ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA – TUESDAY 11TH TO SATURDAY 22ND JULY
Unusually, for tourists in Mongolia, we’d decided to spend a fairly large part of our visit in Ulaanbaatar. Typically, tourists will be here for just a few days, then head out to the countryside to spend ten or fifteen days in a van, staying in gers by night. Half of Mongolia’s population is in the capital, however, and we wanted to meet some Mongolians who weren’t just putting on a display for the tourists. That, and neither of us like back-to-back ten hour drives on bumpy roads!
We discovered by accident, that, due to the recent elections, Mongolia’s premier music festival had been postponed. This was great news for us, as otherwise we would have missed it! So, we packed our backpacks and headed out to Playtime for the weekend.
Bizarrely, and maybe this is more to do with our prejudices than anything else, this was the last thing we had expected to be doing in Mongolia. The way Mongolia is presented to the West suggests that it is an empty land, dotted with the occasional nomadic herder here and there.
The reality, as ever, is far more complex. Playtime is a perfect example of this. There is a burgeoning music industry in Mongolia, and a lot of people who want to transform the Mongolian culture to embrace a more modern, international way of life.
We arrived and were through security quickly, buying weekend tickets on the door for £13 each. Weirdly, if we’d bought tickets before we arrived they would have cost £16.25 each. The first band on was a rock trio by the name of Black Zip. High vocals, shredding guitars, hard drumming. This was rock, Mongol-style.
Night show light show at Playtime Festival
Throughout the weekend we were treated to a huge range of music. Rock, dance, indie, metal, hardcore, jazz, and pretty much everything else! We also ended up chatting to a whole load of different people; young Mongols working at Ziferblat, musicians, promoters, brewers, and an ex-pat Dutch sail maker. Yep, a sail maker in Mongolia.
The festival was lovable in it’s simplicity and freedom. You could go where you pleased; there were no queues for the toilets or drinks; there were just two stages; and everyone was friendly. While I’m sure it could learn a few things from UK festivals in terms of logistics and programming, I think the opposite is true, too. Rarely have we felt so relaxed at a UK festival. And there were cables running everywhere (health and safety, anyone?!).
Hype-men (and -women) in the dance tent
We both felt incredibly lucky that we’d been able to experience this totally different aspect of modern Mongolia. And, more to the point, we had an ace time, and met some lovely people along the way.
After a well deserved lie in on Monday morning, we made our way across town to the International Intellectual Museum. Phil had heard about this place while on a job in the UK, and it had stuck with him.
The museum is an homage to puzzles, and perhaps a bit of a vanity project of the owner: a world renowned puzzle maker and collector. On arrival, we had to don some shoe covers, and were led around by a guide. Puzzle after puzzle defeated us, leaving us feeling thoroughly stupid. Oh, and we weren’t allowed to take any photos… Sorry!
Hannah Kahn, Queen of Mongolia
Tuesday was moving day. Getting a bit fed up with the long hike into town from our hotel, we arranged to move to a hostel nearer the city centre, Mongolian Vision Guesthouse. This turned out to be a bit of a marathon effort; but maybe it was about time we started learning how to deal with that. Our free collection arrived an hour and a half late; and our deluxe en-suite double (£21 a night), turned out to be a double bed in an otherwise empty room. Next to the communal bathroom and toilet.
Lesson: don’t expect Hostelworld or Booking.com to be telling the truth. It seems to me that some of the hostels here just tick all of the ‘facilities’ boxes on their web forms. Once the customers are there it’s unlikely that they’ll not take the room, even it isn’t quite what’s advertised. Having said that, it was actually perfectly comfortable, so we negotiated a ten percent discount, and got settled in.
The Chinggis Kahn Statue Complex
On Wednesday we were out of the city again. Our previously booked driver had abandoned us, so we’d quickly arranged a new driver, Chamba, to guide us for £32 per day. We’d decided to follow in the footsteps of Joanna Lumley and visit the giant statue of Chinggis Kahn at Tsonjin Boldog. The statue is sold as comparable to Mount Rushmore and The Great Sphynx of Giza. This is a complete oversell, but we were definitely glad we made the trip.
The statue is a forty metre high stainless steel and bronze homage to the greatest of the Khans. And, naturally, as with all great statues, you can get in a lift, climb a few stairs, and pop out the top! Well, out on to his horse’s neck, at least. In reality, of course, the complex is actually a business venture, and the owner’s ambition is to build a world class ger camp around the statue. Once complete, I fear the statue will become a little Disneyfied; currently, though, the great Chinggis Kahn stands proud and alone on the Mongolian Steppe, watching east towards his homeland.
After a traditional roadside Mongolian lunch (mutton spine and salty tea, anyone?), we drove on to the Terelj National Park. It turned out Chamba was actually a mining geologist and was super excited telling us about the unique granite geology in the area. After driving through the beautiful countryside, Phil took it upon himself to climb a hill; leaving Hannah and then Chamba behind to enjoy the scenery at different points on the ascent.
A quick stop at Turtle rock, and then we were on our way back to UB.
Unfortunately, extensive development had somewhat marred the undeniable beauty of Terelj, even though the land is supposedly protected. Hopefully this is something that will be better managed in the future, and won’t further encroach on the landscape; though with Mongolia’s flip-flopping politics, who can know.
The overdeveloped Terelj National Park in the rain
We spent Thursday hunting for essentials. Phil had picked up a gum infection (sexy), but after some WhatsApp Doctor advice, we were able to get some antibiotics over the counter, thus avoiding the need to see a local dentist. We also spent way too much time looking for flip-flops to replace Hannah’s £1 plastic purple slip-ons, but with no success. Apparently there were no flip flops in the city at all!
On Friday we met Chamba again and headed West out of UB. We had asked him for his advice on somewhere interesting to visit that wasn’t on the usual tourist trail. It turned out this was exactly the right thing to do. Too often, as tourists, we rely on the tour books and neglect the wealth of knowledge of the locals.
After a couple of hours driving through the barren hills, and another roadside lunch, we reached our destination: The Aglag Meditation Centre.
We had two options getting from the car park to the temple: walk two miles in the heat, or take a motorbike taxi. For some reason Hannah’s driver decided to go cross-country, ignoring the loose gravel road, much to Hannah’s ‘delight’; while Phil had an ill fitting German WW2 helmet with no chin strap, which definitely would have caused more harm than good if things went sideways.
Thankfully, we arrived shaken, but otherwise unscathed.
The temple itself wasn’t really the star attraction. Though we definitely admired the Bhuddist art collection, and shrines, the star of the show was the setting itself. So far, most of what we’d seen of Mongolia had been dry grassland. The Aglag Centre, however, had been built at the top of a lush pine forested, boulder-strewn valley. The view alone was magnificent.
The view from the top
Venturing into the grounds of the temple we discovered carving after carving, hewn directly from the rock-face; around every turn we found another fertility symbol to clamber over, or crawl through, representing our birth into the universe.
Subtle fertility symbols abound at Aglag Meditation CentreHannah going in for her re-birth
This was something totally apart from what we had expected to see in Mongolia. The Western impression is of horseback nomads, grasslands, and wresting; once again we were discovering that Mongolia is a far more diverse, and far more complex country than we had expected – both in landscape and in culture.
Next week we’ll be heading our to the countryside to stay with a nomadic Mongolian family, and their adopted Canadian son.
Hannah and Phil x