Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Terelj National Park, 14 - 16 December 2010

Water splashing my face as I swiftly move through the sun drenched South China Sea.  I look behind me at the dimishing coastline of Ha Long Bay and the magical landscape rising out of the sea.  The sun was beating down and it was time to head back for a refreshing drink.  As the beautiful Vietnamese waitress took my order I was feeling like I was in paradise, but I got a strange feeling that somebody's hand was on my face, it was cold, dead and rubbery... 

My eyes opened and I was instantaniously thrust back into reality, however the hand still appeared to be on my face.  Who has their hand on my face?  I pulled my left hand from the warmth of my sleeping bag and reached for the foreign hand on my face.  I grabed hold of it only to discover that it was mine.  It was completely numb from the cold night air and I needed to get it warm, fast.  I looked around and discovered that the fire that had been raging all night filling the tent with unbearable heat had gone out subjecting us to the harsh sub-zero temperatures of Outer Mongolia. 

With me in the Ger were two Scandanavian girls, Karin from Sweden and June from Norway whom I had met the previous evening at the UB Guesthouse and had convinced me to come with them to the Terlj National Park for a couple of nights.  It didn't take much persuasion, especially after a few bottles of beer!  I could have done with a little more sleep though as we, accompanied by Caué and Cyrus, stayed up until 5am drinking and subjecting a Romanian/American/Russian/Chinese guy to the third degree.  This man of unknown name was a strange guy who had apparently been teaching English in China for a year or so and was obsessed with the differences between the East and West.  He would repeat "East is horizontal, blood on soil and West is vertical, now, now, now."  throughout his whole conversation.  He would never provide a straight answer to anything.  When I asked him one evening whether he had a good day he replied "That's a very Western question.".  He would never divulge where he was from but would say that "He is from four countries equally."  The way this man spoke reminded me of Lucky from 'Waiting for Godot', he would talk and talk for hours without breathing but couldn't actually make a point. A very interesting character indeed, he would sit there peeling and chipping potatos all day long.  The one thing he didn't hesitate to tell us was that he was once a professional tennis playing, was once on the team that beat the USSR in the Davis Cup and played with Andrew Castle at some point.  I'm not sure if this was true but I am so thankful I met this guy as he truly was a unique person and I'm sure I won't meet one quite like him.

Our Ger
After the interrogation and a couple of hours sleep, Karin, June and I got in the car and made our way out of Ulan Bator and towards the National Park.  The road to the park was paved however the wind was strong and the snow from the fields either side was drifting across the road making it difficult to see.  We arrived at the park around two hour later and headed onto dirt tracks.  The Mongolian Nomads still leave traditional lives like their ancestors did.  Some Nomadic families pack up their belongings in the winter months and leave the park for the warmth and safety of Ulan Bator as the settlements become isolated.

Our settlement was home to a family of four, Mother, Father, Son and Daughter.  They were all there apart from the daughter who had moved away to university.  As the Father greeted us and showed us inside their home to meet the Mother, my first reaction was shock.  In front of me was not what I was expecting from a nomadic life.  I was confronted with a plasma TV with DVD player, Playstation2 and a huge stereo system.  Obviously they were not completely nomadic as they had tourists in and out of their home all year round.  The Mother quickly invited us to sit down and thrust cups of tea into our hands and gave us our first meal of potatos and meat.  I was surprised that she insisted that we kept our shoes on as I thought the etiquette was to remove them and it was a great insult if you did not.  Later I felt the floor and understood why we couldn't take them off.  The floor was absolutely freezing cold as the fire burning in the middle only heated above the floor and left a 30cm freezing pocket of air from the floor.

The family had settled between three mountains which provided protection from the gale force winds that sweep across the barren land.  They had several ger tents, one for them and a couple for their guests.  Down the hill there was a long drop toilet which I could only imagine being unbearable to be around in the summer heat and a stable with horses, goats, a camel and several other species.  Our ger smaller than the family's and did not come with a TV or PS2 but the beds were comfortable and the fire pumped out a vast amount of heat.  The whole settlement was protected by a pack of dogs that roamed freely and huddled against the tents to get warm. 

The first afternoon was spent exploring the surrounding area of the camp.  I climbed one of the hills and discovered that it was a lot further than I anticipated.  Nevertheless I continued up the hill and half way was confronted with a migrating cow heading towards me, I stepped aside, stood still and waited for it to pass me by as I didn't want it to hurl me off the side that plumeted quite sharply.  The temperature was plummeting and I could feel my eyelashes freezing and my scarf becoming part of my face.  I pulled out the thermometer and noted that the mercury had disappeared well below -30c and I felt it.  Once I reached the top, or the furthest I was prepared to go, I was rewarded by the sun setting over the stunning scenery of the park.  The sun was bouncing off the bouncing off the snow capped peaks and being there on my own, I could truly understand the saying of 'Hearing Birds Fly'.  The only sound I could hear was my breathing and the sound of snow compacting beneath my feet as I moved.  I sat there for a while taking the breathtaking scenery in and suddenly realised that I needed to get back before the sun completely disappears.

I reached the bottom of the hill just as the sun disappeared fully behind the mountain casting a darkness across the wilderness of Mongolia.  I rejoined the girls back in the tent and was overwhelmed by the intense heat that was extruding from the fire in the middle.  I immediately had to take off my outer layers right down to my thermal vest.  I was interested in finding out the temperature inside the tent, so I once again produced my termometer from my pocket and the mercury slowing surpassed 0c, 10c, 20c, 30c and finally rested a little under +40c, that's an 80 degree difference with the outside world.  I was not surprised by this as I have been subjected to this temperature difference ever since St Petersburg.  They certainly have no shortage in oil or gas and make sure any indoor space is heated to the maximum which makes going in and out of underground networks unbearable.  Throughout the evening the Son would come into our tent and put more wood on the fire to keep it burning until we couldn't stand the heat any longer and asked him to stop, hence the fire eventually dying out and freezing us to the bone.

The following day we were joined by a French couple, Justine and Eric, who had travelled very much the same route as the girls and me.  The Son came into our tent and dragged us outside and toward the horses which he had saddled up and prepared us for a horse riding experience.  I have very limited experience of riding animals.  I once rode a pony years ago in Scotland on a family holiday and all I remember is continually sliding down it's neck as it went for a drink and my brother's pony gallaping off into the woods by it's own.  And last year I rode a camel in the Sahara desert which was the most painful thing ever!  I'm not entirely comfortable trusting a huge animal as it can quickly turn against you and do what it wants.  I mean look at poor Christopher Reeve, may he rest in peace!  I got on regardless and became aquanted with my new 'best friend'.  The five of us were ushered out of the family's settlement by the young boy who must have only been thirteen or fourteen at most but had quite good English and looked after us like a true champion.  I can't imagine a boy of this age in the UK being mature enough to look after guests and carry out the tasks he does.

The horse ride was absolutely amazing, although my horse decided to keep doing his own thing and not listen to the boy's instructions.  The experience of galloping through the snow covered planes and struggling to remain on the horse was second to none, I could really imagine me becomming a nomad herding livestock and travelling across the countryside.  Although it was cold and we weren't able to stay out for too long.  I would love to come back in the Spring and spend longer in the wilderness.

Later that day we collectively decided that we should attempt to climb the mountain to the East of the camp.  So we headed off a clambered our way through the snow and found a track that animals had left.  Even though the snow makes the mountains look beautiful, it also hides the animal dung that litters the trails so you have to be careful where you tred and not to fall over.  After slowly ascending through the tree, the trail reached a peak which gave us a great view of the camp from above but it also revealed another trail heading up further up the mountain.  This is where Karin and June decided that they had had enough and said that they would go back down as their smoker's lungs couldn't handle the exercise.  I accused them of having a poor excuse but they were insistant and retired back to the camp.  Justine, Eric and I continued up the mountain and found that every peak revealed another trail heading up and like a drug we became addicted to conquering the climb and strived for higher and more stunning views. 

We reached the top of the mountain and were awestruck by the astonishing view of the Terelj National park stretching out to the horizon.  The sun was low and the orange and red light tinted the breathtaking landscape that was presented in front of us.  Eric was not satisfied with the peak we had reached and managed to find a rock to climb and insisted that we joined him.  I am glad I did as the scenery changed again and the face of the mountain on the other side dropped more steeply providing us a greater sense of perspective in how far we had climbed.  The views and feeling of satisfaction I had on top of that mountain will remain ingrained in my memory for a long time.  It was hard to tear ourselves away from the peak but the sun was rapidly sinking below the horizon and even though the moon keeps the land relatively light throughout the night, we did not want to become lost in the mountains over night as there is not a mountain rescue and we would most probably lose our lives to the cold.  So we quickly descended the mountain, so quickly I am not sure my feet actually touched the ground.  Personally, I was disorientated but luckily Eric had his navigational head on and knew the way back to salvation. 

Once we reached the bottom of the mountain, we could see the father's car headlights approach us.  I was quickly bundled into the car where the girls and son were waiting for me.  We were being driven to the Turtle Rock, which aparently was famous.  The snow drift was incredible and the road completely disappeared from view.  The father continued like a true professional.  He knew the whole tracks like the back of his hand, including the pot holes that littered the road.  We arrived at the Turtle Rock, which did infact look very much like a turtle, however it was dark, windy and cold so we weren't too interested in hanging around taking photos.

Our last night was spent in the tent eating, drinking beer and some kind of spirit Eric had in his hip flask which completely destroyed my taste buds.  The father came in and shared a drink with us which was nice as they never seem to stop working.  From early in the morning they are tending to the animals and you can hear them late in the evening chopping wood and moving things around.

The next morning we were collected by the driver to take us back to Ulan Bator.  We bidded farewell and thanked the family who had looked after us with excellent hospitality over three days we were there.  Our smooth and easy journey back to the UB Guesthouse was interuppted by the traffic police who seem to pull anyone they like over to check their details.  I honestly think this is a great idea, but the locals think it's an invasion on their liberty and absolutely hate the traffic cops.

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