24 September 2013

Rock and Roll In Ondorkhan - On the road update

We’ve been out on our Landscapes of the East itinerary – visiting Dundgobi, Dorngobi, Dornod and Khentii. Mongolians divide their country into three main landscape types – Gobi, Tal Kheriin Bus and Khangai (desert, steppe and mountain) and this itinerary incorporated a taste of all three.

Eastern Mongolia is immense. And diverse. And empty. The vast far stretching landscapes are characterised by flat treeless plains, rolling hills and a significant number of important wetlands - the eastern steppe is also home to one of the world’s last great populations of the White Tailed Mongolian gazelle (Procapra gutturosa). The north-east is dominated by the history of Genghis Khan and the mountain-forest steppe of the Khan Khentii Mountains, stretching to the northern border with Siberia. The Secret History of the Mongols states that Genghis Khan was born in Khentii Province at the headwaters of the Onon and Kherlen rivers, near the border of modern Mongolia and Siberia. According to the legend written in the Secret History the Mongols originated in the mountain forest when a Blue-Grey Wolf mated with a Red Doe.

 Saturday night was spent in Ondorkhan – the provincial capital of Khentii Aimag. Admittedly, it might not be on everyone’s must see list of Mongolia but it provided a room to take shelter from an ever increasing bitter wind as well as a contrast to life out on the open steppe and city life in UB. 

The remote and beautiful Baldan Breevin Khiid in Khentii
We celebrated our last night on the east tour with dinner in the ‘Och’ restauarant (a local recommendation from a delightful lady who wanted to practise her English), finishing off with a couple of hours karaoke. The singing was abysmal (apart from Turuu who always sings well) but for a couple of hours it was ‘rock and roll’ in Ondorkhan – finishing off with a dance on the disco floor of the restaurant (don’t worry, we were the only patrons).

We departed early in the morning for UB, and although we have travelled back on ‘Route One’ (also known as the Millennium Highway, this is Mongolia’s main road connecting east aimags to UB and those in the west) we saw more birds of prey than we did vehicles.

Our home at Toson Hulstai, Dornod
Eastern Mongolia is almost certainly the region of Mongolia least visited by international travellers. The final frontier - it's a perfect destination for those wanting to gain a genuine insight, travel the road less travelled and in the opposite direction to where most travellers go. It comes highly recommended  whether you choose karaoke or not!

22 September 2013

Full Moons (almost) and Howling Wolves - On the road update

We’re currently driving through the homeland of Chinngis Khan, Khentii Aimag on our Landscapes of the East itinerary. Today’s destination is Dadal located in the Onon Balj National Park and close to the border with Siberia.

Khentii - the homeland of Chinng

The road is rough but the views truly spectacular as we drive over vast open country and as I like to think, in the footsteps of Chinngis Khan.

Tsonjin Boldog

Having made a stop at Binder, which along with Batshireet and Dadal occupy the territories of the culturally rich and traditional Buriat communities, a minority ethnic group of Mongolia, we have now crossed the mighty Onon River. We’re roughly 80km from Dadal and we’ll  be spending a few nights camping, making the most of the public shower house and feasting on home-made (but shop bought!) Buriat bread and ‘khaliartai khuushuur’ – both specialities of the Buriat community.

We spent last night camping alongside Öglögchiin Kherem (Almsgiver’s Wall) – this 3.2km wall is said to date from between the 8th to 10th centuries. Close by on what is known as the Almsgiver’s Castle, over 60 graves have been discovered – thought to be a royal graveyard. The effort of the labour required to construct the wall suggests that it was a very important site and radiocarbon dating indicates its continued use by the Mongol tribes. 

As we sat around our small campfire, we were discussing those who had been before us – the Khitad and the Mongols – who had built the wall and used this area and the potential reasons as to why. The moon lit up our camp and as the hot water came to the boil and we went to prepare our last mug of tea of the day, we heard the sound of howling wolves echoing across from the opposite forested hillside.

Wolves use howling as a form of communication and maybe they were howling prior to hunting or as a pack to defend their territory. We don’t know, but sitting there under the moonlight by a 1000 year old wall we felt privileged to be there. 

(Of all the wolves’ different calls, howling is the only one that works over great distances. Its low pitch and long duration are well suited for transmission in forest and across the steppe or tundra, and unique features of each individual’s howl allow wolves to identify each other.)

(Both Sue and Ross read the EL blog and said that surely howling wolves under a moonlit sky were worth a post. Sue and Ross make great travelling and fireside companions and so I dedicate this post to them as a thank you for their kindness and thoughtfulness and to their future adventures – wherever the ‘altan shar zam’ (the golden yellow road) continues to take them.)