Exciting news

We have some news to share… we are engaged to be married! It happened on a beautiful Mongolian hill just before sunset, needless to say we are both very happy and excited.

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Just out for an evening walk… or so she thought!

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Engaged!!!!

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Beautiful sunset

C & L

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Crossing the Steppe

Since leaving Ulan Bator a couple of weeks ago, we have been overlanding through Central and Northern Mongolia. This means travelling across the country in a huge purpose built 4×4 truck, staying in traditional Mongolian gers (round white tents) and wild camping.

Mongolia is a pretty amazing place for overlanding; it is huge (roughly the same size as Western Europe) and has basically no roads. Other than a few stretches of tarmac, the country is made up of dirt tracks, of varying quality. This makes for exciting driving, with ‘boggings’ a common occurrence.

As well as being huge, Mongolia is very sparsely populated (about 2 million people or so) and stunningly beautiful. The landscape is generally made up of vast green plains, rolling hills, rocky spurs, with occasional gers and herds of horses, yaks, cows and goats. There are also lots of eagles and vultures. You can usually see for miles in any direction, and the lack of features can make it very difficult to judge size and distance. Mongolia is sometimes referred to as ‘the land of endless blue sky’, which seems about right.

We have been lucky to travel with a really fantastic group of people, from a number of different countries. Since leaving UB we have visited several Buddhist monasteries and temples, wandered around museums, explored local markets, seen ‘Deer Stones’ (Bronze Age carved granite monoliths), swum in various lakes, rivers and waterfalls, ridden half wild Mongolian horses, hiked, kayaked, climbed a dormant volcano, watched incredible shooting stars, sunrises and sunsets, bathed in natural hot springs, and danced around our campfire.

We have also tried a number of local delicacies, including fermented mares milk (not good), yak yoghurt (good), and yak vodka (very good!). We have been eating mostly Mongolian food, which is usually mutton based and stodgy – mutton stew, mutton noodles (breakfast!), mutton with rice etc. Whilst it has been great to try the local food, we are both now craving veggie meals and salads!

I’m also pleased to report that I passed the test to be recognised as a real Mongolian man – the only one from our group of 25, including Mongolian guides! The test was to throw a stone over a 16m sacred rock, from a kneeling position. Not as easy as it sounds!

We have arrived this afternoon at Lake Khovsgol, which is one of the country’s main tourist attractions and is noticeably busier than anywhere else we have been. The lake is enormous – 130km long, up to 260m deep, and holds about 2% of the world’s fresh water. We have a couple of days here, before spending 4 days driving back to UB.

Will add some photos once we have better internet.

Signing out for now…

L

A day exploring UB

Following a brief stopover in Beijing, we landed in Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) yesterday afternoon, successfully navigated to the hotel by bus, and met up with our group for the next 3 weeks. Today we have had a chance to explore the city, and gradually adjust to the 7 hour time difference.

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Flying over the Gobi desert

Mongolia has a long history of Russian and Chinese invasions, as well as building the world’s largest land empire in the 13th century, under the rule of Ghengis Khan. From about the 16th century onwards, Mongolia settled into a relatively peaceful Buddhist existence, before the Russians invaded again in 1920 when they burnt down the monasteries and killed or imprisoned most of the monks. However, they also built schools, hospitals and progressed the general infrastructure of the country, so not all bad. Mongolia finally gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.

As a result of this diverse history, UB is a pretty interesting place, a mix of old Buddhist temples and Soviet concrete monstrosities, with ger settlements (traditional round Mongolian tents) sprawling into the countryside. The people, culture, food and architecture are all a strange mix of Chinese and Russian, yet at the same time unmistakably Mongolian.

We visited the Gandan Buddhist monastery, where we saw chanting monks and turned the prayer wheels, spent a couple of hours in the National Museum (recommended) and then headed up to the Zaisan Monument on the edge of UB. This is a soviet memorial which was built in the 1980s to display the friendship between the Mongolian and Russian peoples, and where you can also get a great view over the city. There is a lot of smog, which we were told is partly due to the many gers, which traditionally use a coal stove for heating.

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Zaisan Monument

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Prayer wheels

We ended the day at the theatre, to watch a cultural performance by the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble. This involved traditional Mongolian dancing, singing, musical instruments, throat-warbling, an incredible contortionist (though unconvinced of the cultural relevance) before finishing with a completely surreal rendition of Queen’s ‘We are the champions’, by a full string orchestra in traditional Mongolian attire, playing traditional Mongolian lutes and harps.

Tomorrow morning we leave the city and head into the vast wilderness for 3 weeks, in a huge purpose built truck. Can’t wait…

L