Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Great Wall

If we asked a 100 people to name something they associate with the country of China, like they do on the UK gameshow Family Fortunes, our survey would definitely include “The Great Wall“.

Started in the 7th century BC, and extended and fortified to the defences we see today largely by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, The Great Wall is not actually a great wall for 2 reasons… firstly, the Chinese name for it literally translates into English as “the long wall”, and secondly, it’s a continuous defence only because it incorporates natural obstacles such as hills and rivers.

But, it is Great..
20130825-222153.jpgUs on The Great Wall of China with Julie’s parents, Norman and Moira. The Sīmatái section snakes over the ridge of hills in the distance

There are 7 well-trodden and accessible sections of The Great Wall that vary in their proximity to Beijing by how much they’ve been restored, and how popular they are. In order of popularity:

We picked Jīnshānling because of our preference for quieter spots, and the description in our guidebook:

Jīnshānling marks the starting point of an exhilarating 10km hike to Sīmatái. the journey – through some stunning mountainous terrain – takes around four hours as the trail is steep and parts of the wall have collapsed; it can be traversed without too much difficulty, but some find it tiring.

Getting to Jīnshānling was straightforward, but our helpful local bus conductor woman ushered us off the bus at the first stop in the town rather than the bus station which meant we had to negotiate with a taxi driver who just happened to be waiting for business. Were they in cahoots? We’ll never know…

Having bought our entrance tickets, we then started along a very nicely kept and recently laid stone stairway up the hillside to The Great Wall – it hadn’t really occurred to me that we’d have to walk up to the wall before we could walk on the wall!

20130829-215502.jpgThe hiking trail up to The Great Wall

20130829-215813.jpgThe view teasing us through the forest as we climbed – “East Tower with five holes” in the foreground, and “Qilin Tower” behind

The climb to the wall was pretty tough going, but the reward was simply staring in awe at the wonder of this mammoth human achievement once we’d reached it.

And we needed the rest, because these walls aren’t at all like those in Datong, or the ones back home in York – they follow the highest ridge of the hills which means a lot more steps!

20130829-222327.jpgA very steep section of the Jīnshānling Great Wall – the “steps” up to the tower are over knee height

20130829-222847.jpgThe descent into “Flowers Tower”, the furthest point Julie and I reached before we had to turn back

20130829-223032.jpgNorman and Moira had stopped back to do a spot of bird watching

20130829-223454.jpgThe birds were too quick to photograph, but there were plenty of insects, including a giant grasshopper (there’s an ant by its foot to give you a sense of scale – can you see it?)

As you can see from our photographs we were fortunate with both the weather and the tranquility to enjoy The Great Wall by ourselves – I think we saw more people on the trail up and back down than we did on the wall itself!


798 Art District, Beijing

We’re suckers for modern art and when we found out that there’s a whole district of contemporary art in Beijing we thought it would make a nice change from the history and ancient architecture of many of the sights in the city.

The 798 district gets its name from the electronics factory which started production on the site in 1957. East German engineers were drafted in to design cutting edge manufacturing buildings and the result was a Bauhaus architectural style. The buildings’ distinctive sawtooth roofs were the best way to maximise natural light whilst minimising shadows in the working environment. The factories were wound down in the late 80s and early 90s and shortly afterwards artists started to move in. For us the converted factory setting was a reminder of the Baltic art gallery in our hometown of Gateshead.

20130829-075947.jpg798 architecture, inside one of the converted factories, sawtooth roofs from the outside

We expected to find a main central gallery with a few satellite businesses but that’s not the case. The district is made up of lots of small and medium sized independent galleries, boutique shops selling everything from Chinese fans to abstract paintings and cutting edge fashion, as well as funky cafe-bars. There is a lot of street art and outside art pieces too.

20130829-085813.jpgHuge lego Venus de Milo, window display, artworks

20130829-080059.jpgStreet art

20130829-085144.jpgOne of our favourite artworks of the day was this pair of giant cookie cutters – ‘You and Me’ by Zhang Zhaohui

Whilst wandering through the streets and going into whichever galleries took our fancy we were inspired to buy the first souvenir of our trip, an oil paper umbrella. We’ve resisted buying souvenirs so far (despite almost buying Russian nesting dolls in every city in Russia…). Having sold almost all of our possessions before we left home, this wasn’t an impulse purchase. We had a long discussion over lunch and talked ourselves into it reasoning that it was something uniquely Chinese, its a piece of art but not too expensive, and my parents would be arriving in a couple of days time so we could send it home with them and not have to carry it!

20130829-080018.jpgOil paper umbrellas in the shop, and our umbrella (bottom right)

Datong, Shanxi Province, China

Datong is a strange place. For a start, the city centre is partway through being rebuilt. That means that they are knocking down perfectly fine but not very attractive buildings in order to recreate the historic centre… I think it’s being done to make the city more attractive to tourists, but the scale of the work is so huge that it will surely take decades to recoup through tourism the amount being spent on construction.

20130822-072039.jpgA cross section of the new city wall which is not yet finished

20130822-094655.jpgNewly built city street

We also felt a little like celebrities here. It’s sufficiently off the beaten path that the locals are very curious about anyone ‘foreign’ looking! I think we’ll encounter this quite often as we travel through China but I don’t know if I’ll get used to it. To give you some idea:

  • people would stare at us on the street – I was worried that we might cause an accident as quite a few of those staring were on bicycles
  • people looked at us shyly and say ‘hello’ or ‘ni hao’ – us replying generally resulted in a fit of giggles
  • more confident locals would stop us to have a chat (usually quite limited by their lack of English and our lack of Mandarin)
  • and if they were feeling really confident they would ask if they could take our picture!

Getting there

Getting to Datong was very straightforward. As the train takes about 6 hours we decided that it wasn’t worth doing an overnight trip as we wouldn’t get enough sleep so instead we took the bus which is faster (between 4.5 and 5.5 hours). We were worried about buying our bus ticket but in the end it was more complicated to find out which bus station in Beijing we needed, and how to get there (for anyone having the same difficulties it’s Liuliqiao which can be reached by subway lines 9 or 10). To buy the ticket, we said ‘Datong’ and showed the clerk the Chinese characters for the city name in our guidebook. She turned her screen around and showed us the time of the next bus and the price. Easy peasy. As an added bonus we got views of the Great Wall during the journey which whetted our appetite for when we make the trip there!

20130822-073558.jpgThe Great Wall from the bus

Our hostel

We stayed at the brand new Fly by Knight Hostel, the original branch of which is in Beijing. We had a large and comfortable private room with floor to ceiling windows. As the hostel is located on the 22nd floor of a brand new apartment building this means that we had incredible views over the city.

20130822-074657.jpgView of bustling Datong

20130825-211906.jpgThe city walls are lit up at night

Sights in the city centre

One of the authentically old parts of the city centre is the Nine Dragon Screen which was built in 1392. According to the information board in the grounds

it was originally situated in front of Dai-king Zhu Gui’s mansion who was the 13th son of Zhu Yuan Zhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty.

The mansion has long since gone, but the screen is well worth a quick visit. And yes, the first thing we did was to count the dragons and check that there were nine!

20130822-101145.jpgUs in front of the Nine Dragon screen (we really are there in the middle, it’s just very big – 45.5m long!), and two of the dragons

We discovered that it’s also possible to walk on the city walls. Amusingly, the entrance ticket describes them as Ancient City Walls despite the fact that it’s not yet possible to walk all the way around because they haven’t finished building them! It was a nice walk though and we amused ourselves by watching the Chinese tourists on the tandems that are for hire on top of the wall.


20130822-123733.jpgThere’s a fake pagoda as part of Datong’s city walls, Chinese tourists on a tandem, and view of a not yet demolished part of the city centre from the walls

From Datong there are 2 day trips to major sights which are really the main reason for visiting the city:

Hanging Monastery

The Hanging Monastery is located near the town of Hunyuan, a two hour bus ride from Datong. Again it was easy to buy the bus ticket and the bus driver put us into a taxi for the last 5 minutes to the site of the monastery. If we had been a bit more on the ball we would have tried to communicate to the bus station taxi driver a time when he should come and collect us. Unfortunately, we thought he was just going to hang around, but he was nowhere to be seen when we came back out. We waited to see if he would return (with more tourists from another bus for example), but in the end we had to haggle for a taxi back to Datong – they quoted such a ridiculous price for the 2km to Hunyuan bus station that it just wasn’t worth it. Anyway we had plenty of time to bargain so we were quite pleased to get the price down from 200RMB to 140RMB.

The monastery itself is built into the side of a cliff and dates from 491. It looks as if it’s kind of floating there, as it’s supported by beams drilled into the rock face as well as stilts to the ground. The mountain peak above it protects it from rain and strong winds, and its position 50m from the ground means that it doesn’t get flooded.


The buildings are now just a tourist attraction and there is a prescribed path around the 36 tiny rooms and linking walkways. Some of them are a little precarious and there aren’t many spaces for passing people so we sometimes felt a bit pushed along by the horde of Chinese tourists behind us, but the up close views of the roofs and the building’s quirky structure were worth it. It’s construction is not the only unusual thing about the monastery, it also has elements of all three of the traditional religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

20130822-151139.jpgNarrow staircase between levels of the monastery, colourful roof tiles, and inside one of the temples

Yungang Grottoes

The Yungang grottoes also date from the 5th century and feature Buddhist carvings and paintings in dozens of caves. The cave decorations range from bright wall paintings to huge Buddha statues (some are nearly 20m high). We enjoyed the variety and the scale of the place is really magnificent.

20130825-222127.jpgVaried cave decorations

20130822-151916.jpgUs in front of the 13.7m high White Buddha (cave no. 20), the cave entrance around this statue has collapsed

The caves’ original purpose was of course worship and Buddhist visitors today still burn incense and pray. A new temple has also been built on the site.

20130825-222439.jpgBurning incense, new statues inside the temple, the newly built temple complex is on an island

20130825-222507.jpgThis sign at the end of the walking trail made us chuckle


We had a bit of trouble finding the Nine Dragon Screen at first and stopped in a local restaurant for lunch and to ask the way (travelling tip for China: copy out the Chinese characters for the sight you want to visit before you leave your hostel, or carry your guidebook with you – showing someone the written Chinese is much easier than the blank look you get if you try to say it). Lunch was potato starch noodles in what looked like chilli soup although it wasn’t actually too spicy. Potato starch noodles are not easy to eat with chopsticks – if I didn’t know better I would think they were made from jellyfish, they’re slimy and gloopy and fall apart when you lift them too high from the bowl! They were surprisingly tasty though.

20130822-101929.jpgThe restaurant, and the noodle soup (the noodles are all lurking below the surface in this picture)

But our favourite place to eat in Datong (we went there every day!) was a street stand just along the road from our hostel. It was run by a husband and wife team. She shaped and cooked bread rolls on a charcoal stove and he shredded the (pre-cooked) pork with mild green chilli and some of the pork cooking gravy to stuff the freshly baked rolls. Delicious!


20130822-151926.jpgYummy pork rolls

Mongolia Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Mongolia?

Our trip to the Gobi desert was probably the highlight of our stay in Mongolia, not only for the stunningly beautiful places that we visited, but also the interesting conversations (and playful banter) between the members of our group.

20130818-221105.jpgIn order of height and in front of our trusty Russian vans: Thomas, Isaac, Oogii, Tsogii, Andrew, Rebecca, Khun, Jessica, Julie, Jason, Erkha, Terry [photo credit: Wasut (Khun) Pornpatcharapong]

Summarise Mongolia in three words.

  • Scenic – the Mongolian countryside is breathtakingly beautiful with its vast unpeopled steppes and even the weather usually cooperates in great photos by providing interesting clouds
  • Ger – Mongolia’s traditional house makes for a cool place to stay
  • Meat – just read the post we wrote about the country’s cuisine

You really know you’re in Mongolia when…

You’re faced with another large plate of mutton for dinner and all of the men around you have their T-shirts hiked up over their bellies (I’m not sure why, I can only surmise that it’s a way to keep cool).

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Mongolia?

Sun cream. The summer weather can be relentlessly hot and there aren’t too many shady places to hide. Despite numerous locals telling us that we could by sun cream EVERYWHERE, we struggled to find anything bigger than a 50ml bottle.

8 day trip to eastern Mongolia, birthplace of Chinggis Khaan

After we’d washed 9 days of Gobi desert from our hair and clothes, we embarked upon an 8 day trip to the lesser-travelled eastern area of Mongolia, famous as the birthplace of Temujin, the boy who would grow up to become the great Chinggis Khaan.


As we’d enjoyed our Gobi trip with the Golden Gobi hostel so much, we asked them to arrange an eastern trip for us as it’s not an area they usually do tours to. Boss Oogii said she would make up an itinerary for us but having asked almost two weeks prior, none was forthcoming. With 3 days left before we wanted to depart, we got sick of being fobbed off and took the hint that they didn’t want our money. I guess during peak season the Golden Gobi are only interested in their very good pre-planned tours.

Our excellent Chinggis guesthouse also does tours (as do most guesthouses and hostels in Ulaanbaatar), and we only needed to mention we were interested in a tour once and it was almost a foregone conclusion that we’d booked!

With the Lonely Planet as a starting point and our £3 tourist map of Mongolia from the State Department Store, we sat down with guesthouse owner Saikhnaa, her son Yesukhei and their 3 maps to plan a suitable route taking in other interesting sights they know about along the way. After a little haggle on the price of a guide, which Saikhnaa was adamant we would need given the harsh roads we would encounter near Dadal, and we were adamant we wouldn’t need and just added to the cost, we agreed that Yesukhei would join us on our road trip.

As we were now at the night before, we needed to meet our driver and get our provisions bought at the local supermarket.

Day 1 – Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Lama hiding rock, Turtle Rock, White Elephant Monastery

20130808-183619.jpgPacking the Land Cruiser for adventure! Left to Right: Bacha our driver, Temuulen (Saikhnaa’s daughter and Yesukhei’s little sister who almost single-handedly runs the guest house), Julie and Yesukhei

We set off about 9:30, then quickly returned to the guesthouse as we’d forgotten to pack the table and chairs from Saikhnaa’s car. We may be headed to the wilds of Mongolia, but dammit, we had to be civilised.

The traffic and bustle of UB soon gave way to a poorly maintained single-carriageway concrete road headed east. As we’d found out on our trip to Kharkhorin, every road seems to be in a state of repair, which means diversions onto grassland either side. The further away from UB we travelled, the better the road got until we stopped to fill the tank, then shortly afterwards took a left towards Terelj, stopping at the national park border.

20130808-184219.jpgEntrance to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, a popular weekend destination for tourists and Ulaanbaatarites alike

Our first stop in the park was a rock formation that Yesukhei told us was used as a hiding place for 100 Lamas during the Stalinist-era religious purges. We climbed into the rock and while it was big inside, it would have been a squeeze for 100!

20130808-184529.jpgUs inside the Lama hideout, hiding out

A little further up the road is the most famous landmark in Terelj, the aptly named Turtle Rock. Again, Yesukhei led the way like he’d grown up holidaying on these rocks, and in simple flip-flops he put us to shame in our proper hiking shoes!
20130808-185330.jpgClimbing the Turtle

The last stop before we started looking for a campsite was the Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Centre, with the recently constructed White Elephant Monastery. Sadly the death-slide / zip-line was closed, but it does have a sort of Buddhist “wheel-of-fortune” which is a prayer-wheel that points you to a sentence to contemplate, which you will find on billboards as you walk towards the Monastery.

Here’s Julie’s, #68:

If the mind is found to be dull due to sleepiness and mental torpor or if you fear that dullness is approaching, then the mind should attend to a supremely delightful object such as an image of the Buddha, or a notion of light. In this process, having dispelled dullness the mind should try to see the object very clearly.

And Andrew’s, #21:

Whether you are engaged in one-pointed meditation or pursuing your ordinary activities, meditate on compassion at all times, focusing on all sentient beings and wishing that they all be free from suffering. Begin by meditating on your friends and relatives. Recognise how they experience the various sufferings that have been explained.

20130808-190911.jpgThe walk to Monastery includes a little rope-bridge

20130808-192637.jpgAfter a long walk uphill, we were rewarded with a long staircase that was built to resemble the trunk of a White Elephant

20130808-193226.jpgThe Monastery is light and brightly painted inside

As it was getting on for 3pm, we headed further into the park and away from the many tourist ger camps to find a suitable place to pitch our tents. Yesukhei tried to contact a family that was looking after his father’s horses, but they were the on the other side of the Terelj river, which, despite Bacha’s Land Cruiser being equipped with a snorkel, the recent wet weather meant the river was too fast and too swollen to cross. Instead we passed through the little town of Terelj, which has a five-star hotel and golf course in it (!), and found a lovely spot in an open field not far from the town and the river.

Exhausted from a morning of driving and guiding, our companions had a snooze while we decided to climb the nearest hill.

20130809-001553.jpgYesukhei comatose after a morning’s guiding

20130809-001907.jpgStunning views of the valley from the top of the hill. Our campsite is the white dot at the bottom centre

20130809-002832.jpgWe stopped on the way up and the way down to photograph some of the interesting flora

Yesukhei made a lovely dinner for us, and then pitched in to help with the dishes before we retired to our tents for the night.

20130809-003500.jpgEnd of day 1, camping in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Day 2 – Hiking in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and the sacking of our guide

The next day we’d planned to go hiking in the park, and after a spot of breakfast and some light entertainment from Bacha as he imitated the call of a bull, Julie and I set off to explore the valley north of the park’s namesake town. Yesukhei suggested we take one of his phones in case we needed picking up, and we agreed we’d be back in the camp between 3 and 4pm.

20130810-131617.jpgBacha imitating the call of a powerful bull, quite successfully too as a cow starts sniffing around his tent

The walk up the valley was long and gentle at first, the locals’ gers giving way to smaller valleys either side and the odd tourist ger camp. Getting out of the town also helped dwindle the swarm of flies that decided to join us, but thankfully didn’t dissuade a local dog that fancied a walk too.

20130818-223652.jpgOur guide for the day. Julie named him Chinggis

As we neared the end of the valley, we decided to climb up the ridge to the forest near the top to check out the view and see if it was possible to drop back down to the campsite, but as we neared the top we could hear roars of thunder until we saw that every other neighbouring valley was under rainfall. 15 minutes later the rain moved in on us and even with our raincoats on we got a good soaking as we headed off the hills and back towards the town.

20130814-200110.jpgView of the top. Those dark clouds looking awfully close

20130814-200242.jpgView from the top, before the rains came in

We were pretty much spot on with our timing as we approached the campsite just after 3pm, then we heard our jeep. Yesukhei was at the wheel and said he was worried about us and that he was coming out to find us. Initially we weren’t too happy about it, as it wasn’t what we’d agreed and, even though he would only have driven a few kilometres, we were paying for the diesel and all of our stuff was in the jeep – what if something had happened to him in the jeep? He’s not as experienced as Bacha.
When Yesukhei parked up we opened the back doors to get a few things from our bags and Julie spotted an almost empty 2.5 ltr bottle of beer in the footwell. First, Yesukhei denied drinking, then when I told him I could smell it on his breath he said he’d only had one or two, and that Bacha had been drinking and offered it to him. He then wanted to drive into town to buy us a surprise, yep, he wanted to get us some beer. At this point we asked for the car keys which he reluctantly handed over. Julie and I then talked over our options, and decided that it wouldn’t be much of a holiday for us if we had to babysit a 24-year old, so after checking with Bacha if he would be OK to continue the tour without Yesukhei, we made the decision to drop him off at the nearest bus stop in the morning, which was about an hour from UB.

We later found a second empty 2.5 ltr bottle bottle of beer in the camp’s rubbish bin.

While alcoholism is a big problem in Mongolia, and UB in particular, we don’t think Yesukhei is an alcoholic. We thought his behaviour was simply irresponsible. In our minds he was still at work at 3pm and “on call” in case we needed him in an emergency, and to take the jeep out to come and find us was, I thought, just an excuse to drive someone else’s off-road 4×4 on someone else’s diesel money.

I couldn’t help but think it was such a shame, Yesukhei had been so good the day before, and I thought we’d started to get to along really well. I also couldn’t help thinking that I hoped his Mum would give him a really hard time when he got home.

Day 3 – Chinggis Khaan Statue

After a short 15km detour to the town of Nalayh to drop Yesukhei off at the bus station, we continued east-ward on the main road out of UB until we reached one of the most famous monuments in Mongolia – the giant statue of Chinggis Khaan.

20130815-005018.jpgUs in front of the massive metal monument to Chinggis Khaan, a couple of hours east of UB

Inside is a museum which was being renovated, a couple of cafes and a souvenir shop, but the best bit, besides seeing a massive mounted shiny Chinggis is that there’s a lift inside which leads to..

20130815-005639.jpgUs on Chinggis Khaan’s horse’s head!

Then, after passing the largest opencast coal mine in Mongolia, we stopped on a hill for a quick spot of lunch.

There’s an infamous curry eating competition held in a Newcastle upon Tyne restaurant, whereby victims clientele have to clear a plate of the hottest curry the chef can produce. In an interview I read of this annual event, one participant described the effect of the curry to be like having a chainsaw covered in hot-sauce shoved into his stomach.
I was reminded of this vivid description of fiery pain as we tucked into our lunch of the Korean equivalent of a Pot Noodle. The only English words on the packaging were “spicy mushroom”, But honestly, they could just write “spicy” because after the first mouthful we couldn’t taste anything but our own molten taste buds.

Our mouths still reeling, we dropped into the valley and made our way seemingly off-road towards our destination for the night: Khökh Nuur, which means “blue lake”, and is where Temujin first proclaimed himself a Khaan. He had good taste..

Crossing a deep river on our way to Khökh Nuur

20130815-192056.jpgUs at Khökh Nuur, site of Temujin naming himself Chinggis Khaan

Our guide book says the local ranger demands a fee of 1000 MNT stating it’s a protected area, but it isn’t. The fee has gone up to 2,500 MNT for entry, and maybe because we paid it, he then produced another official looking receipt with “jeep” written on it that was also 2,500 MNT. To us, that’s ~£2.60 which we’d struggle to find a campsite for back home and we weren’t so concerned about the cost.

20130815-192945.jpgThe Khökh Nuur extortion racket (according to our guidebook). Not sure I’d argue with their park “entrance” fee, as they do look somewhat official

Julie and I were putting the kettle on, and basking in the tranquility of our lakeside camp surrounded by beautiful hills and reddening sunset, when 2 jeeps, 1 minivan and a small coach appeared and proceeded to set up camp less than a stones throw away. After 8 people got out of the minivan, they started unloading the luggage which included a live, hog-tied goat. It had survived the journey, but it didn’t survive much longer.

3 young guys from the group came over and introduced themselves as Traffic Policemen from UB, and we later found out two things; firstly, all holidays for all Police forces were suspended during the Nadaam festival and this was their last night of their first family holiday since the celebrations, and second, they loved to sing. 2 songs in strict rotation. Until 3am. You know the saying “if you can’t beat them, join them”? We were very close to beating them.

20130815-200537.jpgEnd of day 3, camping next to Khökh Nuur (blue lake)

Day 4 – Baldan Bereeven Khiid Monastery & Öglögchiin Kherem (Almsgivers Wall)

Unsurprisingly, our karaoke party-lovers were still in bed when we packed up our camp, and hadn’t been stirred by the smell of Bacha’s fantastic breakfast.

20130815-205550.jpgBacha’s breakfast. Mmmm, tasty!

How to make Bacha’s breakfast (he doesn’t have a special name for it, he says he just made it up!)

  1. Fry some onions in a little oil, not too far, they should still be a little crunchy at the end
  2. Crack an egg onto the onions, one per person
  3. Place a slice of bread on each egg
  4. Throw in some chopped meat. Salami, sausage, you get the idea
  5. The final ingredient is a slice of cheese. We only had processed cheese slices, but grated cheese would probably taste better
  6. When the cheese starts to melt, serve. Plastic plate is optional.

On the drive out of the valley, Julie spotted a marmot. A marmot!


By now, Mongolia is starting to feel like a very large version of our home in the north of England – rolling green hills, cloudy skies, frequent rain..

20130815-211050.jpgStunningly vast and empty Mongolian scenery

Our guidebook says of our next destination, Baldan Bereeven Khiid:

This monastery (GPS: N48° 11.910’, E109° 25.840’; admission T2000) in Ömnödelger sum was first built in 1700. At its peak it was one of the three largest monasteries in Mongolia and home to 5000 lamas. Communist thugs destroyed it in the 1930s. Now only ruins remain, but impressive ruins they are.

Well, the Mongolian Lamas have been busy again, as the beautiful main temple has been rebuilt, along with a smaller temple in a somewhat sorry state off to the left.

20130815-215840.jpgThe smaller temple to the left, just as the rain starts again

20130815-220120.jpgMe walking into the side entrance of the re-built main temple, seeking solace from the weather

Because it was chucking it down, we curtailed our visit – instead of taking the recommended clockwise loop of sights and attractions, we picked out the obvious closer ones to the right of the monastery.

20130815-222835.jpgClockwise, from top-left: Remains of an old temple that still contains a tiny Buddha statue; Interesting flora behind the main temple; Large Buddha statue; View of the Monastery from the hillside in the rain; A colourful Buddha near the grounds entrance; A painted rock-face sign and view of the lake opposite of the Monastery

En-route to our next destination, and not really surprising given the days of rainfall we’d experienced, we stopped to assist a family with a minivan that had gotten themselves stuck. Not a problem for Bacha’s low-ratio, 4-wheel drive engaged, black-smoke belching Land Cruiser – in less time than it took all 10 people to get out, we’d pulled their little people carrier free.

20130815-223930.jpg10 people, with luggage? No wonder they got stuck!

The road (hah!) was pretty bad, and as it rolled on for 3pm with little sign of the rain abating, Bacha suggested we stop at a nearby group of houses which might be able to cook us up some lunch. We waited outside while Bacha went in to investigate, and 5 minutes later he emerged with news of mutton stew – fantastic!

As Julie has already written about, what followed was a Buryat feast cooked in front of us in an old Russian era farmhouse, while we drank as much salty tea as we dared. Every 5 minutes groups of locals would arrive, have a quick cuppa and a natter with our husband and wife chef team and then continue on their way to their Naadam festival which was scheduled for the following day.
Sadly we don’t have any pictures of the meal, but I’ll have a go at describing it in less than a thousand words.. picture this: we were each handed an oval plastic plate containing a boiled potato, a boiled carrot, 2 bones with meat and fat enough to make a St Bernard smile, topped off with a boiled cabbage leaf the size of the plate. And the accoutrements with which to tackle such hearty fayre? How about a 6″ hunters knife from the set of Crocodile Dundee?

20130815-230600.jpgOur van from the kitchen window

20130815-232017.jpgA family of Cranes, spotted on our way to Öglögchiin Kherem

Again, to quote our guidebook:

Öglögchiin Kherem – Literally ‘Almsgivers Wall’, but also known as ‘Chinggis Khaan’s Castle’ or ‘Red Rock’, this 3.2km-long stone wall (GPS: N48° 24.443’, E110° 11.812’), believed to date from the 8th century, stretches around a rocky slope in Batshireet sum. It was once thought to be a defensive work or a game preserve, but recent archaeological digs by a Mongolian-American research team have identified at least 60 ancient graves within the walls, indicating that it may have been a royal cemetery. As you walk inside the grounds you may see small red signs, marking the location of graves excavated in 2002.

Mercifully, the sun was shining as we rounded the hillside into an enclosed pasture, the Wall looming over us up ahead. Bacha dropped us off at the exact GPS location, and left us to hike up the rocks and hillside toward the wall itself.
However, the trekking was hard going in the tall, wet grasses, and the mosquitos were relentless. Having climbed half-way up the hillside, and with no discernible path ahead we decided to turn back, and before meeting up with Bacha, I felt compelled to climb the pile of rocks near the entrance.

20130815-233648.jpgThe view up the hillside from where we turned back

20130815-234211.jpgThe challenge!

The climb was pretty straightforward, but as we neared the top the rocks were in the shade and were still slippery from the recent rainfall. As I made my attempt on the last rock my footing slipped out from under me and for a split second I thought I was going to fall further than my last push, land on some uneven surface, and either twist or break something. Fortunately my footing recovered and a little shaken I made a second, successful attempt.

20130815-234917.jpgAt the top! (well, as far as I could go without climbing gear or a ladder!)

On the way down, which we both took very carefully, Julie thought she saw a snake.. and she had!!
20130815-235344.jpgLeft: a snake disappearing into the rocks we were climbing down; Right: Likely it’s former winter coat

We gingerly made our way back to the jeep, watching every step, and relieved to be back in the safety and comfort of the jeep, we continued on towards the town of Binder and our camp for the night.

After stopping to fill up on the outskirts of Binder, and enquiring about the pass-ability of the Hurh river, we headed out towards it to look for a suitable camping spot, stopping at an interesting looking monument on the way as the sun started to set..

20130817-111401.jpgThe inscription explains that this was the site where Chinggis Khaan united the heads of the Mongol tribes into a single nation

20130817-111644.jpgNearby is an imperial ger’s roof centrepiece on a pole, complete with lights around the rim which sadly weren’t working

That night we made camp where a tributary joins the swollen Hurh river, and fell asleep imagining the sight of the great Mongol nation brought together almost 800 years ago.

20130817-142323.jpgEnd of day 4, camping next to Hurh gol

Day 5 – Dadal, 3 Stupas, Chinggis Monument, and 3 lakes

We got up around 7am to find Bacha had rigged up a shower using a bar of soap and 1.5ltr bottle of warm water wedged into the bullbars of his jeep, and it felt so nice to wash our hair! He’d been up again at 4am fly-fishing but had only caught twigs and bits of tree as the river was so swollen.

After a shallow crossing of the tributary we camped next to, we rounded a hill and descended towards the Horh river on a well-worn track that ends with a small manual ferry. As no-else turned up on our side before we set off, Bacha and I helped out pulling the nose of the ferry towards the far shore so the current did the hard work of moving us sideways.

20130817-160012.jpgThe cable ferry in action

20130817-162345.jpgAt times it didn’t feel like the river was doing most of the work!

After more glorious scenery that you could wave a Wainwright walking stick at, we reached the largely Buryat inhabited town of Dadal, stark in its contrast to the rest of Mongolia as the dwellings are small wooden houses painted different shades of pastel colours. As we approached from the west, we stopped at the Stupa monument just a short distance from the town. Of the monument, our guidebook says:

On the western part of the village, this new memorial was built to honour the 607 people from Dadal who died in the political repression of the 1930s. The memorial contains three stupas and a list of the victims.

20130817-162417.jpgThe Dadal Stupa Lama memorial

We stopped at a local shop and cleared out their stock of buuz which we ate in the car park of the town’s tourist camp, a strange place to stop admittedly, but it’s also home to a massive Chinggis Khaan monument. It’s not clear to us which came first – the monument or the camp.. suffice to say the monument has weathered better than some of the camp’s buildings!

20130817-194028.jpgThe Chinggis monument in Dadal. Built at the height of the communist era, the team that built it were killed, but the monument was allowed to stand. The camera is an 8 second sprint from the monument

The Gurvan Nuur camp, as I’m sure you’ve worked out from its name if you’ve been paying attention, is situated next to a lake (Nuur = lake), which is actually one of three lakes that Saikhnaa from our guesthouse suggested we hike around while in Dadal.

The camp borders the two eastern-most lakes, and we were delighted to find loads of dragonflies right on the waters edge.

20130817-202340.jpgBeautiful dragonflies at the Dadal lakeside

We found the lakeshore shrubbery too overgrown to walk through, and having left our herrings in the jeep, we turned back and through the camp to see the other two lakes – which get progressively smaller – the last one just looks like a fenced circle of reeds!

20130817-202907.jpgThe second of the three lakes in Dadal

Our last stop which we spotted while looking for a camping site was, at first glance, an Ovoo on the top of a nearby hill. Bacha pointed his jeep at it and when we got there it turned out to be the stone marker erected in 1990 to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the writing of “The Secret History of the Mongols”..

20130817-204912.jpgThe inscription reads that Chinggis Khaan was born on this spot in 1162. The second line down from the left is “Chinggis Khaan” in Mongolian Uyghurjin script

A little further through the Deluun Boldog range of hills, we found a spot a little further away from a river in the hopes we’d have fewer mosquitos to deal with. It was both picturesque and peaceful – a stunning area to grow up in.

20130817-210154.jpgSunset river view from our campsite near Dadal. If I’d grown up here, I doubt I’d need to conquer anywhere else on the planet. I would eventually loose my temper and nuke the mosquitos from orbit though

20130817-210252.jpgEnd of day 5, camping next to Balj gol, near Dadal

Day 6 – The 97 year-old’s Hunting Museum, and UB bound

For a change we were up and about before Bacha, so Julie decided to put her twist on his breakfast dish, as we had a long days drive ahead of us. Fully-fuelled, we had a couple of stops to make near Dadal before we headed back towards UB.

Listed in our guidebook, 94 year-old Zundoi-Davag has a barn at his homestead filled with animals he has hunted in the forests and hills around Dadal. Given both his age and the age of our guidebook, we were surprised and delighted to find Zundoi still very much alive and kicking, and he was genuinely touched that we’d taken the time to visit his trophy collection.

20130817-214102.jpgUs with the now 97 year-old Zundoi-Davag. His hearing’s going and he needs assistance to walk, but his mind is still sharp. His last kill was the brown bear behind us in 1978, and these days he’s an advocate of animal protection

Our second and final Dadal stop was Kajuu Bulag, a cool, clear spring which is said to have been Chinggis Khaan’s watering hole. And by that I literally mean a hole with water coming out of it. After filling our water carriers, we drank from it too and it tasted deliciously cool and clear.

Our route south of Dadal took us past Norovlin which sits just next to a feature described in our tourist map as the “Wall of Chinggis Khaan”. This close to China (relatively speaking – bear with me on this..) the mind conjures up images of their Great Wall, but as you’ve likely never heard of a Mongol Great Wall as we hadn’t, and having read Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series you know Chinggis favoured destroying walls rather than building them, so we were curious to see it. While stopping to fill up the jeep, Bacha asked where it was and was told “it’s just there“, “what, near the hill that’s about 1km away?”, “no, in this field just here, about 100 metres away“, “?!”.

With a full tank and empty stomachs, we hauled ourselves and our lunch-making equipment up the embankment and ate on the Wall of Chinggis Khaan..

20130817-224642.jpgBacha and I eating lunch on the Wall of Chinggis Khaan – can you see it? Turns out it’s a psychological offensive strategy. He’d line up his men along it and from a distance his enemies thought his numbers were greater

It was almost sunset as we hit the relieving flat tarmaced roads of Ondorhaan, and its rows of street lights painted different colours depending on the road. Civilisation! after days of dirt tracks, muddy puddles and river crossings. We picked up the Herlen river that passes to the south of the city, and joined the locals who were just packing up.

The tents went up and the fishing rod came out. Bacha was determined to catch something!

20130817-230349.jpgFly-fishing with J R Hartley Bacha. I didn’t catch anything either

20130817-230613.jpgEnd of day 6, camping next to Herlen gol, Ondorhaan

Day 7 – Horse riding in Ondorhaan, and back on proper roads!

We woke to a gloriously sunny day, and after a quick spot of breakfast Julie and I prepared ourselves for a spot of horse-riding. Although we’ve ridden camels twice now, we’ve heard many a story of how fast and how temperamental horses can be – given our camping field was covered in litter from the local picnickers the night before, I was reminded of my friend John who once rode a horse that nearly threw him off because it had caught sight of an intimidating crisp packet.
While we were both a little apprehensive, I decided to put it out of my mind by helping Bacha wash the last 6 days off his Land Cruiser, and as we were finishing up, a young lad from the nearby camp rode over on a horse.

A few words were exchanged and an agreement struck of 2-3 hours on a horse each with the young lad and his 2 brothers as guides. Another hour or so later and the boy returns with news that they only have one saddle between them, and his 2 brothers had gone into town – my dreams of galloping over the steppe were dashed. It seems we were to be led at walking pace along the riverbank instead. I think Julie was just as relieved as happy, and while she equated it to being on a donkey by the seaside, I have to say that once I got on I felt like John Wayne sidling into town from the wild, wild west. I still wonder what would have happened if I had shouted “choo” and got him up to a trot though.. :o)

20130817-233410.jpgCowgirl Julie

After half an hour and a couple of turns each, we decided we’d let the boy go home and gave him 3,000 MNT (£1.50) for putting up with us crazy foreigners.

20130817-233433.jpgCowboy Andrew

We’d spotted an interesting monument on the way past Ondorhaan sited next to their wrestling stadium yesterday. Bacha explained that it honours a local festival judge, and 6 Nadaam winning horses from this region of Mongolia.
20130817-234919.jpgThis horse is from Dadal (Дадал – if you recall your Cyrillic Russian ;)

From Ondorhaan we picked up the main road back to UB, and as we were settling into speeds nearing 100km/hr rather than the 40-50km/hr we had managed on some of the lesser tracks, we came to an archway and had to visit the adjacent monument..

20130818-003247.jpgMonument of ‘tugs’ or banners

20130818-003313.jpgClose-up of the banners all made from horse or yak tail hair. White means peace, “royalty” or importance, black means war, and we don’t know what the red and blue ones mean! – if you do, let us know in the comments

About an hour from the giant Chinggis statue we saw on day 3, we veered off-road to find a spot to settle down for the night, and, of all the places we pitched, this was my favourite. The lovely rolling hills reminded us of camping in the Lake District back home, and a gentle breeze kept the mosquitos away. A perfect last night’s camping.

20130818-092957.jpgOur last night camping in the serene Mongolian steppe

20130818-093048.jpgEnd of day 7, riverside camping near Baganuur

Day 8 – Birds, more birds, muddy roads and home

Bacha took the long way back to the main road in the hopes of seeing the ibex that live in the hills. After trying a few valleys we gave up the hunt to visit a nearby lake to do some birdwatching instead.

20130818-102848.jpgAn eagle guards the entrance to our campsite, or is he just seeing us off the premises?

20130818-103935.jpgSwans, Swans, Butterflies and Bacha!

As we saw when we took the public buses to Kharkhorin and Zuunmod, the main roads are in an almost constant state of repair, and with the recent bad weather, the detours were very slippery indeed..

20130818-104816.jpgThe mud-slick detour – we’d wondered why the cars coming out of the city were dirtier than the ones going into it!

We waved to the great Chinggis as we passed, a fitting marker for both the start and end of our epic journey to his birthplace. Bayarlalaa.

20130818-110541.jpgHad it only been 5 days since we saw him last?


Our immeasurable thanks to the funny and fun-loving Bacha and his more than capable Land Cruiser, and to Saikhnaa, Temuulen & Yesukhei of the Chinggis guesthouse for their help in organising and arranging our tour.
20130818-111425.jpgBacha, our Mongolian grandfather whose name means shepherd. He certainly looked after us!

If you’d like to venture off the beaten tourist tracks, we can highly recommend the Chinggis guesthouse whether you’re staying there or not. As Bacha speaks 5 languages including English and German and was a fantastic guide, I daresay you could contact him directly :) (email us for his details – I don’t want to put them up here!)