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.

Chipmunk hanging out in the rocks.

Lone cow wandering Terelj.

Livestock pens. Quite unusual for a nomadic people.

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River in Terelj.

Mountain trees reflected in river backwater.

Riverside ger.

Cattle decide to cross the river.

Waiting for a ride.

The only golf course in Mongolia?

I suspect that my impressions of Terelj would have been much better if I had been there on a sunny day: weather really is everything. I also suspect that things would have been more interesting if I had either gotten off before reaching Terelj village or if I had spent the time walking back along the road and exploring some of the interesting geological formations and mountains visible from the road rather than exploring the area north and west of the village.

Zuunmod, Manzhushir Khiid, and Bogd Khan Mountain

My Kazakh visa would be available in the afternoon, and the embassy was open until 5:30, so I figured I would have time to do something interesting in the morning and afternoon. I decided to take a bus to Zuunmod, on the southern side of Bogd Khan mountain, and then visit Manzushir Khiid monastery before walking over the mountain and back to UB. Given that the Kazakh embassy is on the southern side of the city, not far from the Zaisan memorial, the trek to the Zaisan memorial made a lot of sense.

The bus from UB picks you up at the Dragon Bus Station and drops you off near the aimag museum in Zuunmod. It was closed for lunch, and I decided I didn't have the time to wait for it to open. Zuunmod seemed like a fairly pleasant town. In order to get to Manzushir you have to walk south, take a bridge over the stream to the east, then turn north on the road to Manzushir. It's a pleasant walk up a grassy valley towards the monastery.

A herd of goats disappears over the hill.

Gers in the valley.

Herding his livestock.

You'll reach the entrance to the national park, where you pay your entrance fees for the park and museum.

Something like a Mongolian totem pole near the park border office.

These stone markers resemble the balbals or deer stones you see on Central Asia.

Old wooden shelter.

The monastery is pretty interesting, and the setting against the mountainous backdrop is beautiful. There are shallow-relief rock carvings embellished with paint on some of the cliff faces above the monastery.

Manzushir monastery with ruins of old temple on the left.

Looking out from monastery entrance.

View from the second floor.

Looking down the valley from the ruins of the old temple.

Looking up towards rock-painting shelter.

Painted shallow relief.

Looking down the valley from one of the higher rock-painting shelters.

A ger near the temple.

I didn't have GPS on my phone, but the Lonely Planet made it sound like the hiking path to Zaisan was well marked with yellow flags. It wasn't. I lost the trail pretty quickly, but I wasn't too worried since as long as I kept walking north I would reach UB.

Ascending Bogd Khan mountain.
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Up near the top there was an open area full of rocky boulders.

Mossy rocks. The mountain was surprisingly wet and moist.

I kept walking north, and came across and area that was full of huge mossy boulders and boggy ground that made progress difficult as you clamber up and down boulders. It was really slow, but the alternative was to go through the thick forest that lined the hills.

When I reached the northern edge of the mountain, I ran into the barbed-wire fence that marks the perimeter of the President's residence. There was random barbed wire lurking in the vegetation and brush, and I ended up ripping my pants pretty bad. I had to skirt the perimeter, which was actually quite difficult as it involved scrambling up and down steep terrain before reaching an open area at the edge of the ridge that separates the residence's valley from the Zaisan valley.

I ended up missing the embassy closing by about half an hour, which would require me to stay in UB for an extra day. Despite my annoyance and frustration towards the end of the walk, this was a much more interesting and satisfying day for me than Terelj was.

One of the better dinners I had in UB. Standard goulash with rice, carrot coleslaw, and salad reflects the Russian influence. I'm not a fan of Mongolia's meat-and -dairy rich diet.

The next day I was finally able to pick up my visa. It took four visits and a lot more hassle than I expected, but it's good to get visas knocked off, as the alternative is to spend lots of time spinning your wheels and waiting for Central Asian visas in places like Urumqi or Bishkek.

Young and friendly dog encountered in the parking lot of a shopping center near the Kazakh embassy. So cute and ownerless, and very skittish: he wants to trust you, but knows he shouldn't.

There's a North Korean restaurant just of Sukhbaatar Square. There are a fair number of North Koreans in Mongolia, as if escapees are caught in China they are repatriated to North Korea: they have to make it somewhere outside of China in order to get to South Korea. Some of them stay in Mongolia. The main cold noodle dish is a Pyongyang specialty.

View from the luxury shopping center on the southeast corner of Sukhbaatar Square.

Young and wealthy Mongolians. Note the blonde Mohawk one of them is sporting.

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