Journey Across the Mongolian Steppes to Kharkhorin

Today we finally got to leave the city, it’s noise and smog, though I must say not nearly as many drivers honked as they did in Beijing and at least we could see blue skies.  None the less, I’m excited to head toward the countryside.

We loaded in our yellow bus with relatively comfortable seats and prepared for a five hour journey to Eden Camp.  The main road was paved though rather bumpy.  It took us past rolling green hills as well sandy ones that were still waiting on the grass to grow.  Mongolia has been in a drought thus the vegetation for the horses has been limited much to the dismay of the nomads.  The few brief showers over the last three days with the start of rainy season has brought the landscape to life.

The bus is bathroom free, so after a few hours of driving past horse racers, herders, goats, camels, horses and a few small towns, we stopped at a roadside business that let us use their cinder block pit toilets.  Surprisingly, they weren’t too bad and offered a nice view of the rolling steppes across the way.

After our bathroom break, we kept bouncing along the “highway” while racing another bus until suddenly we slowed and veered to the side.  I thought we were stopping  for a more rustic bathroom break, to water the flowers on the side of the road, but then I noticed a dirt track.  We followed this artery and a few others that sometimes warranted a post at the intersection directing the way to Eden Camp which was tucked in beneath Khagan Khan Mountain.

The mountain is locally known as Castration Mountain as the Oirats, fighting to expel the Manchu Chinese, castrated the monks stationed at the monastery in the late 1600’s.  The monastery was originally opened by Pelgye Dorje, a Tibetan Saint who fled to the arra after assassinating  Langdharma, and evil Bon ruler in the 10th Century.

The Eden Camp was very nice.  We all piled into an open ger on a raised platform where we sat on cushions and were served a three-course meal…potato salad as an appetizer, chicken cordon blue with grilled peppers, cabbage and rice for the main course, and yogurt for dessert.  We took advantage their nice facilities (flush toilets) before we left, and it was the first time I have ever seen a bone used to lock the bathroom doors!  I love new experiences, no matter how small.

We followed a different path out of camp where we passed a religious monument and some goat herders before we made it out to the main street.  It didn’t take long to reach a camel operation where we each paid $2.50 to take a five-minute camel ride.  It was my first time on a two-humped camel (I rode a one humped camel in Egypt).  In my cursory review of my camels, they seemed well cared for which spurred my decision to ride.  The handlers led their camels by rope that was attached to a stick inserted through their nostrils.  It seemed to me that this would be uncomfortable for the camels, but the sticks are inserted at birth so the camels are used to the procedure and they were very cooperative as we followed one another head to toe across the sandy terrain of Elsen Tasarkhai “Little Gobi”.

My camel jockey road a horse while everyone else walked, so on the way back to the bus we got to trot.  Boy was that a bouncy gate!  I had to hold onto it’s hump which was surprisingly soft.  It felt like gelatin.  I guess it makes sense since they are used to store water, but I expected them to be hard. The camel was trained to kneel to the ground, front legs first, for its rider to dismount.  Without prompting from the handler, I fortunately remembered to lean back, otherwise I would have landed face first into the dirt!

The camel stop was a fun detour before we drove another hour plus to Kharkhorin (the “k” is silent and “h” has a gutteral sound to it), once a short-lived capital of the Mongol dynasty.  We were going to be early to Urguu Ger camp where we were staying tonight, so we made an unplanned visit to white brick platform in a field not far from the monastery we are visiting tomorrow.  Carroll, our guide said it wasn’t there a year ago, so we were on an exploratory mission.  The platform was part of an excavation project.  Scientists believe this site was the Khan’s palace which was destroyed by the Manchurian soldiers in the late thirteen hundreds.

The brick wall of the platform served as the base of the palace and was built around parts of the palace that have been excavated.  This is part of a new “trend” which fosters a more interactive experience while visiting ruins.  With the new construction, visitors can see a 3D image of how the building used to appear and the ruins are protected from the elements.  The platform on top of the wall included rectangles that indicated where the columns of the palace would have stood.  What an intriguing new approach to archaelogy.

After visiting the impromptu souvenir market nearby which actually had some cool things, we again loaded the bus and promptly left the paved road in route to Urguu Ger Camp where we settled into our ger.  A ger, for lack of a better description is similar to a transportable yurt.  The general shape is round with a slightly coned top.  The outside is wrapped in felt, only about one layer in the summer time, but several in the winter time.  Inside, two to four posts stand in the middle for support.  The middle is sacred and we were to walk around the outside of the posts.  Fortunately, the wood burning stove was placed in front of the area, which helped us remember our ger etiquette.

Our ger included to cots, one on either side, a small table, and a vanity.  The floor was covered in a material similar to linoleum.  We laid out our sleeping bags and only unpacked the basics as we were scheduled for only an over-night visit before carrying on to the ger camp where we would be staying for two weeks, less our three-day camping trip.  We were fortunate to enjoy electricity in our ger as well as a fancy shower house with three showers, multiple sinks and several sitting toilets.  This stay will likely be the last of true glamping (or glamor camping).

The rolling hills and plains beneath stormy clouds offered a lovey view from our fenced area.  Dinner was served at 7:30 in a large ger that sported a chandelier!  Three long tables accommodated three different groups staying at the camp for the night.  For our meal, we ate beef, cabbage, and rice…the staples.  None of us lasted much longer after dinner.  We all turned in early and prepared for tomorrow’s trek to Lapis Sky Ger Camp.  ETB



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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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