A Nomads Life For Me

Luckily we were only staying in Ulaanbaatar for one night, because there didn’t appear to be a great deal of tourist attractions left to see in the city. The rest of our time in Mongolia would be spent at a ger camp about two hours away, far off in the Mongolian wilderness. A ger is a sort of semi-permanent tent that the nomadic people of Mongolia live in – while Ulaanbaatar does have a population of about 3 million, there is a remarkable amount of people who still live the nomadic life out in the wilderness and the Mongolian national parks, moving from place to place with the seasons and taking their home with them, as well as their herds of livestock.

***

We had one stop in the morning on our way to the ger camp. The Gandantegchenling Monastery was a beautiful structure, and Oko explained that Buddhism is one of the major religions of Mongolia. It’s quite interesting how the landlocked country has so many different cultural influences from the surrounding nations, yet it truly becomes a melting pot that breaks all of them down and recombines everything into their own culture that¬†is quite unique. We walked through the temple, silently moving around the people who had come to light candles and incense and to pray, before stopping at the monastery to watch the monks begin their morning rituals and listen to their chanting. I hate to admit it, but ever since my bizarre incident with the shady Buddhist monk in Lop Buri, I’ve been unable to look at any monk the same way again, and even just seeing one creates a rising anxiety within me. It really is such a shame, because I used to hold such a fascination for ideals and spirituality behind the religion, and now those beliefs have been well and truly tainted. I listened to the chanting for only a few moments before stepping out of the low-hanging canopy of incense and into the fresh morning air.

The main building of the monastery complex.

The main building of the monastery complex.

Outside, in front of the main temple, there was a big pair of golden feet. Oko explained to us that the Mongols were attempting to build the worlds largest human structure, a Buddha even bigger than the Statue of Liberty. However, all of the money for the project comes from donations, so there is no scheduled finish date because no one really knows when they will be able to finish it. Oko had also mentioned yesterday that the weather in Mongolia only allows for construction to be done for two or three months every year, which is why there were so many construction sites and unfinished buildings in Ulaanbaatar, adding to the ugly, incomplete cityscape.

Golden feet - all there is of the statue so far.

Golden feet – all there is of the statue so far.

However, the most interesting, or at least entertaining, part of the monastery visit was the swarm of pigeons outside. As we first approached the monastery, we heard the low cooing noise steadily growing louder, and we soon found ourselves in front of a formidable sea of feathers. There were thousands of pigeons, and their call almost seemed to have an eerie echo as it rippled through the flock of birds in the courtyard. Some people were feeding them with seed they had bought from a little old lady wandering through the birds, while other children ran through the crowds to scatter the pigeons and sent them flying. They always came back though. Someone asked Oko about their significance. “The pigeons? No… They just live here, I don’t know why. But they are not special, not at all.”

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

The mass of pigeons outside the monastery.

***

After the monastery it was onto the ger camp. The place we were staying at was in a region called Terelj National Park. It was more of a permanent set up that was obviously designed for tourists, but they were the same style of ger that the real nomads live in. Each circular tent was several metres wide in diameter, and had a wood-fire stove set up in the middle, which were traditionally used for cooking all the meals, but would serve only as a heater for us during our stay. I was sharing my ger with Tim and Don, the other Australian guy on our tour, and after we unloaded our bus and settled into the gers, we went for a short drive to a small landmark known as Turtle Rock.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Some camels we passed on the way to the ger camp.

Turtle Rock.

Turtle Rock.

We climbed to the top of the rock to appreciate the view. The Mongolian countryside really is beautiful. I spent a lot of time with my family in the Snowy Mountains as a child, and it was a familiar feeling of watching the virtually untouched landscape stretch out for what seemed like forever. Such sights always remind me of my fathers words about cities being similar from country to country, and I was even more pleased that we’d escaped Ulaanbaatar to explore the rest of Mongolia. After Turtle Rock, we visited the ger of a real nomadic Mongol, and got to see what the inside of a truly inhabited ger looked like. The walls were lined with rugs to retain the warmth and heat, there was a TV and a fridge and a whole kitchen set up, and it felt like an actual home compared to our gers, which were essentially the hotel versions of the traditional Mongol dwelling. There was only one woman who lived in this ger, and she had prepared some food for us, so we asked her questions about Mongolian nomadic life, with Oko as translator, while we nibbled on homemade cheese and bread, dried yoghurt, and sipped on warm milk tea. I didn’t care much for the tea, and the dried yogurt was so hard I thought I was chewing bone, but after spending so long in South-East Asia it was quite a treat to have some hearty, homemade cheese.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The view from the top of Turtle Rock.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

The ger of the Mongolian woman who we paid a visit to.

It was definitely surprising how permanent the set up looked – apparently when they move, the nomads travel anywhere from a few kilometres down the road to hundreds of kilometres to a new region, usually for reasons of weather and climate or the availability of grass for their herds of cows, horses, goats, sheep or camels. It only takes 8 hours to completely dismantle the ger, which was deemed an impressive feat by our group. “It took me 8 hours just to pack for this trip!” Alyson exclaimed. We all had a bit of a laugh, but I suppose it was a reminder to all of us just how content people can be with so little in their lives. It feels like I have one of those epiphanies every time I visit a non-Western country, but I do think its important to retain that perspective throughout life, so I never end up taking for granted all the things I do have in life.

***

Our days at the ger camp were mostly spent outside, doing things like horse riding and archery. The warriors of the fearsome Mongolian Empire did both of those things are the same time, though horseback archery isn’t an easy skill to master in a few days, so we kept our attempts separate. We also made several small hikes up the hills and rocks that created the valley that our ger camp was in, and admired the awesome views. The hills rolled on in every direction, and in the neighbouring valleys we could see more clusters of gers, demonstrating just how common this nomadic way of life really is in Mongolia. The food in the ger camp was also amazing. Traditional Mongolian soups, salads and meat dishes, broths full of mutton and meat that melted in your mouth right off the bone, and hearty fillets of steak served with rice and potato. I wasn’t sure if there were any Mongolian restaurants around where I live, but I made a mental note to find out when I go back home – the cuisine is absolutely delicious, and I didn’t go to bed hungry once.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Oko tending to my horse just after I dismounted.

Trying out my archery skills - there's a reason there's no photos of the target...

Trying out my archery skills – there’s a reason there’s no photos of the target…

However, on one of the nights I did go to bed a little tipsy. As a group we’d decided we might get on the piss and have a little bit of a party in one of the gers. Some brought vodka, some brought beer or wine. I myself brought a semi-dry red that was made in Bulgaria, surprisingly delicious for the price that I paid for it. The conversation flowed freely, as is always the case when alcohol is involved, and I chatted a little more to some of the Australian girls who I hadn’t seen much of during the course of the trip. It was incredibly warm and toasty with the fire going inside the ger, and we frequently had to prop the door open for a little bit of relief, sometimes even stepping outside to cool off a little. The wine went to my head pretty quickly, but I remember standing outside with Dan and marvelling at the stars that were spread out across the dark blue night sky, thinking back to my night of stargazing on Koh Rong Samleon in Cambodia and still being a little bit excited that the constellations were all different in this hemisphere – and I don’t even think that was the wine talking.

***

While the Mongolian countryside is breathtakingly beautiful, there are a few things about it that are a little upsetting. When you’re gazing out from the peaks of a rocky outcrop the land looks untouched, but the reality is that the life of the nomadic people takes a toll on the land. Some people burn or bury their rubbish, but there is still an incredible amount of pollution. You’re just as likely to see a plastic bag take flight into the wind as you are a native bird, and at regular intervals there are huge mounds of trash that are most likely the remnants of a ger camp that has since packed up and moved on. I remember as a kid going out on Clean Up Australia Day and picking up all the trash in my local area – I think realistically this country would need a Clean Up Mongolia Year. I absolutely loved my time in Mongolia and out in the ger camp, but it was always a little bit disheartening to walk past what appeared to be a small forest of plastic bag trees, the skeleton of what was once lively greenery smothered with black and blue and translucent plastic.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

The ger camp where we slept and lived for two days.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

On top of some rocks after one of our many short hikes through the hills.

***

When we finally returned to Ulaanbaatar, we had an afternoon to kill before jumping on a train to Siberia that evening. We had lunch at a buffet style Mongolian barbecue, which was amazing – I ate so much I felt sick – and then spent some time at the National Museum. The more I learnt about the native Mongolian people and the mighty empire of warriors they had once been, the more I suspect that they as a people were the inspiration for the Dothraki tribes in Game of Thrones. Fierce warriors with highly revered leaders and a lifestyle that revolves largely around their horses, they were nomads that travelled across their vast country and were¬†constantly at war to expand their territory. Modern Mongolia is a different story though, but I still got a little kick out of my geeky comparison. I also saw some exhibits about musical instruments – the name of the Mongolian instruments I’d seen in the show last time we were in Ulaanbaatar was morin khuur, a name that translates to ‘fiddle with a horses head’. The end of each instrument is finished of with a carved wooden horse head, and the morin khuur is considered something of a national treasure for Mongolia.

As I wandered through the museum, I realised that most of the signs and information boards were in Mongolian, with no English translation. I hate being one of those tourists who just expects everyone to be able to speak English, and get angry when they can’t – I frequently struggle silently through awkward language barriers rather than go on a “Can anyone speak English?” spree – but I have to admit I was taken aback. Almost everywhere in South-East Asia had had signs in English, which I suppose I completely took for granted while I was there. English is a common and widespread language, but it’s by no means global or universal, and I think it took being in an official building like a museum, yet there still being very little English, for that fact to truly sink in.

***

Overall, my time in Mongolia was incredibly interesting and unique. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t scammed, tricked, injured or molested, I think I can safely say its been my favourite place on my journey so far, and my only regret is that I couldn’t stay for longer. But the tour schedule was pretty set when it came to transport, and we were due to catch our next train into the heart of Siberia.

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The Travel Bug

One of the big tourist destinations that you just have to see (or so I’d been told) when you are in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. Even if temples aren’t really your thing, this one is so spectacular that its supposedly the one everyone has to see. But having studied mediation under the guidance of a Buddhist nun during my last few years of high school, I would definitely say I have an interest, or at least curiosity, in Eastern spirituality, and a certain sense of awe for their places of worship. So after seeing having seen some of the party destinations that are frequented by tourists, I decided I would begin this week by exploring some of the more traditional cultural attractions that Bangkok has to offer.

The Grand Palace is located towards the west of central Bangkok, on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River. Since the palace is the official residence of the Thai royal family, the inside is not open to the public, but the monastery compound that houses various shrines, temples and monuments is usually considered the main attraction anyway. The temple that houses Emerald Buddha, while being a popular sight-seeing spot among tourists, is also still a frequently used place of worship for both the Thai royal family and local commoners. Therefore, respectful and modest clothing is required before tourists are allowed to enter the compound within which the temple is located. This means no exposed shoulders or knees, no singlets or shorts, so I made sure I packed my jeans into my backpack to change into once I got there. The midday sun was scorching and the heat and humidity had basically drenched my whole upper torso before I’d even made it inside the gates, so actually wearing long pants the whole day was definitely not a valid option.

Once inside, it was easy to see why this place was considered a “must see” destination – the intricacy of the beautiful and delicate designs is absolutely breath-taking.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The cloisters that run along the inside perimeter of the compound are decorated with exquisite hand painted murals that depict the storyline in a famous epic poem from Thai mythology. Princes and princesses, armies of soldiers, monkeys, demons, giants, gods, temples, palaces – the detail is incredible and the work is flawless. Much of the subjects within the murals are laced with gold, and the walls glow and shine, beautiful and incredible works of art. Within the rest of the compound there are dozens of other structures the are wondrous to behold, with glass, jewels, gold leaf, mother of pearl, and a score of other materials decorating them in a way that lets them command the reverence they deserve, as such sacred and holy monuments. Some of my favourites were the golden statues of the mythical creatures that were half animal and half celestial beings, crafted with the finest, most precise detail, glowing magnificently in the sunlight.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi - one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi – one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

The highlight of the compound, however, is the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Built on consecrated ground, all who enter the area are required to remove their shoes. I slipped off my sneakers, ascended the stairs onto the outer platform, and entered into the temple. The walls were vast and tall, decorated with beautiful murals similar to ones on the outer walls, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, as well as other concepts of Thai mythology. Though it is the shrine in the centre of the room that truly captures your attention. Mounted high atop the shrine, on a golden throne made of gilded-carved wood, is the tiny Emerald Buddha, actually crafted from green jade. He is sitting in a stance of peaceful and relaxed mediation. The statue is hard to make out at first, such a small idol atop such an extravagant display, but the sight of the entire shrine is impressive, golden and glittering amongst the glow of they prayer candles, and for me it did feel like quite a spiritual experience. Perhaps it was because you cannot take photos inside the main temple, so being there really feels as though you are witnessing something truly special. I made my way past the standing tourists the where the prayer-goers were situated, and kneeled among them while I gazed up in awe at the shimmering golden shrine. It had been quite a while since I’d practiced mediation on a regular basis, so I sat there amongst the prayer and worship, absorbing the sacred presence within the temple and taking a moment to reflect on my own personal spirituality.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Myself  in front of the Grand Palace.

Myself in front of the Grand Palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

After spending some time within the temple, I emerged to continue the rest of my tour around the grounds of the Grand Palace. However, after wandering around in the sun for a couple of hours, I’d become quite exhausted, and so decided to make my way home. After wandering the streets looking for a taxi, and now avoiding basically every tuk tuk I encountered, I finally found a taxi rank for motorbikes. They asked me where I was going and named a price – it wasn’t too dissimilar from what I’d paid in the taxi in the way over that morning, so I accepted. Motorbikes also had the advantage of being able to weave in and out of places that cars and tuk tuks are unable to, making them a convenient choice for peak hour traffic. Knowing that my mother would possibly have a field day when she heard eventually heard about this, I climbed onto the back of the motorbike and we took off into the street.

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace - taken before I was on the motorbike!

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace – taken before I was on the motorbike!

It was such an exhilarating rush. Sitting with my arms pressed heavily into the sides of my driver, we weaved in and out of traffic, between lanes, cutting in front of cars and tuk tuks, zooming through the streets among the pack of other motorcycles. The wind was flying through my hair, as the driver was the only one who had a helmet, and while I know that’s incredibly dangerous, I had a weird sense of absolute trust in this driver and his knowledge of the roads. I’d had some other locals say that driving in Bangkok isn’t scary or unsafe at all, and that only driving out in the more regional areas is something they hate or refuse to do, with city driving being considered relatively safe. I hadn’t believed them at first, but as I zoomed through the open air and soaked up the scenery as we weaved between vehicles, I think I finally understood what they meant. The city almost operates like a well-oiled machine – except in the traffic jams, where a little oil mightn’t go astray – or a living organism, where no matter how hectic or chaotic the environment may seem, everything is aware of and in sync with everything else. I’ve yet to see a single accident on the roads of Bangkok – plenty of what we would call “near misses” back home, but sometimes it feels as though the drivers of Bangkok know their roads so well that they can intentionally come so close with a much lower risk of accident. A tight-knit, well-oiled machine.

Towards the end of our trip, my driver even mounted the footpath and weaved between pedestrians to get me on the right side of the road and home as quickly as possible. When I paid the driver and slipped off the back of the motorbike, he smiled at me and placed a hand on my chest, and waited a moment before chuckling to himself. I must have had a rather puzzled look, because he proceeded to mimic the action on himself, then beat his chest a coupe of times with the palm of his hand. He repeated action on my chest, and then I realised what he was trying to communicate – my heartbeat. Placing my own hand on my chest, I felt it pulsing at a ridiculous speed that I hadn’t even noticed myself. Perhaps I was still a little high from the adrenaline of soaring down the tiny streets and open roads alike on the back of that motorbike, but it wasn’t until he drove off that I realised just how much of a thrill the simple trip home had been, and how much I had really enjoyed it.

It was a short walk home from where I’d alighted the motorbike, and I skipped off down the street with a new spring in my step. For perhaps the first time during this trip I finally felt like a traveler – not just a tourist, running around trying to see the cities greatest hits, but a real traveler just taking pleasure in the simple activities and cultural quirks that my new temporary home has to offer. I’d had a few difficulties getting used to being on the road and settling into my new, inconsistent lifestyle, but it was only a matter time before the travel bug finally kicked it, and I’m now more eager than ever to see not just the rest of this sprawling city, but to keep moving and behold the wonders that this country, this continent, and indeed this world, has to offer.