Terelj National Park & Ger Camp: Day One

We didn’t end up going to karaoke last night, it was nice to chill with some prossecco in the hostel and get to know the two new Aussie girls, Sophie and Judy. This morning we left Ulaanbaatar to come to Terelj National Park for two nights. On route we visited the famous statue of Chinngis Khan [Ghengis Khan], we could see it come into view as we drove down the road and wow what a monument! It stands at forty metres tall and boldly glistened in the morning sun. With the crystal blue sky and snow capped mountains as a backdrop, it certainly was a breathtaking view.

Upon entering the monument, Bujuu showed us around the two museums housed in the basement, giving us an insight into the history of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian dynasty in the thirteen hundreds. They also had a Mongolian ger fit for a king set up in the basement, so, naturally, we all sat in it and had our photos taken. We then went up inside the statue, there is a lift in which brings you out at the base of the horse’s neck, where you walk up some steps, stand on the horse’s head and take in the view. It was spectacular! We had the perfect weather for it this morning – just FYI it is still crystal clear blue skies and sunshine whilst I’m writing this at the ger camp. We all took a few photos and looked in awe at the huge silver statue, shimmering next to the mountains.
After this we went back into the main building beneath the statue to browse the souvenir shops – I bought a traditional Mongolian ‘bone knuckle’ game – Bujuu has since explained it is a fortune telling ‘game’ – in a sweet little felt Mongolian ger. We then discovered the traditional Mongolian outfits available to hire for photographs! Aussie Tom and Florine went first; Tom dressing as a warrior and Florine as a regal queen, head to toe in red and gold with an exceptionally tall crown in her head. Then me and my Tom had a go; Tom also dressed as a warrior but with a sword and shield, I dressed as a regal queen but all in blue. We took some photographs (unfortunately mine are all on my camera not my phone so I can’t upload them on the blog), here’s one of Florine and Tom looking sensational in their traditional dress.

Aussie Tom was trying to pull a ‘regal’ face but didn’t quite master it…

We then made our way to the ger camp. Driving through the snow, it’s difficult to imagine how the national park would look in the summer. There are little clusters of houses and gers here and there in the valleys, snow covers everything; the mountains the fields, the roads, the buildings and there is barely a soul in sight. Probably because it’s winter and about -28 in the day…

Our beautiful Ger camp in Terelj National Park

We arrived at he her camp and oh my, they are just the cutest things! It’s all kitted out with proper beds and a coal/wood burning stove which absolutely throws out heat. It’s that hot in there now that the boys are sat inside in their pants, Florine is nearly in her pants and I’m sat on the steps outside writing this. Anyway, we dropped our bags off, “ooohed” and “aaahed” at the ger, then went and sat down to a delicious traditional Mongolian lunch; meat and vegeatable soup with bread, noodles with vegetables and a cabbage side salad.

Inside our ger

Me and Florine then made a trip up to the toilet. As it is winter, the main toilet block (we are on a settled gear camp that doesn’t move) isn’t open as all the pipes are frozen solid. So we have the delight of the long drop toilet. Now, my Tom and I have been to Glastonbury and experienced the delights of a long drop toilet, in fact, we’ve even experienced long drop toilets that have been used by literally thousands of people. This one in the middle of rural Mongolia wasn’t really any different in smell but it was an Asian style toilet, i.e. no ‘bowl’ to sit on, just a rectangular hole to crouch over. I think Florine was a little horrified. I gagged at the smell and the poo splats on the floor, “it’s all part of the experience!” we tell ourselves. I covered my nose with my scarf and went in. It was fine really, we got through it by joking about what would happen if one of us fell in haha. We’re going to meet a traditional nomadic family this afternoon, we’ve even bought them treats from the supermarket on the way here as a gift. There’s a bottle of Ghenghis Khan vodka chilling by the front door of the ger ready for this evening to cool us down later.
It’s now half past five and we’ve just returned from visiting a Mongolian Nomadic family, well, in truth it was an elderly lady named Naya’ who now lives on her own as sadly her husband had died and all of her children live and work in the city. She seemed very content in her home, it was so cosy and homely, her ger had a lot of personal touches.

The first thing I noticed – apart from the beautiful fluffy dog that came to greet us – was the dairy smell that hits you when you enter the ger. Bujuu explained to us that during the summer, nomads live primarily on dairy products; curd (of varying forms), cheese and milk. All of this comes from either cows, goats or sheep. Strangely there was no mention of yaks. In the winter, their diet still uses all of these dairy products but they incorporate a lot more meat; mutton, lamb and beef, alongside vegetables which they consume all year round. 

As we were seated on the beautiful ornate wooden couches, delicately painted and carved with floral and tribal patterns, our host Naya, brought out some traditional refreshments for us to try. It it customary for the host to provide refreshments to guests in her ger, we were offered a selection of curds, some cheese, some ‘cookies’ and traditional tea. I’m pleased to say we all tried everything! Albeit some of us – including me – had a teeny tiny portion of the curds. One of them looked a little like bird food pellets and tasted very sour, I was surprised how tough it was to chew, not chewy, just tough. The other looked like a kind of granola, but definately didn’t taste like it. It was kind of creamy, a strong cheesy taste but not sour like the first one. The actual cheese was good, I ate a slightly larger piece of that (I felt braver eating something I recognised), I think it was made from goats milk but was firmer than the goats cheese we have at home, more the consistency of Leerdamme, but thicker. The ‘cookie’ was kind of like a savoury donut, a little deep fried ball of dough that wasn’t unpleasant. The tea was traditional tea leaves that were extremely milky with a pinch of salt, I liked it, I drank my Toms for him too but on the sly as we didn’t want to appear rude to our host. I’m pleased all of us tried the food, what’s the point in visiting unique places like Mongolia, being given the opportunity to meet a traditional Nomadic family and then declining to take part in aspects of their way of life?

We asked her some questions about the nomad lifestyle (with Bujuu interpreting), it was really lovely to be able to ask her about her family, life and livestock. It was also great for us as a group to have the other two Australian girls, Sophie and Judy, with us too. New faces and new conversations are always a good thing. Our host showed us some Mongolian traditional dress which she had handmade for herself, she even modelled it for us and had a photograph with my Tom, he absolutely towered over her and she found this amusing. 

Then the part I had been hoping for; she offered us the homemade vodka, made from fermented yoghurt. Sounds disgusting, tastes delicious! It is clear, which surprised me, you think of a vodka made from dairy and I automatically thought it would be cloudy at least, or creamy in consistency, it isn’t. It’s as clear as normal vodka but has a cheesy smell, which is kind of off-putting. She poured us each a large ‘shot’ I help my breath and knocked it back in one and was pleasantly surprised! When it hits your tongue the taste is just like water, you get a small amount of heat as you swallow but nothing like the normal heat from vodka, and then an ever-so-faint aftertaste of cheese. It was delightful. I could easily sit and drink it all night. Apparently that isn’t advised though, one of Florine friends told her to be wary of the homemade vodka because a) it gets you very drunk and b) it makes you constipated. 
After taking some more photographs outside, we piled back into the van and made our way back to the ger camp. We stoked up the fire, well, I tried, then my Tom tried, then the lady from the camp walked in and chuckled at us for trying. She sorted it out, stocked us up with wood and coal then left. Then Aussie Tom messed with the fire some more – and continues to do so – before we finally have a toasty warm ger. Bujuu has just come in to teach us the knuckle bone games before dinner. I think tonight will involve vodka, knuckle bone games and some good old fashioned talking round the fire. Bliss.