…pour pays tout l’univers, et pour loi sa volonté. Et surtout la chose enivrente: la liberté!*
We leave for the road trip 8.30 am. First omen of the main theme of the journey: we learn there is no tent (that the agency promised), therefore, we need to go to buy one. Tsogtoo takes us somewhere to the north-western suburbs of the city, and stops in front of what looks like a respectably looking shopping centre, if it wasn’t for a fact that a large crowd keeps gathering in front of it, waiting for it to open. Either that, or the Rolling Stones are about to appear any minute now. Tsogtoo leads us to a not-so-respectably looking alleyway, where we buy a tent from some fairly dodgy bloke. Oh well, whatever. With 90 minutes delay compared to the plan, we finally leave the big city behind and head north to the monastery of Amarbayasgalant, where we arrive in mid afternoon, after having given a lift to a local family with two young children. As far as I managed to understand what Tsogtoo was trying to explain (not much, our conversation mainly happens in gestures and drawings), there is going to be some kind of festivity in the monastery in the next days, and many local are heading there in this period. He ay be right, because when we arrive, all sorts of cleaning and preparations are taking place in the main temple. Strangely enough, and very unlike in UB, no one want us to pay any admission. The temple complex is very charming, although I have to admit my ignorance in this field, I am unable to see any difference between this monastery, and any other we have seen so far. Amarbayasgalant (once I learned to say it, I will say it every time I can), is set at the end of a beautiful valley, but it’s the surroundings that make it exceptional (at least in my eyes), not the architecture itself. Unfortunately, Mongolia was badly hit during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and most of the religious buildings were destroyed, so whatever stands today is bound to be a recent construction, without much historical value. I cannot, and will not, comment on religious importance, because I have very little clue about how buddhism works.
First night of camping. We cook a simple pasta with tomato sauce, but I don’t think our driver is a big fan of the mediterranean diet, judging from the fact that after having tried a few mouthfuls, he disappears into the car and comes back with canned horsemeat. Also, the only knife we have is my swiss army knife (aka portable corkscrew / bottle opener), so this is how prepared the company was for the camping.
We head south-west from the monastery. Today is a transit day towards Tsenkher, which is too far to be reached within a day drive, therefore we plan to make it as far as Lake Ogii (some 400km away) and camp there overnight. It’s a long and not very comfortable drive, but we are comforted by the beautiful scenery outside. I had imagined travelling through the steppe would be monotonous and dull, but the view from the car’s window is actually amazing. The clouds scattered over the sky cast shadows over the endless meadows, creating wonderful plays of light, hundred shades of green. Every hill hides another one, every pass opens a breathtaking view on the next valley. We pass the mining city of Erdenet, just to be reminded that the towns here are as ugly as the nature is beautiful. I am growing a little bit suspicious about the experience of Tsogtoo, because he keeps switching on the navigator. So basically we are travelling through the middle of nowhere, there is only one track road, there is nowhere else to go than to follow it, when randomly the satnav lady exclaims “turn left in 400 metres”. Yeah, sure. And go where? I don’t express out loud my doubts yet, but I am wondering what the hell is he going to do in the Gobi. We stop for lunch in a random house in the village of Orkhon. The lady of the house has two beautiful daughters around 8 years of age. We share our Nutella with them, and I have never seen a happier expression on a child’s face than when they understand that they can keep the rest of the jar.
We arrive to Lake Ogii at sunset. It’s still warmish, but quite windy. I swim in the lake, which I probably shouldn’t, because I later discover that the Mongolians consider the lakes sacred. Oh well, no one saw me. We build the tent and start cooking dinner, when Tsogtoo announces he has to make a phone call and he’s going to be back in 20 minutes. I know by now that the Mongols and the perception of time rarely coexist, but still 20 minutes my arse. He comes back after 3 hours, unfortunately he left with the cooking gas, and the can that was in the cooker obviously ran out while we were preparing the food. I am fuming. To make things worse, it starts raining at night and we realize the chinese junk tent is not that waterproof at all.
The rain continues. The steppe on a rainy day is incredibly gloomy. We head for Tsenkher hot springs “resort”, which should be only few hours away. Tsogtoo claims he comes from this region, and we stop in a ger settlement to say hi to some of his friends, who offer us some kind of cheese (a dodgy looking yellowish stuff coming from an even dodgier looking container) and warm Mongolian vodka. I know I should not touch the alcohol if I don’t know where it comes from, but at this moment it looks like it may be the only way to disinfect whatever damage the “cheese” may have done. I am writing this blog a month later, so all went well. We get to the village, which is actually a handful of hotels and touristic ger camps, each of them equipped with an open air pool with hot mineral water. I don’t leave the pool for the rest of the afternoon, and the cold and rainy day is actually perfect for it. We sleep in a ger for the first time. The tent is made of sheep wool and it’s very wet, so the whole thing smells of wet dog. Or sheep.
Mongolian nouvelle cuisine: Tsogtoo orders for dinner something that he is unable (or unwilling) to explain what it is. I ask him to draw it and he comes up with some kind of a rodent. I am guessing marmot. It’s as hard as any other meat we’ve had so far, and tastes exactly the same. Only marmots are known to carry pest in Mongolia.
Back to the paved road for a bit, as we head for Kharkhorin, former capital of the Chinggis Khan’s empire and at the time one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world. Nowadays the town hosts the UNESCO protected Erdene Zuu temple complex, or what’s left of it after Stalin’s purges. Political rant moment: I’d like to remind all those who despair for what is being destroyed nowadays in the middle east (basically everything), that the communists have done in half of the world what ISIS is doing right now almost 90 years ago in the name of an ideology that to this day many still consider wonderful. End of indignation. Anyway, what is left of Erdene Zuu are three temples, only one of which is believed to come from the original Kharkhorin, the main temple used for prayers nowadays was rebuilt in the second half of the 20th century. We spend a couple of hours walking around the site. I must have done something to offend Buddha I’m afraid, as at one point I manage to hit my head on the door (I am still not used to how low they make them around here) so hard the blow sends me to the ground (almost 3 weeks later the spot on my head is still tender). I would understand if this happened in a catholic church, given the number of blasphemies that may have left my mouth recently (especially in Italian). The christian God may quite understandably hold a grudge, but I have never pronounced a single word against Buddha.
Note: Kharkhorin is about 6-7 hours drive (on a proper road) from UB, which makes it the obvious overnight destination for tourists who only have time for short trips from the capital. Therefore there are many western style restaurants offering a bit more variety of choice than boiled mutton (you may even get a vegetarian option). Stay at Gaya’s guest house, it’s cheap and very friendly and Gaya speaks excellent english (and her little daughter – or niece – Oogi is enchanting).
We were not able to find the ancient statue of the turtle, which is supposed to be somewhere around the walls of the monastery, but we did find a sculpture that looks like a giant penis (and a rather elaborate one, come to that). Tsogtoo tries to convice me that if I leave a sacrifice to the spirits, they will give me a boyfriend. As if I asked for one. 20 eurocents is all I am willing to invest at the moment.
That is the end of our trip to the north-west, on the following day we leave for Gobi.
*Carmen, Act II Finale: Oh, how beautiful it is, the nomad life, for a country the whole world, and one’s will as a law. And above all, the inebriating thing: freedom.