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.

Od Hotel

This place isn't in the current edition of Lonely Planet. It's not even in the prior edition. To find it, you have to go all the way back to the 2008 edition. In 2012, it still existed and was by far the cheapest place to stay—I assume it's still there, since it's listed in the 2014 edition of the Bradt Guide to Mongolia.

To find the Od Hotel, go to the main square in the new quarter. There is a row of buildings on the northern side. The hostel is in one of them, on the second floor, but the entrance is from the back of the building. Go around back and there's really only one entrance to take. The hostel is basic, but comfortable and cheap. Showers cost extra.

My room at the Od Hotel. I was the only person in the room.

I had a problem in the morning when I wanted to get a shower. They couldn't find the key, because someone had apparently taken it with them. I waited, assuming they were coming back, but they never did. They told me to try and buy a shower at another hotel, but that hotel only had showers during certain hours. I ended up returning to Od and barricading the bathroom door while I washed myself in the sink. I wasted a lot of time doing this.

The square outside the hotel has monuments to dinosaurs, acknowledging the fossils that may be found in the Gobi.

Sainshand's Eiffel Tower stands before a waterless fountain.

Ger at the edge of town, where the desert begins. There's no trace of the rain that pelted the area less than 24 hours before. I tried hitching from here, and was picked up by one of the first cars.

Khamaryn Khiid

I decided to try my hand at hitching to Khamaryn Khiid.I figured my best chance of success would be to head to the edge of town and hitch from the start of the road leading to the monastery, as it would be pretty unambiguous where I wanted to go. I was lucky because I was picked up pretty quickly, even thoufh there was very little traffic. The fact that I was there on a Sunday, when many Mongolians were also visiting on a weekend trip from UB or elsewhere, improved my chances a fair bit. Going earlier in the morning would also have helped, I think—I'm pretty lucky to have been picked up given that it was after noon when I started trying.

I was picked up by a family of three who were visiting from UB, and who were being driven by a local friend. They squeezed to make room for me, and the wife, who was a doctor, spoke a little English and helped describe some things.

Khamaryn Khiid is a monastery but, like many Mongolian religious sites, it doesn't seem completely Buddhist in nature. It's dedicated to the 19th century monk of Danzan Ravjaa, ho was aparently considered a living god. The main complex contains an energy center where you lie on your back on stones in the sun, absorbing the cosmic energy, before proceeding to a ovoo dedicated to Danzan Ravjaa where you sing a song inscribed on a stele. On the other hand, the stupas and decorations at this energy center are very Buddhist in appearance.

Entrance gate to Khamaryn Khiid monastery.

Temple building.

Unusual spirit banner topped by a skull.

Stupa with altars inside.

Another skull decoration, reminiscent of Dia de los Muertos.

Sacred fountain in the little shack; people line up to fill their bottles with water.

A bell, laying at the end of a line of stupas, is used to announce your arrival at the Shambhala center.

Entrance to the Shambhala, with typical Tibetan Buddha eyes decoration.

The great ovoo to Danzan Ravjaa is on the other side of the Shambhala, opposite the energy center.


Buddha eyes.

There are 108 stupas—an auspicious number in Buddhism—around the energy center.

Looking out across the Gobi.

Crows perch on the stupas, possibly attracted by the seeds left as offerings.


Soaking up the energy. No shoes + hot and sharp rocks = energy!

In front of the ovoo. Seeds as offerings.

You would think the SUVs would be typical Mongloian vehicles, but you see a lot of front-wheel drive sedans on dirt tracks in the countryside, too.

Seeds in the mouth and milk on the face.

The ovoo and song lyrics.

Clean silk on the ovoo. Milk-stained khatags smell pretty bad.

The stone lion.


These bronze lions are decorated with seeds and hard candies on all horizontal surfaces. Mongolians love hard candies, and there is always an aisle full of bulk containers of these candies at every supermarket. Another symptom of Russian influence.

The son of the family I was picked up by. He was on all social media, including twitter.This picture was taken at a cave complex near the Shambhala: monks would pray in these caves.

Circling an ovoo on the way back from the Shambhala.

The great bell from the other side.

Bayanzurkh Uul aka Khar Uul (Black Mountain)

From Khamaryn Khiid it was a short drive on the typical unmarked roads that fork and split up without notice, and then we arrived at the base of Bayanzurkh Uul—the Black Mountain. At the top of the mountain is the wishing ovoo, but only men are allowed to go all the way to the top; women must wait at a halfway point.

Up the path from the car park.

Overlooking the road to Black Mountain. I have no idea how those cattle can survive.

A sacred goat? You may recognize that girl as the one whose picture I took on the train: her family had come to Sainshand to make a pilgrimage to these sights.

Looking back.

The family posed for a picture.

You whisper your wishes into the Buddha's ear.

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Halfway up the mountain. Women wait here while men can climb to the top. Not bad, as waiting areas go.

This ovoo is as far as women can go.

View from the top.

The men's wishing ovoo.

Make your offerings here.

Biscuits and hard candies make up most of the offerings here, with incense and green tea powder too.

The women's ovoo.

On the way down.

The husband and wife I traveled with were very cute.

View from the bottom.

Near the parking lot.

The drive back from Black Mountain was by a mountainous back road, instead of over the flat desert plains. It was extremely hilly and a couple of times we had to make a charge down a slop in order to make it up the opposite hill. I thought it was pretty challenging for the Toyota SUV we were in, but we came across a sedan coming in the opposite direction, and they seemed to be doing OK.


We arrived back in Sainshand around 6:00. I gifted my Lonely Planet to the family that had picked me up—the wife was interested in the foreigner perspective on the country, and I wasn't going to need the book (or want to carry it around) after leaving Mongolia, so it was a good way to find a new home for it. My traveling companions were taking the 8:25 train back to UB, but I was taking the 2:25 train to Zamyn Uud, so I had time to see more of the city.

Old soviet monument and park that has been turned into a depressing residential area.

On the hill separating the old and new towns is a park with revolutionary monuments.

As well as an ovoo, of course.

I quite like this quirky local interpretation of the famous logo.

Another dinosaur-themed sign.

The tower looks better in reflection.

It seems they turn the fountain on at night, and vendors show up to sell things to park visitors.

On the way to the station.

Shainsand station at night.

It was the usual wrestling match to buy tickets. Actually, it was even worse, because when I got to the front of the line and told the attendant what train I wanted, she told me to step aside until she had helped everyone who wanted to take the next train (as it was still hours away from when my train would leave). I ended up buying a platzkartny ticket, to her surprise, as my finances worked out that I would have just enough to buy that ticket and have enough to get into China without changing any more money.

In retrospect, kupe would have been a much better idea, as the train was packed and it's impossible to see the numbers written on the seats or berths. You just get on and search for an open space. At least, that's what everyone else did, and the conductor certainly didn't care when he checked tickets. A couple of hours later I was wakened by a Mongolian who was claiming I was in his berth, even though there were no visible numbers. He insisted that I move, even though someone was in my berth. I don't know why he just didn't take the empty space that I ended up in, but it was a real pain.

This was nothing compared to the pain of crossing the border, though. The train stops and everyone scrambles off. At the south end of the platform there's a parking lot filled with old Russian jeeps and modern buses. You can buy tickets for the buses somewhere, but I never figured out where. There was a lot of jockeying for jeeps, but I didn't think I was in a real hurry, so I looked around before leaving. The prices at the local markets were surprisingly expensive—more expensive than they should have been—especially considering the proximity to China. I guess they knew people like me would want to get rid of our Tugrik before crossing the border.

I eventually got a ride on a jeep, and we made out way to the border. Or really, the queue for the border. The line was backed up about 4 km from the border, as a dozen lanes of jeeps forcibly merged into a couple of lanes of traffic. As passengers, we were basically sold a couple of times, so we had to change jeeps to ones further up the line. That was fine with me.

Once you get to the road leading to the border, where lanes are enforced, the bumpers of the jeeps are literally interlocked, with no space at all between them. Good thing these are basically jeeps from the 1950s, with the dents to prove it. Except one of them ahead was not: it was a modern SUV. Because we were not moving anywhere, our engine was off, but all of a sudden there was pushing from behind, forcing all the jeeps forward. Out jeep had its wheels locked up and left rubber marks on the road as it was pushed into the modern SUV ahead, smashing its bumper. This caused a big commotion as they tried to figure out who the culprit was. Eventually identified, he tried to fix it by pushing the cracked and dislodged bumper back into place and duct-taping it. Problem solved!

We eventually reached the border point, and went through customs. I had a bit of a problem as you have to buy an an entry ticket for 5 yuan and present it to the border agents, and I had no yuan left. Thankfully, I hadn't spent the few Tugrik I had remaining, and I was able to pay with them.

I've heard that the reverse journey is usually even worse, as everyone arriving in Zamyn Uud races to the train station to get tickets, which are naturally very difficult to get, especially if you're a foreigner who isn't very good at either cutting your way to the front of the scrum or beating away Mongolian queue-jumpers. Thankfully, I've heard things have improved somewhat now that the entire road to UB is paved, making buses and shared taxis a realistic option. Obviously, the cheap and comfortable trains are the desired option, especially since it's less than $25 for a kupe/soft sleeper to UB. There's a good description of the China to Mongolia crossing here.

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