A Weekend on the Steppes

Today is Thursday, almost four days after getting back from our field trip. As I mentioned before, we went on a four day trip to the ancient capital of Kara Korum (possibly pronounced Hara Horum), though in the end we only spent one day in the capital. We set out Thursday morning from the monastery where we usually have class and jumped on a very cute red bus that had a pretty purple interior. We were really excited about our purple bus. The night before Professor Benard had told us that her friend, the abbot of Lamrim monastery, wanted us to go say goodbye to the Rinpoche, who was leaving for Ireland. The trip to his center was much easier by bus than by “taxi”. He gave us some travel advice, wished us well, and we were on our way for real.

It felt really good to get out of the city, away from the traffic, but we soon realized that driving in the country required just as much skill as driving in the city. There’s only one road, and it’s not exactly well maintained. We still had to swerve for other cars and dodge potholes and random objects in the road. After the weekend was over, we were all very impressed with our bus driver. Anyway, I slept through the first few hours of the drive, which was great, and when I came to we were definitely in the middle of nowhere. And man, it was beautiful. The mountains here are amazing, and the grasslands spread out forever. Also, everywhere there are herds of horses, cattle, goats, and sheep. You can’t escape them, even in the city. We pulled over for lunch after a few hours, and our kitchen crew had set up a nice picnic for us. The food was good, and it was nice to get out and look at the mountains. Once back on the bus we drove to a place called Sandy Eels, or the Mini Gobi. There were a bunch of sand dunes in the middle of nowhere, for no apparent reason, but it was really cool. As soon as we got out of the bus, a herd of camels and their owners came over to offer us rides. There were probably ten camels, so we all took turns riding around the dunes. They were really cute, though I took care not to get too close to their faces. We all know camels spit.

I'm Riding a Camel!

After playing around in the dunes for about an hour we took off on the bus again and ended up at Old Man’s Monastery, our home for the night. To say it was beautiful is a bit of an understatement. The monastery is nestled in the foothills, and you can see across the whole grasslands.

View of the gers from a nearby hill

We stayed in gers that night, traditional Mongolian nomadic homes. My ger was newer, and more stationary (it was solidly made out of wood instead of having a latticework frame covered with cloth). They’re actually really cute on the inside, and surprisingly comfortable.

Inside the Ger

After dinner we were allowed to do whatever we wanted, so I went out with a group on a night hike. We wandered a bit far from camp, and went up one of the hills to look at the stars. I have never seen a more amazing night sky. With nobody around for miles and miles, there’s no light pollution, and the sky was cloudless. It was breathtaking.

We got a bit lost on the way back from stargazing, but it was alright in the end. We learned that Mongolia gets dark fast. Once back at the ger we all promptly fell asleep after our long day of travel.

In the morning we had a quick breakfast and went to look at the actual monastery, which, as it turns out, was about a ten minute walk away. The temples were not extremely exciting, but their location made them all the more beautiful. Nearby were the ruins of a monastery from the 12th century. We went on an unexpected and fairly strenuous hike up to more ruins shortly after touring the monastery. The hike was, of course, pretty, but what was described as a quick trip to the ruins turned out to be an hour of rigorous hiking. The ruins were less impressive, but they came with a neat story. As the legend goes, when the monks first came to the monastery site, they built a layer of thick rock wall which would become the temple, and then went to bed for the night. When they woke up the next morning, a thin layer of rock had been added to their wall. They were surprised, but kept on working. The next morning they found the exact same thing had happened again. They then knew that the mountain spirits were helping them build their temple, and the process continued until they had finished. I think it’s a nice story.

Old Man's Monastery

Once safely back down the path we got back on our bus. This time we drove to a horse camp. There was a tiny building we all squished into for lunch, and then we made our way over to the ger of one of the horse herders. One thing I learned about Mongolians is that they have an amazing sense of hospitality. Whenever we are invited into a home, we are barraged with treats, food, and the inevitable bowl of airag. Airag is fermented mare’s milk, the Mongolian alcoholic beverage of choice, and it is traditional to offer guests several bowls out of politeness. The guest is then required to drink. It tastes exactly like you’d guess alcoholic milk would taste, and after the first couple of homes we visited, it started to grow on us. Even so, this particular man passed around probably six bowls, and nobody really wanted to drink right after a very filling lunch. We eventually did away with them, but it was a tiny bit awkward.

At the horse camp we watched the men do tricks on the horses, wrestle with the guys on our trip, and then show us how they break a wild horse. It was cool, but a bit tiring, and I was feeling a bit sick. They then let us ride the horses around, which was again, cool, but lasted a bit longer than I would have liked. We were supposed to be at the horse camp for maybe two hours, and ended up staying for six. Like I’ve said before, Mongolia uses “rubber time” where nothing is ever set in stone. Before we could leave, we were all ushered back into the ger where they gave us some very fresh sheep stomach. Now, I had told myself I’d be willing to try almost anything this year, but I had a prime seat to see that what they were cutting up in front of us was clearly a stomach. I couldn’t do it, but neither could a few others, so I didn’t feel too bad. Luckily, we left shortly afterward.

That night we arrived at another ger camp near Kara Korum, and these were fancy: they had electricity! After dinner my ger-mate Annin and I noticed that there was a guy going around lighting fires in the gers, and we went on a fun adventure to get him to warm our ger up too. We think he understood more English than he let on, but in the end we got the fire going and fell asleep nice and toasty. In the morning we spent two hours talking with Prof. Benard’s friend, the abbot of Lamrim monastery, and then took off for the ancient capital and the temple of Erdene Zuu. The temple was really cool, but unfortunately I was quickly realizing that I was without a doubt getting sick. It was very hard to concentrate, and I was glad to get back to the ger camp. Because we had spent longer talking to the abbot than expected, class was cancelled for the day, and we were given the choice between going out to see the post markers of the ancient city or staying at camp. I wanted to go back out, but decided a nap was probably the best idea. When I woke up I found Luisa, who had also been sick, and we had some much needed time to relax.

Kara Korum

That night we saw a cultural performance by what I think was a family band. There were traditional Mongolian instruments, a throat singer, and a contortionist. It was really cool, and our friendly translator Oko helped explain the songs to us. Afterwards we built a bonfire, and the restaurant/reception area near the gers had a disco for us. It was fun, but I quickly realized I was not well enough to dance just yet.

The next day we got back on the bus, ready for a seven hour drive back to the hostel. We had a cute lunch, said thank you and goodbye to our cooking crew, and were well on our way when we drove over something in the middle of the road that sent me flying a good half a foot into the air. The tallest guy in the group actually hit his head on the roof of the bus. So we got out for a while to fix our popped tire. It all went really smoothly, and  within no time we were back on the bus.

Safely back in UB, we said a sad farewell to our translator, and returned to our hostel. It was Sunday night, and we all had papers due the next afternoon. I gave serious thought to starting my paper, but was ultimately too tired. Lucky me, I’m good at getting things together last minute and wrote the whole thing in the morning. Since then, nothing extremely exciting has happened. I have a midterm tomorrow, for which I’m about to go study, and then we have Saturday free. Last night we went to another cultural performance, and there was a whole orchestra. It was really fun. Saturday I’m going to the “black market” to find myself some warm sweaters, but don’t worry, black market is just a name left over from the communist occupation. There’s nothing illegal about it, though we have been warned that there are a lot of pickpockets.

Sorry that this post was super text heavy. I didn’t take many pictures, but I’ll try and filch some from my friends and add them later.

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