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First impressions of the countryside

We met up with the Intrepid tour group in our hotel's restaraunt. There were seven of us from Australia, four from the United States, and one from Canada, plus our Korean-American trip leader (Patti).

We had dinner at Modern Nomads, where we ran into Gabi's friend Oggi again. (Ulaanbaatar is a city of more than half a million people, but the central area isn't that big.)

Tuesday 21st June

Peter's alarm clock was still on Beijing time, so we missed breakfast with the rest of the group. But we were soon bundled into our transport, two robust Russian army 4WD vans, and introduced to our guide Chinzo and our drivers, Naidan and Basraa. We headed out of Ulaanbaatar, stopping to buy bottled water, chocolate, and petrol.

a generic view from the road
We spent most of the day driving, with few stops, but as it was our first exposure to the Mongolian countryside we found plenty of interest: no, or almost no, fences; open plains with rolling hills; birch mixed with conifers, scattered willows and poplars; cattle and sheep and horses, but not in huge numbers anywhere; trucks and tankers coming past us as we went north on the main road to Russia; derelict checkpoint bunkers abandoned by the Russian army (often found facing south, presumably for the expected Chinese invasion); some areas of wheat, managed by what Chinzo called "privatized economic entities"; and more.
Being in the same van as Chinzo was best for learning — as well as being knowledgeable himself, as our translator he was our primary means of communication with other Mongolians. I think we were much better placed here than most tour groups, however, as Jamie (and Patti to some extent) spoke Korean, which was useful with Mongolians who had worked in Korea, while Peter had decent Russian, which was of some use with most older Mongolians.

There were lots of interesting birds around, with an assortment of raptors being the easiest to spot from the vans. See my Mongolian birdwatching page for more.

Chinzo tries to explain the menu
After we left the main highway, taking the road to Erdenet, the surface was not so good and it was rather dusty; it was also windy. Stopping for lunch in a roadside restaurant, we ordered separate dishes — from a menu in Mongolian, with only Chinzo able to translate and with many items on the menu not actually available. That took ages, and then people weren't sure which dish was which, so when they turned up they were grabbed pretty much at random. That was the last time we tried that!

our first övoo
We crossed the Orhon river, the biggest in Mongolia, and eventually turned off onto a dirt road. On the grass there were many parallel roads — what I thought of as "braided roads", because of the way they merged and reseparated continuously. Along here we stopped at our first övoo — a mound of stones, with blue cloth pennants — for the standard good luck ritual, which involves adding a stone to the pile and walking around it clockwise three times. Övoo are to be found on most peaks and passes.

We reached the ger camp we were to stay in around 4pm and had an hour to settle in; it seemed very civilized. We then headed off for the nearby Amarbayasgalant monastery.

Next: Amarbayasgalant monastery
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