Sunday (8th) around lunch time we hopped off the train and conveniently were met by a man with a van to take us to our accommodation. We were not expecting much from Ulaanbaatar, from what we had heard it was drab and boring, and to experience Mongolia you have to go outside of the city (which we had planned). However we were pleasantly surprised, although not a bustling CBD it was definitely more cosmopolitan than we were expecting. If your expectations are low, then you can only be surprised. We spent the afternoon sitting back in a cafe with some free wi-fi having some snacks, coffee and then beers before heading out to a bit of dinner.
Monday morning (9th) at 10am we were picked up by our very friendly guide Tergel (pronounced Terka) and our driver (we could never remember his name, Mongolian is pretty difficult to pick up). Our first destination was Terelj national park outside of Ulaanbaatar approximately an hour and a half away. During our drive Tergel gave us some background information on Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia including some interesting information on goverment and social changes - they have only been a democracy since 1992. She also told us a bit about the traditional Mongolian house, the ger which we would be staying in. A ger can be purchased for approximately $1000 AUD and constructed and moved quite easily. Essentially the walls are a wooden lattice material with a centre pole section that supports spoke-like roof beams. Felt is layed over the structure and a material is then put over the felt. All very simple and effective, they were everywhere in Mongolia. Our guide Tergel, told us that Mongolians are able to go and stake a claim to a 3/4 acre piece of land wherever they like out of the city, they simply build a fence around this area and then will put up a ger and this will act as a farm or country home out of the city.
After arriving at Terelj and 'checking in' to our ger at Terelj Lodge Ger camp, we had some surprisingly good lunch. We were later told by another traveller that Terlej Lodge was considered the best for food. After lunch we did a bit of exploring around the camp by ourselves before heading to a large rock aptly named 'turtle rock' and then to a small meditation monastery which was perched on the side of a hill surrounded by stunning Mongolian scenery. The monastery was quite a highlight, very peaceful and although not grand and ornate still very beautiful. The keeper who was there was very proud to show us all of the different parts of the monastry, including the different painted murials on the large wooden support beams, representing heaven, earth and hell. The hell pictures were particularly gruesome, but quite tongue in cheek.
Near the ger camp
Inside the ger
The Meditation Monastery
We guess this represented those who went to hell for...public nudity perhaps?
Tuesday morning (10th) first up we headed to the Chinggis (Gengis) Khan monument, which is a 40metre high stainless steel statue of Chinggis Khan on horseback. There are plans to make it a large park complete with ger accommodation and restaurants etc, but currently it is bare land (and the plans do seem quite optimistic). From Chinggis we took a long drive to Hustai National park and arrived for a late lunch at the Hustai Park Ger camp. The camp is located just outside the National Park boundary and so is the only settlement for quite some time. The views were spectacular, and you didn't have to walk far to feel like your in the middle of nowhere. We also got to have a bit of a ride on some of the camp horses and although we were led along by a guide it was still fun, especially as it was getting close to sunset. We went right up to the top of a hill where the view was breathtaking. Once we returned to the camp we took off in the car to the national park to view the 'Takhi' (Mongolian wild horses) which is what the park is famous for. All modern day horses are decendants of the Takhi (pronounced Ta-cke) , and although they became extinct in the wild in the 70s, they have been reintroduced from various zoos around the world. Now the Mongolians are very serious about preserving them in Hustai.
Chinggis Khan on a hill in the middle of nowhere
Moving house - that is a ger on the back of the truck
Hustai Park Ger Camp
The view as we sat having a cool afternoon drink
Our trusty steeds - Mongolian horses are small, but we were assured, very strong
Us riding looking back to the ger camp... it really was that beautiful
The Takhi at dusk
Wednesday (11th) was the last day of our tour and before heading back to Ulaanbaatar, we stopped in to visit a nomadic family. They live in 3 gers which are powered by solar cells although there is no proper toilet to speak of. However in stark contrast, they had an LCD television (which was showing Australia's got talent when we were there?!). We tried some of the very popular dried yoghurt snacks and 'airag', which is fermented mare's milk, that's right you read it right, we drank fermented horse milk! It is a little alcoholic and tastes like slightly sour and fizzy milk. Weird but we think we could see how it would be popular, especially on a hot day (which it was). After that it was back to our hotel and another night hanging in Ulaanbaatar, this time we went to the Grand Khan Irish pub for a bit of dinner and drinks.
Thursday (12th) we checked out of the hotel and had a day wandering Ulaanbaatar. We took a stroll to the main square and had a look in the Natural History Museum, which had a great display of dinosaur bones dug up in the Gobi desert. Quite impresive for the $2 entrance fee! After that we had lunch and wandered around the shops to get some souviners and supplies, and in the process Paul foiled a pick-pocketer trying to get into Joss' handbag. He pretty much just walked off quickly, and his accomplice split in the other direction. By this stage the weather was turning and we were happy to just get our stuff and get onto the train. This however turned into a bit of an epic adventure. We had to navigate the deteriorating streets of Ulaanbaatar in the heavy rain with our luggage to the station - without thinking we had already changed nearly all of our money out of Mongolian Tugriks (which is useless outside of Mongolia, as it is a closed currency). As a result we could not negotiate a cab from our hotel and ended up finding ourselves walking in what seemed like a less than savoury area of town. We sought refuge in a hotel and asked for them to call a cab - we were confident we would have enough to get there now as we were close to the station. Once in the cab we realised that it was a unofficial cab, with a sporadic meter! At one stage the cab 'stalled' and upon restarting the meter jumped up 1000 tugrits (about a dollar), at this point we said that we had to get out and pointed to the meter, but the driver said it was OK, and after getting to the station did not charge the amount on the meter, but something more like half, which we felt was reasonable. It was dark now and still rainy, and at the station we were lost, wet and just desperate to get on the train, a challenge in itself as there were no signs in English. We finally found information who directed us to our train. A miserable way to end off an otherwise great visit to Mongolia, and celebrate our 4th Anniversary!