Monday, September 19, 2016

Trans-Mongolian Adventure - Part 2 - Mongolia

Chinggis Khaan

Our journey continued as we departed Datong and headed for the Jining South railway station in the low country of China's Inner Mongolia region. This leg of the trip was significant because we actually started the trip choosing the path less traveled. Most travelers on the Trans-Mongolian Railway depart from Beijing and head straight for Mongolia. Had we taken this route, we would have missed Datong entirely, and that would be no fun. However, now that we were in Datong, we had to reconnect with the Trans-Mongolian line. This required getting to the scantly know (by foreigners) Jining South railway station, and catching the North-bound train to Ulaan-Baatar.

We arrived in Jining early, and once again averted disaster. After initially being told repeatedly that we would have to travel back to Beijing to catch the correct train, we were able to find "the" person in the know, who confirmed that our train would be arriving later that day. We chilled, ate some appropriately named candy, and finally caught our overnight train to Ulaanbaatar.

Riding through the Mongolian countryside was beautiful. As we gained altitude on the high steppe, we left behind the pollution and grayness of China's sky.

Around midnight we awoke to a unique experience of international train travel. The train tracks in Mongolia and Russia are wider than those used in China, so instead of changing trains, the Trans-Mongolian Line actually removes the train wheels from every carriage and attaches new, properly sized sets of wheels!

The next day brought with it a brilliant blue sky and bright green steppe, with the occasional white felt of a ger in the distance.

Once in Ulaanbaatar, we traded in the train for a Soviet-era UAZ-452 van. Known for their offroad prowess, and being nearly indestructible, these vehicles are perfect for the less than perfect road conditions of the Mongolian countryside.

Our first destination was the newly constructed monument to Chinggis Khan, better known in the West as Genghis Khan. If you look closely in the picture that shows Chinggis's horse, you can see people standing on an observation deck built into the horse's mane.

After paying our respects to the Great Khan, we continued on to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Aside from its stunning beauty, the park is popular because of the ger camps that give tourists a chance to have a "traditional" Mongolian experience.

The people in the park were very nice, and Amy and I became fast friends with one of the locals!

The park is beautiful and serene. So serene in fact, that monks decided to build a temple there. The Arryabal Temple is a short hike up from the valley and offers incredible views of the park.

On our way back to Ulaanbaatar we stopped by a small line of gers for a late lunch. The family there prepared us a meal of fried beef and hot milk tea. We enjoyed the meal, and they were happy to pose for a photo.

The next day we hopped into the UAZ-452 and headed north to the Aglag Buteel Monastery and Meditation Center. The center is both beautiful and bizarre. Interesting statues of griffins and lions adorn the grounds, and the top floor of meditation center holds a museum of sorts, dedicated to the works of a local artist. What makes the artwork so interesting is that it is essentially taxidermy, but more like taxidermy if Dr. Frankenstien were at the helm. There are "creatures" that are part fish and falcon, turtle and lizard, water buffalo skull and aardvark. I wish we could have snapped a few picks, but we wanted to respect their no photos rule.

The following day we headed west to Hustai National Park. Hustai is special because it is home to the only truly wild horses in the world. Apparently, all horses, even if found in the wild, like those on Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia, are actually feral horses that have descended from previously domesticated animals. The Takhi horses in Hustai once went extinct in the wild, leaving only their descendants scattered about zoos around the globe. In 1992 the Mongolian government helped to reintroduce the horses back into their native habitat and created the Hustai National Park.

After an adventurous day in the Mongolian countryside, we returned to Ulaanbaatar to visit the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, home of the Avalokiteśvara statue, the tallest indoor statue in the world.

We really enjoyed our time in Mongolia, and even extended our trip there by a few hours by missing our bus to Ulan-Ude! Fortunately, we were able to arrange an overnight bus that got us into Russia about twelve hours later than planned.

Next up, Siberia!

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