Near Terelj National Park is a rock formation known as the Praying Man. When driving from Ulaanbaatar to Terelj, if you are lucky you can make out the rocks that form the Praying Man. However, it is travelling from Terelj back to Ulaanbaatar that the praying man is most visible.There are many rock formations across Mongolia that look like other things, this is one of them.
There is a lovely area about 50 minutes drive or so from Ulaanbaatar. Taking the South Road and heading south out of town and then turning off to Terelj. Once you enter the areas you travel past some lovely terrain, a mix of rocks, mountains, hills, valleys and all manner of stuff. Some of the rock formations make quite visible objects (look out for these described later here).
What is really nice in this area (and indeed, in many other areas of Mongolia) is how much like Mongolia this area does NOT look like. I mean, ask 10 people what they think Mongolia looks like and they’ll tell you “flat, desert, steppe, windy, no trees”. It is not surprising that those images abound as those flat featureless areas have a mystery in and off themselves and as such, they are what captures the imagination of people outside Mongolia … dreaming of Chinggis’ Hordes, white flag to the fore, riding across the Steppe to conquer most of the known world.
The truth about Mongolia is somewhat different. Yes, there are those flat steppe areas. Yes. the Gobi is a desert. And yes, the steppe and the desert cover a large area of the country. There are, however, also mountains, lakes, trees and such spread across the country as well. Mongolia is generally, flat in the south, mountainous in the north.
My favourite Mongolian family knows I really like trees (see an earlier blog here about Dancing Trees and Pretty Girls – in the June 2005 archives) so they tend to take me to places that are tree filled. Terelj is one such area. There are tourist camps in the Terelj area so visitors can stay there a couple of days. There is also a Korean restaurant, lots of gers (many selling Airag), horses, some camels and yaks, pretty much most things people want to see when they come to Mongolia. There is also a lovely park area.
We stopped there, we had lunch (salami, cheese, bread and beer) and then we had dinner (mutton, potatoes, carrots, er, and beer). Look closely at the pictures. Does this look like the Mongolia you imagine? Come have a look at the country.
Yesterday we drove out to Terelj. Terelj is a protected area (I guess it is the equivalent of a National Park). There are Juulchin (tourist) camps and the usual horse and camel rides available. There is also some lovely quiet places, near the river and so on. As you approach Terelj, there is an entrance gate manned by government employees – at lease I guess that is who employs them. They collect an entrance fee for the park. The charge is 300 tugrig for a Mongolian or 3000 tugrig for a foreigner. This does, of course, annoy many foreigners, especially those that come from countries where we have been taught to protect the local environment and especially the environment within a National Park.
However, the twin charging scheme applies almost everywhere in Mongolia. At the Gandantegchinlen Khiid monastery with 25 meters high statue of Migjid Janraisig in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolians are let in for free but non Mongolians are charged $1.00. I believe that if you were a foreigner and are now a permanent resident in Mongolia, or citizen, you still have to pay the foreigner rate. That, I think, is a little unfair. I can accept the higher rate for bona fide foreign tourists and businessmen here temporarily over locals, if only because the minimum wage set by the government in Ulaanbaatar is currently $37 per month, whereas $37 is perhaps about the same amount a pair of tourists may have spent for dinner the last night. Charging locals 3,000 tugrigs would therefore be the equivalent of charging them a fair percentage of their monthly income.
Still, it is sometimes galling to have to pay the two fees, especially when it is my favourite Mongolian family taking me out. Yesterday we avoided the problem. As we approached the gate, I was asked to get something from the back of the vehicle. The fees were paid with the gatekeeper able to see the three Mongolians in the vehicle as well as my bottom. As we pulled off I was told to look forward so that the gatekeeper would not see me as we drove past.
Success, Thomo in for 300 tugrigs. Still, I guess the truly amazing part of this story is that Thomo must have a very Mongolian looking bottom 😉
Fences are a reasonably new phenomenon in Mongolia. Most of the country is unfenced and the herders live a nomadic lifestyle. Even near the Aimag Centres and the Soums and Bags there are no fences. However, this changes when you get into the Soums, Aimag Centres and such, with fences now enclosing parcels of land that Mongolians now own. The rest of the country is still unowned (I guess this means that the government owns it) and people and animals roam as they will.
The Soums and Aimag Centres are becoming more like everywhere else in the world now with property fenced.
I was out with my favourite Mongolian family this weekend. Saturday we were west of the City of Ulaanbaatar again, this time parked by a river. The trip over the bridge was amazing, as was the ferocity of the mosquitoes. I will go back and take photos of that bridge in the future. However, whilst this was a fun part to the weekend, it was not the best part. Sunday we went to Hotel Mongolia. I had promised to buy my favourite Mongolian family lunch as it was a birthday weekend for one of the family members. We did. Hotel Mongolia has become famous here for its importing tons of sand – about US $10,000 worth I believe, which in Mongolia is a lot of grains of sand. They have placed this sand near the river and hold beach parties there.
I should also note that the Hotel Mongolia does the best Chinese food I have eaten in Ulaanbaatar so far.
This, however, also was not the highlight of the weekend. The highlight was later when we went and parked by the river. Now I have been told that what follows is not an old Mongolian custom. When I asked, however, how my host had heard about it, she noted that it was some old Mongolians who had told her. OK, so not a custom. What was this though? Well, apparently swallowing 9 small river fish, alive, is good for the stomach.
Fish were caught, counted and set in a glass with some clean drinking water. They were then duly swallowed. When offered, Thomo backed away (some may say in a cowardly fashion) and fell back on my three rules of eating – namely:
- Should never have connected the mouth to the bum of any animal.
These failed on all three.
Still, my companion was fine at dinner later that night although apparently not terribly hungry. 🙂
Late Breaking Addition: The ever faithful aide confidante, Baggy, noted to me over lunch today that this tale was, in fact, correct. My favourite Mongolian family, however, had missed one important part of the recipe. Before drinking the fish, one should drink 1 to 2 litres of fresh water first, so that the fish would survive long enough in the stomach to provide the benefit. He also noted that you could feel them cleaning the stomach walls (this I am not so sure about but hey, coming from Baggy, the ever faithful aide confidante, who am I to doubt?).
So, I guess this was a case of one member of my favourite Mongolian family being an expert short term planner (catch the fish and swallow them) but not so good at long term planning (now that I have caught and swallowed them, how do I keep them alive long enough for them to provide some benefit?). 😀