Woes in the Ger

Friday, March 25, 2011

Our second night in a ger suffered from the reverse problem of our first. Rather than being like a sauna throughout the vast majority of the night, we were instead in something of an icebox. The ger at Karakorum that we stayed in was significantly larger than the one at Terelj (there were a total of 5 beds around the edge, and all were further from the central stove). This made it much harder to maintain the level of heat in the ger, especially since we didn’t know how best to bank the stove to keep it hot and lit. So, after we went to bed, the ger very quickly got down to perhaps the 40s (we didn’t check the clock), although it was still passably warm inside our sleeping bags.
Nonetheless, the next morning we were very grateful when our hostess came in and stoked the fire properly. We had a breakfast of bread, peanut butter, and jam from our supplies, and discovered, much to our amazement, that the boiling water from the night before was still hot enough to make coffee with, despite sitting out all night protected only by a thermos. As we were about to leave, our hostess brought in some cookies and bread as well. We appropriated the cookies for the road, and headed out to Erdene Zuu.
This collection of monasteries was surrounded by a long wall of stupas, which according to Buddhist tradition contain deities (I think?).

Once inside, we were led on a tour by a very helpful and informative guide, who spoke pretty much perfect English. Our first destination was the museum housed in the three main prayer temples, East, Central, and West. Inside each were sets of three very large Buddhas (each of whom represented a different thing). This is the Buddha Siddartha Shakyamuni as an old man.

In front of each of the Buddhas were sets of offerings, with the 8 symbols of Buddhism.

Each of the temples contained one or more statues of protector deities as well, which were pretty intimidating to look at.

Pictured is the only female of the 8 protector deities. She always rides on a mule, and is sitting on the skin of a great evil that she conquered through her wits (after all the other protector deities were defeated by it while using strength alone). She married the evil, and bore him a son, and then once he trusted her, she was able to kill him. She also had to eat the son, as he took after his father (if you look closely, you can see him in her mouth). She has three eyes, for protecting the past, present, and future, and her headdress is adorned with five skulls, one for each of the five sins in Buddhism. (These last two features are common amongst all of the protector deities).
In another part of the museum, we saw several amazing appliquéd silk tapestries of important figures for the monastery (unfortunately, I don’t recall their names).

Before we left, we also had the privilege of visiting the only running temple in Erdene Zuu. We removed our hats and didn’t take any pictures inside at their request, but we did get a shot of the outside.

Inside, most of the monks that we saw were quite young, ranging from pre-teens to early twenties, I would guess.
After we finished exploring Erdene Zuu, we had lunch at another local eatery. I had some mutton dumplings in soup, which were rather tasty. Bill was warning me beforehand that the flavor was pretty strong, since Mongolians cook most of their meat with a lot of fat still on it, but I didn’t find it very strong. In fact, the most objectionable thing about it was the heat, as a scalded my tongue a bit biting into the hot dumplings! From there, we were back in the van, headed to our ger at the semi-Gobi.
The car ride itself was several hours long, and uneventful. As is common in Mongolia, the last part of the trip was over unpaved tracks across the open desert (in a little bit of snow). In general, any time we drove anywhere, it was a long stretch of time on a single paved road, followed by a shorter journey across hard, rutted ground and snow, following one of the several beaten paths in the direction that we wanted to go. These unpaved sections were generally pretty exciting/scary, as our vehicle would slide, tip, and bounce as we tackled the variety of changing terrain (this was especially true, and especially scary in our 8 person van, which tipped and bounced quite dramatically on the larger ruts).

Once we settled in at the semi-Gobi ger, we went out for our second horse ride of the trip. (We were a little disappointed, because as we left the guesthouse in UB, Mr. Kim, the owner, said that our driver could arrange us a horse or a camel ride, but when we actually got to the ger, there were only horses.) As we were waiting by the saddled horses, the man of the family rode in with a British tourist named Kimi. She hopped down to get a quick drink of hot tea, as she had already been riding for a while, and then we all saddled up and headed out. It turned out that she was doing a tour called Ger-To-Ger, where she spent single nights at a series of gers, and was ferried between them during the day by the locals on horse- and camel-back. We were both very impressed by the fact that she was doing this trip (and had been travelling since Moscow) on her own.
Our horses during this ride were the same stocky, hairy type that we’d ridden before.

Bridgit’s horse had to be led (we weren’t clear why, but it had its bit out of its mouth the entire time), and my horse had to be led about half the time, as all it really wanted to do was to hang out and dig in the snow for grass (or, towards the end of the ride, entire stumps). However, we managed to keep the pace slow enough that neither of us were thrown off the backs of our horses this time! We rode for 15 or 20 minutes, and then my horse decided that he had had enough of walking in a straight line with the other horses, and went off to find some more grass. Despite my pulling on the reins, he wouldn’t give over, even going to the point of walking backwards instead of following my directions. Our guide tied Bridgit’s horse, and then came and led mine over by the front leash. However, at that point Kimi and Bill had wandered off into the distance, so our guide left us hanging out with the horses, and rode off to retrieve our two stray travelers.

While we waited, my horse tried to dig more in the snow and dirt for some food, spent some time scratching an itch with the hitching pole, and neighed up a storm. All of that must have settled him down, though, because once we were mounted up and heading back ger-wards, he was much better behaved, only wandering off the path occasionally to try and forage for food (although, at one point he stopped and pulled up an entire stumpy shrub, waved it around trying to separate the one mouthful he had, and then dropped it.)
After we returned to the ger, Kimi headed off to her next sleeping spot, and Bill, Bridgit and I decided to take a walk out to the sand dunes that we could see not too far distant. We had been informed that there were rabbits about, and so when they started scurrying near a nearby building, Bridgit was able to snap a couple of pictures.

The trek to the dunes turned out to be longer than we expected, and was slowed by very irregular snow depths. It was definitely worth it, though. It was a lot of fun to see the small animal tracks in the dunes …

… and to feel very fine, very cold, dry sand. Such a change from the usual warm beach sand! We climbed up to the peak of one of the dunes, and Bill got a nice shot of us with the beautiful surrounding mountains in the background.

Dinner was the one common meat in Mongolia that we hadn’t yet tried: horse. Bridgit felt a little strange to be eating one so soon after riding them, but I thought it tasted quite good. (It was in with rice and vegetables in pretty much the same meal that we’ve been eating the whole time out in the countryside.)
That night in the ger was probably the worst so far, unfortunately. Like the night before, it was a larger ger, so we had trouble keeping it warm (by this morning, the water in our water bottle was slushy!) However, it was compounded by the fact that unlike the others, there wasn’t as much wood, so the family had to use dung in the stoves as well. This dung burned very poorly, gave off only a little heat, and smoked terribly. Every time we opened the top of the stove to put in more wood, acrid smoke would pour out and fill the ger. By the morning, we were only too glad to get out in to the subzero temperatures, just to escape the cold and stink of the inside of the ger.
After we left the semi-Gobi, we were subjected to some of the most terrifying driving to date. We were going out to the Hustai national park, and it was quite a ways from the main road. Hustai national park is one of the few places in the world where the wild takhi, or Przewalski’s horse is found. The taki is the only remaining wild horse. It has a different number of chromosomes than the domesticated horse, but otherwise looks pretty similar. In total, there are only a couple thousand left on Earth, although their numbers are growing due to conservation efforts.
There were a number of times as we were going around corners over ruts on the way to the park that it felt like the van was going to go over onto two wheels or even tip over entirely. We made it safely to the entrance, and picked up our guide. Then it was back in the van to track down the takhis. The park road wound in between two fairly steep hillsides, so we spent a lot of our time craning our necks upwards. Finally, though, our guide spotted a group of seven, three mating pairs, and we stopped the van and hopped out.
The takhis were very calm as we approached. With the 20x zoom on Bridgit’s camera, we were able to get quite the close-ups!

All of them have the same coloration, with the large dark heads and lighter bodies, and were very pretty. On our way out of the park again, we also saw a wolf trotting away on a distant hilltop.

The rest of the day was full of the tedium of driving spiked with the terror of driving in Ulan Bator. Drivers there don’t seem to care that much for rules of the road, and weave in and out of traffic very aggressively. There were a lot of times that it seemed like we were going to barrel in to one of the other cars.
Back in the city, we were really ready to have a break from the Mongolian country fare, so we hit up the Loving Hut Organic Vegan Café, directly around the corner from the guesthouse. Our meal there of beets, grilled tofu and veggies, and fried veggie patties really hit the spot after all of that meat, rice and cabbage for the last few days!


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