28.06.2017 - 02.07.2017
28 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Big travel day for me today: off to Mongolia!
My exposure to anything Mongolian thus far has been confined to a rather funny bit from South Park. I was anxious to arrive and experience the country!
I was up early so I could check-out and get back to the train station: there was a train leaving at 09:01 for the airport (the airport trains run infrequently and this was the best option for my flight later in the afternoon). The train itself was rather crowded and took about 50-minutes to reach the airport; the airport station was right next to the terminal, which was fantastic.
I had several hours to waste at the airport, so I spent the time watching Mad Men and then grabbing a bite to eat. I stopped at a tiny food stall and had a delicious schawarma for lunch, which was surprisingly good. Check-in was easy and getting back through passport control was the easiest time I’ve had yet in Russia.
I was flying Korean Air from Vladivostok to Seoul, and then from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar. The flight to Seoul literally flew all the way around North Korea, which I found rather amusing. The flight, while lasting about two hours, provided in-flight entertainment and a meal! The meal was shockingly fish, which I had never seen served on an airplane before; I was grateful that it didn’t make the entire place smell.
My layover in Seoul was just under three hours, providing enough time to grab a bite for dinner. The airport was massive and ultra-modern. There was a live orchestral quartet playing music in the airport; they played a melody from “La La Land” which I quite enjoyed.
For dinner, I ate Taco Bell. Yes, the Seoul airport has Taco Bell. I immediately sent a text to Penswe in Scotland, who loves Taco Bell (which he’s not had in nearly four years now). I was like a kid in a candy store: I had no idea what to order – I wanted it all! After eating, I swung by Starbucks to get a coffee and then relaxed at the gate until it was time to board.
The flight to Mongolia was slightly longer, but had much better in-flight movies (I spent the time watching “Rogue One”). Another meal was served on this flight, but this time we were given a choice between pork and beef; I went with pork and enjoyed the meal.
The flight landed around 21:30; getting through passport control was a breeze (made even more so given that I was among the first to get in line!). After getting my bag, I easily found the driver sent by the tour company to pick me up. We had to wait for one other person before leaving. The other person was a woman named Madeline; she’s 26 and from Boise, ID. We spent the entire drive to the hotel chatting and getting to know one another.
The hotel was very nice and the staff all spoke quite good English. Each floor had a small sitting area with a filtered water machine; the water was deliciously cold and was most welcome. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing in the room, working, and watching Mad Men.
29 June 2017
I slept in this morning and went down to breakfast rather late, where I met up with Madeline again, along with two other women who were on the tour as well: Mary (from Idaho), Kristy (from Sydney, Australia). We all decided to do some exploring of the city and to get some shopping done.
After breakfast, we met up and first stopped to get some money changed at a nearby bank. Our first (and primary) sight of the day was the main city square. On one side of the square was a building with a massive statue of Genghis Khan, which was guarded by two soldiers. A large statue of horsemen was placed in the center of the square.
We then walked through the city and over to the State Department Store, where we did some grocery shopping and stopped for a coffee. I was hoping to find a small day pack, but was unable to find anything in any of the stores that we stopped in.
Turning back, Kristy and I decided to stop in at the National Museum of Mongolia, while the other two went back to the hotel to rest (they were the most jetlagged of the group). The museum covered the entire history of Mongolia, starting from ancient times running through the Mongol Empire to the communist times to the present day. One of the most enjoyable rooms contained dozens of traditional Mongolian costumes.
By this point it was around 15:00 and we were both quite hungry, so we stopped at a restaurant nearby called Broadway. We split a pizza and some spring rolls, along with a couple local beers. We spent a couple of hours just chatting, getting to know one another; it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
That evening the entire tour group met up for our orientation meeting: there were 16 people on the tour, each one of us single travelers (though there were two friends traveling together). Our tour guide was named Namuun; she was incredibly nice, funny, spoke great English; I was excited to have her as the guide. The rest of the tour was made up as follows:
I was surprised by the group demographics: the majority of the people were older (50s+) and there was a wide range of nationalities, as well as socio-economic backgrounds. By strange coincidence, the group that I’d spent the day with (Mary, Madeline, and Kristy) were the ones closest to me in age (along with David). David turned out to be my roommate that night in the hotel. He’s a really friendly and outgoing guy – and incredibly tall, dwarfing everyone else he comes across!
There were some... oddities in the group, most notably Bill and Michael. Michael spoke broken English and was rather quiet. Bill was... well, just very strange. He was a dentist and we quickly discovered that he liked to drink. A lot. He'd carry around a bottle of vodka to every meal. He was usually quiet, always appearing disheveled and appearing uncomfortable or confused all the time.
We were all shocked and somewhat angry to find out that we did not need sleeping bags for the tour, despite the trip description and dossier repeatedly stating that a sleeping bad was required for one of the nights. I had bought one when I was in Edinburgh and lugged it around for the past four months; I was less than pleased to get this news.
We all went out to eat at a Mongolian restaurant, where I ordered a local dish called TSIU VAN: a noodle-based dish with meat and vegetables. It was, beyond a doubt, the best local cuisine that I’ve had on my travels thus far. My meal was delicious and I devoured every single bite. We made it an early night so we could get going early the next morning.
30 June 2017
We set off from the hotel at 08:30 for our first destination: the wrestling training camp.
This tour focused on the Naadam Festival, which is an annual sporting competition in Mongolia at the county, state, and national levels. There are three events: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. The first three days of this tour focused on introducing us to each of these events, allowing us to visit various training camps and meeting some of the competitors.
The wrestling is, without a doubt, the most popular of the sports in Mongolia, with the various champions becoming national heroes. The men wear traditional costume, consisted of a vest, leather boots, and small briefs. They compete in rounds, with those making through five, seven, and the final round winning various titles: elephant, lion, and champion.
We were met by another guide, a man named Timur, who spoke impeccable English, though we quickly discovered that he was a functioning alcoholic and drunk most of the time. He spent some time explaining the wrestling to us as we watched a large group of wrestlers practicing in a large field. There were dozens of them sparring with one another; one of the most interesting features was that the men were of all different shapes and sizes; they were tall, short, lean, muscular, and large. Anyone could compete, regardless of body size/type.
Timur was wearing a t-shirt that read “Cherry Creek Apartments” above the word “Denver” which I was shocked to see! I asked where he got the shirt and explained that I used to live near to Cherry Creek; his wife had bought the shirt (it was evidently donated and sent over to Mongolia).
While walking around and snapping photos, two wrestlers noticed me and motioned to me to take their picture. They happily posed for the picture and took great pleasure in looking at the picture on my camera. It was a fun little interaction with them.
After spending some time watching them, the trainers organized a small competition for us, which was an incredible treat (our guides kept mentioning how unexpected and unusual this was). We were the only tourists to be visiting the camp, so our visit may have been an equal treat for them. The wrestlers perform what is known as the Eagle Dance before each round: they run down the field, then stop, extend their arms and ever so slightly wave them like bird wings. There is a gracefulness to the performance that we all found fascinating.
The completion was great to watch: it was a preview of what awaited us at the end of the trip at the national Naadam competition. We all decided to contribute some money (a couple of dollars each) to a prize for the top three winners. We each picked one or two wrestlers to cheer for and the ultimate winner was the favorite.
Once the competition concluded, the wrestlers went off to shower and freshen up, while we hung around and chatted with one another until it was time for lunch. We were going to eat with the wrestlers and eat a traditional meal with them – again, a rare and unique treat that most tourists didn’t get to enjoy.
Lunch was a “hot pot” of sorts: the meal was cooked all in one large pot and contained lamb, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. We were all served very hefty portions; the meat was rather fatty, which we learned the wrestlers preferred. There was a small gazebo nearby where we all sat around eating a drinking.
Once the meal was over, we were able to spend a lot of time just hanging out with the wrestlers. The trainer came over to the gazebo and randomly started giving me a shoulder massage; it was quite relaxing and he had such strong hands that it really relaxed the muscles. He noticed my tattoos and hag quite a laugh about them (no idea why).
Most of the wrestlers spoke little to no English, so Timur served as the interpreter. The coach’s son spoke very good English and had spent some time studying in the USA. He was a wrestler as well and definitely one of the cutest of them. One wrestler became quite smitten with Amy as she has blonde hair and blue eyes – a rare sight in Mongolia. He was flirting heavily with her, wanting to exchange Facebook information, and eventually put his arms around her (in a good natured way). We were joking that we’d be marrying off everyone in the group by the end of the tour.
Vodka was pulled out later on and we had several shots of vodka, which is apparently a tradition in Mongolia. It was a special treat for the wrestlers, who are usually not allowed alcohol during the month training leading up to Naadam (they’re also not allowed to spend time with their families or have sex!).
There was a Frenchman with the wrestlers: he was working on his master’s degree and was studying the diets of the Mongolian wrestlers (along with Japanese sumo wrestlers). He was a very nice guy who spoke passable English; he and I spent several minutes chatting before it was time for us to leave.
We all agreed that the time spent with the wrestlers was an incredible experience: we were given such uninhibited access to their camp, spent hours getting to know them and become friendly with them. This was a treat that one couldn’t find on almost any other tour.
We drove over to our ger camp for the evening. A ger camp is a traditional Mongolian camp with buildings similar to yurts;. They are simple housing: several small beds are placed around the perimeter with a wood-burning stove in the middle and a ventilation opening at the top. This camp was quite modern and the gers were large and comfortable. I was roomed with David again. After settling in, we all gathered to have a beer before dinner.
1 July 2017
We left around the same time this morning to drive several hours over to the horse racing camp. As with the wrestling camp, it was is in the middle of nowhere, but the scenery was amazing. The camp was rather small, with just one ger for the family. Nearby was a pen for the horses and another area where the horses were kept tied up during the day.
Timur met us at the camp and explained about the horse racing. The horses are Mongolia horses, which are not as easily tamed as the horses we have in the West. The trainers have a rigorous training method for getting the horses ready for the long-distance races. The horses eating a drinking is strictly controlled, to a point where we thought that the animals looked somewhat unhealthy. Children are the jockeys, starting as young as four years old!
There wasn’t much going on in the camp itself, but a short race was being organized nearby, so we set off to watch it before having lunch. On the way over, we made a quick stop at a gigantic metal statue of Genghis Khan atop a horse. One could climb to the horse’s head, but we didn’t have the time for us to do that.
When we arrived at the racing area, we found a ceremony of sorts going on which we went to watch (the shamans were doing a ceremony to ask for more rain as the country is currently going through a drought). Nearby was a large, beautiful shrine.
We waited around for a long time for the race to start; one of the boys from our training camp was participating in the race. The jockeys began to parade their horses around in a circle while they sang a song, before finally heading out to the starting point (which was quite some distance away). We climbed into our van and drove out to around the halfway point, where we stopped and waited for the horses to start running by us.
When the first horses appeared on the horizon heading towards us, we all climbed back into the van; by this point several horses had gone by and we set off in hot pursuit. The ‘road’ was a rough and bumpy dirt path that we were speeding down in order to follow the horses. Several men were chasing behind the horses on motorbikes, encouraging them along; while other horses were visibly worn out and gently walking along. Racing along with the horses was exciting and exhilarating, bouncing around everywhere on the bus and cheering from the windows.
We missed seeing the winner run past the finish line, but we all rushed out of the bus once we reached that point and caught some great photos of the other racers finishing.
After the race was finished, we returned to the training camp for lunch, where the owners had prepared a massive meal for us: dish after dish of food was produced from within the ger and all of it was tasty. We were all impressed with the meal and ate hearty and well.
That evening’s ger camp was nestled in the mountains of a national park, by far the most picturesque setting for a ger camp that we’d yet seen. The camp itself was… subpar. Several people found live mice in their gers, both when we arrived and throughout the night. Our ger never saw any mice, but one person on the tour had a mouse run across her face during the night!. The bathrooms had a communal shower, which was awkward. Soon after we had settled in, a large tour bus of Koreans arrived.
Kristy, Madeline and I walked up a small hill nearby to take some pictures of the surrounding mountains. They were jagged and rocky, but amazingly beautiful. Climbing back down to camp, we went to the restaurant where we split a few beers and hung out until it was time for dinner.
2 July 2017
Today we set off for the final Naadam training camp: the archery center. The training center was rather close to the horse camp, just on the other side of the large Genghis Khan statue. The facility was also part of an aviation business that had several gyrocopters. The owner of the place was a fascinating man who had researched traditional Mongolian bow making (an art that had been lost for hundreds of years); he was now slowly starting to make them in the old traditional way, with animal horns and sinew (though the process was very expensive).
We ordered our lunch, which would be at the restaurant at the facility, before heading to the large field where the archers were busy practicing. Their targets were not the traditional targets one associates with archery, but were small cylindrical shapes made of camel hide placed on the ground at the other end of the field; the aim was to knock the targets over. There were two archers dressed in the traditional Mongolian costume; it was amazing to watch them practice their art. The day was very windy and they were aiming into the wind, but many of them were still able to hit their targets.
Lunch was tasty: I again ordered tsui van and it was every bit as good as the one I had on the first night. Once we were all done with lunch, we said goodbye to the archers and drove back to Ulaanbaatar, to the hotel we had stayed at the first two nights in town.
We arrived in town later than expected and had little time to do any sightseeing or shopping before it was time to head out to our evening activity: a cultural performance. The performance was at a small theater that was absolutely packed with people, mostly Korean tourists; the room had to air conditioning, so it was stiflingly hot. I ended up in the very back row, where the ‘seats’ were narrow benches that were impossible to sit on, so I stood during the hour-long performance.
The show itself was rather impressive, for what it was. I’m not a huge fan of the cultural shows themselves; they’re usually somewhat cheesy and done just for the tourists; this was no different. The performers all wore various traditional costumes, played various Mongolian instruments and sang many folk songs, including a talented throat singer; they also did some folk dances. The most amazing segment was the performance by the two female contortionists. The final segment was a ‘mask dance’ where the performers all worse large, elaborate and amazing masks during a short dance.
After the performance, we walked over to a restaurant for dinner. I had a lamb kebab that I rather enjoyed (though it was a bit spicy for my taste). Timur joined us for dinner and wanted to go out for drinks with us after we ate, but we all declined and walked back to the hotel. As we were walking along the streets, Mary got a burst of energy and started to run up and down the sidewalk: she would run from where we were to the end of the block and back, over and over; at one point she took her sandals off and ran barefoot.