A Visit To Mongolia Will Make You Marvel At Life

looking down on ger village 2017.jpeg

 

I’ve been home from my travels for over a month and several people have asked ‘where are the posts about your trip?’

Where indeed?

How to start – to write to please readers, as well as myself – to do justice to my experience. To rely on a memory that doesn’t work as well as it did when I was younger!

I have Facebook posts and text messages written in a hurry and scribbled journal notes hard to read.

Whenever I travelled years ago and sent letters and postcards home, Dad said I wrote like a trained spider. Well now, with years of tapping keyboards, the spider is no longer trained!

Unfortunately, my plans to use the top shelf Lenovo tablet the girls bought for me, did indeed, as best laid plans do  ‘gang aft a gley‘! Memo to travellers – don’t take new equipment unless you have more than one quick lesson from people more capable than yourself.

Thank goodness for the photographs on my Samsung phone – too many in this digital age – but they do jog the memory. Thank goodness too for Google Drive storage and a daughter with patience to save data to a separate hard drive.

The photographs will help create cameo narratives, something I’ve been encouraging my life story students to do this week.

WRITING MEMORIES FROM A PHOTOGRAPH

Examine a photograph, put yourself back in that moment, consider what was going on in your life at the time, what we don’t see before or after the photograph was taken, and write… great for family albums and scrapbooks, but the method will also help write life stories towards a memoir or autobiography and family history.

And I can recreate my travels.

Why Mongolia?

 

map of Mongolia from encyclopedia 1960? copy
Map of Mongolia circa 1950

 

I’ve mentioned before that I trace an urge to travel, and the restlessness and curiosity I’ve always felt about the world, back to childhood.  Absorbed in the contents of a set of children’s encyclopedias, Dad bought from a door-to-door salesman in 1960, I wanted to see all the lands the colourful flags represented.

Most of the pages and photographs were black and white, but in one volume, the block of full-colour photographs detailing flags a magnet for my curious eyes.

Many a dreich (bleak) day in wintry Greenock brightened by tracing and drawing the flags. Imagination fired by the unusual names of various countries giving a glimpse of the world beyond Scotland.

Where were these lands? What were the people like? How did they live?

This extract from the introductory page, taken to heart:

You will find some day, my young friends that, though words pretend to say what you mean, they do not say what you really mean at all, and I do not know of any words that can tell you all I want to say to you and all that this book means to me. Yet it is your book, and the story of it belongs to you…

…the great wonder of the earth. What does the world mean? And why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up there? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still?

… “Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!”…

That is how our book began… it is a Big Book for Little People, and it has come into the world to make your life happy and wise and good. That is what we are meant to be. This is what we will help each other to be.

Your affectionate Friend, Arthur Mee

from The Children’s Encyclopedia founded by Arthur Mee

YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO CROSS ITEMS OFF YOUR BUCKET LIST

At almost 64 years of age, I set out to realise a childhood dream to travel the Trans Siberian Railway. To explore another part of ‘the great wonder of the earth.

My starting point Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city.

After engaging Flower Travel, the experts on such a journey, I planned the kind of trip I wanted with their agent Heidi Mason, who did a fantastic job.

  • I love history, I wanted to travel as much as possible using local trains, not be stuck with tourists.
  • I had a limited budget and was not precious about staying in fancy hotels but where possible I wanted access to clean toilets and showers.
  • Most of all I wanted to travel safely – my days of freewheeling, trusting everything to work out or hoping there’ll be accommodation available gone with my youth!

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Mongolia-Voucher.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, when the plane touched down on April 1st, with all the cultural connotations that date has, a little voice whispered are you an April’s Fool? What on earth are you doing here alone? What if no one meets you? What is Plan B?

I queued at Immigration & Customs clutching passport and visa, plus hotel details and proof I’d depart in a few days and prayed the officials spoke good English.

If it is one regret I have it is a lack of ability with other languages, although even expert linguists say Mongolian is difficult to learn! I downloaded the free Google Translate App for Mongolian and Russian but speech output isn’t available for Mongolian so you can’t hear how the words are pronounced – or have a conversation with someone via the App.

My fears of failing to communicate groundless because there is a growing knowledge of English in Mongolia and Russia and I discovered I mime very well – especially in situations that are universal to people regardless of where you live!

I didn’t sleep much on the Air China flight from Melbourne to Beijing – who can these days travelling Economy Class? At a little over five feet and a size 12-14, I still felt squashed on the plane. I’m sure the designers of aeroplane seats missed their vocation as torturers.

My flight almost 12 hours, plus the obligatory sleepless night pre travel and the queuing and security before the flight – a standard recipe for exhaustion!

Fatigue kicked in and the reviving blast of cold air disembarking from the plane at Beijing and walking across the tarmac to waiting buses soon dissipated.

 

jetlag plus.jpg
how I felt

 

The two hours in transit in China taken up with queuing for the toilet (my first stop), negotiating more security, and ensuring the right path to the Transit Lounge,  puzzling over the instructions to access free WiFi, and double-checking I was in the right queue to check-in for my flight to Ulaanbaatar.

It’s disconcerting and confronting listening to announcements in a language you don’t know and hoping when English is pronounced you understand what is said. Ditto for signs that are not always multi-lingual despite being in a place like an airport or train station.

I didn’t attempt to buy a coffee but dry-mouthed fear made me search for a much-needed cup of fresh water. Not as simple a task as you’d think.

Technological expertise needed everywhere nowadays – even to use simple vending machines.

I felt empathy for the waves of foreign nationals I see floating around Melbourne Airport.

Was I wearing a stunned mullet look or one of fearful confusion as I struggled to find the code for wifi and also fill a cup with water?

 TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER ONE:

Never underestimate how quickly confidence, ability, and good judgement disappears with culture shock and the effects of lack of sleep!

arrived Mongolia airport
arrival in Ulaanbaatar
My driver Mongolia
Bemba, my driver for Mongolia

A smile and courtesy never go astray. What a relief to see a white paper sign with “MRS NEIL” in bold black ink, held aloft by a casually-dressed woman wearing a polite smile.

I’ve watched this scene in countless movies and it was repeated throughout my travels in Russia. Thank you,  Heidi Mason, your planning worked to perfection!

Bemba, my driver for Mongolia, a most welcoming sight at the airport! She apologised for her ‘poor English’.

Please don’t apologise, my Mongolian is non-existent!’

Two minutes later, the old man who accosted us in the car park not so polite or apologetic. Dressed in traditional garb, he thrust 3 stamped postcards at me.

“Buy… buy… bargain.”

His long hair, moustache, and beard reminding me of Hollywood’s Fu Manchu. I tried to remember the worth of the handful of Mongolian notes I’d converted before leaving Australia but he knew what currency he wanted.

“Dollars, dollars.”

I gave him a couple of US dollars as Bemba stepped between us and hurried me to the car.

Dismissed, Fu Manchu left to harass someone else and I stared at three unspectacular postcards with stamps of different value.

Now they’re a reminder that no matter where you go in the world there will always be someone spruiking.  Tired, gullible tourists not yet acclimatised easy prey.

Tree of Gobi, Sum Khukh Burd, Dundgobi and Reindeer herder are not the Mongolia I experienced but the postcards indicative of parts of the amazing country.

postcards of Mongolia.jpg

From the airport, snow-capped mountains in the distance hinted at the wild Mongolia I’d read about and probably home to the reindeer of the postcard, but as we headed for the city proper the rows of new apartments and sprouting high rise buildings reminded me of China 1979!

Evidence of construction, modernisation and development lined extra wide streets still showing clumps of snow leftover from a recent blizzard.

In fact, the day beneath a deep blue sky and wandering wispy clouds, warmer than I expected.  Bemba pointed to her short sleeves with a grin as I sat in the back seat,  sweltering in layers of a vest, top and fur-lined coat. What happened to the -6 degrees I’d been warned to expect?

A glimpse of a traditional ger and an impressive sculpture of a camel train stirred excitement and anticipation.  I’ve made it to Mongolia and tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping in a ger.

Hotel Nine, my accommodation for the first night, advertised as central to ‘nature, culture and temples… 400 metres from Sukhbaatar Square,’ a 14-kilometre drive.  Long enough to observe buildings, people, and the heavy traffic.

Bemba said peak hour was over yet the traffic manic! Most cars are second-hand Japanese or Korean.

Various measures introduced to deal with traffic congestion and pollution caused by petrol and diesel fumes have had limited success. Restrictions designed to encourage fewer cars on the road are circumvented.

In the city, you can only drive on the days your number plate allows – no exemptions. The week divided into days when only cars with even number plates can drive and other days for odd numbers.

People get around regulations by having two or more cars.  Even the travel company chauffeuring me!

The view from the car revealed an Ulaanbaatar similar to many cities in the west.

I couldn’t wait to shower, stretch on a bed, and with a cup of tea in hand, plan the rest of the day to discover what makes this city different.

Day one of my ‘inspired journey’ began at 11.00 am.

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Hotel Nine’s advantages: on-site restaurant, free WiFi, flat screen TV, kettle and tea-making facilities, private bathroom with bathrobe, slippers and free toiletries.

A little voice said ‘Enjoy this comfort zone while you can!’ The facilities excellent but the friendly staff the greatest asset.

The young male receptionist thrilled to meet an Aussie. His rugby coach in high school from Sydney. He still enjoyed the sport and hoped one day to travel overseas.

When I asked where the nearest bank was to exchange money, he checked on the Internet but also rang a friend to double-check opening times because it was Saturday.

He explained the route on the tourist map of the city.  We agreed that the scale of maps in most tourist brochures inaccurate and often misleading so he printed off easier to read instructions.

Despite this diligence,  I still got lost!

I confess to getting lost and confused at least once in every city I visited. Map reading, not my best skill.

However, I always managed to correct mistakes and when lost, discovered wonderful gems I may otherwise have missed.

Ulaanbaatar that first day no exception and with each find, I thought of those silver linings Mum used to talk about.

map of ulaanbaatar-1.jpg

 

April 1, 2017 – texting daughter, MaryJane

Hi, Love. In Mongolia and met at the airport. So far so good.
At hotel. Only one bar of wi fi. I’m going to have a shower. Will keep trying to phone then I’m going for a walk before dark. What time is it there? Don’t want to wake you too early. Or miss you if going out. xx

 

MaryJane to me

It is 4.05pm here on Saturday. What time is it there?

To MaryJane

It is 1.51 in afternoon. China is 3 hours behind and Mongolia is 2.
Flight better than expected although not much sleep. Security a bit of a nightmare and confusion but thank goodness I didn’t have drama like some people. Muslim women had headscarves poked and prodded. Pretty used to it all now. My prosthesis caused issues at Melbourne with a new machine that body scans. The young man so embarrassed when I explained anomaly on the screen. He asked a female to body-search me. Thank God China and Mongolia do not have that super-duper technology yet.

A Stroll in Ulaanbaatar

In search of a bank, I discovered a vibrant city with wide streets and impressive buildings. The hotel conveniently located and with a grid design the central city easy to explore.

STATISTICS FOR ULAANBAATAR & MONGOLIA

  • The current population of Mongolia is 3,056,876 as of Sunday, August 13, 2017, based on the latest United Nations estimates.
  • Mongolia population is equivalent to 0.04% of the total world population.
  • Mongolia ranks number 137 in the list of countries (and dependencies) by population.
  • The population density in Mongolia is 2 per square Km (5 people per square mile).
  • The total land area is 1,582,339 square Kilometres (610,944 square miles)
    72.4 % of the population is urban (2,209,488 people in 2017)
  • The median age in Mongolia is 27.6 years.
  • The population of Mongolia will be increased by 145 persons daily in 2017. (As opposed to the population of Australia will be increased by 1 053 persons daily in 2017.
  • The population of Ulaanbaatar is 844,818

From the hotel room, I saw some examples of the public buildings built when the Soviets were in charge, especially during Stalin’s time.  Mongolia gave Russia short shift during Perestroika and now as old buildings are replaced with new there’s an even greater move to privatisation to attract investment but also to move away from sameness and serviceability being the criteria.

Fascinating photos, please keep them coming! That’s interesting architecture, sort of like a Chinese riff on those houses in Bloomsbury with a colonnade linking them all together.

Friend Lisa on Facebook :

Mongolia is proud to be democratic and voter turn out is 87% although not compulsory. The transition to privatisation has winners and losers and the current government still coping with the aftermath of GFC, Russia’s push to regain ground lost and of course, China forever an uneasy neighbour considering their past history.

The building Lisa referred to was The National School of Music and Hotel Nine being in close proximity to the Arts precinct meant I walked past it every time I left the hotel.

I heard lovely strains of classical music float from open doors or windows and saw a stream of young people come and go.

A walk to Sukhbaatar Square a delight. Families, teenagers, tourists, and artists touted their wares. No doubt a typical Saturday afternoon. It is a huge space and despite plenty of activities, there were large tracts of emptiness.

Western dress the norm and from a distance, I could have been in an Australian city, but up close government buildings and statues paid homage to Chinggis Khaan and other legends of the Mongol!

ulaanbaatar day one panoramic view of square.jpg

People were friendly, they posed for photos and took ones of me.  Mairi Neil was there!

The streets were clean. Many rubbish bins included ashtrays, also dual bins encouraged recycling. An  Eco toilet in the park built alongside a special place for smokers. What an innovative idea – I never saw anyone walking around smoking.

However, my eyes started to sting and water. I thought it was the slight wind and a change of temperature so persevered but I began to long to be indoors.

I found the bank – or a bank.  ( I did get lost.)

Converted some of the US dollars I’d been advised to bring to colourful Mongolian tögrög.(tugrik)

Main mission accomplished, I negotiated the busy intersections by attaching myself to locals and crossing with them because despite traffic lights the cars seemed to be able to turn regardless of whether it was red or green.  An absence of road rules I understood made me nervous!

At last, I found the National Museum and before even going inside to see their fabulous collection of historic and ethnographic artefacts, I fed my love of history and art.

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There is an amazing sculpture to the victims of political purges common under Stalin, a replica of a stone praising the great Mongolian leader Chinggis Khaan, ancient carved deer stones and a huge temple bell signifying the country’s links with the established religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.

 

The Mongol Empire was the largest land empire and the second largest overall empire in world history. 

The most famous Mongolian, the powerful Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan). He brought together the tribes and clans of the Mongols to establish an empire. The Mongols ruled most of Europe including Eastern Europe, Iran, Central Asia, part of south east Asia, and all of China.

The Mongolian people share many customs with nearby Turkic peoples. The most obvious being that both live in yurts, which Mongolians call gers. They have nomadic traditions, the horse a central feature in their culture, and many still practice Tengriism (Turko-Mongol shamanism).

In addition to its historic and linguistic importance, this carved ‘stele’ replica gives an explanation of the successful Mongolian military campaigns of the 13th century. The inscription dedicated to the son of Khasar, Chinggis Khaan’s brother.

The stone found in eastern Siberia in 1818 and removed from Mongolia to St Petersburg in Russia in 1936 where it is still in the State Hermitage Museum. I wonder if Mongolia has ever demanded the original be returned?

The inscription translated as:

“While Chinggis Khaan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartuul, Esunk, he shot a target at 335 alds” (530metres).

No wonder he is revered as a great warrior!

The Temple Bell an important symbol of the importance of Buddhism, the major religion in Mongolia.  Stalinism tried to wipe it out but it has survived and thrived.

One of the most powerful pieces of art I’ve experienced was in front of the National Museum with this explanatory plaque.

VICTIMS OF POLITICAL PURGES MEMORIAL

The decision to erect a memorial to the victims of political purges was made in 1991 and in1997 the monument designed by L. Bold was unveiled in front of the National Museum of Mongolia. The black cubic structure symbolizes oppression and grief, and the figure of a broken human torso with the head soaring upward reflects the tragic fate of the condemned yet their resolve and hope to seek the truth in light. The empty space between the frame and human figure reflects the idea that this historic tragedy shall never be erased or faded from our memory. This monument is considered the first work of modern art to be constructed in Ulaanbaatar after 1990.

The deer stone carvings discovered by a joint Mongolian-Russian archaeological team at the site of Surtiin Denj, located in Burentogtokh surn of Khovsgol aimag, in 2006. Some of the images, including a pair of fish and a spoked wheel, are rarely depicted on deer stones in Mongolia and Eurasia!

Mongolia is home to multiple types of paleontological findings, including rare species, ancient plants, and rare minerals. Various types of animals and plants, some never found in any other country, have been living in Mongolian territory for thousands of years. It’s a great place to find fossil dinosaurs and other extinct creatures!

So was it irony or serendipity that saw me spending my first night in Mongolia, relaxing on the bed, sipping a cup of soup and watching the latest movie creation from JK Rowling’s books?

 

Fantastic Beasts movie on TV Mongolia.jpg
The movie Fantastic Beasts – with captions:)

 

I completed much more than the requisite 10,000 steps to keep fit that first afternoon walking around Ulaanbaatar and I didn’t need rocking to sleep.

Well rested, next morning, I was downstairs before the pick-up time of 9.30am to breakfast on muesli, fresh fruit and English Breakfast tea and start day two:

  • A tour of the Gandan Monastery Complex
  • A visit to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue
  • transfer to the Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National park

I met Ada, my guide for the next three days but before we did any sightseeing I had to get help for my eyes, which had ached all night and started to weep the minute I stepped outside. Was I allergic to Mongolia? Or the residue of sweet incense permeating the hotel walls?

eye drops from Mongolia

We called into a chemist a few moments later. Bought some eye drops. What a relief.

Ada explained my problem and I was given the drops with the assurance they’d work. And they did. It was the pollution in the air irritating my eyes.

Like a throwback to 1979 China! Mongolians living in the suburban ger camps burn fossil fuels like coal as well as wood, they also burn a lot of rubbish like old tyres to save money. The seasonal wind made the smog deceptive but it was there and my eyes detected it.

Thank you, Ada, I would have taken forever to track down a chemist and explain my problem! 

Day Two here I come…

3 thoughts on “A Visit To Mongolia Will Make You Marvel At Life

  1. A very enjoyable read Mairi, and though you are somewhat younger than me, and I daresay a whole lot fitter, I do so admire your courage in going it alone in such a difficult place, as enchanting as it often sounded and looked.

    Like

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