A Travellerspoint blog

Epic road trip to the Hot Springs

Fording rivers, crossing mountains in search of a warm bath. A balneologist's life is never dull!

sunny 21 °C

Tsenkher Hot Springs, Mongolia

Our morning began with one of those serene moments often sought but rarely found, the sun blessed grassy steppes before us. Through the door of our Ger a rectangular image of passing rural life - wild horses, naked children and languid dogs - could be viewed as we enjoyed our simple breakfast.

47Mongolia_-..011__1_.jpg

'Care for another ride?'

'Care for another ride?'

Our camel herders from yesterday return to their camp

Our camel herders from yesterday return to their camp

Heading west once again we would pass roaming herds of goats, sheep, horses and camel all of which required liberal use of the minivans horn and a judicious usage of brakes as they crossed and apparently grazed on the tarmac main highway.

Camels roam free on the nomadic Steppes

Camels roam free on the nomadic Steppes

Arriving in the short lived Mongol capital of Kharkhorin we struggled to purchase sufficient fuel to allow us to continue our journey. With Russia wanting to build an unnecessary 200 new gas stations in Mongolia, to the consternation of the government, the Russians had implemented a policy of gasoline rationing that was particularly affecting rural areas. As such the few petrol stations that we visited would either only sell us a few liters or demanded a special ticket, only available to locals. However, after a variety of stops and loud conversations we obtained sufficient gasoline to see us to our destination and back to Kharkhorin the following day. Just one of the trials and tribulations of travelling in Mongolia.

In Kharkhorin old railway carriages for shops and restaurants. The nearest railway line is back in UB though!

In Kharkhorin old railway carriages for shops and restaurants. The nearest railway line is back in UB though!

No railway carriage. Use a container!

No railway carriage. Use a container!

A railway carriage disguised as a restaurant

A railway carriage disguised as a restaurant

The local supermarket

The local supermarket

Leaving Kharkhorin the road soon turned into a dirt track. Until we returned to Kharkhorin we would see no more tarmac roads. Driving through the grassy Steppes on dirt tracks allowed our driver little time for relaxation. Frequent holes and undulations required constant vigilance. Navigation was through a combination of knowledge of the area and a general sense of direction, for there were no road signs on these tracks. Even the Lonely Planet guide provides GPS references.

Goats appear suicidal

Goats appear suicidal

As the grassy Steppes gave way to the small pine forests of the Khangai mountains, resembling a low lying Swiss Alp, the track become muddier. In places our minivan became bogged down but through excellent driving and a little good fortune we were able to surmount the challenges. With a crystal blue sky we hoped that rain would stay away for any additional precipitation would see us stuck in these forests with the tracks quickly becoming impassable.

An ovoo marks the top of the pass

An ovoo marks the top of the pass

Our first destination today was the scenic mountain top monastery of Tövkhön Khiid. Founded in 1653 by the first religious leader of Mongolia, the still revered Zanabazar, the monastery was purposely destroyed in 1937 but rebuilt with public funds in the early 1990s.

The Monastery comes into view

The Monastery comes into view

After lunching on Khuurshuur, that were much tastier than those we had eaten at the Naadam, we set out on the brief 2 mile hike to the monastery, through beautiful pine forests. Flies and dust became a feature, not just of this walk, but most of our time in the Mongolian countryside. Yet, some 45 minutes later we broke through the forest to see the prayer flag strewn, rocky mountain crop that had so inspired Zanabazar. Scrambling to the top various temples and related buildings could be explored. A no women area provided an amusing Shangri-la as I explored where Trey was not allowed but we were soon hiking down, followed by our slightly out of breathe guide and driver.

Wonderful views after our walk to the monastery

Wonderful views after our walk to the monastery

Tövkhön Khiid Monastery

Tövkhön Khiid Monastery

Enjoying the hike

Enjoying the hike

Tövkhön Khiid monastery

Tövkhön Khiid monastery

A happy place. A veritible Shangri-La lay in the distance

A happy place. A veritible Shangri-La lay in the distance

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

Tövkhön Khiid monastery

Tövkhön Khiid monastery

Prayer wheels at the monastery

Prayer wheels at the monastery

Our guide 'Mongo' is a little worried about making the final push for the summit

Our guide 'Mongo' is a little worried about making the final push for the summit

Ponies took the lazy to the Monastery

Ponies took the lazy to the Monastery

'What a great picture you have taken!'

'What a great picture you have taken!'

Having now travelled some two hundred miles from Ulaanbaatar, the last thirty miles taking almost two hours, we set out on what we were told would be a relatively brief two hour, forty mile drive to the Tsenkher Hot Springs.

The Mongolian countryside continues to roll by

The Mongolian countryside continues to roll by

With no road signs to guide us and a relatively monotonous grassy countryside, interspersed with rocky, limestone outcrops that could be best likened to those of the Yorkshire Dales, we hailed the infrequent drivers that we passed to inquire on direction and road condition. After some three hours of driving, yet still twenty miles from our destination we descended into a watery valley that fully tested the skills of our driver and the capability of our minivan. Yet this was the minivan than can. Followed by two large 4WDs we were able to pass where scarcely two minutes later the Toyota Landcrusier became bogged down. It was an amusing moment but not one that we could rest on as oncoming drivers had told us we would need to ford at least two rivers to reach our destination.

Easy riding. We stop the few passing motorists we meet to check our direction

Easy riding. We stop the few passing motorists we meet to check our direction

Finding the tractor outside a Ger (there was apparently only one in the area) that marked the crossing point for the river we arrived slightly ahead of a group of large 4WD, high riding minibuses. Concerned about the depth and flow of the river their drivers reconnoitered the crossing before slowly fording, one at a time.

Preparing to ford the first of two rivers

Preparing to ford the first of two rivers

There was a lot of water. With Mongolian words that I suspect translated along the lines of ‘oh, well here we go’ we entered the river. Water crowned the minivans bonnet but we crossed without incident. A few minutes later we reached the second river but crossed in the same successful manner. It was now ten o’clock at night. Thirty minutes later we reached the Hot Springs, where we hoped to overnight. The forty mile drive from the temple had taken nearly six hours. Tired and sore from the continuously bumping and jarring dirt tracks we were ready for bed. Yet there were no Ger’s available. With the Naadam and the warm weather every tent was taken. An uncomfortable night asleep in our trusty minivan beckoned. That is until we found a storage Ger that was quickly emptied and made into a makeshift sleeping Ger for the four of us. With three very hard beds our driver opted for the floor. Relief at not having to sleep in the car helped alleviate concerns about the lack of soft mattress . Finally able to sleep, with a fire in the stove and a full moon to admire, we collapsed into our hard beds and slept better than we had for many nights.

Posted by jamesh1066 17:16 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Boundless solitude at the world’s largest campsite

Sleeping in a nomads Ger at the Mongel Els sand dunes

sunny 23 °C

Mongel Els, Mongolia

Another early start was called for today as we attempt to obtain Chinese visas for our imminent departure to Beijing. After queuing some four hours, in the Philippines, to obtain Chinese visas earlier in the year we knew the importance of arriving at the embassy long before it opens. This was especially important as the embassy had been closed for five days and we were assured that Mongolians required a visa to visit China. This latter fact was not actually true and so we found ourselves at seven thirty in the morning, second in line at the embassy and ahead of only some 30 people when the consulate finally opened two hours later. However, our paperwork was processed in some 15 minutes, allowing us to head into the countryside and our Guesthouse to pick up the completed visas later in the day.

All alone outside the Mongolian parliament building

All alone outside the Mongolian parliament building

Employing a driver for the 4 days we would spend in the countryside, Hasha, would allow us to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Mongolian countryside without having to focus on the sporadically pot-holed, paved road we were travelling. Our guide Mongo would enable us to communicate with the Nomad’s that we hoped to meet and also provide some history on the places we visited. However, as it was her first time acting as a guide her knowledge was a little limited. For us this was a boon as we were not asked to follow a prescribed schedule, eat at pre-arranged restaurants and never vary off what was planned. We had decided the schedule and where we should visit so this relaxed situation was only to our benefit and liking.

Please look at me!

Please look at me!

After only a few hills we were soon out of the ugly, concrete sprawl of Ulaanbaatar and enjoying the rolling Steppes of the Mongolian landscape. Views that would soon become a little monotonous were for now, fresh and exciting. Nomadic Gers dotted the landscape with herds of goat, horse, cow, sheep or yak often close by, depending on the relative wealth of the nomad. Not allowed within the city limit nomads congregated on one hill, close to the city, selling sheep. A whole sheep cost $80 USD. This included slaughter but not the wool coat which was sold separately. Those who could afford this price would then take the fresh mutton (for lambs are never slaughtered in Mongolia – our guide could not understand why you would want to eat lamb) and butcher, store and cook, as required.

A roadside ovoo

A roadside ovoo

Stopping for a late lunch in Lun we enjoyed typical Mongolian food. My ondogeikuurga or beef with eggs and mantuu (a barely cooked dough ball) was very tasty and included the two key elements of Mongolian cooking meat and dairy products. Outside the pit toilet was not quite so inviting but at least by now we had grown accustomed to them.

Hanging out. Keeping cool

Hanging out. Keeping cool

Horse transportation Mongolian style

Horse transportation Mongolian style

Returning to our hybrid, 4WD Toyota minivan, that would prove itself to be more than capable of managing the rough terrain we would soon find ourselves upon, we noted it was right hand drive even though Mongolians drive on the right. This is something we had noticed in Siberia as well as Mongolia. As we had surmised it is purely due to cost. Secondhand cars, from Japan (where they drive on the left) are much cheaper than left hand drive cars and so it was for much of our four days on the road I found myself acting as co-pilot letting the driver know when the relatively light volume of traffic we came upon was safe to pass.

Our driver with his friend

Our driver with his friend

Some four hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar we had passed one town, innumerable Nomadic Ger camps and endless grassy plains. Outside of the few major conurbations that exist in Mongolia the Steppes offer free camping for all. This facilitates the Nomadic lifestyle with no fences or barriers to restrain animals or limit human exploration - Mongolia is essentially the largest campsite in the world. In search of better pasture the Nomad will typically move four times each year, often to the hills in winter and grassy plains in summer. Significantly older than the Himalayas the mountains of Mongolia, rounded and smoothed by millions of years of weather appear, essentially, as hills with few impenetrable to anyone on horseback.

Traditional Ger camp

Traditional Ger camp

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

Home on the Steppes

Home on the Steppes

Trey loved the bike, Ger motif

Trey loved the bike, Ger motif

Arriving at the mini-Gobi sand dunes of Mongel Els afforded us our first experience of real nomad’s Ger. Entering a strange odor emanated from the large cooking pot in the centre of the tent. Heated by a centrally located wood-fired stove it became evident that the not unpleasant odor was sheep entrails that were being boiled as a treat for later in the day. Stomach, intestine, liver and kidney were a few of the offal parts more readily identifiable. Seen as a positive omen if visitors arrive whilst these entrails are being cooked we were invited to partake of the small feast enjoyed by the head of the family. Still full from lunch we were forced to decline the offer (!!) but did partake of milk tea (boiling milk and green tea, with a little water) and some more dry curd. As on the Trans-Siberian Express we were fortunate to still have in our possession a few supplies of Betty's Ginger Shortbread and Walnut & Ginger cake. Whilst not Betty's Tea room the cake and milk tea worked surprisingly well. Both Mongolian Nomad and ourselves enjoyed this impromptu hybrid English Afternoon Tea. It will be a sad day when our stores of a 'little taste of home' run out.

A little taste of home. What a treat!

A little taste of home. What a treat!

Taking a break

Taking a break

Supper is prepared

Supper is prepared

Look at meeeee!

Look at meeeee!

With brightly colored carpets covering the felt walls, inside the Ger was extremely warm and homely. As is always the case the door of the Ger faced south, with a Buddhist altar located in the northeast corner, storage to the right of the door and a sink to the left. The remaining space was taken over by beds/couches and a central table. As the guest Ger was already taken for the night this was to be our overnight accommodation, the family apparently happy to sleep in a quickly erected tent.

Relaxing in our Ger

Relaxing in our Ger

Hello!

Hello!

Climbing every dune

Climbing every dune

Look at me!

Look at me!

Feeling slightly embarrassed at forcing the family from the Ger we retired to the nearby sand dunes. A mini-Gobi as the tourist touts like to bill it (although as we were later to see the Gobi has very few sand dunes!). Exploring this desert landscape reminded one of Lawrence of Arabia.

Out in the sand dunes

Out in the sand dunes

Enjoying the dunes

Enjoying the dunes

Rounding up the kids for the night

Rounding up the kids for the night

Small goats, big goats...

Small goats, big goats...

Budding mechanic

Budding mechanic

Later in the day Trey was to ride a camel through the dunes. However, in the early evening with a full moon high in the sky she failed to generate the same visual imagery as Omar Sheriff riding through the desert to greet Capt. Lawrence at the well.

'Hello. Can I help you' Mr Arabia

'Hello. Can I help you' Mr Arabia

Out for a ride

Out for a ride

'Get off my neck'

'Get off my neck'

Oh Star of Wonder, Star of Night...just a pity there were no wise men!

Oh Star of Wonder, Star of Night...just a pity there were no wise men!

As a nomadic camp there was no running water, no hot (or cold!) shower, no gas or electricity and no toilet (the vastness of the Steppes provide plenty of places to resolve that issue). At night a stillness fills the air broken only by the periodic sound of horse, goat or dog, that never strayed far from their masters Ger. We were not to know it but this Nomadic home was to be the most comfortable Ger that we stayed in. Certainly, at the time we felt it was the most atmospheric and genuine Mongolian experience that we could hope for. Sleep passed quickly and well. Tomorrow, we would continue to our explorations to the west.

Where to next!

Where to next!

Posted by jamesh1066 17:06 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Drinking with Nomads at a twenty mile horse race

The spectacular third sport of the Naadam and a traditional Mongolian concert to conclude the festivities

sunny 27 °C

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Eager to experience the third of the ‘Three Manly Games’, the horse racing, we had an early start so that we could be at the Naadam stadium by eight thirty. With a 25 mile bus ride to the ‘racecourse’ we felt this would give us sufficient time to find the bus and see the end of the first race. Even though this race had already started, at seven o’clock, being 20 miles in length it was not anticipated to end until ten o’clock. Yet we had not accounted for the hopeless organization of the Games. After 805 years one might hope that a sign pointing to the location of the buses could have been produced or better still an English speaking information booth provided. This was not to be the case. Lost and British we asked a policeman. Well, many policemen. Some told us there were no buses, some pointed us 180° in exactly the wrong direction, whilst others pretended that they could not understand my bus and horse racing mime. So it was an hour later, with a degree of sheer dumb luck we boarded a tired looking bus for the horse racing.

'What was that you said'

'What was that you said'

On board no seats were available so we found a spot to stand and waited to depart. As we waited more passengers joined us. As we continued to wait available space in the bus became a premium, until as we departed we were crushed, for the hour long ride, like rush hour commuters on the London Tube. Yet, at a variety of bus stops more people boarded and the crush of people grew. At our final stop, before we left the city, a flood of hopeful passengers surged forward. As a privately run bus the conductor was happy to carry as many as the bus would hold. Health and Safety, maximum operating limits and the like were certainly unknown concepts. Rammed on the bus we had little choice but to find whatever space we could have hold onto it for the next hour, vowing that a taxi would take us back to the capital.

Ponies ready for a 20 mile race

Ponies ready for a 20 mile race

Arriving at the grassy hill, that overlooked the finish of the racecourse it was clear that organization, Naadam and efficient rarely go to together. One can but hope that the organizers of the London Olympics were not there on a fact finding mission. Our bus was now stuck in traffic. Not because of volume but due to sheer stupidity and incompetence. Annoyed at having to queue single file to leave the horse racing a large number of cars had decided to drive down the other side of the road (the lane for entering the racecourse). This left the two lane road with departing traffic using both lanes but incoming traffic still using their ‘usual’ side of the road. Where the two opposing lanes of traffic met a lone policeman tried in vain to alleviate the situation. Understanding how long this would take to resolve we escaped from the bus scrum and gladly worked the last mile to the racecourse.

Our bus conductor shows us around

Our bus conductor shows us around

Young riders and their prized watches

Young riders and their prized watches

Will his pick up line work?

Will his pick up line work?

With our bus conductor, who had also escaped the chaos, acting as an impromptu guide we headed for a small Ger camp. Eager for us to ride their horses were declined but did accept our first taste of airag – fermented mare milk (3% alcohol). Tasting bitter and of slightly ‘off’ milk it was palatable but not tasty. Dried curd or aaruul was also offered, tasting very much like a tough, mild cheddar cheese. The hospitality of Nomad Mongolians is well known and this was no exception. Asking for no payment this was simply their culture. For us it was a wonderful welcome to this different area of the Naadam.

A ride is offered

A ride is offered

The modern world affects the Ger as well

The modern world affects the Ger as well

Give me a home where the Yak roam!

Give me a home where the Yak roam!

With our conductor/guide leaving us to return to his now extricated bus we headed for the centre of the festivities. Looking out over a large area that resembled a rock festival more than a horse race it was clear where the finish of the race would occur.

The Field of Dreams

The Field of Dreams

Jockeys ready to depart

Jockeys ready to depart

Yet all over the surrounding hills and grassy steppes, Ger camps and western style tents dotted the landscape. People sat cooking, drinking and generally enjoying the environment and like any good rock concert there appeared to be only one restroom – a hole in the ground with a couple of planks over it and a line of 50 people waiting to us it. This was not exactly Royal Ascot or even Brighton races on a wet Monday evening!

Queue for the pit, sorry, toilet

Queue for the pit, sorry, toilet

Everyone dresses up for the Nadaam festival

Everyone dresses up for the Nadaam festival

Yet this spectacle of Gers, tents, flags and people was mesmerizing.

Prayers flags overlooking the race course

Prayers flags overlooking the race course

A cultural village provided traditional Mongolian music and an insight into the arts and crafts of Mongolia.

A local orchestra helps set the mood in the Cultural Village

A local orchestra helps set the mood in the Cultural Village

The lead singer poses for pictures

The lead singer poses for pictures

A Mongolian caligrapher prepares a very special scroll

A Mongolian caligrapher prepares a very special scroll

With time passing quickly the finish of the last race of the Naadam was soon amongst us. Open to teenagers only the feat of stamina for both horse and rider, of this 20 mile ride, is one that can probably only be fully appreciated by those of my friends with an intricate understanding of horses. Yet, even for Trey and I, who might think that two miles is a long horse race, this race over open countryside between two points, with no fences or planned routes was an amazing spectacle.

After 3 hours racing the riders finally reach the finish line

After 3 hours racing the riders finally reach the finish line

Trey enjoys the climax of the racing

Trey enjoys the climax of the racing

Watching the dust trails on the horizon as the front running competitors came into view was a spectacle to behold and certainly our favorite part of the Naadam. With an unknown young boy winning the race by some ten lengths we headed to the Ger restaurants. As at the Stadium they only appeared to serve Khuushuur. Yet, as yesterday they were tasty as we enjoyed yet another blue sky Mongolian day.

Row upon row of Ger restaurants

Row upon row of Ger restaurants

Our best Khuushuur yet

Our best Khuushuur yet

Plenty of room for ponies at the Ger restaurants

Plenty of room for ponies at the Ger restaurants

One for the road

One for the road

Returning to the capital by taxi proved as ‘exciting’ as the bus journey to the races. With a dual carriageway outside the race area congested the majority of drivers decided that both sides of the two-way dual carriageway could be used to return to Ulaanbaatar. Readily avoiding the inevitable head on traffic , as we drove on the wrong side of the dual carriageway, we were soon off-road, in our little saloon car, to avoid further congestion on the main road. Dirt tracks, dried river beds and muddy back roads provided for a bouncing and jarring ride back into the city.

Off home after a hard day at the races

Off home after a hard day at the races

The returning buses were just as busy. We opted for a cab

The returning buses were just as busy. We opted for a cab

A very tired rider

A very tired rider



Next year's competitor

Next year's competitor

Back in the city we had tickets for ‘Beautiful Mongolia’ A performance by the State National Grand Orchestra of Mongolia . Purchased from the daughter of the conductor we had been promised an evening of traditional Mongolian music, only staged once a year during Naadam. Walking to the concert the continual habit of drivers refusing to stop for green pedestrian crossing lights and to even speed up when one is legitimately crossing the road finally got the better of me. A driver of an old, yellow car, refusing to stop for us on the cross walk, received a very firm kick to his passenger door. Probably unaware of the slight dint he stopped abruptly and shouted a string of abuse, in Mongolian. A returned smile and a gesture to look where he was going in future did little to lower his blood pressure but did allow us the satisfaction of at last scoring a point for the pedestrian. Further along another incompetent pickpocket attempted to steal from my backpack (which I had worn under my coat at the market the day before). This time his attempt to open the zip was so rough and clumsy that there was no disguising what he was up to. Now aware of his intention he had little chance of returning to what he had hoped would be an open bag and he slunk off. Hopefully, their skills will not improve further.

At the concert we had a small, impromptu Olkhon Island reunion. Two Canadians that we had met on the bus to the island were in attendance and by strange coincidence a Dutch girl we had met in the bar at Nikita’s was sat next to us. It was she that had been the unfortunate victim of three pickpockets during the Naadam. Clearly, worried we walked her back to her hostel after the Naadam, discussing where she might go during her anticipated six months of travelling in Mongolia.

The Mongolian State National Orchestra

The Mongolian State National Orchestra

The concert itself was excellent and most enjoyable. Traditional Mongolian musicians played instruments such as the morin khuur (horse head fiddle), Mongolian harps and long horns along with demonstrating the strange Mongolian art of Khöömii (throat singing). With a few western classics such as Brahms and even some Queen thrown into the evenings repertoire the mostly unknown to us Mongolian music was both evocative and enjoyable, the lament for the lost camel in the Gobi desert being particularly descriptive.

Horse head fiddles

Horse head fiddles

The concert also provided a number of firsts, certainly for myself. It was the first Classic concert that I had attended with two conductors, who took turns to conduct. It was the first where I had seen musicians sing but this happened during a number of pieces, whilst the orchestra played on and it was also the only concert I have attended where the composers of two of the pieces were also playing in the orchestra, which provided extra interest for ourselves.

Traditional Mongolian dress

Traditional Mongolian dress

This second day of the Naadam had certainly been our favorite. The Opening Ceremony had been impressive but whilst the wrestling and archery were interesting the spectacle of a 20 mile horse race along with traditional Gers and hospitable Nomadic welcome that we had received was hard to beat. With an excellent Mongolian concert rounding off a great day we prepared to leave the city, in the morning, to explore some more of the beautiful Mongolian countryside that we had only briefly glimpsed today.

Posted by jamesh1066 17:53 Archived in Mongolia Tagged horse racing ulaanbaatar naadam Comments (0)

Bare-chested men, Mongol warriors and dancing girls

Day one of the 805th Naadam festival

sunny 27 °C

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Awakening to a glorious Eternal Blue Sky, so important in Mongolian culture, the anticipated opening of the 805th Naadam festival, the whole purpose of our trip across Eastern Europe, Russia and Mongolia, was now only hours away. Unsure what the day would bring we decided upon a healthy breakfast to ensure sufficient sustenance. With one restaurant purporting to cook a ‘Full English Breakfast’ we ordered eagerly having not had a ‘proper’ breakfast since leaving England some six weeks previously. Needless to say dodgy sausages, potato lacking hash browns and garden peas instead of the promised baked beans were served. With no tea available, although the next person to order tea was successful, this had to be one of the worst breakfasts we have ever eaten. Yet again we learnt that valuable lesson of eating local food when in a place that does not cater widely to tourists.

Entry of the Nine Yak Tails

Entry of the Nine Yak Tails

However, undeterred we headed for the opening ceremony of the Naadam at the purpose built stadium. As we approached the crowds began to grow with many Mongols dressed in their finest dels and sporting excellent, traditional pointed hats. Arriving shortly before the President of Mongolia was to address the packed stadium we staggered to our seats climbing over those already seated with little room to spare.

Under attack

Under attack

800 years of history before us

800 years of history before us

Mongolian warriors on the field

Mongolian warriors on the field

Sat behind the staging and directly opposite the Presidential box our seats afforded an excellent view of the action but for the majority of the various performances we were looking at the back of people.

Enjoying the Games

Enjoying the Games

A sea of faces

A sea of faces

That was when umbrellas were not blocking our view. For the locals the warm and sunny weather was too much and as such the tepid rays of sunshine that fell upon us, for this was hardly the heat that Trey and I are used to, required extensive usage of umbrellas. Held high they blocked not only the suns ‘powerful’ rays but also our view. After a number of taps and enforced lowering of umbrellas we won the war and were able to watch the riot of color and costume that passed before us, unencumbered.

The umbrella wars begin

The umbrella wars begin

The opening ceremony begins

The opening ceremony begins

Dancing girls with their multi-colored costumes proceeded the mounted Mongolian soldiers who brought with them the nine tail Yak banners we had seen the night before.

Chingis reincarnated

Chingis reincarnated

Hundreds of 13th-century uniformed Mongol soldiers charged and paraded for us whilst a 300 person horse fiddle orchestra – the traditional knee held two string instrument of Mongolia – played a variety of evocative pieces. As promised the Opening Ceremony was an impressive show and one we were told later surpassed, significantly previous Opening Ceremonies.

Warriors pass one of four Gers on the field

Warriors pass one of four Gers on the field

Mongul warriors

Mongul warriors

The Mongul hordes descend

The Mongul hordes descend

The mass horse head fiddle orchestra

The mass horse head fiddle orchestra

After the Opening Ceremony the serious business of the ‘Three Manly Games’ began. The most important sport of the games is wrestling. Bare-chested men compete through a serious of elimination rounds to be crowned champion of the games.

Probably not his first Nadaam

Probably not his first Nadaam

Young wrestlers

Young wrestlers

Manly wrestling

Manly wrestling

First round wrestling contenders. Lambs for the slaughter

First round wrestling contenders. Lambs for the slaughter

This is the only outfit of the Naadam that has changed since the 13th-century. At some point in the 15th-century it is alleged that a women won the wrestling and as such the requisite attire was changed to ensure that could not happen again. With our lack of Mongolian and as such an inability to understand (or at least easily ignore) police instructions we accidentally (!) ended up on the Naadam field in amongst the wrestlers. This provided for some excellent photographic opportunities, although with so many naked men Trey hardly knew where to look first!

Trey enjoys the bare chested wrestling

Trey enjoys the bare chested wrestling

Young wrestlers

Young wrestlers

Now finding ourselves within the restricted competitors only zone we wondered around the field taking pictures of both the brightly dressed competitors and the watching crowd.

On the field of Manly Games

On the field of Manly Games

A face in the crowd

A face in the crowd

Traditional dress

Traditional dress

A future champion wrestler

A future champion wrestler

Yet, these early stages of the wrestling are very much one-sided. The winner is the first to force their opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body other than hand or foot. Large sumo like wrestlers appear to be commonly paired with young solider recruits apparently brought in to make up the numbers. With the latter showing little chance of success the stadium soon became empty with only a few stands replete with western tourists and other competitors eager to see their friends and potential competition in action.

'eh up

'eh up

Safe storage for ones ticket

Safe storage for ones ticket

Archers ready for competition

Archers ready for competition

Wisdom and age

Wisdom and age

All compete in the archery

All compete in the archery

Archers ready

Archers ready

Lady archers

Lady archers

The second sport of the Naadam is archery. Here both men and women shoot arrows 225ft and 180ft respectively at a wall of 20 to 30 rings on the ground. Judges standing next to the rings, close enough to illicit potentially serious injuries, and emit sounds and raise their arms to indicate the quality of the shot. The archer who hits the targets the most times is declared the best mergen (archer).

The archers target

The archers target

Let fly

Let fly

Archers review their shots...

Archers review their shots...

...were they on target

...were they on target

Wise heads

Wise heads

An ancient sight

An ancient sight

Archers

Archers

It was whilst enjoying the warm sun on the archery field that I bumped into a ‘had to be British’ couple. With the gentleman dressed in tweed and the lady likewise in a typically Cheltenham Gold Cup outfit, this surely had to be the British ambassador come to enjoy the games on this 3-day national holiday. Eager to hear an English accent and see if my supposition was correct I struck up a conversation. With neither of us fully comprehending the rules appertaining to archery we soon progressed onto how we found ourselves at the Naadam. True to my guess this was the British ambassador to Mongolia. Her Excellency Miss Thorda Abbott-Watt. Having just completed, on the train to Mongolia, Matthew Parris’ excellent book on Valedictorian Speeches in the Diplomatic Services, we lamented the passing of this custom and how electronic and social media made the required frankness of the diplomatic service harder to accommodate. Concluding with pleasantries Her Excellency returned to the archery and we to the anklebone shooting.

Anklebone shooting

Anklebone shooting

Anklebone shooting is a relatively new component of the Naadam that entails flicking a sheep’s anklebone at a small target (also made of anklebone) about 9ft away. This indoor sport is given an electric atmosphere by the ever present yodeling of spectators to spur the competitors on. By the time we arrived the semi-finals were well underway with each flick of the anklebone pondered, strategized and contemplated, although, unlike the archery, there was little chance of any judge or onlooker being impaled at this event.

Anklebone shooting - The target

Anklebone shooting - The target

Traditional Mongolian fashion

Traditional Mongolian fashion

Certainly, during the early rounds of these sporting events it became clear that the locals had little interest in watching the events. Foreign tourists monopolized those areas. For locals the fifty some food stalls were the star attraction of the first day of the Naadam, after the Opening Ceremony. Whilst the President had decreed that this Naadam would be alcohol free it did not seem to detract from people’s enjoyment of the snacks available. From what we could see every stall sold exactly the same food item – Khuushuur – a flat deep fried dough stuffed with minced mutton. With certain restaurants being favored we found long lines at some establishments and none at others. Filling and tasty, although a little bland, we enjoyed our Khuushuur but made a mental note to pack the sweet chili sauce, we had purchased in Russia, so that we could spice them up a little the following day.

School picnic

School picnic

School children in traditional dress

School children in traditional dress

The annual school outing

The annual school outing

I know another beautiful girl in England who also likes to eat grass

I know another beautiful girl in England who also likes to eat grass

Time for a quick pint

Time for a quick pint

Some Mongolians have very large cell phones!

Some Mongolians have very large cell phones!

With all the events visited we ensured as evening fell that we were back at Sükhbaatar Square to enjoy the free music concert that had been organized for the Naadam. Yet, this was not to be. As we arrived the menacing storm clouds broke and a veritable monsoon drenched not only the crowd but also the stage and the poorly covered sound equipment. Sheltering at the Opera House, behind a phalanx of Police officers it was over an hour before the torrential down pour finally cleared.

Hemmed in by police

Hemmed in by police

With some revelers hopeful that the concert would restart we retired to a café for a hot chocolate to allow the inevitable road and pavement floods, in the badly drained city, to subside and allow us a relatively dry walk home to a thankfully dry and warm bed.

After the storm...

After the storm...

...golden skies

...golden skies

Home from the Nadaam

Home from the Nadaam

Posted by jamesh1066 17:26 Archived in Mongolia Tagged ulaanbaatar naadam Comments (0)

Incompetent pickpockets and Yak tails

Excitement grows as the Naadam approaches

sunny 26 °C

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

With rain the previous evening our morning excursion to Naran Tuul or the Black Market was set to be both muddy and wet. Located a short distance outside of the city we were able to take a state operated bus there, although with unintelligible signs and maps this was more by luck than planning. Our driver clearly thought of himself as the next Mongolian Michael Schumacher as we lurched, violently, through the chaotic traffic of Ulaanbaatar with neither bus nor neighboring car giving way or acting in anyway helpful to each other.

Come and get your silk

Come and get your silk

We knew we had arrived at the market when the entire busload of passengers decided to disembark en masse. As with all group activities in Mongolia this involved everyone pushing and shoving to get off first. Why we are unclear. Hanging back we avoided the rugby scrum and lost only a few seconds of time. Clearly, Mongolians cannot afford these unnecessary seconds of delay!

The market is billed as a locals market, which it clearly is. As one of the largest markets in Asia, with up to 60,000 visitors every day the vast number of stalls provide for the purchasing of a Ger and all of its associated paraphernalia, horse riding tack, clothes, shoes and handbags. With only a couple of souvenir stalls broadly speaking there is little to hold the interest of the tourist, yet the sights and sounds are fascinating.

Horse tackle for sale at the Black Market

Horse tackle for sale at the Black Market

Young Mongolian’s could be seen purchasing their first del – the traditional all-purpose coat often worn by men and women, new stoves for heating a ger through the winter were being examined and a variety of riding crops tested for strength and flexibility.

Typical Mongolian butchers. Look no refrigeration

Typical Mongolian butchers. Look no refrigeration

Yet, the market as we had been warned did have a darker side. Pickpockets were an issue. At one point a middle aged lady, selling boots, blocked my path. The blockage looked accidental. Yet at the same time a stooped youth approached and tried to put his hand in my pocket. Internal zips on my Rohan trousers, a long shirt and vigilance presented insurmountable challengers for him, yet the approach was disconcerting. Later in the morning another attempt was made on my jacket pocket. Success would have yielded an unused wad of toilet paper (for that is rarely supplied at the required moment) but the pickpocket was never to know that. Later in the week we were to meet up with a Dutch friend, from Olkhon Island who had been pick pocketed three times in the same day. I guess we were lucky that our would be pickpockets were totally incompetent.

Leylandii branches are used as incense. Smell reminds me of home!

Leylandii branches are used as incense. Smell reminds me of home!

Disillusioned and a little disappointed by the market we spent the rest of the day exploring more of the city. Wondering its streets and enjoying the pre-Naadam atmosphere.

Escaping from the Black Market. Perfectly servicable exit just around the corner!

Escaping from the Black Market. Perfectly servicable exit just around the corner!

After an average Indian curry supper we by chance wandered through Sükhbaatar Square to see the presentation of the nine Yak tail banners. Typically, displayed reverentially at the Parliament building, in the morning they would be taken, with all due pomp and circumstance, to the Naadam Stadium to formally open the games.

The band gave us some good tunes

The band gave us some good tunes

The Three elders

The Three elders

This evening traditionally dressed Mongolian soldiers in their blue and red uniforms processed the banners around the Parliament in a pre-Naadam parade to wild excitement and applause from a clearly excited crowd.

The crowd were thrilled as the start of the Nadaam approached

The crowd were thrilled as the start of the Nadaam approached

Even the on duty police seemed to be enjoying the sight keen to take cell phone pictures and talk to their friends, a sight one rarely sees from a professional on duty English policeman.

On your bikes

On your bikes

Got my Yak Tail banner. Check

Got my Yak Tail banner. Check

Chingis would have been proud

Chingis would have been proud

Spare ponies in case of breakdown

Spare ponies in case of breakdown

The Nine Yak Tales are proudly paraded back into Parliament. The whole ceremony appears to simply confirm that they exist!

The Nine Yak Tales are proudly paraded back into Parliament. The whole ceremony appears to simply confirm that they exist!

'Three Little Maids'

'Three Little Maids'

As the ceremony came to an end a couple of Mongolian news reporters tried and failed repeatedly to conclude their televised report on the evenings event. We offered our Producing services!

Lights, camera, action

Lights, camera, action

Posted by jamesh1066 18:06 Archived in Mongolia Tagged ulaanbaatar Comments (0)

(Entries 56 - 60 of 94) « Page .. 7 8 9 10 11 [12] 13 14 15 16 17 .. »