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.

West-side park from the east side.

I arrived at the place where the station was supposed to be, but there were no buses. I checked out some shops, and then wandered around the new town for a bit before heading to the post office where they have internet access. There, I looked for information about where the bus station might be, and asked the library staff if they knew where it was. There was no information on the internet about the new location, and while the Lonely Planet website indicated a different location for the bus station than the guidebook did, it turned out that the online information was even older than the published location, so I wasted a trip there.

From the park in New Darkhan, near the post office. Definitely some Chinese influence on that statue.

I returned to the supposed location of the bus station, as there had been some taxis stationed there who tried to get me to take a taxi to Amarbayasgalant for $80 or so. When I returned they told me there was a station in the old city, and they could take me there. When we arrived, however, it turned out to be a station by the old market for minibuses to places north, and not to places east, like Erdenet. None of the drivers wanted to tell me how to get to the bus station, as they all wanted to sell me a private car. Taxi drivers in every country are some of the least trustworthy people there are.

I wandered around the market and headed to the nearby Karagiin Khiid monastery for a while, then returned to the taxi area, where I found a car to take me to the bus station. Finally!

The wood-cabin schoolhouse cum monastery, Kharagiin Khiid.

Who doesn't like to chase pigeons?

Nobody, that's who!

Sculpture around the temple, which is surrounded by prayer wheels.

At the bus station I searched the schedules, but I didn't see anything leaving for Erdenet. It turns out that I couldn't find anything leaving to Erdenet because Mongolians don't call it Erdenet: they call it Orkhon (this is a little confusing since there are cities called Orkhon in Selenge and Darkhan provinces, too), which is the name of the tiny aimag that contains Erdenet and basically nothing else. Conveniently, Lonely Planet completely fails to mention this anywhere, meaning you'll look in vain for Erdenet.

Bus schedule at Darkhan bus station. Note that it's 189 km to "Orkhon," not "Erdenet."

I ended up getting a seat in a share taxi. As I was the first one, I got to sit in the coveted front seat. I also got to wait until all the seats were sold, which took less than 45 minutes. I paid 20,000 togrog for my seat (full fare to Erdenet/Orkhon), and got dropped off at the turnoff to Amarbayasgalant at 6:00 pm. The road is good, and my driver a maniac, so it didn't take much longer than an hour to get to the turnoff. My driver, although fond of passing other cars at 130 km/h while cresting blind ridges, was a nice guy and told me when he dropped me off that I should pay no more than 6,000 for the ride to the monastery. 6:00 was pretty late to be arriving at the turnoff—and much later than I had anticipated, given that I arrived in Darkhan at about 8:30 that morning—but I figured there would be people going to the monastery even this late.

Looking back east, towards Darkhan: the turnoff in on my left.

Looking west towards Erdenet/Orkhon and the turnoff sign is much more prominent.

Fields of Canola at the turnoff.

There was less traffic than expected, and after half an hour only two vehicles had made the turnoff. The second vehicle picked me up, and they were a young Mongolian couple in a newish SUV—the woman driving. This being Mongolia, they stopped for a pee before starting down the dirt road.

The road was bumpy, steep, muddy in places, and yet you saw Toyota Camrys driving the path. This was also the first time I heard this western song with these ridiculously banal lyrics about falling in love in a hopeless place—it wasn't until the next year that I learned this was a huge hit for Rhianna. I'm way behind the times.

Anyway, it turned out that we took the wrong track at some point, and ended up in a different valley (that's what you get for following a herder on his way home), so we had to backtrack a little and head up a different valley. We arrived almost 2 hours after leaving, at about 8:30. The girl declined payment, but her boyfriend accepted behind her back.

On the way to one of the nearby ger camps, I was startled by a push from behind. I turned around, and it had been a playful dog that had run at me and pushed me with his front paws. This was totally unexpected in Mongolia, where dogs are semi-feral and not much taken to playful socializing. This dog was clearly different, even if he didn't understand play in the Western sense. He wouldn't really approach and let me pet him, but if I turned and walked he would run up from behind and push me, and also take my swinging hands gently in his mouth (which was actually a bit scary, given the reputation of Mongolian dogs). I decided to try and play, so I picked up a small branch of wood to see if he would play fetch. Picking up a branch (or rock, or ball) has a very different meaning in Mongolia, however, so he immediately retreated to a safe distance. Throwing the branch had no more of an effect than the dropping of a weapon. He followed me to the ger camp, leaving when I crossed their fence, and I was sorry I wasn't able to play with him a little.

Stupas in the twilight.

The ger camp was nice enough, and I was the only person in my ger. They made a nice fire for me and brought me some tea before I went to sleep, asking if I wanted supper, which I declined, cooking some noodles on my stove instead (ger camp food is typically quite expensive and I didn't want to spend 12,000 togrog on hastily-prepared food).

Ger camp next to the monastery.

The toilet and shower blocks weren't great, however. The door the shower block was all smashed up and wouldn't close properly, while the sink and mirrors were broken and dirty. The shower had no water in the evening. It was kind of typically Mongolian.

Maintenance isn't a big thing, and although this was probably quite nice a couple of years ago it's gone downhill pretty quickly.

I frightened this little girl. She cried at the sight of me and not even her mother could get convince her to let her picture be taken.

Although most monks tend to get up early, at Amarbayasgalant the real rituals don't happen until the late morning. As I like to sleep, this was good news for me.

Inside the temple.

Side exit.

Much of the monastery is in need of repair.

This building, for example.

This building isn't quite ready for its closeup, either.

There's a rubble pile just outside the monastery walls, full of both rubbish and building supplies. Some of the roofs are topped with new tiles, some are topped with green grass.

Tall grasses for cows to graze on.

Amarbayasgalant is more of a functional monastery than any of the others I saw in Mongolia, as they had a number of novices being trained there. Every day at around 10:00 they gather to chant, and tourists gather to watch them. I don't know about Mongolia, but in many places in Asia monasteries function as orphanages where the poor who cannot afford their children leave them. It's also the case in some countries that, because of the honor that accrues to those who have a monk as a family member, many families send a child to a monastery—regardless of what that kid actually wants. I suspect this happens in Mongolia as well, even if I didn't see any examples of monks behaving badly, as you sometimes see in other unwilling or non-devout monks in other countries.

Novice enters through a side door.

Most walls are red, but not all.

Prayer wheels and pagoda from the temple portico.

View from the portico.

Blowing into a shell to call everyone to pray & chant.

I don't know why this novice wore golden robes, especially since he was the youngest.

She didn't know, either.

The other novices beckon.

Entering the temple.

Talking in class.

Giving orders.

The novices chant, occasionally interrupted by an older monk who corrects them, asks them questions, of calls them out.

Boredom sets in.

After the chanting finished, I headed out back to climb the hill behind the monastery and look at the nearby stupa.

Cows relaxing behind the monastery.

The stupa, as seen from midway up the hill.

A great view of the monastery's position at the end of a fertile valley.

Of course, the hill was topped by an ovoo.

As is the hill behind the stupa.

An idyllic setting.

My ger camp is to the left of the one you can see—behind the stupa, and closer to the monastery.

A view of the monastery from the stupa.

The Buddha eyes, prayer wheels, and prayer flags make this feel very Tibetan.

A Buddha sits under the stupa.

The hills and valleys around the monastery


Road from the monastery and over the ridge.

A ger and a trailer: all a nomad needs.

Solitary cow near the monastery. It seems like all the cattle were in the Amarbayasgalant's valley.

Walking up over the ridge separating Amarbayasgalant from the neighbouring valley.

Looking back.

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Panorama from atop the ridge.

In the next valley. We drove here by accident when trying to find Amarbayasgalant.

They say that a herder needs 300 animals to be self-sufficient, but this was the first time I had seen nearly this many animals.

Mainly sheep in this herd.

A gorgeous, fluffy goat. Mongolia is one of the best sources of cashmere

Sheep and goats ave no problem getting along.

Running to get back to the herd.

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Panorama of the valley next to Amarbayasgalant.
Hundreds and hundreds of sheep and goats.

The road to the highway runs between those mountains.

Lots of gers. I can see that the valley is fertile, but it seems to be supporting way more people and animals than it can stand. They say the area around UB is being degraded by the excess herds kept there, but I didn't see nearly so many animals around UB.

A ger in the distance.

Herder at work. Most everything is pretty free-range, however, and most herds aren't tended to by shepherds or anything. Apparently they have no wolves or predators.

Horse on a line. This setup is common, and I'm not sure I understand the purpose, but the horse can't put its head down very far.

There's a separate entrance facade in front of the temple, with this Chinese-looking emblem.

Back to UB

Although it was a great day, I figured I should head back to UB, so fetched my bag from the ger camp and parked myself in the parking lot in front of Amarbayasgalant. It was about 5:30, and I was a bit disturbed to see that there were almost no cars in the lot, so I might have to spend another night there (which wouldn't be so terrible).

As I waited, a group of Mongolian picnicking on the grass invited to share some of their strawberries. I wouldn't have guessed they were strawberries from a distance, as they were about the size of small raspberries and in a very pale pink colour. What they lacked in size and pigment, however, they more than made up for in flavour. They also shared some from their big bucket of meat parts, which wasn't too bad despite being really oily. A couple of them spoke English, and they asked me what I was doing. After talking a bit, they invited me to go with them to Darkhan. They were mine workers who had taken a vacation together, and when the rest of them returned, I understood their reservations about inviting me: they were 13 of them in a small Japanese van. We sardined ourselves in and started to go, and only got stuck a couple of times on the way to the main road (thankfully, when you have 13 people to push, you get unstuck pretty quick). We made a couple of stops on the way to Darkhan (gotta pee, after all), and eventually arrived at the Darkhan bus station at 10:00. They called a friend from Darkhan, which is naturally a cause for a round or two of vodka, which I was forced to indulge in. Then they were off, and they had arranged their friend to drop me off at the train station. The hospitality of nomadic cultures never fails to impress.

My ride from Amarbayasgalant. How many people can fit in one of these micro-vans?

This many!

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