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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Taking a safari in the Gobi desert of Mongolia

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A ger, or a yurt, is a traditional nomad home. Today many of the permanent gers have heaters. [Barbara Kingstone photo]

Even through my dazed, semi-conscious state, after various flights  which took 30 hours to get to Chinggis Khaan International Airport, when I looked down from the plane’s window over Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, it was not at all what I expected to see. 

Surrounded by the Altai Mountain range,I had a preconceived idea that this  land-locked country which had been untouched by the modern world, would be a sad third-world country struggling to emerge.

But then I learned there is such a plethora of undeveloped minerals  including gold, oil, copper, nickel, zinc, coal, silver, and  phosphates, Mongolia could become an extremely wealthy country under the right circumstances.

Among low-rise buildings and gers (yurts – more about them below), were skyscrapers and dozens of building cranes for more significant structures. On the drive from the airport, there were visible discrepancies in communities with very humble houses and shabby gers while in a blink of the eye, all that changes as ultra sleek structures  and building cranes were about to replace the shabby huts.

Although there is  a five-star-hotel, The Blue Sky, opened in 2011, the architecture is so unusual that for the time being, this building will become the city’s signature. With stunning curved glass towers that narrow at the top, it is so innovative and would be a stand-out anywhere in the world.

If there’s one place not to see jet-lagged it’s the fabulous National Museum of Mongolia. There’s just too many wondrous objects to  observe after a sleepless flight. Certainly, easier would have been the Fine Art Museum.

The Gandan Monastery, a most revered religious site with a huge 75-ft.-gold gilded Buddha and a pair of huge,but truly huge bronze feet at the entrance was so colourful and serene, it’s easier to recall. 

What I really needed at this trying time was fresh air and the wide, very large Genghis Khan (formerly  Sukhbaatar) Square was perfect. The huge bronze statue of Genghis Khan  sits majestically overlooking this grand space.  However, the  other large sculpture of an equestrian settled in the centre of the square, sitting warlike on the horse whom all foreigners think is Khan is, in fact,Sukhbaatar.  

Looking across, there is a most modern glass building with the unexpected deluxe stores like Louis Vuitton and Zegna plus high-end designer boutiques.  I asked the salesperson if only tourists shop here and was told that, in fact, 90 per cent were locals.  

I never expected torrents of rain, nor did I realized that in a city of over 1.3 million people, there would be so very few taxis. Without boots, no umbrella or raincoat, and non-existent street drains creating very deep puddles, I naively tried hailing a cab. Finally, I found rescue in a small shop where I called  my hotel  which came to my dampened rescue.

 Traffic is probably the worst I’ve ever seen and pedestrians take their lives in their hands if they try using the zebra lined walkways. 

However, I had come to see  the Gobi desert. Little did I know that the infrastructure, especially the so-called roads, would be so horrendous,  and a 4x4 Toyota Land Rover is the only way to get over the river rocks, deep gorges, washboard pits and curves before arriving to the first of three gers.  Distances between each site are hours from each other.

“It will be three years before the roads are paved,” I’m told by Soyoloo, the owner of www.travelinmongolia, a bright, optimistic, young travel agent.  More like five  years is my best guess. But he certainly has a budding future with his great knowledge of the country and the perfect patient personality of a great tour operator.

And what’s a ger? They are round, portable traditional nomad homes held up by a central column, brightly hand painted, with the only natural light  from the top opening which is closed at night. For the permanent residents, the interior is lined with heavy felt during the frosty season, giving Mongolia the name The City of Felt. The permanent gers, when the harsh winters come, have heaters.

Leaving the ger for any reason during the night, since  loos and showers are a walk away, makes a flashlight invaluable.   

The gers have three narrow but comfortable brightly painted beds with spotless linens, a table and chair, all to be dismantled after the season. 

The building which houses the toilets and showers (sometimes cool, other times lukewarm and dribbling) are well attended and the adventure you surmised before planning this trip is right here.

One of the major highlights was viewing the sunsets and sunrises with  their dazzling and spectacular colours.   Who could resist an invitation into a felt-lined, permanent residence of a Mongol family who kindly offered fermented mare’s milk and homemade bread, as well as camel rides (for a price).

This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and as calmly as possible,I climbed on the kneeling Bactrian camel (the two humps variety). It was a great thrill when she finally stood up and I looked down, very far down, to the ground from my seat between the two humps.

It’s one of my fine memories- riding a camel in the Gobi Desert surrounded by snow capped mountains, towering sand dunes, and grassy steppe. 

I had heard about the “Singing Sands.” These dunes are heart-breakers if you love the shifting of shadows and sandy hills.  Although too difficult to take the hike to the top of the highest point, 2,500 feet, I chatted with an Australian who wouldn’t even consider the trek.

It seemed strange to have an arena in an isolated area, but Hustai National Park is the site of Przewalskii horse show.  There is great horsemanship, wrestling, sword fighting on horse, and a bit of local dancers in national costumes.

And one can’t possibly leave this country without visiting Terelj National Park. Visible from miles away,  is a huge silver statue of Genghis Khan whose silver statue sits on the roof of the  library dedicated to the hero

It was an exhausting itinerary. That said, I would never have passed up a trip like this and would happily  visit again. And if I ever get the chance to return, I’d go back to Soyoloo who has such great knowledge of his country.

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