With a hankering to try mare’s milk and see the world’s largest equestrian statue, we decided to include Mongolia on our trip. It’s a two hour direct flight from Beijing, and we had a week to kill between our North Korea tour and a planned tour to Tibet. We would have liked to take the train to Mongolia, but it takes two days and also we would have had to wait a day or two to start the train journey, so it would have cut our time in-country very short.
So. We flew from Beijing to Ulaan Battar (after an 8 hour delay due to “weather”), and got to our hostel. The flight flew in over the Gobi Desert and it was amazing to see it from the air. The next day we went to Terelj National park, a beautiful, empty place out on the steppes. We hiked around, rode some horses, and stayed in a ger, which is the same as a yurt (the Turkish word for a round, felt house that can be moved from place to place). A lady named Anna cooked our meals and showed us how to work the wood fired stove (it was pretty cold at night!). It was really lovely out there.
In the city of Ulaan Battar, we visited various Ginghis Khan related places. Lots of giant statues of him all over the place. Including a giant- world’s largest- equestrian statue of Ginghis riding a horse, covered in steel plates. You can even take an elevator up to the horse’s head and stand up there, seeing for miles around, snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Ulaan Battar, surprisingly, has some pretty good food options. We had Russian food, Turkish food, and Mongolian food while we were here. One local specialty is a slightly fermented drink made from mare’s milk. It wasn’t terrible, it tasted like drinking sour cream or yogurt. We also had a local dumpling type food called khushuur, made with meat inside, which is sometimes fried and sometimes boiled in milk-tea. Speaking of, we asked about yak butter tea, a famous Mongolian thing, and were told two different things. One person said only the true nomads- way far away- drink that and it’s disgusting and smells horrible. Another person said it’s simply hot tea with yak milk and salt. A yak, after all, is just a very shaggy type of cow.
We visited a beautiful Buddhist monastery called Gandantegchenling. The Mongolian Buddhists share the same kind of Buddhism that Tibetans do, and both countries fought for independence from China. Many Mongolian monasteries were burned down during the Communist Soviet purges of the 1940’s. In addition to Buddhism, many Mongolians are animists, believing in the spirits of nature, such as wind, water, and sky. There are many awaas around the area, which are rock cairns with prayer flags where Mongolian shamans make prayers for good luck or positive outcomes.
The Mongolian National History museum was really informative, with rooms taking the visitor from Paleolithic to modern times, including a section on the Mongol empire of course. Good stuff. We downloaded the 2004 movie Mongol: Rise of an Empire, but we need one with subtitles. It’s supposed to be a pretty good movie about Ginghis Khan.