Monday, July 19, 2010
Driving out of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian countryside unfolds like a blanket of fields and mountains. The impossibly big sky with its cumulus clouds and cool, fresh air lend the area an unparalleled vastness.
Suddenly a figure appears over the crest of a hill. Tall, bright, and gleaming in the sun, it’s difficult to make out what it is at first. As the caravan of black SUVs approaches, the figure grows and the hills recede to give us a better view. It is Genghis Khan. A huge statue of Genghis Khan. All in bright, shiny metal a million miles high.
Stunned, we alight from our convoy to get a better look. The statue, completed just two years ago, is built on a classical western base, but its subject is pure Mongolian. Ghenghis on his horse, right where he is said to have found his golden whip all those years ago. The visitors center has just been completed, and we tour a small museum with artefacts from the area and the world’s largest boot.
The center is slated for additional development in the coming years, including a ger camp and several restaurants. For now, we content ourselves with the museum and the views from the head of Genghis Khan’s horse.
Back in the cars, we travel deeper into the Mongolian countryside. Our destination is Terelj National Park. Glued to the windows, we watch as rivers, mountains, and fake dinosaurs go by. Ger camps dot the valley, and we can’t wait to see which one is ours.
Eventually we pull into Ayanchin Lodge with its neat line of white nomadic tents. We have our pick and we pile in, four to a ger. It’s all very exciting.
Settled, we decide to hike up to the top of a hill that we call a mountain to make ourselves feel more adventurous. Scrambling in flip flops, we follow the resident dog past a half-eaten animal carcass (a fox, perhaps?) and up to the boulders that rest on top. The views of the valley are breathtaking.
Back at the camp, we eat dinner and settle in for a long night of waiting for the World Cup. We drink beer. We drink hot chocolate. We take turns napping in the gers. We approach cardiac arrest when the TV goes blank two minutes before the game starts. We celebrate when it comes back on two minutes after. We smile when a work crew from the lodge comes in at 2:30am to watch with us, leaves for half time, and comes back to watch the end. We cheer for Holland, wrapped in our conveniently orange ger blankets. We use the last of our energy to congratulate our Dutch friend and go back to our gers.
Sleeping in a ger is like being at summer camp, only this time the boys and girls share a cabin. The four narrow beds are arranged in a circle around a stove in the center of the tent. It is a stove that we would have been wise to use, as nights in the Mongolian countryside are very, very cold. Too tired to test our mountaineering skills, we shiver into our beds fully clothed and wrap ourselves tightly in our blankets.
We wake up sweating. The sun is shining through the hole in the top of the ger, and the temperature has risen to shorts-and-T-shirts levels by 10am. It’s hot. We join the others for breakfast, then head to the nearby river. The water is numbingly cold, so I go on a farm animal photo shoot while the others wade. The yaks, cows, and horses are busy eating, drinking, and fording the river, and it all feels a bit like the Oregon Trail. Thankfully no one comes down with cholera or dysentery, and Timmy doesn’t break his leg.
In the evening we’re back in Ulaanbaatar, but not for long. The draw of Terelj National Park is too strong for us to not return once more. This time a few of us take a day trip, stopping first at Turtle Rock. It’s a rock formation in a small valley below a monastery, and it is said to look like a turtle. It does. Kind of. We hike up to the top, sucking in our stomachs to fit through the world’s smallest rock hole to get to the vista point on the other side. From there we can see farm animals grazing like ants below the mountains.
Climbing back down, we go horseback riding for an hour with our driver. The price is quoted to us, and my first instinct, as always, is to negotiate. But when I realize that the price is less than 4 U.S. dollars for an hour, I can’t bring myself to haggle.
We ride, imagining ourselves a trio of warriors in Genghis Khan’s army. It becomes increasingly difficult, though, as our horses stroll slowly through the grass. We get somewhat stuck in deep mud at one point, but the horses don’t mind, and neither do we. The sun is shining and there’s a newborn foal in the distance. The air is the cleanest we’ve ever breathed and there is a quiet peace in the valley.
The peace might have something to do with the monastery that we later visit. Just up the hill from Turtle Rock, it is a small square building surrounded by a red swath of prayer wheels (please let Holland win the World Cup, please let Holland win the World Cup). The area is beautiful, as is the interior of the monastery.
We would like to stay, but we are called by our host and told to meet at Terelj Hotel and Tereljmaa Spa, a five star resort in Terelj National Park. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the Terelj Hotel is impressive. The manager invites us to use the indoor pool, spa, and sauna. We don’t hesitate.
Neither do we refrain from enjoying a cocktail in the upstairs piano bar before dinner. It just so happens that all of us are girls, as the boys have been in Ulaanbaatar all day for business meetings. One girl suggests that we are like trophy wives enjoying a day at the spa while our husbands work. I throw up a little bit in my mouth. But only a little bit. When I find out the boys have been meeting with Zbigniew Brzezinski, I feel absolutely ill.
We meet the rest of the group for dinner, where we are introduced to the head chef, a Belgian who cooks us an amazing meal. While one end of the table discusses the global currency markets, the other plays games like “balance the spoon on your nose”. Maybe this is summer camp after all.
Dinner ends late. Some of the group spends the night in Terelj National Park. The rest of us pile into one of the SUVs to return to the Chinggis Khaan Hotel in Ulaanbaatar. The next morning is the Naadam Festival, and if we weren’t so tired, we would be too excited to sleep. To be continued…