Monthly Archives: July 2009

Day 37 – Thursday, July 23rd, Kara Korum, Mongolia


Yeah, this day we stayed put and had a relaxing morning.  All the members (Olga, Til and Dave) who had the flu felt much better today. This Ger camp is called Munkh Tenger (Blue Sky) and is very good.  Russ and I even had a private onsuite built alongside our Ger with a shower that worked! It was very much appreciated! As a matter of fact it felt fantastic to have a shower!  This shower was built a foot up from the ground so you had to step up into the shower. Directly across the room from the shower was a window with no curtains. So everybody walking by going to the dining hall could look into this ensuite and see you have a shower. But I didn’t care, I felt entitled to have a long hot shower after the last ger camp where the showers were broken, we were in a sand storm and had no water to wash off. If anyone wanted to look at me shower I really didn’t care at that moment because I would never see them again. I was going to shower no matter what! It reminded me of the times when I delivered my babies, they were coming no matter what and no matter who was around.  At times like this, all modesty leaves a person and you do what you have to do!

Doug Grimes, the president of MIR Corporation, left us today as he had meetings elsewhere.  There is an airport at Kharkorin that he used. Beside Kharkorin is the old city, Kara Korum, this was once Genghis Khan’s capital city in Mongolia.  Kara Korum, began in the 13th century and served as the capital for 40 years until Kublai Khan (Genghis Khan’s grandson) moved the capital to Beijing during the Manchurian Rule. Kara Korum was later destroyed by invading Manchurians. All that visibly remains today are some ruins and a  Turtle Rock, made of stone and weighing several tons.  It is thought that this turtle stood at the corner of Kara Korum to protect it against evil forces.  This turtle is now placed on the mountainside as you enter the new city Kharkorin (Khara Korin).

We visited the Erdene Dzuu (Thousand Treasures) Monastrey situated just outside Kharkorin’s city limits, right beside the mountain that holds the turtle stone. The monastrey is surrounded by a brick wall with 108 stupas on it.  Stupas look like Mongolian pointed hats (round with a high point on the top) these stupas are shrines honoring Buddha.  ( Trivia on Mongolian hats: the flaps are pulled down during war for protection and flaps are folded up during peace time). This monastrey has remained intact since it’s construction in 1586 and reports to be the first Buddhist center in Mongolia. It was built from stones of the ruined capital and at one time housed 1,000 lamas. Previously there were 63 temples now there are 10 with 3 being the originals. During the purges of the Cultural Revolution many of it’s temples were destroyed and the lamas were imprisoned or killed.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and Communism in 1990, Buddhism is being rediscovered in Mongolia and this monastery is very active in promoting Buddhism. We entered a temple where 6 monks were chanting and reading Sutras while drinking fermented mare’s milk.  It appeared that the leading lama would chant and ask the others questions, if they answered correctly they were rewarded with a drink of the fermented mare’s milk.

At the entrance of these temples were prayer wheels.  It is said that the wheel, which looks like a metal drum, is filled with prayers on the inside and decorated with prayerful inscriptions on the outside.  The idea is to spin the wheel and by doing so you acquire the knowledge of the prayers inside the wheel. I spun as many wheels as I could.

Everywhere we go in Mongolia there are blue silk prayer scarfs tied to things, trees, temples, ovoos etc.  Blue represents the heavens as well as the eternal blue skies of Mongolia. There are many blue scarfs at this monastery. On display is a cup made from the skull cap of a lama.  According to our guide, the lamas want to share their intelligence so after the death of a lama they make cups out of their skulls and this passes on the intelligence. There was also a rattle made from a girl’s femur bone used during ceremonies.  Another very common game in Mongolia is made of the bones from a spine.  Our guides taught Jon (my brother) some of the games they play with these bones.  Everything is recycled here in Mongolia.

Another item on display at this monestry was the Buddhist life cycle drawing.  It looked like a Fresco and had the story of the Buddhist belief.  It showed a heaven and hell.  Hell was divided in two, a hot hell and a cold hell which is a little different from Christianity where there is only a hot hell. Our guide again told us that they believe in reincarnation, so if you are in hell you will be reincarnated as an insect or bad animal but if you are in heaven you will be reincarnated as a human or a good animal.  Russ wants to be reincarnated as one of my dogs!  However, our guidebook tells us that Buddhist’s believe that a person has to achieve nirvana to be reincarnated and that reincarnation is based on Karma. I believe that very few people achieve nirvana maybe only the lamas? So it is only the lamas that are reincarnated?  Maybe that is why they look for the new Dalai Lamas when they are babies?  Reincarnated lamas? Not sure about all of this, but this theory makes more sense to me than people being reincarnated as bugs.

The lamas believe in ying and yang so everything has a double or opposite.  When blessing people they hold a bell in one hand to wake up the Gods for protection and in their other hand they hold a metal rod to give out blessings. Temujin, our guide says “Buddhism is all about suffering, the world is full of suffering and a person can overcome the suffering by education and building up knowledge within. Then leading by example. They also believe that god is within you”. I am a little confused how they believe God is within them and they have 85,000 Buddhas? 

I read that Buddhism has Four Noble Truths: 1) To exist is to suffer; 2) Suffering is caused by attachment; 3) Suffering ceases once attachment ceases; 4) There is a way to end suffering.  There is a lot to be said about these truths and I certainly believe in number 2 and I am working on number 3!

I really didn’t know anything about Genghis Khan or the Manchurian Empire before this trip.  From what I have gathered during the trip, years 1400 to 1911 was the period of the Manchurian Empire.  And all this was started by Genghis Khan, a Mongolian.  The Manchurian Empire included Central Europe to China and Korea, Russia, Iran and Viet Nam.  This was the largest land empire in history by the end of the 13th century. The Mongol rule imploded after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty when the Ming Dynasty became rulers.  Then in 1911 the Manchu throne fell under the Qing Dynasty. At that time Mongolia, Tibet and China were automatically separated. Temujin our guide tells us that in 1911 the Manchurian Era collapsed because the Queen died at the Forbidden City and the King was only 3 years old.  I will have to watch the movie The Last Empire to get better educated on this subject. 

When Mongolia was separated in 1911 the “Living Buddha”, head of Buddhism in Mongolia, was acknowledged as head of state. (Here we go again with “church and state”, this always seems to cause problems). One of the first things this Living Buddha did was confiscate and distribute among the Mongol nobility (his family?) and the high lamas, all the wealth (animals, etc.) from the previous rulers. After this Buddha died in 1924 Mongolia’s ties with Soviet Russia strengthened and Ulaan Baatar became the capital of Mongolia.  Also the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) a communist party was elected into power.  The MPR ordered seizure of the religious property and expelled the lamas from the monasteries. This was because the religious leaders still held most of the country’s wealth!  Interesting, tit for tat! Maybe they had good reason to ban religion if the religious leaders kept all the wealth from the people of Mongolia?

There are several Buddhist stories we have learned, one is:  Buddha had some enemies so he sent 9 lamas to fight the enemy but they were not successful (I am assuming they did not come back as they were all dead).  Buddha then sent a female lama to go kill his enemy.  She was very smart, so instead of fighting the enemy she married the leader  of the enemy and had his baby.  When the baby was born, she then killed him (I am assuming while he was celebrating the birth of his baby) and ate the baby. So no more enemies!! One of the Buddha statues is a female with a baby squirming in her mouth, which represents this story.  Lovely, I may have missed something in translation but that is how I understood the story.

I am not sure how many Dalai Lamas there have been 9 or 15.  My research has turned up different numbers. Maybe it is 15 all together and 9 from Mongolia?  I do know the current Dalai Lama is banned from Mongolia.  Dalai means ocean and represents education.  Dalai Lamas work on themselves through education and meditation according to Temuujin, our guide. The Buddhist’s philosophy is aimed at achieving wisdom beyond mere faith and instruction.  I completely agree with this philosophy, it is just all the statues (gods) and their stories that I have a problem with. I also agree with their Eight Noble Paths of Buddhism: 1) Right speech, 2) Right livelihood 3) Right action 4) Right effort 5) Right mindfulness 6) Right concentration 7) Right opinion 8) Right intention. This list sounds easy but is difficult to keep in mind all the time, it is a work in progress for me. 

I have written before about the many Ovoos we passed (the big pile of rocks in the middle of a trail, which you are to add a rock to and walk around three times clockwise, for good luck in your travels).  Well I found out how this tradition was started.  During times of battle, which was often in the good old days, as a warrior left for battle he would drop a rock onto a pile started on the road leaving his village.  When he returned he would pick up a rock as he reentered his village. The remaining rocks represented the villagers that had died in battle. Probably a pretty good accounting system. Wonder if they ever did an inventory of the warriors to check the accuracy of the rocks remaining? Wes, at Abigail’s Hotel would insist on this type of accountability.

After the Monastery, we toured the city’s marketplace.  The market is all located in one central area and is made up of trailers or shipping containers.  Each container houses a different type of good to sell.  (Just because the container says Mersk or Costco doesn’t mean they sell drugs). One may sell hardware, such as rope and small tools, another may sell lino for the Gers.  Another will sell hand-made leather boots ($12.), or tires. Anything you need is sold here. There was one larger concrete buiding which sold vegetables at different stands and had a room which served as the meat market.  Only the meat market was not neat and tidy like our meat markets, there was a head of a cow on the floor and blood and guts all over.  Glad I am a vegetarian!

One section of the marketplace was filled with pool tables, all outside with no covers. Not in the best condition but that didn’t stop anybody. This is the entertainment section of town and all of the tables were in use by both male and female pool players!

The houses in this city are a combination of Gers with fences allowing for a private yard or wooden shacks with fences.  All the wood for the houses and the fences are unpainted.  The only colour are the roofs and doors.  So if you take a photo from far away the city looks cute with all these different coloured roofs but close up the houses look dreary because the wood is weathered and unpainted.

That night everyone was feeling much better. Olga and I played crib while Russ worked on the photos for the blog. When we went to bed, there were so many black beetles in our Ger that we had to use flashlights to check the bedding and flick any beetle that we found off the bed. I shook out my P.J.’s because I hate crawly things even if they do not bite. I am shaking out my P.J.’s when two things drop out and land on the bed beside Russ. I start hopping up and down as I was grossed out. When Russ says “what are you doing?” I look down and point to the two ear plugs that had just fell out of my P.J.’s pocket. Oh, I guess they were the ear plugs I used when we camped in the tent. Okay, all is well and we get a good night’s sleep. (I did take a sleeping pill just to make sure, thanks Sylvia for that little tip).

One beetle did manage to crawl up under my P.J.’s on my back and I grabbed it from the top of my P.J.’s to hold it while Russ went underneath to get it out from under my P.J.’s. I was grossed out but fairly calm due to the sleeping pill taking over. Apparently, Mary had something hit her head and she says to Jon. “Something just hit my head!” and Jon said “Oh, that was just a moth, I picked it up and threw it outside”.  No big deal, Mary went right to sleep and never knew anything about any beetles.

Day 36 – Wednesday, July 22nd, Ongiyn Hiid to Kara Korum, Mongolia (237 km total to date 7,417 km)



We had a long trek this day 280 kms. and all of us were anxious to get started.  We travelled north west and started to leave the desert into grasslands! The trails changed from sharp rocks to gravel and sand or sometimes just red clay mud ruts. We passed a field of wild blue flowers which was a welcome sight after the sparse vegetation and grey color of the sagebrush in the Gobi Desert.  Don’t get me wrong the Gobi is beautiful in many parts, we were just ready for a change and these flowers were just the medicine that we needed. Because we were now in grasslands and out of the desert the camels seemed to have been replaced by cows and yaks.  This is the first time I had ever seen a yak.  They look like hairy cows with a horse tails, long flowing tails. Very interesting! The temperature is a little cooler as well. From 40 degrees C. to low 30’s or even high 20’s!  As we continued to drive through the grasslands we saw many Golden Eagles sitting on rocks or sometimes just sitting in a field.  They are very big, bigger than our bald eagles back home.


The herdsmen still live in Gers on the grasslands and still have their horses with foals plus all the sheep and goats.  Even saw a couple of pigs once, running loose in a field with cows.  As we drove through the grasslands we entered into a grass valley with green hills surrounding us.  It was very beautiful. We stopped at another Ger site, where the mother (or grandmother) was milking goats with the younger girls of the family.  All the goats were in two straight lines facing each other with two girls milking on one side and two girls on the other side, facing each other.  The girls were spaced about 3 goats apart from each other and there must have been 200 goats being milked! One little girl was dressed in a frilly party dress, all glittery, milking a goat!


It appears that men and women have definite roles in the nomad life.  The women do the milking, make all the dairy products such as butter, yogurt, dried yogurt, fermented mares milk, cheese, etc. Men water and herd the animals, look for strays and that type of thing. The Gers are divided men on one side and women on the other. All the cooking utensils are on the women’s side.  Women also look after the kids and clothing. The women asked us to join them in their Ger for yogurt and fermented milk but we declined as we had a long travel day and they were busy milking.  We didn’t want to disturb them too much.  We took polaroids for them which they loved!


Eventually we drove through a creek and up a hill, following our guide because heaven only knows how he knows where to go, on top of this hill was our first paved road since we entered Mongolia. As we drove to our Ger camp we passed a small city of approximately 15,000 people called Kharkorin.  We checked in and had a little rest before dinner in the dining room.  This was a rough day for all of us.  I started off the morning by crying because I didn’t sleep all night at the previous Ger and the showers didn’t work.  I know it is very silly but after 6 weeks of non-stop traveling I was a little touchy one morning!  Women all over the world should understand this.  When we met for dinner Olga was not there as she was feeling sick.  My dad, Til, was a little under the weather as well (another converted vegetarian).  But it was Dave Riddoch’s birthday and we were not going to let a couple of sick people stop us from celebrating his birthday!  Tatianna, one of our guides had purchased a Gheghis Khan bottle of vodka.  This is the best vodka in Mongolia and she made a toast to Dave saying when in Rome do as the Romans.  And because we were in Mongolia we were to celebrate as a Mongolian.  We all received a small wine glass (not a shot glass)  with vodka.  We toasted a happy birthday to Dave and some of us sipped the vodka, while others downed it all.  Dave downed his vodka and sat down.  In a couple of minutes we hear a choking sound and all look up.  Dave is gagging and he jumps up, choking and holding his mouth.  He runs outside the door and moves to the side of the dining room which has a big glass window.  As soon as he get there, where we can all see him, he proceeds to projectile vomit, like a fire hose!  Well I guess Dave wasn’t feeling all that well either and didn’t say anything to anyone.  Now the whole Ger camp knew!  Poor Dave, this will be a birthday he’ll never forget.  


The dinner was Mongolian style and very interesting. They have a big metal canister and fill it with onions, potatoes and a whole lamb (minus the head) plus a little water.  They have a big fire outside and heat up some rocks.  When the rocks are really hot they put the rocks into the canister.  The pot is then placed ontop of the fire to heat up with the hot rocks inside.  The canister is taken off the fire and rolled around on the ground, every once in awhile, to mix everything up.  This process is repeated for about one hour.  The lid is removed very carefully (much like a pressure cooker).  The rocks are taken out and passed around.  They are very hot and you just toss them back and forth between your hands as best you can.  This is said to be very good for your health, tossing the boiling hot rocks between your hands. The meat, potatoes and onions are put on platters and passed around for everyone to eat.  It was a very different way of cooking and very Mongolian (ordered just for Dave).  We decided to have this dinner again when Dave was feeling better.


Thankfully Russ changed our travel plans to allow us to stay an extra night at this Ger so all our sick travelers could recuperate. We all thought this was a great idea.




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