Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: Mongolia

ONWARD THROUGH THE ROLLING STEPPE OF CENTRAL MONGOLIA

For the next week we traveled to higher altitudes and began to see yaks and rock-covered mountains with patches of poplar and larch trees. As we made our way to Tserleg, the provincial capital of Archangai province, where Bogie’s mother lives, we went through Kharkorin, the center of Ovorkhangai Province at the lower end of the Orkhon River. This is at the easternmost foothills of the Khangai Mountains, where they meet the rolling steppe of central Mongolia. The most famous landmark near the ruins of the ancient town of Kharakorin is Erdene Zuu monastery, the Temple of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and its famous phallic rock.

The history of this oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia dates back at least to 1585 and some say to the 8th century. It has survived centuries of invasion, political shifts, religious purges, and outright murder. The outer wall contains one hundred and eight white stupas, which managed to survive all the purges. The number 108 is very significant to Buddhists. For more information about this beleaguered monastery, now an historical museum, click HERE.

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Near the temple compound, there was a tourist area and everyone wanted to be The Eagle Huntress (see the movie if you haven’t already.)

We stayed for one night at the home of Bogie’s mother. It was here that we were treated to our first traditional lamb barbecue, a very elaborate feast served with a variety of salads, vegetables, and sweets. It was also our first real taste of Mongolia’s legendary hospitality. I’ve never seen anything like it, but was to enjoy the same warm and welcoming atmosphere throughout my journey. As we left we could see Ankush and his cousins enthusiastically playing with the plastic bat and ball that Tamara so thoughtfully carried as gifts for our host families.

Bogie with his wife and family

The day was glorious, with views of mountains, meadows, and animals.

In the late afternoon we set up camp near a clump of woods shielding a pristine, meandering stream. Well, not so pristine. Bogie was furious when he spied debris, especially plastic wrap in the water. He wasted no time cleaning things up and sharing his strong opinions about pollution.

The evening was peaceful…hiking in the mountains, exploring a nomad winter camp, and watching horses as they passed by.

The quiet of dusk. 

 

 

“LOOKING FOR A ROAD, WE’RE LOOKING FOR A ROAD!

“WHAT A WONDERFUL FEELING, WE’RE LOOKING FOR A ROAD.” (sung to the tune of Singin’ In The Rain). Yes, a good part of my journey through the heart of Mongolia last July was spent in a Russian van bumping over open countryside, maneuvering between giant rocks, down gullies, and through rivers, in search of the semblance of a road that would take us to sparkling lakes, undulating mountains, exquisite rock formations, and wilderness campsites. Sometimes I felt the van tilt so far that I was sure we would overturn, but our driver, Algaa, whom I nicknamed George, because I could never say his name with the correct inflection, was better than any race driver I had ever seen gracing the tracks of the Nurburgring or Indianapolis. It defined adventure and made me realize how often I employed my New Yorkese as I hung on and yelled, “Oiy Vay! I can’t believe this!” It was truly a thrill a minute.

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In all fairness, there is a super highway, but all the scenic places are off road…and it’s more fun, anyway!

Last July 3rd, just before I flew to Ulaanbaator, I wrote a bit about the history of modern Mongolia and about our outstanding guide, Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu (Bogie). Click HERE to read it. Bogie is an ornithologist, geologist, and engineer all wrapped into one, with an extensive knowledge of the wild life and history of his country. Like about 98% of the populace, he is well educated and aware of the problems facing the world today. He berated the West for its complacency about and complicity in global warming and for its lack of awareness of climate change. And he despaired of what it was doing to the culture and economy of his country. Animals are dying, grasslands are drying up, and nomads are moving to Ulaanbaatar, the capitol, in an attempt to make a living…stretching its facilities to the breaking point. I totally agreed with him, and shared my despair about how the current administration was pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Accord, and also allowing for more emissions from coal plants. I was helpless to explain this craziness and lack of foresight and was heartsick when I saw the condition of the formerly fertile hills and valleys of this nomad culture. Later on in my story I will show you how we got stuck in a sandstorm in the Great Mongolian sand dunes (or upper Gobi) and had to shovel our way out. And we weren’t the only ones!

Our story starts from the picturesque and bustling capital, Ulaanbaatar, on July 4th. Bogie arrived at our rented room on his bike and he, Tamara, and I headed for the main market located in the huge government department store to buy supplies for our trip. Tamara, you may remember, is my friend from Maine, whom I call a “traveling librarian.” At the store we met Tulle, Bogie’s charming wife, who was going to accompany us on the trip along with their adorable four-year old son, Ankush, a live wire, indeed, who was with us the first two days.

On July 8th we started on an adventure that would take us 4,750 kilometers overland through the Noyon Khangai and Altai mountains, Olgii, the Altai Bogd National Park and its lakes, the Kharkhiraa and Turgen mountain area, Achit, Unreg, and Hyargas Lakes, and the Great Mongolian sand dunes. Most of our first day was spent on a paved road, so we had no idea what lay in store for us! After we went off road, we passed numerous small lakes and marshes. The animals that stood in them and the low-lying white puffy clouds were perfectly reflected, doubling our visual pleasure. We were on the steppes with all kinds of grasses—from flowering forbs to feather grass, from spiny clusters to drought-resistant varieties with long Latin names. But there was still a great deal of sand with ripples, not from water, but from the wind.

It was a picture book scene: craggy outcroppings, black rocks, rolling hills, and an occasional cluster of two or three gers surrounded by roaming sheep, goats, and cows. A ger is a form of yurt. The roof is made of straight poles attached to the circular crown.

We camped not far from a nomad family, and it was quite the process each evening to set up.

As we were setting up, two children came by on a camel, offering rides. If I had known that this was my best chance, I’d have hopped aboard. Instead I decided to explore the sand dunes and swamps, which were rife with baby frogs and other tiny aquatic creatures.

We camped in part of the Khugnu-Tarna National Park. All around were small sand dunes and high grasses. In the distance were brown hills and lakes.

After dinner we walked to a sandy ledge where Bogie and his family had a grand time sliding down and trudging back up in bare feet.

As we stood there the moon came up and was in its full glory by the time we returned to camp. Sheep and goats roamed just outside our tents, as on most nights. It was cold and there were beads of frost on the grassy steppes at 5:30 in the morning when I peeked out at the sunrise. A clear white light silhouetted the hills.  Reflections highlighted the marsh. Total silence.

MONGOLIA!

I interrupt my recounting of our trek in Nepal last December with breaking news….I’m headed for Mongolia on July 3rd! People keep asking me, “Why are you going to Mongolia?” Just open a history book and start reading the fascinating rise of Chingghis Khaan (or as we say, Genghis Khan), the 12th century founder of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in history. Some call him the most brutal ruler in history and others call him The Lawgiver. Certainly he was a man of action, uniting numerous tribes and conquering everyone in sight. Then move on to the exploits of his grandson, Kublai Khan, the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. You won’t know where to stop!

I have been fascinated with the recent history of this faraway country, which has evolved into a present-day democracy sandwiched between China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. It has been said that over the past 2000 years, there is possibly no other place on the planet that has exported as much history as Mongolia. And now, at hardly more than three million people it has retained its peaceful nomadic culture twenty years after the Russian occupation, juxtaposed with a new technological insurgence in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. And it is determined to take charge of the development of its own rich resources. All this helped along with a 98% literacy rate and a reputation for unsurpassed hospitality. Pretty amazing.

Four years ago I heard about Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu from my friend, Terri Pedone. They had met while birding at Hawk Mt., PA., on the Kittatinny Ridge, a great migratory path for the raptor birds. She raved about this young man, a superb ornithologist, and put me in touch with him. After several efforts at planning a trip to  the mountains, lakes, and wide-open spaces of this beautiful country, we finally put a trip together. Joining us is another dear friend, Tamara Blesh, whom I met at the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamsala, India, in March, 2007. She’s a librarian from Maine and introduced me to teachers in Ladakh at the various schools to whom she delivers books every year.

I look forward to relating a most unusual trip, spent camping or living in Gers along the way as we explore Mongolia by jeep, camel, and horse…with a little swimming and hiking for good measure. And don’t forget the eagle hunts and racing during the Naadam Festival. We will be starting in Ulaan Baatar and traveling west to the Altai Mountains and Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. We are forgoing the Gobi Desert (too hot!) but instead will be going to the Great Mongolian sand dunes. Stay tuned….

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© 2017 Meg Noble Peterson & Site by Matt McDowell