It was another early start, which was even harder after a late night (thank-you late night kebab). Booked a taxi to the train station and bought tickets to Sainshand. Our friend tried to buy the tickets earlier in the week for us, but was unable because they required all of our passports… Anyway, there were plenty of seats/beds and we didn’t have any problems getting on to the train. Amazingly, it was only T16,000 ($9) for an 11hr 500km journey in a sleeper carriage! We actually covered the same section of rail in reverse when we first arrived from Beijing last week, but we were asleep for half of it.
I had more problems buying breakfast though… I found a dodgy little Mongolian fast food restaurant beside the train station. I ordered buuz (Mongolian dumplings) and received a receipt to take to the kitchen with my order of 5 buuz on it. I then received a bag from the kitchen with 6 khoshoor (deep fried pastries). We were all confused. Not the best breakfast (think of a thin and greasy sheep hamburger patty inside a deep-fried pastry), but it was better than nothing I guess… It felt like my idea of Communism – I may have wanted buuz, and ordered, paid and received a meal voucher for buuz, but it was decided that buuz was not what I really wanted.
Sadly it was a rainy day and there wasn’t much to see out the window (which needed a clean anyway). Sitting in the warm and dry train was kind of like being indoors and watching movies on a rainy day – which felt nice.
This time we were in a third-class cabin, unlike the second-class cabin we’d caught from Beijing. There were 6 beds per section, but it was an open carriage with no doors or rooms. It was a long and slow journey, and with all of us feeling the strain from a lack of sleep, most of us disappeared for a snooze for a while. Unlike the train we’d caught from Beijing, this one seemed to stop at every station along the way, adding several hours to the journey. Unsurprising considering the bargain ticket price.
Amazingly, when we arrived in Sainshand, our friend recognised a work colleague who happened to be returning back to UB after a holiday here with his family. He helped us find a good taxi driver, which saved us fighting and haggling with the sharks. We agreed on a fee of T150,000 for the weekend ($80), which was pretty good, especially split six ways.
It may have been wet and miserable when we left UB, but it was sunny and beautiful here in Sainshand. But, not even the sunshine could make the town feel less depressing – it definitely felt that there wasn’t much going on here.
After shopping for snacks/water/booze, it was a further hour drive to tonight’s camp. We would have nodded off if the driver didn’t have to use the entire width of the road (and both shoulders) to avoid potholes. The sun set into some newly formed clouds as we were driving.
It was twilight when we arrived at the ger camp at Khamaryn Khiid and we didn’t quite know what to think of the place. There were dozens of camps set up and loads of shops with bright flashing LED lights. It had a sort of mini music festival vibe going on, with music pumping from the distance, and people wondering around in and out of tents in the middle of a desert.
Our ger was interesting. There were no beds, just one large ‘bed-like-platform’ for the six of us to share. There was no bedding to speak of (we’d packed sleeping bags in anticipation of this) and the ‘bed’ was basically like sleeping on a carpeted floor. Risa had fun choreographing various poses for the camera…
We opted to buy dinner from the ger camp, and not long after we settled down (and stopped posing for photos) dinner was brought to our tent. It was more buuz and some mutton soup. They were both just a little too strong for me tonight, and it may have been the breaking point for me with mutton – one could say that it was the straw that broke the sheep’s back. It also came with a strong milk tea with added animal fat. Even worse, because we didn’t manage to finish it all, it stayed in our tent all night, wafting the smell of mutton… We asked the lady who brought out dinner to light our fire, but she basically rejected us… The customer isn’t always right in Mongolia.
Walking from the tent to the bathroom was a challenge. It was about 100m away in a dark section of the camp. I should have concentrated my senses to my nose, and away from my eyes. However, it did give me a chance to look up and enjoy all the stars in the sky – but still no Milky Way.
We were woken at 4AM for our 4:30AM pickup to watch the sunrise. It was raining lightly, cloudy and very cold and very windy outside. We all realised that there was going to be no sunrise, but went along anyway, because what else could we do!
The morning started with the milk tossing onto the two breast-like structures. I’m not sure that the resemblance is coincidental. We bought milk, but left it in the camp, so had to take a sideline with the spattering. We walked around them in a clockwise direction three times. When I was standing downwind of the stupas I nearly threw up from the smell of off milk… it takes a lot to make me gag, but this was utterly rancid. The stupas looked waxy like they were coated in cheese/cream from so much milk being tossed onto them over the years.
The rest of the morning was a blur. We rang a bell three times, watched people throw grain at some lion sculptures, watched others toss vodka into the wind (and spray everyone downwind), watched people pour water into little vessels, and watched people add snacks to a large altar. We had no idea what was happening.
We followed the crowds up a platform, where a monk was singing. Everyone was facing where the sun should rise from, and singing and waving their arms around. We still had zero idea what was happening. Paying for an English speaking guide/driver would have helped…
We then laid on the ground to absorb the energy. It was freezing. Actually, the whole morning was freezing, with bitter, bitter winds. I can’t say any of us felt energised. Have a look at how horizontal the prayer flags were to get an idea of the constant howling winds (you’ll have to guess how cold it was by how much clothing people were wearing).
The driver went about his robotic routine and took us to a cave that now looked more like a castle. At least the caves were warm…
He also took us to a small section of desert that had petrified wood (three small pieces). We were a little confused why we were brought here, but I guess it’s a part of the usual tour package.
At about 7AM we returned to our ger. We were snotty shivering messes (at least I was). They kindly lit a fire for us this morning, using cow/horse/camel/goat poo, and some coal. Took the old man (who was walking around in a t-shirt like we were soft tourist fools) some time with a blow torch to get it lit. When he finally did, I went to bed (the others were already fast asleep by now). We woke a few hours later and it felt like we were roasting inside a tin shed on a hot summer’s day – saying it was very hot and dry is an understatement. In retrospect, we probably didn’t need the fire…
The best surprise after we woke up was that it was sunny outside. It honestly felt like we’d woken from a fever dream. It was hard to believe how completely different it looked and felt.
We went and visited the monastery (Khamaryn Khiid) that is next door to the ger camp area. It was weird seeing this series of beautiful buildings in what felt like the middle of the desert.
Either side were active monasteries, but the most beautiful (and accessible to tourists) is the main central stupa. Inside there were many beautiful embossed artworks. I’m sure it would be a lot more important to Buddhists, but to me, it looked pretty. It also finally explained the four harmonious animals that we’d seen in a few of the other monasteries in Mongolia. They are “four animals who live in harmony and peace, holding kindness and compassion towards each other and towards all sentient beings”. Plus they also look pretty cool.
From the monastery we jumped in the car, assuming we were going back to the energy centre (now that it was sunny). Our friend said something to the driver earlier about returning, and he seemed to understand/agree. From the car park, the car drove in the opposite direction and we weren’t really sure what was happening. We just figured that we go to the mountain first, then back to Shambala. I regret not speaking up the moment I noticed that we were going the wrong way. We didn’t realise just how far away the mountain was as it looked just over the horizon, but was deceptively distant, taking about 30 minutes to get there.
We arrived at the mountain, and quickly climbed up the (uneven) stairs. Women were only aloud to climb the first three quarters then had to either wait for the men, or return back down solo.
Men however could climb to the summit and yell their wishes from the top. Again, information that I learnt afterwards, nulling the effort that I went to climbing the mountain to have my (non-vocalised) wishes granted. Though, to me it only sounded like howls and yells coming from the men (and boys) that were up there with me.
A man told me to take a photo of a red patch of dirt, and said something about an eternal sheep. I did as he said (it’s easier to go along with crazy people that to fight with them). When I zoomed right in on the photo, I was surprised to see two sheep in that photo. Even stranger it looked like they moved between photos so they must be alive (or robots). I was thoroughly confused about how he knew about the sheep as you couldn’t see it with the naked eye (and he didn’t have binoculars). Were they his sheep? Was he a real person?
When we returned to the van, I asked the driver if he could take us back to Shambala, which caused huge amounts of confusion. He didn’t really speak English, so any time he needed to get a point across, he’d call his sister who spoke some English and would act as a translator. She told us that it was going to be an extra T50,000 ($30) if we wanted to return to the energy centre, and that it might mean that we wouldn’t have enough time to see the museum in Sainshand (or to buy our train tickets). As a group, we decided not to go, and were going to return to town. I knew it was the logical thing to do, but my bull headed single track mind wanted nothing more than to return and photograph it in its full sunny splendour. I was considering leaving the group and hitch hiking my way there and back, but after a while of moodily brewing in the front seat of the van I realised that it was foolish to go all that way just to photograph it again, since that was really my main motivation.
So, I was just as surprised as the rest of the group when after 30 minutes of driving I noticed that we were back at the monastery again… I really wanted to return, but others weren’t bothered. I was desperate to see it again in the sunlight, but, I gave up on it, and moved on. Then I realised that we were back and I got what I wanted. Maybe my sub-conscious wished for that at the top of the mountain… I was told this was a very Buddhist thing, giving up your desires and then having them fulfilled.
Now that we were back, we were all happy to see it again (probably). It really was beautiful in the sunshine, and in my mind totally worth returning to see it again – though, I might have thought differently if I was paying the whole T50,000 to return, not just 1/3. We also had to purchase entry tickets again, as for whatever reason, our tickets from the morning were no good. At least they were cheap…
On returning, I actually expected it to be empty. It wasn’t as crowded as this morning, however there were still tour buses rolling through, and they were still doing the same set of rituals that we saw the groups doing in the morning. We still had no real idea what any of it meant…
It was also warm enough to finally lay on the ground and absorb the energy of the world. Some other tourists took it to the eXtreme by taking their shirts off and sunbaking. Sure, the sun was out, but the wind was still blowing a constant stream of frigid air.
So, for the second time today, we jumped in the van and confirmed that we wanted to go back towards Sainshand. It was only about 35km return from the turn-off to the mountain to Shambala, so that price of T50,000 was pretty expensive in retrospect…
Rambling back through Sainshand in the midday sun didn’t make it seem any less depressing. We firstly sorted out our tickets (don’t ask why, but they were cheaper returning) and then went for lunch.
I can’t remember how we ended up where we ended up – I think we said we wanted Korean, or Chinese. Turns out that this enormous restaurant is a Chinese/Korean/Italian (and others cuisines) restaurant. The girls all opted for the bibimbap, which seemed like a safe choice, but instead of I went for what looked like a chicken parmigiana. Sure, the menu said Beef Linguine, but the ingredients sounded like a parmi. Turned out the bibimbaps were really good. The bar had been set high, so we all sat with anticipation to see what was going to come out for me.
So, it wasn’t technically what you would call a chicken parmigiana in Australia, but it was close enough that I didn’t care. The chicken was a pan-fried breast (not a crumbed schnitzel), the cheese looked like a slice of processed cheese and the sauce was sweet chilli sauce (not Napoli), but in its own right it was tasty. It was a gamble, and I like to think that I didn’t lose. Sorry, not the best food photo…
It was a late lunch, but we still had time to visit the museum, which was mostly a display of artefacts that belonged to one of the original monks at Khamaryn Khiid and had been hidden in chests during Soviet occupation. The clothing in particular was impressive. It was only a small museum, and it only took 15 minutes to see everything on display.
Our driver offered to take us to a soviet monument on the top of a hill overlooking the south-side of Sainshand, so we took him up on the offer as I’d been eyeing it every time we drove past and we still had plenty of time to kill before the train arrived/departed. We were quite surprised at all the Soviet statues and monuments here, as most other towns have long removed them. There wasn’t much at the lookout, other than an old soviet tank (which begged to be climbed on) and a sculpture of a man with a rocket launcher strapped to his back. The sculpture was quite recent, but that was all the information we could gather from the Mongolian plaque and our Mongolian speaking driver.
Having run out of things to do (and eager to collect the next set of passengers arriving in town), our driver dropped us at the train station. Sadly, this time we were given six consecutive tickets, instead of the six tickets that would share the same area, so two of the girls ended up next door, and we ended up with two Mongolians in with us. I don’t understand why the numbering system works the way that it does… The train was also full this time.
There was an amazing sunset, but we couldn’t quite see it from the train. It wasn’t long after the sun set the cabin lights went off and everyone went to sleep. I tried, but I just couldn’t get comfortable in the short, hard and narrow bed. I was paranoid all night that I was going to roll over in my sleep and fall. There was a seatbelt, but it was broken… When I stretched out and got comfortable, my legs stretched out into the hallway. The carriage attendant seemed to enjoy waking me up and making me move my legs out of the way. Sometimes it’s not so great being tall, especially in an Asian country.