Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Hohhot & Inner Mongolia

Erenhot to Hohhot to Hostel: an exercise in frustration

Once I made my way from the random location where the jeep from the border dropped me off in Erenhot, I made my way to the railway station to get a ticket on the train to Hohhot. Unfortunately, it turned out that the train to Hohhot wasn't running that day, so I would have to make alternate plans. I went outside, and there was a bus parked out front, but it turned out that it was only running to Beijing. One of the Mongolian kids getting on the bus was interested in me, since I was a foreigner, and his mom spoke a little English. She talked to the driver, and when they heard I wanted to go to Hohhot, they told me to wait and that there would be a bus. They gave me a ride to the bus station and told me where I could get a ticket to Hohhot. Since Lonely Planet had no useful information on Erenhot, I would have been in a real jam without their help—a GPS with offline maps would also have been a lifesaver on so many occassions.

Anyway, the bus to Hohhot was interesting. All the passengers were Chinese, and they displayed typical Chinese manners: eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells on the ground, which is also where they put their garbage; smoking even though it's a non-smoking bus; and generally being noisy and annoying. A couple of times we passed really touristy ger camps—complete with concrete gers or lots of modern buildings or restaurants surrounded by a few traditional gers (which the Chinese call Mongolian steamed buns)—and whenever we passed them the Chinese would whip out their cameras and furiously take pictures of them... on a trip in Inner Mongolia from the Mongolian border to Hohhot. I think this tells you something about just how Mongolian Inner Mongolia is—even if they do technically still use the traditional Mongolian script there.

I arrived in Hohhot an hour or so before sunset, and immediately went next door to the train station to try and buy an overnight ticket to Pingyao for departure the next evening. I was lucky enough to get a hard sleeper berth, in what was one of my easier ticket-buying experiences. This station also had turnstiles at the exit lanes to prevent queue jumping, which was a nice touch.

The next objective was to find the hostel recommended in Lonely Planet, the Anda Guesthouse. It turns out that they not only had the Anda placed incorrectly on the map, but Michael Kohn had completely botched the written directions on how to get there, with incorrect streets, incorrect bus stops, and instructions to go one direction when you were supposed to go the opposite direction. It took almost 90 minutes to find the hostel from the time I was two blacks away. When I finally arrived and checked in, other travelers told me similar stories of futility.

There was a 60-something Australian lady staying in my room that night, and we swapped storied and recommendations as she was coming from Central Asia and headed towards Mongolia—the opposite path as me. I think I got the better end of the deal, as she wrote down some recommendations in my Lonely Planet on the best places to stay and get information, whereas I only told her how to get to UB by local train.

The 2012 Olympics were on at that point, and the girls working at the hostel were eagerly watching. Chinese Olympic coverage seems to be like American: very patriotic and covering mainly the events that they do well. So they were naturally showing women's weightlifting, and I got to hear commentary from the Chinese girls about how mannish the lifters from other countries looked. Not that the Chinese lifters looked particularly feminine, but whatever.

One day in Hohhot

Inner Mongolia, like Tibet and Xinjiang, is an Aurtonomous Region. This is meant to reflect their distinct cultures and suggest additional autonomy, but in practice I think it's all window dressing. Inner Mongolia should be an example to both Tibet and Xinjiang as to just how successful Beijing can be in replacing minority communities and population with Han immigrants, though: Hohhot is almost 90% Han, with only about 9% being Mongol and 2% being Hui Mulsim; Inner Mongolia as a whole is 79% Han and only 17% Mongol.

In Hohhot you'll see Mongolian script on a lot of buildings, and the typically blocky style of quotidean Chinese architecture is enlivened with ger-like decorations on the tops of many buildings, but the feeling on the streets is decidedly Han, with the most exotic and noticeable accents coming from the Hui minority, and not the Mongols. I wonder if part of this isn't because China is a food-centric culture, and Hui food is better than Mongolian food. Of course, the fact that Hui are just Muslim Han while Mongols are not Han may have something to do with it, too.

There's a world of difference between Mongolian parks and this park in Hohhot. For one, Hohhot hardly looks anything like Ulaanbaatar (both are classified as cold semi-arid climates), as there are artificial ponds, green grasses, and lush trees. But the bigger difference is in terms of how people use the parks: in China they're real places of communal socialization and heavily used as such (here by the ubiquitous ballroom dancers).

Rollerblading class.

Mongol newlyweds in front of ornamental pond.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Sainshand, Khamaryn Khiid, and the Black Mountain of Bayanzurkh Uul

Sainshand is another town on the Trans-Mongolian, which makes it one of the easiest places in the country to access. Unlike Sukhbaatar, however, it has a couple of really good attractions: the Khamaryn Khiid monastery about 20 km south of town, and the sacred Black Mountain or Bayanzurkh Uud a similar distance southwest of town.

Sainshand is also firmly in the Gobi. On the train ride to Sainshand you'll see sparse grasslands, but once you get out of town and on the road to Khamaryn Khiid it turns to full-on desert, full of sand and rock.

Train from UB to Sainshand

There are two trains that run daily along this route, and one that runs a few times per week. The one that runs during the day is a local train that tops at every single stop. It leaves UB at 9:15 am and is scheduled to arrive in Sainshand at 7:15 pm. There's also an evening train that leaves UB at 5:20 pm and arrives in Sainshand at 1:45 am before continuing to the border at Zamyn Uud. Finally, there an express night train that leaves UB at 8:50 pm and arrives in Sainshand at 4:49 am—but it only runs three days per week.

Taking the day train gives you a chance to soak up the scenery. If you're bored by plains and grasslands, you might find it a bit much. But if you travel platzkartny, you'll have a good chance to interact with locals, especially curious kids. I traveled on a Saturday, which meant there were some families visiting Sainshand and the nearby religious sites there over the weekend.

A station on the outskirts of UB. Even the playground is grim.

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The train carriage's hot water boiler is wood-fired. The original iPhone's camera is a potato.

The train station at Choir. Apparently there's a statue of Mongolia's only cosmonaut out front.

The aftermath of a rainy morning, and a few vendors selling to passengers.


Rainbows herald the end of the clouds and the advent of the sun.

The evening turns beautiful.

Passing the northbound train.

One of the kids I met on the train. She was from Selenge aimag, where Sukhbaatar city is.

The train arrived late. The platform was crowded with vendors selling food to passengers who stop here or are on their way to UB or Zamyn Uud. Soda, chocolate, biscuits, buuz dumpling, meat, and the like.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Ulaanbaatar daytripping: Terelj, Zuunmod, and Bogd Khan

When I returned to UB, I still wasn't sure what else I would do in Mongolia. I wanted to see the dunes and Khongoryn Els in the south of the country, but that typically involved a tour of six or more days that would typically involve circling back to Kharkhorin. Although the $45 per day expense of these tours is pretty reasonable, typically at least a couple of days are wasted travel days, where you do little more than sit in a van for 10 hours or so. Ideally, I would simply see the Gobi sights, which comprise only a day or two of the tours, and I asked at Idre's if it would be possible to join one of the tours in Dalanzadgad and then just join the tour for a couple of days. It  would be much cheaper to take the bus to Dalanzadgad and do things this way, and they said it was possible if they had space in their next tour... unfortunately, the tour filled up completely before it departed, so this option was out.

Since other tours proved to be more expensive than I wanted to pay, I decided against this and considered heading out to eastern Mongolia: buses ran to Dadal a couple of times per week, and Dorjsuren's homestay sounded appealing. Unfortunately, the bus times didn't really pan out and I wasn't sure I wanted to spend that much more time in Mongolia.

With the Gobi out, I decided to simply wait until my Kazakh visa was ready and then head south by train and visit Sainshand.

Abbot on his way to Golden Temple from Gandan monastery.

Monk and old man talk in Golden Temple courtyard.

Carrying water to the monastery.

Soviet-style mural on apartment building.

Mongolian elders in front of an assembly of ceremonial guards.

It turns out it was some kind of ceremony for heads of state.

White sulde spirit banners signify peace.

View from the tower where Black Yak Tours is located. LP touts them as the provider of reasonably-priced tours, but they quoted $600 for a 4-day Gobi tour—more than I spent in my entire three-plus weeks in Mongolia.

Moving furniture in UB, near the bus station for parts east.

Terelj National Park

The bus to Terelj starts at the Dragon Bus terminal and stops along Peace Avenue on its way to Terelj village. A good place to get on is the stop across from the Narantuul hotel, at 11:00: you don't have to go all the way to Dragon, but it's far enough from the city center that you should be able to get a seat. Apparently a lot of pickpockets get on and then get off before leaving UB, so you should be careful and be suspicious of any Mongolian who uses this bus and doesn't look like they're going to the mountains. From what I've heard, they aren't all that subtle.

There are lots of ger camps and resorts in Terelj, as well as one of the only golf courses in Mongolia (albeit with Astroturf greens). The village itself has a luxury resort but appears pretty dreary other than that. I spent the afternoon just walking the hills around the village, and it wasn't terribly exciting. They do seem to have lots of cattle compared to most other places, no doubt because of the relatively lush vegetation in the park.

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Rain showers as seen from a ridge above the village of Terlj.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Darkhan & Amarbayasgalant Khiid on the cheap

Heading south from Sukhbaaar.

I took the morning train from Sukhbaatar to Darkhan. I had initially thought about stopping in Orkhon and visiting Anak Ranch—a relatively unusual ger ranch where you pay $50 per day and can do as much horseback riding or other stuff as you want—but I hadn't been able to get a response from them in time to arrange a pickup at Orkhon station. In all honesty, I'm kind of scared of horses. They look so imposing and powerful, and don't communicate a lot of personality to me. I'm also not a big fan of the way horses smell.

Next to the Orkhon river.

Pulling into a station.

Anyway, with Orkhon out of the picture, I decided to go to Darkhan, and then try to go to Amarbayasgalant Khiid. I talked with some kids who were on the train from Sukhbaatar to somewhere about halfway to Darkhan, then enjoyed the rest of the pleasant ride.

I arrived in Darkhan and set out to walk to the bus station, which was supposed to be a few km south from the station, in the new town. Although Lonely Planet gives hugely complicated and unnecessarily complex directions for getting to Amarbayasgalant Khiid, I had figured out a much simpler way: simply take a bus or share car headed to Erdenet, and ask to be let off at the turnoff to Amarbayasagalant. This works whether you're coming from UB or from Darkhan, and is much simpler than the stupid direction in LP.

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A Mongolia Grill in Mongolia. The Old Town of Darkhan, along the road to the New Town, to be exact. I wonder what Mongolians think of it.

Seated Buddha in hill-top park separating Old and New Darkhan.

Looking back at Old Darkhan.

Stupas in the grass.

On the other side of the hill, across the road, is this monument to a traditional instrument.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sukhbaatar, Eej Mod, and Altanbulag: I can see Russia from my house

Sukhbaatar city (somewhat confusingly, it is also the name of an aymag/province on the other side of the country) is the last stop on the main Trans-Mongolian railway line before it crosses over to Russia. To be honest, a large part of the reason I traveled here is because it, unlike so many places in Mongolia, is easy to get to.

I took the night train from UB. Trains within Mongolia are cheap, so I took not the cheapest platzkartny bed but a spot in a 4-berth kupe compartment. The train arrived at 4:30 in the morning, and after looking for one of the places listed in the Lonely Planet, I ended up staying at the train station hotel. It was actually fairly decent, as I got a small room on the 5th floor with a nice southern window. Since I was still tired after geeing 4 hours of sleep, I slept for a few hours. At around 8:00 there was loud and repeated knocking on my door for something like 5 minutes, and when I opened it there was a Mongolian soldier apparently asking if he could also sleep in my room. Because they charge different rates depending on how many are in the room, I gestured that I would have to check with the hotel attendant. And since I was going to get up and leave soon, I didn't want him in my room when I wasn't there, so I ended up refusing. I felt kind of bad, but it was a strange situation. Did I violate Mongolian hospitality? But if I did, shouldn't he have been able to find someone else to let him stay?

I went back to sleep for a little bit, then got up and spent a couple of hours walking around the city, after taking a shower. This was my introduction to the Russian practice at budget places of having to pay extra to unlock the shower. The toilets, of course, were free, but you had to go down to reception to get a key for the showers: about $1.

A view of the residential area of town from one of the hills behind it. Tall wooden fences that completely enclose houses are the norm here.

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View from one of the hills, looking south. Given the location of the ger, I guess that the Orkhon river (the same one we saw in Kharkhorin) doesn't rise any higher.

A recently built park and monument on one of the hills. The design incorporates fountains, but they were predictably dry and empty. Most fountains in Mongolia are. Those shiny spheres were also majorly dented and banged up. A favourite pastime for some Mongolians is to get drunk (something like 25% of Mongolian men are alcohol dependent) and beat things up (often each other), so they really didn't stand much of a chance.

Khatag prayer scarves cover what remains of this tree.

Looking towards the city. Sukhbaatar seems pretty developed and liveable, compared to Kharkhorin.

Like most gers, this one has a satellite dish and a solar panel to power it.

No satellite dish, but the presence of cattle suggests the owners aren't that poor.

An abandoned Russian building in the area between the railway tracks and the Orkhon river. Pretty much all the buildings here were abandoned for some reason, despite appearing pretty nice.

A tree grows at the base of an abandoned building.

Some cows decided to use one of the buildings.

Eej Mod (Mother Tree)

The main attraction around Sukhbaatar is Eej Mod, or Mother Tree. Eej Mod is interesting to me because it doesn't really seem to fit in with what I understand to be Buddhism, as it seems clearly shamanistic or folk-religious in nature.  It's the worship of a local spirit, and much of Mongolian religious expression seems to be like this, ranging from the ubiquitous ovoo prayer mounds to trees and objects festooned with prayer scarves. I suppose that an outsider would see many similar inconsistencies within Christianity—such as the veneration of saints, let alone celebration of Hallowe'en, the Easter Bunny, Valentine's Day, and Christmas—but I'm not familiar enough with Buddhist traditions to make sense out of it.

Instead, it seems to me that Mongolian Buddhism is a mixture of Buddhism and shamanism, and I think that this combination is fairly typical of nomadic peoples who are highly dependent on the vicissitudes of nature. In central Asia, for example, the nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazakh are much more shamanistic than the sedentary, agricultural Uzbek.

Eej Mod is about 10 km south of Sukhbaatar, off the road to Darkhan & UB. There are no real signs pointing the way, but if you keep track of the km markers on the side of the road and count them off as you leave Sukhbaatar you can get a good idea of how far or close you are. Or just use your GPS maps.

I added Eej Mod and its access road to Google Maps, so it should be easy to find now.

A sow and her piglets just outside Sukhbaatar. Mongolians tend not to think much of pigs, and I think these are the only swine I saw there.

A small ovoo prayer mound and tree by the road.

I'm sure there's a story behind the crutches.

A picture of the Dalai Lama is tucked into the khatag scarves. It's difficult for me to reconcile the nexus between these shamanistic practices and Buddhism, but Mongolians clearly see the connection.

A horse's head is nestled in the crook of a branch. This is done as a gesture of respect to the horse. The most disrespectful thing would be to leave its head and bones on the steppe, where they could be tread on.

Looking north. The patch of greenery by the ger is probably the only patch of cultivated land I saw in Mongolia.

A horse's skull hangs from another tree.

As you get closer to Eej Mod you see more and more of the trees covered with scarves.

Doesn't seem to matter what kind of tree.

Eej Mod is on a bluff overlooking the river and train tracks to the west.

This is Eej Mod, as seen from the back. Only a very few parts of the tree actually seem to be alive.

This is the previous Mother Tree, burned during the communist revolution. The bricks in front of it are blocks made of tea rejects (stems and unsuable leaves), while there is a sulde spirit banner in the background. Other popular offerings include milk, vodka,  and matches, as well as miniature solar-operated prayer wheels.

Matches as offerings.

Overlooking the river.

The access road to Eej Mod is lined with scarves.

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An ovoo prayer mound at the edge of the woods.

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Monk's robes as the woods meet the steppe.

A family of weasels or polecats just outside Eej Mod.

They were very wary of me, but interesting to watch.

You have to be careful of Mongolian dogs, as some take their guard-dog duties seriously and can be quite vicious. Although was wearing a scarf and seemed friendly, it's always a good idea to pick up a rock when you see a dog: they know what it means, even if you don't intend to use it.

Shrine and tree by the main road.

See the bottle of milk? It's often sprinkled on altars, and the prayer scarves are frequently covered with it. Take it from me, spoiled fermented milk products don't smell particularly great.

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View from the main road. Eej Mod lurks in the woods behind.

On the way back to town.

This familiar ovoo prayer mound is about halfway to Eej Mod.

I really enjoyed Eej Mod and the walk there. Sure, it was three hours of walking there and back, but the weather was great and the day was warm. It's really the weather and season that makes it so enjoyable, as visiting on a rainy day or even a month or so later, when the grass is brown and dead, would have made it so much less enjoyable. I'm lucky to have picked a perfect time to visit.


Altanbulag is a border town about 25 km northeast of Sukhbaatar, which itself is about 15 km south of the border. It's as close as I came to Russia on my trip, but the only thing you can really see is the exterior of a Russian Orthodox church. Since there's not much to do in Sukhbaatar, it's a good way to spend a few hours, especially since it has the regional museum.

Russian church and border tower, as seen from the Mongolian side.

That strip of dirt marks the border, just east of Altanbulag.

Access road for border patrols.

The border zone.

Mongolian park next to the border. It looks more like an abandoned lot, filled with dirt and weeds, while the pond on the left is covered with algae and scum, with the odd plastic bottle for effect.

Looking over Altanbulag towards the Russian church.

An old Russian-style building that was the first workplace of independence hero Sukhbaatar (after whom many places are named Sukhbaatar) and the Altanbulag museum. It was pretty interesting.

Back in Sukhbaatar

After returning from Altanbulag, the weather changed. It became cloudier and quite windy, with rainstorms in the distance.

Looking up at an ovoo from the town.

View from the ovoo looking back down at Sukhbaatar.

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Panorama from high up on ridge next to town.

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Ridge with rain in the background.

I couldn't figure out exactly what she was gathering, but I'm pretty sure they were herbs or vegetables for dinner.

An unusual ovoo on one of the ridges.

Mongolian roads north of town.

There's an ovoo or three on every ridge.

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Panorama from ridge above Sukhbaatar.

Looking out over Sukhbaatar and the Orkhon river.

View of the railway station, looking north from the hallway outside my hotel room.