Getting out into the countryside: Terelj National Park

Date: 14th and 15th July

The real value of Mongolia comes from the vast unspoiled wilderness. With less than two million nomads spread across six hundred thousand square miles, it is one of the few truly wild places left in the world.

Not for the last time, I really didn’t give myself enough time to see the country, and I’ve been regretting it since. Having a train to catch I couldn’t extend my stay either, as I would do in Vietnam, so I didn’t get to see nearly enough of the countryside. Perhaps one day I’ll return.

Realising that I only had a couple of days to get out of the city after naadam, I considered buying a compass and just getting on a random bus or two, then trying to find my way back. This would have been an amazing adventure, but I didn’t have enough confidence in my ability to do it in time to catch my train. After looking around at a few tour companies, including one that could organise some tank driving and RPG shooting, I decided that they were rather out of my budget, and went back to ask advice at my guesthouse. Predictably, they offered tours themselves, but as they were significantly cheaper than anywhere else I’d found I decided to go with them.

The tour I booked was to Gorkhi-Terelj national park, 56 kilometers outside of Ulaanbaator. It is the closest major park to the city, but still far enough out that it offered a taste of the countryside.

I was to be taken out by a pair of girls from the guesthouse, the same two who would take me to the club. Their names were Lhavka and Boghie, the latter I remembered because it made me think of Humphrey Bogart every time. Leaving around mid day, we had to stop off at Boghie’s house to pick up a tent and change of clothes for the girls.

The house was an ever so slightly run down brick building, found down one of the most difficult to traverse sections of road I encountered in Mongolia. Once we had gotten down to the house we entered though a high rickety wooden gate and I was introduced to the family. There were a lot of them, and none spoke much English, but they were extremely welcoming. I was brought in to the living room, where the men were sitting watching the wrestling highlights. It’s traditional to offer the guest in a Mongolian household a pinch of snuff, often from an ornate carved box, with a bone ‘spoon’ to take it from. This was offered to me, although in hindsight I think I was probably being told about what traditionally should be done, as people seemed rather surprised when I took some. They were definitely happy about it though, so perhaps they just assumed a Brit wouldn’t accept it. I would have expected it to be much harsher than it actually was; it was surprisingly not that unpleasant. And, I learned later, accompanied with almost none of the cancer risks associated with smoking.

After the snuff came the vodka. It’s bad form to drink without eating though, so I was brought out some khorkhog. This is a very Mongolian meal; fist sized stones are heated in a fire, then put into a huge jug-like container. To this is added hunks of meat, usually mutton still on the bone, then optional vegetables, potatoes in this case. Water is poured on top, plus salt and some spices, and the whole thing is covered for around an hour and a half. Very simple, and delicious. Cooking for so long makes the meat extremely tender, and the water makes a great soup. I was also brought one of the stones used to cook, turned soot black by the heat and the fat. You toss it from hand to hand to bring luck, and also so you don’t burn yourself.

It went great with the vodka, and you’re supposed to eat with your hands which is always fun. I must have made appreciative enough noises, as we were given a bag full of it to take with us, as well as some Mongolian cheese, Byaslag. This was nowhere near as good as the khorkhog; an almost obscenely hard cheese, with a strong, sharp, slightly unpleasant flavour. It’s traditionally made from yaks milk, and dried on the roofs of gers, as there isn’t time in the nomadic lifestyle to store and age cheese, as is done in the rest of the world.

And then, after a stop to get petrol, we were off into Terelj.

The park itself encompasses a rather mountainous area, with beautiful forests, rivers and rock formations. It’s a seriously beautiful area to drive through. Stopping the car some way into the main park, we arrived at the Cave of 100 Lamas, where supposedly 100 buddhist lamas (kinda like a high priest, or teacher. Close in meaning to guru) hid from Soviet repression in the 1930s. It must have been seriously cramped in there, but I admit seems like it would have made an excellent hiding place. The entrance is up a slightly perilous climb, and is almost completely hidden from the base. However, the soviets were apparently better at religious purges than I would have been, and found and killed the lamas after only two months. Today, there is a shrine to the dead at the entrance of the cave.

The cave entrance is hidden around the corner from where those people are sitting

I was going to just copy and paste a photo I found of the cave, but it’s copyrighted so if you want to see the size of the cave where 100 lamas supposedly hid, go here:

Continuing into the park, we came to Turtle Rock. Most rock formations named after animals look nothing like them, but turtle rock really does look like a giant turtle.

Seen from a distance

The sharp ones among you will have realised that there are no turtles in Mongolia, and the name was brought by the Soviets . The older Mongol name for it I’ve forgotten, but it has to do with the wife of an ancient hero. The hero needed to leave the area, as he had brought down the wrath of the Khaan, but his wife refused to leave their homelands. Resolving this difficulty, the husband killed his wife, and put the body in the cave inside Turtle Rock. For years afterwards, her voice was heard in the area. Many years afterwards, food stored within the cave was found to never go bad, and money was found within. I’m sure that I’ve missed out a lot of the important aspects of the story, as it was relayed to me in rather broken English.

Climbing the turtle

The view from halfway up

After climbing up and inside of the rock, and tearing a hole in the leg of my trousers in the process, we decided to head over to the ger camp where we were to spend the night. And the car wouldn’t start. Popping the bonnet, we realised that none of us knew anything about engines. Nothing was on fire, or obviously missing, so I was at a loss. We stopped a passing local, who instantly realised that the battery was flat. Later we would learn that this wasn’t true, and that the connections were just rubbish, but a jump got us on our way again anyway. Later on, we would ‘fix’ the problem with a screwdriver to connect the leads to the terminals, or use a cloth to hold them together. Doing the latter worried me slightly, as the heat caused would often melt the fibers of the cloth a little.

'Fixing' the engine

We stopped at a rise to used an old man’s stall. Incredibly touristy, but he had some cool things for sale. Wickedly curved daggers, beautiful paintings of the park done by his son, and an interesting pair of bronzed busts. “Huh”, I thought, moving closer “those look familiar. Yep, that’s Stalin and, really? That other one is Hitler! Weird.” No other busts. They weren’t part of a collection. Just Hitler and Stalin. Yeah.

It seems that what the descendants of Genghis Khan respect more than almost anything is strength. It doesn’t matter to them that Hitler and Stalin were genocidal monsters (a horrible generalisation of an entire country. Forgive me), this is overshadowed by the power and strength they wielded. Being a mostly nomadic people, largely isolated from the effects of WWII, and having nothing in common with the victims probably helps too.

The ger camp we had arranged to stay at lay on the side of a grassy valley, nestled below the rocks of a rocky ridge. I was to sleep in a traditional ger, while the girls had brought a tent that they set up on the outskirts. A ger is what you will probably think of as a yurt; a round building with a gently sloping roof, open in the centre to allow smoke to escape. The term in Mongolian simply means ‘home’. Made from a wooden lattice covered in felt and supported by a central column, they are designed to be broken down and transported to different locations, but they don’t have the feel of a tent or temporary lodging.

My ger

The ger camp, as seen from the ridge behind

The inside of my one

A hole to let the smoke out

After a quick dinner, we walked around the corner to a traditional nomadic encampment, complete with pick up truck and satellite TV. There are a whole host of unwritten rules of etiquette in traditional society, and many of these were explained to me as we sat in a ger and were provided with food. You are never to stand on the threshold of the doorway, nor stand half in and half out of the ger. You must accept dishes handed to you with your right hand only, although you may use your left to brace the alternate elbow if it’s heavy. You may never walk between the two central columns, nor can you make one complete circuit of the inside of the ger. You must accept some food when entering a ger, although it is acceptable to take a small bite or sip, then decline the rest. And there were many and more that I’ve since forgotten.

The food we were eating was very traditional; Boortsog and öröm. Boortsog are dough, deep-fried in mutton fat. They taste much like a butter biscuit, and went well with the öröm, which is discs of clotted cream, taken from the production of our third delicacy, airag. This is the famous fermented mares milk, and is pretty much the national drink. It tastes terrible. A pale yellowy colour; much as you would expect it tastes a little like slightly gone off milk, with a bit of a sour, tangy quality to it. It’s very slightly carbonated and slightly alcoholic, with a concentration of an extremely weak beer. Up to around 2.5% abv, according to Wikipedia.

That link also describes the method of milking used: “Rinchingiin Indra, writing about Mongolian dairying, says “it takes considerable skill to milk a mare” and describes the technique: the milker kneels on one knee, with a pail propped on the other, steadied by a string tied to an arm. One arm is wrapped behind the mare’s rear leg and the other in front. A foal starts the milk flow and is pulled away by another person, but left touching the mare’s side during the entire process.

Later that evening, back at our base for the night, we decided to walk up to the foot of the mountain ridge behind us, and sat with a couple of beers, eating nuts and chocolate (because you can’t drink without food). The view as the sun set was stunning, and as night fell, a huge thunderstorm started up over on the horizon – too far away for us to hear the thunder or be rained on fortunately, but really beautiful. The stars came out, the same as those I know from home, so clearly I hadn’t travelled all that far from home yet. A thought both comforting and exciting.

We climbed up to the top of the ridge the next morning, to get a better view of the valley.

The view from the top

Much of the rest of the day was taken up with a visit to Aryapala, a buddhist monastery which, by virtue of location, managed to escape the Soviet purges. Largely hidden in a crook in the mountains, it still commands an amazing view all the way down to Turtle Rock.

The entrance gate at the base

A spring on the mountainside, flowing through a carved turtle

Rickety rope bridge

Buddhist rock paintings

Too many steps

The view from the top. You should be able to see turtle rock at the end of the valley

Decorations around the temple

The temple entrance. I didn't take any photos inside, but it wasn't as nice as the outside.

On the way back to Ulaanbaator, we stopped for lunch by the side of a river, a popular spot for locals. While there, we finished off the last of the khorkhog and some khuushuur, deep-fried meat filled flat dumplings, and watched the world go by. The river was painfully cold in the heat of the midday sun, and was used by a water buffalo and herd of horses, driven in and out a half-dozen times so that they were sufficiently cool before being driven off again. At lunch the girls gave me a couple of presents they had bought at the stall with the Hitler bust, a small replica ger made from felt (including furniture inside), and a small painting of a Mongol warrior on horseback.

Water buffalo in for a swim

And then it was time to return to the city.

And so ends my time in Mongolia. Next up: Beijing. I’ll try to write about that in less than a month. I’ll leave you with a few photos I didn’t include above.

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