Sunday, July 26, 2015

Monks, dumplings, and national parks

25 July- Ulaanbator

Ulaanbator (UB) is the biggest city in Mongoia, but you can walk across it in a morning. First stop for me after a heavy rain doused the city was the Gandan Khiid Monastery.
Buddhist monks have been here since 1944 when it was opened for show for the US vice President's visit, but it became a true place of study in 1990 when the monastery was reopened. You can walk all over the grounds and pop your head into any of the buildings while the monks are chanting. They have monks of all ages from bent over old men to young boys who were throwing pieces of paper at each other instead of chanting.
The main attraction here is the 26 meter tall Buddha filled with 27 tons of herbs, 2 million bundles of mantras, and an entire ger including the furniture.
Outside the Monastery gates I proceeded to gorge myself on dumplings, conveniently found on every street. From street venders you can fill up for about 35cents, in a restaurant with English writing on the sign the same dumplings are $8-10. For research sake I've been trying them all and all are good.

At the southern end of the city is a war memorial but the best part is at the top of the stairs I saw my first golden eagle which they use for hunting and posing for pictures with tourists. The eagle was hooded and teathered, but not to anything. I couldn't believe that it would just sit there so quietly, but I guess if I were blind on the top of a windy hill I would stay put too.
A little farther on is the Bogd Khan national park where a 4 mile trail leads you up above the city and into a forest of larch trees. After 2 days of city, I felt like getting my feet out on some trails, and so did hundreds of Mongolian families. One of which invited me to eat lunch with them.
Tired of my own company I readily accepted. Out came the blankets, out came salty milk tea, and out came a big pot of noodles and mutton. Only one woman spoke English well, but we talked, laughed, and ate for over an hour. After being alone for days, just sitting in the midst of such a chatty, warm family felt wonderful.
Tomorrow morning I'll get my passport registered (their office is closed on the weekends) and be able to leave the city and jump on a horse!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chairman Mao and the Great Wall

23 July 2015
In Tianamen Square there is a mausoleum for chairman Mao. befire you go in, they pat you down and run you through a metal detector. You cannot take anything inside except your ID. Once inside there is a huge statue of Mao seated in a chair. People lay hundreds of yellow plstic flowers at his feet that they buy while standing in line. When the piles of flowers grows too large, workers gather them by the armful and take them back outside to be resold. You must keep moving in line and when you finally make it into the next room, there he is, in a glass coffin. Chsirman Mao is covered by a Chinese flag except for his face which is there in all its embalmed glory, a face that has been dead since 1974. I think I was the only white person in the entire mile long line to gaze on China's most revered hero. 
Walking on to the forbidden city, home of emperors from the 1400s to 1911. Where every structure has a name such as, Hall of Respectful Thoughts, Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds, and Gate of Correct Conduct. 

I thought the best part was the Imperial Gardens where ancient juniper trees arched over brilliantly painted pagodas. Everything painted four colors and covered in intricate designs. Gold for royalty, blue for heaven, green for earth, and red for strength.

But my favorite part of the day was the Great Wall of China. I took a chair lift up and then raced up impossibly steep steps to the end of the restored section of the wall. The path became overgrown and the guard towers were crumbling into the trees. Looking out you can see the wall extending in multiple directions with towers perched on every high and low point.

 The humidity turned me into a soggy, sweaty mess but I ran in the other direction, wanting to see as much of the wall as possible before I had to leave for the airport. It would have been so easy and wonderful to just keep walking to the next tower, and the next, and then just one more...
 This part of the wall was built in the 1300s and is one of the steepest sections. This was evident by all the wheezing tourists, painfully crawling upwards stair by stair. Sadly it was time to go, but the way down was an exhilarating taboggan ride twisting and turning through banked corners with only a hand brake between the legs for any hope of control. Just wonderful!
 Onwards to Mongolia!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Off to Mongolia...with a quick stop in China First

21 September 2015
I'm not sure why Mongolia was on my travel list, but there it was, looking like a pretty good idea. Rather than bring a bike, I decided to bring a saddle and buy a horse once I got there.

Mongolia is a culture where there are still nomadic families living in gers (yurts) that use horses and camels as a means of transportation. With wide open spaces, river valleys that lead into mountains with snow leopards, and few rules to follow, it sounds like an ideal place to spend some time.

For the first time ever, I packed my bags before I left to see if I could fit all my gear on my saddle and not carry so much weight that my horse would collapse. I sat down to see how it all felt and reached forward to adjust my stirrup. In awkward slow motion, my rain barrel "horse" saddle, bags, and me, all went tumbling down across the yard before I could kick my feet out of the stirrups. Hoping that this was not a portent of things to come, I humbly picked myself up and started started packing my things into boxes for the trip.