Monday, September 26, 2011

Mongolia (Across Russia, Part 9)

After so many days in Russia, stepping off the bus in Ulaanbaatar was entering a whole different world. Siberia still had many of the tell tale signs of being distinctly Russian, but Mongolia was distinctly and unmistakably Mongolian. The only similarities were many of the same communist style buildings (the plans surely given to the then communist Mongolian People's Republic by the USSR), but a city is more about what happens in those buildings and between them, rather than the buildings themselves and here it was clear that we were not in Russia anymore.

Our schedule was tight: We arrived in the evening, I would meet up with my friend's from Sweden who by chance would be in UB at the same time headed the opposite direction, we would depart for the country side to stay with a nomadic family overnight, come back the next day, have the afternoon to sight see and then the next morning, it would be to the Chinggis Khaan International Airport to fly back to Sweden. This was the last stop of our trip. It would also be one of my favorites.

 After the break, we will head in the countryside for some stunningly beautiful shots of the Terelj National Park, the equally fascinating Zaisan Memorial in UB, and more...

A different type of traffic outside the city

Traffic in the city is a mess and generally lawless. Literally. Our driver when faced with a long line of cars and an empty lane reserved for oncoming traffic, simply decided to drive on the wrong side of the road, just like everyone else. On the main street, Peace Ave, there are lanes which are technically reserved for buses but these are merely suggestions. Traffic when we were there was worse than usual, because of the upcoming naadam festival, but it was a relief to get out of the city which quickly fell away to countryside.

After a short drive, we arrived at the camp just in time for dinner. On our way in, we had seen a bunch of very touristy operations but were relieved to find that we would be staying with a family-sized camp. The others had upwards of 20+ gers, while this one only had three for tourists.

After a tasty and simple lunch, I did something I had never done before: I went horseback riding. The views were amazing, but I am not sure how I feel about the riding aspect. It was a new experience, but I ended up feeling bad for the horse. He didn't really want to hike up that hill, and I like to hike so I think I would have liked to do it on foot. In fact, the next day I did do it on foot.

That evening was sort of the last spectacular night of the trip. Tomorrow night would be work as we got ready for the plane, so this was it. The near end of the trip.

The youngest member of the family we were staying with came by the ger just as it was getting dark and lit the small stove with amazing proficiency. Part of his secret? Birch bark. It's easy to light and burns slowly.

Once the sun had set, another treat came out. The clouds that had been rolling through all day and left over from the rain the day before lifted and the stars were out in full force. Being from Seattle, light pollution has killed the vast majority of the stars there, but here it's pretty dark and the true night sky was out. If you're curious about the effects of outdoor lighting and how many stars you can see in your area, the International Dark Sky Association and this resource are great places to start. /Urban Planner Hat: Plus, if you want more stars in your city, for yourself or your kids, there are things that can be done to prevent light pollution just by promoting better choices for outdoor lighting.

The next day, it was time to head back, but first I took the chance to hike back up and take a few more pictures. On our way down, I thought that I saw some alpine wild strawberry plants, so I was hoping to find some ripe strawberries, but it was too early in the season for that.

On our way back, we saw a kid with an eagle on the side of the road. It's one of the tourist attractions, where for two bucks you get to take some pictures and hold it. We convinced our driver to pull over and I'm glad he did: It ended up being one of my favorite moments in the trip.

As a bird lover, it was great to be so close to such a regal bird. It's a heavy bird when you're holding it and he's got a powerful grip to go with those talons. It's amazing to think that these birds are used for hunting game like deer and wolves here. In many ways, it's the connection with tradition that makes Mongolia so notable. The basics of Mongolian-ness, horsemanship, archery, wrestling, falconry, and the nomadic way of life, are still alive and well. In fact, just after we were done here we caught sight of the Mongolian calvary riding across the countryside.

Once we got back to Ulaanbaatar (after yet more traffic), I hopped on the bus and headed to the Zaisan Memorial. After a brief detour because of a missed stop, a little hitchhiking (seriously) back to the memorial, and a hike up the hill, I made it to foot of the monument itself.

I think it's pretty clear who built it.

The memorial was built after World War II by the USSR as a symbol of friendship between the two nations, the achievements of the Russian space program, and in honor of Mongolia's contribution to World War II. The view from the memorial is fantastic, overlooking the entire city, but within the memorial is a 360 mural which is fascinating and evocative.

With the sun setting, it was time for one last look around the city before our flight home the next day. Mongolia was a great place to visit and the three days we had simply wasn't enough. I'll be back for sure.

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