Pushing the car out of the sand was not how we were hoping the journey would go. In authentic Mongolian style we hitched a lift with a family travelling the same route as us and gave them a bit of money towards the petrol. Bundled in the back of the car Ryan got their young son (dressed in traditional del coat and fox fur hat) so excited he’d been sick…When they asked if we wanted to stop to see the mini Gobi desert we jumped at an opportunity but I hadn’t appreciated that ten minutes later we would be digging the fine sand from beneath the wheel arches out with our hands, ready to push on the bonnet. But I guess this was the exchange for giving us a lift?!?
After our organised tour, with a driver and guide, we wanted to do something different, less structured and on our own. With our new favourite German, Neli, still keen to socialize with us we decided to head west to Kharkhorin which was the ancient capital of the Mongol empire in the 12th century. We stayed at Gaya’s guesthouse where the three of us were able to share our own ger for $6 with breakfast, and we all enjoyed relaxing in the warmth from the stove after activity filled days.
Top of our list of things to see was Erdene Zuu monastery, built with remains of the ancient capital and one of the only religious buildings allowed to remain open during the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. Though some of the temple complex was destroyed during the communist period the impressive walls and main buildings are intact and we were there for the monks daily chants and prayers. The monastery was far more impressive from the inside than the outside, and on the cold and windy day we visited the harsh lifestyle of living as a monk here was very evident. The prayer flags were blowing in the wind, with a couple of stray cats rubbing around my legs, you could hear the off-key chants of the monks within the temple as pilgrims turned the long line of prayer wheels running along the wall.
The town was the site of the capital of the Mongol empire in the mid 1300’s and though little visible evidence still remains in the modern city there is an excellent museum in town displaying the archeological finds. We got a free guided tour in English which lasted for two hours…I guess which could be seen as a good or a bad thing! Either way we got to see amazing examples of Mongolian craftmanship, especially in metal work, and a model of what the capital would once have been like.
Mongolia is synonymous with horses; small powerful horses galloping across the grass steppes was my image of the country before we arrived. So we thought we should have a go, though perhaps galloping was a little ambitious. Luckily this area was famous for its horse riding and through our guesthouse we were able to organise some with a local nomadic family. The father and son team came to meet us, took one look at Ryan and decided he was such a professional that he didn’t need to be led at all. The same could not be said for me…our guide didn’t let go of the leading reins for the entire three hours! The traditional wooden saddles definitely took some getting used to and were not high up in the comfort stakes but trotting along the beautiful valley, with a frozen river running through the middle, more than made up for getting a numb bum!
I don’t know if the Mongolian Tourist Board had been prepped that we were coming and that they should pull out all the stops but suddenly a beautiful women appeared on a white horse, dressed in her traditional del. She was rounding up her herd of sheep and goats so we helped. Well to be honest I was of no help, as I was more concerned about not falling off the horse, but our guides (as well as Ryan and Neli) did. After her goats were walking in the right direction the lady beckoned us to follow her. She brought us up a hill were a mother sheep had just given birth to a lamb: still covered in blood the lamb was doing its best to stand. The beauty of nature seemed to be everywhere that day…well until the lady picked up the lamb and shoved him in a canvas bag which she then slung over her shoulder! We worked out they were taking the little one back to the ger away from eagles, wolves and the cold that would probably have killed it by the next morning. We cantered on to the family’s ger for lunch and to see more of their animals and spent the afternoon breathing in the landscape, climbing up the mountains which surrounded the camp on every side.
Kharkhorin had been a great stop on our Mongolian adventure but it was back to the city..mainly so we could eat some vegetables.