mongolian cowboy picking up stick

The Cowboys and Musicians of Mongolia

I’m sad to say, today is our final day in Mongolia, aside from the 10 hour bus ride back to Ulaanbaatar tomorrow and our flight out the following day that aren’t likely worth mentioning as the travel is never as fun as the destination.

Horseback Riding on the Mongolian Steppe

Anyway, we enjoyed a late morning horse ride to Ganbold’s winter farm. His winter location isn’t far from his summer farm and is only about a fifteen-minute walk by horse from our ger camp.  As such, we experienced a relaxing morning riding and exploring his winter camp.


Naadam Festival…A Must See in Mongolia

If going to Mongolia, attending a naadam festival is a must.  Each village and city holds a naadam, many of which coincide with Mongolia’s Independence Day on July 11th and 12th.  We were blessed to see a countryside naadam a few days ago in Tsenkher, and now we were getting to visit another in Tsetserleg a few hours from camp. 

It is my understanding, that the country naadams are friendlier and more photogenic than the city naadams. The one in Ulaanbaatar is more like a large sporting event with lots of traffic and screeching loud speakers. But I digress.


Camping on the Mongolian Steppe

Our first night of camping went smoothly.  We awoke and prepared for our next two nights and three days in the wilderness.  After breakfast this morning, we took out on horseback.  When in the wilderness, the horses are either hobbled together or staked to the ground with a 20-yard lead.  Usually two horses are tied to each stake.

12 Mile Ride

As usual, our horseman led our mount already saddled to us to climb up.  Interestingly, the saddle is left on the horse for the rest of the day until the sun sets as they believe the sun hitting a sweaty saddle mark causes soreness in the horses’ backs.  Today, we rode horses for five hours and covered approximately 12 miles.  Along the way, we stopped three times, including at an ovoo amongst fantastic wildflowers, at another ovoo in the high meadow, and in a meadow for a grilled cheese lunch.

While the stops catered to bathroom breaks, snacking, and sipping water, I think the stops also gave the Russian vehicles time to make it up the hills, as they have to stop and add water to radiator after any duress. While we relaxed on our breaks, the cowboys rough housed as it was Ganbold’s 50th birthday!  I’m not sure it is good for Mongolians to know when it is your birthday.  He was wrestled to the ground, harassed, carried around the ovoo and more.  Of course, all in good fun!

Our ride included a lot of fast trot through the high meadow.  I was thankful that Mojo was so small he could canter at the same pace, as the fast trot gait is back breaking.  Eventually, we formed a single file line and walked down through the canyon to an open valley.  Here, we split into groups, and those who wanted to go fast galloped toward camp. 

It’s a hoot to ride these pack animals that like to spook at the strangest things.  We passed by a million rocks, but suddenly Mojo seemed to think one was going to jump out at him.  Fortunately, for me, he pauses briefly or slides just slightly to the side until he familiarizes himself with the terrain as opposed to darting abruptly.

Setting Up Camp

Upon arriving at camp, we set up our tent more successfully this time, though the boys still provided help.  This time, we pretended to like everyone and found a spot closer to the action.  Just kidding.  We had a great group and conveniently found a closer site.  Soon after we settled near a nomad camp, we were provided the opportunity to see how a lamb is slaughtered in the bush.

Butchering a Sheep

While I felt sad that this animal was dying for our dinner, the Mongolians butcher the animals quickly, carefully, and I suspect as pain free as possible as the lamb didn’t even bleat when Boroo cut open its chest to severe the aorta with his hand.  Premium knives, care and skill are essential here. The Mongolians use all parts of the animal, including the blood.  Severing the aorta kept all the blood in the chest, and none flowed onto the ground.  Slowly he skinned the animal, and then butchered the pieces as necessary.

butchering a sheep

So I claimed Boroo butchered the sheep, but honestly I am terrible at telling apart the cowboys.  I knew my handler, Jagi, but to me Moogi, also barely in his twenties and maybe even a teenager, looked similar Jagi.  I think Boroo and Aruinbayar possessed similar characteristics too, but what do I know.  

Anyway, I never saw the spelling of their names so I had a hard time just pronouncing them, much less knowing who was who until we got a list of their names at the end of the trip.  The other cowboys were Nema and Ganbold.  In an effort to not misname them any further, I’m going to continue with the term “the cowboys”.

Admittedly, watching the sheep slaughter was tough, and I didn’t digitally record much of it.  Though I will say it made me think twice about the food I eat.  We, in America, are so far removed from the food chain.  The thought was fleeting, however, as being a vegetarian would be quite challenging to me and lamb might be my favorite meal.

Fishing in Mongolia

The rest of the evening included fishing, dinner, and a soccer match by the moonlight.  I reveled in my good fortune at fishing.  While I tossed back a couple of small grayling, I caught three healthy lenok.  They were all 17+ inches and a good addition to our dinner!

fishing in mongolia

Soccer Match by Moonligiht

The soccer match amongst the cowboys, interns, Galen, Liam, and a few guests (me and Chip) was a “play at your own risk” type match.  Liam and Galen were both spectacular players who sped past everyone in their bare feet while juggling the ball.  The cowboys played a more Kamakazi style, while the rest of us tried to get a touch in here or there. 

We marked off small goals with posts.  The out of bounds was the river on one side and the trucks on the other.  I quit when the score was 3-3, and we could hardly see the ball in the darkness.  At that point, it was last goal wins.  I don’t know which team was triumphant, but it was a fun night!

Hike to Mandal Mountain

After another peaceful night in the steppe, we spent the morning hiking to the sacred Mandal Mountain.  We first followed the tire tracked, grooved road which is on the map and then turned right up the mountain slope.  We hiked past a few wildflowers and scrambled on some scree before we finally reached the peak with another ovoo and spectacular view.  This ovoo was far more elaborate than the others we have seen.  It was more like a shrine that both Buddhists and Shamanists use to worship their ancestors with an extensive ritual.

Ritual Around the Ovoo

We repeated the ritual upon our visit.  First offerings such as candies, objects, or bottles of vodka are placed at the altar.  We provided Twix and cookies before kneeling down and bowing three times.  Next, we walked around the ovoo clockwise while flicking mare’s milk in each direction beginning at the North.  Then we circled the ovoo while tossing vodka each direction.  Finally we made our third lap around the ovoo before tying prayer flags to the ovoo’s sticks.  While the ritual honors the ancestors, the prayer flag honors all beings.

The ovoo is very sacred to the Mongolians, so when Carroll said bottles of vodka are offered and no bottles where in the shrine, I wondered aloud, “Who takes them?”  While the question wasn’t appreciated, it was legitimate.  Religious or not, I wouldn’t go into a shrine and take something for fear of bad karma.  There weren’t any bottles there, nor were they broken, so I wondered what happened to them. 

In addition, the interns Parker and Rose offered a painted horse skull last year at the altar, and it was replaced with other items, including a burned goat’s head. So my question remained unanswered.  I have found that the traditions and rituals are very important among the Mongols.  At the same time, there are not hundreds of people passing through the vast steppe.  As a result, I wondered who would mess with the offerings.

Since I was the first one up to the ovoo and on the summit for an hour before the last guest finished with the ritual, I started down.  Page followed, as we zig-zagged across the steep mountainside.  Upon our arrival back to camp, we were pleasantly surprised to find bacon with lunch.  This was a treat!  I added it into the pasta with pesto, and it was delicious!!

view of camp from the base of the mountain
view of camp from the base of the mountain

Fly Fishing in Mongolia

While most guests enjoyed the nice weather with a relaxing afternoon off, Galen, Boynaa and Turoo took Chip and me fishing at another river about a 45 minute drive away.  The rocks were moss covered so the water color looked totally different from the other rivers we have fished.  I think my first five casts caught five baby grayling with the biggest one being eight inches!  While it is fun to catch fish, catching babies was getting a little aggravating, so I moved.

River in Mongolia

I found another hole around the bend with a glassy surface by a rock cliff and the fish kept biting.  I had my eye on a big guy resting below. I’d cast my dry fly and nymph just above him.  As soon as I’d enticed him just enough to jiggle toward the surface, another fish would dart from the shore and hit my fly with a vengeance.  Ah, I snagged fish after fish, while sometimes trying to yank my fly out of reach, so I didn’t have unhook another 14 incher throwback!  The graylings were all smaller than the lenok I caught yesterday. The big one, however, got away.  He never humored me with a strike.

While I was having great luck fishing, the boys did even better.  After Chip lost the tip of his own rod, he used a regular fly rod for one of the few times in his life and enlisted a very unconventional yet successful way of fly fishing.  He tossed the fly in the middle of the heavy rapids and yanked it up to the surface.  This jig (which I know is common with lures) would attract the lenok from the depths of the river to the surface in a second.   I was quite impressed. 

I’ve never learned to fish in that manner, though I have never “nymphed” so perhaps this technique is something common among fly fishermen.  Even more impressive, however, was Boynaa who landed a 19 inch lenok on a broken rod.  Two rods accidentally got closed into the car door which snapped seven inches off the top. 

At the end of our two-hour fishing expedition, we had probably hooked nearly 100 fish, though only kept a dozen.  It was quite the experience!  How many people can say they went fishing with the former Mayor of Bulgan, Mongolia?  Yes, that’s right, Toroo was once the mayor of the small town closest to our ger camp!

Another Celebration!

While we were off fishing, the cowboys were showing off some of their skills which included playing polo and a jumping competition.  It’s all about the horse in Mongolia! That would have been fun to see. Anyway, we got back in time for a mutton BBQ and vodka ceremony for Brigitte’s 65th birthday. 

She was honored with a sweat scraper and hat before we circled around a giant bonfire and sang campfire tunes.  Emma led the way with a few Irish songs.  Then Boynaa sang a few Mongolian songs.  Eventually, Emma played us some American tunes, before many of the Mongols stood to sing.

As much as I wanted to stay for the entire time, the wind really picked up, making the night chilly beneath the full moon.  I huddled under a dell for a while, but soon I succumbed to the cold and turned in for the night.  Camping under a full moon was certainly a treat. The moon was magnificent, though it did somewhat interfere with star-gazing.  Tonight, however, at least I spotted the big dipper.

21 Miles Back to Lapis Sky Ger Camp

We awoke on the final day of our journey and were blessed to see two demoiselle cranes which mate for life dancing around the meadow flirting. They weren’t too far from the horses tied off in the field, so I visited Mojo briefly as I ventured closer for a better photo.

After breakfast, we prepared to ride the 21 miles we had covered over two days in four hours back to our ger camp.  The trek was broken into three segments so people with less experience riding or those that tired could opt out at certain stages.  Four folks opted out at the beginning, but the rest of us cantered out of the valley and trotted through the canyon which was rocky to our left and forested to our right.  We exited the canyon into the high meadow where we again stopped at the ovoo.  Here we enjoyed a cheese sandwich before we mounted for the next segment.

Everyone who completed the first stage, also rode this section. We trotted across most of the segment due to the uneven terrain.  Oh how I wished we could have cantered!  My stirrups were slightly too long to post up and down, but even if I’d had the opportunity, I’m not sure I could have kept up with the speed of the gait!  It was rather impossible.  I was looking forward our final leg.

Soon we ended down in the meadow, where only one additional rider bowed out and joined the get-away vehicle.  The horses whose riders traveled in the van were set free to run with us or were led by a cowboy.  Without a job, they had a tendency to kick, especially the ones on the line.  We were careful to avoid them, but one of the cantankerous fellows not on the line stopped and swerved his butt in toward Mojo to take a swipe.  Perhaps, Mojo should stop pinning his ears at all the horses!

free horse on the mongolian steppe

Anyway, the rest of us remained mounted.  Most of this section was along flatter terrain, so we got to canter.  Mojo has a lovely canter, and being such a small horse, even when the pack slowed to the painful trot as we neared herds of goats and yaks as well as nomads’ gers with their dog, most the time I could keep Mojo in a beautiful, cantering rhythm. 

Even Carroll commented on how nice we looked as a pair.  The slow canter also kept Mojo at the front of the pack, which is where he liked to be as he perked his ears forward in happiness.  As soon as a horse challenged him at his rear, however, he pinned his ears back until his forward position was guaranteed.

We dropped to a slower pace for a short rest when a light shower fell from the overcast sky.  Soon the shower increased to a heavy, cold drizzle which cooled and dampened our rain-jacket free torsos.  Fortunately, our lead cowboy picked up the pace again, so we cantered through meadow until we cleared the rain cloud and slowed to a walk to cross a ditch.  With little warning, we were instructed that we could gallop as fast as we wanted up the hill in front of us.  The horses knew this, and as soon as we crossed the ditch, they kicked into high gear.

I quickly pressed my heals down, only to have my stirrup, slick from the rain, shoot forward.  Now I was galloping with one leg in the stirrup and the other gripping the side of Mojo as tightly as possible while flicking my foot around trying to catch the flailing stirrup.  Back in my horse riding days, being without stirrups would not have bothered me as this was a common requirement in our lessons.  On the steppe, in a gallop on an unfamiliar breed of horse that tends spook at the slightest things, I just hoped that Mojo would continue straight and remain at his smooth, yet fast pace.  If he jumped sideways, I would have likely been on the ground!

By the time I caught the stirrup on my foot and was ready to encourage Mojo onward, we were about to reach the narrowing, steep section of the hill where the horses tuckered out, so our gallop time was over.  The top of the crest provided a magnificent view of the misty valley.  As we slowly descended toward camp, a herd of horses commanded by a roan stallion came charging toward us.  We shooed them off to the side, and they continued into the valley where they visited Ganbold’s ger.  Ganbold’s protective stallion, was nicer than expected, but he protected his herd as he directed the free roaming bunch toward our ger camp.  Soon they were wandering through our camp just as goats and yaks had in previous days.

wild horses on the mongolian steppe

The Storm

We had a great ride with the horses and no sooner did we dismount than the rain came again.  First in light sprinkles, but by the time we made it to the ger, a storm whipped up.  Our örkh that covered the top of the ger came untied and flipped around in the gusty wind.  It caught the chimney to our stove which was lifted in the air and then came crashing down inside. 

Beth and Page

Carroll’s ger had water flowing through the bottom of it while the supporting posts in Diane’s and Kim’s ger came tumbling down.  Stephanie and Brigitte lost the örkh completely!  The poor boys, donned in raincoats with water dripping from the brims, were racing from ger to ger checking to see if we were OK.  It was quite a storm that left just as fast as it came, so we were only trapped inside for an hour.

The Shaman

Once the chaos dissipated, it was nap time for me.  Sleep is limited while camping, and I needed to catch up.  We had a few hours before we were to meet a shaman.  Page came in and asked,  “Would you like to be woken?”  In my groggy state, I thought I had only slept thirty minutes and responded, “No.”  As such, she dutifully left.

Little did I know it was 7pm and the shaman was here!  Oh well, I missed the ceremony.  From what I understand, the young, college aged man who is the brother of a staff member at camp pursued Shamanism as thirteen-year old boy when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition which required a heart transplant.  He seeked advice of a shaman who told him he was sick because his ancestors were calling him.  He needed to become a Shaman to communicate with his ancestors.  As such, he studied to be a Shaman, is no longer sick, and now heals others.

He performed a ceremony where he dressed in his robe.  He went into trance after the drums were banged, and he stayed in trance to speak with the ancestors.  When he came out of his trance, he didn’t remember anything.  Questions and answers came after the ceremony.  The guests seemed to enjoy the interaction.  I joined in at the very end after wandering around down by the river, just before our 9pm dinner.  What a nice camping trip on the Mongolian Steppe!  ETB

The river at Lapis Sky Ger Camp in Mongolia

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purple flowers on the mongolian steppe

Activities on the Mongolian Steppe

Today we prepared for our three day camping journey which included a little packing for the guests and a lot of packing for the staff.  The preparation coupled with the run-off election for which the nomads had to go in to town to vote made for a busy morning.

In the meantime, however, Thomas and Carroll’s sons offered different activities which included photography hikes, fishing, and runs up to mountain peaks.  I joined all three activities. 

Run to a Mountain Peak

The run to a distant ovoo where Ganbold buried his father didn’t look that far away.  Boy was I wrong!  We jogged for a while across the meadow and up a gradual incline past 3,000 year old graves marked with rocks in the form of a circle or a square.  Since I was the only one participating in this activity and was winded, I told Galen I needed to walk up the hill.  We scaled some rocks and eventually made it to the peak topped with the ovoo.

It has been tradition since the 16th century for nomads to lay the deceased on the mountain top to be eaten by scavengers such as eagles and wolves.  It is believed, that feeding the dead to wild animals will sustain the predators and protect the prey.  In addition, the body’s purpose is to nourish the Earth. 

This open-air offering or sky burial was banned during the communist times and with religious freedom restored, the nomads like Ganbold have since reinstated the practice.  We visited the ovoo where his father’s body was offered to the animals.  We weren’t there long, as in order for me to be back in time for the photography session, I had to finish the run/walk in 45 minutes.  I got my 10,000 steps by 8:30 in the morning.

Photo Session

For our photography session this morning, we snapped pictures of a few staff members who posed with the horses.  After capturing some images of the lovely ladies dressed in their formal wear, we visited Ganbold’s summer farm.  We watched his morning chores which included bringing the horses in from the river.  In Mongolia, the horses are watered in the morning and the evening.  We also watched  Ankhaa milk the yaks again and observed how the mares are rounded up and the foals tied up to prepare for milking.

The Tos Ritual Again!

Page and I ended up sticking around with Liam longer than the rest of the group in hopes for a few more shots of their dog, children toys on the steppe, and yak carts. As a result, we got invited into Ganbold and Ankhaa’s ger as Liam has a small gift for them (some chips and chocolate).  Because we were guests, the ritual began! 

We sat on the cot and waited as Ankhaa provided us milk tea and tos.  Oh my gosh, we felt so bad that she had to do this for us…breakfast was just around the corner.  At the same time, it was neat to experience, as this wasn’t a planned tourist activity.

Flying Fishing in Mongolia

After breakfast, a few of us went fly fishing with Galen in the aqua waters of the Tamir River flowed by our ger camp.  It was a good practice session for beginners, though the windy weather kept us from catching many fish.  I’m told, however, the waters where we are camping are spectacular for hooking Lenok and Graling, so I suppose I will try my hand again in the next few days.

galen fly fishing

Camping at Tolgin Butts

In the afternoon, we mounted our horses and set out on our journey beneath sunny skies.  We rode about nine miles in three hours to our first camp in Tolgin Butts.  Upon arrival, the trucks were there with our gear.  We dismounted, picked a tent and some sleeping pads and found some flat ground in the meadow that wasn’t peppered in yak poo (that was hard to do). 

Setting up the tent with Page, who hasn’t camped in forty years, was entertaining to say the least.  Fortunately, the staff gave us a hand, and we crammed into the three person, orange Marmot, that really sleeps two side by side and fits some gear at the bottom.

I provided Page with the few camping tips. 

  1. Put the head of your sleeping bag uphill.
  2. Get out your headlamp now while it’s light
  3. Sleep in the clothes you plan on wearing tomorrow or put them in your sleeping bag, so they will be warm in the morning 

Furthermore, those who know Page, knows she packs the kitchen sink.  As such I warned, “While you get ¾ of the hotel room and 2/3 of the ger, you only get ½ the tent!” 

Hiking in Tolgin Butts

After getting settled, we joined Galen and many other guests for a hike to an ovoo atop Tolgin Butts.  The hike followed the steep hillside with no trail.  I might add, none of the hikes I’ve done over the last few days have been on a trail.  We climbed up the grassy slope dotted in wildflowers, onions, and rhubarb until we reached the first false summit.  This ridge offered a sweeping view of the valleys around us, and some guests didn’t see it necessary to continue further.  I don’t blame them.  There were no switchbacks to follow.  We just clambered upward.

Soon we conquered the next short hilltop, before we finished with a surge through a patch of lovely pink fireweed to the summit.  As is custom, we rounded the ovoo three times before we relaxed and admired the panoramic views.  As a cool breeze kicked up, we headed down.  It was a bit of a scramble as we slid here or there on loose scree.  Overall, it was a great climb and a perfect way to spend the hour before our late dinner.

Silent, But Deadly

By the time we crawled in the tent, it was dark.  In close quarters, I thought it might be polite to warn Page that I needed to toot.  Oh my, the “silent but deadly” phrase held true to form!  Page started giggling so hard, she couldn’t stop.  Soon, I had stitches in my side and tears rolling down my cheeks. 

By the time we were done laughing, Page had already rolled uphill and taken over the tent.  I looked at her in dismay, “I’ve never seen anyone roll uphill in a tent before…move over!”  The laughing continued.  Fortunately, our tent was the furthest away from camp, as I’m certain anyone that could hear us was ready for us to shut it down.  What a wonderful action packed day on the Mongolian Steppe!  ETB

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Visiting the Nomads on the Mongolian Steppes

Hike on the Mongolian Steppes

I skipped Pranayama this morning and took a hike with Galen up to the top of the hillside.  The expansive landscape is deceptive.  From the valley, the hill looks small, but in reality, the climb is a 1,000 foot gain in a short distance.  Fortunately for me, the altitude is lower than it is in Colorado, so it wasn’t too difficult, but I certainly broke a sweat.  The peak provided a sweeping view of the valley below as well as the valley across the river and distant ones.

Photography on the Mongolian Steppe

After our hike, we crossed the saddle and joined the photography group who was practicing landscape shots with Liam.  I added macro shots into the mix as there was a smattering of wildflowers and butterflies which I love.  We futzed around with our cameras until breakfast time which thankfully included an omelette station today.  Hooray…tasty protein!

Thunderhoof on the Mongolian Steppe

We were back on the horses after breakfast exploring the rolling hills.  A few of us got to do some galloping.  In Mongolia, a full gallop across the steppes in known as a thunderhoof.  While Page and I wanted to go faster, a mad dash wasn’t quite what we had in mind, so we asked for a “drizzlehoof”, a name Stephanie came up with for a slow gallop.  It was fun! 

I find myself smiling and giggling while I’m on the horse even when Mojo decides he would like to lead the pack without encouragement from me! Fortunately, as soon as he gets ahead, he settles down, so I don’t have to worry he’ll run away.

We rode through the trees and past several animal herds to a ridge, where we dismounted and took in the view as we relaxed.


Our ride, once again, lasted a few hours, so by the time we arrived back to camp, pasta, french fries, and vegetable salad was ready for lunch.  I can promise by the end of these two weeks, I will have eaten more carbs than I have all year, but whose counting.  At least I’m getting a lot of exercise as I’m piling a bunch of starch on my plate.

Ger Ettiquette

Our afternoon ride included a visit to a ger to meet a nomad family.  The riders that wished to go fast rode to one ger while the riders that wished to go slow rode to another.  Before our journey we discussed ger etiquette.

  1. Step over the threshold to enter the ger
  2. Walk to the left and go around the posts in a clockwise direction to the back to be seated.
  3. Remove helmet and do not set it upside down or on the ground
  4. No crossed legs

Greeting Rituals

These were the basics, but more customs came into play when we were served food and drinks.  Because nomads have to survive harsh conditions, they accommodate anyone who visits.  While a knock on the door isn’t necessary, a shout to call off the dog may be.  Regardless, visitors are greeted graciously.


We visited a gentleman whose family was away at Naadam.  With his wife, kids, and grandchild away, he was left to do the cooking.  First, he served us bread, yak butter, cheese, and aaruul (dried curd).  The dried curd is rock hard, hangs from a string around the top of the ger and to me tasted like a sour, dried yogurt stick.  While the aaruul wasn’t my most favorite as I am not much of a yogurt fan, the milk tea called suutei tsai was good.

Milk Tea

Our host heated up a quart of yak milk with a quart of water and added a tablespoon of green tea and some salt in a cauldron on the wood burning stove before serving us the suutei tsai in bowls.  As custom, we accepted the milk tea with our right or both hands and sipped it before setting it on the table when we were finished.

our mongolian nomad host


After bread and milk tea, the gentleman served us tos which nomads always make for guests.  Tos is similar to a raw cake batter.  It includes flour, sugar, yak milk and butter.  Our cowboy guides joined the gentleman taking turns stirring the tos which again was served to us in bowls that we accepted with our right hand.  It was good too, and I understand the kids are always excited when guests come as there is tos leftover that they can eat.

Vodka Ceremony

Along with the food ceremony, of course, is the vodka ceremony.  How could I have almost forgotten to mention that.  In fact, it was likely the first thing we were offered.  The shot glass was filled, we dipped our right, ring finger in the glass, flicked the alcohol in the air, and then sipped from the glass before returning it to the host who then filled the glass and gave it to the next person to repeat the process.

The Snuff Bottle

The same type process was also followed with his grandfather’s snuff bottle.  The snuff bottle is heavy, carved from precious stone, and is the most prized possession of a Mongolian man after his horse.  Snuff bottles are a sign of well-being for the nomad.  Each of us took the bottle with our right hand, unscrewed the cap, took a whiff, reinserted the cap, and returned it to our host.

Talking and Song

With the ceremonies behind us and the help of Boynaa our translator, we exchanged questions and ultimately sang.  In our exchange, we somehow started showing photos on our phones, and the cowboys were perplexed by Page’s mini horses.  They kept asking about their size and finally said they could carry the horse!  Haha…so true.

cowboys laughing at page's mini horses

Soon our singing interchange began.  The Mongolian cowboys sat on one side of the ger with the host, while we ladies sat on the other.  It was like a seventh-grade dance with the boys and girls separated.  The Mongolians love their music and can sing countless, meaningful songs by heart. 

We, on the other hand, had a tough time singing more than a verse.  Fortunately, Emma, a young Irish lady with a love of music was with us, as she kept us going. But eventually we had to resort to childhood tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Puff the Magic Dragon” just to finish a whole song!  Overall, I really enjoyed the customs and this was one of the highlights of the day to me.

The Nomad Ger

In line with customs, all nomads zigzag a rope back and forth inside the roof of their ger.  This reminds them that there are both good and bad times, and they hope for the good.  Other items that can be found in the ger are two to three cots, an alter with family pictures, and a TV.  Our host had an excellent racing stallion, so all of his medals were hung up as well.

After a few hours, we said our good-byes and left the ger, which felt like a sauna after all the cooking on the wood burning stove. We headed for a picnic beneath the cottonwoods by the river.  Along the way, we passed other nomad families.

Picnic in the Cottonwoods

At the picnic, the Mongolians placed hot rocks from the fire into an urn with goat to cook what is called khorkhog.  When eating the dish, it is customary to pass the hot, greasy rocks from hand to hand in order to bring good health!  Of course, we participated in this ritual too.  After eating the regular pieces of goat, the scapula which is considered the best meat, is presented. 

The oldest person at the dinner must cut the scapula into the correct number of pieces to give one to each person.  The oldest person, Ingrid, couldn’t have been a better choice.  After all, she butchers bears back in the states!  Along with trimming the meat, she had to punch a hole in the bone to release its soul.

By this point, the night was just getting started.  It was Chip and Kate’s delayed honeymoon trip, so they were presented with anniversary gifts during song.  Kate, always kind, and Chip, always joking, make a great couple.  They live in Ohio and somewhat randomly picked Mongolia for their vacation.

Soon, the focus switched to Boynaa and Emma who played the guitar and fiddle, respectively. They alternated between Mongolian and Irish music.  Finally, the dancing started when Nomin translated that Ganbold, one of our cowboys and nomad neighbor, wanted to dance with Ingrid.  What entertainment…another highlight! ETB

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Our First Horse Rides on the Mongolian Steppe

Lapis Sky Ger Camp

Finally, our first day in Lapis Sky Ger Camp! We awoke to see what our ger looked like in daylight.  It included two cots, a sink with a river water dispenser, some shelving and hooks for our clothes, a table and a wood burning stove.  The furniture was quite colorful.  The door as usual faced south to protect from the cold of the winter wind.  The cart-wheeled shaped opening at the top of the ger known as a toon was covered by an örkh which could be opened and closed via ropes from the ground.  We opened ours so we could see given the ger lacked electricity.

Pranayama Yoga

Breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 9:30am as we needed to wait for the yak milk to come from our nomad neighbors.  In the meantime, several activities are offered.  I tried Pranayama for the first time beneath the cottonwood trees by the river.  Two yoga oficionados and me…hmmm.  I crossed my legs and my knees were supposed to touch the ground.  That was a joke! 

I required rolled up yoga matts beneath my  rear cheek bones as well as beneath both knees to simulate resting on the ground.  I don’t know how my counterparts could sit with their feet in their crotch with their knees touching the ground.  Even with practice, I’m not sure I could succeed at that.  Anyway, we practiced a few breathing techniques, which I did backwards.

By the second breathing exercise of the thirty-minute session my left leg was asleep and my hips and back were aching.  Clearly, this was not the exercise for me, but at least I tried it.

After Pranayama, it was time for our photography walk.  Our guide Tom Kelly is a National Geographic photographer which is quite impressive as that is tough position to acquire.  His son Liam, who was born and raised in Katmandu and now attends Prescott College, is quite an accomplished photographer as well. 

Yak Milking

We walked with him to the neighbor nomads where we got to photography Ankha milking the yaks.  The yaks are milked once a day, the goats and sheep twice a day, and the mares four times a day!  Needless to say, the women are very busy in the summer and clearly have the technique down.  I, on the other hand, gave it a try and managed to eek out a few dribbles.  If it depended on me to deliver the yak milk for breakfast, we wouldn’t be eating today!


Eventually, it was breakfast time.  A simple meal of bread, pancakes, oatmeal, and fermented mare’s milk yogurt which was extra sour.  The breakfast was provided in buffet style.  I’m so used to eating eggs and fresh fruit in the morning, that this breakfast of mostly carbs was a bit challenging to me, but it is not an easy feat to get any food to these camps.  Regardless, we filled up our bellies and prepared for our first horse ride and assessment of our journey.  Our group of tourists ranged from never having ridden a horse to professionals, so our experience ran the gamut.

me trying to milk a yak

Mongolian Horses

Mongolian horses are small and compact compared to other breeds.  They have a quick gait and are known to spook.  The Mongol cowboys brought their horses over the hills from different camps for us to ride.  When my handler Jagi led his horse from the hitching post to me to mount, I asked his name.  My horse’s name was Mojo, and it was the only horse of the entire group that had a name as Mongols don’t name their horses.  Instead, they have 56 words for brown!


Feeling special, I wondered how I ended up being assigned the only horse with a name, and I was curious to know how he earned it.  There had to be an iconic story.  Sarah, a staffer from Montana who came to manage the cowboys after being a guest on the trip seven years ago explained, Galen, Tom and Carroll’s younger son, came up with the name because he had a lot of energy.  Somehow, I think there is more to the story than that, but they probably didn’t want to scare me.

me on Mojo
Me on Mojo

Ride Through the Valley of Teel

After everyone mounted their horses which required a staff member or cowboy to stand by the horse so it took a while, we headed away from the camp through the beautiful green Valley of Teel.  We stayed on flat terrain and mostly walked as we familiarized ourselves with the horses and vice versa. 

Getting back on a horse after a twenty-five year hiatus was fun.  Mojo was responsive, though spent most of his time shaking his head and kicking at the atrocious flies.  Fortunately, he didn’t spook ten-feet sideways at a patch of wool resting on the ground like Page’s horse did.  Without “riding legs” which use completely different muscles than any other sport, I may have hit the dirt.  Given Page still rides regularly, she remained seated!

Lunch and Shower

Lunch came next and then a quick shower.  I opted for an afternoon shower while it was sunny and warm as the evening air cools substantially when the sun goes down.  Having said that, I think I will be showering sparingly as the make shift shower house with solar bags filled by heated river was crawling with earwigs.  While bugs don’t bother me much, sitting my bare butt on an earwig or having them drop onto my head didn’t appeal to me.

Second Ride Across the Tamir River

Our second ride took us across the Tamir River next to camp, through the valley, across the river again, and up and down a hill before we returned to camp.  We got to go a little faster.  We trotted a little and a select few galloped up one hill.  At the top of the hill was a deer stone believed to be erected by nomads around 1000 BC.

We also circled an ovoo which seem to be all over the place. I guess it is very important to worship the sky gods so that rain will come and the grass for the herds will grow.

Each of our rides were about two hours across simple terrain.  They will become more demanding each day.  I’m looking forward to more.

Archery at Camp

Upon our return, we tried out our archery skills which were rather lacking! With an off balanced, man-made bow, we drew the arrow back on the outside as the Mongls do since it is quicker to load the arrow this way while on horseback.  The arrows rarely flew straight, but eventually, the few of us that tried our hand, finally hit the target.  Our success rate was about one in ten attempts.

Mongolian Nomads

From archery, we entered the dining ger and met with Badambazar and Doljin, grandparents who once lived as nomads, but now live in town.  We discussed the life of nomad with them.  Nomads tend to move about four times a year in order to feed their herds which rely on the natural grass.  They pack up their ger to move to their summer, spring and fall camps and settle into a more stable structure with their ger for the winter.

Most nomads raise yaks, goats, sheep and horses.  Owning diverse herds of lifestock ensure the nomads won’t suffer a complete misfortune should their animals succumb to a hard winter known as a zud which cause animals to starve to death from the inability to graze.  Today, a nomad is considered successful by the number of animals in their herd.  The benchmark is 1,000.  This, however, is tough on the land on which the animals live, and some believe it might be better to own less, but healthier herds.

Most nomads have several children at a young age.  Badambazar and Doljin had eight!  The kids go to boarding school during the week and come home on the weekend, weather permitting.  Interestingly, the animal herds go to the youngest child rather than the oldest, and the herd is not split up among the children.  As such, the youngest stays a nomad while many of the other children will move to the city in search of better opportunities.  Because men must attend to the herds, women tend to hold the skilled jobs in the city.

Chicken Dinner and Music

We had a nice conversation with them, though I’m sure they sat wondering about our terrible ger etiquette.  Virtually everyone sat with their legs crossed…a no no!  Anyway, it was finally dinner time. and we enjoyed great chicken and pineapple along with several sides.  Little did we know how hard it was to get chicken.  It is too cold in the winters for chicken in Mongolia, so they are imported from China!

After dinner, Liam’s girlfriend, Emma who is Irish, played Irish tunes on the ukulele and sang beautifully.  She even belted out a Britney Spears’ song.  What fun!  Not only is she a talented musician, she was the resident massage therapist for the trip and made a mean muesli.  The Irish really know their muesli.  It was some of my favorite when I visited Ireland.  Overall, we enjoyed a nice day in the countryside.  ETB

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From Kharkhorin to Lapis Sky Ger Camp

Page thought far in advance and packed a red, white, and blue shirt to celebrate the fourth of July.  I was quite impressed, and it made me feel festive!  What a way to appreciate our freedom…learning of the struggles the Mongolians have endured.


After a breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bread and toast (Mongols like just bread, not toast), we piled into our bright yellow bus and our driver took us into town.  Kharkhorin, was established in the mid-13th century by Chinggis Khaan who used the area as a supply base.  Soon, his son Ögedei, constructed a capital and declared Kharkhorin the capital city which thrived for forty years until Kublai moved the capital to present day Beijing.  With the demise of the Mongol empire, Kharkhorin was abandoned and subsequently destroyed by the Manchurian soldiers in 1388.

Kharkhorin Museum

But first stop in Kharkhorin was at the Kharkhorin Museum.  I wasn’t expecting to see a biker gang parked outside!  Here we learned about several archaeological digs and finds which have been as recent at 2011.  The museum is very well done and fully air conditioned (an added bonus compared to the museum in Ulaanbaatar)!  The tour was interesting, though I think I got my fill of artifacts the previous day and was ready to get out to the country.

Erdene Zuu Khiid

From the museum, we carried on to the Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, constructed in the 16th century. At its peak, the monastery included 60-100 temples, 300 gers inside its walls, and 1,000 resident monks.  As with most other monasteries, it was mostly destroyed during the Stalin religious purges.  Only three temples survived.  Today it is considered one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia.

Erdene Zuu Khiid is enclosed in a walled compound.  108 stupas are evenly spaced along the white wall.  The three temples which survived the communist purges are called Baruun Zuu, Zuu of Buddha and Zuun Zuu and are dedicated to Bhudda’s three stages of life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.  In addition to these temples, the complex includes other structures such as the Golden Prayer Stupa built in 1799 where a photo shoot was taking place, as well as a Tibetan style, white temple called Lavrin Süm.

We visited Lavrin Süm to see the ceremony which takes place around 11am daily.  This time photos were permitted inside!  Once the monks perform their ceremony, however, the cameras must be put away as they do not like their photos taken inside the temple.  Outside the temple, however, is a different story. We were free to capture their image as they sat on the steps or signaled the call to prayer by blowing in conch shells.


After the ceremony, we had the privilege to meet with the head lama, Basansuren.  For the head lama, he was considered young as generally much older men are in this position.  This is due to the religious purge that I mentioned previously.  Before the late 1930’s there were 60,000 monks.  During the communist times, all the old monks (around 20,000) were killed, the middle-aged monks jailed, and the young monks asked to remove their robes and sent to the fields to be nomads.  

While Buddhism continued to be practiced underground, when religious freedom was restored in the 1990’s there were very few monks.  This is how Basansuren came into his position.  The monk population has steadily increased to 4,000 and now remains stable. Basansuren told us Erdene Zuu was one of the five monasteries out of 2,000 that survived the 1937 destruction.  Today, the monastery count has grown to 300. 

Basansuren, head lama
photo courtesy of Page

Spirit of the Horse and Other Simple Beliefs

He also spoke of the Spirit of the Horse (khiimori) which is very important to Mongolians.  Each person’s “wind horse” is the strength of spirit inside. When things go wrong or someone seems tired, Mongols might say, their wind horse is weak.  If someone has much success and is happy, their spirit of the horse is considered strong.

The head lama also spoke of simple concepts.  Basansuren felt if everyone thought like a child, the world would be a happy place.  Children laugh hundreds of times a day while people over 40 laugh about four times a day.  Kids, despite where they are from, what language they speak, or what color they are, will play with one another.  They have no preconceived notion of others.  Adults should emulate children and treat others the way they want to be treated as we reap what we sow.

Nomin, our translator did an excellent job passing on his message. Nomin’s English is excellent and easy to understand.  I’m very impressed with her accomplishments at such a young age.  I can’t imagine the pressure of translating the head lama’s message to visitors especially since he actually knew English and had spent some time in the United States!

A Golden Eagle

After our meeting, we had 45 minutes to wander around the temple, visit the shops outside, or to hold a golden eagle for $1.50.  I lingered around the temple a bit longer, before I went in search of the eagle.  The owner raised this 20 year old bird since it was an eaglet.  He motioned to me to move my arm up and down to get it to spread its wings.  The eagle got pretty heavy after a while! 

We could also dress up in medieval clothes and hold the eagle.  Ingrid, who lives in rural Idaho and is a real go getter, was perfect candidate for this.  She strapped on all the garb and fit right into character, posing as a warrior!

It’s amazing how fast the morning passed.  It was already time for lunch by the time we left the dirt parking area filled with cars, tourist buses, and even a pick up truck with horses loaded in its bed. 

Cafe Morin Jim

We stopped at Café Morin Jim for a small bowl of soup supplemented by our bus snacks such as cheese, crackers, pickles, peanut butter and even crab flavored Pringles, which I don’t recommend!

Cafe Morin Jim in Mongolia
cleaning our spotless bus at the lunch stop!

Tsenkher Naadam Horse Race

Soon, we piled into the bus and headed toward Lapis Sky Ger Camp near Bulgan Sum.  On the way, we drove up aside a Naadam horse race that was just starting!  Naadam is a traditional festival in Mongolia which includes three sports; horse racing, wrestling, and archery.  Each of the 333 towns in Mongolia holds these festivals around the time of the official celebration (July 11-13) which is a national holiday.   Being July 4th, the town of Tsenkher held theirs slightly early.

We got to see the five-year old horse race, which is considered the most important.  The horses mounted by children jockeys, aged 5-13, burst out of the start gate.  They galloped cross-country over a 25K race course to the finish line.  The race was quite the spectacle.  Cars and motorcycles were stationed in different areas of the course to make sure no horses cheated by entering the race late.  Many also drove alongside the pack that was now spread out over the distance.  We raced with them for a short time and then inquired from an official race car the whereabouts of the finish line to which our bus driver sped.

Tsenker Naadam Horse Race in Mongolia

The Finish Line

We joined the crowd, some mounted on horses, some standing by their cars, and many in traditional dress, all waiting to see who crossed the finish line first.  With the lead race car out front, the jockeys encouraged their sweaty horses forward with the swing of the reins and consistent kicks. The jockey’s faces, flushed red from the heat, were coated in dust. 

Once an avid equestrian, I’ve never seen an event quite like this.  The outfits were and gear were priceless.  Some kids rode bareback, others had a saddle.  Some were in sweat pants and sneakers while others donned boots.  The helmet rule did not apply, though a few riders wore one (and some were meant for a bike).  Most, however, sported a nice jersey or cape!

While the jockey is important and chosen for the race, the race is considered a test of the horses.  There are a few different horse classes: stallions, two year olds, three year olds, four year olds, five year olds, and six and over.  The length of the race is determined by the age of the horse.  As mentioned previously, we saw the last and most significant race of the day. Five-year old horses are considered the strongest and most special. 

The First Place Horse

The grey horse which led at the beginning kept its lead the whole way, though the chesnut almost caught him at the end.  The winning horse’s sweat is considered lucky, so bystanders scurried over to touch his sweat as soon as he crossed the finish line!

winner of the Tsenkher Naadam Horse Race

The prize money for the winner was $90 and a rug.  The top five horses, each collected by the five judges in robes at the finish line, earn the title of airgiyn tav, and the top three receive gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively.  The winning rider is named tumny ekh (leader of ten thousand).  In the two-year old race, the last place horse is acknowledged as well.  It is called bayan khodood which means “full stomach”!  A song, wishing the horse luck to be next year’s winner, is sung to the bayan khodood.

judges at Naadam horse race

Last Place Horse

We stayed until the last place horse came galloping to the line. The horse looked happy, but the young jockey looked exhausted! At the end, we weaved through the crowds to check out the scene. It was really cool to see the culture. Men congregated on horses and motorcycles while jockey untacked their horses.

last place horse at naadam horse race

Awards Ceremony

After the race, we walked across the street to the complex where the wrestling was being held.  We had hoped to catch a few of the single-elimination rounds of wrestlers in bikini like outfits trying to knock the other to the ground, but a ceremony was being held for the winning stallions and two year olds that raced earlier in the day. Men in their boots lined the seating while children played in the around the arena. Women sat in beneath the tent where food was on display, but not for eating.

The winning horses were dressed in fancy headgear and their forelocks were tied up between their ears in a topnot.  During the presentation, the jockey and handlers (or owners) were given a bowl of airag, an alcoholic spirit made with fermented mares milk which they flicked on the horse first and then sipped.  They also passed a snuff bottle around, one of many Mongolian rituals. The ceremony took so long, that we didn’t have time to stay for wrestling, as we still had some distance to cover to reach camp. Regardless, the awards were fun to see.

On the Way to Lapis Sky Ger Camp

Our drive, which was several more hours, included a stop to pick up a musical instrument and some cake at Fairfield Cafe and Bakery in Tseterleg to give to a family on the steppe.  We made “our drop” to the family on the side of the dirt track in the middle of the field!  It felt so clandestine.  The recent rains slowed our bus driver to a crawl across the damp, rutted road, but the slow progress was worth it for the view of a FULL DOUBLE rainbow!  They were so big, we couldn’t capture the ends of the rainbow in our photos.

Lapis Sky Ger Camp

We eventually reached the Lapis Sky Ger Camp at dusk, much later than the original plan.  The road down to the valley has been washed out for years, so we exited the bus and walked into camp after rounding the Ovoo atop the hillside three times in a clockwise direction.  An ovoo is a pile of rocks and wood and is considered sacred.  It is placed on top of mountains to honor the sky gods.  Mongols place a rock, a khata, or sweets inside as a form of offering to their ancestors.

Upon reaching camp, we were greeted in traditional ceremony.  First we were presented vodka.  The keeper of the vodka fills a shot glass and hands it to each visitor.  The visitor accepts the glass in the right hand.  Then using the right ring finger, the guest dips the finger into the vodka and flicks it upward to the sky. 

A second dip is flicked over the shoulder.  A third dip is flicked to the ground and finally the guests sips from the shot glass or places a fourth dip on their forehead.  The shot glass is then handed back to the host with the right hand who adds vodka to the cup and then hands it to the next person.  This ritual is then followed by the same ritual with airag, fermented mare’s milk.  Germophobes would have a tough time in Mongolia!

Dinner was served around 9:30 pm after which we settled into our electricity free gers.  Lit by a few solar lanterns, we could see that it was cute, but in the dim light at this late hour, we figured we’d get a better glimpse in the morning.  ETB

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perimeter of urguu ger camp in kharkhorin mongolia

Journey Across the Mongolian Steppes to Kharkhorin

Today we finally left the city, its noise, and its 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.

praryer wheels at Gandan Khiid in mongolia

Monastery, Museum, and Music in Mongolia

Monastery, Museum, and Music in Mongolia…say that five times fast!

Best Western in Ulaanbaatar

This morning we managed to sleep in until about 5:30am which was pretty good.  We just had to kill a little time until hour 7am buffet breakfast which included an egg station, fruit, meats and cheese, Mongolian fare, waffles, spaghetti and meatballs, grilled veggies, kefir, juices, and of course coffee and tea.  While the breakfast and room were nice, the most memorable part of the Best Western was the carpet in the elevators which indicated the day of the week!  This was very helpful to those of us on vacation!

elevator in the Best Western in Mongolia

Gandan Khiid

Around 8:30am, the group loaded on our bright yellow bus which transported us to Gandan Khiid located on the west side of Ulaanbaatar (or UB for short).  Gandan Khiid is one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia.  Its full name, Gandantegchinlen, translates to “the great place of complete joy”.  Along with Choijin Lama Temple Museum, it was one of the few monasteries that survived the religious purge in 1937 under Soviet rule.

our mongolian bus driver
Our bus driver in Armani

This monastery, which is active, was saved in 1944 when US Vice President Henry Wallace asked to see a monastery during his visit.  Prime Minister Choibalsan, who carried out Stalin’s religious persecution orders, scrambled to reopen Gandan Khiid to cover up the committed atrocities which included murdering tens of thousands of monks. Gandan remained a “show monastery” for foreign visitors until 1990 when the Soviet Union crumbled and religious ceremonies could recommence.

Religion in Mongolia

Mongolians are spiritual people.  As such, Shamanism and Buddhism never died under communist rule. It was practiced under ground until religious freedom was again restored.  Buddhism, which was introduced to the Mongols under Kublai Khaan’s reign in the 13th Century, is now more prevalent than Shamanism which has been practiced by Mongolian tribes since recorded history. Having said that, both belief systems exist today and are sometimes intermingled.

mongolian grandma and grandchild

For example, Carroll explained, the blue khata which in Shamanism represents the sky god who controls all nature, can be seen depicted in the outside monastery door.  It can also be found tied to many Buddhas inside the temple.  This is because the Mongols (or at least the nomads) who live in “The Land of Eternal Blue Sky” need the rain from the sky to grow the grass for their herds to survive the harsh winters.

In addition to learning about the symbolism painted on the outside of monastery which was constructed in 1838, we learned about the prayer wheels mounted on spindles outside of the temple.  They are spun in a clockwise direction to accumulate wisdom and good karma while expunging bad karma.

Ochidara Temple

Soon we quietly entered the Ochidara Temple located near the main entrance to watch the monks perform their ceremony which generally takes place around 9am.  We shuffled to our left and slowly worked our way around the seated monks to the right side of the building.  With their shaved heads and dressed in maroon robes, they chanted their mantra, drummed, clinged symbols and blew in conch shells as visitors provided gifts.  It was my first time to see a ritual like this, and I found it quite interesting despite not understanding a word.

After the ceremony, we followed the kora path in a clockwise direction through the courtyard past four stupas which represent the four great elements in Buddhism: earth, water, fire, and wind. The square base expresses solidity, strength and support like the earth.  The round dome atop the cube represents the cohesiveness of a water droplet.  On top of the dome is the conical fire element which radiates energy upward.  Finally, the wind which symbolizes movement is in shape of a disc that crowns the cone.

ochidara temple in Mongolia

Migjid Janraisig Süm

After passing the stupas, we reached Migjid Janraisig Süm, the monastery’s main attraction.  Hundreds of Buddhas of Longevity line the temple wall as an enormous statue of Migjid Janraisig stands two stories high in the center.  The original statue was commissioned by the eighth Bogd Khan in 1911. 

Syphillis blinded him, and he hoped the statue might restore his eyesight.  The statue was removed in 1937 during the religious purges, and it wasn’t replaced until 1996 with the help of donations from Japan and Nepal.  The hollow statue is made of copper, covered in gold and holds 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 334 Sutras, two million bundles of mantra, and an entire ger (similar to a yurt) with furniture!

Migjid Janraisig Sum in Mongolia

Photos were only allowed inside this temple if we paid extra, which turned out to be a common theme.  Most of the time, however, the photo charge was five times the paltry entry fee which caused visitors to balk.  Had the fees been reversed, tourists would have lots of spectacular photos to show of their visits to the major sites.

National Museum of Mongolia

From the monastery, we loaded into the bus for a short ride to the National Museum of Mongolia.  The three floors of exhibits date from 800,000 BC to present day.  We saw a variety of old tools, games, and traditional dress as well as documentation related to the history of socialist Mongolia along with the current Democratic Mongolia which is still facing difficulties today.

In fact, there was an election last week, and out of protest several young people voted with a blank ballot.  As a result, none of the three candidates won 50% of the vote.  Another election is being held while we are here.  The two candidates in the run off seem to be polar opposites, and the citizens, as evidenced by the blank ballots, are not that happy with the choices.  One supports the traditional nomadic beliefs while the other supports the copper mine which has damaged the land but will account for one third of Mongolia’s GDP by next year. We’ll see what happens…nothing like going half way around the world to find the same political controversies.

Rosewood Kitchen

From the museum, we went to Rosewood Kitchen for a great lunch.  We were warned this was one of the last times we could get fresh greens, so I went with an apple quinoa salad which was quite tasty.  The restaurant is run by a Bostonian name Cliffe and offers a variety of choices from pizza, to burgers, to salads, to roasted bone marrow.

Mongolian National Song & Dance Ensemble

By the time we finished lunch it was almost 3pm.  Page went on a shopping expedition while I returned to the hotel and took in the view of a dense collection of buildings. 

view of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
View from our hotel room

We had to be ready by 5:30pm for a show performed by the Mongolian National Song & Dance Ensemble.  Once again, we were not allowed to snap photos unless we paid an additional $20. 

Dancers, clothed in elaborate traditional dress, performed the dances of different tribes.  Singers performed khöömii, traditional throat singing of a guttural sound.  Musicians, played traditional instruments such as the popular horse-head fiddle called the morin khuur whose strings are made from a horse’s tail. 

In addition to the traditional music, the orchestra included some newer music which included a classical version of “We Are the Champions” by Queen.  I don’t think I have heard such a rendition, but it was quite good!

Silk Road Restaurant

From the performing hall, we walked to the Silk Road Restaurant for our dinner…pumpkin soup and lamb kebobs.  I can’t say it was as good as yesterday’s lunch here, but it’s always nice to know the food is safe to eat.  We enjoyed a nice day and look forward to getting closer to the Mongolian steppes tomorrow!  ETB

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Exploring Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

The Beijing Airport

We arose bright and early at 4:45am for a 9:30am flight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  We allowed an hour to get to the Beijing airport. Miraculously at this crazy hour there wasn’t much traffic so we arrived sooner.  Arriving prior to the three hour check-in time at MIAT Mongolian Airlines, we waited in line for a while before finally receiving our boarding passes and heading to immigration.