We are on the main road traveling West from Ulaanbaatar. It is a paved, very rough, two lane highway. Pat and I are sitting in the back seat to avoid gulping loudly as our driver passes trucks and cars with vehicles coming headlong toward us.
It is a landscape of a vast expanse of rolling hills. I see blue-grey mountains in the distance shadowed by cirrus clouds overhead which subdue the green of the grasslands and black rocky outcroppings to a pastel hue. Although a short time ago we passed great herds of black and white sheep, and multi-colored goats, there are now no animals or buildings as far as I can see along the road. We did stop by a modern highway rest stop with a restaurant and toilets but that was the first such place for the last 2 hours.
To go back a day, upon arriving into the UB airport we were met by our two new cars and drivers and drove East to the province of Tov and into the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, a major resort area with green pine trees and aspen and a variety of wildflowers. Pat thought one must be related to the Colorado Columbine. The road into the park passes through a beautiful valley which is now suffering from the blight of uncontrolled development of resorts, from some small Ger camps up to large hotel complexes being built seemingly without control and now dotting a previously pristine grsssland.
Our Terelj Luxury Lodge was once a Soviet built vacation palace for the powerful and has since been remodeled and converted into a magnificent resort filled with antiques and an elegant atmosphere. But with very few guests. We are almost alone in a stylish restaurant where a large well-made bronze statue of Lenin sits in a courtyard and commands the view of the river down below.
In the afternoon, we hike up to a 25 year old monastery with a beautiful view. It is obvious from the numbers of monasteries and piles of good-luck rocks crowned with blue buddhist prayer flags that we have seen along our way that the deeply rooted Tibetan Buddhism that was suppressed during the 70 years of Soviet control sprouted fresh and strong when released in 1990.
There were signs that said “Beware of Pickpockets” which we pass before walking up a hill onto a swinging bridge and up and over to the monastery entrance. Pat and Sara were in the rear when we hear a loud shout from Sara and find out that a well organized group of thieves had set a trap for unwary tourists, Sara grabbed the hand of a young man who had unzipped the back of Pat’s backpack. At Sara’s angry screams, the pickpocket and his two confederates ran off. But on our way back down, Sara and I discovered a bright pink wallet case which held two Russian passports and an identity card but no money. By looking at the photos and names, Sara said the victim was from the ethnic group of the Buriats who once lived in a larger Mongolia but who now inhabit parts of Russia as well as China in Inner Mongolia. We took the wallet to the ticket office and we waited a bit and soon a group came through whom Sara recognized as Buriat. The women whose lost passport we had found was among them and she was shocked to discover that it was not in her pack and even more unhappy to find that all of her travel money was gone. So our small group made it safely through the maya of the world to reach the celestial realm of Buddhist prayers but others were not so lucky.
No trip to Terelj Park is complete without a visit to the massive Chenngis Khan statue, the largest equestrian statue in the world We walk up and then take an elevator into the horses’ head and from there view the surrounding countryside. The museum is filled with young Mongolians enjoying the day with their families.
It seems the round white nomad Gers, like the one we stayed at in the Gobi Desert, is not just for tourists. It is used everywhere as a standing structure — for everywhere a small building is needed. We passed a small town in the suburbs of UB where there is a city center with many concrete and modern building and around the edges are a large grouping of the traditional round Gers. They in effect form what we would probably call a shantytown, non-permanent housing for lower income and transient members of the community.
One of the goals of this trip for Pat and I was to see in the wild the Przewalski horses (or Takhi in Mongoian). These are never domesticated horses that represent a separate lineage which descended from the original ancestors of all horses. They are located in the Hustai National Park where there is a large study program and center set up to support the preservation of these horses that almost went extinct. We were fortunate to see two herds of them grazing on the hillside and it was exciting to see them alive and well. There are now about 400 of these beautiful animals breeding and thriving although we learned 2-3 stallions die every year during contests for control.
The HS Khan Resort, outside the park, was the most upscale Get imaginable. An anteroom which was a separate small round structure, connected to a 1000 foot round structure with 2 queen size beds, a centrally located soaking tub, dressing room, sunken living room, bar and more, all elegantly decorated. The full view windows overlooked the grasslands from horizon to horizon with grazing horses part of the decor. We were the only guests and were served in their restaurant by non-English speaking staff who pleasantly presented to us food we did not order due to lack of communication.
Back to the present which I write as the car bumps over the poorly maintained road: It is now raining and the flowering black clouds are sending down long strings of rain across a treeless expanse. We just passed a large group of beautiful russet colored horses, some on one side of the highway and some on the other, and we hope they can cross and reunite safely. We have seen a dead heifer and a goat along the roadside who did not make it.
All is well here. Amy is staying in UB and Jack is with us, very tired but hopefully recovering soon.