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Terelj National Park: Explore Mongolia’s Backcountry

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks…

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks or more – some even up to a month! Initially, I was in disbelief – seriously, a month is a long time for one country, but it later evolved into an apologetic revelation with a regretful, “I wish I had planned a longer stay. I will come back for the Gobi desert, climb the Altai mountain range, bask at Lake Kovsgol, traverse Orkhon Valley”.

Safe to say, our experience at Terelj National Park remain one of the highlights throughout our TransSiberian adventure. Getting out of the city we passed undulating hills, plains flecked with gers and small country homes, and wild horses galloping in the distance with unrestrained freedom.

Trelj NP76We entered the national park after an hour plus on the road. I was looking forward to the seclusion and wilderness that it promised, but entering the park, I realised that this was a favourite holiday destination for locals – there were cars parked everywhere, holiday retreats on the left and right, gers made of brick and tour buses. After Naadam, locals made a beeline here for some rest. So, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. Thankfully, Terelj NP is massive, covering 1.2million acres of land – there is enough room for everyone to have their own open-plains experience.

The park is known for the gigantic Turtle Rock formation, named for its resemblance to a turtle. There are several monasteries within the park and we visited Ariyapala monastery. The climb up to the temple was unforgiving but the view at the top was well worth it. Inside the temple Buddhist monks sat crossed legged chanting almost in silent whispers, colourful flags danced to the gentle breeze and the wind chimes played a beautiful tune.

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Meeting Our Host Family

It was time to meet our host family, our four-wheel drive pulled into a small community of about five gers. Some horses grazing nearby against a mountainous backdrop. We entered into the family ger and felt immediately at home. The domed shape home was well lighted with natural light coming from the opening above, a sofa set, a tv, a few small cupboards and a small portable sink were lined neatly along its side. The centrepiece of the home as its kitchen, a wood-fire iron stove with a long chimney sticking up and out of the ger.

Trelj NP_iphone41Our host, Chan’gkhan (I think that’s how its spelt) was a pretty young woman with plump healthy cheeks and sparkling eyes is the mother to a one-year old boy and a superb multi-tasker. She cooks all meals, milks the horses every to hours, takes care of her son and ailing father and attends to all her guests. Her husband works as a horse herder and brings guests on horse riding trips in the summer. When winter hits and the tourist dry spell arrives, her husband travels to Ulaanbaatar and works in construction.

Trelj NP9During our stay, we were flanked with simple home cooked Mongolian meals. I had the privilege of helping and seeing how the meals were prepared. Fried meat dumplings called huushuur was my favourite. Light pastry with mutton, potato and onion filling deep fried to crunchy perfection. Huushuur is usually served with hot milk tea or a clear vegetable broth. We had man tou, a white flour fluffy steamed bread served with mutton soup.

Mongolia FoodMongolia food2Chan’gkhan offered us some mare’s milk, a sour fermented drink that tasted nothing like milk. I took a sip and politely declined seconds. We also had a steady selection of Mongolian tidbits – aaruul, dehydrated yak curds, hard cake-like biscuits and dried milk chips. It’s an acquired taste, I must say.

Mongolia Mares MilkAfter lunch, we walked to our ger about 100 meters from the family home. There were four single beds inside the ger each covered with pretty linen. Sunlight streamed in from above illuminating the beautiful hand-painted orange beams that held the ger in place. There was a small table in the centre and that was it. I appreciated the simple spaciousness it offered. But there was no electrical plug points, no toilet, sink or shower. It dawn on me that we were in for quite a camping experience.

Trelj NP_iphone6Trelj NP66Trelj NP64Trelj NP_iphone35The toilet was about 150 meters away where the horses grazed. There was a wooden box-like shelter that I thought nothing off, until I realised that that was our only toilet! I neared the wooden box and was already overcome by the strong stench – there was only two wooden planks over a deep pit and the only thing that seemed to be having fun were the flies! I made a mental note to avoid the toilet unless for emergencies.

Trelj NP_iphone33Besides the toilet conundrum, we had a wonderful stay. We went on horse riding trips and laughed when our horses had to stop for a wee and a poop. It wasn’t my first time riding a horse, but it was our first as a family and we enjoyed every moment of it – watching how Seth was completely drawn to every movement of the horse, patting the horse and saying, “You can do it!” and today, he sits on pillows and gallops away. Wonderful memories were made.

Trelj NP32We watched and marvelled at the strength of Chan’gkhan as she carried out her daily task. Every two hours, she would put on knee guards and with a bucket in hand she gets down and milks the mare. She makes grunting and hissing noises to coax the mare to let down while her father steadies the animal.

Trelj NP52Our days in Mongolia’s backcountry could not be a better introduction to the vastness and distinct culture and landscapes this country has to offer. We connected with a local family through our similarities of shared family value, our appreciation for nature and curiosity to learn about each other’s culture. Beautiful Mongolia could do with more marketing on an international stage, but somehow, I selfishly hope that Mongolia will stay a little less known because its rugged edge is what makes her special.     Trelj NP26

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Naadam Festival In Ulaanbaatar

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from…

It’s the biggest, most celebrated festival of the year in Mongolia, so of course the nation is going to go all out. The festival takes place over three days from 11 – 13th July annually with a grand opening ceremony on the first day. Over 35 thousand wrestlers, 40 thousand horse racers and 1,500 archers compete in Naadam’s competitions.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city will be jam packed with cars and shopping malls and streets are filled with people. Locals tell me that the people from the countryside drive into the city to join in the celebration. Hotels are fully booked and the opening ceremony tickets are usually sold out a week prior to the event.

Our hostel would only sell us tickets if we signed up for a full day Naadam tour with them. So we opted out. We decided to walk to the Central Stadium on the morning of the opening ceremony. The streets were eerily empty and we imagined everyone was at the stadium. Nearing the stadium, a carnival mood could already be felt – street vendors parked on the side of the road selling drinks, candy floss, helium balloons, stick-on tattoos, sun glasses, and Mongolian flags. Kebabs sizzling over pit barbecues cast a heavenly scent across the dusty road. It was an upbeat day and our hearts thumped to the music coming from the stadium.

No Tickets For The Opening, Until…

When we got to the stadium’s gate, we asked if we could go in. The gate attendant, a young lady (a volunteer, presumably) asked for our tickets. We told her we didn’t have one. A little disheartened at first, we backed off and tried to peek in. After a few minutes, Terence approached her again, this time he worked his manly charm. He pointed at me, with Seth in the sack – I gave her a weak smile and mouthed, ‘Please’ and a few seconds later, she waved us in. Terence’s ’have-some-pity-on-us’ plea worked! I was grinning from ear-to-ear and I clambered up the steps, gently pushed my way into the standing crowd and found a seat – it’s always good to have a child with you!

Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s very own Olympic Games. The opening ceremony is imposing and grand. We saw a parade of people dressed as ancient warriors, men and women in embroidered robes called ‘del’ and elaborate headdresses, along with burly wrestlers clad in blue and red briefs, soldiers, monks, traditional throat singers, pop dancers and bands. The atmosphere was eclectic. The costume details are unbelievable and for that few hours it felt like I was transported back in time during the Genghis Khan era. Naadam is very significant to Mongolia and in 2010, it was added into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

The festival’s local Mongolian name, “eriin gurvan naadam,” is translated as the “three games of men.” That is, archery, horse racing, and wrestling. Whereas horse racing and archery competitions have gradually incorporated women participants over the years, wrestling continues to be a highly male-dominated sport. Today, knuckle bone shooting is also part of the competition.

Here are some photos from the day.

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