Travelling Hopefully

16 September

As the flight from Heathrow was due to leave at 6.45am, I followed my usual practice of going down the night before to stay in a hotel. I’d decided not to pay for parking but to take a National Express Coach (due to my concerns about rail strikes).

A kind neighbour took me to the coach stop for the 1.45pm coach to Heathrow. I was rather pleased not to be going into London on the train and then venturing by underground, as London was very busy with people going down for the Queen’s lying in state and the state funeral. During the afternoon rail strikes were announced, one on the day I was due to return home, so I was even more happy that I’d booked a coach. 

Once at Heathrow Airport, I caught a shuttle to my hotel and checked in. Prices for an overnight stay had nearly doubled since I had originally booked and paid, yet again because of the Queen’s death.

After a beer at the bar, I went to bed at 8pm.

‍ 17 September

I was able to fall asleep by 8.30pm although I woke at 2.30am. My alarm pulled me out of bed at 3am, and I had an hour to have some fruit for breakfast before catching my 4am taxi to the airport.

Check in was a bit of an anxious time. Because I was worried about my check in bag possibly not joining me at my destination, I’d packed essential clothing into a carry on. I was also taking my good (therefore heavy) camera equipment. I knew that the camera backpack would fit under the seat, but that the weight would be over the airline’s limits. So as the check in queue came closer to the counter, I noted with anxiety that some people’s carry ons were being weighed, and one airline employee was insisting ‘one carry on only’.

Fortunately the person who checked me in didn’t ask to weigh my carry on--my check in was only 14kg against the limit of 23kg, so maybe that’s why. I went through security and, for the time ever, put my boot-clad feet onto a special scanner just for shoes. Technology moves on.

At the boarding gate, an assistant there told me my backpack ‘looked heavy’ and that the gate crew would insist on weighing it. So I stuffed lenses into coat pockets. However, I didn’t even speak to human being at the gate, merely scanned my boarding pass in and on I went. I returned lenses to backpack and boarded the plane.

It was a short flight to Istanbul, given some almost edible food. Then there were five hours to fill before the flight to Ulaanbaatar. I had bumped into a woman who was also touring Mongolia with the same travel company. She had a coffee and I had a sandwich and an orange juice at a café. We went further into the terminal and I bought beers for her and me, suggesting that she buy me one in return during the trip. I later discovered that the beers had cost £10 each!

I was slightly confused when the woman said, ‘Of course, once we land, we’re off to our first ger camp.’ I told her, ‘No we’re not, we staying in a hotel in Ulaanbaatar tonight.’ She showed me an email which stated otherwise. I wondered how I had missed that bit of information.

The flight to Ulaanbaatar took eight hours. I watched a film, ate an acceptable meal, and tried to get some sleep.

18 September

We landed around 8am Mongolian time. A Covid-19 entry form had to be completed, with such little space on the form that it was hard to fit the details like address in Mongolia. The form was glanced at by the man at the ‘Quarantine’ desk and added to a vast pile. At immigration, the process took many minutes. A sign in English explained that the computer systems were being upgraded and everything was going slower. The chap serving me seemed to be having great problems with his computer, and I was the last in the group to get through to the other side. But at least my check-in case was waiting for me!

I joined the group, and our guide introduced himself. ‘We will now go to the Chinngis Khan statue, on our way to the ger camp where we are staying tonight,’ he announced. Immediately several of us stated, ‘But we’re supposed to be staying in Ulaanbaatar tonight.’ After several phone calls to the office, the guide discovered that the local manager had accidentally swapped two groups. Our group was meant to be doing a loop in an anti-clockwise direction, the other group clock-wise. However, now each group was following the other’s itinerary. 

Some in the group expressed the opinion that this didn’t matter to them. They hadn’t even read the trip notes so, as long as we still saw everything, it didn’t matter in which order. Others, like me, had planned matters according to the itinerary. For example, I had packed separate clothes for the latter part of the trip, the Eagle Festival. We were due to stay at the same hotel just before flying out to the event, and I had planned to leave a small case with the clothing at the hotel, to be collected before the flight. Now I would have to cart everything around Mongolia.  And, quite frankly, the idea of a day in a hotel to freshen up, repack, and to walk around the city had been very appealing, rather than hasten off into the countryside for a day’s sightseeing.

But there was nothing to be done except get into our vehicles and set off. Our guide was firm that we couldn’t just swap back with the other group, as all of the accommodation had been sorted. Cases and humans were loaded into large and rather comfortable 4 x 4 vehicles. My carry on had to come with me as it was, but at least essential items such as my sun hat were inside. 

We reached the Chinngis Khan statue around two hours later. This proved to be a huge, stainless steel image of the man astride a horse, set on top of a visitor centre. Our guide took us down to a small museum, which had items from the lives of the horse-riding nomads. The display interpretations were in Mongolian. 

Afterwards we had free time to either walk the stairs (which I foolishly did) or take the lift to emerge on to the statue itself. I made a brief visit to the souvenir shop, then outside to take photos. Camel and horse rides were available, and I watched as one tourist filmed himself on his phone the entire time he was riding the camel.

A thirty-minute drive brought us to the ger camp in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which was to be our overnight accommodation. Rather disappointingly, the entire national park seemed to be a string of tourist accommodations, mostly ger camps but a few more modern buildings. We had a nice lunch (salad, soup, then chicken on rice, finished off by fruit). 

The ger itself held three beds for the two of us—as usual, I was sharing with someone in order to avoid single supplement. A nearby toilet block also offered showers. Our guide strongly urged us to use the supplied small padlock to lock up the door every time we left the ger. Some of his groups have experienced thefts from their gers if left unlocked. 

After lunch, I headed over to work on my packing. The extra case and clothing just fit into the main case. I sorted out essentials into the small bag I’d have on the 4 x 4 every day, such items as first aid kit, hat, walking stick, snacks. I also had a shower, which unfortunately turned out to be a cold one. 

At 4pm we headed out to the Ariyabal Mediation Temple. When the Soviet Union had taken over Mongolia, the Buddhist temples had been destroyed. This centre was modern. We walked up a path lined with Buddhist sayings in English and Mongolian. After a swing bridge, a large set of steps brought us to the temple itself. Although rather ornate inside, the outside showed signs of neglect. I’ve never seen grass growing through the roof of a temple, in all my various trips to Buddhist areas of the world. 

The views back down into the valley were of trees and many tourist ger camps. The interesting rock formations of the national park rose above us like cast-off fingers. The bright day was starting to cool.

We stopped briefly at one rock formation named ‘the turtle’, for obvious reasons. People were riding horses nearby, and a flurry of photographic activity ensued when a herd of camels wandered past.

Our final stop was to visit a small nomadic group. A woman invited us into a ger where she served us milky tea, homemade cakes, Mongolian clotted cream, and home distilled vodka. I sampled each item cautiously. 

Dinner was back at the ger camp, again in the restaurant on site. Potato salad followed by beef steak on bulgur wheat and very garlicky carrots. Watermelon slices to finish off. I had a beer to wash it down. Our guide warned us that beer became more expensive the further we drove from Ulaanbaatar and into the wilderness. Here it was 7000 Mongolian (around £2.00).

Afterwards we had our trip briefing. The guide apologised for the mix-up in itineraries. He collected the tips for the kitty. Afterwards it was back to the ger. A woman came to light the inside stove, which made the ger nice and warm. We went to bed just after 10pm, and I watched the flames throw light and shadows on the wall before falling asleep.

19 September

I slept mostly well. The ger cooled down overnight as the fire went out, but it was still warm enough. The two night time trips to the toilet block (I recall with great fondness the nights of my youth when I could sleep all the way through) were not too cold, and the path was well lit.

At 6am my ger mate and I both rose. I worked on photos before going over for breakfast at 7am. This consisted of soup, eggs, bread, bacon, small pancakes, and small Mongolian donuts. I had brought coffee bags with me so I doused one with hot water before stirring in powdered milk.

We left at 8am. Originally the group was going to swap around the different 4 x 4s, but our guide asked us to remain in our original groups and vehicles in order to minimise the risk of spreading covid to one another. 

We set off for the four-hour trip to Baga Gazariin Chuluu. The first three hours were on asphalt road, with a stop to stretch the legs and find a bit of cover for a ‘nature toilet’, as our guide called them. Another hour was spent driving off-road, and we were amazed that our drivers knew where to go. We had to make our way through several large flocks (sometimes 700 – 800 animals) of goats and sheep. The herders, on motorbikes, were taking them to their winter shelters. We saw many herds of horses, and one herd of camels. Birds of prey wheeled overhead and sometimes posed in the grasses. Steppe eagles, vultures, and black kites. Smaller birds took wing, hard to identify as they dashed away.

The land was flat, flat, flat, with dried grasses and occasional ponds. The sky was bright blue and, out of the wind, the day was even warm.

We reached our ger camp just before 1pm. This one was a bit more rustic than the night before. The camp staff brought out a hand-pulled trailer to take our bags to our gers. The gers were a bit smaller, only two beds, and no heating system of any sort. Our guide promised us extra blankets.

After a lunch of soup and cottage pie, we had some free time. I decided to follow the example of a fellow traveller and put the extra clothing intended for the latter part of the holiday into my spare case. This I would leave in the 4 x 4, freeing up space in my main case.

At 3pm we headed out over the bumpy countryside. Our first stop was to visit a small cave and to admire the wonderful rock formations. We joked that we felt as if we’d landed in a Western movie, and I hummed the opening bars from the theme tune of ‘Bonanza.’

A short drive brought us to what had once been a Buddhist temple. The Soviets had destroyed the temple, and some years later a monk had set up his residence in the area. A short walk past more rock formations, in which trees had somehow taken root, brought us to the remains of his home. This was an enchanting place, set in a natural hollow with trees lining the path. 

In January 2020 I had attended a travel show, at which a woman gave an illustrated talk about Mongolia and handed out blue scarves. I had brought two from England to Mongolia, intending to leave them somewhere which spoke to me. The first was left alongside other scarves in the ruins.

Our last stop was to view an ‘eye spa’. Our guide explained that rainwater had gathered in a deep hole in the rocks, and Mongolians believed that washing the eyes was the water could bring healing. We clambered up to the hole, which had been covered with a stone. Several people partook of the water. The results have not yet come in.

Back to the ger camp. I told people that, if they wished, we would gather outside the restaurant at 6.55pm to observe a two-minute silence for the Queen. We had around an hour’s break before then, and most people did fetch up. The sun set as we stood in silence, which seemed very fitting.

We headed into the restaurant building afterwards. Our guide explained that he had a proposed change to our itinerary. As we’d missed out on a day in Ulaanbaatar, we could change things around. Near the end of our trip, instead of staying in Hustai National Park overnight, we would visit the park before going to Ulaanbaatar for two nights. This was happily accepted by the group.

After a buffet dinner, one of the group brought over her iPhone and together we watched the procession and the start of the Queen’s funeral. 

Out into the cold night. The Milky Way was visible, arching over the ger camp. I ignored the wind to admire the sight for several minutes before heading into my ger. I nearly stepped on a couple of South Korean men who had set themselves up to sleep outside, I suppose to star watch.

Beer here was 8000 Mongolian.

20 September

There was no heating in the ger. We had been given extra quilts, and this plus several layers kept me mostly warm. Going outside for toilet visits was a bit of a shock, though.

We had an early rise, 5am out of bed for 6am breakfast and 7am departure. Frost had settled on the cars overnight. 

We had an hour of what our guide called ‘country roads’ before arriving on asphalt. One of the group became ill, possibly through motion sickness, and we stopped to let her recover. Medication was provided.

At another leg stretch I headed away from the group and, as I have no shame, simply relieved myself despite the lack of cover. Others in the group were more concerned about their dignity. Finally they took it in turns to pee behind the vehicle parked furthest away from the road.

After a number of hours on asphalt, we were back on country roads. In effect, these were no more than rough tracks across the Gobi desert. The landscape was rather monotonous, flat scrubland broken up by herds of domesticated animals. I dozed from time to time. At other times we held on to the car and our belongings as we jounced on particularly rough parts of countryside. The four vehicles carrying our party took separate tracks, probably to avoid the dust kicked up by the tyres.

We had a late lunch at a ger camp before heading on. Around 5pm we reached the Flaming Cliffs. This was where a 1922 expedition headed up by Roy Chapman Andrews found many dinosaur skeletons, including nests of dinosaur eggs, the first time such a discovery had been recorded.

A rather ancient documentary, in black and white and calling the capital of China ‘Peking’ rather than ‘Bejing’, was played at the start of our time in the small visitors’ centre. One room in the adjacent museum provided information in English about the fossil discoveries and the local wildlife. I was intrigued that hedgehogs live in Mongolia. 

The cars took us to the start of the walk up to the top of the Flaming Cliffs. The path was a bit steep to start with, then leveled out. Walkways had been built to lead people around the top of the hills, providing views over the desert landscape. The wind started to pick up, blowing sand across legs and into teeth. 

The return was along the same route. For the first time on the trip, we came across souvenir stalls, and I bought a few gifts.

Our final stop was at a view point across to the Flaming Cliffs. The setting sun brought out the red colour of the soil. The wind had increased in strength, and the stinging sand was distinctly unpleasant. After taking our photos, we retreated to the vehicles. 

The drive to our ger camp took around 40 minutes. We arrived just after sunset. Our gers turned out to be luxurious ones, en-suite bathroom and shower with multiple charger points and even a kettle! I took a quick shower before dinner. 

During our meal, I asked our guide questions about his upcoming wedding. It’s the tradition that the groom’s family pays for the wedding and provide a ger for the new couple. The bride’s family buys the furniture. Our guide would like to live in a ger, but his fiancée is used to living in a house and so she wants a flat. The wedding will happen some time next year. The woman does not take on the husband’s last name, but the children do.

After dinner, we returned to enjoy the ger. Except there was no heating! Extra blankets were brought to ward off the cold. 

Beer here was 10,000 Mongolian.

21 September

The ger was pretty warm overnight. I actually dumped the blanket in the early hours of the morning.

We had a lie in until 7am, breakfast an hour later. At 9am we set off for Yolyn Am canyon, so deep and narrow that winter ice can remain on the valley floor through the height of summer. 

A bumpy ride of around an hour brought us to a small museum about the area. Rooms stuffed full with dead animals showed us the variety of wildlife in the area. Not only birds, but many mammals ranging from kangaroo mice to snow leopards. We asked about yaks, and were told that these were rarely seen. Our guide went on to tell us a delightful tale about his grandmother. She had a yak. Normally yaks only allow their masters to milk them, but other members of his family were able to do so if they wore grandmother’s clothes. Her smell on the clothes fooled the yak.

We returned to our vehicles and another bouncy drive took us to the start of the canyon. I was entranced by the kangaroo mice, which were foraging through tall grasses and disappearing into holes with the seeds. 

Within ten minutes of the walk, we came across a solitary yak. Cameras came out and people edged closer and closer to gain a photograph. A short distance later we came across a herd of yak, several of them mothers with calves. One calf decided to nurse, and the mother lifted a hind leg to give him better access.

Feeling that we’d been extraordinarily lucky, we settled down into our trek. Birds flitted away from the small stream running through the canyon as our boots clunked past rocks and crunched through gravel. The path was mostly even, and led us to cross the stream from time to time. A couple of bridges had been built, but mostly we stepped on stones, occasionally misjudging the distance and ending up with shoes in the cold water. At one point, we came across shallow ice. 

The wind had picked up over the morning and was channeled through the canyon. In the sunlight I was too warm, in the shade I felt the cold. After about a two kilometres we came to the narrowest point of the canyon. A few walked down to investigate, but the rest of us admired from a short distance.

We were more spread out on the return walk. I pulled out my camera and zoom lens and tried to photograph various birds, although they were very unwilling to allow me close to them. The yak herd was still in place, and I took a few more photos whilst discussing with a fellow traveller which was our favourite and how we could make room for a yak in one of the 4 x 4s. 

Back at our start point, I became engrossed with photographing more kangaroo rats. Our guide had to call me to the vehicles, as I hadn’t realised everyone else was back and already on board.

We had lunch at a nearby ger camp. Afterwards, the camp’s friendly dogs (a traditional Mongolian breed) enjoyed us making a fuss over them.

We bumped over to asphalt road, and went into the nearby city. There we visited the Gobi Museum of Nature and History, which had only been opened in July this year. Exhibits, most of which were only in Mongolian, held cases of ancient weapons and handiwork. The lowest section was dedicated to dinosaurs, with a large skeleton and many smaller specimens. 

We’d been told that it was 5000 Mongolian to take photos. Two of us decided to pay the fee, but the entry desk said we’d have to come back later when the cashier was there. I had pulled out my passport and currency neck case to pull out the money, and I slipped the 5000 note back in.

As the group headed up the stairs, I tapped the pocket in my camera waistcoat to check that my passport case there. And it wasn’t. I tried not to panic. I hung back from the group, checked all my pockets, and then inside my camera backpack. Still nothing. Wondering if I’d left the neck case at the entry desk, I went back downstairs and tried to explain them (without success) what I was looking for.

All sorts of scenarios ran through my head as my heart thudded in my chest. Was there a British Embassy in Mongolia, perhaps in Ulaanbaatar? Would I be have to get an emergency passport? I decided to make one last check before interrupting our guide to ask him to come with me to entry desk to explain what I was looking for. Once again I checked pockets and backpack. Then I suddenly realised that I had hung the case around my neck and under my t-shirt. Very relieved, and feeling a bit foolish, I put it back into the waistcoat pocket where it usually resided. 

After we finished in the museum, we went on to a supermarket. I enjoy visiting supermarkets in other countries, as I find it interesting to see what they have on sale. As I’d lost my pen, I bought two, plus some dried fruit and moisturising cream. The desert environment was proving to be hard on my hands.

We went on to a second supermarket, as the drivers couldn’t find what they wanted at the first one. Missions accomplished, we headed back to our ger camp for our dinner, beers, and a last night to enjoy en-suite facilities. 

22 September

Another early rise, with an 8am departure. Unfortunately, my digestive system decided to rebel, leaving me to hover by the ger as long as possible until our departure time. I took a couple of Imodium and hoped for the best. 

Another morning’s bumpy drive. The worst was when we traversed dry river channels, carefully going down and then back up again. A nature break allowed us to photograph a herd of goats and sheep and use a ravine to relieve ourselves. We also came across several small lizards, only around the length of finger. 

We left the dry grasslands behind and drove between small hills of black gravel and dark rocks. At one point we passed a stupa which had animal skulls piled around the base. We could see the mountains and the sand dunes in the distance. 

At noon we arrived at the camp for our next two nights. As we disembarked, we saw that gers were set on one side, and log cabins on the other. Before we could become too envious of the luxury of a cabin instead of a ger, our guide called us over. He explained that, as compensation for the mix-up in the itinerary, the local manager had arranged for all us to have an upgrade. We were to stay in the cabins, which had en-suite facilities. Many inner and a few outer cheers went up.

After lunch, and a break, we clambered back into our vehicles. A half hour’s drive brought us to the Khongoriin Els sand dunes. Our guide explained that it was 300 metres to the top of the tallest dune stretching out above us, but it was the same way back down as up, so we could all decide how far to go. He hoped that, at the top, people would be able to hear the sound of the wind blowing through the sand, which had given the area the name of ‘the singing sands’. 

The climb was hard going. The sand was very dry, so feet sank deep with each step. The temperature was comfortable, not too hot, and several of our group decided to go barefoot.

I made it part way, taking my time both for breath and for photos. At one point, looking at the group far ahead of me, I saw that several had resorted to using hands as well as feet to climb. I knew full well that I was not going to make it to the top, so I went a bit further before digging my feet in and taking photos of those toiling up the steep dune side.

The wind picked up and a low rumble blew past my ears. I thought it must be a drone, but I couldn’t see one nor an operator. Or maybe some form of vehicle engine? But there was nothing moving in sight. Later on I learnt that this was the sound of the ‘singing sands’. I’m thrilled to have heard it.

As time drew on, the angle of the sun changed. The entire dune had been in the light. Now patterns of sunlight and shadow showed up the various ridges. I headed down, still taking photos of our group as well as of the camels which had been offering tourists rides. Six people pulling sand sledges started up the side of the dune. 

Of our party, seven plus the guide made it to the top. We watched the figures for quite some time. Our guide stood, but the others sat down. They explained later that there was a steep drop on the other side, so they saddled the ridge.

The entire dune was covered in shadow by the time everyone was back down again. We returned to our camp and had an hour before dinner. 

There were a few other guests present. After dinner, I headed back to the cabin. When my roommate joined me, she explained that there was an Australian travelling on his own. The three of them who were finishing off their beers invited him to join them. The Australian said he’d been booked into ger, but had been given a free upgrade. It was his understanding that anyone booked into a ger had been given a free upgrade, as the camp was shutting the gers down for the winter. I wonder who will raise this with our guide…

Beer here was 7000 Mongolian. 

23 September

The room was warm overnight. It was lovely not to be wearing multiple layers in bed.

And when I woke up it was my birthday. As soon as our alarm went off, my roommate wished me a happy birthday. 

Breakfast was at 8am, with a 10am departure, so I worked on processing photos. At 10am we headed back towards the sand dunes. We were welcomed into the ger of a local camel herder, a woman who had inherited the herd from her father. She served us camel milk and camel milk vodka. Both of these were very drinkable. We were also offered a hard biscuit made of camel milk whey. The taste made me almost feel ill, and it took a great effort to chew and swallow it down. I’m afraid I find it hard to compare to anything else I’ve ever eaten, fair or foul. Fortunately there were some regular biscuits available, and I ate one to take the taste of out of my mouth. 

We had a long chat with the woman, our guide acting as translator. None of her children lived in the area, but several were in the nearby town. Although they had yet to show any interest in taking on the business when she died, she too had had no intention of becoming a camel herder, but had done so. I asked whether any camels were ever stolen, and one of the group said, ‘Oh, camel rustling!’ Our guide thought she’d said ‘camel wrestling’ which led to some laughs. 

Eleven of us had booked a camel ride, so when we’d finished speaking with the herder we went outside to our mounts. I’ve ridden camels four times before this, but all were dromedary rather than bactrian camels. The saddles had stirrups, and we mounted from the left. The camel rising to his feet (it seems only geldings are used for riding and transport) was quite smooth, nothing like the jerky movements of the two camels I’d ridden in Egypt. The camel herder handed me the rope, and I thought this meant I’d be in charge! But, alas, a few minutes later he took the rope back again and tied my camel up behind another.

The gait was very smooth, and between the two stirrups and the two humps I felt quite secure in the saddle. I’d decided not to try to take photos with my camera, but I had my iPhone with me and used that. The gentle rhythm made me decide that I didn’t need to hold on to saddle or hump as we paced away from the camp.

Of the three people in the group who had opted not to ride, two of them walked alongside us and took photos. At one point, we stopped and handed our camel handlers our phones for more photos. We did find that the camel behind each of us wanted to rub his face on our trousers, leaving behind traces of saliva. 

We were back thirty minutes later. The morning had warmed up during our ride, albeit with a cooler wind, so I was comfortable in a long-sleeved shirt and trousers. After paying for our rides, and visiting the outhouse, we drove on to a smaller set of sand dunes set by a marsh. Our 4 x 4 got stuck in the sand at one point, and another vehicle had to tow us out. A second one from our group also got stuck, and had to be towed backwards.

At the dunes, we had time to wander around and take photos. I travel everywhere with a small dachshund called Günther. I pulled him out of my waistcoat for some photos, only to discover that another member of the group travels with a frog called Fred. We took a photo of them sitting together on a picnic table.

Birds spotted in the area included crested lark. Camels and horses grazed in the distance, and their droppings covered much of the area. I was careful where I placed Günther for photos.

Back to the ger camp for lunch. We had free time until 3.30pm, at which time we gathered together and our guide taught us traditional Mongolian games using the ankle bones from sheep and goats. He explained that the ankle bones are preserved and used by the family both for games and fortune telling. The bones are thrown, and depending on the side on which they land, the top part of the bones represent either a horse, a camel, a goat, or a sheep. This is easier than it sounds, as each side of an ankle bone has a different shape. 

We played a horse race game, whispered questions to the bones before throwing them for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ fortunetelling, and several played a final game in which one bone is flicked against another. 

Another hour of free time before we gathered for drinks. A drinks party had been intended for two nights ago, but a late finish to the day had meant a postponement. To my surprise, it was a birthday celebration instead. We shared around vodka, I was given a signed card (a wedding card, as they had been unable to find a birthday card), and a 2022 calendar with all of the Buddhist calculations (a different animal from the Chinese zodiac for each day). Even a cake emerged, with quite a tale of how they managed to find a bakery. Nineteen candles were lit, one for each person in the group (including our guide and drivers).

We went in to dinner, and beer was bought for me. A number of us stayed on until 9.30pm to talk. I even found a fellow traveller who has also been to North Korea—not a common occurrence. 

24 September

Woke up with a bit of a nosebleed. The dry conditions were having quite an effect. 

We left at 8am, having been warned it would be a long driving day. At the top of a hill, we halted to take some photos looking back at the sand dunes. A little later we stopped again to admire a herd of camels. The landscape varied quite a bit in the morning, from small black hills to plains of scrubby bushes. At one point the soil was red, a contrast to the green plants.

A picnic lunch at the side of the road was another break. We had rice with minced beef, a small salad, and some fruit. 

Around 2.30pm we reached the Bichigt Khad petroglyphs. Since our guide’s last visit, a drop toilet has been built (but the doors were locked when we went to investigate) as well as an information board and a picnic area. This confused our guide, as he led us to a cliff face which was very obviously petroglyph free. We walked on a bit further and found the carvings. It seems, before the improvements, vehicles drove further up before parking.

The petroglyphs dated back to 3000 BCE. They were mostly of animals, namely stags, horses, and camels. A few human figures and some symbols also featured. The carvings spread up the hillside. A number of intrepid people climbed up to view them up close. I stayed down and used my telephoto lens.

A smaller, more accessible hill nearby featured more etchings. The most interesting one showed two tigers, fierce in their wonderful stripes, and very obviously male.

We returned to our vehicles and bounced into the nearby town. A stop for fuel and then at the small supermarket took around 30 minutes. Then we travelled on to our rather remote ger camp. Lovely location, basic facilities. No electricity in the gers, a toilet block shared by both genders, and the showers were out of order.  Well, at least it was only for one night!

Many in our group had expressed interest in trying a Mongolian BBQ, and there was excitement when our guide said this was the night. Our first disappointment at dinner was that the BBQ had already been cooked. The second was what was offered. Basically ribs of mutton with gerkins and some form wheat patty. Our guide explained that nomads thought the more fat the better, and indeed our portions seemed to be mostly fat. I carved at a rib, extracting little bits of meat from the globs of fat. We also had fried courgette covered in breadcrumbs, and that was my main meal. 

The sun had set by the time we finished eating. The Milky Way spread across the sky. Small batteries were brought to each ger and hooked up to suspended light strip. The night was warm, and just as well, as there was no way to heat the gers.

Beer cost at this camp: 7000 Mongolian.

25 September

Although I didn’t get cold, the bed was very hard. I managed to sleep, but the 5am alarm was still unwelcome.

Breakfast consisted of a lovely beetroot soup with beef, and waffles with jam. At 7am we headed out, bumping cross country. At first we drove through a canyon before heading higher, the plains brightening as the sun rose. Camels turned their heads as we passed, and small birds flew away from our vehicles. At one point we saw a canine run away. Originally I thought it was a fox, but having been reminded of the small size of the foxes of Mongolia, I’m now wondering whether it had been a wolf.

Around 90 minutes later we stopped at the White Cave. This was used by ancient humans in the area, and some of the artifacts found might be over 700,000 years old. The area was being excavated by an archeological team. We were still permitted to go inside, and crawl through to the two inner caves. Quartz crystals glittered in the walls. We emerged with very dusty trousers and headed off again.

At one point the drivers all pulled over to confer, stare at the distant mountains, and point at plains. We had turned around earlier in the morning, so we wondered if we were lost. The way was found again, and we continued our bouncy trip.

A picnic lunch gave us a welcome break. Our main course was Mongolian beef dumplings, which were very similar to Cornish pasties. They rested on a bed of rice alongside a small pickled salad.

Mid afternoon, to our blessed relief, we finally exchanged country roads for tarmac. Once again we were passing herds of horses rather than camels. 

We made a short break at Morin Tolgoe, a shrine dedicated to race horses. Statues of winning horses line the area leading up to a stupa. The remains of other horses are buried behind the main worship area. It was so bizarre that I found myself nearly speechless.

Shortly thereafter we pulled into the city of Arvaikheer. We checked in to our hotel, dumped our bags, and headed out to the local museum. Our guide took us through the various rooms, explaining the varied exhibits of dinosaurs, animal life of the region, the local art of wood carving, and local dignitaries. 

Our vehicles took us to the main square. Our guide pointed out the blue and white building, clearly visible from the square, which was our hotel. He walked us to the local market, where I bought yak wool socks for £2.00 a pair (!). Afterwards I walked back to the hotel.

Some of us met up in the downstairs bar for pre-dinner drinks. To my delight, the hotel had Budvar dark lager. My delight was increased when we went to the restaurant, and I found a Mongolian made dark craft beer. 

The hotel room was overly warm. The radiators were on and we could find no way to turn them down or off. The windows opened, allowing a fresh breeze in, as well as the smell from the local coal powered electricity station. 

26 September

A 9am departure, so a leisurely start to the morning. We headed out of town and on to country roads, our journey now heading northwards back to Ulaanbaatar. We stopped to photograph saker falcons and local rodents. A man on a motorcycle rounded up his horses in the distance. 

A short drive, and then we stopped again to admire a mixed herd of animals. Horses, cows, yaks, sheep, and goats moved across the plain and the road. No camels all day, except for those at tourist spots. 

Our first planned stop was at the Shankh Buddhist Monastery. Shankh was destroyed by the Soviets when they took over Mongolia, but the local people rescued what artifacts they could and stored them safely. Several of the monks survived the purge, and went into hiding. They emerged and the temples were rebuilt after Mongolia was once again independent.

One of the monks met us and we were taken into the temple. Two older monks and two boys were chanting prayers. Shafts of sunlight slanted in from windows through the incense filled air. The charge for taking photos was 15,000 Mongolian, which I was happy to pay for such an atmospheric place. I took a photo of one of the boys yawning at the end of prayers, and later on another monk staring at his mobile phone.

We drove on to the city of Karakorum for a rather Chinese-type lunch, with bits of chili spicing up a chicken soup and a beef dish. Afterwards we visited the Kharakhoum Museum. We watched a documentary about the discovery of a high ranking man’s grave, which dated from the sixth century. The grave had four chambers, each one leading to the other, with wonderful wall paintings including a tiger and a dragon. The next section of the museum had the recovered artifacts on display, including the cremated remains and the skeletons of dogs. Clay models of horses and people reminded me of the terracotta warriors in China, albeit these models were only around a foot tall.

The next room in the museum held artifacts and explanations about the different ages (stone, bronze, etc) and the various Mongol empires. A central section held a model of what the local city, which had once been the capital of Mongolia, might have looked like in its prime. 

We drove from the museum to the Erdene Zuu Buddhist monastery. This had once been a huge complex, but again it was destroyed by the Soviets. A stupa from 1799 survives, and several temples have been rebuilt. Most of the area, ringed by a wall of stupas, is plain grassland. We visited the three temples dedicated to the Buddha, admiring the huge statues inside. 

A number of souvenir stalls were set up outside the complex. I browsed for some presents and also bought a set of ankle bones for 10,000 Mongolian. I only hope I can remember how to play the various games.

Our journey to our next ger camp proceeded more slowly than anticipated, as we had to pull over and wait for one vehicle which had needed to change a tyre. A small lake offered us swans and a horse reflected in the shallows. We also saw herders riding horses instead of motorbikes.

At our ger camp, we let up a cheer when our guide informed us that yet again we’d been upgraded to en-suite gers for the two nights at this camp. Ours turned out to be rather luxurious, with wooden furniture, a glass door, and underfloor heating. 

Beer here was 8000 Mongolian.

27 September

The underfloor heating proved to be a bit of a hassle, as we tried to work out how to keep our possessions off the floor in order not to cook everything in our suitcases. I worked out that the heating did not extend to the doorway, so I moved my bag to the entrance.

Breakfast was at 8am, and we didn’t leave the camp until 10am. A thirty-minute country drive brought us to local hills and a small temple complex. Our guide explained that a local woman, who had been a monk, built the two temples and now her daughter looked after them.

After admiring a camel who was eating leaves from a tree, we met up with the woman who took us inside the lower temple. She offered ankle bones and small cloth bags for sale. Our group nearly bought all of the ankle bone sets, which came in lovely cloth bags. Although more expensive than yesterday’s ankle bones (14,000 Mongolian), I bought a set as these bones were better preserved than those off the stall. 

The second temple was further up the hill. To reach it meant clambering over rocks. Our guide offered a helping hand over a particularly steep boulder. I was very glad to have my walking stick and I took my time navigating the path. 

We stopped for awhile to catch our breaths and admire the views. The return was by a different route, which provided its own challenges. We all took our time and no bones were damaged. A cow stared at us when we reached the bottom.

Our guide gave us some time to wander around. I discovered that I’d lost the lens cap from my smaller lens, and although I retraced my steps I couldn’t find it. For years I have carried a spare lens cap, and fortunately this was in the camera backpack I’d brought to Mongolia rather than the larger one I’d left at home. 

We returned to the camp for lunch, the main course being home made noodles with beef. I quite enjoyed it. Afterwards I quickly did some washing and hung the clothes on the ger to dry.

By this time the day had heated up to 28C. Most of us had only packed cold weather clothing. Our guide said that it was unusually warm for the time of year. As the weather forecast for the Eagle Festival had temperatures below freezing, we decided to make the most of the days of warmth.

After a short break, we piled back into our vehicles to make a very brief visit to the rather small local sand dunes. Then we went on to visit a local horse herder. His wife opened up a ger for us and we sampled fermented mare’s milk. As with the other visits, we asked questions with our guide interpreting for us. We learned that mares are milked five times a day, from the birth of their foal in the spring until around October. Fermented mare’s milk used to be a summer drink only, but now the family has freezer so they can have the milk all year long. (Electricity was provided by solar panels.) The family also had sheep, goats, and camels. 

We headed out to watch the family obtain mare’s milk. The foals were tied up to a long rope, which meant that the mares stayed nearby. One of the sons untied a foal, and the father held the mare as the foal was encouraged to nurse. Once this had started the mare’s milk to flow, the foal’s head was pulled away, and the woman milked the mare. It did seem somewhat unfair to foal and mare, although we agreed that the dairy industry in our own country was cruel in its own way.

Back to our ger camp, and a walk down to the nearby lake. We successfully scared off the local bird life. A sound which sounded like a plane made us look up in time to see a saker falcon diving down at a smaller bird, which she failed to catch. Small dragonflies landed on our shirts and gave us quizzical looks. 

A slow trudge back up hill to the camp. I worked on photos until a rather nice dinner of what was not quite sweet and sour chicken. We talked over beers for awhile before heading to our gers.

28 September

We awoke to an overcast day, the first in our entire holiday. The temperatures had dropped as well, much to our relief. 

At 9am we headed out, first on country roads, then on to paved. Once we were off the bumpy bits, I worked on photos and managed to process everything up to date.

Our previous toilet stops had all been ‘nature toilet’, as our guide called it, often looking for a rock or gully or arranging to go behind one of the vehicles. This morning, however, we stopped at a complex which offered flushing toilets, a supermarket, and even a coffee shop. The poor man behind the counter had his work cut out for him as we indulged ourselves with real coffee.

We were back on country roads as we entered the Hustai National Park. A buffet lunch awaited us as we stopped at the ger camp and information centre at the entrance. After eating, we had time to wander around, admiring a piece of shuttle debris which had landed in the park, before our guide took us into the small museum. We also watched a film about the park.

The main reason to visit Hustai is to see the Przewalski’s horses. These had become extinct in the wild in 1969, although zoos held a good number. Several people decided to reintroduce a small herd, fifteen horses, to Mongolia, and the national park was established. The horses now number several hundred, and the park has also become a place in which many other species flourish.

A visit to the souvenir shop provided me with a sew on badge. However, my Mastercard was rejected by the machine (I wasn’t the only one who had this problem) so I had to borrow money off another traveller. We then congregated in an outdoor meeting space to thank the drivers for their work, as they would be leaving us after our return to Ulaanbaatar. Our guide handed over the tip money, and we gave them bottles of vodka.

We headed into the park itself. Our first herd of horses (they live in small groups of up to twelve) was high on a hill. We stopped for awhile for the next group, in the wrong position for the afternoon light, but not too far away. They left the valley and headed up the steep hill, the much darker stallion keeping a close watch on us.

Deer were also spotted, none nearby. Stags posed on the mountain ridges, and filled the air with their bellowing as it was rutting season. Walking through the grasses released a lovely herby smell into the air, a cross between sage and thyme.

We turned around, heading back to the entrance. Our guide was quite confident that we’d find horses down in the valley. ‘In the summer we only see them on the mountains,’ he explained, ‘but in the autumn they come down to drink.’ And he proved to be right. We stopped and took photos of a herd drinking and then grazing, late afternoon light emphasizing their dun-coloured hides.

Back at the ger camp we had dinner. Then we drove to Ulaanbaatar. Just before the tarmac road, we stopped. One of the vehicles had broken down. Our car gained two more people, plus their luggage, and a little while later we continued our journey.

Traffic increased as we neared the city. Once in the city, we amused ourselves by counting up fast food places. We passed four KFCs (Kentucky Fried Chicken) as well as a Burger King and a Pizza Hut.

At 10pm we were at our hotel and checked in. I worked on my packing for the Eagle Festival, placing what I needed into a smaller case and deciding what to leave behind at the hotel. 

I cheated on the beer front: I drank a bottle which I’d purchased at the supermarket, which cost me 4500 Mongolian. 

29 September

We headed out at 8.30am for a full day’s sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar, all of us piling into one coach. Our first stop was the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, originally built in 1809. Although the Soviets, as previously mentioned, had destroyed most of the Buddhist temples, this complex was allowed to continue. 

Our arrival coincided with morning prayers. We joined locals inside (no photography allowed) to listen to the monks chant. Monks came and went whilst we were there, and several walked past with large tea pots. After a few minutes, we went back out again.

A walk through the complex brought us to a temple with a large copper statue (26.5 metres high) of the Avalokitesvara Buddha. Photos were permitted for a 15,000 Mongolian fee, which I paid. We walked clockwise around the statue, spinning metal prayer wheels. People can pay for a wheel which then has their name affixed to part of the barrel.

The complex included a modern temple building. People paid monks to chant mantras for them, and the front had an elaborate display of the Buddha (no photos allowed). Several of us wanted the toilets, and although signs in English led us to the correct floor, we had to wander around to find the facilities.

Our next site was the Bogd Khaan Palace Museum. In 1911, Mongolia was declared independent from China. The monarch of the first independent Mongolian state, Bogd Khaan, lived in the Winter Palace, built between 1893 and 1903. He died in 1924, and the complex was turned into a museum.

We walked through courtyards to a number of old wooden buildings, most of them temples dedicated to art forms such as textiles and metal statues. The Winter Palace itself stood nearby. The interior was filled with many objects which had belonged to the king and his two (sequential) wives, including his throne and ceremonial clothing. One room told the tale of the elephant which had lived at the Winter Palace from 1914 - 1925, fed a daily diet of doughnuts, butter, and red plums. The English information board informed us, ‘The Lama Danzang was sent to pet the elephant until spring.’ 

The skies were beginning to cloud over as we drove to a cashmere outlet store. The variety on offer was immense and the prices seemed quite reasonable. I bought a pair of long-sleeved gloves for around £12.00. My credit card worked in their machine.

We emerged to rain, something for which very few of us were prepared. I had carried my light rain coat in the car all holiday, but had put it into the ‘leave behind’ case last night.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we visited the city square and then the National Museum. The latter offered good collection of artifacts across the history of Mongolia, including the Soviet period and the gaining of independence. 

Afterwards we had around ninety minutes in the State Department Store, walking through the rain and avoiding puddles as we crossed roads from our coach’s parking place. I headed the floor which offered Mongolian souvenirs. This turned out to be a vast selection, with items to suit every taste and budget. I found gifts for friends and family, plus a cushion cover for myself. 

Then on to a local theatre for a performance of traditional Mongolian instruments, singing, and dances. The other travel group, who had followed our original itinerary, was there. One told me that several members of their party had had Covid. I mentioned this to our group, and a number of people immediately dug out masks and put them on.

We managed to get seats at the front so had an excellent view during the hour-long show. The throat singing was amazing, and the poses taken by the two female contortionists made my eyes water. ‘I wouldn’t medically advise any of that,’ muttered the doctor in our group. 

The usual heavy traffic made our journey back to the hotel slow and painful. As we inched our way along, our guide told us that four people from the other group had indeed tested positive for Covid during the trip. Those four had had to return to a local city to quarantine for five days, and had therefore missed most of the trip. However, they were now testing negative on the lateral flow tests, so would be able to travel to the Eagle Festival. They were due to stay in the same ger camp as us, but our guide asked us to keep ‘social distance’ from them.

We finally gave up on the coach, and exited into the rain to walk the ten minutes back to the hotel. Dinner was held at the hotel’s restaurant—fish and chips! Afterwards I went to my room and checked my packing one more time. I took larger case down to reception and, as arranged, this was placed into luggage storage until our return from the Eagle Festival.

Bed at 10.30pm.

Beer at the hotel: 8000 Mongolian.

30 September

Our departure time to the airport, for our domestic flight to Olgii, was set for 3.30am. The alarm going off at 2.30am was not a pleasant sound. I took a shower and packed up check in (limit 10 kilos) and carry on (much heavier than the 5 kilo limit, but if necessary I planned to hide lenses in my camera waistcoat).

We were handed breakfast bags as we left the hotel. I ate most of the cheese and ham sandwich, along with the apple and clementine. 

At the airport, we had a group check in rather than weigh each check-in bag separately. Whatever the overall weight was, the airline person seemed happy enough. Our carry on luggage was not weighed, which was a relief to many of us.

Through security, then down to the departure gate. Although we had assigned seats, there was no procedure to boarding, just get on and deposit your carry on. My backpack, as usual, fit under the seat. I was by the window, which did give good views once the sun had come up and we were nearing our destination.

We exited the plane at the small airport, the cold wind tearing away at our eyes and clothing. A short walk brought us to the airport building. The entry brought us directly to baggage claim, in an area not large enough to hold the seventy or so people who had taken the flight. We waited quite a while before the belt started moving and bags could be reclaimed.

After we were all reunited with our luggage, we met our drivers and were taken to our 4 x 4s. We ended up with different configurations of passengers than previously, and had five (plus driver) in the car instead of four. 

A short drive into the city brought us to a coffee shop. Hillsong music (Christian worship songs) played in the background as the three servers struggled to serve a sudden influx of customers. Home made pizza was brought to us by a local man, who had organised our local activities.

After our refreshment with food and caffeine, we headed off on country roads.  A  ninety minute drive past snow-dusted mountains and sparkling rivers brought us to the camp of an eagle hunting family. We had to cross a stream on a pair of creaking planks to reach the family’s ger. The wind was bitterly cold so we only stopped outside for a moment to admire the two hooded golden eagles before going in to get warm.

As per other visits, we were served milk tea, biscuits, and cheese whilst we asked questions of the family. Eagle hunters are Kazakh, and speak that language rather than Mongolian. Our guide didn’t speak Kazakh, so we had two interpreters. We asked questions in English, he spoke in Mongolian to one of the drivers, and the driver passed the question on in Kazakh to the eagle hunter. Answers followed the process in reverse. 

We found out that eagles are captured in the wild when they are still fledglings.  It takes about two months to train an eagle, and they are kept for around eight years before being returned to the wild. ‘I always cry when I set an eagle free,’ the man told us. The eagles are used to hunt foxes and hares. The man’s youngest son, eleven years old, was working with his first eagle. 

Braving the cold, we went back outside. Father and son pulled on their traditional clothing and posed for us with their eagles, both on foot and on horseback. The father also demonstrated how he would call to his eagle to fly to him.

Lunch was prepared by mother and daughter. We had noodles with vegetables, all of us having arranged in advance to go vegetarian as not everyone wanted to eat horse meat. 

We gave some gifts and bought some of the handiwork the family had for sale. After returning to our vehicles, we started the drive back to the city and our ger camp.  We passed a group of four eagle hunters on horseback as well as two people riding camels. Two short stops allowed us to photograph yaks and a Turkic stone, the latter an ancient small monument commemorating a local dignitary. 

Around 4pm we reached our accommodation for the next three nights. The gers held two beds each, had a stove (which had been lit before our arrival), and colourful wall hangings. Toilet block and showers were a short walk away. 

Dinner was served at 7pm in the restaurant. Wifi was available, but only permitted access to a limited number of people at once. Our guide broke the news that the weather forecast predicted temperatures below freezing for both days of the festival. We ran through the programme, which he wrote out in English and we photographed with our phones. 

The stove was replenished at 9pm, making the ger comfortably warm.

Beer here: 7000 Mongolian.

1 October

At 3am, as arranged, two men knocked on the ger door. I unlocked it so they could come in and set up another fire in the stove. The ger heated up nicely once again.

Snow was in the wind as we headed for the restaurant for our 8am breakfast. Snow continued to fall on to the mountains and the road as we headed off at 9am. A bumpy drive led us to the city, and after leaving the city we were once again on country roads to reach the site of the Eagle Festival. We passed a number of mounted eagle hunters on the way, as well as one man on a motorcycle whose eagle was trussed up in a sack and strapped to the back of the bike.

Once parked at the site, our guide showed us where our meal tent would be erected and where the vehicles would be parked. The site had no permanent buildings, so there the only place to go and get warm would be in one of the 4 x 4s.

We headed down to the arena. Spectators simply took places behind a security fence in an open space near hills. Gers and parking were behind us, plus a couple of ‘hole in the ground’ toilets behind metal doors but no roofs. (Most of us decided to use ‘nature toilets’ rather than the provided facilities.) Tables were spread with handicrafts for sale, the usual hand-made decorative carpets and bags along with saddles, bridles, hoods, and jessies. 

The opening ceremony was due to start at 10am, but this was delayed for nearly an hour. The temperature was below freezing, and despite putting on many layers (three for my lower body, five plus coat for upper) my toes were losing sensation. The cashmere gloves I’d purchased fit under my photography gloves, but even so my fingers ached. 

The snow stopped around the time the eagle hunters finally lined up and had their parade around the ground. After the judges had ruled on who had the best costume, the competition for ‘calling eagle to hand’ started. Each person’s eagle (there were some female competitors) was taken up to the nearby hill and released in turn. The hunter decided how far away to be in the arena, placing his/her horse in one of three circles. Points were awarded for how far the eagle had to come and how quickly the eagle returned to her owner.

There were more failures than successes. Most eagles did not return, choosing to land on the hill or elsewhere. The eagle hunters would ride off and find their eagle. It should be pointed out that the birds were no doubt confused by the crowds and noise, very different to the environment of empty mountains and steppes in which they would have been trained. Two members of our group offered a running commentary. ‘The eagle had been released, she’s looking around, circling around. She’s found the hill, the eagle has landed.’

A lunchtime break was called at 1pm. A tent had been erected for our group, and we sat down to a meal of very welcome soup as well as a beef patty with chips and vegetables. We were almost warm inside, as a heater had been set up.

The competition resumed at 2pm. Again there were more failures than successes. The sun came out for an hour or so and noticeably increased the temperatures. The high for the day was -4c. 

The number of spectators had decreased over lunch. And the lack of participants meant some that events, such as the camel racing, had been cancelled. The last event which we watched was an archery competition, in which archers had to hit certain balls laid out on the ground.

At 5pm we left. Originally we were to go to the city’s concert hall for a performance of traditional Kazakh music and dance, this to start at 6pm. Our guide had been informed that this would now be 7pm, so we went back to the ger camp for dinner. However, when food still hadn’t appeared at 6.15pm, and would be another 15 minutes in preparation time, we piled back into our vehicles to go to the concert hall. 

Once at the hall, we discovered that we had to wait to enter the hall until 7.30pm. So we waited with many other gathering groups to finally go in and grab an available seat. The show started a few minutes later. 

I wasn’t overly impressed with the performances, and found the sound system a bit too loud, particularly for solo acts. The hall was also a bit colder than hoped for. At 8.30pm it was over, and we headed back to the camp for a 9pm dinner. This turned out to be a traditional Mongolian dish of pasta, mutton, and horse. Those of us who tried the horse agreed that it was delicious.

Our stoves were lit at 10pm, and we roasted for around an hour in a fierce heat. By the time we went to bed, the ger was at a much more comfortable level.

2 October

I let the men in at 4am to relight the stove. The renewed heat was quite a relief.

At 7am wake up time there was the welcome sight of sunlight coming through the gap in the ger’s door. The clouds had cleared to blue skies, although the temperature was still below freezing.

We headed to day two of the Eagle Festival at 9.30am. All of the snow had melted from the nearby mountains, but the river had frozen over and chunks of ice rested in the channels. The sunshine did make the morning feel much warmer.

At the site, our guide told us, ‘You know what you’re doing today. I set you free.’ We laughed and said we were like fledged eagles, now set free into the wilderness to look after ourselves. 

Again events started late. Around 10.30am the first activity began, namely each eagle hunter trying to call his/her eagle to land on a fox lure dragged behind the horse. The hunter could again choose which circle to use, the furthest away from the hill from which the eagle was released giving the highest amount of points. The first few hunters were successful, but later ones had to leave the arena and go find their eagles. A thirteen-year-old girl’s eagle came down very quickly, to great cheers from the audience. 

After photographing this for a couple of hours, I decided to visit the souvenir stalls and I bought various presents. I also found a sweatshirt decorated in the Kazakh style, stripping down to my t-shirt to try it on. The man explained that I was buying a man’s sweatshirt, rather than a woman’s, which I think was determined by whether the design on the back was a circle (man’s?) versus a square (woman’s?).

We had lunch in the tent as per the previous day. I headed back to the arena. The next event was ‘woman chasing the man’. Mixed gender pairs raced around the circle, both on horseback, the woman pursuing the man and attempting to hit him with her whip. Many of the couples wore traditional costume, and not only they but the audience seemed to enjoy this event immensely. A woman from Norway competed alongside a Kazakh man and did very well.

Afterwards was the tug of war event. Two men at a time, on horseback, pulled at a goatskin between them, attempting to gain sole possession. Some matches were over very quickly, others went on for some time, the competitors racing across the arena. 

By this time the sun was lowering in the sky and it was getting colder. A wind picked up, and dust blew away from horse’s hooves. The judges announced the winners of various competitions and handed out the prizes. The thirteen-year -old girl came in at seventh place in the overall eagle hunting competition.

Our vehicles took us back to the ger camp, and shortly after our arrival the stoves were lit. At 7pm we met for dinner and drinks. Our guide was presented with gifts and his tips and given our profuse thanks. 

3 October

Again the stove was lit at 4am. 

Our flight back to Ulaanbaatar wasn’t until mid afternoon. We visited the city square and the local museum, then spent time at a souvenir store and a coffee shop. After lunch at the ger, we packed up and went to the airport.

Again our check-in luggage was weighed up together, and no once checked our carry ons. The sun set as during the two and a half our flight. We landed in Ulaanbaatar and collected our cases around 8pm. We took these to the coach, then headed back into the airport to have dinner in one of the restaurants. I don’t know the cost of the beer as a fellow traveller kindly paid it for me.

We left at 9pm and arrived at our hotel around 10pm. I collected the luggage I’d left behind and headed to my room to work on packing for the return home. 

4 October

A rise at 4.30am to leave at 5.30am. We arrived in good time at the airport to check in for the 9.10am flight to Istanbul. I had had a bit of panic, as my check in bag felt rather heavy to me, but in the end it was just below 23 kg.

Another long wait in Istanbul airport for the flight to Heathrow. I bought a beer, knowing that it would cost me £10. 

The gate was shown on the departure board as being in the ‘F’section of the airport. I trudged from the ‘B’ section, passing many stores offering luxury goods. As I approached the ‘F’ gates, a glance at the departure board showed the gate as now in the ‘A’ section. So I turned around and walked the long way back. Only to discover, as I reached the supposed gate, that it was indeed in the ‘F’ section. So another long trudge. I met fellow travellers who had been equally confused as me. An official explained that, indeed, the gate had changed twice. I was quite sweaty by the time I’d marched to and fro across most of an airport.

We landed in good time at Heathrow, but our cases took about an hour to emerge. I was pleased to only be travelling to a local hotel to spend the night rather than trying to get home. At 11pm I was checked in, had a shower, and plunged into bed.

5 October

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I went back to the airport to catch the coach home. My kind neighbour collected me. I stared at the rain hitting the car windscreen. Nothing like a wet autumnal day to let one know that you’re certainly back in England!



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