the household pours the vodka into a small bowl, usually made of silver or copper, and takes a sip and then passes it to you holding the bowl with one hand, with the other hand holding up the elbow.

Mongolian Vodka Drinking Bowl

You then take sip (actually you should drink it all) and hand it back. This proceeds until everyone around the table has had a turn. Then you start again. Kristin having spent some time in Russia, knows her vodka, and myself? Well let’s just say I try to do my best to accommodate local cultural traditions.

Oh! One unexpected thing that came up one evening was that we found out that the national sport in Mongolia is Mongolian wrestling. Oh, it is big there. Let’s just say it’s baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf etc. all rolled up into one national sport. So they asked me if I like wrestling. Do I like wrestling?! I was a 4-year letterman wrestler in high school! I love wrestling! Wow, instant bond, and the national wrestling tournament was on TV! We got into the whole ritual and scoring of this national sport. It’s nothing like we are used to seeing here in the U.S. It’s a cross of sumo and collegiate type wrestling with a ancient ritual dance at the start and end of the matches. Personally it was a blast to have this mutual enjoyment of a sport with my new Mongolian family. They showed me the ritual dance as all us guys (including little Tergel) practiced it in the living room. Too cool.

We were also pleased to learn that we had wifi at our family’s apartment! After being shut out of a lot of sites in China, we were finally able to do some catching up in Mongolia with our blog. But the best part was sharing our iPad with the family. Almost on a nightly basis we Skyped with Buya back in the United States (we also used these sessions to help translate and confirm a lot of logistics). The family flipped when they saw how easy it was to see and talk with their lone family member in the USA – it was something we all looked forward to every day.

Video Clip: A Song From Back Home

Later on I found that they had two older laptop computers that they no longer used because they could not get them to work. It turns out that neither one of the machines had an anti-virus program and they were both chock full of viruses. I made it my job to fix these machines as best as possible before we would leave. It was the least I could do for all they had done for us.

One morning, Omboo, the brother-in-law doctor, dropped by to give Kristin a check-up. We found out that he was also the doctor who would be performing the surgery on Aav, the patriarch of the family. Aav was already in the hospital awaiting his surgery when we had arrived in town. He had sent word out that he wanted to meet us. So of course going to see him at the hospital became a big family event. We all climbed into a borrowed SUV and headed to the hospital (on our way to the 13th Century Village – more on that in another post). We also found out that Eej, the matriarch of the family, would also have surgery soon after her husband. This was truly a close-knit family and very lucky and blessed to have a family member qualified to do the surgeries.

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About to jump into our SUV. Little Tergel is ready to go as he peeks through the front window.

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Seated in the center is Aav (he’s holding little Tergel) and Eej, the family patriarchs.

Needless to say our evenings were full of family fun. Talking, watching wrestling on TV, and doing the traditional wrestling dance, vodka sharing, Skyping, and meeting other family members who dropped by. One night we even treated everyone to a pizza party to give the ladies a break from cooking – it was not bad pizza!

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One morning I treated our Mongolian family with our favorite breakfast, Pancakes! They had never had pancakes before and they loved them. I left them the recipe.

It was during one of these nights that we were asked to take family pictures of our Mongolian family and that we too should partake. Only our pictures were to be in traditional Mongolian clothing. Okay we are in! I don’t know who had more fun, Kristin and I wearing the traditional Mongolian dells or all of the family members helping us get dressed and suggesting what would look best on us. All in all it was it was loads of fun and I have to say we looked damn good in dells. It would have been real nice to have been able to bring back a outfit or two.

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Looking good in our Mongolian dells.

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Notice what’s on TV in the back? Mongolian wrestling!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                         

But in the day time we got out to see what Ulaan Baatar was all about. Let’s face it, Ulaan Baatar is not going to win any prizes for architecture. Other than the new modern buildings starting to pop up, Ulaan Baatar is pretty much made up of ugly large, block-style, boring concrete structures – clearly influenced by the finest Soviet architects (a holdover from Mongolia’s Communist era).

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On a lighter note, there also seems to be a Karaoke bar on every block in Ulaan Baatar. Our hosts confirmed that it was a very popular activity; we really wanted to check it out one night with them, but we never had the time.

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Not the best of pictures (took it from a moving car), but you can barely make out the Karaoke sign on the left.

Our first observation while being driven around was: Wow! There is some major roadwork that needs to be done here. Talk about potholes! Sometimes there is more hole than road!

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Let’s just say you do not want to be driving at night, especially on the highways. Hit one of those potholes and it’s time for a new axle! But then again they have brutal winters with temperatures hitting -40 degrees C/F, which wreaks havoc on asphalt. In fact, the annual average temperature in Ulaan Baatar is 0 degrees F (-18 C), making it the coldest capital city in the world. (Now we understood why the Chinese ticket agent in Beijing wondered why we were going to Ulaan Baatar at this time of year.)

Oh! And it seems you can get a car here with the steering wheel on either the left or right side. Yup, what side do you want your steering wheel? But they do drive on the right side of the street, except when there is a traffic jam – then all bets are off. Right side, left side, middle, whatever works as long as you can get through and don’t hit any other cars. Just keep it moving. Let me just say that both Kristin and I were very happy not to be doing the driving here. Plus we got to ride with big Bayraa. Yeah, Bayraa is our guy, and we will always remember when he made it very clear who’s in the right, when in the middle of one of those insane traffic jams Bayraa jumped out of the car and almost pulled another guy out of his car to point out who was in the right. Traffic cops? Who needs traffic cops when we got Bayraa!

On our first excursion, we were taken to the large Zaisan Memorial monument on top of Zaisan hill overlooking the city. It was an impressive monument and again, very much influenced by Soviet architecture – probably because the monument itself commemorates the Soviet Union’s friendship with Mongolia. A circular mural on the inside of the monument documents various events in Mongolia’s history which involved the Soviets.

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The Zaisan Memorial Monument atop Zaisan Hill.

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Murals on the inside of the monument depicting the history of the Soviet Union in Mongolia.

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Video Clip: Zaisan Memorial Monument

The 300-step climb up the hill wasn’t so bad except that it was plenty cold, and with the wind blowing, it made it just barely bearable for the time we were up there. The view of Ulaan Baatar from atop the hill is probably the best view of the city.

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The large coal burning power plant dominates the skyline of Ulaan Baatar. We understand this causes severe smoke pollution in the area.

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Kristin and Oyuka with crystal blue skies of the Ulaan Baatar skyline.

We stopped to take pictures both at the monuments on top of Zaisan Hill and at the bottom.

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Chimgee, Xavier and Oyuka at the base of the large buddha statue at the bottom of Zaisan hill.

We also saw a considerable amount of construction of high-rise condos and other development in the area. Oyuka told us that these new condos were going for $1 million – yep, that’s US dollars. Mining money is growing a new elite class in Mongolia.

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Next up was the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan, who was the spiritual leader of Mongolia’s Tibetan Buddhism, and the third most important person in the Tibetan Buddhism hierarchy, below only the Dalai and Panchen Lamas (thanks Wikipedia!) in the early 20th century.

Kristin paid more than all our entrance fees combined to get an official photo pass!

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You’re official now!

From the outside the palace looks in need of some repairs. The harsh weather has taken its toll on the palace but after walking through it, I have to admit, it has held up remarkably well over the 100+ years of its existence.

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It’s amazing how all this detailed work holds up in this harsh weather.

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Icicles everywhere!

It was here where we really lucked out though. While we walked through taking pictures, all of a sudden Oyuka came running up to us all excited. We followed her to the large open area near the center of the palace grounds where a staging area had been set up for a competition of traditional Mongolian throat singing with accompanying musicians. Wow! We hit the jackpot! We had heard about the throat singing (see Genghis Blues documentary for the Siberian version, Tuvan throat singing) and had been hoping to see a performance. This just fell into our laps and we loved it.

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Group picture of all the competitors.

Video Clip: Traditional Mongolian throat singing, part 1

Video Clip: Traditional Mongolian throat singing, part 2

Video Clip: Traditional Mongolian throat singing, part 3

After the performances we got a chance to meet the winners and take some photos.

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We’re the ones with the dull boring clothing on.

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We completed walking through the palace reading about the last Mongolian Emperor’s life, looking at various Buddhist relics and original clothing, furniture and gifts of the Emperor.

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Our next destination was the Gandantegchenling Monastery. As we drove up to it and parked we were taken back by the thousands of pigeons in the courtyard leading up to the monastery. Ugh, pigeons. Our man Bayraa bought us some birdseed and we proceeded to get mauled by the pigeons.

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Bayraa looks over and laughs at me as I’m not quite sure what to make of pigeons eating right out of my hand.

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Ok, quickly out of seeds we moved into the sanctuary of the monastery and were engulfed by the aroma of burning incense and the procession of religious followers. Oyuka took us by hand and showed us how to spin the wheels and fall into the procession. We gladly left a donation and enjoyed a fitting end to a long and culturally filled day.

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Prayer wheels line the walls inside the monastery.

Upon our return from visiting the countryside (see up coming blog entries) we spent one last day out and about in Ulaan Baatar. As usual, we snagged a ride with a friendly driver (their informal taxi system) into downtown – five adults, not including the driver, and a small child piled in…this was our new normal! The first stop was the main plaza of Ulaan Baatar, otherwise known as Sukhbaatar Square or Genghis Khan Square. From the square you can see the National Museum of Mongolian History, State Opera and Ballet Theater, and the Parliament building which houses the magnificent statue of Genghis Khan. In the center of the square is the bronze statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the Father of the Mongolian Revolution, sitting astride his stallion.

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Sukhbaatar Square (Genghis Khan Square).

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State Ballet and Opera House stands on the eastern side of the square.

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The Parliament building stands to the north of the square.

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On the western side of the square stands the Mongolian Stock Exchange and the Golomt Bank.

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The Parliament building houses a large statue of the country’s greatest hero, Genghis Khan.

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A proud Mongolia solider stands guard in front of Genghis Khan’s statue.

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Showing the solider the photo I took; he smiled with approval.

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On the fourth side of the square stands the Blue Sky Tower. It’s a business center and hotel. It is also the most modern and tallest building in Mongolia

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In the center of the square stands the bronze statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar riding his stallion.

We visited Ulaan Baatar’s version of Macy’s department store, they call it the State Department Store, another hold over from the Soviet era. It was pretty fancy!

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We also went to a most original supermarket, made up of many individual booths selling their specific products.

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Supposedly most of the chicken in Mongolia comes from America. But this chicken looks locally raised.

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Mongolian free range, organic beef market!

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Freshly baked goods and cakes booth.

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Every kid’s favorite booth, cookies and candy!

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The cosmetic and beauty supply booth.

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Baking supplies!

The most shocking store of all though was the world’s smallest IKEA (though you won’t find it on their website…). Believe it or not, it was no bigger than your standard 7 Eleven. Aww, we were so hoping to get some Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce.

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World’s smallest IKEA

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The main aisle, only aisle, and one and only room in this IKEA.

While walking around in the tourist area, a tour operator person approached me and started to try and sell me his services and tours. His English was pretty good but I told him I wasn’t interested. He still handed me his card and told me to call him for anything that I might be interested doing. It wasn’t until later when we got home and I looked at the card closer that I noticed what this tour operator was offering. You’ve got to be kidding me! I showed our family and they were just as shocked as we were. We figured that the Soviets must have left a lot of military equipment behind. Well I guess if ever I have the need to drive a tank or shoot an RPG I now know where to come.

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We ended the day with an adventure to find some computer and Microsoft software for Chimgee’s ailing computer. Oy! We ended up in a bazaar of individually owned (this seems to be the Mongolian shopping format) local computer geeks and wannabe computer geeks either selling legit or pirated computer software and hardware. Ulaan Baatar could use a well-equipped computer store. Hey, maybe a good business idea for an entrepreneur?

In the end, we just didn’t have enough time to visit some of the museums and felt that we probably missed out on some things. But in return we were able to return to 100% of our health and had some incredible adventures in the city and the Mongolian countryside with some of the most memorable people we have ever met. And that meant so much more to us than any museum could offer us. We love Mongolia and we love our Mongolian family. The best of Mongolia is yet to come.

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