SILK ROAD ADVENTURE 1: MONGOLIA, THE START OF THE TRAIL

POP-UP ZOOM MEETING!! If you are interested in joining a Zoom Party to share a conversation on Mongolia with me and a fellow Mongolian Traveler on Sunday, July 5, at 8:45am (PST), send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com by 6:00pm today, July 4th (PST) and I will send you the meeting invite!!

Mongolia is not technically on the Silk Road, except it was indicated on one of the Silk Road Maps connecting to Karkourum, the capital city of Genghis Khan’s empire. We revisit the sites previewed in the video last week with the magnificent expanses of land, the natural living, and fascinating history.

You might find some of the order of information a bit confusing, as I am cutting and pasting several days’ travel into one posting. On top of that, I am going backwards in some instances so the general direction is eastward! These trips may have been taken in reverse order, so please ignore references to Days. In any event, the Polo brothers did alot of traipsing backwards and forwards with Marco and two Franciscan friars to meet Kublai Khan, so I don’t feel so bad about giving you misleading directions.

Mongolian Herder Family

The afternoon we spent with a Mongolian herder family was alive with activity, including milking cows and horses (for mare’s milk), corralling animals, racing with boys, tasting fermented mare’s milk and curd dessert, and playing with the family’s newborn baby.

The family included an award-winning horse racer (30 years old), his wife (29 years old), his two boys (8 and 6), and the newborn (1 month old).

Yurt Living

We experienced five days of ger living. Despite its challenges, the variety of gers has allowed us to get a full flavor of what it’s like to live in a ger. Our last ger included a stay along one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Mongolia. While rudimentary, it gave us a feeling of staying at Lake Tahoe, Mongolian style. The itinerary through Central Mongolia was on and off-road, to ger camps without internet access. It was both a blessing and a curse.

Erdene Zuu Monastery

The Erdene Zuu Monastery was founded in 1586 and is the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The religion came from India and Tibet in the 12th Century. The grounds of the Monastery are preserved as a museum. The adjacent complex is a working temple. The temple was built over the palace built by Ugudei Khan, and materials were taken from the ruins.

The Kharkhorin Museum

The Kharkhorin Museum presented a fascinating series of maps showing the the history of Mongolia. If you are curious, please click on these to see more; if not, skip this section.

The Chinese Han Dynasty successfully fought back the Xiong Nu empire in Northwest China, and early portions of the Great Wall were built to deter the Xiong Nu from advancing further. (Remember Mu Lan? She was fighting the Xiong Nu!) You can read more about the ruins of the early Great Wall in my posts from Turpan in August 2014.

In the following series, you will learn more about the history of the great Chinggis Khan (1162-1227), one of his sons Ugudei Khan (1186-1241), and his grandson Kubilai (1215-1294). The maps attached are in some ways easier to read than the ones above, as they show the flow of conquests. Take a look at the arrows and dates on the maps and the extent of their conquests in the span of a century! The influence of the Mongols reached as far west as Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

A little background on the vast country of Mongolia. It is a flat, diamond shaped country the size of Western Europe. It is sandwiched between Russia and China and therefore must maintain good relations with these giants.

The growing season is only four months during the summer, and the entire country is shrouded in snow in the winter. Its harsh environment requires the mere 3 million people to rely heavily on family, community and each other. The limited good weather impacts all development, repairs and activity to a very short season.

Why come to Mongolia? Here are three reasons: to learn about the past, present, and future. The history of Genghis Khan, the first ruler who united the tribes, is a fascinating one. His descendants, including Kublai Khan continued to rule during the Mongolian Dynasty for two hundred years, from 1200-1400.

Most of the expansionist period was during the first fifty years, when the grandsons who were posted to the outer reasons conquered as far west as Hungary and beyond. 1 in 200 men in the world have the DNA directly attributed to this prolific ruler Genghis and his descendants.

Following the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty that ruled most of Eurasia and China, the Ming defeated the Yuan at their capital in Beijing, and then the Manchurians (Ching Dynasty) ruled over China and Mongolia. With Russian help, Mongolia defeated the Ching Dynasty and became an independent country in 1921.

The second reason for coming to Mongolia is the environment. Mongolia, unlike China today, is still a pristine and pure environment. Nothing can be more contrasted than flying from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar (the correct spelling). The pollution and stifling heat of Beijing disappears and the crystal clear skies and bright sun of Mongolia appear. Ecotourism is being promoted here today and the Mongolians are very proud of their country. They know that the world is their oyster and they have every intention of protecting it.

The future is the third reason. Mongolia has huge mineral resources. Mining is one of its biggest industries, and tourism is growing despite its short season. With such a small population, Mongolia’s GDP has been growing at a rate of 10-15% over the past several years, twice the pace of China. While Mongolia is still considered a basically agricultural, nomadic land, it will experience phenomenal change.

Many people are still nomadic herdsmen, and they still live in the traditional ger, or round huts. They are constructed of wooden supports, felt padded walls, and can be easily assembled. A pot belly stove in the middle heats the room, and all the basics of living are contained within the ger: cooking, eating, sitting, sleeping, and storing. Oops, except for the toilet.

Everything has been hunky-dory in the ger camps where we have been staying for the past few days (we’re in No. 2 of 5). Toilets in the first ger were banked below the dining hall, not unlike those you would find at the UC Blue and Gold Camp in Pinecrest, CA. The second ger ratcheted up the ante to an outhouse, with a tastefully decorated Mongolian tent over the pair for easy identification. You could use the sawdust at free will. I was getting into the flow, with one minor detail. It rained this morning.

Imagine the scene for dressing (everything was set in place in advance the night before inside the ger), with even an umbrella. Contending with Mother Nature in order to let Mother Nature contend with you was a challenge. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. You just felt all thumbs and big toes in the execution. When in Rome, do as the Romans, as they say. The steamed towels looked good enough to eat!

But I digress. Back to Mongolia. The first afternoon of our private tour was devoted to the National History Museum in the middle of Ulaan Baatar. The museum traced the beginnings in the Fourth Century BC to the present day. Photographs are not allowed there or during the performance of traditional Mongolian singers and dancers. The main display I wanted to capture was the map of the conquests by Genghis Khan and his grandsons. They occurred over a very short time span of fifty years, and mostly in a ten year period between 1215-1225.

In the morning of Day 2, we visited the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Mongolia is 98% Buddhist, so the religion plays an important part in daily life as well as its history. Buddhism came to Mongolia via the Tibetan monks. Today’s monks come from all over the country to study and chant at this monastery.

Later in the morning, we left the capital city to visit a shaman. Shamanism, or contact with the spirits through a medium, is also practiced in Mongolia. If an individual wanted to send a message to the gods, he or she went to a shaman. The shaman did not give advice but only transferred the information back and forth.

IMG_3561 3

This shaman explained to us that she was “struck” by both a desire and calling only after being confronted a number of times. After her husband died and she was sick, she eventually consented. She very patiently and proudly explained her roots and the people she served.

Her room was laden with offerings to the gods and spirits, both good and bad. Offerings included cheese, curd, dried nuts, fruits and dishes of food. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the answer to a question I had in mind. Her next appointment was already waiting and time ran out.

The many incredible, pristine pastoral landscapes we encountered traveling off-road by Land Cruiser included frequent herds of sheep, goats, horses and cattle. These are free-range animals, owned by herders who live in nearby gers, and have no fences. The animals get rounded up at the end of the day and know who and where their friends and family are. We had a full court press of the domestic animal world with a few wild ones and migrating birds for flavor.

In the afternoon the driver and our guide took us on and off road in search of the Przewalski horses. They run wild and are the ancestor to today’s domesticated horses. They are shorter, stockier and more muscular than the Arabian horses we are accustomed to seeing. They are named after the Russian who discovered them and helped to return them to their native land. They were an endangered species, but due to good management, they can now be allowed to proliferate in a protected environment. It felt a little bit like whale watching, but we were able to find a pack of six in the distance.

The vast green virgin landscape stretches literally for miles and as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there are pigs, and sheep dotted throughout the landscape. The herdsmen know where their herds are located and round them up at the end of the day. They are branded and the larger animals are used for milk and transportation.

The next day, the landscape suddenly rose in elevation, with mountains in the background to nearly 4,000 meters (12,000 ft!). Eventually a sandy desert mixed with small grass emerged. There are many small, Gobi-like deserts throughout Mongolia, and we headed for one of them. The camels that reside here are two-humped, and can carry up to 800 lbs. They can travel without water for a month and without food for up to two months. (See featured photo above)

The distances between sites are vast in this huge country, and few roads are sealed. It takes nearly three hours to travel 100 miles, due to hazardous pits in the road or sandy roads. We were surprised that the driver only had to refuel once in the three days we were driving. While we weren’t used to sitting in the car for such long hours, we were grateful that the Land Cruiser was very sturdy and capable of handling bumps, muddy pits, and stream crossings.

The Orkhorn Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today’s drive took three hours off-road to a beautiful valley known as the Orkhorn Valley. Rain and inclement weather has deterred our camel and horse back riding, but we have been able to see the beautiful lush green, unspoiled countryside in its natural state.

While we basked in the luxury of a “free range day” where we explored the wide open countryside at a leisurely pace, we still had time to take in another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Orkhon River Valley was a prime location for burials that grouped together large flat steles in round or rectangular shapes. Another spot showed exposed granite stones weathered over time with petroglyphs still evident.

The Land Cruiser allowed us to enjoy the off-road traveling comfortably. Otherwise, it would have been a Russian van that was just as sturdy but a rough ride. Along the way we encountered herds of free-range sheep, cattle, goats, and horses. Many birds also migrate to Mongolia over the summer and travel as far as South Africa.

The photos don’t do any justice to the huge 360 degree views that take your breath away. The clean air is also hard to swallow, especially after Beijing!

Here’s last week’s video that was posted about Mongolia. It captures a day with the herder family, irresistible 360 degree views, and some of the incredible landscape and sights we experienced.

from travelswithmyselfandothers MONGOLIA, JULY 2016

Postscript: Thoughts on Mongolia

Coming to Mongolia has been a philosophy class. What is “progress”? What is a “fulfilling life”? What should be the relationship of humans to the rest of the earth?

Thousands of years ago, much of the world was like present-day Mongolia: a few humans herding livestock from one location to another pursuing better pastures and decent weather. Then came the development of intensive agriculture; people stopped moving around and started living closer to each other. And we are now where we are.

Obviously, Mongolia is not thousands of years behind the rest of the world. But there ARE very few people, only 3 million living in an area the size of Western Europe. And as many as 30% of the population are still herders, living in “gers” that they move with the seasons. There are no fences. Their animals are allowed to roam and graze on lands naturally covered with native plants. Their livestock provide much of their food: meat and dairy. Their days are regulated by the hours of daylight, and their year is regulated by the seasons. The land and their animals provide life. This is their mantra.

All this is going to change. But Mongolia has a chance to do development right. It’s as if God is giving humans another chance – to not screw it all up this time round.

I don’t know what Mongolia is going to be like in 20 years. But as the population increases, there will be more constraints on the herding, nomadic way of life. Massive factory farms and open-pit mines already are fencing off areas from grazing.

A law that was passed a few years ago that entitled every adult Mongolian to 0.7 hectare of land will eventually have to end. Mongolians don’t write wills; the descendants decide among themselves how to divide up any inheritance. As Mongolians become wealthier and family members live further apart, lawyers are going to come into their own.

I like modern living. This past week in Mongolia has reinforced my appreciation of indoor plumbing, being able to eat foods other than meat and dairy, and security from wind, rain, bugs and wild animals. But there are other things I could do without.

If I had a chance to start human development all again, I would make choices. Mongolians have a chance to make theirs.

Gee Kin Chou, June 29, 2016

12 Tricks for Mongolian Ger Survival

I just realize that my posts have been pretty dry and humorless in the past few months. It’s hard to laugh with yourself unless you are reminded at times. Now that I have a traveling partner, we share the perspective on how we travel–the good, the bad, the fun, the pain. Laughter is the best medicine to get you through all situations.

Here are a few pointers for those contemplating a stay in a ger. There’s nothing like creating a list from real life experience.

  1. Duck your head when entering the low door opening. Oops, didn’t someone already warn me about that!?!
  2. Ask for extra blankets regardless of 90 degree weather in the daytime. Temperatures changes dramatically at night. ( hey, I thought I asked earlier?)
  3. Have the stove heated twice a day. Once before bedtime around 8 pm and once around 7 am before (thinking about it then is too late) you get up. The guide or staff will ask, but make sure it is customized to your waking and sleeping hours! It needs to be timed to when you are undressing and dressing. Notify staff or guide in advance if they don’t ask. This is your only option as there is no other thermostat in the room.(where ARE they?)
  4. Wear hiking boots , not just for hiking but for getting to the outdoor loos in knee high wet grass in the middle of the night and 6″ deep puddles during rain (Damn, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park?)
  5.  Use the futon or comforter as a sleeping bag and roll the edges around your body to eliminate air gaps (and bugs…or am I getting paranoid?)
  6. Use the long tongs for wood  from the stove for removing large black beetles from the sides of tent
  7. Do not be deterred by rain snow sleet or hail. Use garbage cans, trays, and water bottles during the time you are inside to catch any of the above that may inadvertently enter your ger.
  8. Fondle the felt when you first enter the ger. It will reassure you that you will be kept warm, away from most bugs except those that crawl under the gaps through the ground or fly in through the door or opening at the roof plastic. Don’t be disheartened by silly rodents that run over the tops of the ger roof or the moths that cluster outside the skylight plastic. They provide a sweet symphony to lull you to sleep. The felt also protects you from heat and inclement weather. (If you want to know what direction you are facing, the ger doors always face south.)
  9. Decide if you want light by leaving the door open or bugs flying around  the ger before bed. You get both if you leave the door open. Remember that if bugs have a hard time getting out if they manage to get in.
  10. Keep your voice down. If you hear others in the next ger, they can hear you.(Oops ! Have I been shouting? Remember whatever you say comes back to you in a round chamber)
  11. Avoid spending any brain power on the dung being used in the stove as the material contrary to common thought does not smell. If firewood is used, appreciate how far it has come to a neighborhood near you. The smell is only temporary as the stove will not be burning except when you are dressing. (unless you are crazy enough to come outside of the tourist season).
  12. Should you not find any hooks mounted in the walls, simply drape your clothing over any surface areas. Use the chair seats or backs, headboards or beds, and tables in the room. Avoid stuffing clothing between the cross slats in walls or structural ribs in the ceiling as they may cause the ger to collapse.

Above all, remember that Mongolians have been living in gers for centuries and the ger camps are providing you with this experience. They don’t need our advice on advancing civilization. They ruled it for over 200 years and have survival in their DNA.

from Travels with Myself and Others, June 2016

ADVENTURE 2 will be in Beijing, China, Kublai Khan’s great conquest, and a stop in the direction of the Great Silk Road.

A note to the newbies: This was part of my third, around-the-world, live (except for technical glitches), real time journey. As an architect, my interests are in Planning, Design, and Architecture professionally; archaeology, anthropology, and art history, Silk Road history, opera, culture and food emotionally; UNESCO-focused, independent travel; and everything in between.

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