Sunday, 31 December 2006

Parties, Pageants, Hiking in the Bogdkhaan Uul

I’ve had a little trouble getting photographs onto this blog, so for the time being I’ve decided to stick to small file sizes - however, if you want to see any of the pictures in their full glory, and also photos I don’t have room for in the blog, please check out my new Flickr site (also under the Ulaanbaanjo name, there should be a link in the column on the right). Once I figure out the technology I may be able to improve the situation and make it a little more user friendly. And if anyone has any advice, please be encouraged to either leave a comment or send me an email

Thursday 28th, Friday 29th & Saturday 30th December 2006
Following the party at the Grand Khan, the social whirl has continued: I’ve attended the students’ Christmas/New Year party - much of which was taken up by a beauty pageant style contest judged by the teachers to find a King and Queen of the Prom; I was also given a gift from the students (a giant candy Christmas tree made in China for export to the US, listed ingredients include Titanium Dioxide). I’ve attended the teachers’ Christmas/New Year party, where entertainments included an inevitable contest to find out who the King and Queen of the teachers were (I feel I was let down in this by not wearing a suit, otherwise then my banjo turn would surely have won me a crown); we also had two ballet dancing angels who danced for 2 minutes and posed for photos for 20. We had a traditional singer perform a few songs - the singing style seems to be a fusion of western operatic singing and oriental tones and melodies. At the Grand Khaan we had a woman singing who I’d seen a video of on Mongolian TV a few times - a really powerful singer.

Having learnt the error of my ways since the party on Boxing Day, I sat at the ‘Wine’ table, with the older and calmer teachers rather than at a ‘Vodka’ table, on the understanding that I would so be able to civilly stick to a glass or two from the vine, rather than struggling to keep down distilled grain. Having sat down, a waiter then brought a half dozen beer and two vodka bottles to the table, and a single bottle of cheap red wine. Later in the evening the ‘Vodka’ tables got an additional bottle of quality ‘Chinggis’ vodka - our table got a bottle of real French red. Still, I managed to wilfully refuse all but the most obligatory vodka toasts. As the party wound up our glamorous principal arrived and shortly announced to a cheering audience of inspirited teachers that we had all been invited to the corporation’s employees’ party, which was being held at an expo centre on the far side of town. I gamely attended, danced without being drunk, listened to one of the top young Mongolian rock bands play their hits (they were pretty good), amongst a crowd of wildly enthusiastic photocopier engineers, teachers, waiters and god knows what other lines of business (and I am assured there are many) the corporation is involved in.

Saturday morning, regardless of having avoided the pitfall of drinking copious amounts of vodka, felt I really needed to clear my head. Yet another bright and glorious day, but with a particularly thick and orange morning smog. I left my apartment at 10am, walked across the edge of the centre, past the Ulaanbaatar Hotel and the statue of Lenin out front, and down a long avenue south with little traffic. My map showed this to be an alternative route over the railway and river south in the direction of the mountains to the busy road across the ‘Peace Bridge’ which I had walked on Christmas Day. After crossing over the tracks of the Trans- Mongolian the long straight road continued, through a very quiet area with even less traffic, smart new apartment blocks being built, and the mountains south and east clear and inviting.

The road surface seemed smooth and quite new, and walking almost the only sound was the steady crunch of the powdery snow beneath my boots, the sky here clean and deep blue. Past the last of the construction sites and then a large and fancy looking driving range. Had almost reached the mountains - the road carried on, rising, clearly to bridge the wide river that runs from west to east at the foot of the southern mountains. Strangely, there seemed to be a few obstacles in the road - it occurred to me that although there were no signs to warn of it, the bridge was incomplete. Left the road then and walked down to the wide, frozen river: and indeed, 20 feet above me the bridge continued half way across, and then abruptly stopped, pillars in the middle of the river awaiting the bridge’s completion. Later, I was told that it is not uncommon for unwary and usually unsober drivers to drive off the edge. I didn’t actually see any sign of this, although I’ll have to go back and check out if it’s possible. How long the bridge has been incomplete I don’t know - I do know that for the obvious reason of the deep subzero temperatures, most construction in Mongolia grinds to a halt for the winter months.

Now at the foot of the mountains, headed west up the frozen river. The river must have been frozen entirely solid, but I still trod a little warily. When I’d previously walked to the war memorial (Zaysan Tolgoy) I’d been very drawn to the hills that surrounded it in a horseshoe ridge - presumably a small glacial valley. I was dimly aware that these hills presumably formed part of a very old National Park I remembered reading about. The eastern foot of these hills came down a quarter mile upriver from the unfinished bridge. As I reached that point, I past a large group of fellers, all dressed in the colourful sashed robes, boots and fur hats of nomads, playing a sort of curling/bowls game on the ice with pucks of some sort. It was a very picturesque scene - regrettably my camera was playing up at the time. I left the river and struck off up the hillside.

The hill was quite steep, and the going fairly slippery with slow (yellowed grasses growing through), but I took my time, knowing it would be easier on the ridge, enjoying the warm sunlight and the ghost of green in the grasses above me; pausing frequently to look back down on the game in the ice, and the higher I climbed, looking back in wonder at the city, and the thick dark sea of smog above it: all the time myself breathing wonderful, clean air, and wondering why no one else in a city of a million people would be out here walking on so glorious a day. In Britain it is a very hit or miss thing to go out hill-walking at winter - you have to be very wary of changes in the weather, have precious little daylight to walk in either - the day seems to be darkening as soon as it has begun, and your spirits inevitably harden and darken with it. I don’t know what the air temperature was during yesterday’s climb - it may have been unseasonably warm, but was undoubtedly no more than -8C and could feasibly have been significantly less. With no wind, and the air dry and crisp, I felt a lot warmer and in none of the life-or-death rush to get to the top and down of climbing Snowdon on a wet and windy summer’s day.

After the first small peak, the ridge was easy to follow, and eventually I came across the boot tracks of other walkers. My geology is pretty much non-existent, the hills reminded me of the Lake District, smooth sided, with broken rock showing through. There was practically no litter at all, which seems incredible contrasted with the casual filth and grime of dear old UB. The hills are pristine, feel wild - and always you look back at the colourful, sprawling chaos of Ulaanbaatar - at the power stations belching out smoke to the West, at the crowded tower blocks, cranes and construction sites, at the barely visible northern ger districts rising on the slopes of the northern hills - then the snow covered mountain tops rising like islands from the dark grey sea of smoke above.

Looking down into the basin the ridge surrounded, at it’s lip is the rugged pyramid of rock (I would like to say basalt, except I only have a vague idea of what basalt actually is), topped by the very splendid Zaysan Tolgoy monument, looking not unlike Isengard. Beyond that, too, the golden, shining Buddha statue (according to my city map, the “highest, bronze-plated statue of Buddha” in the world!) and from the gardens, the big bronze bell ringing out intermittently, clear, heavy and deep. There are ger in the little valley, and I watched as a farmer herded his brown sheep and maybe goats from one pasture to another.

I continued along the ridge from small peak to peak, stopping often, looking about and smiling to myself. After a while I met my first other walker - a man in blue robe and orange sash, bearing a large sack of chopped fire wood on his back. He smiled and nodded when, I raised my hand, and continued his laborious way down along the ridge. On the higher slopes there is a large forest - how legal it is to chop down the wood I am not entirely certain. It’s an extensive forest, but I am guessing it wouldn’t feed the stoves of UB’s ger for a week if it was open game.

Eventually I approached an ominous looking battered old sign - some fierce cyrillic words and beneath: PROHIBITED AREA. Oops. It may have referred to the area East of the ridge trail I was following, which was to be my excuse if anyone challenged me over being there. Later, I had a fresh look at my map and my Bradt guide. The National Park south of Ulaanbaatar is called ‘Bogdkhaan Uul’ (or Bogd Khan, or Bogdhan) - ‘uul’ means mountain. It is Mongolia’s oldest protected area - a minister declared it such in 1778. I am yet a bit vague on the details, but the guide refers to both a “Strictly Protected Area” and a “Transition Zone” - so whether I was breaking any rules I am not sure. I have a feeling that the area may not be much policed in the winter, but that I might risk a fine walking it in tourist season. I am reluctant to enquire at the official Bogdkhaan office as I have a pretty strong feeling that they will say that I need a pass whatever - so I think I’ll get Mongolian friends to enquire for me.

I walked up into the timber line. Most of the trees seem to be dead or dormant (as well as not being a geologist, I am not a great expert on flora or fauna, either) - so it was a pleasant surprise to climb one peak and find a tree fresh and green. I don’t know what kind of evergreen it is, but it was round-topped and the green very light and bright, and so a further surprise among all the lifeless, conical pines. I sat on a rock that was almost warmed by the sun, and enjoyed the peace.

Being around 2pm, having got most the way along the eastern arm of the horseshoe, I decided to find a path down through the forest. I came across what seemed to be a sledge track down through the woods, and shortly found a sturdy piece of plastic sheeting. Had to give it a go, and so slid very quickly down through the trees, panicked a bit as I sped up and up and was also entirely unable to steer, carried down by the track. I managed to bring myself to a stop, and walked the rest of the way down. At the bottom, in the middle of the small valley, is a collection of ger and ramshackle wooden houses. Approaching this I passed a group of kids playing with a sledge - maybe having come down the way I’d just followed, maybe just pulling each other around on the flat. They followed me, laughing, introducing themselves with “Hello, may name is...”, giving me the ‘peace sign’ and shouting out bye-bye as I left.
Walked through the settlement towards the Buddha park, dogs barking at me, feeling invigorated and a little footsore too. Ignored the buses though, and carried on up towards the Peace Bridge, through the increasing noise and dirt, occasionally looking back at the mountains, which seem to get larger as they get fainter towards the city. Past two police traffic officers deep in joking conversation, one miming beating someone with his orange traffic baton, the other wearing`a full santa outfit (including beard) beneath his Day-Glo outer jacket. Plodded across Sukhbaatar square, gearing up for tomorrow night’s big celebration. The tree, according to the UB Post, is the first real Xmas tree the city has had: a splendid Spruce from the Bogdkhaan Uul. “We sought and received permission of the Environment Minister for this,” the city’s head of the Cultural Office hastened to add.