Saying goodbye is never easy…
It was the fifth day of our trip across Central Mongolia. After spending two nights with a family of nomads and roughing it in gers; it was time to head back to Karakorum — the ancient capital of Mongolia. We would cover a distance of 130 km, along bumpy country roads, from Orkhon Valley to Karakorum.
Basil had decided to take his boots (bought from a local market in Mongolia) along with him. I didn’t share the same love for my boots and left my infamous/ill-fitting boots (also bought from the same town market) in the ger. We clicked a picture of our boots, to remind us of our misadventure in the forest. Yaks stared at us as we tried to absorb final glimpses of our location. We thanked our hosts and prepared ourselves for yet another adventure on the road.
Ovoo at the apex of the hill
It’s not uncommon to spot ovoos scattered across the vast landscape. Whenever possible, we stopped and circled (clockwise) around an ovoo. Our offerings were simple. We didn’t have animal sacrifices or expensive silks. We picked three stones from the earth and returned it back to the earth.
Now, I’m not one to follow tradition blindly or believe in higher powers. Yet, in Mongolia, it makes good sense to pay obeisance to the sky and earth. Over here, you truly begin to realise: how vulnerable we are as a species — when pitted against — the vast expanse of an epic landscape.
A bird’s eye view of the town below
We got a clear view of the town below from the vantage viewing point on the hill. Not everyone is a nomad in Mongolia, even if most Mongolians carry the spirit of nomadism in their hearts. Bigger cities (like Ulaanbaatar) are characterised by towering buildings and traffic blocks. And smaller towns (like the one in the pictures above) are characterised by picket fences and private houses. The government allots a piece of land for a family to build a house within a picket fence.
Each town has its own school, playground, local market, medical clinic, and repair shops. Some families live in gers within the picket fence until they can afford to build a house. There aren’t any clearly demarcated roads within the town and human activity is responsible for any drawn lines.
Shopping for supplies at the local supermarket.
It was a steep downhill ride and Saikna (our driver) skillfully manoeuvred our vehicle to the town. The local supermarket was stocked with interesting imported products. Boggi (our guide) had to pick up some supplies for our lunch.
It was strange to see kimchi stacked on the shelves and not meet any Korean travellers so far — except for UB City. Clearly we were missing something. Or Mongolians had developed a taste for Korea’s favourite delicacy.
Deer Stones and Square Graves of Temeen Chuluu
Boggi had observed me while I admired the stone arrangement, outside our ger, in Orkhon Valley. Because of our interest in burial sites like these, she included a quick visit to Deer Stone And Square Graves in our itinerary. These graves date back to the Bronze Age.
The ride to the ancient graveyard was bumpy and involved some serious off-roading. The location of the burial site was worth the torture of a sore right arm. Sites like these are considered sacred and it’s very important, as travellers/tourists, to preserve the sanctity of the place.
The deer stone has markings of a stylised deer and hence the name. Back then, with the sun shining overhead, I was having a little trouble identifying the pattern. To trace the faint (orange) outline of the deer, look closely at the first and second stone (from the right), and view them as single piece of rock.
Other patterns were relatively easier to decipher and were open to personal interpretation. I felt the shapes on the stones above resembled people holding hands. It’s interesting to see how early forms of art are so similar to modern doodling. Who would have thought that art gets recycled, over centuries, only to repeat itself again.
Additional Reading: Deer Stone Monuments, the Heart of Bronze Age Culture
Things you see in Mongolia…
In Mongolia, movement and stillness mutually coexist in a symbiotic relationship. The rising mountains and vast steppe add a sense of rigidity or permanence to the landscape. On the other hand, the stirring elements and animals cause a change that can alter the same landscape — in a matter of minutes.
Orkhon Valley National Park
We stopped at a viewing point in Orkhon Valley National Park. The sun was out by half past noon and had drastically changed the temperature. For the first time, in 5 days, I found the heat unbearable.
Orkhon Valley is believed to be the heart of nomadism. Its wealth lies in its sweeping steppe landscapes, nomadic families, grazing animals, ancient Buddhist monasteries, and relics from the past. It’s understandable why Orkhon Valley found a place in the Unesco World Heritage List. From this vantage viewing point, we were able to get a sense of the magnitude of the landscape and its diversity in the form of mountain, valley, and river.
Additional Reading: Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape
Finding a spot for lunch
After a 20 minute ride, Saikna found a quiet spot by a rivulet.
It was getting hotter by the hour and the heat made it difficult to sit for a long time. We had packed meals that had to be mixed, warmed, and eaten.
Things had turned a little tense between Boggi and me after getting lost in the forest and the barbecue disaster. She had repeatedly tried to explain to me why it is necessary for Mongolians to eat meat. She failed to understand that I had no problem with people (especially nomads) eating any kind of meat. Unfortunately, I, had a problem eating meat.
Fortunately, over lunch, the situation diffused as the masks came off. Saikna and Boggi relaxed and we cracked jokes. We had formed a bond as co-travellers and finally, it didn’t matter who was the guide and who was a traveller.
Anja Camp was like an oasis in the desert. It felt more like glamping than camping. Our ger had a double bed with lighting and electric points. There were common showers with hot water and thankfully — even flush toilets. You begin to appreciate the spoils of modernism — only after you’ve lead a life without it. We hadn’t showered in 3 or 4 days. After settling in, we rushed to the deserted shower cubicles.
Monument dedicated to the Mongol Empire
In Mongolia, distances and heights can be deceptive. Rollings hills seem to be smaller before you attempt to climb them. We saw two interesting objects on the hill and since we didn’t have anything planned before dinner, we thought of exploring the neighbouring hill.
I was out of breath by the time we reached the top of the hill. There’s an interesting monument built here to remember the laurels of the past. It’s a mosaic map of Mongolian conquests. It might seem a little out of place in this location. Unfortunately, history wasn’t very well preserved either in monuments or books and lot of the past had been erased during the purges. I guess, it’s an attempt to recreate a glimpse of the past glory.
Sweeping views of Orkhon Valley and Karakorum
This particular viewing point offered a set of contrasting landscapes. To one side, Orkhon Valley spread across every inch of our field of view. It was one of the most stunning views that we’ve ever seen. For some reason, this location stirred up memories of reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I was 15 at that time, and I remember having sleepless nights dreaming about raptors and hungry Compy (Compsognathus) packs chasing me. Mongolia happens to be a rich resource for dinosaur fossils. Unfortunately, most of them are found in the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia.
Additional Reading: 1. Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs
On the other side, we saw the town of Karakoram spread across.
We didn’t see the Milky Way that night. And that’s the price you pay for returning to civilisation.