Raphael Kessler

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Mongolia is one of those countries that most people have heard of yet know nothing of. Some may know of the Mongol Hordes that conquered massive amounts of the world, all the way to Europe in the west and the Indian frontiers in the south. 

When the Soviet regime came to an end Mongolia lost its main benefactor ad in effect gained independence. The government actually considered turning the whole country into a natural reserve. In the end it settled on about thirty percent which is still a very large proportion.

The country is beautiful, although often featureless, sometimes referred to as the land without fences for obvious reasons many of the people still live a nomadic life with their horses, goats, sheep, etc.

I got the train from Beijing to Ulan Bator (the capital) through the southern Gobi desert. The journey was fun because I met some good people in my carriage (whom I have remained in contact with). One of the more interesting bits of this journey through generally featureless barren landscape was at the Chinese - Mongolian border, where we arrived in the middle of the night. Firstly the train is take into a massive shed where the whole thing is jacked up and the bogies changed over as Russia and Mongolia are on a different rail gauge to China. We managed to stay on the train whilst this happened and actually jumped off in the shed to see close up what was going on. We then went on to the border itself where the Chinese duty free shop attendant refused to serve anyone as she was lazy. I did manage to get hold of a case of beer from a Chinese woman with a box of grapes, who also changed my remaining Renminbi (Chinese currency) back to dollars  (an odd story difficult to describe effectively). As we moved onto the Mongolian part there were a couple of excellent Mongol border guards who we managed to communicate with in a mixture of broken Russian, phrasebook Mongolian and sign language. The people this side of the border were already much more pleasant than their Chinese counterparts. We then continued onward to Ulan Bator through similar scenery (photo).

(c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - The train from Beijing to Ulan Bator through Mongolian countryside
The Ger is the typical Mongolian home, similar to a Kazakh yurt. Even in the "cities" like Ulan Bator (UB) many people live in Gers. It is quite simple yet robust construction that takes a couple of guys a few hours to erect (photo 1). They can also be disassembled quite easily, making moving house a much easier prospect (photo 2). These things can withstand extreme weather conditions. Mongolia gets extremely cold, down to minus fifty degrees Celsius. It can also have extremely strong winds and rain and snow and dust storms. The design of the Ger is surprisingly resilient to the onslaught from the elements.
  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Building a ger
  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Moving house - the ger being moved by horse and cart

In Oggii Nuur, where Mart, Micha (a couple of Dutch guys I met on the train and ended up travelling around the country with in a jeep), Seren (our driver) and I spent our first night outside of UB we descended on some friends of Seren's just as night fell. They immediately started cooking us dinner (goulash, something we were to have every time we stayed ina Ger). They were hospitable although due to a lack of a common language communication was limited. They wore the more traditional Mongolian attire (see photo). When staying in a Ger there are several rules to observe, where to sit, what to do and not do etc. the Mongolians being very religious Buddhists with a shrine in all their Gers (as can be seen to either side of my hosts in the photo). 

(c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - With my Mongolian hosts in their traditional finery

Whilst en route to Terkhin Tsaga Nuur we picked up a mother and son hitch-hiking back from school (although there ws no sign of civilisation for many miles). Seren then arranged with them that we would stay the night. These people are extremely hospitable, giving hospitality to anyone wanting it in a similar manner to the Bedouin. The lake Terkhin Tsaga Nuur is lovely made up of interlocking craters (photo) and we were fortunate enough to see a lovely sunset over it.

(c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Terkhin Tsega Nuur - crater lake sunset

At the mid point in the trip we stayed in a hotel in Tsetserleg as we all felt in need of showers, shaves, real toilets, etc. It was there that we met the Mongolian Olympic Wrestling Team. They were playing pool, smoking cigarettes and dring beer and vodka whilst taking it in turns to go and bang a prostitute their coach had lined up for the night (and tried out a couple of times himself). This apparently was the training regimen for these athletes. They were generally good fun and as they had a championship tournament the following morning  I decided to keep them on their toes by spontaneously attempting to wrestle them when they were least expecting it. I can say with some confidence that I did not once even manage to get one of their feet off the ground. They however would pick me up and throw me across the room onto the sofa each time. As you can see from photo 1 below they are not small fellows, to help with scale, I am six foot (186cm). The following morning we went to watch the championship (photo 2) wrestling. The wrestlers wear traditional wrestling outfits which are basically knee high boots, Y-fronts and part of a T-shirt. The wrestlers have to knock their opponent over by grabbing, tripping, throwing etc. There is no break for rounds, it goes on until there is a winner. One bout lasted about an hour with a dramatic finish as my friend from the previous evening (photo 1 far left, photo 2 on right) twisted his opponent round onto his shoulder and dropped backwards smacking his head and neck in to the hard wood floor. Everyone was understandably concerned for his defeated opponent who was thankfully found to be alive, despite the odds being against it.

  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Hanging out with the Mongolian Olympic wrestling team
  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Wrestling Mongolian style

In a number of places in Mongolia one comes across prayer flags and shawls. There are also cairns and alcohol offerings there. For luck one is supposed to walk round the site three times, throwing a small stone on each circuit. As we circumambulated this tree Mart managed to smash a glass bottle with each stone despite there being only a few there and not aiming, an impressive talent.

(c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Tree with blue prayer flags

The scenery as previously mentioned was quite desolate much of the time, this made a minor breakdown a potentially more worrying prospect than anything that could happen on the M1. Fortunately Seren had an appropriate set of spares and dived under the bonnet (photo 1). One day when I asked Seren how far we would be travelling that day he told me we had forty kilometres of road (photo 2), a particular luxury given the regular bouncing and thumping of traversing the country without roads or often even any tracks. Not all the country is as barren as first appears and there are nice mountains and rocky outcrops at times (photos 3 & 4). 

  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Not a good place for a mechanical break down
  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Road - the only bit outside the capital - very exciting
  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Rocky view
  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Typical view of the steppe

One night we stayed with very nice bloke called Saaraa and his family. Whilst there Saaraa shot a fox with a fifty year old Russian .22 rifle. He then skinned it and sold me the pelt for about 90 US cents (approximately 60p). Saaraa had an impressive great grandfather who had a selection of medals from when he had fought against the Japanese during the second world war, which he was very pleased to model for us (photo 1). He was over eighty years old, an impressive feat given the harsh Mongolian climate, even more impressive as he had not a single tooth in his head. Saaraa had a very modest command of English, which we all very much appreciated and he tried to teach us basic Mongolian. He also showed us how to milk a horse as well as how to catch foals (photo 2) and ride horses bareback, in the Mongolian style. In addition he was good fun and another excellent host.

  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Grandad's shows off his impressive collection of medals
  • (c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Saara and I scaring a foal - mad eyes

The Bactrian camels (photo below) found in Mongolia are left semi-wild, in a similar vein to most of the domesticated animals there. The problem this creates is that even for there owners, separating them from the other camels and then recapturing them is a tricky task. We managed to finally get hold of one and went for a ride on it. It was surprisingly comfortable, even without a saddle. With a broad girth, thick pelt and good sized gap between the two humps, it almost seems built for riding. The front hump acted as an effective windbreak, whilst the rear one made a comfortable backrest. Certainly more comfortable and attractive than its Arabian counterpart.

(c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Bactrian camel
The ancient capital of Kharkhorim (photo below) (also known as Karakorum) is home to an important monastery and temples. They also have a massive Ger there that can house two hundred monks. 
(c) Copyright - Raphael Kessler 2011 - Mongolia - Kharkhorim stupas

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