Thursday 17th to Friday 18th August 2007
Ulaanbaatar to Kharkhorin by microbus (a compact 11-seater people carrier) costs Tg10,000 - about $9. It's about 360km - the road is being resurfaced for most of its length, so at present the journey takes about 8 hours over bumpy dirt tracks. My wife, her friend Tuya and I were very lucky on our way out as there was only one other passenger on the bus, so we had plenty of room to stretch out - on the return yesterday we weren't so lucky: there ten adults and four kids plus the driver - by no means overcrowded by microbus standards, but with the addition of one tape of the more bombastic Mongolian opera-style music played over and over for the entire journey, reasonably close to purgatory.
We'd set out around 4pm, then had to wait while the bus had an oil change, and didn't get out of UB itself until 6pm. The bus seemed to make pretty good time rocketing along - quite exciting after nightfall, with the headlights sending out beams into the clouds of dust, traffic coming at us and jostling to overtake those headed the same way over the twisting and turning tracks of a six lane dirt highway. Some time in the night we eventually reached a surfaced road again, and I stretched out and dozed off. When I awaoke we were parked outside a tall, irregular wooden fence, Tuya was banging on the gate and dogs all around were barking a protest.
We were staying in Kharkhorin with the family of one of my wife's old college friends. They live on the edge of Kharkhorin, in a yard with a ger, a 'summer cottage' and a little cook house. Through most of the year the family live in the ger, but in the summer they can also use their cottage - a modest, unheated wooden shack furnished, like a ger, with orange painted wooden box-furniture, pictures of wrestling heroes and a small buddhist shrine. Mother and father both work at the local hospital, their youngest son and daughter and the wife's mother all live here together. They have electricity, but of course no running water, and I guess their life is typical of a majority of urban Mongoloians in the country.
Kharkhorin is a city of about 20,000 people, there are no tower blocks, and very few brick buildings at all. It's not a prosperous-looking place, but it's noticeably cleaner than Ulaanbaatar - ramshackle, but without garbage and waste scattered everywhere. Our first morning there the sky was overcast, with light showers of rain, which seemed to suit the dark gritty earth here, and gave the place a fresh feel, reminding me of England's Lake District in typical weather. I love Ulaanbaatar, but after spending so long there it was very refreshing to be in a town that isn't awash with litter, where there isn't the constant blaring of horns and squealing of breaks, nor the pounding of drills and jack-hammers.
We walked to the Erdene Zuu monastery complex. This giant walled complex was once the centre of Buddhism in Mongolia - the first monastery was founded here by Zanabazar, Mongolia's Buddhist 'Renaissance man' of the 16th Century. By the time of the purges of the 1930s there were over 80 temples in the compound - most were destroyed, and the leaders were executed, the older monks disappeared to gulags and the young monks were sent back to their families. Since the 1990s a monastery has been reestablished here, and work continues both in restoring the temple complex and also building a modern school (with hopes for a sports field to "help our lamas win the World Cup in 2010") for the young monks. It's a very worthy project (the monastery also works in the local prison teaching felt craft to inmates and their handiwork can be bought at the monastery shop - the first such program in rehabilitation of offenders that I've heard of in Mongolia) - visit their website at www.erdenezuu.mn.
Later in the afternoon we took a tour round some of the local sights. Firstly we drove upriver a kilometre or two to a weir which standing at the foot of a small mountain ridge that cuts the upper valley out of view from the city makes the gateway for a rather spectacular change of view - the lower river runs swiftly but tamely down a single course, the old valley bed now stony and dry: the upper river bends and forks, leaving dozens of small ox-bow lakes form its twisting, sinuous course, and the valley is lush and green. Ger and herds can be seen here and there off into the distance: it's a breath-taking view of utter beauty, and well worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage status - climbing the mountain, as the view expands there's a strong sense of looking out across the millennia at a scene that is both living and essentially unchanged.
We walked along the ridge back in the direction of the city, circling the ovoo (cairns) we passedthree times, and throwing on three stones. We were headed for an impressive monument of three giant, curving wall friezes, depicting the three great Empires of Mongolia's history - that of the Hun, the Turks and the Mongols. Traders had stalls alongside the monument selling what I will politely call 'replicas' of Mongolian antiques. One trader was particularly keen for me to buy a very shiny cooking pot and stand from the "hunnu period" (5th century AD), but I did happily buy a small snuff bottle, that my host's wife insists is made from resin but I choose to believe is from the rather beautiful and carefully worked 'rare stone' that the trader enthusiastically praised. Anyhow, perhaps to compensate me for my gullibility the family were later to give me a very nice little hand-embroidered pouch to keep it in as a parting gift.
We also drove out to see one of the four stone turtles that mark the limits of ancient Kharkhorin, and the "bodjra" stone - a phallus resting on a grinding stone propped up by a circular stone basin. At both places there were more cheerful traders selling pretty much the identical antiques. The city was usually visible in the distance - ramshackle, with its ger, shacks and wooden faces, but friendly-looking. I like Kharkhorin.
Back at home we entertained ourselves by playing the very popular card game known as "cards", at which my wife and Tuya firmly beat me and my host's young son Nymka, as they were throughout giving each other strategic advice while Nymka and I were unable to convey much without a common language. In revenge I beat my wife convincingly at chess, and in revenge for my letting him down so badly at cards Nymka then defeated me with a humiliating fool's mate after I had thought I was beating him very easily. I've recently rediscovered an enthusiasm for playing chess, which I'd lost interest in as a kid because of being too lazy to improve my game: now the wonder of the net has revealed to me the basics of chess strategy after a few idle hours at work, and suddenly I find the game exciting again. I still get beat all the time, though.
That night our sleep was occasionally disturbed by ferocious howls from dogs fighting in the street just outside the cottage - it sounded like we were being beset by wolves and bears.
More photos on my Flickr page.